[Delirium] 1 – 1

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The bland man with the blood-splattered clothes walked unnoticed through the teeming bazaar. The throng flowed smoothly around him, allowing the man to walk effortlessly through the crowd of aggressive merchants and shoppers.

It was a good day for the merchants of the Kan’in Bazaar. A Chogenin tourist ship had docked in the Outer Harbor late last night, bringing countless wealthy, tentacled patrons down to the surface in search of the most exciting sights the White City had to offer. They strolled through the market alongside the usual assortment of customers in search of rare items.

The market was a popular tourist spot that showed off the stark colorlessness of the city. Unlike the usual exuberant colors one would find at a market in most cities, the Kan’in Bazaar was a uniform, unmarred white abnormality for newcomers. The white streets and the buildings were almost blinding in the afternoon sun, and even the white canopy offered little relief from the brutal heat and the dry desert air. In truth, many of the regulars at the Kan’in Bazaar preferred to conduct their business at night, when they would not have to contend with the unrelenting Alessari suns.

Meanwhile, the residents of Sagi foolish enough to shop during the day tried to ignore this sudden influx of foreigners as they went about their business. Despite the near constant flow of tourists in and out of the city of Sagi, the Sagiers often saw visitors as outsiders and interlopers, interfering in their everyday lives. Which, given the nature of tourism, was almost certainly true.

Despite their general dislike of outsiders, Sagiers were a diverse group. Countless races, religions, and nationalities lived in the city, and indeed throughout the entirety of Alessar. It was often remarked that Alessar was one of the few planets where any race was always welcome, and the bazaar was like a microcosm of that diversity. Alessar was known as the second capital of the Vestige Empire, and it stood alone among its peers as a safe haven for refugees and those seeking a new start.

Several peaceful Gerstle walked carefully through the market, slowly lifting their four long, spindly legs up and over the heads of the rest of the market-goers so as to avoid hurting anyone. Kraag merchants stood on the corners hawking their wares, their small squat figures struggling to find visibility in the thick of the crowd. The Truffa all walked in synchronization, their consciousness still linked weakly by the remnants of their now-shattered hive-mind.

However, Chogenin and Alessari alike seemed to completely ignore the smiling man strolling uninhibited through the street. He walked slowly but without hesitation. He never once stopped to listen to the shouts of the street vendors or pause to wipe the thickening layer of grime on his face. He paid no mind to the heat or the dry, dusty air. He seemed oblivious to the streaks of blood that dyed his clothing red and glistened on his face. He walked without a care in the world. His gentle smile was almost grandfatherly, despite his apparent youth, and he had that hard-to-place age that was so common to people in their early thirties.

Despite its tourist attraction, Kan’in Bazaar was a hotbed of criminal activity. As the closest market to the shipping port, it was the source of the bulk of Sagi’s incoming black market goods. Many of the merchants and vendors who lined the streets were little more than thugs, fencing off their stolen goods to tourists who wouldn’t know any better, and many of the supposed shoppers were their hired pickpockets. It was simply good business to steal back the items you’d just sold. Why sell something just once, when you could instead sell the same wares over and over again.

In a street of thugs and murderers, pickpockets and thieves, criminals and tourists, the man walked alone, undisturbed, through the center of the street. Alessari and foreigners alike trod unaware over the thin trail of blood he left behind him.

A sudden collision with a human rushing through the market knocked the strange man off of his perfect path. Caught completely off guard, the blood-soaked man fell backward in shock as a sudden silence fell over the bazaar. The Kan’in clock tower that had given the bazaar its name ticked incessently over the packed street. The previously unaware market-goers found themselves staring in bewilderment at the man on the ground, covered in someone else’s blood. The woman who had crashed into him immediately began apologizing profusely as she desperately brushed the dust off from her fine clothing, much finer than the other market-goers.

When she looked down at the fallen man, however, she too fell silent. A slight frown marred his bloody face. He remained there on the ground, as if unable to move without the momentum that had carried him through the market before. The finely dressed woman choked back a scream as the man pointed at her with his left hand. His bloody sleeve fell back at the gesture, revealing intricate red markings beginning at the back of his hands and running up his arm.

“You’re in my way,” the man said simply. The words oddly staccato, unfamiliar in his mouth. With that, the markings along his arm lit up with an almost blinding intensity, painting the pale street a sinister crimson hue. A moment later, the terrified woman’s skin began to change tones as well. From her native dark coloring, it began to glow a faint blue that fought back lightly against the man’s brilliant red glow. For a moment she remained still, concentrating as hard as she could. When nothing happened, she frantically looked to the crush of people pressing in on all sides. “Everyone get away from me!”

She tried to shove the crowd away from her but the market was far too packed for anyone to move away with any speed. Similar tattoo markings to the man’s began to emerge on her skin as she desperately cried out.

“No, no, no!” She fell forward onto the man and began ineffectually punching at him. “Please, oh god please no.” Tears of blood dripped down her face as the man below her frowned even more.

“I don’t like-“ The man was cut off as a bright red explosion filled the streets of the Kan’in Bazaar.

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Astrid realized what a poor decision she had made just a few short moments after diving out of the fifty-eighth floor window of Welke Tower. There were just a few shortcomings in this plan of hers. First of all, she wasn’t actually certain that the man she saw jump out the same window just a few seconds prior was actually her target, Gaius Compromat. In fact, in hindsight it seemed pretty unlikely. Second of all, the client had only paid her to snoop around Gaius’s apartment. She hadn’t shown up at his unit with any intention of confronting him. And, of course, the final, and most important, problem with this little maneuver of hers was that she had just jumped out of the fifty-eighth floor of a building.

Lights and sounds blurred past Astrid as she fell past the rush of cars and vehicles. She let the ambient world around her fade away as she focused inward. She reached inside herself for the ether that burned in her chest. Carefully drawing it out to the surface, she felt the world slow around her. Her fall gradually came to a stop as she drew out more of her ether. She felt her face heat up as her skin began to shine with a soft purple radiance.

She gathered her ether and pushed her now floating body back up against the building she had just jumped from. She drew her arm back and, reinforcing the blow with her ether, punched straight through the glass into the room on the other side. As the glass shattered around her, she crafted a tight net of ether over her arms to catch any of the glass and dump it back inside the room. She took a firm grip on the edge of the window and pulled herself in, allowing her depleted ether to sink back below into her chest. The purple glow faded from her skin.

She dropped herself down to the floor of the apartment and brushed off any glass that had clung to her clothes. Now that she was safely back inside the building, she turned her attention to the room in which she was currently trespassing. Holograms of what looked like a happy Truffa collective decorated the walls of what was otherwise a fairly sparse room. A single mattress sat on the floor in the center of the room, and an old model Nutricon in fairly poor condition was collecting dust in the back corner.

With a quick look to make sure that no one saw her entry, Astrid darted to the door. She opened the door cautiously before stepping out as nonchalantly as she could manage. She checked up and down the corridor before allowing herself to feel a moment of relief. There was no one here.

She sighed at the large number “22” adorning the wall across from the elevators, wishing she could just pull off the “out of order” sign. She really should have considered the elevator’s current condition before deciding to jump out of the fifty-eighth story of the tower. She rounded the corner and slammed the door to the stairs open perhaps a touch harder than was necessary.

After another grueling hour of scaling thirty-six flights of stairs again, Astrid emerged out of breath and exhausted onto the fifty-eighth floor. She panted as she circled the building to the far side where Gaius’s apartment was. She stopped at the water fountain near the bathrooms on the way.

Note to self, never take an assignment involving stairs ever again, she told herself as she took a refreshing drink of the semi-cool water. She splashed some water on her face as well to cool herself off.

When she rounded the corner to the hallway with Gaius’s room, she immediately knew something was wrong. The door had been ripped entirely off its hinges and his belongings had been tossed out into the hallway with absolutely no care for their safety.

Astrid ducked behind the corner and glanced up and down the hallway, looking for some sign of the culprit, but the floor was entirely deserted. Keeping an eye on the open doorway into Gaius’s unit, she reached down into the interior pocket of her coat and pulled out her collapsible charge gun.

She pressed the release button at the base of the gun, and the whole thing sprung from its compact flattened shape into the proper shape of a gun. The spring loading on the charge guns was generally the most dangerous part of using them. It was far too easy to lose your grip on it and drop it, hurting yourself or someone else. More people had been seriously hurt by the gun getting thrown into their face than by the gun’s actual discharge. This model of charge gun had been designed to be nonlethal, but even the creator had admitted that he might have made it a little bit too underpowered.

Still, she was particularly proud of the weapon. She had jerry-rigged it with an etheric receiver, allowing her to charge it faster, or even stronger, with her own ether. Her modification made it the perfect unsuspecting weapon for a busy private eye like herself.

As she peered around the doorframe into the room, she glanced down at the charge reading on the gun. Full. Perfect. She crept down the quiet hallway, keeping her gun trained on the open door. The weapon worked by charging itself over time. Typically, they needed a solar panel or a wall charging unit, but thanks to Astrid’s little modification, her gun used ambient etheric energy in the atmosphere. It took longer to reach full, but the convenience of charging it on the go more than made up for that.

At full charge, a gun like this would normally only have three or four shots. With the ether receiver, though, she could push in another full charge of ether, although the effort would leave her fairly weak. Right now, when she had already depleted her ether levels, she could probably only charge it with one extra shot.

Instead of doing that, she generally used her power to increase the gun’s firepower. If she turbocharged a shot with her own ether, she could crank up the firepower to something that could seriously incapacitate or hurt her target. It turned what could barely administer more than an uncomfortable electric shock into a real weapon.

Of course, if her parents knew she had something like this at her disposal, they would have had the Elders banish her all over again. I suppose that’s the positive side of banishment, she thought wryly. They can only banish me once. Their threats are a whole lot emptier when there’s nothing left that they can do to me anymore.

Astrid gripped the little charge gun and peered back around the corner again. There was no sign of movement. With careful, deliberate movements she stepped through the open doorframe and snuck down the short entrance hallway of the apartment as silently as she could manage. The clothing littered all over the floor made it easy for her to traverse the entryway without making any noise. She kept her gun at the ready as she reached the end of the hall. The two doors on either side at the end of the hallway were both wide open.

She pressed her back to the wall next to the door on her right. She glanced first into the opposing doorway. Then, she dropped down into a crouch and stuck her head around the corner of the doorway next to her. Nothing. Still crouching, she crept across the hallway to look into the room across from her. There was no one else there. Confident that the danger had passed, Astrid folded her charge gun back up and tucked it back into her pocket.

Astrid stood up and cursed her stupidity again for jumping out of the window earlier. If she’d kept a level head earlier, she might have known who had followed her here and tore through Gaius’s belongings.

She strode angrily into the bedroom through the door next to her. There was clothing everywhere. The drawers were all open and emptied, and the bedsheets had been torn off of the bed. Whoever had been in here had been looking for something specific. Thinking of the way that the Visethi man from earlier dove out the window without even a second glance at her, she suspected that whatever this third party had been after, he had probably taken with him.

She’d come here to gather information for her client, and right now all she had was more questions. She crossed the hallway back into the office across from the bedroom and sat down at the desk. She kicked back the chair and rested her feet on the desk. Gaius had clearly been an old-fashioned guy. He had actual pictures in the antique style sitting on his desk. Not even the moving style of picture that had been popular in the late 300’s period. No, these were the old, stationary photos. Astrid wasn’t even sure where someone would have gotten that kind of camera any more. There weren’t many left that could take those kinds of pictures.

Alone among all of the old photos was a single hologram. It was a snapshot of his wife waving at him and smiling. Its brilliant color and perfect detail felt out of place and was a sharp contrast to the blurry, dull pictures that sat behind it.

After a few moments of allowing herself to wallow in self-pity, Astrid put her feet down and sat up, opening up the top drawer of the desk. She groaned at the sight of stacks of actual paper files inside the desk. Gaius wasn’t just old fashioned, he was connected. The Empire had restricted the use of paper exclusively to government records, so either this guy was a determined collector, or he was involved with some government folks. She flipped through the files, but she couldn’t make anything of the numbers and names they referenced. She rolled them up and stuffed them bulkily into one of her pockets.

The rest of the drawers didn’t have much in them. Mostly just old-school office supplies and a few spare pings lying around. She ignored the supplies and pocketed the pings. This job was already quickly becoming worth more than she had charged, so what was the harm in taking them?

When she finished rifling through the drawers, she turned her attention to the pictures on top. Most of them seemed to have the same group of Visethi men in them, but it was hard to tell. She didn’t want to seem racist, but she had a hard time telling their kind apart. Their bug faces just all tended to look the same to her.

She finally turned her attention to the sole hologram that sat on the desk. It came from a small circular projector that had some language engraved on it that she could only guess was Viseth. Its weird, choppy style was as difficult to decipher as the people who used it. As she examined it, she noticed that the base wasn’t sitting quite flat.

She picked up the projector and the source of the imbalance was easy to spot. The screw holding the bottom in place had come loose. She turned the device upside down and twisted the screw off.

Astrid opened up the battery pack and found a tiny piece of paper inside. She reached in and pulled out the note. It read, “12/3/4/3, Noon, Agrippa’s.” She tucked the note into her pocket. She could find out what it meant later. She closed back up the projector and stood up from the desk. Just as she made her way to the office door, she heard the sudden tromp of boots in the hallway.

“Fuck.” She looked to the broken window longingly for a moment, wishing she could take the easy way out. She walked to the door with a heavy sigh, raising her arms carefully above her head. “I surrender, don’t shoot,” she called out, poking her head around the corner. She stepped around the corner and walked slowly toward the Imperial Police waiting at the end of the hallway. She wished she could tell what they were thinking of the human girl walking out of the trashed Visethi apartment, but their opaque helmets gave nothing of their thoughts away. Fortunately, she didn’t need to know what was going in in their heads to know what was going to happen next. A perfect end to a perfect day, she reflected. One of these days, she told herself, I am going to take a case that doesn’t get me arrested.

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“Being Third-in-Line to the Throne is like being the prettiest girl at the ball,” Grand Duke Livius complained. “Except your father’s a pariah and you’ve just had spice wine dumped down your dress. Nobody worth associating with wants anything to do with you, and anybody who does probably has plans for you that you more-than-likely want nothing to do with. Not to mention you’d really like to change clothes into something that puts you a little less on display. Don’t you think so, Lia?” He looked down at the diminutive woman gently twining her arm with his as they walked together.

Othelia stifled her laugh with a gentle, lady-like cough. Livius had pretty much just summarized her debut to high society. Except it had been choclatl, not spice wine, that had been dumped all over her brand new dress. And her father was more of a recluse than a pariah. But quibbling over details aside, Livius had just described in short the event that had shattered her tiny little world in moments and left her reeling for months after as she struggled to find her place in high society.

In fact, if Livius hadn’t shown any interest in her, that’s probably where she’d still be. Stubbornly clinging to the edge of high society, praying that she might someday crawl her way up and out of the pit of notoriety. She knew she was still an outsider, but Livius’s interest protected her somewhat from the viciousness that she knew the other members of society would otherwise display toward her.

She doubted anyone at court liked her at all. She had no illusions. Even her supposed friends would turn on her without a moment of doubt if Livius decided he was done with her. That was just the kind of maneuvering and backstabbing it took to stay afloat in the company of nobles and royalty. Othelia had no stomach for such behavior herself, but she tried not to judge others for doing what it took to get by in this world. In a world where few people were anything more than skin deep, Othelia prided herself on her straightforwardness.

“You have the right of it, I’m afraid, my Prince.” Othelia smiled up at him. Despite his complaints and his sometimes absurd attention to fashion, he was one of the few earnest people in the high circles of society. His high birth as the third child of Kaiser Pompeius Vestige protected him from the many predators that prowled the functions and balls he attended. At the same time, his distance from the throne, especially with his sister now poised to inherit the throne and pass the empire to the next generation, allowed him a certain freedom to his actions that his elder siblings simply never had. When the Grand Duke offends you, it’s an insult. When the Crown Princess does, it’s a declaration of war.

The two of them walked side-by-side as they strode through the massive double doors into the Royal Ballroom. A voice boomed out over the room, “Grand Duke Livius Vestigiar, Prince to the Vestige Sovereignty, escorting the Lady Othelia Dubois of Bramblewood.”

After a few months of attending soirees at the Imperial Palace, all at Livius’s side, of course, most of the initial majesty had worn off. The entire palace was perfect in every way that her rural home in Bramblewood was not. That was to be expected. But the Violet Ballroom was a particular beauty even in comparison. It had originally been built nearly four centuries ago by Kaiser Marius Vestige IV in an attempt to outdo the rival Bullion Empire’s Crystal Court, and Othelia was confident that it must have done so quite successfully.

The first thing that always hit her was the sweet smell of what she could only guess was a mix of warm pie and chocolate and cinnamon that always filled the room. Kaiser Wilhelm had built a dessert kitchen next to the ballroom so that the aromas would waft through the room and delight the nobles. Long chandeliers of pure amethyst hung down from the ceiling, bathing the room in its famous purple glow. The digital viewports that had once adorned the walls had been replaced by actual glass windows by the Second Prince when he had ordered the surrounding portion of the palace removed and replaced with a real garden. There was an openness to the room, an atmosphere that managed to feel both royal and casual at the same time.

Othelia tried to hear if anyone disparaged her or Bramblewood at their entry. She’d often heard the complaint that it made no sense for a backwater town like Bramblewood to have its own county. In her first few months after her debut, she had contended with a number of the local Counts and Countesses trying to swallow her county into their own territories. “Better just to be rid of that backwards Count and their backwards county,” they would say, knowing that Othelia was well in earshot. There was no need to play nice with the daughter of a Count who was too poor to afford the expensive trip into the city for their more important parties.

Livius leaned in and muttered softly to her, “Let’s just see how jealous we can make everyone of the Third-In-Line and the prettiest girl at the ball, shall we?”

Othelia felt her heart rate quicken and her face flush. Her gown was far from the cutting edge of fashion; she couldn’t afford that color changing fabric that seemed to be the rage among the elites this year. Nor could she afford the mechanical petticoats that shot out sparkles when the ladies twirled their dresses. She knew she didn’t belong here, among the elites and the ambitious. Othelia the embarrassment, who never should have left her derelict home in Bramblewood.

Despite her inadequacies, Livius always managed to make her feel like she belonged here among the upper crust. He made her feel like a true noblewoman, instead of the country bumpkin she knew the rest of them saw her as.

“Oh it’s so good to see you, Lia!” The eager greeting brought Othelia out of her thoughts. A woman masked in heavy makeup was wending her way through the party to the two of them. Othelia wracked her brain for the woman’s name but nothing came to mind. The woman’s face looked vaguely familiar, but it was hard to tell through the heavy makeup and with her hair up in the poufy style that was common in the capital.

“Marquess DeLoria, it’s so kind of you to greet us right at the door,” Livius offered with a smile. “It’s so rare to see you at one of my brother’s celebrations.”

The name Marquess DeLoria set off alarm bells ringing in Othelia’s head. She had been one of the culprits when Othelia had been covered in choclatl and shamed in front of her parents. She tried to hide the discomfort on her face as Livius conversed blandly with one of the villains of Othelia’s youth.

“And would the Lady be agreeable to such an arrangement?” DeLoria’s question cut across the blank terror that filled Othelia’s head. She tried to recall what might have been the context to the question but quickly gave it up as impossible.

“Errr, yes, of course,” she hazarded. “Anyone would.” She bit her lip, hoping that she hadn’t just made a fool of herself.

“You see, Livius,” she said with a casual laugh. “The Lady Othelia can fend for herself for one evening.” She set her hand tenderly on Livius’s free arm. “I’m sure I can show you a more pleasant night than present company.”

“Wait what?” Othelia couldn’t keep the bewilderment from creeping onto her face. She knew she was speaking too loudly, but she couldn’t help herself. “I’m sorry, were you asking my permission to try to seduce Livvie away from me?” She couldn’t hold back a short giggle at the absurdity of what she had just agreed to. The room went quiet as the nobles milling around tried to catch what the two of them were saying.

“Don’t be foolish, girl,” DeLoria replied snidely. “I would hardly need your permission to seduce the man. I just thought I would be charitable and save him from an evening stuck with you.”

“What did you just say, you wretch?” Othelia took a step closer to the woman. “If you want to go, I am—“ She cut off when she felt Livius’s hand on her shoulder.

“There’s no need to worry about a harpy such as this pulling my attention away from you, my dear,” his soft voice reassured her. Othelia had no doubt that everyone in the ballroom could hear them now. “I wonder, Marquess, have you spoken to your physician about your recent illness yet, or were you perhaps hoping that it would simply go away with time?”

It was fun watching DeLoria turn a shade of bright red that was apparent even under the purple light of the amethyst chandeliers. She sputtered in indignation as she spun and stalked away. For a moment the ballroom remained silent before everyone immediately turned back to their conversations, doing their best to pretend that they hadn’t just witnessed that little shipwreck.

“Was that true?” Othelia asked, turning back to face Livius as the ball resumed around them. “That bit about her being sick? Is that true?”

“It might be,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Everyone knows that she’s been with Lord Melchin recently, and I happen to know that he’s been to see the Royal Physician quite a few times of late for treatment. It was…” He took Othelia’s hand and led the way toward the dance floor, waving off an approaching couple. “An educated guess. Now, milady, shall we dance?”

He stepped effortlessly into the music, leading Othelia through the steps flawlessly. She had almost no ballroom training; her parents hadn’t been able to afford tutors in subjects that weren’t critical to the administration of their county. But Livius’s careful lead made it easy for Othelia to follow his steps and pretend she knew what she was doing. That was just what life was like with him.

She looked up at him and felt his warm smile from the bottom of her heart. “I think I love you,” she heard herself say.

_____________________

The Bastard drifted slowly toward the derelict Truffa cruiser. Ash watched eagerly as his mom gently guided their ship up next to the massive abandoned transport. She wielded the controls of their little smuggling vessel with a deft touch, bringing their ship in far closer to their target than would be safe for other pilots.

It looked like this was going to be a good haul. Their distress beacon was still active, so there was a good chance that they were the first scavengers to hit it for scrap. The only ships that usually left the distress beacons intact on these kinds of gold mines were pirates and slavers, and The Bastard had already thoroughly scouted the system for any signs of a trap. They had narrowly escaped from a few too many pirates over the years to risk it over a few extra hours with the salvage.

While his mom locked the salvage vessel to theirs, Ash opened the hatch down into the hold and slid down the ladder. He tossed open the locker to the left of the ladder and began throwing on his Voidsuit. It was almost like putting on a second skin, the suit felt so natural to him. Salvaging was their life, here on the Bastard, and Ash wouldn’t have it any other way. He loved it all. Traveling from one exotic location to the next, skirting the edge of civilization and never settling down.

He couldn’t keep the smile off of his face as he punched in the combo to the airlock containment and shuffled inside. He thumped the chest of the Voidsuit, and lights and indicators flickered on around the inside of the helmet. He felt the suit grow rigid as it powered on and began pumping in oxygen.

While he waited for the door to finish closing behind him, Ash grabbed one of the toolboxes and strapped it to his suit. He hopped impatiently back and forth from one foot to the next, waiting for the red indicator light on the airlock to turn green.

Luckily it only took a few more moments before the airlock had drained all of the air from the room. The light flickered green, and in less than a heartbeat Ash pounded the release and the doors creaked open.

First things first, he reminded himself. I rope myself to the ship so I don’t drift away. That had been one of the scariest lessons his mom had taught him when he was a kid first learning how to scrap a ship. He had been only five or six at the time, but she had decided he was old enough to contribute to their livelihood. That had been his first time outside of the ship. He had practically run through the airlock, sporting a Voidsuit that was way too big for him.

He hadn’t known any better when his mom had ordered him to push off from the ship and just drift. Excited and not wanting to show any fear, Ash had thrown himself headlong into the task, like he did with most things, and launched himself well away from the ship.

That was when his mother had told him to try floating back to the ship. He had floated alone in the dark for almost an hour before she reeled him back in. He remembered how much of a sobbing mess he had been. “That’s why,” she had told him sternly, “you always tether yourself. To something. I don’t care what. But that’s the most important lesson, you hear?” She’d petted his head as he hugged her tight and sobbed into her. “It’s not a game out there. Everything in space is life or death.”

That lesson had stuck with Ash for the past twelve years. He knew the safety protocols in space like he knew the lesions on his own tentacles. It was second nature by this point. So when the airlock doors opened up into the vast emptiness and the gravity in the containment room shut off, his first order of business was to pull himself around to the tetherhooks just outside of the airlock doors and carefully tie himself in.

He typically brought two tethers in his salvage kit. One would tether to the Bastard, and then he would tie that one off to the scrap ship once he crossed over. The second one would tether to the scrap ship, so that he would be able to maneuver all over the ship without any fear of losing the home tether.

Like always, he triple-checked the knot on the tetherhook before turning around and jumping off toward the opposite ship. Normally he’d have to stop and aim for a specific spot on the ship, but as close as his mom had been able to pull up next to it, he almost felt like he could reach out and grab it. He loved the thrill in his heart as he soared smoothly across the gap.

He reached down to the belt and flicked on the suit’s magnetic boots. The magnets weren’t particularly strong, but it helped to make a smoother landing on the opposing vessel. As he neared the hull, he gripped the rope trailing behind him tightly in order to slow his approach.

He managed to come to a near stop just a few feet away from the hull, letting himself collide gently with the hull. His magnetized boots clung to the ship and stopped him from bouncing away.

Ash let himself smile at their luck at finding a Truffa ship. The last few salvages had been Visethi ships, which were organic, making their salvage much harder. Not to mention that it was significantly harder to sell off scraps of Visethi ships, since the Viseth Empire considered any desecration of their ships to be a Class C crime, punishable by death.

With a careful, shuffling gait, he slowly trudged his way up to the nearest airlock on the gargantuan cruiser. A passenger ship as big as this usually had at least four or five different airlocks, so he just had to hope that his mom had correctly guessed which of the airlocks would lead to the engines. She typically waited in the cockpit for an hour or so for Ash to confirm the spot, but moving the ship once they had pulled up close was a time-consuming and dangerous job. Much more so than just pulling up to the ship in the first place. Ash would have to return to the ship while his mom repositioned and it would take another hour or so to repeat the process.

He rounded the curve of the ship and came to the open airlock. Ash grinned in surprise at his luck. Rewiring the airlock to open from the outside was an annoying inconvenience, so it was quite a relief to see that he could just waltz right in. Tentacles hugging the edge of the ship, he pulled himself through the port and allowed a moment to gape in awe while he tied off his first tether to the airlock and set up the second tether.

He had been excited by the size of the cruiser during their approach, but now that he was up close, he could tell that this was without a doubt the most impressive ship he had ever seen. He smiled wistfully. Even if they had a cargo ship twice the size of the Bastard and a crew of fifty people, they would only be able to harvest a fraction of the value on this ship.

“Are we in the right spot?” His mother’s voice came in choppy over the Voidsuit’s built in comm system. “Do — read me?”

“Yeah, I read you,” he shot back, holding the radio transmitter on his shoulder closer to his mouth. “I’m not sure yet. I need more time to get inside. Can you see what brought this beauty down?”

“ – nothing wrong that – damage to the – internal systems.” The static cut in and out as she spoke and continued for a few moments after she stopped.

“I can only catch a little bit of what you’re saying,” Ash responded when it seemed like she was done speaking. “The Truffa comm waves are probably still up, interfering with our signals. If I find the bridge, I’ll make sure to shut it off.”

He gave himself one more moment to gawk at the airlock’s elegant design before he strode through the airlock door into the ship.

The gravity inside the ship was still on, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It would make it easier for him to navigate the ship for now, but it also made it hard to access some of the more valuable components that were typically stored in the ceilings or other hard to reach spots. Not to mention that it was much easier to haul the goods out if they didn’t have to drag all of the heavy machine parts.

He also worried that if the gravity still had power, the ships internal security measures might still be in effect. Ashe felt increasingly convinced that it might be worthwhile to find the bridge first before he really started salvaging.

Upon entering the ship, he was immediately greeted with a long straight passageway. There were no doors leading off to either side, nor were there any side passageways diverging from the main path. Normally he’s expect an airlock like this to lead to one of the ship’s major arteries with smaller corridors branching off toward all of the major sectors of the ship. This part of the ship was unusually isolated.

“I don’t think this is it,” he reported back through the comm radio, “but I’m going to explore down this passageway before we reposition. Something seems odd about it, and I’d really like to see what’s at the end.”

He waited through a few moments of static before giving up. With the Truffa comm waves up, there wouldn’t be any way to communicate with his mom while he was inside the ship. He would need to make this quick, or she might begin to worry.

With the second tether trailing behind him, he ambled carefully down the hallway. Salvage ships were dangerous, and no matter what kind of hurry you may be in, you always walk cautiously. Especially in a ship like this one where the cause of death was unknown, you had to be careful to touch and move as little as possible.

A lot of people thought of scrappers as thugs callously ripping apart helpless ships, but Ash instead liked to consider himself a historian or an archeologist. He picked apart the remnants of old battles, old ships, old empires, and he tried to piece together the story of what happened. He prided himself on his light touch and his delicacy as he pried apart the mysteries of the broken down.

After a few minutes of his slow, deliberate pace down the long corridor, he reached a heavily reinforced door the same size as the airlock he had passed through just moments ago. There was a biometric lock on the door, but it looked as though it had already been tampered with.

Ash leaned in close to take a closer look at the lock’s electrical panel and frowned. The tampering on this panel looked completely different from the tampering on the airlock he had seem moments ago. The airlock job had been artfully done. It hadn’t broken the system; it just convinced the outer airlock and the inner airlock both that the other was still closed.

Whoever had tampered with the panel here had obviously not been so gentle with the system. Wires had been yanked out and cut, and sparks still sputtered occasionally from the broken device. The doors were stuck halfway open, occasionally stuttering back and forth in place. Ash stepped nervously through what were easily the heaviest blast doors he had ever seen.

The room was pitch black. Unlike the hallway he had just passed through, the residual power didn’t seem to have kept the lights running in this room. He tried to suppress a shiver as he clicked on the flashlight that was attached to his helmet. There were some compounds and devices that could react poorly to light, but Ash figured that it was safer to turn his light on now, risking a possible explosion, then try to wander through a dark room that someone had tried their damnedest to break into. Besides, there was no way he was going to go any farther into a room that was pitch black.

He knew it was a poor idea to wander through the hold now while his mother was waiting, but his curiosity got the better of him. Without moving, he turned his head back and forth across the dark room, trying to scope out the size of the hold. The edges of the room were nowhere in sight, but with the large stacks of boxes lining the floor of what seemed, at least on the surface, to be a typical cargo hold, it was hard to tell how far the room went.

He shuffled across the smooth floor, thoroughly testing each step before he shifted his weight forward. He kept his flashlight focused steadily forward as he made his way straight forward toward what he suspected would be the center of the room. That’s all I’m going to do, he decided. I’m going to walk to the far end and then walk out. He didn’t like taking a risk exploring a potentially dangerous room like this with so little preparation or support, but it would be much more time consuming to explore here later once they had moved the Bastard.

He could remember nightmares like this. They all seemed to be popping into his head as he trudged slowly, so slowly across the floor. Little bits and pieces ran through his mind, like snapshots of those horror holofilms his mom used to show him before bed. He tried to remind himself that those movies weren’t real, that there was no Sarlakkian Howler waiting in the dark to devour him. And yet… in the sinister darkness of the abandoned cruiser, it felt like anything could happen.

He tried to ignore the way the light from his flashlight created deep shadows that followed him across the room. His footsteps echoed back to him like the whispers of foul creatures in the dark. His helmet began to fog up and his suit felt slick as his body began to secrete steam in response to his terror. His own breathing sounded like thunder. He wanted to cry, but he needed to be brave.

Step. Feel. Breath. Pause. Pause. Breath. Step. Repeat. Time and time again, Ash threw himself into his worst fears. He had always believed that the only way to overcome them was to face them head-on, but right now he wanted nothing more than to flee as fast as his tentacles could carry him.

Step. Feel. Breath. Pause. Pause. Breath. Step. Repeat. There was a change. The wretched darkness had receded, if only a little. With every step, a soft emerald glow fought back the crushing emptiness of the room. Every step closer to the light gave Ash more strength. Every step renewed the vigor that his terror had stripped from his limbs.

Still taking those long, slow, careful steps, he finally reached the source of the wonderful green light that had saved his mind from the hungry terror that had picked it apart as he traversed the room. A brilliant, massive emerald lay in a multitude of cushions in an open crate, its strange glow filling the room. He tenderly reached a tentacle out to touch it, entranced by its beauty. He half expected its light to snuff out the moment he touched it, like some mirage that his brain had conjured up to fight his fear of the dark.

With all the care he could muster, he gently plucked the stone out of the crate and held ot up to inspect it. He had never seen anything like it before. Weird knots and bulges protruded from the object, and it was strangely heavy in his hands.

He pulled it tight against his chest. Whatever this stone was, it was easily worth well more than anything else they would find in this ship. Whoever had been trying to break into this room had probably been searching for this. He wrapped two additional tentacles around it to hold it as tightly and securely as he could before turning around to leave.

The corpse of a dead human smiled in front of him. Ash screamed, nearly throwing the priceless stone into the air. He barely stopped himself from tearing off screaming in terror back toward the entrance. He whimpered softly as he held completely still, remembering his years of training in salvage safety. When something scary approaches you, the most dangerous thing you can do is try to run.

Ash took a deep breath, forcing himself to regard the body that rested against one of the boxes as he faced back toward the entrance. He simply hadn’t been able to see it before because he’d been coming from the wrong angle. There is nothing dangerous here. There is nothing dangerous here.

He allowed himself a slightly faster walk than before. This time the soft emerald glow held back the darkness, if not his stark terror. Before long he passed through the faulty, broken doors once again, and picked up his pace to a somewhat hasty jog back down the passageway. He was breaking every rule of safety he knew, running down the hallway, but the sooner and farther he got away from that cargo hold, the better.

“I think I got something mom, but I need to come back now. I need to come back to the ship now.” Ash tried to suppress the quiver of fear in his voice. He unlatched his second tether, to the cruiser, and began pulling off the first tether from where he had tied it to the ship. He shivered at the thought of that strange, disturbing room. He couldn’t get off this mysterious Truffa ship fast enough.

He was busy reattaching his home tether with shaking tentacles when he heard his mother’s voice over the comm radio. Most of it was static and choppy, but the words that made it through made Ash’s heart drop straight through his stomachs.

“Stay there,” she warned. “Pirates.”

 

Next Chapter

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