In. And out.
Noting a small blossom of darkness in the corner of her eye, Maven lifted her rebreather mask and took a shallow breath. The ratio felt appropriate, but she was losing volume somewhere. She peered at the analog gauges on the tanks at her waist, checking remaining capacity of each, pressure within the tanks, flow regulation—
“Hey, Maven, let’s go!”
Her head swam for a moment as she looked too quickly in the direction of the call to see Aurox tossing Shayne upwards onto the nose of the craft, allowing her to climb directly into her seat before sealing the hatch above. Maven walked to the side of the ship as its doors swung up on hinges at the roof.
“Sweet doors, right? Installed them myself. Well, I had some help from Toby. Mostly me though. He just did the mechanical junk, it was my idea. You see, I was looking at my boomerang one day and thought—“
Maven mentally dismissed the remainder of the conversation as she dedicated as much of her action to automatic process as possible. Conserve energy. Conserve air. She moved in a trance towards the ship. UPR corvette, that much was obvious, some variant of the Geist-class made popular at Garden. A factory-standard Geist was medium maneuverability, mixed payload, meant to be customizable for a number of different arenas, depending on the mission. The Malediction, however…
Torpedoes, gigaphase array, rear-armor, retrothrusters, anti-missiles—the ship had been stripped to the bone and repurposed almost entirely, forsaking virtually all weaponry in favor of speed. The one concession was the ultralight cloaking frame, useful for wide-range scattering. Re-entry scorching on the nose; harlequin heat-ablation panels, in condition too fine to have been scavenged from a derelict; “Malediction”, hand-lettered in red paint over the lifted doors, fitted with generators and anchor-spools on their underside. When raised, redundant armor and overcharged shield-rails lined the leading edge of the wings, when suddenly, Maven understood. Not wings at all. Blades.
The dark haze once again gently tightened its wrap around her sight, and she took a deep breath.
In. And out.
Inside, the corvette had been predictably gutted. No need for weapons-guidance or deterrence systems; on this ship, those were in the pilot’s hands. However, the walls were decked with a number of posters, Ultralith and Eigenvect0r and Harresburra of the Mother. The whine of engines began to crescendo through her concentration, and she noticed Azef already slumped against the wall as Gustav made his way to the helm. Orendi hung from one of the hand-rails on the ceiling, seemingly content with silence for once. The doors folded closed slowly, like one of Ekkunar’s carnivorous traproots engulfing their prey, and the grav-clamps disengaged. Maven stumbled towards one of the slim single-form seats bolted to the floor, grateful to be off her feet. When she looked up from her seat, she noted a series of tallies chalked over the opposite doorway beside the word “NO” crudely carved into the wall.
Shayne’s voice doubled as she spoke on the radio and through the narrow passage separating the cockpit, “Alright Rogues, let’s see here…engines, check, local navigation, check, shields, check, cloak, check…how are my crewbies doing back there, everyone seated and snugly ensconced in their safety harnesses?”
Azef heartily chuckled as Maven managed a wan smile.
“…Guys, need a response here, standard blackwave channels, or just shout, what’s the situation?”
Azef furrowed his brow, slinging his gun behind his back to reach his belt radio. “Are you serious? You want us to ‘buckle up’ for this cakewalk?”
“Yeah I’m serious, serious as the big guy is about gnashing the raw hearts of crew members who mess up my perfect safety record. I’m on a streak of seventy-three consecutive missions with no casualties and I’m not gonna have you screwing it up now! Now shut up, sit down, and strap in before I send Aurox back there and we have to set down to scrub the walls. I’m not so hot on landings and don’t want to re-engage the clamps.”
“Shutting up, sitting down, strapping in, cap’n.”
Shayne pressed on, “Maven, talk to me.”
Maven fastened, tightened, and locked the various belts of fabric on the five-point harness and chirped into the comms, “Ready.” She held the channel open as she took two slow breaths. “What…about…Orendi?”
Shayne snorted once, then turned to shout over the rising din of the engines, “Last time someone tried to hold Orendi down, she broke an arcship! You want to catch her and try it, be my guest, just not on Mal!”
The ship lurched upward, then bounded in a circle as thrusters fired, screeching in a tight arc. The lateral g’s strung Orendi’s arms out to the walls as her cackling rang against the steel. The blood drained from Maven’s head and she succumbed to the encroaching black.
Shayne’s voice brushed at the edge of perception, “Just stretching my legs, guys! All systems go, we are away.”
Maven awoke with a start, clawing for her rebreather mask missing from her neck before realizing it was already raised and tightened in place over her mouth and nose. Her shallow, panicked breathing slowed before leveling out as she loosened the strap at the back of her head. She kept her eyes shut as she focused on calming her heart rate.
She opened her eyes, locked with Azef’s but didn’t speak, kept one hand on the mask and another on a strap at her shoulder as she tilted her head in question. In reply, he shook his head, flicked his eyes to the ceiling and inclined his head to the tail of the ship. Orendi was entangled in the cargo net and fast asleep. Below her, locked into a charging dock at in the aft wall, a powered mining exosuit stood sentry.
In the vacuum, the burn of the engines made no sound, though parts of the hull vibrated in communion with their ionic blaze. Maven found it relaxing, almost meditative, to listen to.
Despite the quiet, Shayne spoke into her communicator, “Alright, Navigator…wait, what’s your last name?”
“Oh. First name?”
“Easy to remember, I like it. Alright, Navigator Gustav, you’re up. Here are our destination coordinates, current locale and bearing is on the viewport HUD down there. Calculate me a heading and prepare for hyperlight Tunnel procedure.”
Gustav spoke distractedly as the sounds of his rapid typing gnawed at Maven’s tranquility.
“Seventy-three missions, not a single casualty? Really?”
“Well,” mischief slipped into Shayne’s tone, “not on my ship, at least.”
Aurox made a sound like a hydebear gargling with cement.
“You know, uh, captain, I must admit I had my reservations,” Gustav paused for a lengthy moment of calculation, “but that actually makes me feel a bit better. What happened to the rest of your crew, then, they on leave?”
“Well, technically, this is my first mission with a crew this size. Usually it’s just me and freakbeast here.” Aurox bristled, his mineralized arms loudly scraping as they crossed. “But, I’ve kept him alive so far, and that’s gotta count for something, right?”
Aurox spun her chair about to face him as he howled, “RELINQUISH THE BEACON, GIRL.”
She kicked off of one of his claws to continue swiveling around in her seat, mocking his monstrous tone “Relinquish the beacon,” she chuckled, “Ohhh, Aurox, such a kidder. How’s that Tunnel jump comin’, Goose?”
“I’m ready, updating vector to match our drift.”
“Perfect! Prepare to initiate Tunnel sequence, ready on my mark—“
Azef closed his eyes and began muttering something in a low drone.
The ship’s primary systems cycled off to reserve power, allowing the Tunnel drive to draw as much as necessary. Red light strips washed the interior in a ghastly gleam, exaggerating shadows as a single silent strobe swept about.
It was over in moments.
The ship’s klaxons wailed in warning as the entire assembly quaked violently. Everywhere she looked, Maven saw lights blaring for attention, indicating pressure locks, shield charge, fuel venting, catastrophe of every sort. The hull groaned with strain as they tumbled into the atmosphere.
Shayne shouted over the PA system, “Everyone hold onto something, we’re coming in hot!”
A dull glow filled the cockpit and spewed into the cabin, flickering sickly as bits of debris flared and streamed like fireworks off the heat-ablation panels.
The klaxons shut off and Shayne once more spoke over the loudspeaker, “Sitrep. Lemme see here…we’ve lost primary engine control, uh, landing gear is fused, navigation is, well, super busted, plus I’m pretty sure my navigator is unconscious. Good news is telemetry looks like we’re on target, bad news is it’s gonna be less of an LZ and more of a crater at this rate. Also I got rid of the emergency junk to cut weight a while back.” The speakers crackled as she closed the channel.
They buzzed to life again. “But it’s cool! I got this. Maybe.”
Orendi unlatched one side of the cargo netting, rolled out and braced herself in the doorway.
“Heyyy, it’s like Newshines Dayyy!”
Shayne growled in frustration as she wrestled with the yoke, “Aurox! Handle her!”
He lunged just as Orendi flung herself to the ceiling with a jet of black flame, allowing him to rush past and crash into the hanging cargo net, sending him reeling into the exosuit in back. Orendi’s percussive giggling mingled with a string of curses from Azef. She scrambled onto Maven’s legs, covering Maven’s ears with her lower two hands.
“I CAN’T SEE IN THE DARK!” She threw her head back and gave a barking laugh as her many orange eyes radiated like coals.
Maven calmly adjusted the flow valve and nodded, as though in understanding.
In. And out.
“THE DARK SEES IN ME!” Orendi pulled Maven’s face within an inch of her own, brandishing a wide grin of cutting teeth uncomfortably close to the rebreather’s hose. The pupil of her left eye began to fill with black, enlarging, until none of the glow remained and instead the orb seemed to swallow light with an awful hunger that, frankly, terrified Maven.
She nodded once more.
Orendi’s breath smelled like toast and motor oil.
Maven watched as Orendi vanished into the control room, unharnessed and kicked Gustav out of his seat, and began to mash every button in sight. A second later, the Malediction banked hard onto its side, and Maven felt the familiar caress of oblivion as she blacked out.
She heard muffled voices.
Her head was cold, and wet.
“Awww, yeah! In your face, ‘Count Azef’, she’s totally alive! That makes seventy-four, count that! Told you, I’m the best pilot there ever is, was, or will be. Boom!”
“Aye, she’s alive, but you’re sore mistaken, that makes this seventy-three-and-one-half missions—we still need to return, if you recall.”
“Whatever, you know what they say, any landing you walk away from.”
“Or swim away from, as the case may be.”
Maven’s head pounded as she felt Azef undo her harness. She fell to the ground with a splash, shocking her awake.
She spluttered and took stock of the situation as he helped her too her feet. The ship was upside-down, laying in about a foot of water, and still running on reserve power. She coughed once, gasped, and fumbled for her mask until she found it hanging in her hair. She quickly rechecked her equipment as Shayne spoke.
“Gustav is outside rebooting or something. He says he’s fine, just took a good hit to the dome. According to him, his math was perfect, it’s space that screwed up, but that doesn’t make any sense. I told him it’s okay, you know? Math is hard. But he keeps saying the space is wrong. So he’s taking five outside.”
Maven peered out the door and gasped.
“Oh right. Welcome to Darkspace. It’s really, really dark.”
The light strips of the ship illuminated its insides and penetrated the darkness a few feet beyond the door, but past that, there was nothing. It was absolute, inviolate. Visual perception simply ceased after a few yards, despite her eyes’ continual efforts to part the black curtain any further. No shadows, no horizon—
“No stars?” Maven wondered.
“They’re out there. At least, their light is. But Luxverse planets’ atmospheres are designed to diffuse starlight. There used to be a few million micro-sats that could be configured into custom constellations, but at some point, whatever was keeping them up stopped working and they burned out.”
“How did we land?”
Azef began tossing gear into a pile by the door. “That’d be the witch’s doin’.”
Shayne sighed, “Yeah, I’m really not sure how it works, but apparently Orendi can see just fine. Also, she apparently has an idea of how to steer UPR ships.”
“And arcships!” came a shout from the aphotic zone just outside the ship.
“Yeah, and arcships.” Shayne conceded.
“Sure, those too. Anyway. I’ve got the Malediction’s inputs customized for inverted axial controls, so while she was able to steer us into this giant tide pool—“
Gustav twitched and stuttered from the doorway, “Th-th-th-the Regency North Eternity Baths are 1.2 m-m-megameters on a s-s-s-s-ide. At their deepest p-p-p-point—“
“Shut it! Where was I?”
Aurox grumbled, “Steering.”
“Right. So she banked us into the pool, but upside-down, and super fast. We basically skipped like a rock, which was awesome, then kinda-sorta crashed, which was not. Anyway, gear’s mostly intact, crew’s mostly intact, so the mission is still go.”
Shayne tossed a small headset and eyepiece to Maven. “Hyperspectral lens, should scrape pretty much any EM band activity there is and convert it to visible signal. Suit up, I want us out of here in five. It’s about two kilometers to the north pavilion. I expect no problems, this place has been abandoned for years.”
Maven slipped the headband into place. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure, I’m the captain. This’ll be a walk in the park, literally.” Shayne flicked her bladed boomerang open and closed. “In and out.”