Dean Dean, the owner, Captain, and sole crewmember of the class 4 independent galactic freighter St. Jude should have been happy, or at least not sinking ever deeper into the depths of despair. But today nobody could accuse him of being cheerful. This depression had been going on for so long that, thanks to the collision in The Fold, the interstellar superhighway, he had no way of knowing how long he’d felt that way. Sanity was still there, but it was just clinging onto his mind with the ever-weakening fingers of a grip that would soon be gone. He had started talking to himself but so far the conversations had been one-sided. Still, he felt sure it was only a matter of time before he would begin to have long, loud and aggressive arguments with different voices in his head.
Not only had the impact with an unknown object taken out his time keeping software it had also destroyed the hyper drive controls and all his space charts that had been stored in the ship’s computer. The combination of disasters had left him flying around an unidentified back water of the galaxy at sub-light speed. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. This uncertainty had not totally sapped his optimism and he kept hope that some spaceship would happen to pass that particular sector of space and be able to pick up his weak distress signal.
At first, he’d tried to navigate by the stars but, as constellations changed when viewed from different angles, he found himself just as lost as he had been before he had looked. Then he had tried to star hop from one solar system to another in the hope that he’d find some inhabited planet but that had been a slow process and so far all he’d found were stars with mainly gas giants or lifeless balls of rock devoid of minerals that he could utilise or life forms to help him out.
As he had no idea of time, he slept when he was tired and then tried to keep his mind active when he was awake. Not an easy thing for someone who was on their own to do. Especially as the only on-board entertainment consisted of a draughts board with the red pieces missing, a pack of Astragorian playing cards with no Emperor or Double Diamond Lizard cards, and an instructional hologram demonstrating, to the viewer, how to build an emergency space shelter out of materials that he didn’t have on his ship. Thanks to the lack of stimulation, he had found two new hobbies to fill his time – eating and drinking – but that too had temporarily come to a halt when he’d found he had become too fat to get through the doors leading to the kitchen. Then, after a brief diet and an exercise regime involving wobbling walks around the ship’s corridors, he had found his normal food reserves had all gone.
Thankfully, he knew his cargo-hold had been full of food and mining supplies destined for a Dedanite colony on some remote outpost of their federation. In desperation, he had opened the first few containers and found only strange looking machinery until eventually he came across some sealed freezer units stuffed with bottles of some green slimy liquid and grey chunks of synthetic dietary supplements. The latter he had wanted to classify as food but after tasting it he decided that title would have been too generous. It might have been nutritious, but the chewy material had the texture of shoe leather that had been soaked in second-hand snot and tasted like an Elephinus XI boxer’s jockstrap after a particularly long and sweaty fight. It managed to keep him alive, however, the subsequent uncontrollable and almost non-stop flatulence ensured he could no longer don his space suit and leave the ship. On the other hand, the green liquid tasted far better than it looked and one small glass of the stuff was enough to send him into unconscious alcoholic oblivion for several hours.
Now that he was awake, and temporarily sober, he had carried out his daily check of the ship and its remaining functional operating systems and looked at the short range scanners to see if there were any chances of salvation. Finding no changes from the previous days, week, months and quite possibly years, he had decided to spend a few more hours unpacking and inspecting the ship’s cargo before, what he had come to call, ‘Eat Crap and Get Drunk’ time. It was hardly a creative term but who else was there for him to impress with urbane titles?
After opening yet more containers full of food and drink he found a one near the middle of the cargo hold that contained something unusual and unexpected. Despite having far more buttons and levers than normal, it looked suspiciously like a high-powered dual action space cannon that could easily have obliterated his vessel it he accidentally pressed the wrong button. Carefully sealing that container and painting a red X on it he moved to the next crate and, upon opening it, discovered that the hand blasters were not exactly the mining equipment that was on the manifest.
With piqued curiosity momentarily cheering him up, he began to open more of the containers and found that, along with the small blasters, there were enough laser rifles, ion grenades, atomiser mortars and assorted weaponry to start a medium sized war. He was immediately aware that, had it not been for the accident he would have inadvertently become a gunrunner and, if captured by the wrong space police force, could have found himself disintegrated or forced to spend a long prison sentence on some isolated space rock before being disintegrated. He might have smuggled some dodgy things in the past but he did have some principles and drew the lines at any cargo that was specifically designed for death and destruction.
Cursing the shipping agent, who had assured him of the innocuous nature of the cargo, Dean ensured all the boxes of weapons were marked with a large red X. Then he began to drag them by cargo truck to the nearest airlock. His intention being to fly close to the nearest sun and eject the weapons so that they would be destroyed, never to be used for their designed purpose.
Looking at the rows and rows of unopened cargo he felt sure the operation to get rid of the illegal items might keep him occupied for a while but he was beginning to get thirsty, so that project could be left for other days. But as he walked back to one of the containers that had become his spacious drinks cabinet, bar and inebriated sleeping area, something caught his eye and it took him several seconds for it to register in his mind, forcing him to back track and investigate. He knew something was unusual and out of place, but it took him a minute of studying the container for him to work out what it was. Then it came to him, and he wondered why he’d not noticed it before.
First, and most surprisingly, it was far smaller than all the other crates, boxes and assorted containers. Second, it had a coded lock on it, and finally he could see no markings or identifications symbols on it. The lack of those alone made him think that someone deliberately didn’t want it to get anyone’s attention. However, when compared to all the lettering and serial numbers on everything else, it stood out like an excited Calorian at a nudist planet.
At first he tried to drag it into an open space so that he could inspect it more closely before attempting to break it open, but he found it was deceptively heavy. So he was forced to put on a robotic exoskeleton so he could move it to a more accessible place. Then, once that was done and he’d removed his metal suit, he found the lock was not willing to give in without him having to work for it. In his time, he had been forced to ‘acquire’ things in a less than legal way and that had frequently involved lock manipulation and safecracking, but in this instance he was left feeling frustrated and aggravated that such a small and seemingly simple mechanism was outsmarting him. Every time he thought that he’d managed to beat the lock mechanism it seemed to rearrange itself and force him to start again. Being an ex-crook who had always believed in the code of honour he was disgusted that some locksmith could be so devious and dishonourable.
“What was the Galaxy coming to?” he mused.
Giving up on his first plan, he decided other methods needed to be adopted. He had learnt, long ago, that if educated skill failed then brute force and ignorance would invariably work just as well. Removing a welding rig from St. Jude’s storeroom he set it on its lowest setting and pointed the flame at the top of the container. After several minutes he turned off the blue flame, removed his goggles and stepped back to inspect the damage or, in this instance the total lack of it. The surface was not even blackened by the flame and was still cold to his touch. Determined not to be beaten by a safe, he turned the switch of the welding rig to high and tried again.
“That must work,” he thought. “After all, that flame was designed to carry out repairs on the outer hull of armoured space destroyers. So the thin wall of a box should be easy to melt.
After stepping back and triumphantly removing his goggles, he realised that his joy was short-lived, and the surface was still cold and undamaged. He wanted to think that it was impossible, yet there it was, seemingly mocking him with its refusal to melt and reveal its secrets.
Walking around it several times, like an invader inspecting a small but important castle that he’d placed under siege, Dean released a loud expletive that echoed around the hangar. Then, rubbing his chin in puzzlement, he began to look around for alternatives that would allow him to open the belligerent box. As his eyes came to rest on the airlock door he nodded slowly.
“Why not? I might as well put it to some good use before I destroy it.”
The dual action space cannon was not designed to be used inside such a confined space but after about an hour Dean had managed to modify the mechanism so it could be fired without it destroying him, his ship and everything within a mile of its vicinity. Not wanting to take any additional risks, the freighter’s captain took cover behind his giant drinks cabinet, braced himself and pressed the remote trigger.
The resultant blast of light only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was powerful enough to penetrate the welding goggles on his face and fill his brain with a white flash that was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced. Then, a moment later, there was a clang, a dull thud, and finally silence.
Once the stars, which were dancing around in his eyes, had faded Dean removed his goggles and put his head around the side of the container so he could see how successful he’d been. The results were impressive but not what he’d expected, nor aimed for. The front half of the cannon had melted and left a pool of red-hot liquid metal on the ground. Also, where the small container had been, there was now a round hole in the floor. Venturing closer he looked down into it and saw that, other than being splattered with melted flakes of hangar flooring, the container rested undamaged on the floor below the hangar.
It took him several minutes to take the lift to the lower level and get to the box but by the time he got there he was seriously contemplating giving up, when he absent mindedly flicked off a blob of solidified metal from the surface and saw something he’d not noticed before. Maybe he’d missed it, or the cannon’s blast had blasted away any covering which might have camouflaged it, but in the corner of the top panel there was a tiny circular indentation where wire mesh was visible. It looked innocuous and to anyone who was unfamiliar with its purpose they might have assumed it was some kind of air vent, but Dean knew better.
“Crafty! Oh, whoever you are you are clever but not clever enough. You are all mine now!” he said, his voice a cunning inaudible whisper.
Tapping the container, as if it were a drum, he moved his head so that his mouth was close to the newly discovered orifice. “Open.”
He held his breath, but nothing happened.
He tried again and got the same result. Exhaling deeply, he realised that his plan was right, but his language wasn’t. The consignment had originated on the planet Dedan and was destined to be delivered to a distant Dedanite outpost, so it stood to reason he should speak Dedanite. Unfortunately, his knowledge of their language was limited and rusty, so he had to rack his brain to come up with the right word and correct pronunciation.
The word reminded him of the noise he’d once heard when someone had caught their genitalia in the zipper of their space cadet uniform. The memory still sent shivers down his spine, but the container had no such issues and, with a gentle sliding sound, it unlocked itself.
“Right, you beauty, let’s see what you’re hiding in that little metal belly of yours.”
Kneeling, so that he was facing the door, Dean rubbed his hands together, gripped the tiny handle and gave it a quarter turn. There was a barely audible click that left him grinning like a small child about to open a well wrapped present. Then, with one firm movement, he pulled the door fully open.
The seconds, and minutes, that followed suddenly became vague, confused, and took the new award as the most painful thing he’d ever felt.
The burst of energy, which emanated from inside the cavity, spread out in all directions and seemed to ignore all rules relating to kinetic or potential energy — along with several other laws of physics as well. The first thing it hit was the Captain and it impacted with his internal organs so that the last thing he felt, before being thrown across the room and unconsciousness took over, was a sensation akin to being hit by a shuttle craft flying at one third lightspeed. After hitting him the single energy pulse continued its journey, passing through machinery, metal walls, flooring and the hull before it sped off into the cold and almost empty void of space.
The enforced sleep didn’t last long but when he did finally start to wake, Dean immediately regretted it and wished he could stay unconscious until the body filling agony had gone. Pushing himself upright he attempted to walk but the first few tries made him look like a drunk and he ended up flat on his face. Finally, thanks to an immense amount of concentration and the tensing of all his muscles, which caused a brief bout of flatulence, he was able to stand without falling over. Then with a lead-footed gait, he walked back to the safe, removed its contents and set off back to the hangar and his giant drinks cabinet.
“Crap!” The sight of smashed glass and an ever-spreading pool of green goo filled his already sore heart with despair. He needed a drink but lacking immediate sustenance he decided to return to the flight deck. There, he could take his time to see what was so special about the safe’s contents that it needed such elaborate and expensive security measures.
Once he had managed to make it to his precious Captain’s chair, he sat down and began to study the contents of the small metal box, which had tried so hard to keep its contents a secret. He had hoped for treasure of some kind, perhaps some rare precious stones from a distant and obscure planet or a secret weapon that would have made him invincible in any battle but the small, rectangular, grey, metallic object was far from what he’d hoped for.
It was thin, light, and if it hadn’t been for all problems he’d had trying to get his hands on it, he’d not have given it a second glance. Thinking it could be some sort of encoded memory device, he turned it around several times as he inspected it for sockets or portals but found nothing. Giving it a brief lick and sniff, in the faint hope those actions would be of use, he decided he would need to go to the tool room where a particularly hefty hammer was kept. Perhaps that could be used to make it open up and reveal its purpose or contents.
Just as he was rising from his chair, he was surprised by a deafening hiss of white noise as his long silent communication system burst into life.
“Captain Dean of the St. Jude?”
Despite the faint signal and crackling background noise that was distorting the signal, the voices still managed to sound authoritative and arrogant.
“Captain Dean, please acknowledge me or I will be forced to fire upon that pile of junk, which you laughingly call a spaceship, until you wake up and answer me.”
Activating the visual display screen and communications simultaneously, he paused as he studied what was outside his ship. There were three medium sized Dedan Empire battle cruisers directly in front of him and his rear scanners indicated there were also two more directly behind him.
“Hello there, this is Captain Dean here, I wondered how long it would be before the energy burst reached you and you came to investigate. It was faster than I expected but that is not a problem. Now that you are here you can help me fix my ship.”
“Fix your ship?” The signal was now far clearer and the voice even more imperious. “I am Admiral Dashnor Gomari of the Dedan Third Fleet not some roving space mechanic.”
Like most people throughout the galaxy Dean had heard of the General and knew he was arrogant, bad tempered, but most importantly, vain. “Apologies Admiral, it is such an honour to hear your voice. I have heard so much of your victories, courage and honour. How can I help you?”
The compliments seemed to have had their desired affect as the voice mellowed. “Really? Well, I am sure that, in the unlikely event that I allow you to live, you can tell me all the wonderful things that you have heard about me. But you are a wanted criminal so prepare to be boarded and then tried before we find you guilty and execute you.”
When it came to Dedan diplomacy that was as subtle as they got and Dean knew it. However, he was also well aware that Dedanites, along with their inability to recognise sarcasm or irony, made terrible card players as they didn’t understand even the most basic of bluffs. “Tried before I am executed? My goodness I am honoured. May I know the charges which have made you fear me enough to dispatch five ships to arrest me?”
“Fear?” The word seemed to have been wrapped in foul tasting contempt before the Admiral spat it out. “The Dedan Third Fleet fears no one and no thing, especially not a petty space pirate, thief and gunrunner like you.”
Dean accepted being called a thief and, on occasion, had resorted to piracy. After all he had tried many legal and less than legitimate occupations after leaving The Space Federation, but was upset at being called a gunrunner, especially by the race that he suspected had paid him to transport the weapons in the first place.
“Really? That is interesting but I suspect that isn’t the reason why you have brought so many ships with you and why you arrived so swiftly. You do not want the rest of the galaxy knowing that you had been preparing for a war with the Bunda Empire, and my existence, with a hold full of your finest weaponry, is an inconvenient fact that you need to remove as quickly as possible. Also…” He deliberately paused for dramatic effect.
“Also? Your accusations are preposterous, but I am listening so please humour me with your lies.” The Admiral no longer sounding so self-assured and aloof.
“Also… I know exactly what was hidden inside your little box. Despite all your efforts to stop anyone from getting to it, I have your little toy and what is more it is hidden in a place where you will never find it.” He patted his pocket to reassure himself that it was still there. “In addition to that, I know how to destroy it and there is a booby trap that will go off if you should happen to discover its where-abouts. Therefore, if you want it then I suggest you start talking to me in a more polite way. Oh, and please send over a few engineers and mechanics to repair my ship while we talk.”
There was an uncomfortable silence which made the freighter captain begin to worry that his bluff had failed but, as the speaker crackled back to life, he released a breath of relief at the Admiral’s response.
“My dear Captain Dean, I suspect that we might have, as your species say, got off on the wrong foot. Please allow me to rephrase my original message. We are at your service and are only too happy to help with whatever repairs you need. Perhaps, while your ship is being made space worthy again, you could be a welcome guest on my flagship? You have my word that no harm will come to you. I will send my personal barge to collect you and, when you get here we can talk. I have a business proposition which I am sure you will find interesting and, perhaps more importantly, extremely profitable.”
Even if this meet and greet wasn’t something Dean wanted, it was something he was going to get. He heard the airlock seal on his ship’s hull hiss, signifying a vessel connection and subsequent atmospheric decompression. He hadn’t called or authorised this boarding so he immediately spoke to his comms system, “I am guessing this is you Admiral?”
“It is. As I said, I am sending my barge and we can speak face to face and discuss the matter at hand.”
“Why not talk like this, it seems to be doing the trick?” Dean swivelled around on his chair and logged into the security cameras on his holo-board. “Is he yours?” Dean questioned as he saw a towering, armoured man with three scurrying followers making their way through the loading bay on a beeline directly to him.
“That is my second in command Krantham Gokari of the-”
“Of the Dedan Third Fleet, yes I assumed as much. Can he fight?” Dean asked sarcastically, again with the knowledge that the Dedan race do not understand sarcasm.
“What? I would implore you to not attempt that, he is my most loyal soldier and the best fighter in my entire army. He would destroy you and I wouldn’t be able to witness it.”
“Well, if what I found in this little box of yours is what I think it is, he had better be able to fight.” Dean was never happier than when he was poking the bear and something was telling him he was getting close to some truths.
“No. Wait.” The Admiral paused. “We do not wish to fight; we need your help.” The Admiral’s voice was shakey and the plea resonated with Dean. Why do you need my help?
Dean leaned back in his chair and pushed his feet up onto the desk and through the holo boards which prompted them to close. “Well by my calculations you have fifteen seconds before they reach me and if you want my help you must have Krantham Gokari of the Dedan Third Fleet, your beloved soldier and loyal warrior, call me sir while the other three stragglers kneel.”
“I cannot.” Admiral Dashnor exhaled. “That is too much, Dedan bow to nobody but their own superiors.”
“With this in my possession what am I but superior?” Dean said. “Ten seconds.” One day all this bluffing is going to get me killed.
“They will kneel. Krantham will not address you as sir, he has stated that he would rather die in battle than address a human as anything more than food.”
“Seems excessive, but that will just have to do I suppose,” Dean said standing up from his chair to greet his guests. The moment his arse left his seat, the door seal override shutdown and Krantham prised open the door with his hands. They eat humans and he is this strong. I am definitely dead.
The echoing sound of the metallic clink against the ships rustic floor from the three Dedans that kneeled before Dean sounded like bouncing an Ugna bearing down a Flugarite metal pipe. Deafening.
“With me, now.” Krantham pointed towards Dean. “Hurry, this ship smells like stale urine and plasma drippings.”
“That is exactly the smell I was going for so, thank you.” Dean started towards the four Dedans. As he expected, the closer he got to them, the more he realised the three followers of Krantham were hulkingly big as well. They just paled in comparison to Krantham. “Where are we going, anywhere nice?”
“Admiral Dashnor Gomari of the Dedan Third Fleet’s ship.”
Of course. No Sarcasm.
* * *
The Admiral’s ship was similar to a house of mirrors. Dean thought he must have a cleaning crew polishing each reflective surface on a continuous rotating cycle. All the surfaces were immaculate. It was the complete opposite of the state of his own ship’s interior. The dulling grey and rusted sheeting didn’t offer any chance of seeing a reflection and suddenly, Dean realised he hadn’t seen his own face in what felt like an eternity.
“Wait,” Dean exclaimed as he spun in a full 360 towards the wall and pointed two finger guns at his reflection. “God damn, I still look good. What do you think Krantham?” Dean asked while maintaining complete focus on himself.
“No.” Krantham kept walking at his unbearable pace and Dean had a Dedan hand that felt like a boulder placed on his back to push him forward.
Each walkway moved on a travelator system and made the walk more bearable in terms of the distance Dean knew they were going, but he was struggling to reign in his arrogance, and continued poking the bear. “Could this guy not meet us halfway or something, I am getting tired of this now.”
There was no response except to force him to turn left and walk down another hallway and through three sets of double doors before reaching a final air lock that opened to reveal the ship’s central hub. This was where the Admiral was situated and he was sitting on his gold looming chair that was similar in shape to an ancient antique night porter’s chair from Old Earth. Dean had seen them in museum collections from his childhood. The floor was in the shape of metallic honeycombs that wove a path toward a solar array control desk.
The four Dedans and Dean walked this path and the Admiral, who was certainly not as towering as the others, stood from his throne and walked towards them. His face showed signs of wear and battle scars.
The differences between humans and Dedan’s weren’t easily visible with the four that had collected Dean, due to the immense amount of body armour and coverings, but the Admiral wasn’t in battle garments and the exo-skeleton around his throat was haunting. The exposed larynx had evolved over millennia to an amalgamation of bone and metal and the spores that ran parallel down the Dedan’s face from below his eyes to his lower jaw seemed ready to shoot the acidic blood at a moment’s command.
To most other species, any amount of Dedan blood in contact with their skin was immediate incapacitation and if the blood somehow made its way inside via orifices of any kind, it was death. Thousands upon thousands of colonies and races across the galaxy had focussed uncapped resources on finding a way to counter this, but to no avail. This made the Dedans one of the most dominant races throughout the galaxy.
“So, Captain Dean, thank you for accepting my invitation. Before we get to the matter at hand, I decided I will help you and get your ship back into working order, with a couple of little extras we can discuss once complete. But now I won’t waste any more time and will get straight to it.”
“Firstly, I had absolutely no choice and secondly… thank you, I think, for fixing my ship. I think.” Dean craned his neck around to see into the black space of the view ports to see if his beloved ship was visible. Nothing. He would just have to hope the Dedan were being kind to her. “What is this proposition you mentioned then?”
“Well, that container you opened. We weren’t expecting to have the energy feed on our signals this early, but when we did, we were fully expecting a massacre. Since the ship’s register on The Fold Authority’s database displayed your ship with a singular personal, we certainly didn’t expect to find any remains. Decimation and perhaps a misting of your innards somewhere in your ship, but not a fully intact human, and even more so not one that was alive.”
“What can I say, I am impressive,” Dean responded. The Admiral’s shaky tone was again obvious as he discussed the fact of Dean’s unexpected aliveness.
“Unfortunately, we Dedans agree. Did you at least feel anything?”
“It certainly gave me a hit and I felt like my insides were scrambled slightly, but I woke up. Groggy I must say, but I woke up nonetheless. Albeit, in part due to your beautiful voice screaming through my comms.” Dean looked around the central hub and spotted a circular padded stool, “May I?” He asked as he pointed it.
“Please,” the Admiral said, gesturing towards the stool. “The package you opened was destined for one of our many outer rim outposts. This particular outpost doubles as a research facility. Primarily, this facility works on new weaponry and defence systems.”
“Okay so you were looking at weaponising that energy blast, or whatever it was,” Dean asked as he shifted himself into a comfortable spot in the expectance of some grand monologue about the superiority of Dedans in war.
“On the contrary Captain, we wanted to find a way to stop it. The Bunda empire are the ones weaponising it. We want to counter it, to render it useless in our battle. Currently this energy blast is too volatile for containment or direct use. And it has a minimal half life when exposed to the atmosphere. In the time it is exposed it causes catastrophic damage until it withers away. That is why we cannot believe you are still breathing.”
Surprised at this revelation about wanting to prevent the use of a planet shattering weapon, Dean’s mind began turning about the upcoming proposition. “The energy blast I released is now gone and you can’t do whatever research you had intended to do on it. So, what exactly do you want me to do?”
With a recent bounty placed on Dean’s head in three of the four quadrants and one quadrant ruling a kill on sight order, he wasn’t liking the prospect of what the Admiral was leaning towards.
Edwin H Rydberg
[Wake up, Hot Shot.]
The words rang in his head. Delivered with the no-nonsense tone of a woman who had been living there too long, they cut through the dull fog of his semiconscious mind. Still, he hoped they were a dream and he ignored them, attempting to slip deeper into the comforting blanket of sleep.
Grath Danum’s eyes snapped open to an unfamiliar scene. Instead of the sharp angles and carbon fibre sheen of a spaceport, or the bluish tint surrounding the sphere of an inhabited planetoid, there was nothing but the speckled black of a deep space star field visible on the cockpit viewscreen.
“Where are we?” he asked, before attempting a crude self-diagnostic. He ached like hell but otherwise didn’t feel too bad. The Vorpal-3’s cockpit was cramped and didn’t allow much space for stretching, but he’d head below to the lounge once he’d conferred with ‘the boss’.
[Stellar orientation suggests the outer reaches of the Bundar Empire. Near the galactic rim. We’re about two light-weeks from the nearest system.]
“Phate! We’re almost two quadrants from where we should be.”
“Go on, tell me the good news.”
[The system is dark. It appears to be filled with abandoned mining colonies. The radiation readings for the star are anomalously low.]
“Great! How long until…”
[There’s still more.]
Grath leaned back in the pilot’s chair, closed his eyes, and expelled a long breath toward the ceiling before responding. “Go on.”
[The ship’s chronometers are a month behind galactic standard time.]
Of course. Why wouldn’t things keep getting worst? “You’ve found a sync beacon, then?”
[Would I have said anything if I hadn’t?]
“Fair point. So we’ve slipped back in time. I suppose that explains the extreme spatial displacement.”
The universe had a way of not allowing one to violate its natural laws. If they were displaced in time, they would have to be displaced in space far enough that they couldn’t interact with their past selves.
Well, there was no sense crying over soiled Rydian Whisky.
A perusal of the cockpit dashboard revealed that most of the ship’s systems were still in low power mode and Grath began powering them back up. “You’ve run a ship diagnostic?”
[Of course. The Fold engines are irreparable. The sublight nacelles were damaged, but there’s enough stellar dust in the area around us that the nannites were able to effect self-repair while you were healing.]
“So we’re stuck at sub-light!” He clenched his carbon alloy fist in impotent rage, afraid that if he smashed it down on the console he’d break something else. When he finally calmed down again, he asked, “Just how long was I offline?”
He noted that Life Support and Weapons systems were both fully functional. At least the ship couldn’t be taken without a fight as they hobbled to the nearest barren mining settlement.
[Five days, seven hours, twenty-six minutes.]
“And you just woke me now!”
[Like the ship, you also needed to effect self-repair. And there was nothing you could do anyway. Besides, I need my host at peak condition.]
“I’m glad to know I mean so much to you.”
[After thirteen years together, sarcasm is pointless.]
“Why did I upload you again?”
[You were lonely.]
[You felt guilty.]
“Ah, that’s it.”
He and MAI had been partners. And lovers. And more. On a job, he’d made a mistake and she’d paid the price. It was one regret in a long life of regrets. He shrugged and changed topics. “So, what happened, anyway? How’d we get here?”
[You don’t remember?]
Grath took a moment to wander through his recent memories, coming up blank. “Just that I lost all control and veered wildly off-beacon.”
[We were hit in The Fold. It knocked us through the sub-spatial manifold’s gravitational horizon. We should be dead, interstellar debris scattered across half the galaxy. But somehow we struck the horizon at the exact angle necessary to tunnel through the quantum field of the interstitial matrix and…]
“Stop! Stop it! Do I look like an astrophysicist to you?”
[I just thought you might be interested in the odds of our survival.]
“Never tell me the odds.” It did help to know how stupid, or stupid lucky, you had been. It just prevented you from doing what might be necessary next time.
“What I would like to know is what we hit.”
[My analysis of the sensor data is consistent with an erratic ship. It appears to have been someone flying solo and off beacon.]
“What kind of idiot flies off-beacon through The Fold? Let alone without AI assistance? Was it a kid joyriding mom’s new showpiece or something?”
[The ship’s configuration was consistent with a class 4 freighter.]
“So, a smuggler’s run. Any pursuit?”
[None that I noticed before we were ejected from The Fold.]
“So, he either underbid and was cutting corners to make up the difference or he had a hot shipment and was expecting trouble. Well, nothing to be done about it now.” The rocket jockey would have ended up spit out an equal distance from that segment of The Fold on the other side of the galaxy. If he’d survived. For now, they had to worry about their own situation.
“What’s our speed?” Grath asked, noting the slow glide of stellar speckles across the black background beyond the ship.
[We’ve been running at 50% light speed while the ship affected repairs. Now that we’re ready, we can open it up to maximum.]
“Please, don’t hold back on my account.”
No sooner had Grath uttered the sarcastic statement than he felt a shiver run through the ship as he was pushed softly back into his seat.
[That’s good to know.]
[The inertial dampeners are working. I couldn’t get a reading on them. But you’re still in one piece, so everything is fine.]
Grath knew the universe was punishing him. Some deep corner of existence kept account of his past sins and had determined they were so bad that the only penance suitable was to have the mind of his dead wife forever locked in his head, tormenting him with her every comment.
After expelling a deep breath, he did the only thing he could – he let it go and moved on.
“Well, if we’re two weeks out from the nearest system, we might as well attempt to drum up some work while we wait. Anyone looking for a hardwired Hot Shot in these parts?”
Cybernetically enhanced bounty hunters weren’t exactly rare in the densely populated parts of the galaxy, where there was lots of business. Out near the rim, filled with settlers and lowlifes, he’d be lucky to find work escorting a cargo ship to market.
His own enhancements were old and only mid-grade. Quarter-skull cranial implant housing a local AI, carbon fibre left arm with concealed forearm-canon and standard systems interface toolkit, tweaked neurachem for faster and more accurate shooting with his dominant right hand, and subcutaneous re-enforced legs for greater durability, speed, and jumping. It sounded impressive, until he compared his kit with that of the newer generation.
Fortunately, old age and treachery still beat youth and high-tech mods.
[I can’t find the sub-net channels. Or anything other than the standard sync beacon.]
“Run another diagnostic on the communications systems. Maybe they were more damage than it appeared.”
“Meanwhile, hold our course steady and let me know if anything comes up, I’m heading below to see if we have something to distract me from our reality.”
Grath swivelled the chair away from the viewscreen and stood. It felt good to stretch and he still couldn’t believe he’d been stuck in that chair more than five days.
The cockpit was small, and he reached the ladder down in only two strides. After climbing the short distance to the lounge below – that doubled as sleeping quarters – he ransacked the cupboards for something strong and alcoholic.
Fortunately, they’d just stocked up before entering The Fold. Unfortunately, most of the bottles had been smashed in the collision, leaving little more than the stale smell of evaporated dreams.
He did manage to find three bottles and settle on the lounge sofa for a little relaxation.
He had just leaned back, put his feet up, and taken his first swig, when MAI’s voice was in his head again.
[Grath, we have a problem.]
“Talk to me.”
[A ship has just dropped from the local Fold right on top of us.]
That wouldn’t have been an accident since they were still weeks out from the system.
“Configuration and size?”
[Armed and huge. It’s running dark so I can only guess from stellar interference.]
Phate! Out here that meant only one thing.
“Any docking beams yet?”
[Their graviton beams have just locked on.]
“Phate! There’s no point in resisting. Let’s put on our friendly faces.”
The pirate ship was indeed huge. An old Solar-class cruiser, it was a type of vessel that hadn’t been in general use since the Bundar Uprising almost fifty Standard Years ago. Its cargo bay completely dwarfed the hunter-class Vorpal-3. As Grath readied to meet his hosts, he could feel the rumble of the cruiser’s engines, through his own ship’s floorboards, as they Folded again.
Grath decided to meet the pirate crew at the entry port instead of waiting until they forced their way in. Bounty hunters elicited a certain fear, even in pirates. It was one of their greatest weapons. He dressed in blacks and greys normally, but for special meets like this, he also wore his dark body armour. As he descended in the narrow elevator to the entry port, he donned his helmet.
The fierce mask of black and red snapped magnetically onto the cranial implants on the left side of his head and across his forehead. In addition to striking fear into those who saw it, it featured an atmospheric filter, a local sensor array, and a personalized head-up-display for MAI to inhabit.
[Are you sure about this?] she asked, as the HUD came online.
“Yeah,” he answered as the main hatch of the Vorpal-3 hissed open. “It wouldn’t due for us to appear to be hiding.
[What do you want me to do?]
“Keep connection with the ship as long as you’re allowed. And stay ready if I need you.”
As the entry ramp extended, he stood tall and marched forward.
The crew that met him was a smattering of heavily armed beings that comprised a wide variety of species. Even so, Grath was surprised to see both Dedan and Bundar working together. The hatred between the two species was notorious and the Dedan were still sore about the Bundar winning their freedom. The fact that it took the aid of most of the other galactic empires did nothing to curb the Dedan’s hostile feelings, or their sense of superiority.
While the Dedan were a towering humanoid species that looked to be built for war, the Bundar were shorter than the average human. With thick muscled arms and legs, broad shoulders, and short, stocky frames, it wasn’t surprising the Dedan had used them as beasts of burden for so long. But it was the same toughness that made them great toilers that also gave them the fortitude and resilience to win their freedom on the battlefield. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were the only intelligent species in the galaxy able to resist the Dedan’s toxic blood.
“That’s far enough, Hot Shot,” a Cephaloid said, as Grath neared the end of the ramp. Its voice was rough through the old modulator strapped to it’s large, invertebrate head, although his attention was more focussed on the four tentacles holding guns pointed at him.
While Grath had enough armament, speed and accuracy to take out several of the pirates before they could get a shot off, there were almost a dozen pointing their energy rifles at him. And anyway, if he worked this right, he might be able to trade a job for repairs.
He stopped where they indicated, and slowly raised his hands, palms forward, to shoulder height. Enough to show compliance but not surrender.
“I’d like to speak with your captain,” he said with the full confidence expected of an experienced Hot Shot.
“How do you know you’re not already talking to him?” the Cephaloid said, waving its tentacles in the air and making its crewmates visibly nervous as the guns pointing in all directions.
“Because Cephaloids are notoriously bad at commanding respect and you don’t look much different.” The challenge was a calculated risk, but given this Cephaloid’s behaviour, it wasn’t a large risk.
“What about women?” a powerful voice said from behind the crew. They parted and let a small woman with a commanding presence move through them. “Have you known any female captains?”
“Many,” Grath said, as she stopped just before him. “Some of the best captains I’ve known.”
She looked him up and down and he had the feeling she knew as much about him as he did.
“Follow me,” she said, before turning to leave without a look back.
It took several minutes’ walk and two lift rides to get to the bridge. When they arrived, he was surprised at the skeleton crew running the huge ship.
As they entered and she took her place before one of the control panels, she turned to him. “Grath Danum. I’m Captain Ari Sentro.”
He nodded at both the introduction and for recognition of the fact that she’d heard of him.
“Your reputation proceeds you,” she continued. “It’s not everyday The Rebel Adventure hosts someone of your stature.”
[Don’t let it go to your head, Hot Shot.]
“It’s not every day I find myself in the Bundar rim systems. A happy accident of fortune, then.”
“To tell you the truth, we thought you were jetsam from a cruise ship. We were hoping to trade you for some good coin,” she said, before turning and giving orders in a language he didn’t bother having translated.
“A reasonable assumption given the current state of the Venom-3. However, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to take my ship. It wouldn’t agree with either of us. But I am willing to trade my services for passage and repairs. I’m guild certified triple-S so you would be making money on the deal.”
She punched a few buttons on the control panel before turning back to him. “I’d love to trade offers with you, but we’re just back from a big haul. Crew’s looking for some downtime where they can waste their earnings.”
“From our earlier scans, I’d say they aren’t going to have much luck in this system,” Grath said, with a shrug.
The captain just smiled and pointed to the viewscreen.
The ship had dropped out of fold-space and had slowed to orbital velocity. Grath was about to ask what was happening, when a crack of light appeared in space ahead of the ship. It was followed by several others and he realised he was watching an entry port open.
[Grath, that’s not from a ship!]
The light, he soon understood, was from a sun locked inside an immense sphere.
“A Kardeshev Colony? Out here?”
“Welcome to Kualanandar, The Pirate’s Haven.”
[That explains the mining colonies and the deserted planets.]
Indeed. Whoever built this pirate’s haven must have stripped the nearby planets of most of their minerals. The construction of such an immense structure, one that completely encompassed the system’s star, would have take a vast amount of resources. And to think it had been done essentially in secret.
While the system seemed dark and devoid of life from the outside, inside was an entirely different matter.
As they passed through the entry port the light was almost blinding to someone who’d recently been floating in the blackness of space. As his helmet adjusted the light-sensitivity Grath finally began to see more structure. Criss-crossing the interior of the sphere were vast girders that joined domed hemispheric planetoids the size of small moons. There were several levels of this substructure that repeated closer to the star.
And there were ships everywhere – entering or exiting the colony at any of a number of ports, travelling between planetoids, or docked at the cities on them.
“Tell you what,” Ari said, turning to him. We’ve got no business with you, so let’s say this rescue is on us. But you owe us one, to be called in at a time and place of our choosing.”
Being on call to a band of pirates wasn’t an ideal situation, but under the current conditions it was the best he could hope for.
“Done,” he said, extending a gloved hand. The small woman shook it with unexpected strength.
“We’ll offload you when we dock and you can pay your own way from there,” she explained. “You’ll find many quality dockyards to fix you up. And many that will scam you. Just a suggestion: look for Tal Garu. Tell him Ari sent you.”
True to her word, the cruiser was soon docked and the Venom-3 offloaded. No sooner had the pirate crew disembarked than they disappeared into the various illicit establishments of the area.
[Well, this has all been rather unexpected.]
“Indeed,” Grath said. His helmet’s sensors informed him the dome’s atmosphere was acceptable, but he felt more comfortable keeping the helmet on. “Where do you think we should start our search for this Tal Garu?”
“Sounds good. I never did get my drink.”
The Dedanite Empire
The Bunda Empire
Kualanando, the pirate haven
Captain of the cargo frieghter St. Jude. Recently? had a mishap travelling the folded space highway and ended up wandering deep space. After curiousity got the better of him, he discovered a strange object in a strange container that gained him the attention of the Dedanite Empire.
Overbearing and vain leader of the Dedan Third Fleet. He has been tasked with eliminating Dean Dean and recovering the Dedanite’s artifact.
A Hardwired Hot Shot (cybernetically-enhanced Bounty Hunter), Grath has the AI of his dead wife and business partner constantly in his head.
His cybernetics include: quarter-cranial implant, left arm that houses a hidden canon and leads for data input, enhanced neurochem for speed and accuracy in his right arm, and aging leg enhancements for speed and jumping.
Grath’s ship is a single-seat Hunter-Class called Venom-3. It does possess a small lounge and living area, which could house another person if needed.
MAI, short for My Artificial Intelligence, a personal joke of Grath’s, is his the converted mind of his dead wife Maya.
She was killed in a job that went wrong, when Grath made a mistake. Feeling guilty, he had her dying mind converted and uploaded into his own cybernetics.
She manages most of the Venom-3 and provides Grath with telemetry and other intelligence. She also manages the firing duties for the canon in his cybernetic arm.
A small woman who makes up for her diminutive stature with a commanding presence, Ari captains the pirate crew of the Solar-class ship The Rebel Adventure.
Ari and her crew base out of the hidden pirate port of Kualanando, a Kardeshev-2 colony (an immense sphere that engulfs the local star). She is friends with the mechanic Tal Garu.