This one goes out to my editors. Every year they wait patiently while I squeeze the story out of my brain, and then do their heroic job (I tend to rant and moralize horribly, with atrocious spelling) in the brief time I give them. This is my entry into the Pod and Planet Fiction Contest YC118. It is under the Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden category.
Ice crystals glittered against the polarized glass of his helmet, creating intricate, crystalline patterns and a ghostly sheen across his vision. Not a good sign. That meant that his suit’s heater was damaged, and the chill of this comet chunk was starting to overtake his life support. Pools of nitrogen boiled beside the walkway, venting gas into space as the fragment rotated and spun the remnants of his mining operation into the harsh glare of the system’s main star.
It had all been going so well, Corzard thought gloomily to himself.
“We have a winner here ladies and gentleman,” Cedric drawled in his easy way, leaning back from his console. “Rogue comet, well away from anything else in the system. It’ll take some travel to get to, we’re talking over a hundred AU out there, but from the readings it will be worth it. Pristine White Glaze. Hopefully you all brought your anti-cynosis pills. You’re going to need them on this trip.”
“If this is so valuable, why haven’t They picked it up yet?” came the question from the crew, a frumpy brunette with the name Renni stitched on her uniform. Out here, this far from the empires, there was only one ‘They’, and the question was quite valid. Capsuleers were very protective of their ice fields, often destroying any other ship that even dared to share the space. Their rickety ship, a re-purposed hauler modified to carry and deploy manual ice harvesting equipment, would be no match for the sleek and efficient harvesting monstrosities created by Outer Ring Excavations, let alone any combat hulls that may be flying with them as protection.
“It’s only a single, low-mass signature, not enough for Them to be interested in,” Cedric waved his hand, unworried. He had been on the ship longer than any of the others, working the antenna arrays for years. His grizzled features and week-old gray stubble gave him an air of authority. No one questioned him when he spoke about capsuleers and their motives. After all, it had been a capsuleer attack that had taken his eye when he was a rookie aboard another vessel, removing him from the work-gangs and forcing him to learn the arcane art of deep-space scanning. Though he grumbled about wanting to spacewalk from time to time, he knew that he couldn’t suit up with the others. Depth perception was far too important when working outside of the ship, and the milky orb in his eye socket was a testament to what could happen if things went wrong.
Spacers always said that the first warp of any trip was the hardest. That you got numb to the gut-wrenching dislocation, the mind-curdling feeling of wrongness that swept over a person’s senses as they navigated the warp tunnel for mere seconds, but which threw them like so much cosmic debris millions of kilometers from where their journey began. Davion thought that the spacers were just lying to themselves so that they could mentally face the prospect of going through that special hell over and over again. It never got any easier, even strapped into his warp-cocoon, doped to the gills with cynosis meds. He had been aboard this piece of junk ship for a little over six months. The smell of stale bile emanated from the personal head tucked to one side of his quarters. They were at rest currently, drifting through the void, far from any other object of mass in the system, letting the crew recover from their last warp.
At least this rust bucket had the space for a personal toilet. He couldn’t imagine being lined up in a communal washroom, vomiting out his rations with the rest of the crew looking on. Most of them seemed able to take the rigors of the trip better than he did. He could hear other voices laughing and chatting from the common area not long after those brutalizing seconds of warp acceleration, while he was gripped with nausea and had a head full of molten aluminum. A cracking noise against his door caused him to drop the unmarked bottle of medication to the floor with a clatter, and a scratchy voice called to him from beyond, “How are you feeling Dave? Did you want to come out for some air?”
He could hear another burst of laughter from down the hall, and he was sure the others were laughing at him. “No Renni, I’m fine. Just resting,” he answered shortly, reaching for the plain brown bottle that had rolled under his bunk. There was no way his was going to subject himself to the coarse humor of the veterans in this state. The smell of the room, the effects of the cynosis medication, and his sudden shift in equilibrium made Davion’s stomach lurch, and he scrambled to the toilet once again, trying to quietly empty whatever was left in his guts.
Renni stumbled slowly to the common room, throat swallowing hard as she shook her head, coming back to her customary seat in the ship’s designated “recovery room” alone, again. The young man, almost boy, who lived in the dorm across from her had again refused to leave the cramped confines of their personal quarters during the post-warp Rest-cycle. On a ship of less than a dozen people, there were no secrets. The fact that Davion had insisted on hiding in his quarters post-warp was common knowledge. As was Renni’s crush on Davion, something that the man was completely unaware of. It was common knowledge he was violently ill and disoriented; they all were simply as a side effect of the medication that allowed their bodies and minds a better chance to survive the journey without permanent damage. Rather than partake of the fresh water and softened grav-couches that allowed each one to settle their equilibrium individually, he suffered alone in a room with no gravity assistance furniture simply because he had never heeded the many invitations he had been given.
“I don’t even kn-know how he can st-sta-stand the smell,” Vichkyn stammered, “those unit’s d-don’t have th-the best airflow.”
The rail thin Seibestor man was sprawled out his twitching limbs imitating a grotesque insect gave a short, dismissive laugh as Renni shuffled by the grav-couch he was occupying, “The kid will learn eventually. Especially wh-with pretty g-girls breaking down his door.”
Without breaking stride, or even turning to look at the source of the jibes, Renni made a rude hand gesture and continued the slow, uneven process of navigating to her own couch without moving to quickly or suddenly. She knew that she was no prize specimen, but captivity bred familiarity. Or didn’t breed in this case, to her frustration. He was a good looking man, even with the forlorn look always on his baby face. He just couldn’t seem to get over himself long enough to join the community of the crew. Even after six months he was just punching a clock, not making a life. That didn’t bode well for his longevity on the ship, or in space for that matter. After his first tour, that all-important first payday, she had got her hopes up that he would become a regular part of the crew (part of her life). And when he had stayed a part of the crew, not running with the earnings, she had thought he would start coming out of his shell.
Much to her dismay though, he had remained an outsider. Always stiff and formal, never loosening up and cracking a joke. Always serious. Was it all about the not-inconsiderable money? She was so distracted by her own thoughts that she caught her toe on the edge of her couch’s generator, pitching her body forward, and catching only the edge of the gravity field, she did a number of slow-motion pirouette’s before falling to the deck in a heap.
Vichkyn’s laughter roared, and most of the others chuckled at the sudden acrobatics display, but it was tempered by the sounds of the performer trying to vomit gracefully into the always ready Personal Hygiene Pacs. The edges of a couch’s field were always fickle. They had all performed similar acrobatics, so there was no rancor to the laughter. The light-headed feeling caused by their medication made the laughter infectious, spreading to everyone present, including the sudden performer once she had regained control of her stomach.
The numbness had almost reached his elbows by the time he staggered into view of the remains of the camp. Even in the microgravity his EVA suit felt like a lead weight The sound of his pulse was thundering in his ears, drowning out his life support’s labouring attempts to keep him alive in the airless void. The readouts said there was less than an hour of juice. Would he freeze first? Or would he die gasping for oxygen? Neither was a death he cared to contemplate. The carnage of what was once an orderly base camp grew around him as he looked for a suitable place to die with what little honor he had remaining. His people wouldn’t miss him, or look for him. Just one more failure, to be stricken from the Book.
“Shit…” Cedric breathed to himself as the pilot brought the ship into a holding orbit around the slowly tumbling comet.
The scanners were picking hints of alloyed metals on the surface. Too faint and close to the surface to be part of the comet’s core, that could only mean a handful of things, and none of them good. Heat scans showed hotspots in the area, but they seemed erratic and rapidly cooling, not like the glowing halo and active mining site would be surrounded by.
The hairs on the back of his arms were standing at full attention. Something was gravely wong, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on the nagging worry in the back of his mind. It was the same feeling he had the day before his “accident”. Thinking of that horrific day had him spamming his directional scanners, set to wide aperture. No, there were no signatures within 14 AU of the comet, but he began to perspire with fear anyways.
With an even partially active mining camp on the surface, there should be something in orbit. A ship, a fluid router, wreckage…something other than millions of kilometers of clear ether. For all the data that the advanced sensor suite aboard the ship showed, there was a thousand questions unanswered in the veteran’s mind.
“Comms,” Cedric spoke quickly into his console microphone, “Put out an omni-band broadcast, I think we have company. Prep the ground teams for an immediate EVA. No heavy assets yet. Let’s see what’s going on groundside before we get excited.”
His voice never wavered, even though his mouth was as dry as the Greater Sobaki Desert. There was no need to scare the crew with memories and premonitions. Not yet.
“L-looks like a fuel t-tank exploded and set off a ch-chain reaction. Th-there are parts everywhere. B-bodies t-t-too. Looks like only one g-guy made it. Passed out c-cold. And I d-do mean c-c-cold. Suit heater is d-damaged, s-so we ho-hooked him up to auxiliary. B-bringing him back to the sh-ship now,” Vichkyn gave a quick status report to the comms operator on the ship. “Tell th-the old man h-he was r-r-ight Renni. Something bad d-did happen here.”
Davion’s eyes were wild, his breath coming at an increasing rate. First it was the horrors of warp-sickness and now the carnage of the burnt-out mining operation. What kind of black hell had he signed up for? His first tour had been relatively simple, even the warp-sickness wasn’t so bad on their short three hop mission. A few hours of discomfort travelling, a few days of tough, but clean labour in his space harness and then a few more hops back, Even those hellish hours of travel seemed worth it when he had checked his wallet blink at the end of the trip. Sure, he wasn’t being paid in ISK, but who really ever saw more than a few Interstellar Kredits in their life?
“K-keep it together, boy. We’re a-almost back t-to the ship, It’s a g-good thing our sleeping fr-friend is hooked to m-me, and not you, or we’d be hauling t-two slabs of meat of th-this oversized freezer,” the Seibestor chided his tether-partner. The other two members of the EVA team chuckled and Davion could feel himself begin blushing furiously.
“How can you be so calm? All those people are dead!” Davion protested, motioning to the bodies splayed out at strange angle, gently bobbing against their emergency tethers, or wedged into machinery and scaffolding. The microgravity of the comet caused the bodies to collect in odd areas, as compared to planetary gravity wells.
“Yeah, greenhorn. Dead. Happens a lot working starships. Why the hell did you think you were getting paid so much? ‘Cause of an upset stomach?” one of the other ground team members, a sweet looking, foul mouthed Civire mercenary said mockingly, her partner smirking and shaking his head inside his helmet, trying not to laugh.
Davion was silent, but more than once he open his mouth to reply, but the words never came, The team went on in silence, back to the ship carrying the only unconscious survivor of an industrial accident that struck very near to all of their thoughts.
It was their rig.
Some pump brands were different, and the hose layout was different, but it was an almost exact copy of their rig. It was an eerie reminder of everything that could go wrong in a hard vacuum.
Renni couldn’t stand the silence. As the comms operator, her job was to oversee all the ship’s different bands and frequencies, which included the away-teams, and was in constant contact with them. “Team report. You’re four minutes late with your check in, what’s up?” he tried to ask conversationally, her question giving voice to the lie that she hadn’t heard the whole thing.
As Vichkyn began to stammer through another status update, Davion surprised everyone by activating his mic, “Away team status green. We are returning to the Anchor with one casualty. Prepare for retrieval.”
His voice was calm and unwavering, but also eerily cold.
“Roger, away team,” Renni replied after a slight, stunned pause. She forwarded the notice to the crew on watch at the Anchor.
Though it sounded grandiose, the Anchor was the airlock that the taught nanofiber-weaved cable connecting their ship with the cometary fragment was attached to. This cable allowed materials and people to be ferried to and from the ship on little robotic pullers. It was low tech, but low tech was cheap and easy to fix, and hard to break irreparably. It also saved space, and weight. The space they would lose to a tractor unit would be more than one of their bunks gone to doing the same as a reel of cable that could be fit into a duffel bag. All of these things made it ideal for independent pilots to gain an edge on Them.
All he knew was blackness and silence.
An eternity of blackness and ages of silence.
And then as some indeterminate point the black became grey. And the silence became the low thrum of engines and the susurrus of the ever moving air conditioning systems.
Had he passed?
There was the clean sharp antiseptic smell, but something wasn’t right. Something was missing. He had been rescued. He didn’t die on that forsaken chunk of ice. Someone had rescued him.
He had another chance at life.
Alone in the med bay he sat, eyes closed with a smile on his face, and planned his future.
He began to flex his different muscle groups, slowly checking his body for damage from his near death experience.
All was well again.
“It looks like a capsuleer hit. Lots of dead. One unconscious survivor. That’s the bad news. Good news is that from what the away team reports,” Cedric nodded his head towards the recently returned spacewalkers, “we have hit the jackpot. They were running the same rig as us, so there are more spare part than what we have room to take. Including their UNDAMAGED holding tanks already half filled!”
The old man couldn’t keep it together any longer, a grin splitting his ever-scowling visage, his one good eye sparkling for a moment. A rough cheer went up amongst the crew, all except Davion who just stared at the deck blankly. A shadow fell across Cedric’s face as he saw his youngest crew member’s internal struggle. What ever demons he was fighting inside were changing his demeanor, his very stance and gaze altered from the first time he had stepped aboard.
Cedric, feeling a bit guilty for himself, cleared his throat loudly and raising his hands, “Now, let’s have a moment of silence for the lives lost to give us this bounty, and let us pray for the well-being of the survivor of this terrible tragedy.”
The crew was slow to quiet, but Cedric let the silence linger. He held his good eye closed while his crude augmented replacement watched Davion. When the troubled young man finally closed his eyes with a shudder, only then did Cedric slowly lower his arms and open his eye, allowing the crew to drift apart again.
“Regular shifts begin in two hours, just because it’s an easy paycheck, doesn’t mean we don’t have to work for it!” he shouted as the crowd dispersed.
The patient was up and looking around the sparse medical bay, which Renni assumed was a good sign. He seemed to be squinting a lot as he looked at things across the room, so maybe there were some residual effects. What did she know? The day-time medic was nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t unusual. She was five minutes late, and everyone on the ship pulled as many shifts as they could in a day in as many areas as they were qualified. And with the AI doctor built into the medbay, her “nursing” skills were more like computer repair tech skills. If the Doc went down, she was as good as useless, but the damn things worked so well no one ever brought it up.
“Thank you for rescuing me. You seem to have found me just in time. I passed out thinking I was going to die, but here I am. Did…did anyone…else?” the golden skinned stranger asked with a serious face before Renni could introduce herself. The near death experience seemed to not bother the handsome, if still quite pale, survivor as he simply closed his eyes in a moment of regret as she told him the truth.of the matter.
The comms tech ersatz nurse answered his questions as best as she could, while trying not to get caught staring at the well-muscled exotic specimen that had suddenly been dropped into her domain. He had a surprisingly direct nature and didn’t seem the least bit shy or modest. To tell the truth, she was quite excited by his sudden entrance, even if it was to break up the monotony of the ship’s routine. Having seemingly struck out with Davion, she was intrigued by the possibilities that appeared unbidden to her imagination.
By the end of her shift, she felt no hesitation in going to Cedric with the idea of recruiting the refugee onto the crew. The old spacer listen to her not quite concealed self interest with a knowing smirk that only seemed to make the flustered comms tech before him blush even more.
“We’ll see what he wants to do once we get back to station, but a part share of this haul is his by right, and we plan on playing him. It’s only right, the man’s been through a lot, and ice mining is the same all over the cluster. I’ll be sure to extend him the offer,”Cedric yawned audibly as a not so subtle hint that he was on his rest cycle.
Renni looked horrified as she realized where she was and what she was doing, and scurried back to her quarters after apologizing profusely to Cedric for interrupting, and thus wasting more of the old man’s sleep.
And in the semi lit medical bay a handsome stranger sat laying on his cot smiling as his eyes devoured every scrap of data that his keenly sharp eyes could pick out. The third-shift attendant dozed at their post, the AI guardian of this space finding nothing dangerous to its patient. In fact the patient was in remarkably good health, but that was not something that set off alerts or alarms, and so went by unnoticed, except by the appraising gazes of some of the crew.
It had only taken a few days for the crew of seasoned ice miners to fill their aging spaceship to capacity, given the head start by the doomed previous team. No one even considered letting the surviving member of that team out of the medbay until the gristly work of clean up, and the ensuing takeover and scavenging of the site was complete. More than one of them compared themselves to vultures in their minds, but no one was willing to walk away from all of that money, both saved and potentially earned, just bolted to the ice for the taking.
When the travel alarm sounded two hours until first jump, Cedric came by to visit the survivor, Corzard. He poked his head into the med-unit shyly as Corzard was finishing a set of pushups on the floor of the cramped space. “Glad to see you’re up and about, son,” the one-eyed old spacer began paternalistically, “and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear you never wanted to set foot aboard another starship again, but if this is the only life, ya know, we’d be willing to try you out as a full-share part of the crew.”
Corzard changed into a fresh shirt and casually tossed his used one in the hamper. “I do not fear Death, Mr. Cedric, I thought I had already met Him. Others were unlucky. I was lucky. If all your crew has said is true, this rescue will enrich me greatly. I will happily…travel with you and your crew, wherever you are going.”
Cedric nodded sagely, even though something cold was making its way up his spine. “Glad to hear it, you can take one of the empty bunks, which ever one you wish. We’ll get all the paperwork done back at station, but as of right now, welcome to the crew,” a surprisingly firm handshake ensued before Cedric continued, “The crew meets in the common area for warp. We’ve got it all setup for comfort after the post-warp side effects kick in.”
Corzard answered with a broad, winning smile, “So I have heard. Make no doubt, I will join you there with your crew, though I may be a bit late for the first jump, I will join you shortly after. I prefer to be alone for first warp, for certain rites.”
“Religious type, huh?” Cedric asked with a raised eyebrow. “That’s fine, just please keep the sermons to yourself. Some of us prefer it quiet on Sunday mornings.”
“You have my word,” Corzard nodded gravely, ”I will only talk about my faith to those that ask. Fair?”
It was the scream that brought Davion stumbling out of his room in a dream-like haze. He had heard a commotion, and then silence for a long time, and then like one of the voices he heard screaming in his nightmares, he heard Renni scream out in pain or horror. The drug-induced stupor was compounded by the horror house that he found in the once comfortable if bland common room of the ship. Blood drops were suspended in the fields of the grav-couches, while tied above were the crew.
The only constant in the tortures of the crew members was due to their real purpose of their containment. Blood.Lots of blood. Some were cut only a few times while other were covered in tiny bleeding cuts. All had IV lines attached to various parts of their bodies, draining blood from their struggling bodies.
It was being drained into transport bags, with cooling units nearby to store the full, ready to use hemoglobin. The analytical part of Davion’s mind was marveling at the beauty of the biological knowledge and accuracy that the work required and his soul ached and beautiful iron-red artistry that the grisly scene laid out. It was in this stunned silence of trying to figure out the purpose of such machinations that brought him upon beautiful Corzard, plying his grisly trade on poor, plain Renni. He had sated himself on the intricacies of the process long before, and was now hooking people up as quickly and as easily as he could. A part of Davion’s mind chided such sloppy workmanship until he realized what he was thinking about. Oddly, very little of his consciousness could reject this way any more than the cavalier attitude which the rest of his crew had shown their dead compatriots.
Corzard finally looked up from his work with a start, going for knife on his belt, but quickly realized that the young man watching him was no threat.”Well, boy? Do you have any questions? Or are you going to do something stupid, like try to kill me?”
“Don’t call me boy, and why? Why do all this?”
Corzard pondered a moment before responding, watching Davion’s eyes lazily following the gleaming tip of the surgical knife that Conzard was spinning in his fingers, “You are a boy, until you go through the Rite. Why? The Red God tells us to do this. But the real truth of the matter is that we do this because we can.And so can you.”
“Me? How do you know?”
“Something let you come this far. You weren’t with everyone else, so I missed rounding you up. The horror of this room didn’t drive you to words, or actions. Whatever let you take in this scene with silence will serve you well in the Covenant. We are not prejudiced by race, only by action. You can join the prey,” Corzard gave a pouting look to Renni’s trussed up frame and finished with a sadistic smile, “or the predators.”
Davion’s choice was easy. He didn’t fit in the world that he was about to leave behind, but at least he would have a chance to fulfill his violent nightmares, even if that meant wading in blood to find them. The tenuous moral being that Davion once thought himself to be wailed a pitiful death as he took the devil’s deal.
“First piece of advice,” he nodded, walking over to the constantly twitching body of Vichkyn, his one-time work partner and nudging him hard in the ribs, “Remove this one’s tongue, or we’ll never sell him.”
Within minutes the Blood Raider vessel had sent a line to the idling industrial with a replacement skeleton crew, along with co-ordinates to a “friendly” spaceport to dock at so they could unload their new cargo, as well as pesky administrative details like changing ownership registrations, cashing in life insurance policies, and in Davion’s case, learning the ins and outs of a whole new society.