The stale blue letters flickered across the lens of the modified targeting eyepiece, blinking once before vanishing into the digital aether. Navigation through the Detritus Ring was notoriously difficult, even for those among the Rogues. The ramshackle band of scrap was defined only as much as its inhabitants cared to identify its “chunks”, the various piece of salvage, debris, and rock large enough to inhabit. The vast majority of Ringspace was unmapped, home to no-names, disreputables, and those strange breeds who found themselves compelled to hermitage even amongst the Rogues. Some chunks were single-occupant domiciles, drifting life-pods or caverns carved into the cold recesses of asteroidal rock; others were barracks and communes, stations housing squadrons and families.
The Mercer, once a private short-range hauler, had long since been converted to a launch bay. Where there had been escape pods, there were now temporary living quarters; the cargo hold, once a labyrinth of shipping containers, now concealed a scrapping operation and VR sim-pods for networked training exercises. Along the principal halls, its vaulted corridors were honeycombed with retrofitted fuel lines and anchor points for the fleet of personal craft the Rogues encased within the arterial steel corridors.
Gustav landed his ship, little more than a glorified lifeboat with maneuvering gear, in the first open bore in the ship’s hull he could find. After disembarking, a quick hand gesture conjured an expectant icon on his HUD, awaiting a voice command.
“Wayfind, Chunk Mercer-1, Deck C, aft promenade.”
As he spoke, the display sparked his words into converted text and registered the command.
A moment later, a waypoint sprang into view on the digital map module of the display, and the eyepiece overlayed his vision with a faint blue beam of light drawing a crawling path in real-time to his destination. He walked determinedly through the halls, the computer rapidly outlining and identifying the ships attached to grav-clamps crudely integrated into Mercer’s frame. Having been repurposed from a piece of equipment intended for rapid threat assessment and analysis, some of its deeper instinctual elements had been difficult to rework. While he had managed to stymie the flood of target-acquisition information it was intended to output, it now steadily streamed a brook of whatever it could hastily pull from environmental cues and holonet records.
“Designation: Belt Knuckle. Status: Offline. Class: Interceptor…”
“Designation: Gunwhale. Status: Offline. Class: Gunship…”
“Designation: The Laughing Solvent. Status: Offline. Class: Custom…”
Each ship’s name appeared with an expandable ellipsis, which Gustav knew, when selected, would occlude his eye with a paragraph of text detailing the ship’s captain, most recent crew, and notable missions, as well as a suite of other technical specifications. He didn’t have time for others’ names right now. He was about to make his own.
Gustav had been with the Rogues for 2 Codex-standard years, making use of his astrogation experience to chart short-distance Tunnel runs for time-sensitive raids, in which light-minutes needed to be calculated and crossed in seconds. Such calculations were impossible for most organics without the use of cybernetic augments that could only be acquired through the LLC. These biotech suites were tracked meticulously along with their organic housings, and in the event of hardware or wetware system failure, reclamation teams could be on-site in an hour.
Through months of infiltration and careful cultivation of the LLC employee database, Gustav had engineered a financial Schwarzschild radius, a region of the payroll from which no information could escape. Once LLC Junior Vice-Accountant Vincenzo de León found himself transferred to the dark department of Gustav’s design, it was a simple matter of kidnapping, harvesting, hacking, and implanting the cortical shunt (or whatever the “surgeon” had called it) into his own body. Had he forgotten what it was like to dream? Sure. Did he occasionally have waking terrors as the simulated voice of de León echoed its feeble cry to be freed from its synaptic prison? Also sure. But no one could deny that Gustav was now better at math than an organic had any right to be, which, depending on the day, some might consider worth paying handsomely for.
He was woken from his reverie by the bright flash of red text across his HUD, “COLLISION IMMINENT”. Before he could refocus his eyes to sift through the transparent gleam of warning, he stumbled into Commander Reyna Valeria. At least, he would have. The photonic ward was instantaneous and unyielding, rippling a short distance from her gauntlet to shove him bodily away as he tripped and fell to his back beside two other waiting crew members. Even though she was shorter than all assembled, her presence somehow towered over them. “You’re supposed to be the navigator, right? I sure as hell hope you navigate better on a ship than you do on your feet.” He mumbled a half-formed apology as the others helped him up.
“Save it, we got work to do.” came her clipped reply. “You’re all here by special request for this mission. Here’s the deal: just outside the Solus system, there’s a derelict whole friggin’ universe. Lights are out, nobody’s home—that means that’s Rogue property waiting to get picked up. The job is simple: recon and retrieval. Y’all are heading through Darkspace beyond the Solus system to a little slice of heaven, maybe you’ve heard of it, Luxverse 25.”
A barrage of meaningful glances were exchanged. The Luxverse terraforming series was hailed by LLC marketing as the 12th-through-36th wonders of the universe. “Yeah, I know. You’re welcome. But you won’t have too much time for sightseeing, you’re there to tag any and everything of value that ain’t nailed down, grab a few samples to make sure the goods are good, and come back. Probably the cushiest milk run of your lives. If the lead is legit, we’ll send out a full squad to take what we can get our hands on. Any questions?”
The woman furthest from Gustav raised a gloved hand.
“Alias: Maven. Race: Human. Age: 22. Known Affiliates: Rogues …”
Reyna fixed her with a brief nod, “Yeah girl, what’s up?” Around Maven’s neck, she wore a rebreather mask attached by a hose to a small pair of tanks at her waist. With deliberate effort, she raised the mask to her mouth before finally speaking. “Darkspace? Really? Is that what we’re calling it?” Her soft voice rasped through the rubber and plastic. After the labor of her question, her shoulders rose high as she took a deep breath from the mask. Reyna’s uncovered eye rolled dramatically. “Don’t put that on me, blame the UPR, as usual. It’s space, it’s dark, Darkspace. You got something better, enlist and let them know. They’re always looking for more smartasses. Any other questions?” Gustav glanced at the others nervously before stepping forward.
“Alias: Reyna. Race: Human. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Rogues, LLC, UPR, Eldrid, Jennerit, Other…”
He blinked and shook his head, clearing his nerves as well as dismissing the HUD overlay to see clearly through the scrolling tide of information. “I…” he faltered, “that is…I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say, um, it’s such an honor to fly with you. Commander.” The others nodded in assent.
Reyna grinned in comic appreciation of the compliment. “Well, aren’t you sweet. Too bad,” she paused as her own eyepiece blinked in minor computation, “Gustav. You aren’t flying with me. I got bigger fish to fry. ‘Bigger than Luxverse 25?’ I hear you thinking. Much, much bigger. But make no mistake, this mission is an important first step to what I got planned. That’s why I’m leaving you in the care of one of my most trusted pilots.”
Maven drew a shuddering breath. “Captain Hightower?”
To her left, a ruddy-faced man in a cobbled set of combat armor hazarded a guess, “Captain Shim?”
“Alias: Azef. Race: Jennerit. Age: 51. Known Affiliates: Rogues, Jennerit (exiled)…”
“Shim’s off hitting a UPR shipment of elbow macaroni, couple of Rogue sectors are low in both rations and art supplies.”
Gustav’s implant ran a quick sort of available captains, heaps of names scattered, dismissed, and neatly divided into one expanding list of “Inactive/Unavailable” and a rapidly dwindling column of “Active/Available”, until only one remained:
“Active/Available: Captain Dredge”
Gustav gave whispered voice to the text string haunting his right eye, “Dredge.”
Azef solemnly looked to the floor as Gustav’s statement hung unopposed in the moment of silence that lingered after his pronouncement. Maven looked from Gustav, to Azef, to Reyna in confusion before finally asking, “Who’s ‘Dredge’?”.
Gustav began to express bewilderment at her ignorance of his legendry, paragraphs of text answering her question clouding his viewfinder, when Azef cut him off.
“Captain Dredge. The Blue Baron,”
“Terror of the Ring,” Gustav offered.
“The Saint of Black.” Azef concluded.
“The Saint of Black?” Maven echoed, sounding breathless with some combination of physical struggle and wonder.
“Aye,” Azef continued, his shoulders hunched as he stage-whispered conspiratorially, “they say that he first escaped the LLC with a 6-year-old boy declared brain-dead due to a faulty cerebral augment. In that life, Dredge was a doctor. A Magnus doctor. Carted around from hospital to hospital and dumped into this network or that. No one knows his exact model and version number, but it goes that he was designed for modular integration into a variety of operating systems, on account of all the different computers used across the arcfleet.”
He took a hasty pull from a flask concealed in a mag-pouch on his vest.
“When they brought the boy in on account of the failing augment, they sent in Dredge to debug it from the inside. As some sorry twist of fate or perhaps a quirk of the ‘verse’s cruelty, while he was in that poor boy’s brain, the Magna Carta went offline.”
Maven gasped audibly, and adjusted a flow valve on one of her tanks.
Undeterred, Azef continued, “Debug it he did, aye, and more. With his vile digital tendrils and the devil’s own code, he reformatted that lad from the ground up, learned in microseconds which neurons to fire to draw breath, to pump blood, to raise a hand, animating the child like a puppet of blood and bone…and by nightfall, three of the LLC’s finest medical technicians were no longer among the living.”
He paused, expectantly, until Reyna herself sighed and obliged him, “You mean he killed them?” He gave a nod of acknowledgment before continuing, “No, killing, that’d be a mercy. What Dredge did was worse by far. With that same dread art by which he was given purpose, he drove a transceiver pylon into the nape of each of their necks, not terribly invasive, but deep enough to entangle with a knot of nerves and override their brains’ own commands to their insubordinate flesh. You see, the transceiver pylon intercepts and transmits signals from the brain to Dredge, who then returns a signal of his own to order the bodies of these poor souls to do his bidding as he sees fit, captives of the corporeal, just like their captor. The only thing in this universe that knows the procedure to safely remove the pylons is Dredge himself. Anyone else so much as tries it, and it’s death at best, the most excruciating agony the body is capable of producing at worst.“
“And so they sail, beneath the Rogues’ banners, under the command of the only woman alive who could curb his lust for vengeance upon us mortals and organics, the Valkyrie’s damnation on demand, pride and scorn of the fleet, the Saint of Black and his Sinners Three aboard ‘The Doomlight’. There are whispers that Captain Valeria, when some among our number get to be too contrary for her taste, consigns the wretches to a tour aboard the Doomlight, what be crewed by the damned and watched o’er by the eyes of the Pit, or of wheresoever such black machinations as Dredge are begotten, to ride into battle on its stormdrive engines, wreaking such havocs as exist no words to describe.”
An awed appreciation hovered a moment, until Reyna hastily added, “So they say.” “Aye, so they say.” conceded Azef.
“Anyway, yeah. Not Dredge. He’s on leave.” “Oh.” Azef deflated slightly. “No, y’all are in for a treat, I’ve got you someone better. In fact…” she trailed off as four beams of light lanced from somewhere off the deck, forming a blinding Venn diagram of floodlights. Gustav peered over the edge of the promenade into the darkness, disturbed by one erratic mote of illumination. Its maneuvering made it almost impossible to get a lock for analysis. As it resolved into range, his eyepiece finally output:
“Designation: Unknown. Status: THREAT ENGAGEMENT. Class: Corvette/Custom…”
As it silently screamed towards the assembled crew, his image-tracking-and-stabilization software saved him a single frame of crude, hand-formed letters spelling one word across its hull: “Malediction”. Moments later, it slipped into place mere meters above the ground as grav-clamps harpooned into the Mercer’s floor, heaving the ship to the steel as though it was straining to escape. At last, the engines shut off as the cockpit unlatched with a depressurizing hiss. From within came an inhuman roar, the black, blast-proof panes of the hatch straining against something pounding from within.
The comms channel was lit up with a staccato burst of distorted audio, “Sorry guys, hang—beast got himself tangled in my seatb—no, you have to let go of the—”. Gustav turned to Reyna and silently mouthed a “what?” as she shrugged. With a deafening slam, the hatch violently erupted, nearly burst off its hinges as a monstrous, floating, horned creature emerged. Its unearthly howl awoke some primordial flight-instinct as it rattled about the chambers of Gustav’s heart.
“AT LAST, I AM UNBOUND.”
As adrenaline surged through him and his pupils dilated in icy panic, the eyepiece meekly presented its findings, as though by bounding the creature in pixelated text, some semblance of safety might be erected behind such vague definitions:
“Alias: Unknown. Race: Guayota. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Unknown…”
Using what appeared to be the creature’s stone ribcage, a teenage girl pulled herself up from the pilot seat. “Yeah, sure pal, relatively speaking. Shut up and help me down, wouldja?” Together, the pair jumped down to the ground in front of the staring crew. Reyna smiled. “Captain Shayne, your crew as requested. Gustav, Navigator. Azef, Operator. Maven, Engineer. Crew, this here is Shayne, your new captain. She’s already one of our most experienced Darkspace pilots, not to mention she has a giant monster for a friend, so I expect you to show her the same respect you’d show me or any of my other pilots. Valkyrie out.” She raised her command gauntlet into the air, sending a stream of energy cascading into the ceiling before teleporting to her own ship.
Not to be outdone, Shayne stalked up and down the line of her small crew from a distance, each wearing an expression of incredulity. She remained silent all the while, as though daring someone to speak. Somehow, she did not carry the same gravitas of Reyna that had effected an aura of resolute respect. Instead, Azef noncommittally rested his arms on his light machine gun, slung at his waist by a strap across the shoulders.
After a minute of uncomfortable examination, Shayne wheeled around in search of something. “Wait wait wait, someone’s missing! Where’s the muscle?” Azef plodded forward, his boots thudding on the ground with ponderous, dramatic steps. “Count Azef, reporting for duty, sir.” Shayne rested her face in her hand exaggeratedly. “Aurox, fetch.” she drawled, lazily pointing Azef’s way. Like a shot, the Guayota spirited to the Jennerit soldier, gripped him in claws like stone tree limbs, and brought him in front of Shayne.
“First off, don’t call me ‘sir’,”
“S-sorry, ma’am, meaning no offense.” he stammered.
“No, just ‘Shayne’, got it? CAPTAIN Shayne.”
“Of course, cap’n, er, Shayne. Captain Shayne.”
“Secondly, you’re my operator, not my muscle. If you were who I was looking for, I’d have said so. I’m not blind.”
“AAAGH I’M BLIND!” Gustav shouted, as a seething whirl of black and orange descended from some unseen rafter to wrap around his face.
He staggered to maintain his balance as the bundle of arms and cloth and fire obscured his vision, his eyepiece all the while diligently outputting information:
“Alias: Orendi, the Chaos Witch. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Rogues, Other…”
Orendi cackled with manic glee, two of her arms locked around Gustav’s head as she raised the other two in jubilation, “AUROX LOOK LOOK LOOOOK I’M JUST LIKE YOU WHY AREN’T YOU LOOKING?!”
She leapt from Gustav’s shoulders, contorting to turn backwards in midair and fire a propulsive burst of black flame. The force of the blast sent her hurtling towards Aurox. She caught one of his great horns, swung around to hang from it by her legs, and began gnawing at his ribs. Shayne chuckled good-naturedly, “Orendi, get down from there, you’ll hurt your teeth! And try and bring it down a little for now, we’re about to head out.”
“Right. Guys, Orendi, Orendi, guys. That’s out of the way, let’s get going. We’re burning daylight, and from what I hear it’s already in short supply where we’re headed.”
Gustav rubbed his eye with his palm and turned to Maven. She shrugged and pulled up her rebreather mask to drag a lungful of air, before calmly exhaling, “You heard the captain.”