Saturday, January 28, 2017

Our Own Luck, Part 1

Our Own Luck, Part 1
By Matthew “Snooglebum” Wasik


There was Old Earth, and then there was the Exodus. Humanity, knowing its world was dying, packed settlers aboard a colony ship and sent them off to the nearest habitable star system. But the ship’s warp drive, untested and unproven, failed them. Instead of arriving at their intended destination, they arrived in a strange, unearthly place. Physics failed on a planetary level, with some planets orbiting around nothing, and others existing in non-spherical states. Anomalies were rampant, great gouts of fire and arcs of electricity springing from nothing. The entire observable universe rotated around a single, massive black hole. Something had gone terribly wrong; this was not the universe as humanity knew it, this was somewhere else entirely.
They called this place the Void.
Welcome to Voidscape.


All was quiet in Estris, an unsettled system off the back end of Collective space. The system was a colorful one, filled with clouds of multicolored gas that joined into a riotous display of color. Arcs of lightning danced from cloud to cloud, throwing their hues into sharp relief, as shards of glass-like debris floated throughout the system, reflecting the light and turning the display truly psychedelic.  

Suddenly, a ship tore its way out of the Veil and into the Void proper, a crackling boom resonated throughout the Void’s thin atmosphere. The ship began to emerge from the portal, warp-fire dancing across its half-disc frame. The words “LADY LUCKY” were inscribed on the side of the hull in an elaborate, fading font. As the Lady Lucky emerged completely from the rough-edged interdimensional door, the Veil closed behind it with a crackling hiss, multicolored energy knitting together the newly-opened gash in spacetime. Green lightning danced between the ship’s warp manifolds as they retracted back into their housings with a loud mechanical whir.
Inside the cockpit of the Lady Lucky, Elizabeth Marette, the ship’s captain, took in the sight of the system that the ship had arrived in. Her face was mirrored in a blank view-screen to her side-- she was dark-skinned and severe-looking, with a trio of scars running vertically across her lips. Her black hair was cut short, and her dark eyes held a fierce intensity. Of note was her right hand, which had been replaced with a cybernetic alternative. She looked around through the cockpit, taking in the spectacle before her.
“That lightning going to be a problem, captain?”
Elizabeth turned to look at Ty Coroner, the pilot of the ship. His face had a boyish look to it, further enforced by his pale skin and higher-pitched, pleasant voice. His red hair and freckled complexion only served to add to the impression that he was younger than he actually was. Although his face and tone were mild, his green eyes glinted with good humor. In front of his piloting station was a half-consumed mug of coffee, upon which the words “Hello, Gorgeous” were printed in a flowing font.
“Don’t think so.” replied Elizabeth, her voice was low for a woman, with a hint of hardened gravel. she spoke with the confidence of one used to giving orders. She consulted a computer readout and continued speaking. “Yeah, we should be good. It’s nothing the--”
A crackling noise interrupted her, and lightning danced across the ship, outside the view-screen. The console beeped, and that was all.
“--shields can’t handle. Like I said: I’d still like to be out of of the system sooner than later though.”
Ty nodded thoughtfully, and pressed the comm button on the control console.
“Hey, Raythius.” he said, “how long before we spin up again?”
“Well, I’m honestly not sure.” replied an effeminate, foppish voice. “That crack in the cycling chamber is still throwing things off, and I think some of the logic circuits in the plotter are blown. Remind me to do a little shopping once we’re done with this job, things are positively falling apart back here.”
Elizabeth raised data-pal on her wrist to her face and asked “can you give us an estimate, at least?”
“Hmm. Three minutes, perhaps four. Four to five.” replied Raythius. “Based on how fast the spinner is, er, spinning right now.”
“Alright.” replied Elizabeth, nodding to herself. “Let us know-- we might be on a time limit.”
“Will do, captain.” said Raythius, and ended the connection.
“You don’t think the Skavis gang are going to execute their hostage, are you?” Ty asked, concern in his voice.
“Leomund Skavis isn’t an idiot.” stated Elizabeth, a distant look on her face. She tapped the control console thoughtfully with her cybernetic right hand. “Even if they do get the location of the Ascendant Vault from him, Leomund will keep him alive-- he could be a potential asset.”
“Which is why the Baxters are paying us to rescue him.”
“Right.” replied Elizabeth, nodding. “They want to get to the Vault first, and to whatever’s in there.”
The Baxters were a family of entrepreneurs, investors, and high-class criminals. They had interests all throughout the void, from pharmaceutical companies to archaeological digs. They were paying the crew of the Lady Luck to find a Vault, a hidden storehouse of Ascendant technology.
“Plunder ahoy.” said Ty, grinning. “What was the hostage’s name, again?”
“You forgot already?”
“Uh.” said Ty, looking guilty. “Yeah, maybe.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Mirth. His name’s Mirth. I’d assume it’s an alias, since no last name was given. Plus, who names their son ‘Mirth’?”
“I’m sure somebody has.” said Ty, shrugging. “It’s a big Void, after all.”
The proximity scanner beeped as a new contact entered the system.
“The hell?” said Elizabeth, frowning. “That’s another ship. Who’s all the way out here?”
“Explorers?” said Ty.
Elizabeth gave him a look.
“...Not explorers. Got it.” Ty started hitting buttons and pulling levers, and the ship’s engines rumbled to life.
“Alright everybody, listen up.” said Elizabeth, hitting the general comms button. “This could be nothing, but--”
Her speech was interrupted suddenly as a railgun slug impacted with the Lady Lucky’s shield, making a bassy low, wobbling descending note. Some of the kinetic energy transferred through, rattling the ship and knocking over small objects.
“--It’s definitely not nothing! Battlestations, everybody!”


***


The engineering room was loud, filled with the low sound of the nearby engines. Various banks of computers whirred and clicked, and the warp drive hummed its pervasive hum. Wires and thick cables were everywhere, connecting all the various devices in the room.
Raythius frowned, worriedly typing on a computer console, his thin robotic fingers tapping across the keyboard like spiders. His body was lean and agile-looking, all graceful smooth curves and tapered edges. He was hunched over pensively, the purple scarf he wore as his only clothing hanging down near to the floor-- he was a robot, after all, there was no need for modesty. The red screen on his face that he used to emote took in the computer’s monitor. The LED’s in Raythius’ red face screen were currently forming a frowning expression, simplistic rectangular brows furrowed in concentration.
“Let’s see... are you corrupted? That would be dreadful.” he said, addressing the computer. As he spoke, he input commands into a blinking command line, the color scheme of the monitor a stark black-and-white. He hit the “ENTER” key with a final, definitive clack, and a wall of text filled the screen, confusing and arcane to anybody but him.
“Oh come on now, don’t you get sassy with me, computer.” he said.
The computer beeped back at him, sassily.
“Don’t take that tone with me, mister. I’m the boss here.”
He inserted a data chip into the computer and began typing more commands. His internal radio beeped, interrupting him. Although nobody else could have heard it, Raythius heard Ty’s voice come over his internal comms unit.
“Hey, Raythius,” said Ty, “ how long before we spin up again?”
“Well, I’m honestly not sure.” he said, looking at the warp drive. It’s rotation chamber spun slowly, slits in the cylinder revealing the eldritch green light of its floating warp core. His robotic eye took in detail and he mentally cataloged the problems at hand.
“That crack in the cycling chamber is still throwing things off, and I think some of the logic circuits in the plotter are blown. Remind me to do a little shopping once we’re done with this job, things are positively falling apart back here.”
“Can you give us an estimate, at least?” came Elizabeth’s voice.
“Hmm.” he walked over to the warp drive and hit a few buttons on its console. “Three minutes, perhaps four. Four to five.” Raythius replied, tapping the control console pensively. “Based on how fast the spinner is, er, spinning right now.”
“Alright” said Elizabeth. “Let us know-- we might be on a time limit.”
“Will do, captain.” replied Raythius, and ended the connection.
“A time limit?” he said to himself, returning to the computer. “How stressful.”
He had perhaps another 30 seconds of uninterrupted typing before Elizabeth’s voice came over the comm again.
“Alright everybody, listen up. This could be nothing, but--”
Then the railgun slug hit the shield, sending a resonating clang throughout the hull and making the room shake.
“Ahh! What? Violence? Why!?” he exclaimed, looking around frantically.
“--It’s definitely not nothing! Battlestations, everybody!”
“Oh dear oh dear oh dear.” said Raythius worriedly, frantically pushing buttons and warming up the engineering room as a whole. “I do hope we don’t die.”
Lights began to blink, hard drives spun and whirred, and the engines roared to life like an angered beast. Raythius activated his general comms.
“Let’s hope for the best-- engineering, standing by!”


***


The medbay was a stark contrast to the engineering room. Where the engineering room was cluttered and packed with wires and cables, the medbay was sterile and spacious, with a few paintings of flowers mounted on the walls to give the room some warmth. Accompanying the paintings was a crocheted poster proclaiming “LIVE LIKE YOU’RE DYING-- AFTER ALL, YOU MIGHT BE!” In the center of the room sat an operating table, with various machines surrounding it. On one shelf, next to some medical supplies sat a white stuffed bear, looking forlorn.
Melody Marigold sat in the corner of the room, chair leaning against the wall, reading a book titled “BEASTS OF TYREXIA”. If one were to describe her, the first word that would come to mind would be “wispy”. She was extremely slender, and her scraggly, shoulder-length blond hair looked slightly unkempt. Her light blue eyes and distracted smile only added to the image. She wore a medical gown with a flower pin attached to it, and a similar pin was affixed in her hair.
“Oh, Sterling,” she began, addressing the stuffed bear, “did you know that the Tyrexian Ligren has two stomachs, one for holding excess food for the lean winter months? Nature is truly beautiful, don’t you think?”
Sterling said nothing, on account of being a stuffed bear.
She turned the page, reading more, and made a pleased “aah!” sound.
“Sterling, look here!” exclaimed Melody, showing the stuffed bear the page she was looking at. “Isn’t the Tyrexian Flomph adorable? Why, I could just eat it all up! Tyrexia really is--”
The data-pal on her wrist interrupted her, with a message from the captain.
“Alright everybody, listen up.” said Elizabeth. “This could be nothing, but--”
Just then, the railgun round impacted the shield, knocking the book out of her loose grip and onto the floor. One of the paintings tumbled to the floor with a thump.
“--It’s definitely not nothing! Battlestations, everybody!”
The lackadaisical look instantly vanished from Melody’s face, replaced by cold, steely nerve. She shot to her feet, doing a quick sweep of the room, and nodding her satisfaction. The medbay was ready for action, although it was annoying that one of her paintings was knocked over. She brought her data-pal up to her lips and spoke:
“This is medbay standing by. Everything’s ready, let’s hope we don’t need me.”


***


Whisper juked out of the way of Dialer’s punch, his fist brushing against the black hair which was currently plastered to her face, partially covering the horrific network of scars covering her neck and the left side of her head. Her skin was a warm brown, her ancestors hailing from the deserts back on Old Earth. Her sharp features were set in a manic grin as she jumped back, bouncing on the balls of her feet around one of the crates in the cargo hold.
“You’re gonna have to be faster than that, motherfucker!” she proclaimed, sticking her tongue out at Dialer. Her voice was a harsh, off-putting rasp, her damaged vocal chords grinding out the words. On the back of each of her clenched fists, a symbol glowed red-- a demonic face belching steam. Her Brand.
Dialer, for his part, slowly approached her, fists raised. He was incredibly tall, almost seven feet, and the harsh metal of his bulky cybernetic frame spoke to his immense strength. Two red eyes glared out from his roboticized head, and he wore a long black coat as his only garment
“You cannot be lucky forever, Whisper. Sooner or later I will punch you in the face. And it will hurt.” he threw another punch, which Whisper dodged again.
“Come on, dude, try harder! What would your robot mom think of you, seeing you missing like this!?”
“I am a cyborg, not a robot. And you’re cheating; you’re using your Brand to enhance your strength and agility.”
“That’s not cheating, this is how I fight normally! And besides, if you can land a hit on me like this, you can land a hit on anybod--” Whisper’s objection was cut short as Dialer’s fist impacted with her jaw with an unpleasant crack. She recoiled, and stepped back. Dialer lowered his fists.
“Ow. Damn. Nice hit.” she said, feeling her jaw. “Probably would have broken my jaw if I wasn’t using my Brand.”
“As I said: cheating.” said Dialer. “Do you wish to spar normally? I think you’ve proven your agility.”
“Yeah, sure.” said Whisper, pushing her sweaty hair out of her eyes. “Do you--”
“Alright everybody, listen up.” said Elizabeth over the comms, interrupting them. “This could be nothing, but--”
Then the railgun round shook the Lady Lucky, and Whisper and Dialer immediately became much more alert, their stances shifting into wary positions.
“--It’s definitely not nothing! Battlestations, everybody!”
“Oh fuck.” said Whisper. “Alright big guy, you know the drill.”
“Indeed.” said Dialer. “Our bet is still on?”
“Fuck yeah.” said Whisper, grinning. “Most hits wins. Alright, let’s kick some ass.”
Whisper and Dialer both sprinted in opposite directions, heading for each one’s respective turret control. Whisper jumped into the command seat, strapping herself in. Readouts and gauges began to blink and whirr, and outside the ship, the sound of the turret emerging from the hull could be heard.
Dialers voice came over the comms: “this is Dialer, I am prepared.”
Whisper shook her head. He’s always so stuffy she thought to herself, grinning. She hit the comms button.
“This is Whisper, ready to make some asshole wish they’d never been born!”


***


Back in the cockpit, Ty had slammed the Lady Lucky’s throttle from zero to full in an instant. The engines roared, and the sudden acceleration could be felt even through the kinetic stabilizers. Combat readouts flashed to life, showing the ship’s general status as well as the amount of ammunition left in the ship’s turrets (worryingly little) and the charge left in its laser array (hopefully enough). As Ty throttled up, the angry buzz of another railgun shot barely missing the ship rang through the Void’s thin atmosphere.
“Getting a visual!” said Elizabeth, hitting keys on the command console. A monitor began to display an image of the enemy ship-- a boxy, utilitarian thing, obviously designed to fit as many guns as possible. It was painted blood-red, and “THE PREDATOR” was painted in white on the side, in slashing, quick stroke. The sound of the Lady’s turrets began to ring throughout the hull, a steady ripping noise as the miniguns fired at the enemy ship, bouncing off its shield.
“Shit, ok, ok ok.” Ty said to himself, as another railgun round screamed past the ship. “Putting lots of pressure on us, aren’t you? Well, take this!”
As he did so, he activated the maneuvering jets on the ship and spun it around to face the enemy ship. In the Void’s zero-g environment, the Lady Lucky maintained its lateral momentum as it turned to face the enemy. The front of the Lady Lucky lit up with an angry red as Ty fired her laser cannon at the enemy ship. With a harsh, warbling squeal, a stream of superheated plasma closed the gap between the two ships nearly instantly, searing a trail of angry red fire across the boxy foe. The enemy’s shields wobbled, but withstood the onslaught, and a few seconds later the laser winked out of existence, leaving a trail of smoke where it once was. The boxy ship began to retaliate, sending a volley of railgun fire at the Lady Lucky. A few rounds skidded harmlessly across the shield, but one hit the Lady Lucky on her topmost portion, punching through the shield and impacting with the hull, which buckled but did not break.
Shit!” exclaimed Ty, pulling the ship into more evasive maneuvers. The steady ripping noise of the Lady’s turrets continued, splashing rounds across the enemy shield ineffectually.
“That hit the medbay.” said Elizabeth, her voice tight. She hit the general comms button and said “Melody, are you alright? Talk to me.”
“I’m fine.” came Melody’s voice, thick with static. “The round didn’t make it through the armor. They knocked over my paintings, though.” she sounded deeply offended.
“We can rehang them. Whisper, Dialer, keep firing on them-- I don’t want their shields recharging.”
“Affirmative.”
“You got it!”
A digital readout above Ty bearing the word “COOLDOWN” was counting down from 10. He was counting with it under his breath, nodding his head with each second passed.
“Five… Four… Three… Two… One… eat laser, shitheads!
He spun the ship around and fired the laser again, the heat of the laser warming the floor of the cockpit. But even after several more seconds of being exposed to direct laser fire, the enemy ship’s shield stood fast. Another railgun round punched through the Lady Lucky’s shields and smashed it’s way into the hull. The impact could be felt throughout the ship, as the entire frame shuddered violently. A loud boom resonated through the ship, accompanied by the telltale crunching noise of important things breaking. A damage report flashed across one of the ship’s various readouts.
“They hit Whisper’s turret mount.” said Ty, his voice urgent. “I’m not even making a dent in their shields. This is bad, captain.”
“Raythius”, said Elizabeth urgently, “how long till we’re spun up?”
“Er, around two minutes, I think. The readout says three, but the readout is a liar.”
“That’s too long. Can you speed it up somehow?”
“I… could. It wouldn’t be safe, but I could.”
“How not safe would it be?”
“Uh, um.” Raythius hesitated, thinking under pressure. His reply was hurried. “Well, the ship could be torn apart like cotton candy, or we could be sucked into a singularity and compressed into a space smaller than an atom, or we could accidentally jump into the Silent World… or the warp drive could just explode. Actually, the explosion is probably the most likely.”
Elizabeth considered it for a second or two.
“Do it.” she said decisively. “We’re dead anyway if we don’t get the hell out of here.”
“All right then.” replied Raythius, his voice anxious. “Get ready for an emergency warp, everybody.”


***


In the engine room, Raythius hurried over to the warp drive and began hitting keys on its control console. Several warning messages popped up, all of which he ignored. He decisively hit the “enter” key, and the warp drive’s rotation unit began to spin faster and faster with an off-putting whine, unearthly green light from inside glowing brighter and brighter. Outside the ship, the warp manifolds unfurled with a whirr, and green lightning began dancing from manifold to manifold.
“Oh, this is going to feel very bad, isn’t it.” said Raythius, staring at the warp drive as the voices began to start.


***


The warp drive ripped a hole in reality, and the Lady Lucky flew through it with a screech.
There was a sensation of--
--Moving at a thousand miles an hour, wracked with nausea and fear, not knowing if anything was safe, not knowing if anybody you trusted was truly trustworthy, of being fundamentally displaced. There were screams, there were whispers and shouts, a trillion voices raised in agony--
--And then the Lady Lucky made it into the Veil, skidding across its multi-dimensional surface.
“...Ugh.” said Ty, staring out the viewport into the pure white, flickering surface of the veil. Occasionally, vague black shapes of mind-boggling sizes would pass around and even through the Lady Lucky, making whooshing noises as they did so. Ty’s face was pale, and he was holding his stomach. “That felt awful.”
“Agreed.” said Elizabeth, nodding. She pressed a shaking hand to the general comms button, leaning on the control console. “Whisper, sound off. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” said Whisper, obviously trying to conceal pain in her voice. “I’m just bleeding a bit.”
“Yeah, sure.” came Melody’s stern voice. “Get your butt over to the medbay, Whisper.”
“Ok, ok, mom. Jeez.” replied Whisper teasingly, and left the turret control with an audible grunt of pain.
“Dialer, go to her turret mount and help her.” Elizabeth instructed. “Anyone else hurt?” she asked, to which the rest of the crew replied in the negative. “Alright, good. Raythius, how long till we get to… wherever you set us to jump to?”
“Around an hour. I set the location to the next leg of our journey, because I thought that would be an intelligent thing to do.”
“It is. Good job.”
Ty leaned back in his seat, sighing and wiping his face with his hand. “That… was intense. Who do you think they were, captain?”
“Let’s hope they were just pirates, because the alternative is that the Skavis gang knows where we are, and sent assassins after us. On that note…” she pressed the comms button again. “Raythius, what’s our warp signature look like? How hard are we to track?”
“My highly educated guess would be: ‘very hard’. That was an extremely messy jump, they’d almost certainly just get nonsense if they tried to scan our warp signature.”
“Alright, good. Keep me posted if anything changes.”
“I’ll do that, captain.”


Melody bustled about the medbay, preparing for Whisper’s arrival. She deployed her cybernetics to check them, and her arms unfolded like flowers, revealing an array of medical tools. Satisfied, she refolded her cybernetics, her arms settling back into place with a click.
Whisper limped into the medbay, aided in her journey by Dialer. The cause of her limp was immediately obvious-- a shard of metal embedded several inches into her right hip. A thin stream of blood was running down her right leg and onto the sterile medbay floor.
“‘Just bleeding a bit’, huh?” quoted Melody sarcastically. “Ok, tough girl, think you can get onto the operating table?”
“Yeah.” said Whisper, sounding tired. “Lemme just…” she tried to take a step forward, and her leg gave out under her, forcing Dialer to catch her.
“Stop trying to put weight on your injured leg and let me help you.” he said sternly.
“You’re not my dad.” replied Whisper. She sounded annoyed, but let Dialer help her over to the operating table, letting out a hiss of pain as she lay down. “I won the bet, by the way.” she said, smugness cutting through the pain.
“Do not remind me.” replied Dialer.
“With a hundred credits on the line? You bet your ass I’m gonna remind you.”
“Alright,” said Melody, “let’s start with some anesthetic.” she sent a mental command to her arms, which unfolded again.
“S’ still cool when you do that.” said Whisper, looking at Melody’s arms.
“Thanks, honey.” said Melody, as cybernetics shuffled into place. “Vein please.”
Whisper obliged, holding her arm out straight. A syringe moved into place inside the throng of cybernetics, and Melody injected Whisper with some of its contents. After a few moments, Whisper closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.
“Mmm, that’s the stuff.” she said, her speech slurring slightly.
“I made this batch myself.” said Melody, eyeing the piece of shrapnel. “Ok, so how do we do this with the minimum of you bleeding to death?”
“If I’m not needed,” began Dialer, looking at Whisper on the operating table, “I’m going to see to the turret casing and assess the damage.”
“Yeah, go ahead.” said Melody. “Ok honey, let’s get this metal out of you.” Melody refolded her arms and grabbed the metal, her cybernetic hands guarding her against its sharp edges. She pulled, and the metal began to come free with an unpleasant squelching noise.
“Ow.” said Whisper, opening one eye and looking down. “I can still feel that.”
“I’m not surprised.” said Melody, as she finished removing the metal. She dropped it into a bin provided by a helpful nearby medical robot. “I’m amazed you were even able to walk on it.”
“I’m a badass.” said Whisper helpfully, her normally sharp, rasping voice dulled by painkillers.
Melody worked quickly and efficiently, injecting medi-gel into the wound and sewing it shut, the cybernetics in her arms working in a frenetic blur. In less than a minute, the wound was closed, cleaned, and dressed.
“Alright, so those sutures should come out on their own.” said Melody, refolding her cybernetics back into regular human arms. “You won’t need a cane or anything, but don’t put too much weight on that leg for the next day or so while the Medi-gel heals things up, ok?”
“M’kay.” said Whisper sleepily, eyes closed. “You're so smart and pretty, Melody.”
Melody laughed, and gave Whisper an affectionate peck on the cheek. “Thanks, honey. Just rest here for a bit, ok?”
“Kay.”
“Want me to read to you? These Tyrexian beasts are so interesting!”
“Mmhmm” said Whisper, her eyes still closed. “Sounds good. Learn something for once in my life.”
“Okay.” replied Melody, smiling and settling in with “BEASTS OF TYREXIA”. “So. The Tyrexian Tri-horn…”


***


Raythius fiddled and fussed over the shield generator, moving components and re-wiring wires. The thick cables were inserted from port to port with an audible chunk as he threw bypass switches and ran diagnostics.
“Alright”, said Raythius under his breath, his face-screen set in an expression of concentration. “Let’s see what we can see, hmm? Alright, port 4 jumps to port 7, which.... I hotwired to 9-- ooh, sloppy sloppy, I’m ashamed of myself.”
Dialer walked into the room, interrupting Raythius’s monologue. “Raythius.” he said, his voice flat and mechanical as usual. “I require maintenance on my cybernetics.”
“I’m busy, Dialer. Can’t you do it yourself?” replied Raythius distractedly, fussing with a tangle of cables. “Darn things.” he said, tugging at them.
“You would do a far superior job. Don’t the needs of your crewmates supercede the needs of the ship?”
“You won’t explode if not properly maintained.” said Raythius, annoyed. “The shield generator, on the other hand, will.”
“...That is possible?” asked Dialer, disbelief in his tone.
“Of course it’s possible.” answered Raythius, still struggling with the snarl of cables. “For somebody so enamored with cybernetics and technology, you really do know very little about them sometimes.”
“I am just surprised that a core ship component is so volatile ”
“It is.” said Raythius, finally yanking the cables free. “Just like the warp drive, the logistics bank, the laser array, the-- well, let’s just say the Lady Lucky is basically a flying bomb whose fuse I’m constantly putting out.”
“Oh.” said Dialer. He was quiet for a thoughtful moment or two before he said: “I will maintain them myself, in that case.”
“I think that’s for the best.” said Raythius, dropping the cables on the ground.
Dialer left the room. After a few seconds, Raythius turned to make sure he was gone, then placed his hands together, fingers in a circle, imitating a cog.
“May the Holy Mechanisms guide my hand in this task, amen.”
He returned to work, feeling guilty.
***


“So captain,” began Ty, looking out the viewport at the white expanse of the Veil, “you ever been in love?”
Elizabeth gave him a sidelong glance, raising an eyebrow. “Why?” she asked simply.
“Dunno. Being in warp always makes me philosophical. Thinking about lost loves and such.”
Elizabeth thought about it for a second, and then said “You first.”
Ty huffed out a dry laugh. “Ok then.” he said. “If you insist. Remember that time we were docked at Harmony Station for almost a month, because Raythius was having trouble getting the parts to fix the warp drive?”
“Yeah.” answered Elizabeth. “That was a bitch.”
“Well, I met this girl. Amy was her name, Amy Waters. I tell you, she was the prettiest damn thing you’ve ever seen. Well, we met each other on the first day in a bar, and we had something of a whirlwind romance. It broke both our hearts when I had to leave, but when I had to choose between Amy and the Lady, well…” he tapped the control console. “I had to go with my first love. I thought me and the Lady Lucky were in an open relationship, but, well, it turns out I’d rather keep it monogamous.”
“Hnnh. Didn’t know that.” said Elizabeth, leaning back in her seat and folding her arms. “Surprised you kept it on the down low.”
“Yeah, well, I was all emotional about it, and stuff.”
“And that’s been it, since then?”
“Yep. Actually, when she first joined the crew, I had my eye on Melody, because I tell you, that girl is stunning. But uh, that’s not happening. For obvious reasons.”
“Right.” said Elizabeth, smiling slightly. “She and Whisper are a unit.’”
“Yup. Intensely so.” said Ty. He gave Elizabeth a sidelong glance, grinned, and said “alright, it’s your turn, captain.”
“Guess so.” she said. She sat in silence for a few moments, mulling over the question, then spoke. “I’ve had a few flings, back when I was in the military. Official Collective stance is to keep your love life outside the ranks, but that never stopped people. There were always secret affairs.”
“Right, right.” said Ty, nodding thoughtfully. “Gotta keep your mind on killing people, after all.”
“Exactly. I was in a relationship with my commanding officer for a while-- it even survived me getting promoted myself. Actually, that made things easier-- we were equals then. It lasted years.”
“Wow. What happened? Did you two have to separate because of military reasons, or something?”
“He died.” said Elizabeth shortly, staring off into the middle distance. “During an Al’saran mortar strike on Eltris 7. Same day I got this.” she raised up her cybernetic hand to show Ty.
“Oh.” he replied, his voice slightly subdued. “Damn. That sucks. I’m sorry. How’d you lose the hand?”
“Ever heard of a Tally-beast?”
“Nope.” said Ty, shaking his head.
“They’re the size of a big dog, but with spikes and fangs and exoskeletons. Those Al’saran Lifeshapers really know how to make something nasty. One of them bit my hand off.”
“Eeesh. And you killed it?”
“Yup. Drew my sidearm left-handed and pumped its head full of bullets, point-blank.”
“Damn.” said Ty, impressed. “That’s kind of badass, captain.”
“Thanks.” she said, looking at her cybernetic hand. “Hnnh, haven’t thought about that day for a while.”
“Oh, uh, sorry.” said Ty. “Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories or anything.”
“It’s fine.” replied Elizabeth, waving her hand reassuringly. “I’ve made my peace with it since then.”
“So we’ve both lost loves. Except uh, you lost yours in a infinitely shittier and more tragic way.”
“Seems like.” said Elizabeth, staring out the window. There was a brief silence, then she spoke up again: “I really hope whoever this Mirth person is determined to not reveal the location of the Vault, because Skavis’ torturer is good at his job.”
“You know him?” asked Ty, raising his eyebrows.
“By reputation. Skavis picked him up after he left the Collective military. His name is Castral, and he’s a pro.”
“Well shit.” said Ty. “So Mirth might have told Skavis where the Vault is already.”
“Maybe.” replied Elizabeth grimly. “We can only hope he’s held on.”


***


Several systems away, Castral was frustrated.
He was standing outside of the interrogation room, in front of its heavy steel door. The dim lamps that lit Skavis Gang’s hideout illuminated the dingy surroundings, casting pallid light on everything. The hideout had been a mining camp at one time, and its accommodations were spartan.
Just then, Leomund Skavis walked up to Castral. He was suitably piratical looking, with a scarred face, a black bushy beard, and even an eyepatch. He spoke to Castral in a surprisingly soft, musical voice.
“So.” he said. “Castral. Did you get anything useful out of him?”
Castral looked up, and Skavis could see the irritation on his face.
“Something’s going on with this guy, boss. I don’t know where to go from here.”
“What do you mean?” asked Skavis, raising an eyebrow. “Come on, Castral. You’re supposed to be the best.”
“I am the best, but he was giving me advice, boss.”
Skavis blinked. “Advice? What do you mean?”
“He… ok, so I started with his fingernails, right? Pulling them off. And instead of screaming or fighting or something, he started telling me that I should pull them off slower, and that it’s less effective to just rip them out. And he kept making jokes.”
“Jokes?” said Skavis, nonplussed.
“So I just finish removing his eyes, and he’s like ‘ow! I can see you’re good at your job. Oh wait, no I can’t!’ and then he laughs. I don’t think he’s all there. And uh, I don’t think he’s totally human.”
“Not totally human?” replied Skavis, feeling like an idiot for just repeating everything Castral said.
“Yeah. His fingernails grew back. And so did his eyes. And his teeth.”
Skavis’s brow furrowed. “Do you think he’s a Bioshaper, then? I know they regenerate stuff like that.”
Castral hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “Nah, boss. If he was a Bioshaper, he’d be spitting acid at me. Don’t think we could hold a Bioshaper with just what we’ve got in there.” he shook his head again, wincing. “I’ve done all I can, boss. I’m sorry.”
“Hmm.” said Skavis, looking at the door. “Sounds like you have. Go get something to eat, Castral, I’m going to talk to the prisoner.”
“Good luck.” said Castral, walking away. “Hope you’ll get more than I did.”
Skavis opened the door with a creak, and walked into the dimly-lit interrogation room. The centerpiece of the room was a heavy metal chair, surrounded by bloodstains that betrayed the room’s grim purpose. Strapped into the chair was Mirth. He was on the shorter side, with a thin, wiry build. He was strange-looking, an impression that started with his eyes. He held them wide-open, to a wild looking degree, with solid black pupils so contracted that they were basically pinpricks. Congealing blood had pooled around his eye sockets, but it didn’t quite hide a tattoo on the left side of his face-- a vertical black stripe going over his left eye. His mouth was also of interest-- it was set in a wide grin, revealing a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth that fit together like a bear trap. He didn't look at all bothered by his current predicament. He was wearing simple white clothing, unpretentious and unassuming.
“Hi!” said Mirth, his voice breathy and cheerful. “I’m Mirth! Oh, but you probably knew that already.”
Skavis didn’t respond, and started slowly walking around the chair that Mirth was strapped into.
“Ooh, are we having a contest to see who can be the most silent? I’ll probably lose, since I’m not very good at that.”
Skavis completed his lap, and stopped standing in front of Mirth.
“What are you?” he asked, looking at Mirth intently.
“Well, my name is Mirth, and I’m just a regular old person!” said Mirth cheerfully.
“Sure you are.” said Skavis. Mirth’s fixed smile and steady, intense stare was beginning to unnerve Skavis-- Mirth seemed to not need to blink. “Just a regular old person who grows back their eyes.”
“Can’t everybody do that?” asked Mirth, innocently.
“I have the feeling that you’re not going to tell me where the vault is.” said Skavis.
“That’s a good feeling to have! Because it’s the correct feeling. We could just have a friendly conversation though! That might be fun, right?”.
“Not really.” said Skavis. He was quiet for a moment, then turned around to leave. “I’m just gonna leave you there, I think. Maybe you’ll change your mind when you start getting hungry.”
“Who knows, I might!” replied Mirth. “I do like food, after all.”
“Right.” said Skavis, and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
In the dim light, Mirth giggled to himself. He wasn’t sure if he was going to get out of this alive, but one thing was for certain-- he was going to enjoy himself.
He always did.



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