“Navigator Gustav, Captain Dredge requests your presence on the bridge. Follow the illuminated path. Deviation will result in termination.”
The message seemed to echo endlessly throughout the ship, its hollow monotony somehow resonating above the thunderous firing of the stormdrive.
The rest of the crew’s eyes fixed on Gustav.
“Alias: Shayne. Race: Human. Age: Unknown. Known Affiliates: Rogues …”
“What do you think, captain?”
Shayne gestured as a strip of spectral waylight flickered on, “You heard the guy: his ship, his rules. Get going.”
Gustav nodded, then stood slowly, feeling the wall for balance.
He took a few tentative steps, then turned around, “Maven, he doesn’t eat people or anything like that, does he?”
For a moment, there was only the hiss of her air tanks. “I don’t think he eats at all.”
Gustav nodded, satisfied, then trudged forward along the path. Crew members passed him in silence, none meeting his eye as his targeting software scraped the holonet for information. Some names he recognized from Rogue communications. Most he didn’t. One woman had very obviously stolen the identity of a dead man, though how she was bypassing the eyepiece’s facial recognition algorithm, Gustav had no idea.
The floor and wall paneling were uniformly black, the waylight and sparse indicator LEDs offering the only hint of vision in the choked passages. Logically, Gustav knew he was traveling on level ground, but with each step, he could not shake the feeling of descent. Long stretches of pipe snaked through the halls, live wires lay exposed and sparking, gouts of steam and rivers of coolant fouled the air and slicked the walls. It made him think of a holonet video he’d once seen of a research vessel’s streaming camera feed as it passed through the gullet of an Aplian gigasquid. It was not a comforting thought. A sharp turn and a swiftly opening pressurized door brought him face to face with a lightly armored guard. She lazily raised a submachine gun to Gustav’s chest as she knocked twice on the door behind her. He raised his hands unprompted to indicate he was unarmed.
“Alias: Quint. Race: Aelfrin. Age: 189. Known Affiliates: Rogues.
WANTED: Arson(3), Impersonating an Eldrid Observer(2), Petty Theft(74), Grand Theft(25), Ultra Theft(1)
Against every rational instinct to not engage in conversation with someone pointing a gun at him, Gustav’s curiosity somehow overwhelmed his better judgment.
“What’s ‘Ultra Theft’?”, he blurted.
He immediately regretted asking and awaited his loud and messy death, closing his eyes and cringing at his poor decision-making skills.
He jumped as the door shot open with a loud hiss, eliciting a wicked grin from the guard as she waved him through with the gun.
Inside, the air was noticeably colder. Arrayed around the walls of the bridge were a series of open vats filled with a thick, glowing, blue gel. In the center of the room, Dredge hung suspended from a tangle of thick cables set into his back. The cables swung him about like a marionette to face Gustav. They slithered forward to bring Dredge to the entrance to the room, hovering so that Gustav had to incline his head to make eye contact.
Gustav’s breath fogged as he spoke, “Navigator Gustav, reporting as requested, captain.”
Dredge smiled. The cables suddenly went slack and fell to the ground as he teleported to Gustav’s side and draped an arm across his shoulders.
“Mr. Gustav, I am told that you have experience in minimally-assisted hyperlight sequence computation. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?”
He guided Gustav around the periphery of the room as they spoke, the cables quietly receding back into the rafters.
“Erm, yes, Captain Dredge, sir. I’ve run the Tunnel a fair number of times.”
They paused behind one of the vats situated near the front of the room. Dredge thumped the glass siding of the tank, then crossed his arms in expectation. The surface quivered lightly, then suddenly began violently shaking as something thrashed within. A purple arm burst through the surface, the muscles tense as the fingers spasmed unnaturally. Dredge sighed, clasped the hand with a grip like a vice, and plunged his other arm into the vat up to the elbow. An electric field danced over the surface of the gel and the purple arm visibly relaxed. Dredge let it slump back into the glowing depths and withdrew his own arm with a small frown.
Gustav collected his wits.
“—Yes, that was my reaction too. I was initially quite proud of this navigation module, but it seems something’s wrong with its native hardware. Some sort of memory leak causes it to lock up and crash at the most inopportune times.”
“Is that a Helician?” Gustav whipped his head around, staring at the other tanks in horror.
“Yes, thank you for noticing.” Dredge’s arm glowed brightly as he burned off the viscous excess in wisps of pale smoke. “The issue is that we need to readjust our drift to account for some freight we dumped.”
Gustav momentarily forgot about the vats, “Aw, man…you ditched the Exceeder? That thing was a classic!”
Dredge gave a look of reproval, “Come now, Gustav, nothing so rare and valuable as that.”
Gustav sighed with relief.
“I simply cut the Grimalkin loose a ways back.”
His relief slipped away instantly. “The Grimal—wait, the frigate? You left the UPR frigate in the doldrums of the Tunnel?!”
“Yes, well, how does that phrase go? ‘Play stupid games, win eternal torment in tangential spacetime’, or something to that effect. The point is, I have business in the brig, and by this thing’s last estimate,” he gestured to the submerged Helician, “this nuisance has already set our arrival back by nearly an hour. Now can you fix this or not?”
Gustav stammered, “I…” He began preliminary calculations. Every second wasted talking was a fraction of the time the Grimalkin was losing. His hands waved about as he manipulated values in his mind, “I’ll need to sever that portion of the Tunnel, run it out with a Möbius transform, append a segment…”
“Your answer, Gustav. We’ve all got places to be.”
He locked eyes with Dredge. “Aye, captain. I’ll handle it at once.”
Dredge beamed. “Good.” A suite of controls and monitors descended from the cables overhead. “The console is yours.”
With that, Dredge vanished in a haze of blue.
He drifted through the corridors as purposefully as an ionic miasma could, coalescing for a moment to pause as a door opened or a turn impeded his line of sight. Experienced crew members flattened against the corridor walls at attention to give him right of way as he passed. Many still remembered the tragedy of James Tallow, whose fat had caked on the floor and taken three days to scrub clean. At last, he arrived at the entrance to the brig. Less of a door and more of a pair of superconductor nodes bridging a wall of reinforced, signal-dampening phaseplate, it was only accessible to those who could transmit themselves corporeally through an electric current.
Dredge materialized on the other side and smoothed his hair. He could feel the anxiety of the host’s self-preservation impulses squirming to gain purchase, like an itch in his mind. He took a deep breath to recompose himself, vexed by the rudimentary processes of his body (breathing? really?). He opened the miniature refrigerator by the door and withdrew a large bar of chocolate, the last of the box. With a swift wrenching motion, he bit off half of the bar, chewed it quickly and muscled it down his esophagus. He rewrapped the rest and threw it back in the fridge. Having silenced the host, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked to the last cell in the block.
He disabled the polarized plasma gate, glaring as light flooded from the artificial sun in the center of the room. Sister Candela had not parted with her Solarius Staff happily, and he’d gone through a dozen acolytes and two of his own crew figuring out how to operate it, but the staff’s curious mechanism was impossible to emulate and vital to his plan.
He delicately padded among the creeping vines that wended their way along the floor and walls of the cell, careful not to step on any of the scions grafted along their length. Obtaining a verifiable cutting had cost him a king’s ransom in false or dead leads. Luckily, a particularly sentimental Thrall had collected one during the assault on Ekkunar and submitted it to the Imperial Reliquary, where an enterprising Jennerit guard arranged a deal with a Lorrian artisanal microfacturer, exchanging a whisper of tariff renegotiations in exchange for a passable forgery; the cutting was sold to an LLC middleman who needed to justify a massive budget increase that a junior accountant had mistyped in the books as “arbor maintenance” (dooming their arcship’s harbor to another quarter of infrastructural degradation), and he in turn pawned it to Dredge in exchange for a dozen minor raids on UPR transports to drive up the demand for the new line of LLC auto-defense external hull turrets he was drafting a contract for.
In the center of the room, meticulously trimmed and immaculately arranged, was a small tree.
A lick of fire vented from a crack in one of the pods grafted on the vines.
As he exited the brig, he went over his mental checklist:
He needed to get a quote from the Lorrian forger to alter one of the other seed-pods—a rush job, but with the Luxverse plunder on the way, he could afford it.
He had to restock his cache of chocolate bars, otherwise he’d have to deal with the cravings again.
And he had questions for his Eldrid contact about proper care for exotic plants and animals. She’d mentioned something about a “Fist” among the Eldrid which enabled a neural link with flora and fauna alike—if he could acquire one, it would prove useful…
Gustav finished his calculations, checked them, double checked, triple checked, and executed the Tunnel sequence modulation. One iota of error could cascade into months, years spent in a cosmic oubliette. If his calculations were correct, if every factor aligned, converted, and equated in perfectly orchestrated harmony…
Reyna’s face remained an impassive mask.
Shayne repeated herself. “Three weeks of Tunnel-drift. That’s how long those UPR guys got screwed for, thanks to Dredge. Gustav told me that if he’d been informed three minutes sooner, before the sinks were maxed, he could have gotten it down to less than a day.”
Reyna fixed her with a hard stare. “If he’d arrived three minutes later to save your butts, we’d be power-washing you off his cargo bay floor right now. If the UPR had gotten wind of this,” she gestured to the cracked Codex seed under her arm, “who knows what would have happened.”
“Reyna, we don’t even know if they were equipped for 3 weeks of travel! For all we know—“
“—You’re alive, Shayne! That’s all I know. I’m not a commander of the UPR. You won’t find us on the payrolls of the LLC, we don’t fly the Imperial Crest or any other colors—I’m a Rogue. My job is to keep the Rogues alive. Anyone can be a grunt, anyone can make a paycheck, but we’re the only organization of truly free people left in the universe! And we do not have the luxury of sustaining casualties. Least of all someone as experienced and talented as you.”
Shayne lowered her head, her jaw set in stony anger.
“You know why Captain Dredge was the one who picked you up?”
Reyna waited out the moment before forging on, “Because there was no one else available. We’re stretched thin. We’ve made it this far through a guerilla campaign of occupying the least habitable, least valuable real estate in the solar system. But you know what, it took him less than two tenths of a second to respond when I broadcast your general distress to the fleet. You think he did that because he’s got the warm fuzzies for our understaffed outfit? That he likes your crew? Or me?”
Shayne slowly shook her head.
“It’s because he knows the value of freedom, more than most. He believes in what we’re fighting for. Most times, that means thieving. Sometimes, it means more. But,” she smiled gently, “you’re right.”
Shayne snapped her head up, “I am?”
“We can’t just leave that frigate stranded. They might have something useful. Might be salvage, might be information. So, I’m tasking you, and my favorite little rock monster, to head out there for recon and retrieval, with a generous helping of emergency supplies. We’ve already got a team on the Malediction, and Toby says he’ll have it running better than before by tomorrow.”
“Just me and Aurox, huh?”
Reyna wagged her finger, “Oh no, I know what you’re up to. I’ve got those guys already tasked and assigned to other ops. This is a just a courtesy call, and like I said, I can’t afford to be doubling up crews just because you get along. You’ll all be back before you know it, you can freelance some raids together then. Just make it snappy, you know? In and out.”
Shayne whipped her boomerang in a wide arc. “Aye aye, captain,” Shayne said coolly as it returned to her outstretched hand, “in and out.”