Maven piloted the plodding mining rig towards a high ridge overlooking the grand concourse of the hotel, doing her best to tune out Orendi’s clambering about the shoulders of the frame. Every few minutes, Orendi and her enormous hat would hang in front of the cockpit upside down, her collection of pointed teeth flashing as she pulled a face or offered some chaotic koan.
“I wear my stars on the inside!”
“carry you now, but first you have to leave.”
Maven would nod politely and offer mild responses, hoping to avoid provoking what passed for conversation with Orendi, which usually involved wanton
“That seems like a good place for them.”
“I’ll let you know when I get tired.”
“I bet that comes in handy.”
Eventually, Orendi simply sat atop the exosuit in palpable, silent frustration. Which was fine with Maven. She was used to not talking for long periods.
When at last they reached the top of the hill, Maven lifted the cage of the cockpit and extricated herself from the suit, taking care not to tangle the hose of her breathing mask on any of the instruments. As an afterthought, she reached into the cockpit, fumbled for a switch, and deactivated the rig’s floodlight. Best to conserve power, just in case. She checked the tanks of air at her waist. Supplemented by an auxiliary supply in the suit, they were still nearly full.
She slipped off the hyperspectral lens she’d been wearing, necessary to scrape the EM band for vision in Darkspace, and flicked the articulated flashlight that hung from a ring on her vest. Even if it was limited range, she was grateful to be working in the visible spectrum, to feel the air against part of her face again. Navigating by the wide cone of light, she unlatched a storage bin and set to the task of establishing a link with the Rogues’ primary ansible relay.
Typically, the automated system took only a few minutes to establish and secure a connection, but the persistent interference from the micro-satellite artificial constellations, or the peculiar signal-diffusing atmosphere, or both, were slowing the link to a crawl. She left the ansible to its calculations and worked on setting up the telemetry station. With an adequate vantage and a clear signal, the equipment allowed for the monitoring of everything from simple ambient temperature to local deformations of spacetime. As she prepared the main console, the flashlight dimmed forebodingly before breathing its luminous last and flickering into death.
“Are you kidding me…“ she muttered under her breath. Stupid. Forgot to check batteries, forgot to bring spares.
She sighed and stood up to stretch, padding through her pack for the headgear she’d set aside only a moment before, when something caught her eye from the darkness. A glimmer of pale green. She closed her eyes—it might be an afterimage, or a phantom of the sensory deprivation of Darkspace. It went away. She opened her eyes and saw it again. It was impossible to gauge its distance without more reference, but it was there. She held the hype-specs to her eyes and peered through them in the alien, muted tones of artificially converted signal to get a better view. There was a crater perhaps a kilometer away, too miniscule to have been made by an asteroid of appreciable size—it couldn’t have been more than 20 meters in radius. At its center, flaring in the thermal infrared, was…something, embedded in the earth. Not large enough to be a craft.
Maven tripped her way back to the rig, flipped the floods back on, lifted the cage and climbed back in, settling the uncomfortable goggles back in place.
“Orendi, we gotta move!”
Orendi burst out from within the storage compartment and scrambled to hang from the side rail, her hideous laughter battering against Maven’s veneer of calm.
Together, they sped along the marbled walkways and ruined steps, the dreamlike clouds of spores cavitating in whorls in their wake. Closer to the crater, the air grew warmer, and every step kicked up lazy plumes of fungal explosions. In the thermal IR of the hyperspectral lens, the glowing anomaly washed out the surroundings beyond recognition. Maven stood above the strange, half-buried object—maybe a foot of which protruded through the dirt in an oblate dome—and spun the manipulator’s hand to excavate the soil around it. As gingerly as could be done with a giant metal arm, she plucked the object up. It looked like a seed, or an egg; definitely organic, in any case. Running along its veined, striated side was a long crack, through which Maven could feel a wash of warmth. It wasn’t triggering the suit’s radiological alarm, but something was definitely off–
“I want to hold the dream thing to DEATH!” Orendi pounced, knocking the pod from the rig’s metal fingertips.
“Hey, watch it!”
She recoiled immediately after grabbing it. “Owww, the fire dream bit me!”
Her hands erupted into black flames as she held the object at arm’s length and slung a barrage of black flame into it with her two free arms.
“NOBODY. BITES. ME. BUT. ME!”
Bits of the organic casing were flaking off under her assault.
“Orendi!” Maven pounded the pneumatic driver into the ground, startling her partner.
“You’ve reached the offices of Orendi and Orendi, how can I assist you?”
“We’ve got contacts.”
Maven nodded towards the opposite rim of the crater, where a group of skulks were shambling out of a Varelsi portal. She reached into an overhead panel and withdrew a bulky flare gun. The flare streamed into the barren sky before settling into a lazy drift high above. Orendi cackled hysterically under the grim white phosphorus, tossing the pod behind them.
Maven turned around and lumbered after it—whatever it was, it had to be important if it got the Varelsi’s attention.
“Orendi, I need you to focus, I can draw them off for a bit, but you have to take this and—oh.“
Maven turned back to face the skulks only to find they were gone, seemingly evaporated in the path of whatever
strange energy Orendi harnessed and hurled their way. Orendi calmly climbed onto the outside of the cockpit and smiled.
“I’ll teach you some time. The trick is knowing how to shoot fire! After that, it’s eeeasyyy.”
Behind Orendi, Maven saw a Varelsi portal bloom. The Varelsi poured out everywhere she swept the floodlight, too many to count.
“No time. We have to get to the ansible, now!”
She opened the comms channel as the Varelsi rained their energy weapons after her. “Shayne! This is Maven, we need immediate reinforcements, repeat, immediate reinforcements! We are en route to the ansible, uploading position.”
After a few moments, the radio crackled through the portal interference, “What? No, pause it, I don’t want to miss anything. Hey, Maven, what did you say? I couldn’t hear you over Aurox.”
Maven shouted over the rattle of the suit’s thrusters, “We’re being overrun by Varelsi, we need reinforcements!”
Panic crept into Shayne’s voice, “Hang tight and stay close to Orendi, we’re on our way!”
“C’mon, big guy, we’ve gotta run.” Shayne sprinted to a window and dove out to the stones of the entrance below—it was only a couple of stories, and she had Aurox and her energy shield. They hit the ground rolling and Aurox unwrapped himself from around Shayne as she groaned at the sight of the flare in the distance.
“Uuugh, we’ve gotta run far!”
Gustav’s voice squawked over Shayne’s radio, “Might want to belay that, captain. I am on approach, coming in hot.”
The basso rumble of the Exceeder’s engine heralded its arrival as much as its headlights, sliding to a halt neatly at her side. The passenger door opened automatically.
A digital woman’s voice invited her, “Welcome, Passenger 2.”
Shayne hopped in excitedly.
“Full speed ahead!”
“Aye aye, captain.” Gustav slammed his foot on the accelerator, sending the car lunging forward like an Aplian whipcat. His personal eyepiece was nearly opaque as it displayed wayfinding routes, predictive steering guidance, energy anomaly alarms, and embedded consoles synced to the Exceeder’s own robust system.
“Computer, patch to local ansible node at input coordinates, retrieve ansible contact ‘Reyna Valeria’ from User 1 personal account and call using provided encryption.”
Shayne stared in wonder as they raced up the road at breakneck speed. “This thing can do all that?”
Gustav laughed, “No, captain, I can do all that, with the right car.”
“How’s the head?”
“Seems it was nothing a little adrenaline couldn’t fix.”
Within a minute, they stopped on a dime in front of Maven and Orendi atop the hill.
Reyna’s voice was clear over the car’s speakers, “Malediction, Valkyrie here, whatcha got for me?”
Shayne leaned inexpertly over Gustav, looking for a microphone, “Valkyrie, this is Malediction actual, we’ve got a big problem, our position is crawling with V, we need immediate reinforcements. Over.”
There was a brief moment of radio silence before Reyna replied, “Copy that, Malediction Actual. Sending you reinforcements in a big way, hold position. ETA 5 minutes. Over.”
“Acknowledged, over and out.”
Shayne looked at Gustav expectantly.
“Does it hang up automatically or what?”
Reyna laughed on the other line, “Give ‘em hell, kid. Over and out.”