Uncharted System, Edge of Rul Space.
This far out from the system’s sun, light was a technicality rather than anything else. The sun was still the brightest star, but you had to search for it, and the shadows it cast were invisible.
A comet, unnamed and undiscovered by any life, tumbled slowly inwards. 84 years from now, it would hit perigee and start its long fall back out to the system’s Oort cloud.
Its regular schedule was interrupted by a shimmer of light that danced neon blue over its surface. The light pulsed in waves, hard radiation fluorescing off the dirty ice surface of the comet until with a massive pulse the comet vaporised. In its place was a ship, long and thin with several needle-sharp extrusions extending far past the rest of its length. Dull gray shivered over its exterior as it ate in the residual radiation from the blast.
“Do-mar, transfer is complete,” muttered one of the five creatures on the ship’s bridge.
“Acknowledged, Het-Wan. Het-Lur, begin system scan,” growled the central figure from eir raised platform.
Rul-Dam-Lur-yin-Mar-Wan-yin-Wanarul-Mar studied the screen before em. Acquiring this ship had been expensive, the energy for an FTL transfer more so. If eir plan failed, ey would lose eir challenge. The chance to rise five ranks came rarely, and always with great risk. An uncharted system with odd emissions could be eir life’s ruin, or moment of glory.
The screen’s data shifted, focusing on a new set. Mar lent forward, eir muscular frame hunching under the coarse fur.
“Het-Lur, confirm this data,” ey said.
“Data confirmed, Do-mar. Debris fields orbit several of this system’s world. Mostly refined metals. Combined mass estimated at...over [5x1014 kg]?!”
Rul-Dam-Lur-yin-Mar-Wan-yin-Wanarul-Mar-Lur’s shock was well placed. That was easily the mass of a small moon, and in already refined metals. The salvage on that would exceed the wildest expectations from this mission.
Mar paused as the second implication sunk in. Refined metals. Who or what had refined them? Did they still lay claim to this wealth?
“Het-Mar, weapons check. Het-Wan, be on guard for nearby vessels. Het-Lur, do you detect any signs of civilization?” ey snapped.
A furious silence fell as eir various underlings performed their tasks.
“No, Do-Mar. No energy signatures or transmissions,” answered Lur after a moment.
Mar settled into eir chair, locking eir shoulder plates and slumping forwards in thought, neck barely extended past eir chest. What to do? The answer was simple. Follow the plan.
“Het-Wan, take us to the nearest debris field. Het-Lur, continuing mapping the system and searching for activity. Het-Mar, remain on alert. Het-Dam, go inspect the maw, make sure it’s ready for deployment.
Dam rose from eir chair, keeping eir head below the Do-Mar’s as ey left the bridge for the engineering bays.
Refined metals and massive debris fields, thought Mar. Possible first contact, given that this system was previously uncharted, and none of the other species the Do-Rul had encountered were operating in this area of space. Mar’s lips rippled, displaying eir cutting plates. First contact was always a tricky business. Differences in species psychology and technology often made it difficult to determine who was the stronger party, and who the subservient. When in doubt, a challenge always cleared things up quickly, but no Do-Rul worth eir bones would dive into an unknown battle without some sort of advantage.
Rul-Dam-Lur-yin-Mar-Wan-yin-Wanarul-Mar intended to have that advantage.
Edge of The Ruins, ICS Praxis Gentry
The intercom chime went off above Salandra’s head. Blearily, she marvelled at its ability to be both softly polite and yet completely irritating and impossible to ignore.
She threw a pillow at the screen. The dense foam cylinder made a satisfying bonk sound.
“What?!” she snapped, eyes squinting against the sudden glare from the screen.
“We’re about to jump, Captain. Thought you’d want to be on the bridge.”
“Is it going to be any different than the other 10 bloody jumps we’ve done this week?” she said, one arm now protectively folded over her eyes.
“No Captain,” sighed her XO Arthur. She liked the guy, she really did, mainly cos he loved doing all the day-to-day crap she personally found ultra-boring, but that’s why she paid him more than anyone else on her crew. To do the stuff so she didn’t have to.
“Call me if there’s aliens or a 1000-ft statue of your dick. Otherwise, I’m gonna go back to sleep,” she said.
“Yes Captain,” said Arthur, before he reached forward and blissful darkness returned to her cabin.
Rolling over, she decided that retrieving her pillow was too much effort, and planted her face in the memory foam pad of her bed.
The familiar hum and glow of a jump drive spinning up suffused the cabin. She sleepily watched as trails of apparently-harmless radiation pooled and danced on various surfaces. She did think it looked pretty cool, but it was nothing new.
Jump drives had been a mainstay of interstellar travel for over a century now. They worked by...actually, she didn’t really know how they worked. She had an engineer who would never shut up about it though. Transfer of quantum states to matter in another solar system, converting it to them and them to it? Something like that. She remembered asking once if that means it killed them everytime, like the old Star Trek movie transporters. Carlie had laughed, and said something about the conservation of information.
Salandra had nodded. The bit she liked was that excess matter was generally converted to energy, and almost completely absorbed to power the jump. The other side of that “almost” was a blastwave of hard radiation as strong as a small nuke. FTL jumps weren’t stealthy.
The light built, flared, and the ship rumbled as the exterior shielding struggled to swallow as much energy as it could. Salandra began to softly snore.
The chime went off again.
“God dammit Art!” she snapped, flipping upright to glare directly into the screen.
“You said to call you if there were aliens or a 1000-ft statue of my dick,” he said, distracted by another screen.
“Yeah, and?” she snapped.
“Well it ain’t my dick,” he said.
It took a full 8 seconds for her to process that. Partly cos she swore she’d never heard Art even say “dick” before.
Uncharted System, Do-Rul Ship
It had been several months since their arrival in this abandoned system, and much progress had been made in harvesting the vast wealth of the debris fields. Their ship was equipped with a maw, a hungry EM funnel that drew in and atomised matter, melting metals and purging impurities. In the ship’s bowels it was filtered and formed into ingots for transport, while other automated systems had slowly siphoned off choice metals to reinforce the ship. Do-Rul ships were not organic, but their sophisticated systems let them scavenge and grow much like a living creature. Mar had ordered several new weapon and shield emplacements, and thanks to the incredible wealth available in this system, now had a ship that would rival any but the Rul’s personal guard.
Ey were waiting for the moment, but it was still a surprise.
“Do-Mar, FTL burst detected!” announced Lur.
Mar stared at the screen, noting the position of the burst. While an emergence did not have to occur on the same edge of a system as the vessel’s point of origin, it was often the case regardless. The fact that the new contact had arrived on the opposite side of the system to them was therefore inconclusive, but still indicated it had come from far into unknown space.
“What is it doing?” ey asked.
“Detecting active scans. Strange configuration. Unable to detect vessel’s exact location, but disturbances in the FTL burst radiation indicate it is coming towards us,” responded Lur.
Mar ground eir plates together. The speed of light limited the ability to gather real-time information over such distances. By the time they had seen the burst, the other ship had begun to accelerate towards them.
“Are we at full readiness?” ey asked.
“Yes Do-Mar. Our shields are charged, all weapons have been tested and are fully armed.” Hunger filled Het-Mar’s voice at the chance to test the ship’s new weapons.
“Be steady,” snapped Do-Mar. “Fire on my order, and my order alone.”
Het-Mar bobbed eir head in submission, although there was an air of resentment. Do-Mar stared at em for a moment longer before turning back to eir screen. The long mission was beginning to wear on them all. Ey would hate to have to discipline, or worse, execute Het-Mar. Ey were a skilled weapon’s tech, and returning with a four-person crew would indicate weakness on Do-Mar’s part. A tarnish to eir otherwise golden return.
“Other vessel will be in visual range in [one hour], weapons range in [45 minutes],” said Lur.
Salandra had found pants. That was important. First contact should probably be done with pants on.
She glanced down. Clean pants would be even better, but you could barely make out the chocolate stain on the black fabric, and wasn’t like the aliens would be able to smell her.
“We definitely sure it’s aliens?” she asked for the 10th time. “Cos you’ve seen some of the weird shit the experimental Evo’s churn out. Like that one clan, made a friggin’ space squid. An evil one.”
“I think that was a reference to something, actually,” said Art as they walked onto the bridge. “And yes. We don’t have visual yet, but the emissions spectra are like nothing we’ve seen, and the register says no ships should be in the system.”
“That’s cos it’s the ass-end of nowhere. Hell, we’re only here cos you said there’s a chance of a vintage Evo still running,” she said as she flopped into her chair.
“Well actually…” said Art, trailing off awkwardly.
She turned to glare at him. “What?”
“I was getting odd, intermittent readings from a highly damaged old drone I hacked. Nothing useful, but potential indications of activity corresponding to no known ships. So logically, I thought an Evo from the last of the Realspace Wars. It would have been highly valuable, but I most likely was picking up the alien ship instead.”
“Soooo, you’re saying there’s no money in this?” said Sal.
Art winced. “I know it was a risk, but the potential gains from a divergent-pathed Evo that has been running for almost a century in isolation could have netted usa year's pay in one trip!” he said. “Besides, first contact won’t be exactly worthless.”
“You better not start some “brotherhood of the stars” BS on me dude.”
“No. I mean book rights, celebrity status, all that. Could be quite lucrative.”
“You mean 15 minutes of fame and a McMansion somewhere in the parts of Earth that aren’t a festering hell-hole? Eh.” Sal rummaged in her seat compartment, and pulled out a bag of chips. She munched a handful, silently thanking the gods of GM produce that had finally made it so you could eat literally whatever you wanted while still maintaining a balanced diet. It made hedonism so much easier when you didn’t have to worry about your ass getting stuck in chairs. Plus, THC-hips were just so relaxing.
A clang behind her announced the arrival of Carlie and Dave. The last two members of her little family. Well, there was also the dozen or so fuckers downstairs, but they were all temps. Here for a ride and a cut of the profit, then off at the next station. She hadn’t bothered to learn names.
She’d memorised faces though. Always useful to know who to shoot and who to stand behind if things got rough.
She had a good crew, she thought. Art the cleric, Carlie the mage, Dave the Dave, and her, the dashing rogue. And a dozen random meat-shields to do the heavy lifting.
“We’ll be in range soon Captain. What do we say?” asked Art as he and the others sat down.
“Isn’t there a thing for this? Like, a pack or something?” she asked.
“Yes. Several. Dozen. Thought you might want to send something personal,” said Art.
“Carlie, that’s more your thing than mine. Got any choice words?” said Sal.
“A few. There’s a basic translation pack that’s generally meant to be reliable. I mean, never tested but still, generally it’s the one most people agree won’t cause an interstellar war, while actually being useful. I’ll send it, maybe a “Hello, we’re humans and we come in peace?””
“Laaaame. But yeah,” said Sal as Carlie rolled her eyes, “that’ll do fine. Take us to your leader, etc.”
“Ah, captain. We have our first visual,” said Art as he pulled up the data.
“Woah. OK, definitely aliens,” said Sal. The ship on the screen looked like a bullet being shot through a ball of charcoal-black bubbles. Overall it was long and thin, but bubbly protrusions along its length gave a rounded look regardless. Except for the needles that extended weirdly far from the main body, jutting out past the nose(?) of the vessel.
“Captain, it’s over 5 kilometers long, not including those needles,” said Art.
Sal winced. The biggest ship she knew of was a corporate mobile HQ, and it was half that. Not to mention it was fat pig of a ship, more like a technically-mobile space station. This thing looked fast.
“Shall I send the package?” asked Carlie quietly.
“Yeah. Yeah, send away,” said Sal. Eyes locked to the sight before her, she placed a single chip in her mouth and crunched loudly.
“We are receiving a transmission, Do-Mar. A simple translation package and message. The computer has decoded it,” said Lur.
It flickered onto the screen in front of them all.
“We give greetings to you. We are humans, travellers and explorers. We come in peace,” read Do-Mar. What nonsense, ey thought. The Do-Rul had learnt of peace from the other species they had met. To live next to another, without either party being dominant or submissive.
The Do-Rul were not social creatures. On their world, they had evolved from apex predators, each out for themselves. They had gained in intelligence to counter the growing pack tactics of their prey, but none of them ever worked together.
Until the first Rul. The origins were lost to prehistory, but the results were known. One member of their species, greater than any other, had bullied four others into following em. Unused to names, a simple numbering system had been formed. Wan, Mar, Lur, Dam: 1,2,3,4. The Rul was zero, the apex. The newly formed Do-Rul, those below the Rul, had been an effective force. The Rul had strength and a vicious intellect, unique perhaps among their kind. More Do-Rul were added, with the first pack kept in line by the Rul, and each of them in turn keeping another 4 in line. Co-operation was a foreign concept, each Do-Rul thinking only of themselves and the power they could have. As long as the one above was strong, they followed. If they were stronger, they challenged. If they won, they took their defeated opponent’s name and rank. In this way, any could become the Rul, if they were smart and cunning.
The system endured, because the Do-Rul as a single unit easily overpowered their neighbours, hunted with ease, and eventually began building a greater society. Each knew their place, and struggled to rise within the system. Nepotism was not an issue, as the mono-gendered Do-Rul reproduced only once, dying to spawn four children. Children were left to fend for themselves, until they grew old and strong enough to challenge a low-ranking member for a name. Even the children of the previous Rul were not exempt, cast aside from their parent corpse to prove themselves like any other.
Rul-Dam-Lur-yin-Mar-Wan-yin-Wanarul-Mar, 0-4-3-3-1-1-1-1-1-1-2, was of the 11th order, middle ranked. Ey had challenged eir superior, placed a proving scheme before a tribunal. The scheme approved, eir had set out with eir ship and subordinates to win the challenge and return home with wealth.
“Does the alien vessel share similarities with the debris we have recovered and catalogued?” ey asked. Not everything had been turned into scrap. Alien technology was always a useful thing to have.
“Yes, Do-Mar,” responded Lur. “Spectrographic analysis indicates similar alloy construction. It is visually comparable too.”
The screen displayed an image of the approaching ship. Small, angular, with an oddly irregular surface and large bay doors towards the rear. A trade vessel, most likely. Mar could not see signs of weapons or shields, or even things that might have been weapons or shields.
Unarmed. Vulnerable. And perhaps technically the owners of the vast wealth they had sequestered. The wealth ey needed to win eir challenge.
“Respond with the following,” ey said. “We are Do-Rul. We claim this system and its wealth. Leave, fight, or submit. No other choices.”
“Ahhhh, Captain?” said Art.
“Yeah dude, I see it,” said Sal. That was a hell of a response. “You sure that translator is working right, Carlie? We didn’t accidentally insult their honour or something?”
“Given their response in perfectly understandable English, yeah, it’s working. I guess they just...are dicks,” answered Carlie.
“OK, tell them, very politely, that we aren’t here to take their wealth, but this is a human-owned system. Maybe we can share?” Sal paused for a moment. “And send them our handshake. You know, just in case.”
“Alien vessel responds, Do-Mar,” said Lur. “Additional data sent as well.”
Mar stared at the screen. They thought they’d believe them? They stated ownership of this bounty, but would let them leave with it? And they had neither backed down, fled, or begun to fight. Mar itched at the situation. Dominant, submissive, or gone. Nothing else.
“What other data?” ey growled, eyes staring straight at the image of the enemy... alien vessel.
“An algorithm, describing a process of replication. It is highly efficient. I think it’s intended as a warning of their defensive abilities.”
Warning? Warning?!? Fight, flight, or submit. This was not submission, or fleeing. It was a bearing of cutting plates, a shaking of fur.
“Het-Mar. Begin charging weapons. Ensure shields are at full strength. Het-Wan, begin full acceleration. They would warn us? Let us show them OUR claws!”
The other four clacked their plates in appreciation.
“Oh shit. Captain-”
“Art, get us an industrial wormfeed now! Best quality you can, crack my personal funds if you gotta. Carlie, whatever spit and polish you can slap on our Evo, do it, then take off the brakes. Full defensive deployment authorised by Captain Salandra Dowd of the Independent Clan Ship Praxis Gentry,” snapped Sal, slapping a hand onto the control panel in her chair arm. “And Dave, go get the toughest-looking temps you trust to not shoot themselves or you, and pop the armoury. By which I mean the very large box in my quarters. The code is your name.” The chair dispensed a bundle of auto-injectors that had been crudely duct-taped together, which Sal glanced at, then stuffed into a pants pocket.
Art and Carlie stared at her. Dave left.
“Captain…” said Art.
“Art, I know. Do it anyway. Carlie, bit of a shock, I get it, but-”
“Bit of a shock?” said Carlie incredulously. “We’re actually deploying the Evo? No one’s done that since-”
“Since the Realspace Wars, yeah. That’s why we have the handshake, a little virtual dick-measuring cos when Evo’s go bad, you get crap like this system and the other dozen out here in the Ruins just like it. But aliens don’t care, apparently. So spin our baby up.”
Art had the ship’s accounts up, and was typing furiously on the haptic keypad.
“Captain, I can get us 10 minutes of boosted wormfeed, then we’re dry,” he said.
“Shit. Well, I guess this’ll be sorted by then one way or the other. Carlie?” asked Sal.
“I’m working on it,” Carlie replied as she too typed like mad on her haptic display. ”Okay, shifting input connectors from cargo to wormfeed. Bay doors open. Evo-engine online.”
“Shackles off,” said Sal. “Let our baby loose.”
“Do-Mar, we are reading an increase in the ship’s energy output, and their cargo hold is opening its doors,” said Het-Lur from eir station.
Do-Mar tensed under eir fur. What surprise would the aliens throw at them? They were impossibly small and weak, but anything they did would be almost by definition unprecedented.
“They are deploying smaller craft,” added Het-Lur.
“Display!” snapped Do-Mar.
On the screen, a dozen smaller vessels emerged from the larger alien one. Most flew towards the Do-Rul, but the largest few began clambering over the surface of the alien ship.
“Het-Mar, destroy any target that comes within range, but only aim to cripple the enemy ship,” ey ordered.
Pack tactics. Using swarms of smaller, weaker units to try and take down bigger prey. Mar grinned widely. This was the kind of attack the Do-Rul had been born to break. Their vessel was more powerful than any before them. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of their foe would break upon their shields and burn under their guns before they suffered even a scratch.
The larger units had clambered their way to some of the odd surface patterns on the enemy ship. Nestling down, they began to shift, locking onto the hull and extending components.
Do-Mar narrowed eir eyes. Alien in design, ey still knew guns when ey saw them.
On the hull of the Praxis Gentry were 8 Universal Coupling Points. These multi-purpose docking points anchored modular components to the ship’s hull, and provided them with power and resources. Usually, mining lasers, scavenger webs, or shipping cranes were the chosen attachment.
Now, four forward railguns began to warm up, while behind them, four missile turrets began a longer initialization sequence.
The first wave of drones, accelerating far beyond the limits of flesh, came in range of the Do-Rul ships. Something sparked on its black length, and moments later all that was left of the drones was vapor.
From the open bay doors came another wave, slightly different in configuration. They also vanished in fire as soon as they came in range of whatever weapons the Do-Rul had, but one survived microseconds longer than the others.
In the heart of the Praxis Gentry, the C-6 Evolution Engine adjusted its simulations. By the time the next drone batch was ready for deployment, it had run millions of potential variations to drone design based on that single deviation. Other strategies were also employed. Diversification was key.
The third wave lasted longer, partly because there were more of them.
“How is this possible!” roared Do-Mar.
The alien ship had deployed more drones. An impossible number of drones. Even if they were manufacturing them aboard from raw materials, more matter had now come out of that ship than was possible for it to contain. And every wave took longer to destroy. Some drones had begun to take two or more hits to fully disable, while others occasionally vanished from scans only to show up again uncomfortably close to the hull.
A faint change in background noise informed em that a shield had had to counter an impact.
“One got through, Do-Mar. No damage,” reported Het-Dam.
“How long until we are within range of their main vessel?” ey asked.
“Five minutes, Do-Mar,” answered Het-Wan.
Soon, ey thought. Soon.
Linked to the Evo, the wormfeed surged.
Wormholes, it turned out, were useless for interstellar travel. Creating them took energy that increased exponentially with size. Anything over 10cm was impossible for a single ship to maintain. The largest recorded wormhole was almost 75cm across, and had lasted a fraction of a second before detonating. Beyond that, internal gravitic stresses reduced anything that did travel through one into little more than molten slag.
This did not mean they were useless.
The industrial-grade wormfeed that Art had purchased had one end in the Praxis Gentry, and one at a corporate facility in Alpha Centauri. High-grade metals were dumped into the 10cm wormhole there, and emerged from the end inside the Praxis several thousand degrees hotter. Usually, the ‘feed was set to a more basic channel that fed enough ions to run the ship without having to resort to the back-up reactor, sourced from a friendly little solar-power startup in Sol.
Now though, the molten metal flowed at high speed into the Evolution Engine’s manufactory. Cooled and processed, the raw material was spun into new forms designed by the Evo, even as it redesigned the manufactory to be more efficient. Its algorithms shaved nanoseconds off production each iteration, churning out more drones in waves of ever-increasing complexity and volume.
Diverted parts of the wormfeed were directed to the UCPs, where smaller dedicated manufactories turned it into ammunition. The railgun rounds were simple enough to make, and the turrets began to fire continuously, vomiting clouds of metal spikes at atrocious velocity into the oncoming path of the Do-Rul. The more complex missiles took longer, their specialist molecules needing to be requested through the ‘feed, then filtered and sent directly to them. Still, they too began hurling waves of high-explosives at the enemy.
Meanwhile on the bridge, Sal was beginning to shake. Her hand rested on the auto-injector bundle in her pocket. They were running at full speed away from the oncoming Do-Rul, but they were losing ground. Space. Whatever. FTL jumps weren’t fast or easy, and required the ship to be at as close to a complete stop relative to the target destination as possible. If they slowed, they’d be ash. Their only hope was to gain enough distance on their pursuer that they could decelerate and jump, or...
“Art! How much longer on the ‘feed?” she yelled.
“We’ve got- oh. Huh.”
Art’s little noise of confusion was so out of place in their situation that it grabbed Sal’s attention completely.
“Art?” she asked sharply.
“Switching to higher-band wormfeed. Estimated time until funds depletion, indefinite,” he answered, looking over to her.
“What? You said ten minutes before?”
“Yes Captain, I did. I can explain it once we’re out of here.”
“Art,” Sal said very calmly, “we might not be getting out of here, and I’ve got nothing else to do while waiting for alien death beams. What’s going on?”
“OK. We’re out here looking for divergent Evo’s, because each Evo starts out the same and begins evolving as soon as it’s turned on. But they follow mostly-predictable paths of advancement. As an Evo increases in complexity, it increases its cryptocurrency value,” said Art quickly.
“Got that part,” said Sal. “Ours pays the bar tab every month. And we’re looking for a divergent cos it might have some mutation never seen before, something worth a lot.”
“Yes. Because unlike all the other Evo’s, it would have been running in isolation, developing its own paths. Encountering unique situations,” he said, not-quite trailing off meaningfully.
“...Oh wow. Aliens.” Sal’s eyes widened. “We’re earning money cos we’re fighting aliens?!?”
“No Evo has ever had to deal with this situation,” said Art, his hands waving. “More than that, the alien technology is so different from our own that our Evo is advancing at a rate I’ve never even heard of. When we bought it, it was a C-1. Five years later, it was a C-6. At the standard rate of advancement, it would have hit B-1 in another 12 or so years. Currently however, it’s sitting at B-9.”
Sal thought. And thought some more. “That’s high corporate levels. Hell, that’s nearly reaching breakthrough into military levels. How the hell much is it worth?”
Art studied his screen for a moment. “As of right now, we’re paying for the highest-grade industrial feed I can find. It’s costing us almost $10,000 every second. And we’re still running a net profit. It’s hard to predict the trend, but if we survive this, we’ll have enough money to retire. To our own private asteroids.”
Sal stared at him for a long second.
“Fuck dying then,” she said. With a quick and smooth movement, she jammed the cobbled-together autoinjector into her leg. And then threw up.
In front of Art’s horrified eyes, she vomited a truly epic stream of noxious bile.
“Sal!” he said, torn between moving to help her and leaning away.
“I’m ok Art,” she gasped, pausing to hack and spit as she waved him off. “Just detox meds. Um. All of them. Gods I am going to regret thisss…” she trailed off, eyes going vacant.
“Captain?” Art said, covering his mouth at the smell.
Sal was vibrating. Her hands clenched into the armrests of her chair hard enough to crack the plastic shell. Her eyes focussed suddenly, snapping to pinpricks and darting in a blurring motion. Her hands unclenched, and a command screen sprang into existence before her. Quickly and precisely, commands were entered into the ship’s computer.
Art glanced at his screen. “Ah, Captain? You’re diverting a lot of our ‘feed.”
“Short term,” said Sal, her voice clipped and fast. “Swarm isn’t working. Evo might overcome them given time but they’ll catch us before then. New tactic.”
A design seed flickered onscreen for a moment, then was accepted by the Evo. Sal’s requirements would be run through the now-advanced Engine, and evolved into a functional form.
Sal wasn’t waiting idly. New commands were being queued, and after a few seconds, she opened a comms window to Engineering.
“Carlie. No questions. Just do. Detach our FTL communicator and feed it to the Evo.”
“NO QUESTIONS. GO!” snarled Sal.
The window closed, and Sal returned to whatever she was fine-tuning.
“Their attack slows, Do-Mar.”
Mar relaxed slightly, a small tension easing from eir spine. So they couldn’t maintain their build rate indefinitely. Ey’d almost begun to wonder. Still, the swarm approaching them was impressive. Not a threat, more a nuisance, but an issue to be dealt with regardless. They still were gaining on the smaller vessel, and once they were in range, they’d be easily dealt with.
On the screen, the torrent of drones emerging from the open bay doors of the enemy ship stopped. For a second, Mar felt a thrill of victory. Then a single new drone emerged, and the torrent resumed. Grinding eir plates in frustration, Mar studied the new drone. It was bigger than the others, and yet easily kept pace with the them. Something about its design was different, ey thought, as the new drone vanished from sight amongst the rest of the swarm.
“Het-Dam, go and adjust the maw. I want to be able to capture that ship when we get within range,” ey ordered. The maw would not be gentle. Its massive EM fields would almost certainly kill everything onboard the alien vessel, and cripple any systems permanently. Mar did not care. Ey wanted no more surprises. Ey would already have used it if its range was not so pathetically limited.
Het-Dam rose, and again left with eir head bowed low.
“Art, what’s she doing?” asked Carlie through a private channel.
“I don’t know,” he answered, glancing over his shoulder at Sal. “She stabbed herself with a bundle of autoinjectors, and she’s been weird since. You heard her. Now she’s adjusting a custom VR suite.”
“What? Art, she asked me to feed our FTL communicator into the Evo. There’s only one thing in there that the Evo can’t make. And a VR suite?”
Art thought for a second. FTL comms worked because of the pin-prick wormhole in their core. Micron-sized, it worked to transmit information and nothing else. They were expensive, like any wormhole tech, and they only had the one. But they were impervious to jamming, and had zero delay even over interstellar distances. Pair one with a VR suite, and you could pilot a custom-made fighter drone with secure real-time control from the comfort of your own chair.
It was the stupidest plan he’d ever heard.
“Carlie, she’s flying a drone? That’s…”
“I know Art. I knew as soon as she asked for the FTL comm. I don’t know what she’s thinking.”
Evo drones functioned under a bewildering array of modes. Networked, node-slaved, fully automated, whatever it was the Evo had determined was an optimum strategy. They reconfigured attacks on the fly, adjusted flight paths and weapon runs in nanoseconds. No human pilot could match their efficiency. To think one could was sheer arrogance taken to delusional levels.
But...the captain was an interesting person, thought Art. A wreck of an individual, she was drunk or high almost all the time, yet never seemed to suffer for it. He’d once seen her so drunk she could barely stand, and she’d still mopped the floor with a guy who’d gotten handsy. And his friend. She stumbled through life like she wasn’t even watching where she was going, but he’d never seen her fall.
And she was sober now. He didn’t know why that worried him so much.
On his screen, he queued up a view from her drone. The Do-Rul ship was visible, and growing fast.
“Art, quick favour,” snapped the captain. Before he could turn around, something hit him on the back of the head.
He bent down and picked up a paper airplane.
“Need some things. Get whatever you can. Quietly,” said Sal.
Frowning, Art, unfolded the plane and read the sharp handwriting. He paled.
“SAL! This shit’s...not even illegal, I think they just shoot you and burn the body,” he gasped.
“Yes. Get. Quietly. No traces. Now,” said Sal as though speaking to a particularly slow child.
“Art. Do or we die.”
Frown etched on his forehead, he opened up an encrypted channel.
“Do-Mar, maw adjustments complete, although I will have to remain here to ensure successful capture,” said Het-Dam’s voice through the ship’s comms.
To be expected, thought Mar. Maws were finicky at best. Ey clacked a non-verbal acknowledgment, and closed the channel.
That strange drone had been seen a few times since its launch, but it remained concealed by the rest of its brethren for the most part. Ey had ordered Het-Mar to target it preferentially, but it seemed to have preternatural luck.
“Het-Wan, how long until we are within deployment range for the maw?” Mar said.
“Approximately one minute, Do-Mar, though I cannot be exact. The swarm is buying them time, and is quite unpredictable,” replied Het-Wan.
“Do they yet threaten us?” ey snapped.
“No, Do-Mar. I do not believe they will be able to do anything more than slow us.”
Mar’s blood thrummed through em, and eir body began to heat up. The bridge was growing warm as the four Do-Rul reacted to the anticipation of the hunt’s conclusion. They would all have to feed after this, a victory feast to replenish the energy lost in the hunt.
“Sal, I got you the...the third item on the list. The others are just too expensive or crazy to get on any kind of short notice, no matter how much money you can throw around,” said Art.
“Third? Not ideal. But good work. Queue its feed to the drone, and give me activation control,” said Sal quickly.
Art did so, hands shaking only slightly.
“Sal, I’m pretty sure this is a war crime,” he said quietly.
“Survival, Art. And no war declared yet. Just a clash, and desperation.” Sal’s hands darted, and a ship-wide comm clicked on. “All hands, get to crash couches. Prepare for acceleration.”
Acceleration shifts were a fact of life on most ships. Artificial gravity nullified most fluctuations, but peaks occasionally got through. “Space-legs” was the term used to describe a person’s ability to handle random fluxes. Being told to prepare for acceleration meant the anti-grav wasn’t going to be able to compensate for what was coming.
Art activated his chair’s grav-restraints, and hoped Carlie was close to hers. Dave would be fine.
He risked a glance at Sal, and saw that she had focussed in, eyes darting as they took in every scrap of information about the alien ship, even as more scans and images poured in from the swarm, and her own remote drone. Her intensity was manic, her whole person bent to this and this alone now.
He turned his head back, swallowed and tried to prepare for the unknown.
“We approach, Do-Mar! Maw capture range in 15 seconds!” Het-Wan all but howled.
Every Do-Rul on the bridge was shaking, their jaws clacking as the hunt came to its climax.
Meanwhile, Sal saw her moment.
The drone darted forwards, the swarm surging with it, barrelling through the protective fire of the Do-Rul ship. Drones fell one after the other, the defensive ability of the swarm vanishing to provide Sal with this one strike.
The last shielding drones fell away, and she was launching at full speed towards the alien ship, her course precise, her aim uncanny. Eyes staying locked on target, she moved with unlikely reflexes, dodging and evading fire until the hull of the alien vessel was so close she felt she could have touched it.
With a dull smack, her drone impacted the Do-Rul shield, and vaporised.
On the bridge of the Do-Rul ship, there was a strange flash, like a thin line of light drawn in the air for a second, and then a faint, acrid smell.
Mar felt a wave of nausea and fatigue sweep eir body, and eir muscles twitched and spasmed. At the same moment, alarms roared, emergency lighting activated, and the ship lurched.
Ey could see Het-Mar and Het-Lur slump into near-unconsciousness, and Het-Wan leapt from eir station, stumbling briefly before grasping onto a console.
“What-” began Mar, stopping as a strange metallic taste filled eir mouth.
“Do-Mar!” came a call from the comms. “Do you live?!”
Ey struggled through an odd fog to remember where the voice was coming from. After a moment, ey replied. “Het-Dam...we live, but…”
“The ship, it is not pleased. Something has disrupted its systems, although only briefly. It has locked the bridge under emergency protocols, but I am receiving readings that cannot be right,” came the severely controlled panic of Het-Dam.
Weakly, Mar queried the ship. And then with a new nausea, rechecked the data, five times.
As the others on the bridge began to stir, ey once again spoke to Het-Dam, slowly.
“Het-Dam, by the law that binds us, I am abdicating from leadership. I cede my position to you, and ask a conditional act, as is my right,” said Mar.
There was a hesitation, but soon enough there came a reply. “I accept, Sul-Mar. What do you request?”
The others on the bridge were staring groggily at em. Succession was rare, the prefix itself unfamiliar, given to those briefly equal. Do-Rul owed no loyalty to each other, and the only times a higher-rank would offer it was in exchange for a boon that ey could not perform emself before…
“Sul-Dam, I ask that you take us home,” said Mar.
Another silence. “It shall be done. My crew will lay on the soil of home before their end. The enemy, how do they fare?”
Het-Wan was still before twitching in realisation and turning to eir screens.
“They have increased their engine power somehow, and are making a course change to the debris ring,” ey said weakly.
“A brief high-power burn most likely,” coughed Mar, “to buy them more time to hide. Time we no longer have.”
“It is so, Sul-Mar. I am instituting a quarantine, and restricting you all to the bridge. Please re-route controls to Engineering, and I will take us home.”
Several minutes later, the ship disengaged from the chase. On the bridge, Mar shook.
Art’s teeth rattled as the burn began to taper off. Tapping a ‘feed meant for a much larger ship and pumping it through your engines was a great way to explode, but for short-term bursts of acceleration, nothing beat it.
His fingers, no longer several times heavier than they should have been, tapped out a few queries.
“Huh. Aliens are pulling away. Whatever you did Sal, they didn’t like it. They look to be heading for the system edge, on an exit trajectory. As long as it isn’t a trick, we should be good to go ourselves soon.”
“Hide in the debris field until they’re gone anyway,” said Sal rapidly.
Art disengaged his restraints and stood up, walking over to her.
“Captain, are you ok?” he asked. She was visibly sweating and shaking, her eyes darting from him to her screens too fast to be good.
“Oh, yeah. Well, no. Hey, you gonna be ok for a bit if I take a nap?” she blurted.
“Uh, we seem to be out of the woods, sure, but-”
“Great! Medicine time!” she yelled, scrabbling at the compartment in her chair. To Art’s horror, she pulled out a medical-grade sedative and slammed it into her neck.
“Ok, now, I might be a while, so get Dave to…” Sal trailed off slowly, slumping over as drugs usually used to put someone under for surgery kicked in.
Art stared in confusion, horror, and frustration at her snoring form.
He tabbed on the intercom and said, “We’re possibly in the clear, though we’ll be taking cover for a bit to be on the safe side. No further acceleration expected. And uh, Dave to the bridge.”
Praxis Gentry, Later
Sal woke to the harsh light of the medbay, a bright and sterile glow that lit the closet-sized booth.
“Blurgh,” she said.
The door slid open, and Dave was there.
“Bluh?” she asked.
Dave nodded, passed her a large bottle of something sugary, and closed the door.
Praising whichever gods she’d done a solid to meet that man, Sal chugged the entire thing, relishing the taste of some sort of bourbon he’d added. The sugar and water did their thing, and the booze did its, and she felt 10% more human.
The door slammed open again, and this time Art and Carlie crowded it, Dave a looming background figure.
“Sal! You’re okay!” said Carlie, leaning into the med booth and giving her a one-armed hug.
Sal coughed once. “Yeah, I’m alright. Wasn’t really in much danger except, you know. Aliens. How’s that going by the way?”
Carlie leaned back, and poked her sharply. “You’ve been out for over 24 hours. Not surprising, as that syringe was rated for someone 20 kilos heavier than you.”
“We’re clear, Sal,” said Art testily. “They didn’t turn back, jumped out-system an hour or so after you went down, and we followed suit an hour later. We’re in PRC right now, laying a bit low after someone got me to source polonium-210 with a side order of SUBCRITICAL PLUTONIUM!”
“It worked,” said Sal. “We’re alive. And where the hell’s PRC?”
Art sighed. “You know. That weird anything-goes Independent System that somehow got overrun with bespoke restaurants rather than organised crime and casinos.”
“Oh! Port Royale with Cheese! We should see if that BBQ joint that raises their own zero-G cows is still in business,” said Sal.
“Sal. Explanations. Now,” said Art. Carlie nodded in agreement, and behind them Dave gave a small nod of support to Sal.
“For what?” she said, vaguely wondering if she could vault past them without collapsing. Dave shook his head very slightly.
“What you did, and why you did it?” said Art.
Sal stared at them, and finally relaxed. “Look. Guys. This is...personal. No,” she said, interrupting Art’s opening mouth, “that’s not me saying butt out. You guys have been genuine friends and the best crew I could ask for. But it’s been a long time since I told anyone, so, just give me a second.”
She laid back, took a breath, and began.
“My parents were shite. Not the actively abusive type, more the ‘we have money but no souls and need our child to be the best regardless of her well-being’ type. Everything in their lives had to be better than anyone else's, and when it became apparent I wasn’t the reincarnation of Einstein, Bach, and Canmore, they got disappointed. So, like any concerned parents, they got me gene-mods.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said to the faint confusion on Art and Carlie’s faces. “Pretty standard, right? Except that’s exactly it. It’s standard to get your kids some health and cognition mods, clean out any inherited conditions, which means everyone else did it. Not good enough for my parents. I had to be better. Either of you heard of the DarkCitadel scandal? Stupid name for a stupid military R&D kerfuffle.”
Art shook his head, but Carlie nodded.
“Yeah, the military cognition mods that caused instability and mental breakdowns,” she said.
“Yup,” said Sal. “Given to highly-trained adults, they resulted in a massive increase in cognitive abilities, but not the brain’s ability to handle the strain. Burnouts, suicides, institutionalisation, whole shebang. Banned, but like anything expensive and banned, available to people with money and connections. Want to guess what my parents did?”
“Oh shit,” said Art.
“Yup. Lil’ ol’ me, age 14, thinking I’m getting another vaccination, and one month later I’m this close to a full breakdown. Which was of course my fault, as my parents could never make mistakes.”
“What happened?” asked Carlie.
“The mod amps up everything. They basically took a look at bipolar, ADHD, autism, and a whoooole bunch of other neuro-divergent states, and tried to mix the best and cut out the worst. Give someone hyper-focus, boosted memory, really just bend the whole brain to focus on a single task. Even threw in some stuff from the type of people who are genuinely creative and definitely mad. I started drinking just to function. Oh, and it was a knock-off mod, so it didn’t even have a targeting site for reversal.”
“As to what happened next,” Sal continued, “well, my parents tried to hide their shame, but unfortunately had just turned their compliant little daughter into an aggressive genius. By the end of the year, I had myself emancipated, and sued them for everything they had. I won, took myself to pilot’s school, dumped the money into the Praxis Gentry, and never went back to Earth.”
Art and Carlie looked at each other, then both reached forwards and hugged her.
“Hey, no, off! I’ve had my hug-quota for the day. And seriously, it’s shitty but it’s old news. I got out, got my ship, got my crew. Never been happier,” she said, flailing ineffectually at the backs of Art and Carlie.
They pulled back, and Art said “So that’s why you’re always, um…”
“Blasted off your tits,” said Carlie.
“Yeah. You saw me. Reality crashing into my head at 1,000%. I can remain functional for short bursts, but half the time I don’t even understand what I’m doing. Thinky brain can’t keep up with the rest,” said Sal. “So to answer your question Art, you and Carlie probably know more about what happened than me, except that I can probably guarantee it was the most efficient option, even if not the most morally correct.”
Carlie sighed. “What happened is, you detonated a drone containing our FTL wormhole on their shields, but used the impact to briefly swell the ‘hole. It popped a microsecond later, but by that time had burrowed through their hull.”
“And you timed it to drop one gram of superheated polonium and plutonium just before it did. I don’t know what you hit, but wherever it was it got enough radiation to kill a colony,” said Art. “I’m just glad I couldn’t find you the anti-matter.”
“Yeah, that shit’s expensive. And I think I aimed at their bridge? Like, that was why I needed the VR suite. I had to see the ship to figure out where to aim. Though don’t ask me how I knew,” said Sal.
“So, one war-crime, a few Core agencies asking pointed questions about polonium, aliens, and a payday big enough to retire on,” said Art.
“Not a bad trip, really,” said Sal. “We’re still here.”
“Thank you, Sal,” said Carlie.
“What for?” asked Sal.
“For saving us. And for being you.”
“Hey, don’t thank me until after you’ve heard my next idea,” said Sal, grinning.
Art’s eyes narrowed. “Sal…” he said.
“I just think, those Do-Rul are going to be back. And we made so much money when we had our pants down and they held all the cards,” said Sal, grinning widely. “How much do you think we can make if we’re the ones ready to rumble when the fighting starts?”