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Author Topic: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection  (Read 255 times)


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Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« on: May 21, 2023, 09:00:55 PM »

Hello Space Friends,

As I have played Starsector, lo these many years, I often find myself ruminating on bits of story as I am plodding my way across the sector (usually laden with too many metals that I'm trying to sell). I've decided to start writing these ruminations up as short stories. Some of them are based on the lovely planet descriptions that really get the mind turning (why does that planet have a giant orbital warning beacon, what's the deal with the phase lifeforms on that gas giant, etc.) others just on the world-building in the setting.

I've tried to stay as true to the established bits of lore as I can, but obviously this is just my headspace for the setting as it is currently drafted. We may get a definitive lore answer to who the mercenaries that invaded Kanni were, and it might make my personal head-cannon factualy wrong. But I think of these more of stories you'd hear an old spacer at the bar tell than an in-setting non-fiction biography.

Hope y'all have as good of a time reading as I had writing.

First one I'd like to share is a story called "Sindrian Dreams" set before the collapse at an indeterminate date.
Content warnings: themes of crowd panic, claustrophobia

"Remember my children why we toil so in the heat of the star's warm embrace. For the Creator hath cast us forth from the Garden so that we may work the land. And he has placed at the gate a guardian with a flaming sword to protect the way to the tree of life" Recorded Holo Sermon 17, The Love of the Creator - Church of Galactic Redemption, first broadcast c23.04.25

Sindrian Dreams
"Remember my children why we toil so in the heat of the star's warm embrace. For the Creator hath cast us forth from the Garden so that we may work the land. And he has placed at the gate a guardian with a flaming sword to protect the way to the tree of life" Recorded Holo Sermon 17, The Love of the Creator - Church of Galactic Redemption, first broadcast c23.04.25

Sindrian Dreams
A small holo tag hung neatly on the bulkhead door: Domain Chief of Colonial Affairs Mining Division - Melissa Marsh. Underneath the holo tag was a small box for depositing Ident-Files for potential candidates to join an expedition to the Persean Sector. Melissa had been eyeing a system with a red giant for some time. It had taken a series of bribes and small army of lawyers to drown the other Chiefs in paperwork so severe that all other fuel mining prospects were at least 5 cycles out. The Domain needed a forward fueling base and the new sector showed a lot of promise.

Gate haulers had just deployed in several key systems and low-level murmurs from the survey corps seemed to show that this sector had more potential terraformable plants per star than 3 times the galactic average. Whoever staked their claim early with key resource generating operations would end up controlling the whole sector. It was a land grab and Melissa had the first pick.

"Red giants are unstable, the ones around Medara throw so much from their coronas that we have a hard time keeping relays operational," said Melissa's chief of staff Amanda Taylor. "What makes you think this one will be any different?"

"We've got good readings from the first planet. Intense magnetic field. Mostly metallic ores. Geologically stable. It's basically a bunker for a planet," said Melissa.

"Didn't the scans show a water planet too?" asked Amanda.

"No that was a moon, and it's too far away from the primary. Sure you can grow modified kelp there, but what good is food if you can't get it off planet?" said Melissa. "We need an antimatter and fuel pellet production facility somewhere on the other side of the gates, and this place practically makes it for us!"

"Ok, do we have all the support from the Explorarium?" asked Amanda as she jotted several careful notes on a holo screen pad.

"No. But we don't need it. I've got authorization from both Fabrique Orbitale and Eridani-Utopia to begin exploitation of the system. They both seem to have their sights on other bodies in-system. That water moon? Eridani's got some genetically modified crab they want to try out on a new planet without people to interfere," said Melissa making little crab-claws with her hands and pinching at Amanda's holo pad.

"Without the Explorarium drones how are you going to set up the infrastructure?" asked Amanda tapping the back of Melissa's hands with her stylus.

"I've got a good lead on some researchers at Tri-Tachyon developing superior working drones. The Explorarium's monopoly on early system development is about to be broken wide open!" said Melissa. With that she pressed a call button on her desk. "Jacob, can you get Mr. Adeyemi to give me a quote for shipping, oh, colony supplies and equipment for 10,000 people."

The call button stayed red for a moment while Melissa frowned. Finally Jacob replied, "I'm sorry ma'am, Mr. Adeyemi is no longer with our company. I'd be happy to get one of our'"

"That's all right Jacob," Melissa said as she terminated the call. "***."

"I can see if Mr. Adeyemi is employed with one of our other contractors," said Amanda trying to mollify her boss's sudden disappointment.

"No." Melissa paused. "I was afraid of this after we got the news about the uprisings in the Gallean sector. The admiralty will have tied up every legal transport company getting supplies to their fleets for the next 3 cycles at this rate. And anyone running anything other than a tight smuggling operation will have their assets seized going in and out of the whole damn sector."

Melissa slumped low in her chair and looked out the holo window overlooking a domed city on a distant world. She pointed her finger at a smudge off in the projected distance. "That's an ore mine. You can tell by the height of the trailings pile. They only take the good stuff. Leave the rest of the regolith for someone else to sift through. I oversee 6,000 of these mines across 2,700 different star systems. Do you know how many units of ore it takes to make one Domain Battleship?" Asked Melissa, not looking away from the smudge.

"No, ma'am," said Amanda curling the corner of her holo pad.

"No one does. You can do the math based on the mass of the hull, but that's only half the story. There's machinery to make the parts for the machines that make the parts for the ship and each one of those needs ore and supplies to keep running. And food to feed the workers, and more machines to make the food," said Melissa. "We mine the ore because there's a demand. That's all." Melissa stood up. "I'm going to buy a ship, a really big ship."

"Do you have sin in your life? Absolved! Do you feel the weight of the Molochian pact on your soul? Achieve enlightenment! Do you have an ever-present fear of the unknown? Find meaning! Join the Church of Galactic Redemption today! Visit ChurchofGalacticRedemption.ludd" - Subversive Media Containment Unit, Example 3C - Hegemony COMSEC encryption level QUARTZ

The first few moments out of hyper sleep are the truest test of resolve any one person can face. To use muscles that have not be activated in years and to breathe air in lungs that have been filled with nearly frozen liquid will test even the strongest person to their limits. Mark Patel was a fit man in the years before his service, a heavy suit operator he was used to being confined in equally uncomfortable environments. This kicked his ass.

Hyper sleep architects say they put grated flooring and fresh water supplies near the pods to aid in recovery efforts, really it's to wash the vomit away. Mark made liberal use of this design space and was indeed grateful of some ship designer who was probably dead and happy. After a few moments Mark helped several of his bunk mates to the water and help them wash themselves.

By most counts there were expected to be losses in the transit. Small percentages compounded over dozens if not hundreds of cycles. Looking around Mark saw a sea of red indicators on pods, failures in machine or man. Until he found a terminal he couldn't be sure of the exact count but so far out of the 200 in his pod section only 35 people had emerged. It wasn't great odds and he hoped other sections had faired better.

Mark and a tech whose name Mark heard but couldn't understand made their way to the central hub. The hyper sleep ships were arranged so that each section opened to an access pathway that would have the medical facilities and supplies necessary to prepare the colonists before they all gathered in the spine of the ship. The spine had an automated arcology and the equipment necessary to start a colony on the world preselected by the Explorarium for seeding and terraforming.

Fortunately the medical facilities did not suffer the same casualty as the sleep pods and Mark received a number of inoculations and supplements that made him feel nearly his old self again. The tech, whose name was Melissa, wasn't a tech she was a goddam Domain Chief for the expedition. She was a little slower on the meds than he was, but he asked her pointedly what happened to all the pods. She looked back at him confused and he pointed to the sea of red pods behind them. She shook her head, and said anything from sabotage to random cosmic rays. Mark felt wholly dissatisfied by this and accosted a nearby medical terminal.  Without administrator privileges he could only look at the history of his pod.

Nothing stood out to him, which might be why he was reading it. Melissa pushed him firmly to the side and began tapping furiously across multiple status screens. Her form eased into weariness. The pods weren't dead, at least not all of them. Most seemed to be a default state that would require advanced medical facilities to resuscitate the individuals trapped inside. Nothing too terribly wrong, just a safety precaution to allow those with marginal problems to survive. It looked like they would have about 3,000 out of the 10,000 the ship had launched with ready to go to planetfall.

Mark felt like he could do the work of 3 other people, but that didn't mean he wanted to do that work. He walked back to the pod rows and found the one containing his partner. He had met them in weeks of preparation leading up to the big sleep. Lots of practice drills, emergency prep, and systems overview. Neither of them were entirely sure where the ship was heading off to but it was certainly better than the mines in the newly designated Domain Development Volume. The DDV encompassed 15 sectors that were already heavily populated and were suffering overcrowding issues. Feeding trillions of people is a lot easier when you put 15% of them to sleep for 30 cycles.

Mark and his partner had been drafted to serve, lucky winners of an all expense paid trip to the middle of nowhere to probably die. They had found each other in the chaos of the draft and spent their time reflecting on the path they were on. No amount of Domain authority could take that from them. Mark said a quick goodbye before heading back through the medical bay.

"The Creator hath not given us the spirit of lust, but of restraint and gentleness. It is within us to recognize the evil ways we hath been tempted away from his guidance. For those that seek him know not of anguish and pain, but duty and promise. Fear not for the light of the Creator shines from the heart of each man." - The Book of Ludd, Fires 3:4-7

Melissa felt lost without Amanda. Her chief of staff was locked away for some unknown reason that the computer refused to tell her until a proper medical facility had been established. She had made planetfall 6 orbits prior and so far had no luck in convincing the system that everything was fine and it could wake everyone up now. Mostly because that was very much a lie.

The star was even more unstable than either the Explorarium or the other corporations had imagined. Vast quantities of the star were constantly being blasted into space by folding magnetic fields. Askonia was a temperamental lady and Melissa often felt like an old Earth cult leader willing to make a sacrifice to the volcano if it prevented an eruption in the next cycle. Fortunately she had been right about one thing. Sindria was indeed a bunker of a planet. She had set to work immediately building a vast underground network, but had only managed to partially excavate an already open ancient lava tube.

The crust of Sindria was so laden with metallic ores that the standard drilling rigs simply could not maintain a reasonable rate. It was a boon for anyone that wanted to make sure they would never be invaded, but it was hellish to establish a foothold. The magnetic field of the planet was also incredibly strong. Auroras danced across every latitude and even the low grade antimatter distillers were pulling in high yields. If they could establish a base of operations and bring down the big processors they could make enough fuel to power 3 whole battlegroups, and their support ships.

The team leader Mark had been a huge help, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. He made the power suits look like overcoats. His unsettling demeanor brought him down slightly in Melissa's regard. He could operate a machine about as well as anyone she had ever seen, but he also had a distinct way of dealing with people the Melissa found off-putting. He was too personable and talked with them too much. A small cult seemed to follow him around and they would participate in regular nonsecular activities. Domain policy was cloudy at best in this area, she couldn't chastise him for practicing any religion, but he was encouraging the workers to band together and request shorter mining hours and reduced time on the surface.

All things that would slow down the progress that needed to be made. Her machinations had worked fine while she was still in the DDV, but out here it was impossible to influence the powers controlling the Domain. It was only a matter of time until someone else filled her shoes and the supply ships would be routed to another promising planet conveniently not under her charter. Rumors had already started percolating through the supply shipments that the Domain's admiralty board was changing its fleet doctrine. Whether the gun-jocks wanted bigger ships or smaller didn't really affect Melissa's end goals, but it did mean it would change a lot of the manufacturing base and which corps had money to throw around.

Eridani had always been a safe bet. There were always going to be worlds that needed their terraforming technologies and colony development gizmos, but they had yet to show themselves in the Askonia system. A troubling development that would make anchoring this system as the premier Persean sector colony difficult. A couple development proposals had come through to expand their operation to the other planets in-system. She had vetoed them all. Living conditions didn't mean anything if there was no reason to live here. Askonia needed the fuel production systems up and running before the next cycle or they would need to abandon the colony.

Bribes were the primary way to incentivize traders and the fuel would be a bartering chip. Every trader needed fuel to make the long traverse from the DDV to the outer sectors. Subsidizing the route to her system would give her first look at any tech coming through the routes. Things like water distillation equipment, power excavators, fullerene spools, and the odd bottle of high-test alcohol only came from the Domain's production centers. If she could get her hands on some production chips the fabricators they brought with them would be even more valuable than the fuel. Right now they were little more than centrifugal ballast on the sleeper ship still in orbit. The contract she hired to supply the ship had failed to mention that the production licenses she purchased would expire before they reached their destination.

Amanda would probably have been able to con a company into unlocking the chips, but she was ballast now too. Melissa curled into a ball on her bunk which somehow felt harder than the rock her room was carved from. All the fears of the colony sped through her brain seemingly at once followed by the shakes. She never had anything like this when she lived on a central planet. The sensation would travel over her whole body-a thousand needles poking at her skin and then an uncontrollable tremor. At first she had thought it was a symptom of the hyper sleep, but the medics had found no signs. The massive magnetic fields could do weird things to human bodies, but no-one else seemed to suffer in the same way she was.

The door chime sounded and she gathered herself before inviting the visitor in. It was one of her senior techs, Kesel. He wrung his hands nervously as he entered the room.

"Ma'am. We just got the solar forecast for the next orbit," Kesel said his hands turning pale from the pressure.

"Bad?" asked Melissa.

"Very bad ma'am. Everything about this star is faster than we had predicted. The survey drones weren't here long enough to really get a good picture of the'" he said but Melissa interjected.

"Enough about the past mistakes. What's the problem?" She asked with ice running through her veins.

"There will be massive solar flares that will completely envelop the planet. We're going to be practically inside the star for about 80 hours starting in a little over three shifts from now. If we had better satellites'" he said trailing off as Melissa looked past him.

"We'll need to move the sleeper ship," she said even colder than before. "Put out an advisory, all surface work is postponed until the solar weather improves. Actually," she paused "No one is allowed outside the main tunnels. Double the mining shifts," she said grabbing a holo pad from her desk. "I want all the habitation wings complete by the next orbit."

"Ma'am," Kesel said in affirmation. He turned slowly towards the door and left almost silently. Only the scuffing of his soles were audible as the pressure door closed behind him.

Melissa scrolled through the work shifts on her holo pad and tapped a handful of worker profiles adding them to the mining teams. She then prepared a voice message to the shift supervisor on duty. "Fisher, this is Marsh. I'm going to be updating the work schedules over the next few hours. I'd appreciate you and the other supervisors working to keep everyone productive as we go through a difficult time. We need the habitation areas finished so we can start work on the refineries by the start of the next orbit." She closed the recording and checked the file was good before hitting send.

She had never been so tired.

"They that have faith in the Creator shalt banish debauchery and fear; they shalt be protected from the serpents." - The Book of Ludd, Fires 1:17

The power suit demanded careful attention. It was not, as some miners put it, the easy work. The suit only added its strength to already exerting muscles, a worker got just as tired lifting multi-ton slabs of rock as they would lifting smaller loads by themselves. It just looked a whole lot more impressive. The double shifts were brutal in the close confines of the drilling heads. The shafts were not made with power suits in mind so Mark had to remain either perpetually crouched or slightly hunched.

His crew had finished boring out the main passage for a surface launch system. It struck him as odd why they were focusing on preparing things to launch materials into orbit when they needed so much more brought down. It had been 16 standard shifts since the surface lockdown had been implemented and Mark had worked all but 4 of them, most miners had. They were creating the spaces needed for large-scale industry when they were all hot-bunking in the same dormitories that had been constructed the first week after planetfall.

The caverns had been excavated to house everyone, or more specifically the everyone that was awake. Two-thirds of his friends and compatriots were still floating in their pods somewhere unreachably far above his head. His thoughts often turned to his partner as he pressed through the endless work. They would have no concept for how truly horrifying it was to wake up alone. Mark was determined to ensure that whatever they built down here it would lead to their awakening.

The first indication something was amiss came from the shifting of the tunnel around him. Nothing on this planet moved after it was cored, but this tunnel was rotating. The stabilizer gyros' whining confirmed his suspicions. He yelled back up the shaft, "This tunnel is unstable! Everyone out!" No sooner had he yelled when his voice was drowned out by the sound of rock giving way. The passageway he was looking at vanished as a sheer rock wall took its place. No dust or debris, just a solid expanse of rock where there had once not been.

The rescue efforts lasted for all of an hour before it was very clear there would be no survivors. A detailed seismic survey showed that a previously undiscovered fault line had yielded and the entire suspended slab came down as one unit. The 14 miners likely never felt the blow.

Mark charged up to the supervisors' office and slammed the door open. "We're digging too fast without taking the time to do proper safety inspections!"

"Patel, we wouldn't have seen that fault if we had spent 10 shifts analyzing it!" said Fisher.

"***! We've got enough problems already with the labor shortages, we can't afford to loose any more people!" said Mark moving further into the room and standing within arms' reach of Fisher.

"I've got nothing I can do. I don't make the work schedule. We all knew it was going to be dangerous work'" Mark's hand grabbed Fisher's dusty overcoat cutting him off.

"You know none of us had any choice about coming here." He let go of Fisher and backed towards the door. "We didn't want this." He gestured openly to the ceiling. "Any of this." Pointing a finger at Fisher, "No more digging until we all have a place to sleep. You can make that call. We don't need a launch system right now, we need *** beds." Mark stepped out of the office and hurled the door closed so hard it nearly flew off the rails. A vision of his partner flashed through his mind again. He wouldn't lift another rock until he was sure there was safety for them.

"Beware! The sins of the world tempt you at every turn. The demon Moloch is present in the hearts of men who would seek to bring about our destruction. I say we bring destruction to his kingdom and let him reap an empty field!" Intercepted Transmission from Luddic Path Cell Leader Augustus Poseidon, 3 days before the Mayfield bombings, Hegemony COMSEC Encryption DIAMOND

Melissa pressed her palm to the security terminal as two marines in power armor flanked the doorway. The light changed to green and the marine to her right welcomed her aboard. As the airlock opened she was greeted by the warm face of Admiral Olympus Doud. "Melissa! Such a pleasure to see you again, I had hoped to bring my fleet by sooner. It's a wonder what you've built here on this rock!"

"Thank you, sir. It's been a tough couple of cycles, but we've finally got something fit for the Domain," she said, the color in her voice absent after cycles of temperance.

"I think this is one of the most productive fuel outposts in the last 80 cycles, and most certainly the fastest anyone has ever built one. You'll be a strong candidate for a regional governor. Not just this system, mind you, but I think they plan on giving you command of the whole sector. Imagine what can be accomplished on worlds far simpler to build upon than the gate to hell you started with," said Doud. He poured a dark amber liquid from a decanter into a set of glasses offering one to Melissa.

"Thank you, sir. I look forward to the opportunity to help bring glory to the Domain," she said as she lifted the glass to her lips and pretended to drink.

"Now about this unrest problem you have," he said through a large smile.

"Yes, sir. There's been trouble with some of the laborers. Starting when we first arrived here," she said swirling the contents of her glass.

"You handled the situation up until now, what seems to have changed?" he asked as the smile drifted from his face.

"Thank you, sir. I believe it is due to the decision by the Eridani-Utopia Terraforming Corporation to have the remaining pods awoken on Askonia II-B, Opis is the new designation as I recall. The laborers seem to believe that this will preclude them from visiting their friends and relatives still asleep," she said with practiced precision.

"Certainly any of them would be able to purchase passage to the new colony?" asked Doud, his face continuing to darken.

"No, sir. Eridani-Utopia has made it abundantly clear to both the colonists and to myself that the new colony will have to be quarantined for several cycles as they awaken the pods. There are' medical' complications with the pods," she said as a small tremor struck her left hand. She quickly placed it into her suit pocket.

Doud's friendly demeanor had completely faded. "Do you have any credible threats to security?" he asked.

"No, sir. At this point, I lack the resources to engage in a full scale inquiry to ascertain the probable agents of chaos and any methods they would employ. I suspect the fueling station is a likely target. It is the economic center of the sector at the moment. Furthermore, without an independent security detail it is guarded by potential agents of the dissenters. I would call upon the strength of your flotilla to enforce peace in this area as to a time that we may be able to provide for our own protection," she said knowing that Amanda would have prepared a better argument and provided options that allowed her to keep more autonomy without seeking direct military intervention.

Doud moved to the holo tank and pressed a call button, "Please have Mr. Nakamura prepare for an assignment." Addressing Melissa he said, "I will give you one of my best agents. He has rooted out numerous rebellions while in the employ of the Domain. I will also leave in your system two patrol craft, The Komodo and the Allison King. Both are fine ships with ample marine complements to assist you with any dirtier problems."

"Thank you, sir. I was wondering if you could also spare a fuel hauler. None of the recent traders have been willing to part with any and we desperately need a way to get our production out of system and to the other depots in the sector," Melissa said knowing fully this was well above the normal ask of an admiral, even one from a potential sector administrator.

"Yes. We can spare a smaller vessel," said Doud scrolling a list of ships on the holo tank. "The Larder Raven should serve you well. Her crew has been with her for several cycles now with a spotless service record. She does have a dirty drive which is not ideal for stealth ops but she'll make a perfect regional hauler." Doud pulled up all three ships on the holo tank for Melissa to peruse.

"Thank you, sir. These ships will be invaluable," said Melissa as she looked over each ship in turn.

"Was there anything else you needed? If not, I'd like to have you brief the commands of these ships on the situation in the system. There's some fiddly paperwork as well, but I have staff for that," said Doud as he pulled up comm streams for the ships. "Ms. Marsh, you have their ears."

The remainder of the meeting passed uneventfully. Melissa managed to sneak the contents of her glass into a recycling drain before departing. Nakamura would transfer to the planet at the end of the next duty shift and the three ships she had briefed were already breaking formation and moving into safe orbits around the planet.

Perhaps with enough military power she could force the Eridani corporate agents to give her the rest of her colonists. She didn't have direct authority to command the vessels, but she could dictate their orbits and designate who was allowed in and out of the system. A little show of force and austerity would go a long way to helping her get what she needed.

She eyed the drive trails of the Komodo as it paralleled her own course to the planet. The long filaments of spent fuel had a distinct reddish hue that matched the glow of the star. In all probability many of those heavy elements would wind up back in her fuel refinery. The Larder Raven wasn't visible out of the shuttle's window, but she turned the shuttle's hull cameras towards it. The drive tail was a rustier color that looked nearly brown. She made a note to have one of her techs take a look at it. Unlike the two combat ships, this one would enter a low planetary orbit and dock with the  automated fuel-storage station. A space elevator tied the lightweight platform to the refinery under the surface of the planet. It wasn't the most cost effective, but it was the best way until the mass drivers were constructed.

Melissa looked back to the control panel. A blinking light indicated she was receiving a priority hail from the colony. She tapped the accept button and her head of security's face appeared before her awkwardly framed.

The stern woman straightened the feed, "Ma'am. Bad news."

"Look not upon the works of humanity as divine, they are sinful creations made to deceive and corrupt. Covet not things wrought by human hands, they will not sate the thirst for meaning. Pursue not the pleasures of the flesh, they will perish as all must. Seek the truth of the Creator for in his light all things are made equal. Find in him the alms of the spirit." - Recorded Holo Sermon 18, The Creator and his wisdom - Church of Galactic Redemption, first broadcast c25.1.13

Mark had not wanted to attend the riots. The holo vids of the Domain fleet entering the system had caused a low rumble in the backrooms of the worker's homes. He knew the tensions were already running high, but he didn't want violence to spill into the corridors. The covert leaders of the independence movement had asked his opinion on a number of issues. He had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with insurrection.

The message had been passed along at the shift change. With so many people moving about it was nearly impossible to properly conduct surveillance. The first person to tell him that something big was going to happen at the next shift change was a gruff refinery man with a voice as jagged as the planet's surface. When Mark asked the man for more details, he shrugged and continued towards the tram station. The second was a lithe mechanic mostly covered in lubricating oil and emanating a fine odor of ozone. They had provided a little more detail; no weapons, peaceful protest, the administrators were going to be off-planet.

Whatever this was, Mark already had plans. He had been saving his extra wages and had made contact with an Eridani corporate agent. He could sign a new contract with the corporation after he bought out his old Domain one. That would put him first in line to help offload his partner on the newly designated paradise of Opis. Eridani was in the process of finishing the terraforming process, but the planet was already very habitable. Lush forests and a few small oceans, it was a boreal paradise similar to the colonies near Mark's home. A perfect place for them to live.

He finished his meal at the local bar and was making his way back to his apartment when there were several shouts and the crowd around him began to push. The sea of people moved down the hallway as instigators at the edges told them to keep going and this was it. No one around Mark knew what "it" was.

The corridor opened up to the high ceilings of the administration complex. It had been excavated higher than most other chambers to allow for the disassembly of the original drop ships that brought everyone to the planet. It gave the room a cathedral quality with polished metal facades reflecting the artificial light in dazzling bursts of color. There were few windows owing to the lack of them generally on space ships, but the few there were had a significant opulence about them. Mark could just barely see the original command capsule in their design.

The sea of people slowed their progress as more directors told them where to go. He saw several people with makeshift demolition charges passing them out to other workers. Secret commands were exchanged and he got the sense the majority of people there were not aware of a secondary plan. A chant was started at the far side of the chamber and it began to cary across the crowd as indistinct cacophony. Mark could see over the heads of most of the workers and by the looks of it almost every one of them was there in the hall. He immediately began to wonder if the air handling equipment could accommodate this many people in one section of the colony.

He turned towards the exit and saw several workers brandishing dark objects. Likely mining equipment, but their posture said they were to be used as offensive weapons against anyone looking the leave the chamber. Mark tried to force his way to the side of the crowd where he might be able to find an alcove or doorway to hide in. He had only managed to push by a few people when the first explosion went off. The first thing Mark noticed was the heat from the blasts.

Then he saw darks clouds boiling from the administrators' buildings. Bits of superheated metal flew into the crowd and he could see people recoil in pain. However everything was far too quiet now and as he felt the warm tickle at his cheek he knew his eardrums had ruptured. Fools had set off charges in a confined space. The mining explosives they used were designed to create shockwaves and fracture rock. They were not tuned for use against metal. The buildings showed small blemishes where the contact detonators had hit the buildings, but little more. Fools, all of them.

Then the push began. It started as someone's hand on Mark's back, but soon a whole body was pressing harder and harder against him. He could feel the cries and shouts but he could not understand them and in vain he cried out for people to stop. The world around him began to darken and he could feel the people around him begin to droop. That wasn't the push. The air was beginning to turn in the whole room. He had to get to an exit. Mark pushed himself between people as they began to slump and with intense discipline found an overhanging balcony. He hauled himself over the edge and collapsed gasping for air. There were no exits, just the overhang suspended above the roiling crowd below. A firm hand grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved something in his face.

Awareness flooded back into him as he breathed oxygen. Someone dressed in full riot gear pointed to his ears and Mark shook his head in a negative. The riot officer gave the signal for are you hurt? Mark replied with a quick no gesture. The officer gave the signal for bad air. Mark gave an affirmation and made a gesture for exit. The officer visibly straightened and gave a deliberate no, followed by a locked gesture. After pausing they signed explosion hazard and pointed at Mark. He must have looked confused because the officer pointed at the crowd and made the same gesture. Mark frantically signaled no repeatedly and wracked his brain for any signal that could explain his situation. He signed end of shift, no, end of shift, no, explosion hazard, end of shift. The officer relaxed and signed an affirmation then motioned for Mark to stay where he was.

The officer moved like they were making a call on a radio but Mark could hear nothing. Two more riot officers descended on filament wire and grabbed Mark by the shoulders. They slung a rescue harness around him and clipped him into an automatic ascender. He rose slowly from the platform towards a series of artificial lights. The air temperature rose dramatically as he neared the ceiling. Mark turned his head to look out over the crowd. The sea of people was no longer moving but around the edges hunted the riot officers, pulling individuals from the mass. A blast of cool air caught him off-guard and spun him on the wire.

Mark looked at the vent as it moved further away from him. They had turned the air back on, at least they weren't going to kill everyone in the room. The ascender slowed and another pair of gloved hands reached out and pulled Mark to the edge of an access hatch at the top of the chamber. He swung through and immediately a hand slapped something cold to the side of his head. The world exploded into sound. Sirens and klaxons blared and pointed shouts could be heard echoing from the chamber behind him.

"Can. You. Hear. Me," asked a synthetically augmented voice.

"Yes," replied Mark still in a bit of a haze.

"Good, that patch is designed for vacuum trauma but it seems to be working. Your ear drums are gone but your inner-ear is still intact," said the voice.

"Thank you," said Mark mumbling the words together. "Bad air."

"Yes, we cut the recyclers. You, and everyone else, should be fine after a few shifts," said the voice.

A sharp stabbing sensation hit Mark in the side of his leg. He immediately felt hyper aware and alert. "I'll take two of that, please," said Mark now much more alive than he had felt at any point in life prior.

"First, you need to tell me why you were down there," commanded the voice a little more stern than it had been prior. 

Mark relayed to the masked figure that he had been caught in the flow, that most people had been. There were some instigators, and, no, he could not identify them.

"Did you catch all of that ma'am?" asked the voice and for a moment Mark didn't realize there was a holo pad set up next to him.

"Yes, and I recognize this one," said another voice from the holo pad. "He may not be directly involved, but I want him detained. I have an agent on his way down now. He should be able to start interrogations at the start of next shift."

"Wait, I wasn't a part of'" another sharp poke, this time in his arm, and Mark fell unconscious. "'anything to'" Mark awoke suddenly and with a sharp realization that he was not in the place he had just been. A plain room made of dull metal surrounded him. A small holo tank sat on the floor directly in front of him and it began to whirr as its projector lamps warmed up.

"Welcome back," said a voice with a thick Domain accent as a looming figure appeared in the tank. "My name is Helios Nakamura and I just want to ask you a few' questions."

"I wasn't involved. I don't know anything about the riot, or the explosions."

"Operator First Class Patel. I believe you know' more' than even you realize," said the bright blue hologram. "Several conspirators that we have already questioned mentioned you, quite vehemently in some cases. And before you raise a fuss, no it was not in relation to this' particular' event."

Mark flexed his arms and felt the restraints for the first time. He set his jaw and looked back at the figure in blue.

"Operator. Do not worry. You are not' implicated' You are not going to be charged with sedition, attempted murder, or conspiracy to commit a crime. We simply want to know who it is you have been dealing with, who has approached you for your support, and if you feel as though any of them could have committed the heinous acts you' experienced' earlier." The man said somehow managing to pull off the impossible feat of looking Mark in the eye through a holo projection. The man opened his palm to Mark. "I will only ask once, Mr. Patel. After that I cannot help you."

Mark winced at a sudden pain in his legs. How long had he been in this room he wondered, as his nerves screamed at him for inactivity. A memory of waking up from the hyper sleep pods flashed through his mind, and Mark thought of his partner still floating in the atrophy-attenuating slop.

"Thank you for your time," said the man.

"Wait," said Mark. "I'll give you names. I didn't' don't know what they are planning' and I was contacted mostly through proxies' but the colony is only so big and' and' I'll give you names."

The blue hologram unsettlingly shifted and looked Mark in the eyes again, a low smirk beginning to form.

"And so the one-who-was Ludd, The Peacemaker, gave himself to protect one of the many wayward souls. In this we are meant to follow in the Path of Ludd and find in ourselves the power to sacrifice ourselves in service those who cannot. Remember, it is not the heart of humankind that is corrupt and evil; no soul is beyond redemption in the eyes of the Creator; no being cannot be freed from the shackles of the demonic pact that bore us from our home." - Inscription on a shrine dedicated to the 9th step on the Path of Ludd

"Ma'am, the inquisition has eradicated the cells responsible for the bombings," said Nakamura eyeing a particularly plump fruit on the Chief's desk.

"Good. Do you suspect any further action by other groups on the colony?" asked Melissa as she stared out the triangular viewport. The vast rock of Sindria stretch out below across a twilight terminus and the flicker of a solar flare caused the shadows to dance wildly across the surface.

"No, ma'am," said the agent reaching slowly for the fruit. "I doubt there is much extremist sentiment after a number of the' protestors' were caught in the blasts."

"I thought there were no deaths reported," asked Melissa turning away from the viewport as Nakamura shrank back into his chair.

"Yes, that is correct," said Nakamura. "However, there were many' injuries' among the populace."

"My staff informed me there was to be no effect on the productivity of the colony, aside from a few shifts to get everyone treated," said Melissa returning to her chair.

"I believe your staff have' misrepresented' the severity of many things. Historically and currently," said Nakamura worrying his hands together. In a hushed, eager tone he added, "There is much going on that your staff have obfuscated from you."

Melissa took a long breath and a swell of anger began to rise in the pit of her stomach. "Nakamura, you have been extremely helpful in sorting out this attempted uprising." She paused, weighing the significance of what she was about to ask the agent. "But I need you to root out any who are disloyal to Domain authority." "To my authority," she added.

Nakamura practically oozed excitement. "Of course ma'am, there will have to be many interrogations to find all of the forces working against you."

"Whatever it takes," she said and looked at the plate of fruit. She slid it across the table and the agent who would be in charge of cementing her power hummed with delight.

In the orbits that followed many supervisors and administrative personnel were brought up the space elevator to the impromptu offices Melissa had set up on the Larder Raven. Either of the two combat ships would have made for a more impressive seat of power but she couldn't exercise the same level of command on ships still under the flag of the 16th fleet. The Raven and her mostly civilian crew were easy to bend to her will, however. She had changed several decks of the ship to act as a diplomatic council chamber, command center, and her personal residence. It was not ideal but the symbology of the leading fuel producer's offices being themselves a fuel hauler had a certain appeal to her sensibilities.

Nakamura provided an update before the start of every shift. Despite some of his more unsavory aspects, he was impeccably prompt. In his reports he outlined the estimation of those who would hamper Melissa's absolute authority over the planet. Any nascent objections to her rule, and any who fed her falsehoods. The list was comprehensive and it made her wonder what else the agent could be used for. She called him back up to her office at the start of the following shift.

"You have done a great service to the Domain, Nakamura," she said as he entered the room.

"Thank you, ma'am. All in the name of the Domain," he scuttled noiselessly to the unoccupied chair.

"I have another task for you," she said as she pulled up a chart of the entire Askonia volume. She highlighted several moons around the second planet, Salus. "These moons are currently under contract with several corporations."

Nakamura stretched out a long finger and pulled one closer to him. "Yes. The charters offer a level of' autonomy' to the corporations," he said a frown forming over his taught face.

"Exactly. The Domain has certain rights it can exercise in these frontier systems," she said pulling the moon back to her. "But they cannot be invoked unless certain requirements are met for the protection of Domain assets."

"Ahhh, of course," said the agent cooing softly at the thought of covert action. "Given the recent' unrest' the system has experienced it would be unfortunate if it were to be discovered that the plot originated somewhere else in the system."

"Truly," said Melissa in a hushed tone. "I want to make sure that when the time comes to hand the system over to a proper Domain authority that there are no security issues to contend with." She spun the forested world in front of her. "Especially concerning the mishandling of Domain citizens in hyper sleep."

"That is a capital offense, ma'am. If someone were to be found guilty of such an act they would have to be' dealt with' accordingly," said Nakamura his frown intensifying.

"Precisely. I don't want that to happen to Ama'" she stopped herself. "The sleeper ship currently in this system," she said firmly.

"Of course, of course," said Nakamura folding his long fingers together. "I will set about to working on a' solution' immediately." Without so much as the rustle of clothes he rose and exited the room.

Melissa sighed. She did not like the idea of owing so much of her success to one agent. It left many opportunities for failure. She would have to set up alternate methods just in case this one did not pan out. Then again, Nakamura had been frightfully efficient. She looked out the viewport in time to see the transit of the sleeper ship. She put a hand up to the hull and wondered what plans Amanda would have in this situation. Would she depend on the eel of a man who had just been in her office, likely not. Amanda always had more direct ways of dealing with opposition.

She had always been the first to recommend cutting ties with a contact at the onset of any misgivings. Various representatives, corporate lawyers, and even a Councilor had been in their web, but none were ever too precious to be let go. She counted in her head the number of cycles it had been since she had stepped out of the hyper sleep pod. It had been at least 10. Would Amanda even be able to recognize Melissa after 10 cycles of age difference?

As she watched the last glimmer of the sleeper ship move beyond the viewport she saw the flash of a shuttle leaving the ring dock. Likely Nakamura getting underway, he was impeccably prompt after all. She watch the engines of the shuttle light and accelerate away from the Raven, towards the planet. Odd, why would Nakamura head to the surface first?

If the shuttle had not departed the way it had she would never have looked down the elevator cable. She spotted the characteristic flash of a fuel shipment pod on its way up the cable. Only it was coming up far too fast. She ran to her desk and hit the command channel. It would link her directly with the command deck of the Raven where she would warn the captain of a rogue package and they could separate from the ring station before it could cause any damage.

The command line was open and she yelled into it for an emergency launch. No confirmation came back across the line. She tried another and again no reply. Not even the usual static from an open line. She opened her desk and pulled out a holo pad. It had a weak signal uplink. She keyed the frequency for the ring station's dock master. The connection turned green and she immediately pressed the transmit button and told the dock master to cut the cable. When she let off the transmit button a squelch of static came from the device and she heard the unmistakable voice of Nakamura.

"'Priority command, there has been an attack by dissident elements on the Larder Raven, ring station, and elevator complex. A rogue detonator attached to a regular fuel shipment'"

Melissa threw the holo pad against the hull of the ship sending glass flying through the air. She had been betrayed by Nakamura. She went back over to the window and looked back at the elevator. The cart would usually take an hour to transit from the surface to the ring station, but she had no idea how long one that didn't need to stop at the end would take. Minutes? She ran back to the broken holo pad. The display flickered irregularly and the edges of the projection were awash with colors incorrectly diffracting.

She found the messaging protocol and found a stable uplink to the sleeper ship. She entered the address in-ship for Amanda, there were 192 messages in the buffer. She turned on the recording. "This is Domain Chief Melissa Marsh, this message is for my chief of staff Amanda Taylor. I know I made a lot of promises about making sure I'd be there when you woke up' and' I want to say that everything' everything that I did on this Hell of a planet was so that I could be there' So that we would have something to share. Whatever the final report is for me know that I just wanted us to be together." Melissa closed the connection and confirmed the packet upload. The sleeper ship would be transiting the other side of the ship soon. She crawled over to the opposing viewport and looked out to where she knew the sleeper ship would be.

The red light from Askonia made for terrible reflections, but the glimmer of the sleeper pods was unmistakable. There was a rumble from deep within the Raven. Melissa heard mechanical clanking like an airlock being cycled and a deep roar that faded quickly. She looked back out the window and saw the exhaust plume of a single missile leaving the hull of the Raven from just below her office. It streaked towards the glimmer and Melissa let out a sobbing wail.

There was a single flash and the glimmer of ten thousand dreams spread across the sky. From the surface of Sindria there would have been two new stars in the sky.

"The Creator reached out to us and bestowed upon us the great gift of life. When we looked upon the forest of the cosmos, across the river of stars, we saw timber to harvest and fish to eat. And lo it was bountiful. But I ask you, friends, where we have passed through the house of the Creator-and he has given us our fill-what have we left behind as thanks?" Recorded Holo Sermon 4, The Path of Ludd - Church of Galactic Redemption, first broadcast c34.10.04

The shifts following the blast were a chaotic mess. Funeral services were held for those lost on the sleeper ship and vigil was set up in remembrance of the the Chief. Mark had spent much of the shifts sullen and listless in his dormitory. No work was being done out of respect for those lost so he couldn't even go punch at the planet to work through his emotions. Finally after four long shifts several of his friends came to his bunk and they all split a bit of smuggled booze.

The next day Mark woke up with a splitting headache and he went to the bathroom to freshen himself up. Today he would go down to the common area and pay his respects at the memorial. On his way there someone whispered a rumor in his ear that the two Domain warships in orbit had sent a bunch of marines to the surface. He figured this was the beginning of a long period of marshal law under the heel of the Domain. The marines would probably start rounding up folks in the orbits to come.

This time Mark hadn't even heard about the attacks. None of his contacts had either. No one seemed to want to take responsibility for bombing the fuel hauler and sleeper ship. Whoever did it wanted to keep a low profile. If Mark ever found them the marines would be the last of their worries. He didn't care if he went to a labor camp, he was basically already at one and with a looming crackdown conditions weren't going to get any better.

He sifted down to several local haunts and met with the community leaders there, giving them word that the marines would be landing soon. He told them to destroy or use any contraband this shift and that if the marines tried anything too drastic there were ways of working the system.

Finally he made his way down to the memorial. A sculpture in the shape of a hyper sleep pod with a holo display inside that cycled through the names and faces of those lost. Mark spent a moment going through the list of loved ones and finally found his partner. Their face materialized in the blue holo projection rendered peacefully asleep. Mark put his hand to the glass of the holo pod and stood there for several moments.

As he departed a young person, no older than the colony, walked up to the pod followed by an older woman. A father never known came up on the pod's display and the older woman began to weep. Mark turned away and began the long walk back up to the dormitories, but on the way he began to notice marines. Not dressed in their usual powered armor, these ones were meant to look like the colonists; to folks that didn't know every face there it would have been a good camouflage.

Mark ducked into a side corridor that led to an air processing plant, an old resistance hideout and safe house. Mark could lay low in there for a few more shifts and then emerge when the dust had settled. On his way he passed several miners and gave them the heads up and the job to spread the word, the marines were here.

At the access panel he pressed a small hatch open and entered a sequence on the pad hidden inside. The panel shifted and Mark eased the rest of it open just wide enough to squeeze into. Before he could he felt two small jabs in his calf followed by a searing pain. Strong arms grabbed him around the waist and hauled him back up the corridor. Dizzy and disoriented he wasn't sure where they were taking him, but he recognized the smell of idling drop ship engines.

The sudden roar brought him back into reality just as the g-forces dropped him to the floor and he lost consciousness. His next memories were inside a docking tube; the name Komodo was painted on the side of the airlock. There was no Komodo on Sindria, this must be one of the orbiting ships thought Mark. Two security guards had him by the arms and were leading him somewhere. Maybe to another interrogation, or maybe just a quick tribunal and sentencing. Either way he had made his peace.

Mark blinked his eyes as he was led into the overly bright room. The two security guards let go of his arms and formed behind him to block the door.

"Operator First Class Patel, we meet again," said a snake-like man from across an ornate wooden table. Mark didn't recognize him at first but then he smirked and instantly remembered the blue face in the darkness.

"I'm sorry, I don't remember your name," said Mark. "I was under a lot of stress the last time we talked."

"Helios Nakamura," said the snake. "That's quite alright, though. I can understand how a man in your' situation' would block out certain things. But please, have a seat, we have many things to discuss."

Mark sat down in what felt like a real wooden chair with an actual cushion. "Thank you. Why did you bring me up here, Mr. Nakamura?"

Nakamura pushed a small tray of wrapped candies towards Mark. "Mr. Patel. I'm sure you're aware of the recent tragedies that have befallen this system in recent shifts?"

"Yes, none of us really liked the Chief, but I didn't think there was anyone who had the connections to pull off that attack. I'm sorry but I don't have any names for you this time," said Mark looking away from the man's eyes and down to the floor.

"Ah, Mr. Patel. You have nothing to fear from me. We already have the' perpetrators' taken care of. No. I want to make a deal with you Mr. Patel," said Nakamura standing from his side of the table and walking around to Mark's. "You see, a man with your' connections' and way with the people could make it very far. Yes. Very far indeed." Nakamura sat down in the chair beside Mark and set a hand on his shoulder.

"I appreciate the offer, Mr. Nakamura. But after the loss of the sleeper ship a lot of us are looking at buying out our contracts and heading back to the core systems. There's a lot of pain out here for us and we'd rather not spend any more time here," said Mark looking back up to meet the man's eyes.

"I see. I see. I may have a' solution' for you, Mr. Patel," said Nakamura as he brought out a small holo pad and faced it towards Mark. A passenger manifest was visible and highlighted was his partner's name. "We made some arrangements to transport some personnel off of the sleeper ship several orbits before the' tragedy' and we have them safely awakening at a care facility on Opis. The lovely folks at Eridani-Utopia were most helpful."

Mark was speechless, he looked from the holo pad to the man and back again. "They're' They're alive?" he asked.

The man smiled, "Very much so Mr. Patel. Very much." He put the holo pad back in his pocket. "Now, Operator First Class Patel, how would you like to be' System Administrator' Patel?"

"I' don't know' it's not exactly my trade'" said Mark unsteadily.

"Not to worry Mr. Patel! Not to worry. I think you'll find the job much easier than lifting rocks all day. Besides, I think you'll like the offices we have' set up' on Opis," said Nakamura standing again.

"On Opis?" asked Mark. "You mean you want me to be on Opis, not on Sindria?"

"Why of course!" exclaimed Nakamura. "Did you think the Domain was going to put the system capital on that'rock? Oh no, Mr. Patel. The jewel of the system is the seat of governance."

"This is all great, Mr. Nakamura, but all the staff and administrators are here on Sindria," said Mark.

"Oh! Mr. Patel. We've had the administrators working on Opis for several orbits! I've been interviewing them and sending the people you helped identify to work in much more' suitable' conditions," said Nakamura clapping his hands together. "The fact is Mr. Patel, they all admire you, and many of them would follow you into Hell itself." He gestured at a small display of Sindria on the table "most of them already had!"

"I' see," said Mark. "When do I start?"

"Right now, if you wish Mr. Patel," Nakamura motioned to the guards at the door. "These' upstanding citizens' will take you to a shuttle, your shuttle, and from there the system is under your jurisdiction."

"Do not worry my faithful for I am always with you, I go off to begin the redemption of all mankind." - Final recorded statement for prisoner L-127.65 Hegemony COMSEC encryption GARNET

Here's another story from the time before the collapse titled "The Promise of Future Stars"
Content Warning: Some mild PG-13 violence

This one was one of my favorites to write. I love good sci-fi thriller. I've titled it "Moonlight" but it could easily be "Three Body Problem" it's set post Askonian Crisis in the Askonia system. Everybody loves the ol' lobster system.
Content Warning: There is a good bit of violence and smattering of gore

« Last Edit: May 31, 2023, 08:16:53 PM by dantrew »

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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #1 on: May 22, 2023, 02:08:39 AM »

Not bad at all!  You posted this at a very unfortunate time, a couple of weeks after the long-awaited new version came out, the odds are astronomically against anybody reading it, but because of the odd circumstances of my job, (I've been being paid to sit here and post all night on the weekends as long as I don't play video games or watch movies) I read it.  Nice sensory details and I can tell despite the fact this is your first post on the forum that you've been playing the best video game ever for years.

If you post more of your stories in this topic, I will read them.  I won't commit to reading them on any kind of schedule, I have a campaign to play and the rest of my favorite mods might well get updated this week and then I'll have a sequel campaign for when I'm done with this one, but I will read them.

Also check your PMs.


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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2023, 12:07:22 PM »

Thank you for the kind words! I actually wrote a bunch of these and was about to post them when the new version came out, so I had to do my own vanilla run to see if any lore had been updated. I knew there was stuff on the Luddics and I’ve got a whole series outlined around them, so I’m excited that I got some new toys.

If you’ve got any suggestions or notes feel free to let me know. I’m always looking to get inspiration or alerted if I’ve left off a preposition or two. *shakes fist at dyslexia*

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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #3 on: May 23, 2023, 03:40:27 PM »

Well, I proofread the first two stories, here you go.  There was about a dozen typos in each entry, one time "Moloch" wasn't capitalized in a Pather quote, once in a while you had "its" where "it's" should be or vice versa, trivial things like that.  Looking forward to the next entries whenever you get around to posting them.

(Please check my formatting, I probably messed up your paragraph transitions by opening the file in Notepad, I'm sure it stripped out the lines between chapters and the like.)


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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #4 on: May 23, 2023, 05:28:05 PM »

Here's another story from the time before the collapse titled "The Promise of Future Stars"
Content Warning: Some mild PG-13 violence

“There are no dreams in hyper sleep//We abandon them to the void//Better to slumber in the dark//For what awaits is a nightmare” - Last transmission from Domain Sleeper Ship Celydon’s Prophecy en route to the Persean Sector
The Promise Of Future Stars

The solar flares could be seen in three places at once; first on the surface of the orange star, once again reflected in the hulls of the new sleeper ships, and a third time illuminating the face of a man.

Joseph Witt was now part of the “third wave.” A lucky winner of the Domain’s policy to send 1-in-5 people to new colonies to help establish them and to ease the burden on the Domain’s more populous sectors. He reflexively scratched at a scab behind his left ear where the implant resided.

This new implant (provided free-of-charge by the Domain) would transmit vital body statistics to his sleeping pod’s built-in intelligence. It also held his personal information: resource extraction specialist, lieutenant-grade; A-positive blood type; allergies to several classes of antibiotics and anticoagulants; below average height and weight; several genetic markers that made him more susceptible to radiation as well as having red hair; and a long string of numbers and letters that formed his identity in the metaphysical sense but also acted as a checksum for the other data. The med-tech that injected it also told him that if he died in a horrible conflagration the chip was hardened and should be recoverable. It wasn’t as reassuring as the med-tech had wanted it to be.

The final days before shipping out to the meat-packing station (that had a much nicer sounding official title of “Colony Development Center”) were filled with holo-vid calls to his friends and relatives. All communication was monitored. As he had found out when a nice agent showed up at his door and expressed a “strong recommendation” to use the approved language found for the Colony Development Center and the Domain’s colonial initiatives.

As a child he had watched with awe as the gate haulers had departed known space followed by a fleet of sporeships—packed with survey drones and terraforming equipment. It had driven him into the field of Xeno-Mineralogy so that one day he could be the first to set foot on the worlds revealed by the Domain’s Explorarium. Now faced with the realities of the task, it was much less glamorous than the holo-documentaries had made it seem.

Joseph looked back out the window at the site of another flare. It was maddening to comprehend the scale of the place. Each of the 30 or so ships he could see at the end of the hundred-kilometer station would hold millions of people. Entire cities sent in one shot to settle unknown worlds. It harkened back to the first exodus from Earth and the generation ships that brought colonists to the stars.

A chime from his holo pad alerted him to a new appointment. It was time for his ship assignment; time for him to go to sleep and wake on a new frontier.

“It is not lightly that I say the following. We stand at the beginning of a new era in human history. With the launch of this gate hauling ship we usher in a new epoch of faster-than-light travel. No longer will distance between stars be measured in weeks and months but in mere moments. This new network of gates will give us domain over all of known space, a new Human Domain.” Councilor Magnus Keller, excerpt from speech at first launch of gate hauler

In the countless emergency drills, tech explanation courses, and droning presentations on “what to expect the you arrive” after the euphemistic “long sleep” they (being the bouncy transport agents, and guileless Domain career placement specialists) purposefully do not mention what waking up feels like. Not that they would know. No one books a return trip.

The closest word is awareness. Awareness that every part of you has undergone something wholly unnatural and that all of you hates you for it. Joseph’s pod stood ajar while he took his first natural breaths in 30 cycles. A soft warm substance collected at the back of his throat and he remembered his training: tilt your head forward so your sinuses can drain all of the breathing fluid.

He attempted to exhale through his nose and was met with solid resistance. A stronger squeeze from his diaphragm and a plug of the mucus shot from his nose. He wished for it back immediately as smells began to come to him. It could have been the most soothing scent from his childhood and it would still have made him nauseous. Unfortunately, the scent of 30-cycle-old sleeping human was not on the short list of positive childhood smells and he vomited.

When the heaving had finished he remembered he had eyes and looked out at the numerous others going through the same experiences. He could make out the rough shapes of people he knew from training, but everyone looked emaciated and the unnatural wetness gave their skin a reptilian appearance. As another plug of goo slid from his ears he was confronted with the horror of sound.

He called for assistance as his barely functioning limbs began to buckle under his weight. What came from his throat was unrecognizable to him as human, it could have just as easily come from a sheet flapping in the desert wind. No one rushed to his aid. A soft chime and glowing green light directed his attention towards the middle of the room. A dais sat raised above the grated floor and in the middle of it was a hydra of hoses and nozzles. Salvation in the form of water to drink and with which to clean himself.

He crawled along the floor in jerking motions. The water activated at his approach and it was a salve to everything that ailed him. In a few moments he felt the energy to stand and take inventory of the room. There were others at the fountain now. He recognized several people from the ship’s medical staff and a couple more from the command staff. As far as he could tell he was the ranking officer awake. He looked for captain Soyuz Hill’s pod and saw it had a blinking amber light. The captain would be waking up soon, but at least two of the other officers had red lights on their pods. They would not be waking up.

Joseph stumbled over to the captain’s pod with the assistance of a med-tech named Keller and when their leader was freed from his pod they helped him over to the water fountain. Captain Hill coughed a thanks and directed everyone to the automated med bays to get checked over. Joseph sat in the padded chair and a scanning aperture moved over his body making harsh clicking sounds as if it chided him on a sedentary 30 cycles.

A report scrolled by on his left. Green bars for things like his lungs and brain, and a couple worrying yellow bars around for his heart and stomach. There was a small hemorrhage in his stomach wall that would heal fairly quickly with some medications that the automated health unit spat onto a tray. The heart condition was a small murmur from a defect in his right ventricle created by the artificial blood and it could not be treated. Fortunately the health unit in the sleeping pod had not detected it or he would not have been woken up. He would live a perfectly normal life unless he did something like go into hyper sleep again.

He looked quickly at some of his less-fortunate shipmates. One had developed a serious lesion in his lungs and would forever have to use a special inhaler, another had a brain bleed that had been caught by the scanner but would need immediate surgery. Almost everyone had a small problem arising from the prolonged suspended state. While none of it was terribly unexpected it was alarming to think of how much of the facility would be devoted to fixing or simply helping the colonists cope with whatever long-term ailments they acquired on the trip here. Wherever here was.

Joseph swiped the medical displays to the side and brought up the Azure Dawn’s status screen. The screen reported on things like ship atmosphere conditions and reactor function levels, but what he really wanted was a datalink to one of the ship’s hull-mounted telescopes. After rifling through several menu levels he finally found the correct interface and pulled the live feed.

An enormous red star dominated his view. The ship must have used the star’s gravity well as the jump point, falling out of hyperspace in an efficient if precarious method. Unlike many of the other red giants Joseph had studied this one seemed relatively tame. Perhaps it had only recently (in stellar terms) run out of hydrogen fuel and hadn’t yet settled into the self-destructive cycles of expansion and mass ejection that would one day turn this volume to a hot cloud of gas.

Panning away from the star was difficult; it filled most of the telescope’s gimbal range. Joseph abandoned the feed and switched over to the comms channels. He tapped on the portrait of Captain Hill and immediately the Captain’s angular features filled the screen. “Yes, lieutenant,” he said.

“Sir, I just took a look outside, we’re very close to the system’s primary. Looks like a default jump. Might be a stable star, but without a good stellar weather satellite constellation I can’t tell if we’re headed for a massive flare or if we’re all clear,” said Joseph in practiced tones.

The captain looked away from the feed on his end and frowned. “Damn automated guidance,” he said under his breath easing a hand up to a stubbled chin. “As soon as one of the navigators is cleared from medical we’ll get underway.” The captain looked back to the feed. “If you’re ready head up to the command deck, I want a report on the system as soon as you’re able.”

Joseph nodded an affirmation, “Yessir.” He closed the comm channel and pulled up the ship schematic. His preflight training told him the command deck was vaguely behind him, but the ship’s layout was slightly different in reality than it had been in the simulator. He charted a quick route and sent it to his personal holo pad. He gave the whirring medical scanner a quick pat of affirmation and stood up to head to his post.

The ship itself seemed to still be waking up from the long voyage. The longitudinal lift took a couple of prods to register his intended destination, but it eventually jolted forward before smoothly accelerating him along the length of the ship. Almost the entirety of the other colonists would remain asleep until they could verify they had arrived in a habitable system.
He passed bay upon bay of still-dark pods and it made the Dawn feel desolate and somewhat hostile. The darkness seemed to pull the light out of the lift as he went and he shifted his focus to the small display counting down until he reached his destination. The lift began to slow as the number neared zero and as it came to a halt automated lights snapped on, bathing the lift terminal in antiseptic white light.

It dazzled Joseph at first, but as his eyes adapted to the harsh lighting he made his way towards the primary airlock for the command deck. A synthetic voice welcomed him and announced him as the ranking officer on the deck. Projector lamps made audible hums as they warmed up displays for the command staff. He made his way to the small en suite surrounded by glass walls and proudly displaying Colony Control in bold metallic letters. The terminal under the name placard reading “Joseph Witt: Survey and Mineralogy” was the only one illuminated. He slid a chair along the anchor rails to his terminal and unlocked the screen with a wave of his hand.
His view was tailored to his position and was intrinsically designed to show information on nearby planets’ composition and relevant survey data. Screens upon screens of empty density maps and elemental composition graphs littered the display. He dismissed all of them and pulled up a simple terminal interface.

Welcome to DOMAINnetOS 3.5.6 (f5g21a)

Joseph brought up the log information for the ship. He wanted to know first off why they had been woken up. He spotted an interesting note 86 hours earlier.

New DOMAIN_EXP Signal id “signal 1”
Pan COMM_1 128.35 -narrow
DOMAIN-INT broadcast_ship_id “Azure_Dawn_0080FF”
DOMAIN protocol EXP-1156 on pathway 3e6c:9830:765c:c739:6d0e:3c27:c436:db10
DOMAIN-INT declare 1 priority 2a authorization QUARTZ
CALL Course_Plotter_AI on “signal 1” -quiet -overwrite

The Azure Dawn had detected a Domain signal emanating from this system and when it attempted to connect to it a deep level security override had told the ship to completely change course and head for this system. It was not uncommon for a survey or sporeship to have found a particularly habitable or profitable world and call in a colony ship bound for a different system. However the sleeper ships usually used the carrier signal to home in on the automated vessel. When the connection dropped the navigation software must have decided to drop the ship on top of the star having no data on where the jump points were.

He skimmed through some basic tools attempting to find an active sensor array and began sweeping it across the volume. The next thing to do was find out who, or what was in the volume with them. A waterfall display showed blips and static across most of the the detectable spectrum. Most of the signals were likely due to the proximity of the star but some could be back scattering from other celestial bodies. The array picked up a faint repeating tick in the high energy bands and he narrowed the sweep to cover the source.

Everything from nearby reactors to a neutron star a thousand lightyears away could produce the high energy streams he saw on the display. If it was a reactor that would mean there was another ship in the volume with them and perhaps that had been the ship that had pulled them there.

On one of the passes the display showed the unmistakable quad-band carrier wave of a Domain sporeship. Joseph quickly panned a comm antenna towards the source and attempted to establish a data link.

Pan COMM_3 85.12 -tight
local-host# ./get_host.exp "Azure_Dawn_0080FF" "tools" “signal 1”
Using Diffie-Hellman with standard group "group14"
Doing Diffie-Hellman key exchange with hash SHA-1
Host key fingerprint is:
ssh-rsa 2048 53:74:61:72:73:65:63:74:6f:72:72:6f:63:6b:73:21
Initialised AES-256 SDCTR client->server encryption
Initialised HMAC-SHA1 client->server MAC algorithm
Initialised AES-256 SDCTR server->client encryption
Initialised HMAC-SHA1 server->client MAC algorithm
RETURN ship_ID: “DOMAIN_EXP_Sporeship_CB4154”
RETURN ship_STATUS: “Nominal, awaiting command”
CALL FTP.scrape /DOMAIN_EXP_Sporeship_CB4154/survey -v
com.fs.starfarer.loading.scripts.B  - Loading class:
1   Penelope's Star, Red Giant
2   Asteroid Belt I
3   Thrinakia (Penelope's Star I), Volcanic World
4   Ithaca (Penelope's Star II), Desert World
5   Ogygia (Penelope's Star III), Barren-Bombarded World
6   Calypso (Penelope's Star III-A), Barren Bombarded World
7   Penelope's Inner Jump-point
8   Aeolus (Penelope's Star IV), Gas Giant
9   Telepylus (Penelope's Star V), Gas Giant
10   Dorus (Penelope's Star IV-A), Barren World
11   Xuthus (Penelope's Star IV-B), Toxic World
12   Penelope's Outer Jump-point
13   The Cyclopeans (Asteroid Belt II)
14   Ismara (Penelope's Star VI), Cryovolcanic World

Joseph pressed a small comms button on his screen and brought up Captain Hill’s portrait again. He saw the connection turn green and, before the Captain could say anything, spoke quickly, “Sir, I’ve identified an Explorarium Sporeship in-system.”

“Status?” asked Hill.

“It’s got unstable comms, but otherwise looks good, sir,” said Joseph. “We’ll know more when we get closer.”

“Good, we’ll be up there in 15,” Captain Hill’s expression lightened slightly “and see if you can get any information about this system.”

“Already on it, sir,” said Joseph as he closed the connection.

He looked over the survey reports coming in from the sporeship and marveled at the new worlds. Six planets was a lot for most systems with a red giant primary and the sporeship had identified at least three notable moons. Joseph drummed his fingers on the console with excitement as more data began to filter in. Soon he was awash in multi-spectrum surface scans, atmospheric composition diagrams, tectonic models, gravity wave and neutrino diffraction observations, preliminary soil samples, electromagnetic field simulations, and petabytes of unfiltered data. He began assigning tasks to his cohort he knew were awake and clapped his hands with anticipation of getting to do real work.

“Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move, earth bears none frailer than mankind.” Homer, Iliad
Joseph Witt exhaled slowly so as to not cause condensation to build up on the inside of his faceplate. The brilliance of the desert planet below illuminated every corner of his command shuttle. There was always something about seeing the worlds without the filters the ship-based systems applied. A rawness to their visage that calmed the raging seas within his soul.

He braced himself against the hull to prevent any accidental rotation and shifted his harness where it dug into his hip. Penelope’s Star visibly belched a gout of plasma millions of kilometers long in the background. The high-energy particles from that event would reach Ithaca in a few days and cascade through the planet’s practically nonexistent magnetic field and tear apart millions of the precious molecules that he had created in the planet's atmosphere. Such was the cost of doing business on such an unrelenting planet.

For nearly 60 cycles Joseph had coerced ice-laden asteroids from the far reaches of the system and instituted massive mining and refining operations, all with the intent to transform this barely habitable dust ball into a jewel amongst the stars. The process was now in full swing and with each passing cycle he could see changes on the surface.

Where once there had been low unrelenting dunes blown by a thin atmosphere there was now a thick band of thunderstorms that boiled in the heat of the day. Most rain evaporated before hitting the surface, but another few cycles of ice deliveries would provide enough water for small lakes to form. The glint of the first skeletons of the orbital nurseries would grow the generations of plants for the seeding of the world.

Unseen somewhere else in the volume was the sister planet Ogygia. Joseph had been persuaded to let his second in command attempt to improve the conditions on that world as well. It was in much rougher shape than Joseph’s prize below, but it was often on the route for the materials haulers so it made sense to try and bring it up at the same time. It would take another 60 cycles before Ogygia reached the same level as Ithaca, but it would happen.

A sharp reflection of an ice hauler transiting caught his eye. It would soon release its megatons of cargo in a decaying orbit as a loose cloud of floating chunks. Those chunks would rain down over the course of the next few hours and add their contents to the stew below.
Joseph closed his eyes and the shape of the world lingered in an afterimage. He pictured the spreading of the green belts and the growing oceans he had simulated countless times before. He could walk on the surface of the world and admire the beauty of a flower in bloom and breathe air that he had not been through a recycler. He could feel the warm, sandy soil between his toes and feel the wind on his skin.

A priority transmission tone brought him out of revelry and the blinking light in the corner of his vision turned a dull yellow indicating a mission critical update was being sent to him. His eye moved to look at the indicator and the system popped the comms display over his faceplate in response. The holo projection blocked his view of Ithaca.

“This is Administrator Witt,” he said wearily.

“Sir, high-priority message from Telepylus,” said the young voice on the line.

“Proceed with transmission, code aleph-seven-sierra,” said Joseph with a little more command in his tone. Due to the 90-minute delay to the station a prerecorded message began to play. One of his junior officers' panicked voices came over the speaker. There had been an emergency signal from a regular patrol craft sweeping the Cyclopeans for pirate activity. An emergency response team was already being assembled but there had been no further transmissions from the patrol and a spike in radiation was detected near the source of the signal.

Pirates had been a mild nuisance for the last 30 cycles. Most of them were a disgruntled band of colonists who had been woken up to help with the mining efforts. They were led by a charismatic rabble-rouser who had been a somewhat successful entrepreneur in the core sectors. He had expressed disgust at having to work in the mining operations and instead took to selling low-grade stimulants to the miners. When the Azure Dawn’s security forces had tried to break up the racket he had escaped with a few dozen others on a skiff.

The thriving black market let him slowly recruit a following, but they lacked any real weapon to fight with. The odd mining blaster or charge thrower had been converted into more of a threat of violence than actual instruments of war. It was enough to shakedown a lone transport of a handful of miners, but they didn’t have the forces to take on even a light Domain frigate. At least not until now. He pressed the intra-ship comms button on his arm, “Lieutenant, I’m coming back on board.”

The airlock door latched with a resounding thud that could be felt through the floor and the hiss of vents let Joseph know the room was equalizing. He took off his helmet and popped his ears, it never was quite the right pressure in the suits. A sharply dressed young Lieutenant greeted him on the other side of the shuttle’s door. There hadn’t been any children born in the volume, to Joseph’s knowledge, but they had proceeded in waking up more people. In all reality the Lieutenant was older than Joseph, but not in waking years.

“Sir, the ship is ready to head back to Telepylus at your command,” snapped the Lieutenant.
“Let’s get going then, I don’t want to miss the show,” said Joseph. The Lieutenant saluted and gave an order into their sleeve. The ship rolled and the slight change in the artificial gravity was the only sign it was now under the effects of a faster-than-light drive. Joseph barely had time to get the EVA suit off and dressed in regular clothes before the ship was within the arrival pattern for Telepylus.

The station was not the greatest architectural marvel of the Domain, but it may have been the fastest assembled. In the cycles following their sleeper ship’s first arrival in the volume they had hastily taken apart the original sporeship that made up the core of the station. The sporeship had suffered a catastrophic failure and was barely able to maintain its orbit when the Azure Dawn came upon it. Captain Hill had made the call to try and salvage the ship, but a reactor malfunction damaged the Dawn’s drive system. With no ability to repair the system the colonists made the tough decision to try and complete the work the sporeship had started and terraform the planets.

Crews worked at every shift to disassemble the modular sleeper ship and repurpose it into a logistics station. Vast swaths of the sleeper ship were turned into habitation rings and docking bays while the production and autofabs on the sporeship were re-tooled into the industrial zones necessary to produce the materials needed for terraforming.

The station had a slow rotation that kept it stable, and around it was a cloud of mining skiffs and makeshift transports. Most were just crew cabins strapped to simple reaction mass drives. They had awoken most of the sleepers in the original pods, but only about half were still alive. The small health issues that arose from the hyper sleep compounded with the stress of frontier life made the life expectancy unfavorably short for the colonists. Joesph had held off on reviving the last 30,000 sleepers as a symbol of the original intent of the mission. Many of them would require advanced medical treatment that simply did not exist in the volume to survive the process anyway. He had sent a message via a hyperwave comm relay to the Domain colonial affairs board. They had promised him two more sleeper ships were expected to arrive sometime within the next cycle.

Several other colonies in the sector were up and running but the added stress of cryorevival facilities would threaten their stability. Joseph’s project was a good place for these sleepers to go to be slowly revived as needs arose and eventually, when there was a new habitable planet, for all of them to find a home.

Joseph turned to his Lieutenant, “Any word yet from the response team?”

“No, sir. Judging by this intelligence report they should be arriving within the next few minutes,” they said pulling a system map up on the central holo tank. Five red triangles moved along an arced path towards a yellow circle. An estimated arrival time was displayed along the bottom of the dotted path.

“What’s the comm delay from there?” asked Joseph. He was not used to the pace of military command. He usually thought in scales of cycles. There would be little he could do to aid the captains of these vessels regardless if the delay were moments or hours, but he wanted to know how long he had before messages could be expected from the group.

“Light delay is about 2 hours,” said a tech operating a tactical screen behind Joseph.

A few startled gasps and then pointed shouts rose at the opposite side of the deck. Joseph looked over to the source of the commotion and saw a message from the hyperwave relay. He had to stifle his own cry of alarm.


Questions flew across the command deck. No one could come up with a reason why the gate network would, or even could stop functioning. More critically still what was to happen to the numerous life-sustaining shipments that were due into the sector. Joseph’s system couldn’t manage the terraforming without regular shipments of equipment manufactured within the Domain. Surely the network would be operational within a cycle at most. They had enough supplies to continue regular operations for at least that long.

The Lieutenant called Joseph’s attention back to the central holo tank. “Sir, I’ve got reports from all over the volume. All of them more or less the same.” The Lieutenant shifted uncomfortably. “Something about a ‘Ludd,' no, not a thing. A…person?”

Warning klaxons screamed as the lights in the command deck went to automatic combat mode. Joseph had never even known that the lights could do that.

“Explosions on… on…” The Lieutenant swallowed hard and regained their composure. “Explosions on Telepylus. Massive damage to habitation and industrial zones. Confirmed extreme radiation leak. There will be no survivors. Moving to minimum safe distance.”

Joseph looked first at his white-knuckled Lieutenant and then at the new frame in the holo tank. It was a feed from just before the explosions. The small cloud of skiffs and transports swirled like bees around a hive. Then, from somewhere deep within the station, came a slow, unnatural bulge. The bulge expanded the belting holding several hab rings and then burst with gouts of orange and blue flames. It was only after he realized the scale of the explosion did its speed make sense. The station was dozens of kilometers long and the blast had separated a third of it cleanly off. “What could have done…that?” he asked, pointing a finger at the dying station.

From over his shoulder came the voice of tech he did not recognize, “Ludd’s righteous fury.” There was a sudden flash and Joseph felt something hot and heavy hit him in the shoulder. A second flash and he looked up to see the Lieutenant with their service weapon drawn. Then the pain came, first as discomfort and then as waves of anguish passing over his body. Joseph collapsed forward onto the holo tank and he could see blood splattered across it. He felt his chest and his hand came back covered in the same.

The Lieutenant’s voice came from somewhere distant, “Secure the command deck, get a med tech!” The world began to fade out.

A sharp jab in Joseph's leg brought everything into sharp focus. A med tech was applying a medical foam to the wound in his chest. He was still on the command deck but laid out over the top of several consoles. Breathing was extremely painful but Joseph was able to form coherent words. “Lieutenant!” he coughed, “Lieutenant, what is happening to my system?”

“Insurrection, sir.” Said the Lieutenant from somewhere nearby. “It would seem the pirates we have been dealing with have been replaced by some new threat. They broadcast their demands.”

“Unconditional surrender?” asked Joseph.

“No. Unconditional termination. Telepylus is gone.” The Lieutenant paused for a moment. “After the explosion several frigates of unknown designation appeared out of hyperspace and began hunting fleeing ships. We managed to destroy one before we were outnumbered and forced to retreat. They have irradiated the station and opened the remaining hyper sleep pods to vacuum.”

“We need to get to the relay,” said Joseph.

“Sir, there are hostile patrols at every corner in the volume. The jump points are under heavy guard. We’ve gotten reports they have bombed the facilities at Ismara into dust. They will likely be heading to the relay to destroy it as well. We will need to hide until an opening appears at one of the jump points and make our way to a Domain controlled volume.” The Lieutenant’s voice was becoming ragged with stress.

Joseph sat upright and was able to see his command staff. Each one of them had a look of far away distress, their usual tidy uniforms were dirty and ruffled. They had been fighting for their lives just as surely as he had. The Lieutenant especially looked tired. When Joseph had recruited them he had seen in them the hopes and dreams he had when the first reports about the system began to come in. They had boundless enthusiasm for their role, and now they had lost everything.

The holo tank mixed with the red emergency lighting to produce an otherworldly glow to each of the crew on the deck. Their ghastly features made Joseph think he was already dead and these were the spirits to escort him to the afterlife of dreams and sorrows.

But not everything had been lost. He looked the young Lieutenant in the eyes and said, “I need to show you something.” He motioned for the Lieutenant to help him off the console. They obliged and he walked with assistance to the holo tank. It displayed estimated force locations and hundreds of red triangles crossed out and the word “DESTROYED” underneath each. Joseph wiped his own blood off of a control pad and keyed in a passphrase.

The holo tank reset and a new display appeared showing inbound vectors for two hyper sleep ships. “There are over 5 million souls on these ships,” Joseph said gesturing at the holo tank and turning back to his crew. “This system and the dream it represented is lost. But there are still 5 million dreams waiting to wake up on those ships. We owe it to them to give them the best chance we can.” Joseph’s crew stared back at him, the light was still gone from their eyes. His whole body ached as he drew a rattling breath and entered another code. Each of the crew’s portraits appeared and next to them a profile indicating their position prior to entering hyper sleep and a long list of personal details ending in long string of numbers and letters.

But underneath that was a note that Joseph had entered. He had interviewed every crew member shortly after their awakening and he had asked them what their dreams and aspirations were. All before they had known where they were. There were future farmers, people looking to start families, big ideas about what the new frontier could offer, and at the very bottom of the screen was Joseph’s portrait with the word “paradise”. The crew looked on and Joseph made another quick motion all the portraits zoomed away and millions more flooded the display. For every person that had been on the Azure Dawn there were little vignettes of what they wanted their life to be.

“Each person has a right to dream,” said Joseph.

A tech from the side of the room called out, “The relay has two inbound frigate-class ships of unknown model. We can beat them there by 10 minutes at maximum burn.”

The Lieutenant gave the first command, “Ready the shuttle for emergency burn! Battle-stations!” They looked over to Joseph and gave him a reassuring nod. “We’ll get you to the relay.”

Joseph struggled to pull the EVA suit on. It felt ten times heavier than it normally did and each time he ratcheted it a little higher he had to take a few breaths. The overrides on the relay were intentionally designed to prevent remote tampering. Joseph would have to be physically on the platform in order to broadcast the redirection codes to the inbound sleeper ships. With the last of the suit fastened he positioned himself by the airlock door and opened a live comms feed to the Lieutenant. “I’m in position at the airlock, what’s our ETA?”

“15 minutes to arrival, we’ll be coming in at FTL and do an emergency stop. It might blow the drive, but our window has gotten shorter. The enemy ships will arrive 7 minutes after we do,” said the Lieutenant in a confident voice.

“Stick to the plan,” said Joseph. “The priority is the relay.”

“Affirmative, we drop you and draw them off,” said the Lieutenant in an almost business-as-usual cadence.

Joseph cycled the inner air lock door and stepped through. The EVA pack would give him control but the closest they expected to get to the relay was still several dozen kilometers and with a considerable relative velocity. It would take most of the onboard propellant to match up and approach. He tapped the automated control switch. He expected to lose consciousness under acceleration but the suit should be able to do all the calculations and approaches without much problem. It was the waking up after he dreaded. The med tech had installed two emergency stimulant packs if things started to go badly. The tech knew about his heart condition and told him under no uncertain terms that if he used them he would probably die. He coded them to deploy if he did not immediately wake up on arrival to the relay.

“2 minutes to drop.” Came the Lieutenant’s voice over the comm.

“Opening outer airlock,” said Joseph as if he were an experienced drop marine. He had rarely seen outside a ship while the drive bubble was engaged. The stars were long streaks radiating from wherever he looked. He could see individual objects if looked straight at them but everything else was a blur. A strong sense of vertigo began to overcome him, but he closed his eyes as he did on so many trips out the airlock and a sense of pervading calm filled him.

“Engaging emergency stop…” the Lieutenant paused. “Good luck sir, see you on the other side.”

A massive wall hit Joseph in the chest and his head felt like it was going to explode. The universe imploded around him and the stars came into bright focus. His suit identified the relay and began plotting best approaches. A small group of numbers began rapidly counting down and when they hit zero he launched out the airlock. “I’m clear,” he grunted into the comm as the suit fired its thrusters and he blacked out.

Joseph was standing on a desert planet. In front of him was a solitary white flower sprouting magically out of the sand. He reached down and inspected the flower. Glossy dew drops rolled off of its petals and where they hit sand more flowers erupted out of the ground. He exclaimed in joy and looked up to the sky where two fireballs streaked across the sky. Two bees stung him in two different locations and he immediately awoke from the dream.

The hyperwave relay platform loomed in front of him. At the end of the central axis its main segmented dish dwarfed the rest of the platform, its pearlescent polish catching the starlight and creating a rainbow of colors. Several other transmission antennas positioned along the spine poked out at odd angles acting as the local dispatch. The suit had a trajectory laid out for a cluster of reactor pods and an exterior control panel. It had done its job perfectly.
Joseph looked over at his comms status. There was still a green light indicating a good connection with the shuttle. “Status update,” he said into the open channel.

“We’ve marked the enemy vessels on approach, ETA 1 minute. Will try to engage,” the Lieutenant said with an even tone.

“I am at the relay, will update on mission status change,” said Joseph. He found the combat chatter coming easier to him now. He had confidence in the Lieutenant to do their part, and in that confidence he found his own to carry out this final task. The braking thrusters eased him onto the platform and he clipped the security strap to the maintenance frame with surprising speed.

Again with agility he did not know he possessed he swung over to the main command terminal and flipped out the keypad automatically turning on the status screen.

Please enter valid DOMAINnetOS password:
Welcome to DOMAINnetOS 4.9.11 (e37b11)

Pan COMM_HW 12.42 -wide
SEND DOMAIN-INT declare 0000 priority 10 authorization EMERALD
CALL Course_Plotter_AI on func_RAND_long -quiet -overwrite
CALL EM_Standby -countdown “120”
SEND log_update “Good luck dreamers”
Local-host/Log_update -remove -all -secure

Joseph panned the hyperwave relay in the general direction of the two sleeper ships and keyed in the overrides for their automated guidance protocols. The segmented dish rippled space around it as the transmission was sent. He ordered the ships off in random directions and engaged their emergency standby modes. Without active transponders and a reduced reactor signature they would be nearly impossible to find. Perhaps in a couple cycles when the gates were back up the domain could organize a search for the missing ships. But for now they would be safe in the anonymity of space, and that’s what really mattered. “Mission is success, repeat mission is success,” said Joseph on the comm channel. Joseph looked for the green indicator on his display that would mark their position. He finally found it down and behind him. Without the highlight he would never have noticed the speck of dust moving rapidly across the stars.

“Received. We are merged,” came the reply from the Lieutenant their voice augmented by a suit’s external speaker. A sudden pitch shift in the static meant they were accelerating hard. They didn’t close the comm, either by accident or because they were distracted. The Lieutenant barked commands through the comm, “Bring us to 128 mark 35. Maintain current vector. Main guns ready, fire. Accelerate 92 mark 15.”

Another voice broke into the channel, “Confirmed hit on kilo one. Splash.” A bright star appeared near where the dust mote had been. It faded quickly into a reddish glow of superheated dust.

The Lieutenant’s voice came back over the comm, “Target kilo two. Bring us to…BRACE” The sounds of metal giving way filled the channel and the system’s auto-leveling brought the sound down several decibels. Joseph watched as a second mote of dust drifted towards his highlighted one and they touched. Where they were erupted into another brilliant flash and the highlight faded out.

Joseph’s mouth felt dry. He tried to speak but his tongue wouldn’t make the right shapes. He finally managed to say, “This is Administrator Joseph Witt, calling Command Shuttle. Lieutenant?…” The only reply was a slightly higher than normal amount of static. Joseph suddenly felt extremely fatigued. His suit’s bio-monitor started buzzing at him, but he couldn’t muster the energy to silence the alarm. He looked up at the relay and his last thoughts were about how the relay looked like a flower.

Network Pesci

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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #5 on: May 30, 2023, 07:53:31 PM »

All right, here you go.  I sent you some style notes in a PM, there's a few things that need your final word as the actual author of the piece, you know what you intend, I don't.  It's well worth my time and I'm keen to see where the story goes from here.


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Re: Stories from the Sector - A fan fiction collection
« Reply #6 on: May 31, 2023, 08:11:48 PM »

This one was one of my favorites to write. I love good sci-fi thriller. I've titled it "Moonlight" but it could easily be "Three Body Problem" it's set post Askonian Crisis in the Askonia system. Everybody loves the ol' lobster system.
Content Warning: There is a good bit of violence and smattering of gore

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. - Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild (1931)

People pay for a story. If they knew the dirty truth of what was behind some of their favorite holo vids they wouldn’t spend a single credit on them. Not that Zosma really cared all that much about the details. She was only interested in what the story was worth and as an information broker on the backwater world of Cruor all information was valuable. The Diktat had severe controls on what could and could not be freely distributed under their baleful gaze. Any information, no matter how seemingly insignificant, took on value when it was hard to come by.

Zosma paged through her contacts in her private booth. She was eager to find someone with an insight into the latest arrivals on the planet. A newly docked transport had disgorged a fresh batch of colonial hopefuls looking to escape the doldrums that was life on Volturn. She had Volturnian Lobster before, it was buttery and smooth but it had the kind of deep blandness that can only be created by synthetic evolution. Nothing would ever have evolved to be so utterly flavorless. That ennui seemed to ooze from every person who came from the planet reinforced her belief that nothing truly exciting ever happened on Volturn.

Nevertheless shiploads of technicians left the water world for the hostile environment of Cruor in droves. Some sought their fortune as prospectors on the surface as they looked for new exposed deposits of precious transplutonic ores. Others hoped to strike it rich in one of the few places the Diktat allowed a black market to openly exist. You could buy a handful of hover tank parts on the black market on Sindria, but you could buy a fully assembled and battle-ready one on Cruor (and the dealer would probably throw in a couple guerrilla-grade weapons for good measure).

Zosma was one of the few people on Cruor who had been born there. Her parents had decided that the government stipend for raising a child was a solid financial decision, but they had not factored in the fact that they were living on a constantly changing and mostly uninhabitable rock with an annual birth rate that usually rounded down to zero. There were no child care facilities on the entire colony, so Zosma was raised by the people closest to her—the incarcerated workers her parents oversaw.

Rivas had shown her what materials the security scanners could not see through and how to conceal anything on your body. Surya had taught her how to make a weapon out of common materials and what parts of a person were the softest. Jamux had taught her to listen and how to sneak through the checkpoints without notice. But a soft-faced man named Shrapnel had been the most kind and taught her how to make deals with people and given her the first job she ever did for the underworld.

She was 17 standard cycles old when Shrapnel had placed a small information cube into her hands. He had given her express instructions to deliver it to a dead-drop on the main docking level for the ore freighters. She hadn’t thought twice about it when she slid the little cube into the side of her Tri-Pad. In the contents of the drive were thousands of records for ore shipments, mostly incredibly boring and mundane things like departure times and inspection certificates. She was nearly ready to close the viewer and disconnect the drive when she noticed all the dates were for the following shift. Only the port authority and government police would know these schedules. Anyone else who did could use them to bring a shipment at the right moment under the guise of a regular ore freighter.

Zosma dutifully brought the data cube to the dead drop and left it in a crevice behind a loader-charging port, but Not before she had made several copies of the contents on several spares she purchased from an electronics dealer on the commercial concourse. She spent the next shift at the Three Body Problem, a local dive-bar notorious for its more lucrative side operations. Zosma had made her first true information broker connections that shift, ones that she still depended on to this day for their consistently good information.

Today, though, they were giving her nothing. The Queen of the Gates sat empty in her berth and not a soul on the station could feed her more than the manifest. She pulled up a video feed of the docking complex and focused down in the Queen. There was precious little to be gleaned from the cruise-ship-turned-transport’s shining hull and total lack of defining character. It lacked a functioning faster-than-light drive field generator and had little in the way of shielding beyond a cursory radiation protection system. The ship had arrived in the sector before the collapse as a thrilling adventure for wealthy families to see how the new colonies were coming along. When the gate network shut down the families had been touring the Askonia system and marveling at the namesake red giant’s flares. The ship had never left the system after that. None of the crew or passengers had access to their Domain-backed funds and the passenger ship languished at the periphery of the system unable to purchase passage out.

Enterprising colonists had sought to purchase it from the remaining crew but arrived to a grisly scene of carnage onboard. Numerous legends around the murder of the crew and passengers persisted, but were unprovable. At least no one mentioned them at the fare gates as they booked more and more travelers. The ship ran double-duty as a bulk transport for people looking to relocate within the Diktat’s sphere of influence and as a sight-seeing ship for the massive electrical storms on Salus.

Zosma pressed an icon on her Tri-Pad that signaled the bartender for another drink and sighed deeply. The manifest would have to do for now.

“Our two greatest problems are gravity and paperwork. We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” - Wernher von Braun, Chicago Sun Times, July 10, 1958

Ayala shielded their eyes from the harsh light of the docking bay. The weight of the travel bag bit into their shoulder for the first time in a week. The transport they had booked had taken its leisurely time in making the trip from Volturn to Cruor. The conventional drives made the ship slow to begin with and the cheapness of the captain meant that most of the trip was spent without acceleration. The novelty of zero-gravity wears off the first time you have to use a toilet.

Ayala was a field technician in Philip Andrada’s Grand Vision. They had spent most of their youth performing regular maintenance on the organics processors on Volturn, toiling away at ensuring the Diktat had the right materials to create the Standard Meal Rations. SMRs were essential to the Diktat just as surely as the fuel production. Without either the Diktat would not survive. Without technicians like Ayala the Diktat would not survive. Only the Diktat didn’t pay nearly enough for technicians like Ayala to survive.

They had left the relative placidity of Volturnian life to seek fortune elsewhere within the Diktat. Passports to leave the Askonia volume were only available to those with adequate financial support. Papers had to be filed correctly by greedy bureaucrats who only took payment from equally greedy deal-makers. Without the correct grease in the correct wheel applications for travel often got stuck in terminal loops—passing from one desk to another within the great government machine. All that before the costs of booking a real transport or purchasing working permits for one of the interstellar trading companies.

Ayala desperately wanted to leave this system and its giant red star as soon as possible and that meant heading to Cruor and trying to find a profitable claim. They had a penchant for mechanical things, often able to diagnose a faulty bearing in a fractioning plant by feel alone.

They had seen fit to tell one of the crew that the Queen of the Gates’ primary air handling loop had insufficient pressure to properly circulate to every cabin. The crew member had shrugged and walked off. Ayala spent the next two days creating an automatic diverter that could be inserted into their cabin vents and would direct more air flow from that corridor to their cabin. This had made their cabin feel a little less claustrophobic for the following four days.

Ayala felt a hand push into their back and they nearly topped over with the new force. Catching themself on the handrail they turned back to see a sea of people eagerly pushing forward towards the end of the docking ramp. Every one of them had the same plan as Ayala. A deep worry set in for the first time, there was so much competition for resources here that it would be nearly impossible for any one person to make enough to afford a trip out of the system. The government bureaucracy was designed to prevent that.

They steadied themself and pushed back into the flowing column of people heading down the ramp. Ayala would need something special to break out, a lead on a claim or perhaps early rights to mine a particularly profitable claim. Perhaps there was someone on the station that could point them in the right direction. Ayala new from their time working for the lobster union that all the old-timers liked to talk up their stories at the bar.

They had gotten a particularly juicy story from a man in his second century as he told them about how he had once had to wrangle, by hand, a lobster so large that it would not fit into the standard shipping container. The man had shown several scars on his arm where the supposed giant crustacean had grabbed him with its claws. Most of them looked like burn marks from an overheated drum bearing. The story had been good though, and at the end of it the man had given Ayala his battered transfer papers to start work in the organics processing facility. The lobster life was all he knew and all he wanted.

The extra income from the organics job had paid for Ayala’s ticket to Cruor. Maybe there were equally old men with equally tall tales of ore veins and volatile geysers waiting to be exploited. There was a holo ad at the end of the docking bay for a bar called Three Body Problem and Ayala pulled up a navigation panel on their Tri-Pad.

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? - Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964)

The Tri-Pad produced a synthesized two-tone chime that let Mathis know he had a new order for delivery. He grabbed a single drink from the automatic dispenser and made for one of the private booths in the Three Body Problem. On the way back a different set of tones let him know he had a booking for the evening as an escort. The service industry on Cruor had its reputation and Mathis had been working in it since he was able to buy his freedom from the mining prison. Piloting a temperamental mining rig used the same set of skills as consoling a visiting diplomat and both involved heavy amounts of synthetic alcohol before and after. It was work he excelled at.

He paused at the entrance to the private booth and confirmed the booking on his Tri-Pad. Returning to the job at hand he knocked lightly on the door and said, “Ma’am I have your drink order.”

A sharp, mousy, voice replied from inside, “Thank you. You may leave it on the serving stand outside.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said a touch of disappointment in his voice. Another perk of the job was getting information he wasn’t supposed to have, and the private booths were often filled with such things. He had never been able to get inside this one however, and it’s keen-voiced occupant had rebuffed several attempts. As he was about to leave the hallway he caught sight of a slender hand reaching out of the booth to pull the new drink in and seized an opportunity. “Pardon me, but if you have an empty glass I can take that from you.”

The door opened fully and a pair of nearly black eyes bored into his unflinchingly. “Thank you,” said the woman holding several empty glasses. Mathis broke eye-contact with the woman and looked down at the glasses. He bit the inside of his lip and sent a signal to the cybernetic implant in his retina to take a picture of everything in his field of view. A warm sensation washed over his eyes and for a moment flecks of static appeared in his vision. He looked back up into the woman’s eyes without missing a beat.

“You’re welcome ma’am,” he said, taking the glasses in hand and giving a short bow, again without breaking eye contact. The woman closed the door to the booth and a small red “do not disturb” hologram floated above the latch.

On his way back to the bar Mathis passed his Tri-Pad over his temple and downloaded the captured images. A 3D scene reconstructed itself before him based on the captured information in his implants. It was woefully sparse. The only thing he was able to make out was the open ship manifest for the transport currently docked. He personally knew the captain of the vessel, and had spent nights with more than a few of the crew. They were all regulars to the vices of Cruor.

The details of the manifest were mostly worthless; the staff at the port authority sold that information regularly and cheaply. However the fact that someone was looking at that manifest in this bar meant a little more. This woman was interested in what was on that ship. He was able to run a facial identity check against the Diktat’s population database but came up with nothing. Any serious data broker would be able to have their identity removed from any government database or pay to have their face reconstructed.

He opened a communication interface and sent a message to his handler for the Askonian Revolutionary Council based out of Umbra. He immediately got a reply: Priority Contact, Install Listening Chip, Perform Tailing Operation. He sighed and closed the interface paging over to his scheduler. He tapped cancel on this evening’s booking.

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible.” - Stephen Hawking, British Telecom advertisement (1993)

Ayala’s Tri-Pad chirped that they had reached their destination. They looked up at the garish faux-neon sign illuminated in a blood-red. Three orbs chaotically danced around the bold lettering Three Body Problem. “This is it,” they thought and walked up to the front door. The automatic opener gave slight gasp as the door slid to the side revealing the dark interior.

This bar was unlike the ones on Volturn they were used to. Those bars often smelled like salt-laden filters on an aquaponics system; this place smelled of mildew and decomposing aromatics from the synthetic alcohol. There was no lively banter or shouts of exuberance; everyone here looked like they were in the midst of a funeral.

“C’mon, order something or get out of the door,” said a tall muscular man next to the bar. A two-tone chirp came from somewhere nearby and he grabbed a drink and walked off. Ayala moved up to where the man had been standing and opened their Tri-Pad. A proximity window opened and showed several drink options available for purchase. It took several seconds of scrolling before they found something even remotely appealing. After confirming the purchase a glass with a thin layer of dark brown liquid slid from the automated dispenser.

Ayala swirled the liquid in the glass looking for anyone who even remotely looked like they would chat. A pungent peaty aroma wafted up from the glass and enticed them to drink. Ayala downed the shot in a neat flick then looked for a receptacle for their glass.

They were interrupted by a quick tap on their shoulder. “I’ll take that,” said a calm strong voice. Ayala turned and stood eye-to-eye with the large man from earlier.

“Thanks,” they said and handed the glass over. “Is this place always so quiet?”

“Yup. And the clientele pay to keep it that way,” the man said with disinterest as he started to return to the bar.

“I’m not looking to cause trouble, I’m just looking for some information,” Ayala said trying to keep up with the long strides of the man.

The man stopped and turned abruptly to face them. A practiced expressionless gaze assessed Ayala before the man said, “Information does not come cheaply. Do you have something to barter or knowledge to trade?”

Ayala thought hard for a moment. “I have the security codes to the ship that just docked,” they lied.

The man’s eyes betrayed a sudden shock. “Is that so?” He asked drawing out the last syllable. “How did you come about possessing these codes?”

“I was a passenger on the last run, and they wouldn’t listen to me about the air system so I took matters into my own hands,” said Ayala. They knew the best lies were always built on a foundation of truth.

The man nodded almost imperceptibly. “And what would you like in return for a trade?” He asked.

“I want to know about any lucrative mining opportunities,” said Ayala.

“It is impossible, by the way, when picking one example of anything, to avoid picking one which is atypical in some sense.” - Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1965)

The drink was flat by the time Zosma got around to it. She pulled up the security footage of the technician that had entered the bar a few hours earlier. There were rarely visitors that stood out so much and obviously had no idea what they were doing. Most people took one look at the Three Body Problem and kept walking to one of the other bars in the colony.

She had already run the usual background checks and database lookups and found absolutely nothing interesting. They had departed the transport ship without incident, and all the paperwork for their transit actually seemed legitimate. For all appearances this “Ayala Langsdale” was just another technician lost in the hostile world of Cruor.

But lost technicians don’t walk out of the bar with the highest paid male escort in the district without something going on. Conveniently their path away had been obscured by several large transport skiffs and neither face had been picked up in the last hour by the security scanners. They had effectively disappeared.

Zosma set her drink down again and furiously tapped through multiple feeds looking for any sign of their presence. A notification from one of her informants in the mining guild told her that someone matching Ayala’s description had just rented a survey craft. She checked the registry and the credit account matched the one used to pay for the passage to Cruor.

Immediately she had four screens open to track all the planetary vessels until the transponder linked to the rented craft appeared on the traffic display. The craft was outbound at full speed from the colony and headed over an area know for its instability. She had to find out where this technician was headed and why, nothing a little interrogation wouldn’t uncover. Zosma placed a call to her personal shuttle pilot and told him to begin preparing for a rapid launch.

It took 15 minutes to get from the commercial districts to her personal docking bay and another 3 to brief the pilot on her plan. Before she had even strapped in to her chair the ship glided out of its docking restraints and the low rumble of the shuttle’s engines rolled through the hull.

Her tracking software would be able to keep a close watch on the survey craft for as long as the transponder was active. She knew it was possible to disable them on the rental craft but she had bribed the rental company to provide her with their proprietary tracking frequencies just in case. The craft was crude and designed to skim only a few hundred meters above the surface. Her shuttle, with several orders of magnitude more performance, would be able to intercept the craft in relatively short order.

The little craft buffeted close to the surface. Its pilot clearly not used to the extreme convection currents that boiled up from the rapid release of heat in the constantly shifting crust. Zosma’s own pilot was an expert and had been flying combat bombers for the Diktat before she had recruited him. He aligned their vectors perfectly and descended almost on top of the small craft before it veered wildly. The shuttle was equipped with a hidden EMP projector disguised as a laser comm array.

There were no wasted shots from Zosma’s pilot.

The survey craft’s engines sputtered and it rapidly lost altitude. It glided towards the surface completely uncontrolled and impacted with relatively little fuss. The shuttle circled closely overhead before Zosma ordered the ship down and the rest of the crew to prepare for an important guest.

A dusty pressure suit was hoisted out of the wreckage and corralled at the end of several CP-carbines into the loading bay of the shuttle. When the bay was repressurized one of the hired marines began removing the figure’s helmet.

Zosma looked at the dazed face before her and waved her Tri-Pad over their face to confirm it was the same technician from the bar. The ID system returned a 95% match, the discrepancies were notably in areas where some swelling was starting to occur. The shock of off-white hair on their head was tamped down by sweat and grime. “Who are you?” asked Zosma forcibly.

The person began, “I’m Technician First Class Ayala…”

“No.” Zosma interrupted them. “No technician of any rank has the ability to completely disappear from station security for 3 hours and then somehow appear in a rented ship heading towards one of the most desolate regions of the planet. Who. Are. You.”

“I don’t… I don’t know what you mean. I went with that man from the bar…” said the technician, clearly confused.

“That… Man… happens to be a very skilled consort with many connections to people far worse than me,” said Zosma, contempt filling her with rage.

“I just asked him about claims he may have heard about,” said the technician. “He gave me these coordinates and said there was rumors of a massive deposit of transplutonics.” They tapped a couple buttons on their wrist terminal and a set of points illuminated on a map of the surface. Zosma leaned in and scrutinized each point.

“He gave you nothing. Two of these are empty basalt flows that are ancient by Cruor standards. And the other is an abandoned wreck known to harbor pirates.” Zosma paused. “I take it back. He was probably trying to get you killed. What did you give him for this information?” She asked wrapping the words around the technician like a boa constrictor.

“I tried to give him fake security codes for the Queen of the Gates,” said the technician with a weak voice.

“Did you have the real codes?” asked Zosma coiling the words tighter.

The technician looked ashamed and began worrying at a fold in the pressure suit. “No. I lied. I figured I could come up with a persuading enough fake to fool all of them long enough to get to a ship and stake a claim before they figured it out.”

Zosma tensed. “Wait. Who was it you made a deal with?”

“I don’t know their names, but the man brought me to a hotel and in one of the rooms there was a holo-presence suite. There were at least three others with different avatars waiting. I offered them the codes and they told the man to ‘give me what I asked for,'” said the technician, obviously hiding something. Zosma opened her Tri-Pad and accessed the colony’s data streams. A holo-presence suite would create noticeable traffic on the network for anything other than local transmissions. The packets practically screamed their presence to her. The comm buffer on the colony only stored the first relay hop for the packets but it was enough to be sure.

Zosma looked the technician directly in the eyes and asked, “The avatars. Were they a dragon, a polar bear, and gryphon?”

“Yes. That’s them exactly,” said the technician excitedly.

Zosma straightened and backed away from the technician. “You have made some very, very powerful enemies today. Those were the leaders of the Askonian Revolutionary Council, or at least some form of them. The ARC has many voices to fill the roles of the three as needed.” A sudden realization spread across her mind. “The man that brought you to them, did he mention anything else to you. A meeting location, dead drop, anything at all to follow up with you?”

The technician worried at the fold again. “No. I don’t think so.”

One of Zosma’s marines moved to her side and whispered in her ear, “The Queen of the Gates is getting ready for departure ma’am. Unscheduled. Flight plan as filed is for the standard sight-seeing tour, but there are no VIPs on the manifest.”

Zosma nodded an understanding and looked back to the technician. “I have a developing situation that you may be of use for.”

“So Einstein was wrong when he said, ‘God does not play dice.’ Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can't be seen.” - The Nature of Space and Time (1996) by Stephen Hawking

Mathis pressed his palm against the concealed flechette pistol. Its weight created unnatural folds in his jacket and anyone astute enough would be able to see it. Nothing else had quite the same effect it had when used appropriately and he needed certain tools to complete his new assignment.

Earlier he had returned to the bar to find his target had already left. He opened a line to his handler and reported his failure. He waited for a reprimand but none came. Instead a new line of orders came through, these ones marked as high priority. The long list of coded phrases instructed him to board the Queen of the Gates and secure the command deck shortly after departure.

The ship was to rendezvous with another transport in low Salus orbit and take on a new crew. The Queen was already slated to perform the standard sight-seeing tour along the same route. This new objective wouldn’t raise any traffic control concerns and the ship could proceed to Sindria under normal scrutiny.

The ship was originally to then to pick up a load of political dissidents from Sindria and bring them to Cruor for assignment to labor camps. Instead of delivering them to the labor camps they were going to free them under the auspices of the ARC. It never hurt to have a few hundred politically motivated rebels owe you a favor.

Mathis had been working towards this mission for nearly three cycles. He had surreptitiously stolen access codes, ship diagrams, and loads of other information on the Queen from her many crew, most of whom had booked nights with him or one of his fellow operatives. However the final key was the security codes provided to him by the unwitting technician.

The council had instructed him to give the technician coordinates for one of the clandestine operations on the planet. The mercenaries stationed there would capture the tech and interrogate them for any additional information. After that it was none of Mathis’ concern.

He loped up the boarding ramp for the transport ship and made a sharp left turn. He knew from memorizing the ship diagrams that there would be a maintenance access here. That access would take him to a damage control station and from there he could follow a spider web of infrastructure to the command deck.

All the panels on the loading decks had a low-security bypass for emergency personnel. He had acquired the codes from an unscrupulous EMT a month prior. The biometrics he had stolen from the quartermaster would get him into the DC station. The last piece of the puzzle was how to unlock the ship when the crew inevitably retaliated to his take over of the command deck. Armed with the new security codes he would be able to wrest control of the ship and guide it to the waiting ARC transport.

The plan was perfect, but he knew better than to blindly trust a plan. The first thing to go badly was the sudden lurch in his stomach from the ship accelerating. The Queen wasn’t supposed to undock for another 3 hours. Mathis had checked the loading status before attempting his own unscheduled departure; almost none of the VIPs had boarded yet.

He maneuvered in the tight crawl space and double-checked his Tri-Pad. The ship was definitely leaving early, but the flight plan was still the same. It was still over two days’ journey to Salus on the ship’s ancient drive. That was plenty of time to neutralize key members of the crew and prepare the ship for its new occupants.

Mathis swapped the Tri-Pad for his flechette pistol and checked the charge on the weapon. The three status indicators glowed a dull green. With the ship underway the crew was more likely to be performing random checks of systems and Mathis didn’t want any delay in dispatching witnesses. He made his way meter by meter down the access and soon a closed hatch appeared around the curve of the passage.

Mathis pressed his palm against the sealed doors and felt the cold, unyielding metal. The sensory implants in his hands could pick up minute vibrations; technically they were designed for medical applications where trauma kits and auto-medics would need to be able to sense even the faintest of heartbeats. He occasionally used them for their original purpose, but most of the time he employed them as a way to listen through walls.

He sensed the low thrum of the ship’s reactor and the irregular impacts of someone moving objects in low gravity, but he picked up nothing from the space immediately beyond the hatch. The security here was an easily spoofed signal and the hatch dutifully unsealed and opened to reveal the central damage control station.

Racks of tools stood by in magnetic holders illuminated by the soft low-power lighting. Emergency patch kits were haphazardly lashed against every available surface and the room gave off a claustrophobic feeling of immense clutter. As Mathis swung himself out of the crawl space the door indicator flashed green and someone began entering the room. Mathis spun and trained the pistol on the door.

The door slid open as his fingers pressed on the trigger mechanism. The pistol shaved off several darts from its caseless ammunition and fed them to an electromagnetic launcher. The only sound was a zipper-like buzz as the darts whizzed through the air.

A crew member’s face appeared for a moment and was replaced by a slowly inflating balloon of red blood. In an incomprehensibly fast motion Mathis had the floating corpse by the waist and was dragging it into the room. A quick glance up and down the hallway assured him this crew member was alone and he closed the door.

He used one of the patch kits to attach the body inside an access passage and sealed the hatch. No one would find it in the next few days but he made a mental note to tell his employers about it so that it wouldn’t be too much of a mess. Mathis tucked one of his errant hairs back into place and consulted his Tri-Pad.

There were two ways of getting to the command deck: he could crawl through yet another interminable access passage or simply walk up through the passenger compartments. He suspected that with the lack of bulk passengers and a limited load of sightseers he would go mostly unnoticed. The counter argument was that because there were so few people on board anyone moving around was likely to be under higher scrutiny.

Mathis ran his hand along his pistol thoughtfully. If he had thought to bring a carbine he could make short work of the entire crew, as it stood he had limited confidence in his current tool’s ability. He exhaled slowly through his nose and closed his eyes. A mental map of the ship played through his mind; two minutes along this deck, go up one level—likely no-one, four minutes back along the main axis—likely three to four contacts, open a security door, three minutes through crew quarters—likely five to six contacts, the CIC would be locked down during flight—one minute to override, standard flight compliment was four plus officer on duty—five contacts. It was too risky.

He sent the override to the access tunnel and began to climb in. Once inside there was no room to turn around so he cycled the hatch with his foot. He felt a slight shudder in the ship, but not the same as a drive correction. Someone had docked with the ship. His contacts knew he was on the ship, had they come early?

“Every experiment destroys some of the knowledge of the system which was obtained by previous experiments.” - Werner Heisenberg, "Critique of the Physical Concepts of the Corpuscular Theory" in The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (1930)

The ship’s captain floated gracefully along the docking tube flanked by a set of well-armed security guards with their mag rifles lazily pointing up the tube. His face was set in a stern expression and he wore a rumpled jumpsuit that had been hastily put on in the last few hours. Ayala kept their feet firmly planted on the shuttle’s hull and greeted her welcoming party with a broad smile.

“What is the meaning of this interruption in our flight,” said the captain with a strong colonial accent.

“I am so sorry Captain,” said Ayala stressing every syllable and genuflecting appropriately. “But I was unaware of the early departure of your ship and very much wanted to see the lights of Salus, so I contracted with this shuttle crew to bring me up here at much expedience so that I might rejoin you on your voyage.” They put as much gentle intonation as they could and flashed their best winning smile.

The captain grumbled something about the dock authority before asking, “I’ll need to see your travel credentials. Diktat policy, I’m afraid.”

“Of course Captain,” said Ayala handing over a small unbranded holo-pad.

The captain took it and immediately his face fell. He brought up his own Tri-Pad to confirm the details and then handed Ayala’s pad back to them. “I’m sorry for the confusion Councillor. We departed dock early to get back to Volturn for the Lobsterfest. We’ll get a berth ready for you immediately.”

“Thank you Captain.” Before Ayala could finish she felt a small vibration on their leg that let her know Zosma and her agents had successfully made the transit and were secured on board the Queen of the Gates. Ayala readied theirself for the next phase of the mission, “While your crew is readying my berth could I possibly take a tour of your fine ship?”

“Of course Councillor, where would you like to begin? I’d be happy to provide a tour with one of our security detail,” said the captain now extremely generous in his attitude.

“I would love to see how this ship is run, there may be things we can implement in the Diktat’s larger mercantile fleets. Supreme Executor Admiral Andrada has taken a more focused approach to trade in the last few cycles and I would love to give him new ideas at the next council meeting,” lied Ayala with a gentle touch on the captain’s wrist. “Lead away my good Captain.”

The captain looked momentarily flustered and confused but acquiesced to Ayala’s implicit command. He turned and began leading Ayala and the two security staff back into his ship. Both officers held their weapons tighter to their chests and scanned the hallways repeatedly, clearly taking their job more seriously than when they floated up the docking tube. The captain stammered slightly as he began by giving the specifications of the ship like a first year lieutenant filling out port authority forms.

“Oh, Captain, if I wanted the keel-capacity of your ship I would ask the port master or the shipwright. I want to know how your ship is run; how do you manage duties, who does your navigation, things of that nature.” Ayala said, chiding the captain and giving him gentle direction. “Let’s head to your command deck and you can go over your shift structure on the way.”

The captain nodded and relaxed slightly. He led the troop up and into the quiet command deck. The space was haphazardly arranged with many of the ship’s stations plastered with dozens of information screens showing various outputs of on-board generators and hull-mounted cameras. Few if any of the ship’s original luxury accommodations were found here, replaced by spartan chairs welded to the floor and harsh orange lighting.

A junior officer looked momentarily confused by the captain’s presence on the deck accompanied both by security officers and a stranger. The captain gave a leer visible from the back of his head and made a gesture mostly obfuscated by his body. The effect was clear though as the officer immediately straitened and shouted, “Captain on deck.”

Confused heads swiveled towards the group with more than one holding a food item in their mouths. As the moment registered across the room scuffling could be heard as drink containers were stowed and command screens hastily changed from non-sequitur video feeds to engine readouts and sensor arcs. The captain coughed and introduced his flight crew. Ayala nodded to each in turn and took interest in the navigation station.

They glided towards the ensign at her post and looked over her shoulder at the projected flight path of the Queen. “So close to Salus, you could practically touch it,” said Ayala.

From behind her the captain said, “Indeed Councilor, we are going to pass through the very upper portions of the giant’s atmosphere. We have to take special precautions not to accumulate too much charge on the hull. We’ve been struck in the past.”

“By the planet’s storms?” ask Ayala genuinely interested.

“Yes. The lightning is spectacular. I’m glad you were able to make it aboard to see it,”said the captain.

“As am I, Captain,” said Ayala. They slipped a small object out of their pressure suit’s utility pocket. “Are those the engine diagnostics?” they asked of a screen at the far side of the deck. When the captain and crew distractedly looked across Ayala placed the listening bug on the underside of the navigation console.

“Yes, Councilor. We use reaction mass drives exclusively, this ship was never equipped with a KL drive. It makes for a leisurely pace, but our operating costs are much lower. Much less power demand, you see, no fusion reactor,” said the captain posting to a different screen. “We can run off of the waste from most of the bigger ships.”

Ayala floated up next to the captain. “Captain, that may well be the thing we need in the Diktat’s fleets. I will be sure to mention your cooperation and insight when I next see The Supreme Executor.”They provided the captain with a small gold lion-emblem. “For now I would like some rest, can you direct me to my quarters?”

The captain looked wide-eyed at the Lion’s Guard token before snapping back to the moment. “Of course Councillor. The security detail will take you there immediately.”

Ayala walked with the two guards until they left the crew quarters and descended into the original luxury berths on the ship. One of the officers gestured at a set of real-wood doors made from a tree that had grown on Old Earth. Ayala nodded politely and grabbed both officers' gloved hands in their own. “Thank you for your service in the name of the Diktat.”

The flash of the stun sticks illuminated the entire hallway for a moment as two agents emerged out of nowhere and felled the security guards. Zosma stepped out from the wooden doors. “I knew where they would take you. This suite is practically a palace. I might have to move my office…” she trailed off in thought gesturing for Ayala and the agents to follow her.

The agents made quick work of disarming the guards and assuming their identities. The two officers were bound and taken further into the cavernous suite. Ayala gawked at the opulent padding on every surface; a full-sized piano was bolted to a far bulkhead and a truly massive transparent-aluminum viewport opposed it. Seemingly suspended in the middle of the room was a circular table with chairs also magically bound in place. Seated at the far side of the table was Zosma, engrossed in something on a Tri-Pad.

“Ma’am,” said Ayala. Zosma did not look up. “Ma’am, did the bug I planted work?”

Zosma moved her eyes to stare at Ayala without even the slightest motion of her head. “Yes. It is providing very valuable information on this ship’s course.”

“Was there any information on why the ship left early,” asked Ayala.

Zosma slammed her Tri-Pad on the table and bored a hole in Ayala’s forehead with her gaze. “Ask the captain that question,” she yelled.

Ayala wanted to reply but found they had accidentally floated a few centimeters above the bulkhead and were now rotating slowly backward. They heard Zosma sigh.

“Tuck your feet to your chest and breathe in, when you rotate around, breathe out and extend your feet,” said Zosma in a gentle tone.

Ayala did as they were told and found their feet gently touching the pillow surface of the bulkhead again. The magnetic anchors activated and they were pulled back into solid contact. “Thanks, I’ve never really spent a lot of time in microgravity. I mean, I never got to leave my cabin when I was on this ship before,” said Ayala.

Zosma appeared concerned for the first time Ayala had ever seen. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You did a better job than any of my agents could have done. I’m just…” she looked back down at her Tri-Pad again a look of surprise on her face. “There’s another ship.”

“What is it that we humans depend on? We depend on our words... Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. We must strive continually to extend the scope of our description, but in such a way that our messages do not thereby lose their objective or unambiguous character ... We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word ‘reality’ is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly.” - Niels Bohr, Philosophy of Science Vol. 37 (1934)

Mathis risked discovery but he had recognized the voice on the other side of the hatch to the command center. There was no way they had gotten on board the ship without outside assistance, and outside assistance did not factor into his plans. Unable to turn around he had crawled backwards along the same corridor he had just climbed up. His shoulders ached and neck was sore from holding his head up, but he pushed the bodily sensations aside and focused back onto his assigned tasks; take over the ship, prepare for the arrival of the other crew, eliminate any witnesses.

Those objectives had not changed, just the methods he was going to use were flexible. He climbed out into the familiar damage control station and did a quick survey of the hallway outside. The coast was clear. Mathis walked out of the station and proceeded towards the passenger compartments. He estimated they would have a decent head start but he could probably overcome the guards and interrogate that tech in short order.

He stopped at every hallway and intersection and cleared it before proceeding forward. It would do him no good to be caught now. He heard them before he even got to the corner. They were talking to the guards about serving the Diktat, they would be distracted, now was the time to strike.

Mathis leveled his pistol and turned the corner just as the flashes went off. He jumped back assuming it was some sort of flash-bang, but there was only muffled grunts and the sounds of a momentary struggle. He was truly confused and then he heard another voice he recognized. The information broker from the bar was here, on the Queen of the Gates.

He grabbed his Tri-Pad and overrode the secrecy mode. He pressed a link into the communication panel and was able to connect through the ships comm array to the relay on Cruor. He knew his handler would be listening. All he had to do was send the right starting code and his message would be received no matter where he sent it on the planet.

He keyed in the activation phrase and a short code-worded message that would let his handler know the mission parameters had drastically changed. He hit send and waited for a reply. It came faster than he anticipated: Understood. Sending ark. New primary task, subdue target and associates.

Mathis adjusted his pistol to a non-lethal setting. The flechette darts would travel slower and probably wouldn’t have enough energy to penetrate body armor, but they also wouldn’t go through bone. They would hurt and possibly maim but unless they hit something sensitive they would be unlikely to kill. It would be enough to distract or injure his targets and leave them more easily knocked out.

He rounded the corner and jogged towards the suite’s door. He made it there in a few bounds and pressed his hand to the door. Unlike the metal hatches it was difficult to hear through, something about it muffled the sounds on the other side. He had little time, the waiting ship would be spotted as soon as it left the upper atmosphere and then he wouldn’t have surprise as a tool.

He braced against the door frame and tucked his legs to his chest. In the microgravity hitting the door would likely cause it to obstruct his targets in the room beyond. He would have the initiative but they would have cover. There was a yell from the room. He kicked with all his strength and the door flew off its hinges and sailed into the next room.

The door hit something solid and stopped a few meters in. Mathis ducked through the opening and sailed through the air to his left. A security officer with an assault weapon stood flat-footed in front of him. He squeezed the trigger and a set of darts zipped from the end of the gun, impacting the weak points of the armor around the guard's shoulder.

Blood spurted from the wounds as the guard reeled from the impact. A moment later Mathis collided with them at full speed; driving his feet down and elbow up and under the guard's face shield. The officer’s head lifted and Mathis drove the barrel of his gun under the guard’s chin and squeezed. A wet crunching sound reverberated in the helmet.

Mathis turned towards the middle of the room and saw three other targets, his combat implants cataloging them instantly. His primary target was unarmed, the tech from Volturn was knocked unconscious by the impact with the door, and another guard with a rifle stood a few meters from him. This one had time to react and was already leveling their weapon at him. He wasn’t close enough to a wall to launch himself directly at them. He did have some cover. He pulled the body of the dead guard to shield himself.

The rifles the guards had were designed for use inside spacefaring vessels, as was his pistol. They didn’t pack enough energy to break through a hull and depressurize a ship. That had the side effect of making pretty much everything effective cover. The other guard fired uselessly into the corpse as Mathis closed the distance between them.

He could feel the solid thuds of the slugs impacting the body as more blood expanded in a fine mist around him. He was very glad it was not his own. The guard, realizing the futility of their actions, dodged to the side to get a better shot. They were good, but they weren’t nearly as fast as Mathis.

He had already brought up his pistol and switched it back to the lethal setting when the guard realized their mistake. A hail of flechette rounds struck the guard across the chest and neck sparking against the ceramic plates. The armor absorbed much of the impact but several rounds found weaker spots in the fabric and tore through to the flesh beyond.

The guard spun and let a last burst of automatic fire tearing at the room’s padding and raking up Mathis’ left leg and arm. A fair exchange, he thought, as he finally got close enough to the guard to grapple them. The guard struggled with him for a small eternity by most standards. Mathis’ left arm was ruined and his leg was starting to go numb, but he was still far stronger and faster than the injured guard. Soon he had them subdued. He didn’t waste time and dispatched them with a quick shot through the neck.

The guards were dealt with so Mathis turned again towards his primary target. She was still in the middle of the room glowering at him. He raised his pistol and aimed at her leg. He would incapacitate her and prepare her for interrogation by the ARC. He fired a burst of flechettes.

He could see the darts sitting there mere centimeters from their target. He fired again and more darts slowed to a halt in mid air. The table and chairs his target was sitting at were also suspended; held in place by an inertial-confining electromagnetic field.

Mathis cursed and he heard her say, “Just *** shoot him!”

To his right the technician from Volturn was holding one of the guards’ rifles. “Yes ma’am.” The slugs passed mercifully through his brain.

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” - Richard Feynman, written on his blackboard at the time of death (1988)

Zosma passed the scanner over the former bartender's body. “He’s got loads of unregistered cybernetics; retinal cameras, endocrine boosters, a full suite of skin sensors in almost every electromagnetic range, and all very clandestine.”

“You mean had. He had those things,” said Ayala who was standing over the body with the gun still pointed at its chest.

“Yes, he’s fortunately very much in the past tense. The encryption is bad on the data vault in his skull, also fortunate you didn’t just blast it too,” said Zosma.

“What was he doing with all that tech?” Ayala asked, shouldering the rifle a little tighter.

“The same thing I do, but for different masters,” said Zosma.

Ayala nodded an affirmative, and took their eyes off of the body for the first time. “Who do we work for?”

“You work for me. That’s as much as you should know,” said Zosma dismissively. She eased slightly. “This man worked for anyone who would pay him, he had no masters save the one giving him credits. I have more loyalty than that, and let’s just leave it there.”

Ayala looked slightly confused. “He worked for the rebels on Umbra? The revolutionary council? Right?”

Zosma looked over Ayala, “What do you know about the ARC?”

“That’s… That’s what you said when you tracked me out…out to the wastes,” said Ayala clearly flustered.

“Relax, I’m not accusing you of being an operative. The ARC is a bogeyman held aloft by pirates who think they’re good and noble for standing up to the Diktat, or the Hegemony, or the whole Domain of Man. There’s always been an ARC and even if, in the slightest chance in hell, they did manage to overthrow the government, this system is so full of rebels that want to rebel nothing would really change.” Zosma looked down at her chiming Tri-Pad. “And that’s the data vault cracked. I’m going to forward this to that burner I gave you earlier. Do. Not. Lose. It.”

Ayala looked down at the unbranded holo-pad at her hip. “Yes, ma’am.”

 “Now how about we go have a chat with our dear captain friend.”Zosma stood up and grabbed Ayala’s shoulder. “Thank you.” She squeezed slightly and continued walking towards the door.

If she had the ability to she would have kicked the door of the command deck open. As it was a solid pressure door she settled for a dramatic opening and confident stride to the captain’s console. Heads turned around suddenly at the sounds of mag boots crossing the deck for the second time that shift, only this time most of them showed signs of terror.

“Captain. I am informing you of an assassin that has been neutralized on board your ship.” Zosma said with extreme confidence. The captain looked from Zosma to Ayala and back.

“Councilor, why are you carrying a rifle, and is that blood?” Asked the captain with a bewildered look on his face.

“Not a councilor, listen to her,” said Ayala gesturing at Zosma with the rifle.

“Right. That ship you’re tracking from Salus. Full of pirates. I suggest we run. Preferably to Cruor, though if you’ve got other suggestions I’ll hear them,” said Zosma moving up to the navigation display.

The ensign at the station looked up at her with awe. “We estimate intercept in 2 hours ma’am.” Said the ensign.

“If we turn and burn with everything how much does that widen the gap,” asked Zosma, engrossed in the screen.

“This ship’s not really built for that kind of travel, but we could sustain a burn for maybe an hour. It’d widen the gap to 4 hours. We’d still have enough reaction mass to slow down into the planet, but we’d be 6 hours out at time of intercept,” said the ensign.

Zosma was still staring at the screen. “Not good enough.” She turned to the captain. “Everyone needs to get off this ship. I can fit thirty people on my shuttle. I’m down two crew and I know there’s seventeen people on board right now. We’ll all fit. Let’s go.” Without even waiting for a reply she turned to leave the room. “You may want to scuttle the ship, those pirates are going to use her to smuggle criminals onto Cruor.” She nodded to Ayala on her way out.

Ayala said to the room, “We're cutting the docking line in 30 minutes. Anyone not on board is staying here.” They followed suit out of the command deck.

Back on her shuttle Zosma pulled up a much more detailed navigation display and planned an escape vector away from the Queen. Her pilot confirmed the flight plan and set to work preparing the ship for an emergency burn. In the minutes that followed all seventeen people still on board the Queen made the decision to board her vessel.

After the last crew member boarded Zosma stood by the airlock and prepared the ship to disconnect. She had undone two of the locking clamps when her pilot came running up the corridor. “Bad news ma’am, I ran the numbers again and it looks like even if we emergency burn away that other ship is too close and already up to speed. They’ll be able to catch us and force a combat volume. I don’t think we have the firepower to take out a fast destroyer, even a pirate one.”

Zosma thought for a moment. The vast horizon of Salus was just beginning to disappear as the two ships passed inexorably through the gas giant’s penumbra. A flash of lightning rolled a third of the way along the planet below. She pointed at the fissures of light snaking through the clouds.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the pilot.

“A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven.” - Richard Feynman, "The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics," (1965)

Ayala shifted uncomfortable in the command chair. There were so many little things that could go wrong with their plan and they all played across their mind; what if the pirate vessel recognized there were two ships, what if the pirates fired early and hit them while they were still connected, what if the pirates were faster and more maneuverable than the pilot had predicted, what if the storms on Salus were more severe, what if their ship broke apart from the atmospheric stresses, what if they just died right there from all of the stress.

Zosma’s strong voice came over the suit coms, “Buckle up folks, we’re about to light the drive.” Ayala had been given command of monitoring engine output. Normally this task would be handled by the ship’s computer, but the ship’s computer didn’t know how to fly through a dense atmosphere of ammonia. Not that Ayala did either, but they did know how to feather a throttle on a repair sub to get back to the floating habs. It seemed like a close enough match.

A countdown clock showed the time remaining until the pirate vessel was within range to detect the two ships. The crew of Queen of the Gates had rigged their ship to burn hard and dirty towards a gravity-assist trajectory. It was a somewhat logical escape plan under normal circumstances. The pirate ship would have to alter course in order to keep up. The only problem was that the Queen had abysmal engines and the most they could do was barely a blip on a KL drive-equipped ship.

What it really did was bring their intercept point very close to Salus. They would separate from the Queen and use her bulk as a shield until they could force their way into the upper clouds of the gas planet. The captain had said he had done this maneuver countless times and the trick was to skim across the different gas layers; plunge too deep and you burn up, aim too high and you would get buffeted apart by the convection currents. He had never done it on the night side though, with the inky blackness of the clouds only occasionally seen by the blue flashes of lighting edge-lighting them.

Then there were the electrical storms. The vast amounts of convecting gasses created spectacularly massive bolts of lightning. The captain had mentioned something about depolarizing the hull to protect against strikes and he set about with an industrial degaussing tool. More power to him if it kept the ship from being struck by gigajoules of energy.

The automated countdown went down into seconds and Ayala reflexively grabbed the edges of their chair. The burn would be initiated by the pilot but she would have thrust control shortly after they entered the atmosphere. Zosma’s voice counted down the last remaining seconds. A sudden jolt threw the ship aside as the docking port was sheared off with explosive bolts. The pilot leaned into and the ship raced away under a full emergency burn.

The shuttle was equipped with a low-power KL drive, but this close to the planet and the pirates it was useless. Ayala felt the ship roll to present the larger aspect to the roiling black clouds that rapidly approached. The exterior feeds showed spikes in temperature on every major hull section. They were in it now.

The pilot called out inbound intercept missiles loaded with EMP warheads and engine-seeking guidance. The missiles were not designed to fly though atmosphere and in the wake of the shuttle they spiraled off into the abyss of darkness below. The pirate ship had abandoned their prize and was attempting to reach them now. The distance callout was advancing at a worryingly low pace.

The element of surprise had worn off and the enemy was giving full chase, only they weren’t being slowed by friction with the atmosphere. At least not yet. The pilot gave engine control to Ayala and told them to watch the temperature on engine 2, it was already outside of the standard safety margins.

Ayala looked back and forth from the outside pressure gauges to the engine temperature screens. They were trying to keep the two stable and in the green bands recommended by the captain. It was delicate work and Ayala’s eyes began to water from the concentration. Zosma’s voice broke their revelry calling out that the pirate ship was now in the same soup they were in.

A bright red bolt of light sailed just over the windows in the cockpit. The pilot shouted curses at the pirates in reply. Ayala permitted herself to look up at the flight deck. The pilot shouted back down to them to get back to her job and they looked back just in time to see the pressure indicators rising far into the warning zones. The engine temperatures seemed to be falling in this zone, though, and the ship was handling much smoother. She called for a new bracketing based on their current pressure readings and the screens updated accordingly.

Both ship were now screaming through the black clouds maintaining the same relative distance. The captain of the Queen burst up from the lower decks and screamed something about the lightning. Zosma gave the order to climb and Ayala gave the engines full power. Strange, iridescent flames began to gather at the corners of the flight deck. The captain began to wail in a strange language in a tone that definitely sounded like final rites.

The shuttle burst out of the top-most cloud layer into the star-filled sky. From somewhere deep below the ship a lash of electricity exploded into a million filaments arcing and forking below in a chaotic dance. The hull mounted cameras found the pirate ship for a moment before it sank deep below the clouds. A bright white flash of a failing reactor core was the last evidence of its passing.

Ayala let out a long breath and returned engine control to the pilot. The shuttle limped back to rejoin the Queen of the Gates now out of fuel and drifting harmlessly above the clouds of Salus. It looked almost peaceful after the horrific events of the last day.

Ayala spun her chair around to face the captain and asked him, “How did you know the lightning was about to strike?”

The captain pointed to his leg and revealed a metal prosthetic. “When the charge builds up I can feel the tingles in my leg.”

Ayala stifled a laugh. “I’m glad you were here with us, Captain. We’d be crushed in the depths of Salus by now if you weren’t”

The captain smiled and called up to Zosma, “Hear that, sounds like you owe me a favor.”

Zosma’s cold voice boomed down from her command chair, “I saved your sorry ass from those pirates twice already.” Then in lighter tone. “But I’m willing to call it even… for now.”

The captain shrugged and disappeared back down to gather his crew.

A personal communication from Zosma appeared on Ayala’s screen. They tapped the icon and a map of Cruor popped up. On it where several highlighted zones. They heard Zosma’s voice on the suit comm, “Those are proprietary survey locations from a recent satellite flyover. They’re all yours to file.”

Ayala simply yelled “thank you!” back up to her command chair.

The captain and his crew negotiated a fair trade for just enough fuel to get them back to Volturn in exchange for providing Zosma with detailed information on their passengers and cargo. Their transfer took even less time than the evacuation and soon they were underway. Ayala wished after them, wondering if the life of an interplanetary hauler was a better job than a prospector on a constantly shifting world.

Zosma put that prospect out immediately when she told Ayala how much the average hauler made and following it up with how much each claim she had given them was worth. Several orders of magnitude were hard to argue with.

Upon reaching the private docks on Cruor Zosma said goodbye to Ayala and she headed off towards a meeting with a contact concerning a smuggled shipment of harvested organs that was recently confiscated by the port authority.

Ayala went to the rental office and was about to rent another survey skiff when the clerk recognized them.

“Don’t you already have an ongoing rental?” asked the clerk. “I could have sworn we were down one skiff…”

“I think you’re mistaken. I’ve never rented here before,” they said convincingly.

The clerk looked them over slightly skeptically, but sighed and said, “Fine, yours is in bay 28B. No insurance, bring it back without a scratch on it.”

Ayala smiled and walked briskly to the skiff. She stopped dead in her tracks when the familiar silhouette of the bartender walked out from behind the craft.

“God does not play dice” - Albert Einstein

Mathis smiled at the technician from Volturn. The scar on the back of his neck itched where the clinic had uploaded his saved personality into the data vault designed to be decrypted, uploaded, recovered, and reinstalled in a fresh body.

 “Hello, I think there’s some things we should chat about. Won’t you join me for a little afternoon drive?” The lithe man jumped into the craft with astonishing agility and motioned for the technician to join him.