In the foul, red dim of the Malediction, Azef labored wordlessly. He hardly needed the emergency light to adjust his ill-fitting armor, inspect his crudely modified weapons, perform the well-rehearsed laying of hands as he deftly passed over each piece of his gear to ensure it was prepared for whatever dark business lay ahead. It took only a minute or two before he was waiting outside, laden with a supplementary energy pack, medkit, deployable phasic barrier, grenade and ammunition bandoliers, and a number of other tools and armaments one might need to occupy a small country.
He pulled his flask from his mag pouch and tipped it to his lips. The drink trickled like brittle fire, seeping in coarse rivulets into the cracks of his throat and instilling something like courage into his tired, aging veins. It was piercing, cloying, foul, and raw, unlike anything he’d enjoyed in the lofty halls of Tempest. “Highborn”, he’d called himself once. What use was high birth if he resigned himself to a low death under the heel of the Sustained? He idly synced his weapon sights to the headgear Captain Shayne had handed him, resting his back on the hull of the ship. There was more than one kind of immortality. He took another drink.
Gustav joined him, still shivering from whatever strange malady had afflicted him since the crash.
“I-I-Iii think the others are setting up the ssssuit.”
Azef grunted and shook his head, pocketing the flask.
“Aye, to be sure, the one thing we need most on a planet shrouded in whole by primeval darkness is a walking tank as loud as the night is long.”
As if in answer, the thrumming of a power cell ignition swept away the silence inside the ship, rocking with a creak of protest. Maven sloshed the exosuit through the shallow water, carrying Shayne and Orendi on a pair of side rails. The rear exhaust ports gleamed fiendishly behind their thermal vents, offering a bit of much-needed mobile light and warmth.
Beneath the hyperspectral headgear and rebreathing mask, entombed within the pilot cage of the exosuit, Maven’s voice was steady for the first time: “It looks like the core was damaged in the crash. At the rate I’m losing charge, this thing’s only got about 12 hours. That should be plenty, but the sooner we move out, the better.”
Shayne hopped off the side, joined in an instant by Aurox from some unseen vantage.
“Good call, Maven. Alright nerds, get moving and give me a comms check, let’s walk and talk.”
Their communicators momentarily sparked with a chorus of tests and checks, before lapsing once again into silence. As the edge of the artificial shore grew closer, the lens seemed to dull with haze, bits of poorly resolved interference washing out its field of resolution. At the water’s edge, Shayne held up a closed hand, halting the group as the sea placidly lapped at their heels.
“Maven, hit the brights, wouldja? I think something’s up with my hype-specs.”
“Roger that, captain.”
A satisfying chunk punctuated the activation of merciless beams of shoulder-mounted light. Shayne flipped her headgear up as she spun in a slow circle. Azef curiously skewed his lens off one eye. Motes of dust formed lazy clouds lingering in the air, almost playfully twisting on unseen breezes.
Shayne slowly swept an arm through a nearby puff. “What the—“
Azef called out loudly, “Button up!”
“I don’t have buttons?” Shayne countered, Gustav’s hands pausing at his collar.
Azef paused a moment more in mute confusion before shouting through his filter-weave scarf already covering his mouth and nose, “Spores!”
“Oh, sh—“ Shayne’s voice was cut off as she pressed a button on her belt, activating a light bubble of energy around her head. She pressed another button to open up the radio channel, “Usually I’m more worried about the air getting out of the ship.”
Shayne looked quickly over her crew: Maven lifted the exosuit’s arm in an exaggerated thumbs up, Orendi laughed from atop Aurox, Azef gave an affirmative nod, and Gustav shrugged.
“Goose, you good?”
“I don’t uuusually leave the ssshhhip.” He managed through a fit of blinking.
“Oh, Mother’s mercy, lad. Here!” Azef pulled an antiquated scrub-filter from his pack and tossed it to Gustav. “That bit goes between your teeth, form a seal and breath through there.”
Gustav puzzled for a second as his eyepiece identified the filter and retrieved a user manual from the holonet. He drew a quick breath through it, then hurriedly asked, “If this is in my mouth, how do I talk?” before returning the filter to his mouth.
Maven chuckled, “Sparingly. We good, Captain?”
Shayne smiled. “We good. I wonder where all this spore junk came from?”
Gustav waved his hand in a measured motion, took a short breath, and removed the filter.
“Wayfind, L-l-l—”He shook his hand angrily, took another breath, and started again. “Wayfind, Luxverse 25, Regency North, Nnnnn—“.
“It’s fine, Goose, it’s just a couple klicks…”
He shot Shayne a withering glare.
“Wayfind, Luxverse 25, Regency North, North Pavilion.”
He placed the scrub filter back in his mouth before trudging onward. The rest of the crew followed in tense silence. Azef walked forward to match pace, lightly rapping Gustav’s chest with his off-hand.
“A fine thing, lad, to be knowing one’s heading in such foul pitch.”
Gustav stolidly ignored him.
“Aye, ‘tis one thing to be in the dark, and another to be lost, but to suffer the both together’s as sure a course for disaster as any I know, and I know more of them than most.” He sighed. “Have you ever heard the story of the dragon and the dwarf?”
Gustav turned and raised an eyebrow, then shook his head before facing forward again.
“Aye, I thought as much.”
“Once, ages upon ages ago, there was a young and curious dwarf. He lived in a peaceful world of simple verdure, where the sun was always warm, the nights cool, and the grasses soft as a cloud. When he was hungry, there was food in the trees and game on the ground. When he was thirsty, there was drink in the streams and rivers. However, as he grew up, he watched the dragons soaring overhead, and he wondered what it was like to fly. He resolved to learn how.”
Azef offered Gustav the flask before wetting his lips and continuing with a nod.
“Well, as so often happens, he became consumed. Not as usually happens with dragons, with the teeth and all, but more metaphorical-like. He was obsessed with the idea of flying, of the freedom to be found out there, on the other side of the rain and the clouds, to look the stars in the eye. He watched the creatures every chance he could, trying to find where they land, that he might ride one.”
Gustav chuckled through his filter.
Azef tilted his head in agreement, “Aye, a dwarf on a dragon, who ever imagined such a thing? Now, you could like as not guess what happened next. He saw less and less of the dragons in the sky as they seemed to die out. And the days grew colder, and the nights grew longer, and the dwarf grew afraid. Not for the dragons, but that he might never get his wish, his mad wish to fly. Every now and again, he’d come across one of the beast’s skeletons, the bones always clean of any flesh, though no animal were fool enough to bite a dragon, even a dead one. So it was that he saw his last living dragon on a calm and windless morning, looking for all the world like death on wings, its wasted and ancient shoulders struggling to stay aloft. For three days and three nights, the dwarf tracked it, neither of the two pausing for rest or food. At last, through the trees, the dwarf saw the dragon set down on top of a mountain.”
By this point, Orendi, Shayne, and Aurox had gathered close, stepping softly in time with Azef and Gustav to avoid breaking the spell. Maven resigned herself to her heavy footfalls and followed behind.
“He rushed to the mountain, passing every manner of beast and flower along the way, each trying to stop him. ‘The way is too far!’ warned the trees, but the dwarf pressed on. ‘The rock is too steep!’ cautioned the scalewolf, but still the dwarf climbed. ‘The peak is all fire, and smoke, and in the burning clouds, I heard a terrible roaring. Please, brother dwarf, for me, don’t go to that place.’ begged the beetle. But the dwarf was more determined than ever.”
“He reached the mountain top, where the ground yielded up its blood in roiling vents and pools of liquid stone. And the dragon was nowhere to be found. The dwarf was struck with grief. But then, through the gouts of black and the heat-haze, he thought he spied a tail wriggling through a cave set inside the mountaintop. By the time he reached the cave, it had collapsed, and there was nothing left of the dragon but a single scale. The dwarf began to pick through the rock, clearing the collapse, until he was well into the cavern as anything had ever been. No dragon. So what did the dwarf do?”
Azef waited expectantly until Orendi curiously crooned, “Did he flyyy?”
“No, girl, just the opposite. He dug. In the dark and cold of the stone, he felt the walls for the warmth of the dragon’s passing, and wherever he felt its warmth, he dug, chasing endlessly after a dream of fire. Hand over hand, fist by fist he clawed through the world, for years, a lifetime or more, deeper than anyone had ever known. The time came that the dwarf had bored through so much of the world, had so thoroughly mined it in his quest, that the whole damn thing came apart. Cracked, like a blade run through with rust. And when the fragments of the whole cursed planet drifted apart, the dwarf came to realize the dragon wasn’t there. Who knows what he’d been chasing, whether ‘twas his imagination, or perhaps something else entirely. But all he found was the dark, and the cold, and a world in pieces.”
Gustav extended a hand until a flask filled it, took a swig, followed by a breath, then coolly remarked, “There a moral to this story?”
He waited impatiently until a second later when Azef thundered him on the back with a roll of laughter that boomed even through the scarf over his mouth.
Maven stopped. “Don’t go where you’ve got no business going.”
“What’s the hold up, engineer o’ mine?”
Maven raised the massive pneumatic driver of an arm to point. “Car.”
Sure enough, beneath a weathered statue coated with dust and fungal blooms, a shuttle-car stood quaintly. Its roof had long ago been blown off, and its seats were all tatters and rot, but it had six relatively intact wheels and, presumably, an engine.
“Shotgun!” Shayne shouted over Gustav. He dejectedly clamped his mouth back on his filter and walked to the drivers’ seat.
“How about it, navigator? Will she fly?”
He turned, unamused, and resumed priming the ignition. The shuttle gave no sign of life as he jammed the green button on the center of the console. He pulled himself out, struggled at the hood for a moment, then waved Maven over. He pointed to the hood, then jerked his thumb upward twice. A moment later, the hood was crumpled and hanging from the exosuit’s hand. Gustav peered into the engine compartment. He grumbled, then kicked the bumper, sending a cloud of spores up blossoming into the air from the thick colony that had overgrown the engine. He made a curt hand gesture drawn across his neck.
“Aw, man! I wanted to arrive at the hotel in style.”
Maven spoke into her radio, “I doubt we’ll find anything out here that runs. Truth be told, I’m not too happy standing around this stuff myself. Don’t want to find any cultures around my breather gear.”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s keep walking.”
There was no conversation as they passed the relics of luxury along the way, statues and fountains, cars and artificial trees. At one point, they were startled by the apparition of a woman made of light, but it was just a projected advertisement, triggered by a motion sensor miraculously still functioning. The pavilion was surprisingly clean, save for a single massive wheel of deformed metal embedded in the stairs. Gustav’s eyepiece hummed busily. His breathing quickened as he first grabbed Azef’s sleeve, then patted his arm insistently before running over to the mangled heap. Gustav fell to his knees, his hands falling to the dimpled metal surface almost reverently.
Maven was the first to speak, “What you got?”
Gustav’s response was unclear through his manic laughter, stifled through the filter.
“Gustav, say again? Didn’t catch any of that.”
Gustav tore the scrub filter from his mouth and shouted, “Gold!”
The rest of the crew shared a brief glance before sprinting to his side.
“Gods, is it solid all the way through?”
“It must weigh a ton!”
“I WANT A SLICE!”
“Not now, Orendi. This thing is huuuge! Aurox, see it you can lift it!”
“Of course he can’t, you’d need a crane.”
“If this is what’s laying on the ground, think of what’s inside!”
“ORENDI WANTS TO SHINE!”
“How many creds you think it’s worth?”
“A fortune to the Consortium, perhaps, what with their circuitry and opulence, but ye’d be hard pressed finding a buyer elsewhere.”
“Yeah, be nicer if they decorated in shards.”
“Maybe they’ve got a plasmite fountain somewhere!”
Their feverish discussion was interrupted by an explosion as Orendi sent a blast of fire skyward.
“Hey, Orendi, cool it, alri—ohhh wow…” Shayne’s voice drifted off as she looked up at Orendi’s destruction.
REGENCY N RTH was spelled out in similarly lavish fashion on the grand façade over the stairs.
A moment later, it read REGENCY N TH as the colossal “R” fell from the eaves and slammed into the ground beside the “O” with a deafening blast of dust and stone.
“THAT ONE’S MIIINE!”
Shaken from the diversion, Shayne collected herself before addressing the crew.
“Right! Okay, so obviously, this place has some awesome stuff for the Rogues. Let’s stick to the mission, get this done quick, and we’ll be back before you know it, living the high life. Aurox and I will check out the inside. Navigator Gustav, you and the Count are gonna need to hit the maintenance access console through the garage, check if any security is still active and deactivate it for me and the big guy. Maven, you and little miss walking apocalypse here are gonna give me a quick perimeter sweep, get to high ground and set up the mobile telemetry station and ansible. I want to be comms ready within the hour. Split up, keep the channels open, and let’s get to work!”
Gustav’s eyepiece sifted through diagrams and schematics as his eye flitted back and forth behind the display. He removed the mouthpiece, “Wayfind, Regency North, maintenance and security.”
Azef smiled, “Got it in one.”
Gustav walked ahead confidently, “Looks like it’s ap-p-proximaaately—“ He cut himself short, “Through the garage.”
The gate to the garage was an imposing hulk of segmented metallic sheets slipped down from a coil affixed to the ceiling. In minutes, Azef had set and detonated breaching charges at either end, toppling the whole gate forward into the cavernous structure. Within, there were scores of rusted, mangled vehicles.
Gustav shook his head in dismay. “Looks like the fungus found its way inside. Circulation system must have outlasted its filter.”
They walked on, Gustav following a trail only he could see, soberly passing the destroyed monuments of patrons past.
“Through here.” He tried the door without success, then stepped aside to let Azef do his work.
Azef stood rooted.
“Hey, operator! Got a door that needs operation!”
“Quiet, you damn fool, you’re ruining the moment. Look.”
Gustav followed his gaze until his eyes rested on a slick of hovering, jet-black material limned in a soft, yellow light parked about thirty feet from the door. It looked uncomfortably predatorial.
“Ssself-contained stasis-wrap and blackshield.”
“Whatever’s under th-th-there is probably c-c-c-completely preserved.”
“Untouched by any of thiiis devastation for decades.”
“Can you open it?”
Gustav knelt by the node on the hood of the car as a flood of information filled his HUD. He clicked a button on the side of his lens, shutting it off.
“Do you have a medkit?”
“Medkit, I need a defibrillator, something to deliver a strong electric charge! Been a long time since I’ve done this…”
Azef tossed his pack to the ground, rifled through it for the kit, gingerly handing the portable defibrillator to Gustav.
After a few moments, Gustav jumped back with a yelp of pain as the yellow light dimmed and the black caul dispersed, revealing the hovercar below.
“Yeah. The Obsidian Terranautics ‘Phaeton Exceeder’, discontinued after only three months at market when Baron Farrowbank accused a valet driver of making his car look bad by comparison.”
They paused in appreciation.
“It p-p-probably doesn’t rrrun anyway.”
They paused again.
“But we should probably check, just in case.”
“We are supposed to retrieve valuable technology.”
“And what’s more valuable than this?”
Gustav clicked his lens back on and gestured through a series of virtual consoles. He reached his hand to the driver’s door, and it sprang to life. The headlights blazed defiantly, an eager growl murmuring from within.
A synthesized woman’s voice softly greeted them: “Welcome back, User One.”