The Varelsi were decimated in minutes. Every few seconds, the hellish drone of the Doomlight’s siren would sound, its stormdrive core briefly illuminated with charge in the pitch-black sky. Peals of Dredge’s laughter rang out as lightning traced the path of least resistance between the Doomlight’s cannons and whatever unfortunate Varelsi he pointed at, leaving only the indigo cinders of their deconstitution and the echo of thunder. Between strikes, Orendi and the Sinners darted between stragglers to mop up. After spectating a few salvos, Shayne’s patience wore out.
“This bites. Aurox, watch Maven. I’m gonna talk with this Dredge jerkbag.”
Maven, silent as she focused on breathing and remaining conscious, reached a limp arm to stop Shayne. Shayne shrugged off her hand and advanced on Dredge.
“Hey.” He chuckled impassively as one of his minions used a modified bone saw to split an enemy in half. “Hey!”
He turned and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“First off, thanks for saving Maven. And, you know, all of us. Second off, no one talks to my crew like that except me and the commander.”
He bristled as he raked his hair with a cracked hand, “See here, girl—“
“Captain. It’s Captain Shayne, just like you. It is ‘Captain’, right? You weren’t promoted to hypercaptain or something in the last few minutes?”
The hairs on her arms began to stand on end as electricity danced across his skin.
“Captain Shayne, if you value the lives of you and your crew, you will mind your tongue.”
“Yeah, well the hell with that, I didn’t join the Rogues because I ‘valued my life’ or whatever, I joined because I valued not owing anything to anybody. That goes for my crew; you’ve got business with them, you go through me. Got it?”
A hand touched Shayne’s shoulder.
Maven calmly looked her in the eyes, “Think you should see this, captain.”
“Yeah, alright. Come on, Aurox. Gustav, Azef, watch the car.”
“Car’s dead, captain.”
“Whatever, just watch something!”
Shayne followed as Maven led her to the mining exosuit. Maven gingerly unlatched the exterior case and retrieved the glowing green artifact of the crater.
Shayne extended her hands to cradle the object. “Okayyy, what am I looking at?”
A crash of thunder reverberated through the silence as Maven took a deep breath from her mask.
“No idea. Looks organic. Think the Varelsi wanted it.”
“Huh. I’ll call the commander.”
Maven called out as Shayne turned to leave, “Captain?”
Shayne’s tension seemed to evaporate as Reyna’s cool edge came through the ansible, “Maledictor, this is Valkyrie, what’s your status? Over.”
“Hey, it’s Shayne, looks like we’re in the clear, thanks to Dredge and those creepers on his crew.”
“Did I deliver, or did I deliver?”
“Yeah, yeah—Reyna, we found something here.”
Reyna suppressed a snort of laughter, “I sure as hell hope so, there’s supposed to be a whole planet of something.”
“Right, no, there’s gold and lots of tech junk, but there’s something else. For one, the whole surface is covered with these spores, ruined a lot of the electronics laying around.”
“Damn. Sounds like still plenty worth plundering out there though, I’ll notify the fleet and draw up a salvaging op. Anything else?”
Shayne proffered the alien object to the ansible’s camera, “Found this weird egg pod thing, Maven says she thinks the Varelsi were after it. It’s warm and luminescent.” She added after a pause, “That means it glows.”
“I know what it means! Now let me see what we’ve got here…”
A hologram of Reyna appeared to inspect it more closely.
“Green, check, freaky, check—I’m about two hundred percent sure that’s Eldrid tech. Better contact the Black Observer if the Varelsi were after it. Or, wait, maybe the Green Observer? They might know more about, you know, green things. Damn, what do they study again? Is there someone in between Black and Green, like, a Dark Green Observer?”
“What about the High Observer?” Shayne ventured.
“Nah, that’ll get a lot more attention on this thing than I’d like. Heck with it, I’ll just call our old friend the Red Observer. Gimme a sec.”
The image of Reyna pantomimed punching a series of buttons before a hologram of Mellka appeared seated in the air, legs kicked up on an invisible desk.
“Yo, long time no see guys. What’s going on?”
Shayne wordlessly showed the pod to the camera. Mellka quickly stood up, her eyes growing wide, before punching a button and disconnecting.
Shayne exchanged glances with Reyna’s hologram.
Mellka reconnected less than a minute later, standing stiffly with one hand resting behind her back.
“Okay guys, here’s the deal. What you’re holding is a Seed of Codex. Could be nothing but informational noise, could be the mythical Aztanti Aeon Forge. We won’t know until we graft it to the Codex Regrowth and decode it.”
Reyna cut her off. “Sounds valuable.”
“Yeah, Reyna, it is. To the Eldrid. Not to the Rogues, and not to any other buyers. No one else can access it. That’s what I was just talking to the other Observers about—when I told them, they asked me my evaluation of the strength and number of Rogue forces, to see if we could just take it.”
Reyna jabbed her finger at Mellka in challenge, “Nobody steals from—“
“Obviously, I cautioned them against it and assured them we could deal reasonably. I’ve been authorized to trade with the Rogues for any and all Seeds you guys find, at least on an interim basis until we can figure out how to locate them ourselves.”
Reyna scowled and folded her arms. “What’s the Eldrid got that we want? Fruits and veggies?”
“I mean, yeah, we do have pretty much the freshest produce in the universe if you want to avoid scurvy. But I was thinking more along the lines of information. The Regrowth Archives have the most up-to-date and accurate astrogation charts, derelict coordinates and manifests, lossless copies of ship’s logs, genealogical records, you name it.”
“We’ve got the Neon Forge—“
“Aeon. It makes stars. And I said could be, once decoded. Might just be more of Oscar Mike’s poetry.”
“—and you’re trying to bargain with a library card?”
Mellka hovered her Claw over a console for a moment.
“I’ve just sent you the coordinates to Luxverse 1 as a show of good faith. No one else in existence has that information. Yet. Reyna,” Mellka’s voice softened, “please. I’m your friend, remember? We need that Seed pod. An entire world of Eldrid fought and died to save just a fraction of hope for Codex, scattered over the universe. Countless more died for the Regrowth Archive when the Jennerit attacked. How far do you think they’ll go for a living Seed of Codex itself?”
Reyna tapped her foot, then uncrossed her arms.
“Fine. But if I find more of these things, the Eldrid better pick ‘em up their own damn selves, I don’t want any more of my Rogues fending off Varelsi invasion forces.”
Mellka breathed a sigh of relief, “Totally! Thanks Reyna, I’ll let the High Observer know you’ve agreed.” She furrowed her brow as she looked down, then continued, “I’ll meet you in the Ring when Shayne gets back. Gotta go for now. Oh, and Shayne?”
“Congrats on making captain.” Mellka’s hologram dissipated as she disconnected.
Though Reyna disabled the camera and hologram, she continued speaking into her microphone, “Alright, Captain Shayne. You heard Red. Come on back.”
“About that, my ship is kiiind of out of commission. We had a really bad landing.”
“That’s fine, just tell Captain Dredge I said to give you a lift, he’ll be happy to.”
“What?! No way, can’t you just send someone else?”
A vaporous wisp of Dredge coalesced into shape beside her and grimaced, “I must also object, the girl is insufferable. I can’t guarantee her safety.”
“Shayne, that’s an order, we don’t have resources to be playing favorites right now. Dredge, I know you don’t care about her safety, so I’ll tell you this: if I find even one hair from her pretty little head out of place, if I hear that you were anything short of accommodating, I will personally jeopardize your safety. Get the picture?”
Dredge quivered with rage, then closed his eyes with a sharp inhalation. “That an order?”
Reyna paused before replying, “No, Dredge. Just a request, and a threat.”
“Aye aye, commander. I’ll bring the crew, but I’m not bringing that heap of scrap she calls a ship. I’m taking enough trash on board as it is.”
“That’s fine. Get it done, Dredge. Sooner you get back, sooner you’re back on leave.”
Shayne glared at Dredge as the line went dead.
“Assemble your crew, Captain Shayne.”
Dredge’s voice seemed to double as the communicators somehow picked it up. He ticked his fingers as he spoke, “No shields. The stormdrive doesn’t like them. Anyone wearing a shield will be killed. No music. Can’t stand it myself, and my crew doesn’t care for it either. Anyone playing music, singing, humming, stepping conspicuously rhythmically, will be killed. Lastly, no one in the brig. Period. Anyone near the brig—“
“Will be killed?”
“—will be thrown in the brig, where they will wish they’d be killed. Lastly, while you’re on my ship, you will obey my orders. Are we clear?”
A grumbling chorus of assent stirred from each of them, except for Orendi who only eyed him warily.
Crackling columns of light suffused each of them in turn, before the sharp scent of ozone stung their nostrils and the light grew to blinding intensity.
Shayne struggled to her feet and strained her eyes to take in the surroundings. After a few moments passed, she was still fumbling in utter darkness.
She heard Azef cry out, “Mother help me, I’m blind!”
Maven’s familiar soft rasp echoed a response, “No, he just likes it dark.”
“How does he see anything in here?”
A flash of light signaled Dredge’s arrival. The electric blue energy poured out of his seams in gentle rays, illuminating wherever he stood.
“Welcome aboard the Doomlight. The Seed is safely away in the cargo hold, along with the mining suit. And the car. Make yourselves comfortable while you can, my men are making ready for hyperlight Tunnel procedure.”
The light flared. “What is it?”
“What’s with all the rips and tears, you know, in your body?”
He waved a hand and turned to walk away, plunging the rest of them in darkness.
Maven again spoke up, hardly above a whisper, “Scars. Mortal wounds from blades, bullets, even the stormdrive, once. Some things, even he can’t fix. So he just holds it together as best he can.”
“Maven, how do you know this guy?”
Before she could answer, a voice came on over the PA system.
“This is the UPR frigate Grimalkin. You are trespassing upon Darkspace air…space…which is recognized as UPR controlled…uhm, space. You are hereby ordered to land immediately or more aggressive measures will be taken. You have thirty seconds to comply. You have been warned.”
Dredge’s voice followed in a general broadcast, “Apologies for the delay, we’re recalculating our Tunnel sequence to account for a few thousand tons of extra mass. Prepare for departure in t-minus ten…”
“Uh, you are hereby ordered to disengage the gravitic harpoon on our hull, or even more aggressive measures will be taken. You have, like, five seconds—“
“We are away.”