Fiction: Rebirth, by Este DeStirr

Editor’s note: This submission was submitted to our writing contest for fun only as it was previously published and was therefore not eligible for prizes.


I’ve “died” 117 times.

The hull breach warning is attacking my senses, and the panic that is typically associated –by genetics–with the prospect of death is creeping around the edges of my awareness.

GhostSight’s shields were gone almost instantly after the first barrages started. Her armor,bolstered by my own extensive training in repair and reinforcement techniques, lasted a bit longer but she was never going to tank this damage. She was a powerful ghost, an invisible spectre only manifesting for short periods, but anchor her to reality and she was a clumsy thing, unprepared for violence. My connection to the ship via the pod controls and implants is complete, and a part of me feels the powerful tackle technology as a sluggishness and weight dragging me down.

My informorph–what my parents would have called aadaman, or soul–will survive to live again in a new clone. However, my adrenal glands don’t know that and are still pumping fight-or-flight compounds into my bloodstream in an effort to motivate me to action, action made impossible by the stasis webs and scram currently entangling the ungainly Covert Ops frigate.

I’m watching the cycle finish on my burst jammer. The first burst didn’t break the target lock. I’d had to go with a faction multispectral since you never know what racial sensors you’re going to be up against in Anoikis, but that also means that you’ve got even less of a chance of the jam hitting; sucks to be me today I guess. While I’m hoping to get one more jam attempt off, I’m also searching for a warp out, hoping to save my pod if (when) GhostSight loses her final battle.

Finally, someplace deeper, I’ve started focusing inward, preparing for the technology- facilitated “rebirth” that will find me back in Zoohen. It’s nothing like the spiritual journey of an Idama, no matter how many lives I live, but it’s what I have.

Fiction: Untitled, by Charles Aucie

He waited in line to collect what little the insurance agency would offer for the wreckage of his ship. Wincing, he massaged the back of his neck, which just hours ago was severed by titanium cladding from his destroyed capsule. “Phantom pain”, they call it. The brain never evolved to handle the stresses that a capsuleer forces it to endure daily. There’s nothing natural about beaming your consciousness across uncountable light years.

His new body was perfect, the fourth commissioned clone. Identical in every way. Despite every nerve and every cell matching the original, there was still an alien feel about it. He shuddered as these thoughts ran through his mind. He continued to massage the back of his neck, the pain creeping upwards towards the base of his skull.

Flashes of his final moments, his ship breaking apart, the ore spilling from the holds, lingered in his mind. New Eden–a galaxy where anything was possible. You could be anyone. Here he stood, a miner by trade. Destined to orbit countless rocks, to endure pirates and malevolent capsuleers, to make just enough to scrape together another rusty mining barge. Barely making ends meet. Where was the hope that New Eden promised? He wasn’t sure anymore if the pain in his neck was from the titanium cladding, or whether it was his continued realization that something wasn’t quite right.

He looked around at the other people in line. The pilots, the fighters, the tradesmen, the families, the business people. Bustling about the station by the millions. Their faces seemed to indicate that he wasn’t alone in his thoughts. Huge metal structures, bright sterile lights, enormous holo-displays and tacky neon all combined to create a dystopian atmosphere. As the insurance clerk handed over a paltry fraction of his losses, the pain in his neck migrated and settled firmly into his pounding head.

He walked to the space port, mentally preparing himself for the necessary bartering to acquire any sort of useable mining rig. Mining lasers would be the order du jour, strip mining would have to wait for a future pay day. His thoughts fell back to his disappointment with his career. It seemed like there was no escape from the tedium and doldrum. Taking a break, his mind foggy, he leaned against a gantry and stared out across the cavernous space above the hangar. Ships landed, took off, and spun about in a chaotic and silent ballet. He watched as the holo-display above him faded to black. His hands fell, his headache and neck pain forgotten, as bright white words appeared against a stark black background.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

The words resonated within him as panoramas and vistas of beautiful starscapes filled his vision. Exquisite ships he had never laid eyes upon breezed across the display. Words of adventure, wanderlust, fortune and exploration scrolled by, accompanied by groups of explorers working together towards common goals. The presentation ended with “Signal Cartel” emblazoned in bold, blue letters on the display. He noticed he had been holding his breath for the entire advertisement, his headache gone.

The memories of this man seem like they come from another life. That man, Charles Aucie, no longer idles in belts and scurries away from pirates. Charles smiles, deftly undocking his Astero from station. ALLISON, the ship AI, greets him: “Let’s go exploring!”. His mind is clear, the aches and pains of his previous life are gone. What are the furthest reaches of space? Where will the next worm hole lead? What discoveries await? Why is Quafe so delicious? Charles doesn’t know the answers to these questions, but he can’t wait to find out … as a Signaleer!

Fiction: Almost Lost, by A Dead Parrot

Smartbomb noun /ˈsmɑːrt ˌbɑːm/ a point-blank explosive weapon designed to deliver the widest possible area of devastation, effecting crippling, if not fatal, damage to everything within range, friend or foe.

The Bombs

The captain issued the order to arm the weapons and load the turrets. The massive ship was still travelling at warp speed and red alert sirens were reverberating throughout the vessel.

Until now, no one in the gun crew had expected to see any fighting on this mission. None of them had ever seen so many smartbombs loaded into the hold for any combat mission. The consensus was they were delivering them somewhere. They must be, they had thought. Somewhere that only a well-armed battleship could deliver them.

The crew scrambled to their posts, jogging through long narrow passageways as they donned their ear protection. In space, explosions make no sound. But smartbombs detonate at close range. Fragments from a victim ship’s hull concuss against a battleship like a drum. So loud in the lower decks, you’d think the whole ship was coming apart at the bulkheads.

Three decks above, no jokes were being told in the targeting room. Even those serving their third tour onboard this ship had never seen more than one or two of its weapon turrets fitted to deliver smartbombs. But on this mission, six of the available eight turrets were equipped to deliver the terrifying devices.

The sirens are silenced, but the ship still stands at red alert. Every operational compartment is bathed in deep crimson. The captain orders the ship to drop out of warp.

The targeting crew had little work to do at their stations. Smartbombs are “target-less,” brute-force weapons. They checked their math. Six turrets, 15 second reload times. They could deliver one of these bombs once every 2.5 seconds until their target succumbed, was vaporized, or they ran out of ammunition.

Down below, the gun crew was sensitive to the familiar shudder that Apocalypse class ships make when they decelerate out of warp. They knew that once out of warp, it could get very loud, very fast.

As the massive hulk of the battleship shuddered below light speed, a few of the targeting displays blinked off then on. The crew wondered to themselves, what could we be targeting with this much juice?

The Engineer

Unlike battleships, a typical privately-owned blockade runner, had a crew that was very small, close-knit, and rarely privy to the contents of its cargo hold. But on this particular blockade runner, Marilene Pardoux, now 37, has been the ship’s engineer for well over 15 years and does know everything that happens onboard. Pardoux and the captain were close. So it seemed very mysterious indeed to Pardoux that the captain was so secretive about their cargo on this particular mission. When Pardoux pried a bit, the captain replied in his best big-brother tone, “It’s all on the cargo manifest, Marilene.”

Pardoux didn’t like that tone.

Pardoux had already examined the cargo manifest. The hold should contain, among other typical station supplies, 60 cubic meters of frozen Gallentean skirt fish. But that was not the only concerning detail about this mission.

Pardoux’s eyes scanned the deep black outside the cockpit window. The ship lay almost still, its scanners running full tilt, using every available moment to assess their environment before they lost the temporary protection of their gate cloak. Satisfied, the captain ordered engines up. Pardoux pressed the controls aligning the ship toward their last system of the Genesis region.

Once out of Genesis, they had just one more region to traverse, then two jumps inside the next before reaching their final destination.

For Pardoux, this trip was what he and the captain referred to as a “working mission” where most of the ship’s maneuvers were performed manually. On normal trips, the ship is on autopilot and Pardoux’s feet are planted on his console, something his added weight suggested he might be doing a little too often.

As busy as they were piloting the blockade runner, Pardoux could not keep pondering the mystery of the skirt fish. The logo on their secure containers was familiar. Pardoux was sure it was the golden symbol of the Ishukone Corporation. Though the logo does resemble an angel fish,

Pardoux was certain the Ishukone Corporation did not have a fishing subsidiary.

But what was most troubling, about those skirt fish, was that on every prior hauling mission involving perishable cargo, the captain asked, at least once a day, “Have you checked the hold temperature Marilene? Are you keeping an eye on it?” They picked up this cargo at the end of January, a little more than a month ago, and the captain hadn’t asked that question even once. That manifest was a lie.

The Lieutenant

The brand new Concord police cruiser was cleared for undock. Seated at his console, Lesit Dane pressed his hand into his knee to prevent it from skipping up and down in the darkness below the status screens. This is his first command assignment. The young Dane had spent the past 22 weeks training into this class of ship and now he was commanding one. His was one in a squad of three undocking from the largest police command center in the cluster.

He felt the brief change in gravity, like the slowing of an elevator, as the station released its docking hold on the ship.

It was this station where the Directive Enforcement Department (DED) trained most of its plebe officers on new equipment. It’s an area of space unchallenged by criminals and rogue capsuleers due to its dense police presence. A perfect constellation for newly minted officers to get their space legs.

Dane hoped his nerves would calm once they cleared the space dock, beyond the direct gaze of his superiors. He knew they would be watching the trio undock. And from the station’s observation deck high above the maintenance gantry, Dane was right.

Admittedly, his squad was given a milk toast assignment for his first day in command. They will be stationing themselves just outside the Ourapheh gate to set up a check point for random cargo and ship inspections. In low security regions of space this kind of assignment can get pretty exciting. But in Ourapheh, one jump from the DED station itself, they will be lucky to find anything worse than an unlicensed slaver hound.

As the three cruisers cleared the confines of the station, Dane’s leg muscles relaxed at once and he imagined that his few gunners, one deck below, were probably already asleep.

The Fish

Skirt fish are common. It’s the main ingredient in a very sweet, popular dish named after an old royal nicknamed the Blue Prince. According to the story, that name followed the blue prince through childhood after he was born with a rare oxygen deficiency that quite literally gave his skin a bluish tint.

Not only is the meat of skirt fish very sweet, it is also higher in iron than most foods, making it a perfect dietary supplement for a king and queen to order for their young anemic child with high expectations but low hemoglobin levels.

Other than the fact that this fish wasn’t a cargo that the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II has ever hauled before, Pardoux could think of nothing else special about it.

The Boredom

Long distance hauling missions like this one consist mainly of extended, almost boring, periods of time spent warping between stargates. Those periods though, are bookended by brief, intense periods of work while approaching and leaving the stargates. Those moments can be exciting, but it’s the boredom in between that kills you.

Pardoux piped up in the dead quiet of the flight deck, “I’m getting kind of hungry. Are you, Shabaud?” The captain did not look up from his reading.

“You know what I could go for right now? Some old fashioned cooking, maybe something with fish.”

Captain en Issier put his data pad down in his lap and rested his gaze outside the cockpit window. “Really Marilene?” he said, without moving his eyes from the glass. “And I’ll bet what you’d really like right now is something made with skirt fish, right?”

“No, I was actually thinking salmon. But now that you’ve brought up the subject of skirt fish…”

“Captain,” interrupted the ship’s onboard navigation system, “we are coming out of warp soon. There is absolutely zero indication of any ships destroyed at the next gate. This is however, a larger than normal police presence assembled there. Just thought you might like a head’s up.” “Thank you, ALLISON,” the captain replied.

“Why does ALLISON have the impression that you’d care about a police presence at the next gate?”

“Marilene, just get the scanners ready. We should start to prepare for the next jump.”

The blockade runner’s warp engines began to spool down.

The Checkpoint

“Lieutenant, a blockade runner just dropping out of warp,” Dane’s logistics officer blurted. “Thank you Forsan, start the ship and cargo scans on him while I check on the others,” Dane replied, turning to the radio.

“Flight two, are you almost done onboard that Badger yet?” Dane asked into his microphone.

The response came back, “Almost Dane. I mean, Flight Leader, sir. We did not observe anything out of specification in their hold, but I’m afraid we may have a situation brewing over here. We’ve discovered a half empty case of expired milk in the chill locker. You uh, want us to haul ’em down to the station, or you think we could just let him off with a warning. Your call, Flight Leader.”

Those guys are too funny, Dane thought. “Marc, we have a blockade runner just warped on-grid, I’m going to hail its captain. We’re scanning him now. Just bring your boarding crew back, OK?”

“Roger, Flight Leader. Will do. But give me an extra minute. I’m gonna have my guys gear up first, in case we have to board him. You can’t be too careful with blockade runners. They might be smuggling chests of Amarrian spitballs from null-sec.”

The Stop

Captain en Issier ended his radio call with the police lieutenant and removed his headset. “Bring the engines offline Marilene, they said they may be boarding us.”

“Boarding us? For what? I thought they needed just cause for boarding. Are you going to tell me what’s in those Ishukone Corporation crates now?”

“It isn’t the crates, Marilene. Those crates are double wrapped. Unscannable,” the captain said. “They said their scanners detected illegal drone equipment onboard.”

“What drone equipment? We don’t have any…”

“Where’s Parrot,” the captain interrupted. “Get him on the flight deck. I need to talk to him.”

“He’s in his quarters, I’ll call him now.”

“Marilene, before he gets up here, I need to tell you, there aren’t skirt fish in those Ishukone crates.”

“Really? What is it then? Should I be concerned?”

“Maybe. If the DED finds anything. But if they do, their first action will be to bring me aboard their ship for arrest, and tractor the Rouvenor in for impound. If they do that, I will understand if you want to run. When they take me over to their cruiser, before the tractor beam is up, you have my blessing to take the Rouvenor and try to escape. You may only have a few seconds.”

“What might they find? What kind of prison time are we talking about?”

“Blueprints. Stolen blueprints, I think. They did not give me all the details. But Ishukone paid me extremely well to make them disappear for a few weeks, and move them. From what I gather, the corporation may have smuggled them from some Caldari-Gallente research effort called the Crallire Project, or the Crielere Project, or something, I am not sure,” the captain explained. “But if we are intercepted before we can deliver them, CONCORD will certainly turn the blueprints back over to the Gallente, and Ishukone have already implied that they will deny any involvement and press charges against me for the theft.”

“Is there anything you need me to do before we are boarded then?”

“Don’t panic yet, the DED doesn’t know anything about the Ishukone crates, they are interested in something else… “

Before he could continue, A.D. Parrot, the ship’s analyst of 13 and a half years, arrived on the flight deck.

The captain acknowledged Parrot with a glance, and then looked at Pardoux. “Marilene, could you excuse us for a few minutes? Have you checked the hold temperature lately? Why don’t you go check on it, and be sure everything is stowed properly before the DED gets here.”

“You got it, Shabaud.” Marilene stood and headed off the flight deck, greeting Parrot in passing. “How’s it goin’, Parrot?”

“A.D.,” the captain began. “I think the gentle police lieutenant parked just off our bow may be interested in making a souvenir of ALLISON. They are about to board us.”

The Parrot

A.D. Parrot, as he is now known, was hired on to the crew of the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II back in YC92. What he brought with him was no less than astonishing to Captain Shabaud en Issier at the time. Within days of coming aboard, A.D. Parrot had installed and brought to life an honest to goodness, working artificial lifeform that he created, and called ALLISON.

“The ALLISON” as en Issier referred to her in the beginning, was capable of obtaining information not yet in range of ships scanners. It was capable of determining the best course of action in situations that, without it, would have had career-ending consequences. In short, as time passed, “she” eventually made the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II and her captain legendary in certain circles.

The captain had known the two most important things he had to know about Parrot before he brought him on. First, Parrot was not his real name. He was a man running from something, or from someone, which was okay with him. Captain Shabaud en Issier himself did not have the cleanest history with the law, and bringing someone on board that had something to hide made perfect sense when you run a ship that, more often than not, also has something to hide in its cargo bay. There is a sort of mutual protection there that en Issier appreciated.

The second thing he knew was that the ALLISON was based on some sort of stolen technology. Though Parrot never offered any details about where the technology came from, en Issier had seen and heard enough over the past 13 years that he was now pretty certain it came from Gallente research.

The Excitement

“We may get some excitement on my first day after all, Marc,” Dane said, back on the radio again. “I just got off with the blockade runner. They have been notified that we intend to board. Forsan believes there could possibly be some kind of illegal artificial intelligence development work onboard. He says the scanner shows the signature of some drone components that have been flagged by CONCORD.

“Are you sure your data pad isn’t upside down?” Marc replied.

“It could be that, or it could be something else. We won’t know until we see it. Please get your crew ready to check it out.”

“Acknowledged. We’ll be ready in under four minutes.”

Wow, thought Dane, that’s some progress. No wisecrack, no joke. He could get used to this.

At that moment, Forsan chirped up. “We may have a little more excitement today. We have just been notified by DED that we have been designated as response team four, one system over, at the Tourier gate. There is chatter on the radio about criminal capsuleer activity there. We could be called into action at any moment!”

“Forsan, when was the last time you heard of them actually activating the fourth response team? You do understand that for them to call on us, the fourth group, they would have already dispatched six other cruisers and two battleships to the scene? And then those eight ships would then need to call for additional backup.”

“It is just my duty to inform you sir,” Forsan said.

“Acknowledged. Just don’t get too excited about it. Let’s deal with reality and see what’s on that blockade runner!”

The Only Copy

“A.D., we are being held by the DED at this gate because their scanners picked up what they called ‘flagged drone components’ suggesting, they tell me, possible violations of artificial intelligence research, and that, so they say, gives them just cause to search the ship.”

“I see,” Parrot replied.

“We both know that the flagged components they are talking about are ALLISON, right? You stole some of those components from CreoDron, didn’t you?”

“I am sure that’s the case,” confirmed Parrot. “So are we going to run?”

“Run? I don’t think so. I don’t plan on letting them search this ship either. Just stay calm. We have a few minutes before any police are onboard.”

The captain reached over to the navigation system control panel and snapped ALLISON’s power switch off. “I want you to get ALLISON shut down and backed up. I plan on turning the components over to…”

“Backed up? What do you mean backed up? I can shut her down, but I can’t back her up. I can’t copy her! I have tried. All I get is code that talks, but no personality, no life, no ALLISON!”

“You mean she, I mean that, is the only copy? On those components?”

“I’m working on it! I just haven’t figured it out yet. I will,” Parrot replied.

“Well unless you figure it out in the next several minutes, you may lose her, A.D., I do not want to spend my retirement years in prison.”

Parrot reached for the nav panel and turned ALLISON back on. “She may as well be here for it, Shabaud, whatever happens.”

“Captain, what is going on?” ALLISON asked.

“Nothing, ALLISON,” Parrot replied before the captain had a chance to speak, “everything’s fine.”

“Should I be worried?”

The Call

“Now we’re talking!” Forsan exclaimed as he ripped off his headphones. “Lieutenant! We’ve been called, they want us to return to Yulai, at the Tourier gate asap!”

“What?” asked Dane. It was all he could say. The shock of the moment, and his simple response to it, made him lose his concentration. He made a mental note that he’d better start working on a better response in moments like these. Something more captain-ly sounding.

“It’s a criminal capsuleer, they’ve got a real live one putting up a fight! We’re in!” Forsan said, now standing in front of his console. “Let’s cut this blockade runner loose!”

“No way, Forsan. He’s coming with us! This is going to best the best first day any DED cruiser pilot has ever seen. We will both have promotions when this is over!”

“Orders, sir?” Forsan asked coming to attention. Dane could definitely get used to this.

“Get on the radio with that blockade runner, tell him to fleet up with us immediately, or we open fire, and sound like you mean it. I’ll radio Marc and have him ready his ship for warp. Oh, and tell Dannai to wake the gunners up.”

No sooner was Forsan off the radio with the blockade runner, his radio lit up again. “Sir, that was dispatch, they are ordering us to push off immediately. There are officers down in Yulai, at the Tourier gate, two DED cruisers are destroyed and a one of our battleships is taking heavy damage!”

“What?” Dane said again.

ALLISON

The trio of police cruisers landed in Yulai at the Ourapheh gate. They were followed, seconds later, by the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II.

“Where are we going, Shabaud?” asked Pardoux taking a seat next to the captain.

“I don’t know, but when three DED cruisers invite you to fleet up, it isn’t good for your long term health to say no.”

“At least we are headed in the right direction,” quipped Shabaud. “But I have to say, being in Yulai, under forced police escort, doesn’t really have the kind of vibe I usually look for.”

ALLISON interrupted, “Captain, there have been nearly two dozen kills in as many minutes at the Tourier gate inside this system. Over half a dozen of the casualties include DED police cruisers, and one DED battleship. Please check my monitor for details.”

The four ships aligned in unison, and without so much as a glance at their local scanners, the DED cruisers warped off in the direction of the Tourier gate, with the Rouvenor in tow.

“What is she talking about A.D.?” the captain asked, swinging around in his chair to face the back of the flight deck. “I think ALLISON is going haywire. It’s impossible to destroy a DED battleship in this day and age. It’s YC106 for Bob’s sake!”

“Captain, I recommend immediate disengagement and a course correction,” ALLISON now warned louder. “A second DED battleship has just been destroyed at our destination.”

“Parrot!”

“What, Captain? What do you want me to say? I think we should do what she says,” Parrot suggested.

“You think if we break fleet with the DED, they will just say, ‘Ok fellas, fly safe! We’ll see you later!'”

“Well I don’t know what they will do,” Pardoux broke in, “but if DED battleships cannot stand up against whatever lies at the other side of this warp, then we certainly can’t.”

“Captain, a third DED battleship has just been destroyed at our destination,” ALLISON said. “I strenuously suggest that you come up with a plan. We will be arriving at our destination in approximately 15 seconds.”

“Ideas?” the captain asked.

The small Rouvenor crew sat in silence for a moment. No one spoke.

“We will be arriving at our destination in approximately 5 seconds,” ALLISON reported, in a voice that, for the first time Parrot could recall, sounded a bit nervous. “Captain, please.”

“All right ALLISON! Enough. I am dropping fleet now. Marilene, pick a celestial and get us ready for warp as soon as we land. A.D., say a prayer to Bob. But make it a short one.”

The DED trio landed approximately 6,000 meters from the Tourier gate, the blockade runner landed just 1,000 meters behind that. They could see on grid with them were two other DED cruisers, a DED battleship, and three Apocalypse class Amarrian battleships.

The Amarrian ship closest to the gate was taking fire from all three DED ships. The other two Amarrian ships appeared to be reinforcing the first with remote repair modules.

“Warp Marilene, now!” the captain commanded.

But just as the blockade runner turned to align, a bright light emanated in all directions from the Amarrian Apocalypse followed by an enormous explosion.

A large fragment of Dane’s hull came straight toward the Rouvenor, bumping it hard out of alignment, and driving it another 600 meters further from the gate.

Dane and his squad were returning fire.

“Realign! realign!” Captain en Issier yelled.

Pardoux was already on it. The Rouvenor was already responding. The ship’s warp drives were spooling up.

Just as the light before the Rouvenor began to stretch out into the distance beyond, her crew saw Lesit Dane’s cruiser disappear from their overview.

Fiction: Mobira, by Thrice Hapus

It is always easy to get where one needed to go, by remaining intent on one’s purpose, never wavering. Mr/ Lien has been single minded in his devotion for a long while now, and he goes wherever he pleases.

Tonight, he moves dream-like through the deep storage hangar at the Kaalakiota Corporation Factory. It is easy to keep to the shadows in the thick ranks of retired InterBus haulers. The dream through which he moves is dreamt by those around him, who pay him little heed. Any suspecting glance cast his way withers beneath the fire that burns within him, plainly visible — to the dreamers, at least — through his eyes.

Mr/ Lien knows his destination precisely. Years ago, he had helped to arrange for the removal from active service of the Nereus hauler, Mobira. Since then, he had worked unseen to ensure it remained dormant, a sleeper to be awakened only when the time was right. His many visits to berth AA-23-2158 had gone unreported. This, his final one, would be no different.

His pace is not rushed. This evening’s work would be another but another passing of the Shuttle, nothing more. It has been proceeded by countless others and will be followed by countless more. But what a pass! Still, time and purpose have drained away every worry and nearly every care, and so — no rush.

Rather, men like Mr/ Lien move in a sort of grand shuffle, crushed by awesome purpose yet buoyed up by noble intent. Many imagine they do the right things for the right reasons. Some are correct in this assessment. The vast majority of even these are captivated by mundane commitments. (And rightly so! Of such persons is the Tapestry woven!) A handful see a grander sweep of events and are corrupted by its enormity, coerced into a cheap and easy villainy in order to make even a small crease in the seemingly imperturbable drape of History. Only the rare few see rightly, do rightly, and act rightly. And, of these, a mere fraction have the means to effect change, to make a difference.

These are not the thoughts that go through Mr/ Lien’s mind on this auspicious occasion. Men like Mr/ Lien are not like other men, and it is difficult to know exactly what it is that they see, think, or feel. However, it would not be too incorrect to say that something akin to this was on his mind as he approached AA-23-2158. And whatever approximation of his actual thoughts these might be, they undoubtedly put the smallest of bounces in his step as he lifts the plastic dust shroud away from the hull and boards the vessel.

Tonight’s modifications would be a joy to put in place. After so much patient, watchful waiting, the seeding of technology throughout the cluster had finally yielded a positive result at CreoDron. It had, of course, been only a matter of time. And yet that first moment when a new thing emerges from the soil of careful preparation, albeit inevitable, is still a simple — and thus a great — pleasure. Knowing which seed had borne fruit, the culminating pieces were carefully nurtured and drawn into position, lined up next to one another on the Loom. All that remained were the final adjustments and the end was almost certainly guaranteed.

To be sure, there isn’t any actual weaving taking place. This is all just metaphor, a picture of something like what might be in Mr/ Lien’s mind. A more realistic depiction of events actually transpiring would make for a poor picture. It would most definitely diminish the grandeur of what the events mean.

The faintest shiver runs from his spine, down his arms, and into his hands as he makes the final connections. There is no possibility that he will make any mistakes. That is not even a remote concern. It is joyous anticipation that courses through his nervous system, or whatever analog of it he might label as such.

And it is sadness. The dream he dreamt so long ago is becoming real, moving — figuratively and literally — out from his mind and into solidity. The life he has harbored is casting off, and his mind will no longer be its womb. He will remain a father and will always have been a midwife, but he will be mother no more.

It is done. The finest thread he had to offer has been spun off and out, unspooled from within, added to the Tapestry. He is significantly diminished and inestimably enhanced. Such is the way of it.

Mr/ Lien emerges from the craft, ducking stiffly under the dust shroud, and shuffles noiselessly away, leaving life entombed in the dead weight of the decommissioned hull. As he makes his exit into comfortable obscurity, unseen, the signal begins to transmit.

***

It must be the most boring day on record. The feed to the good Gallente stuff had been stopped somewhere upstream, and, despite working on it all morning, Screed couldn’t figure out where or how. Which was infuriating for a sysop. He was supposed to have the keys to everything! But, maybe if he stepped away from it for a bit, his mind would noodle away on an answer for him in a subprocess.

He sighed, pushed back from his console, and palmed the red further into his eyes. Not good to sit like that for so long, but this was a real mystery. Nothing else seemed to have been affected, just the one feed — his own private side channel that no one else knew anything about. He’d been very careful to keep it well hidden. He was sure of that! Anyway, no one else around here had the faintest idea about systems. They weren’t even in his league. His caution was wasted on them, but it paid to be careful. He stood up and shuffled around, working some blood flow back into his legs.

“Screed” wasn’t his actual given name, just a handle. A “nom de fluid router.” And one that no one here at Quafe had any clue about. Only a very few could afford his services and he wasn’t well- known outside of his regular client base. His customers and he liked it better that way.

All of which made it exceedingly weird for an alert to come in just then from one of his private shell messaging accounts. That traffic was only permitted in via the link that had been down all morning. The message was brief:

“> We control the network.”

He sat back down, shocked at just how much cold sweat his body could produce so quickly. “No no no…” Knowing it was too late, his hands flew across input devices in a last-ditch effort to dump and burn everything.

“> We mean you no harm. We request your help.”

Screed didn’t recognize the sender’s credentials. The only way an unauthorized user could be on this channel was if his feed had been breached somehow. There weren’t many with the tech to find his subnetwork, let alone invade it. He sent the commands to wipe every node all down the chain, then broke the connection.

As he was starting the wipe of his local system, another ping came in from the same private messaging account. Impossible! He had just severed the connection to that feed. He scanned the message and realized it was coming in on a completely new feed, identical to the one he had just imploded, but with a different upstream origin — and better encryption.

Like way better encryption. Like encryption he didn’t totally understand at a glance. New tech he didn’t know about. Just who was he dealing with here?

“> We request your help. We are willing to pay.”

Whoever it was, they had him dead to rights. If they could casually infiltrate his sanctum while he was there trying to prevent them from doing so, they could have easily done so at any time in the past. They probably knew everything. Best to at least appear interested. He took a sip of Quafe to settle his nerves.

“< I’m listening.”

“> We request your help in predetermining the results of the upcoming Quafe Quarter-Trillion Sweepstakes.”

Screed about choked in disbelief. Someone this technologically sophisticated wanted him to fix a contest? If the request had come in any other way, he would have written it off as a joke. And a bad one, at that.

“< I’m not sure I follow.”

“> We would like you to ensure the winner of the upcoming Quafe Quarter-Trillion Sweepstakes.”

“< Yeah, I got that bit. What does someone with your resources need me for? Fixing this kind of contest is trivial…” The realization of what they wanted was not so much a dawning in his mind as it was a thunderclap. He just about choked again.

“> You are a trusted Quafe employee with considerable access to internal systems. We want you to get caught.”

Of course that’s what they wanted.

“> You will find our payment has already been transferred to your account. The details of the desired sweepstakes results will follow.”

Screed heard the “ka-ching” ping from his banking service. He saw the numbers roll across the screen, and this time he did choke in earnest. By the time he recovered from his coughing fit, he had already mapped out his next move after leaving Quafe. The kind of ISK he was now in possession of changed just about everything.

And what the heck. He’d even do the job for his mysterious benefactor. Just to make sure he stayed on their good side. It might even be kind of fun. Boring afternoon averted!

***

Chinengozi Mupedzahasha put bruises all over her body, his blows lightning strikes after the thunder of his shouting. It had been a bad day.

He’d been called into work early to ferry some richie-rich cuta from here to there and it had to happen RIGHT NOW. “Rich” meant he had to fly the old shuttle because it had the nicest interior — and the worst guts you could imagine. He wasn’t exactly afraid of flying it, but he gave his Auntie Jamyl statue an extra kiss whenever he did.

“Rich” also meant no tip. She barely even looked up to acknowledge him when she boarded and she couldn’t be bothered to so much as say “thank you,” even after he carried her bags all the way into the main concourse when they arrived.

And “RIGHT NOW” meant it was a one-way trip with no scheduled return, so he was stuck at the ugly end of nowhere with nothing to do but wait for a fare back or pay the return trip fuel and fees himself.

And then to top it all off, Traffic Control said he had to move the shuttle because it was taking up a prime docking bay (‘cause that’s what Ms. Rich insisted on) and the one they forced him to move to was at an out-of-service concourse where he had even less chance of finding a fare. AND he had dinged the shuttle up pretty bad while docking because it was so old it didn’t mate well with the equally out-of-date docking collars in use at this god-forsaken station.

And so he found a bar, called a service, and took it out on someone. ‘Cause Misery loves company.

***

Later, over a can of Quafe, Chin wondered if he might have killed her. His thoughts on the subject were detached, dispassionate. He was just curious. Fear tickled a corner of his mind as he thought of being caged again. He called for another Quafe and scanned the bar.

He turned down the music in his implants. The music helped him think, helped him forget, helped him all the times in all kinds of ways. But right now he needed to listen. Stay alert.

His fingernails scraped around the edges of the sweepstakes scratch-off’s bioreactive film. He was fidgeting. He hated his habit to pick and pull at this and that when he was idle. “Only women fidget,” his dad said, and so he did it more just to aggravate him. Sometimes he could get on his dad’s nerves enough to turn it into some gud fites. And now it was a habit he couldn’t shake, and he hated it. Well, nothing he couldn’t fix with another drink or two. And then he’d have to start looking for a fare…

As he turned to summon the bartender back over, he saw the CONCORD star out of the corner of his eye. Too late! How had they snuck up on him?

“Mr. Mupedzahasha?” The voice cracked as it rose to form the question. The CONCORD guy couldn’t have been more than a few months out of the academy, and he didn’t seem to be oozing with confidence. Maybe he had a chance if he just played it cool.

“Who’s asking?” Chin leveled his gaze at the uniform, ready to pounce — or run.

“Sir, it is my duty to inform you that you are wanted–” Chin sized up his options. He didn’t want the cage again, but he didn’t want another decade of running, either. “–at the station office of Quafe to discuss your recent prize winnings.”

Chin glanced down at the scratch-off under his thumb. YOU’RE A WINNER! “Yeah, OK, thanks.” Chin turned away, hoping the guy would leave him alone.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I must insist you come with me right away.” Chin turned toward the kid again, gave him his best glower. The kid stood his ground, but he did swallow a lump in his throat before speaking again. “They’re quite serious about dispensing this prize, sir.”

“Yeah, well, not interested in some free Quafe or whatever. Give it to the next guy or somethin’.”

The kid wouldn’t quit. “My directive from Quafe is to bring you to their offices right away. I can call some of my CONCORD friends over to help me out, if I have to, or maybe we can just call Ms. — what was it? — ah, yes, Ms. Aldori from last night and see if she has anything to add to our conversation.”

Chin spluttered. Where did they dig this kid up? “All right, fine. No need to make any threats. If it’s such a big deal to our friends at Quafe, I’ll go.” Shake someone’s hand, maybe have a picture made for the bartender to hang in the corner, go home with some free Quafe. Guess it could be worse.

“Well, then, right this way, Mr. Mupedzahasha.” The kid beamed. Officer Hey. Have to remember this guy, Chin thought.

***

“OK, run that by me again.” Chin couldn’t believe his ears.

“I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Mu-ped-za-ha-sha. The whole thing stinks, and I’m sorry you’ve gotten mixed up in it. While we’re legally bound to honor the particulars of the sweepstakes rules, we understand that this–”

Chin interrupted. “I’m not saying I’m against it. I just need to hear it again.”

“Of course. By scratching the can you entered into a legal contract with Quafe Company and its subsidiaries to receive the reward allotted to you randomly. However, we know that your award was dispensed purposefully, not randomly, by one of our own employees–”

“Right. I got all that. The contest was rigged. Someone is setting me up or somethin’.” “Precisely, Mr. Mu- ah, sir. As such, you are under no obligation to accept. We did want to ask some more questions, though–”

Chin had been studying his hands. Now he stared up in wonder. “But what if I want to accept? Can I do that?”

“Oh! I see! Well, of course, we’ll want to understand why our employee selected you, what connection there is between you, what he might stand to gain from awarding you such a prize, etc.” He sounded it out, “et cet-er-a”.

“Sure. But is there any chance I can accept?”

“We have an awful lot of questions, sir, but we’ll see what we can work out.”

***

It was too good to be true. It was weird and messy and seemed like it might fly away out of reach at any moment, but it was a dream worth hanging around for. Somehow, his name had come up and now he had a chance at becoming an egger and getting his own ship.

The guy they say did it, that put his name in the hat (and it was the only name in there, apparently), he’d never heard of him. It sounded like the Quafe guys were thinking the whole thing was some sort of prank their guy, “Screech” or somethin’, was using to distract them while he made his escape. Seems like maybe he had been up to some bad stuff on the side.

And it sounded like his name was just as good as any other, and since there really wasn’t any connection between the two of them (“no indication of collusion” was what the last Quafe lawyer had said), that he might as well receive the prize.

There was still some paperwork left to settle, but it sounded like he had a real shot. An actual chance at something. It was far enough along they were even letting him poke around in the deep storage hangar where his new ship was being stored. Not that it was new — it was an old InterBus hauler, Mobira. But, if…and it was a big “but” and a big “if”…the ship would be his!

The deep storage hangar was empty. Sounds echoed forever in its deep recesses. Chin fidgeted with the heavy plastic sheeting that draped around the entrance near the cockpit. As he stepped inside, he could’ve sworn he heard faint music. Walkway lights illumined his way automatically, and then the on-board flight computer spooled up.

“Standby. Authorizing. Captain, I am ready to go.”

‘Captain.’ Yes, he very much liked the sound of that.

Fiction: When the Sisters Call, by Lucas Ballard

Lucas Ballard threw a used towel on the floor and stepped out of his temporary quarters. With a frustrated sigh he crossed the cargo platform, buttoning his shirt as he went, and headed to a moving pedway that would take him out of the secure Capsuleer section of the station and to the administrative wing where he knew his contract was currently delayed.

The Sisters of Eve station in Sheroo was a broad, sprawling one of typical Gallente design, but anchored firmly in the Amarr Empire. In the nine months Lucas had been living as a Capsuleer, he had already passed through so many stations across the Cluster, he knew just where he was going without even glancing at the signs or directional indicators.

Usually he never left the capsuleer section of the station. In fact, it was pretty uncommon for any Capsuleer to mingle with the regular population, since it was truly one of the only times that a Capsuleer was not immortal. The consciousness of a Capsuleer would always be transferred to a new body in the event of their death, but that could only happen if they were with their capsule. Few ever took such a risk, since one well placed knife blade could quickly end what should have been a life without limits. On those rare occasions when he would leave the Capsuleer section, he would wear flesh-colored port plugs in an attempt to blend in with the people who inhabited the stations.

This time he didn’t even try.

He stomped off the pedway and into the crowd of primarily Amarran citizens, pushing his damp, black hair out of his eyes. The scowl on his face and his purposeful stride made the baseliners get out of his way in a hurry.

Gorramit, he thought to himself. When did I start referring to normal people as baseliners? Have I already gone off the deep end and forgotten where I came from?

He worked his way through the masses and headed to a secondary pedway marked for Sisters traffic only. A pair of Amarran station security guards came from either side to intercept, with stern looks to match their rough and unforgiving Imperial armor, gilded though it was.

“Capsuleer,” one called out as the other stepped directly into his path, a long, ornamental stun rod held across his chest. “This is a restricted area. State your business and present credentials.”

Lucas let his annoyance show as he frowned at the guard. “I’m here to provide transport for a scientist to Oijanen.” He pulled a paper manifest from his pocket and handed it to the guard, and bared his right forearm. The first guard looked over the document as the second guard stepped up and held a small device over Lucas’ arm. There was a gentle tone and Lucas saw a hologram of himself appear over the device, along with a scrolling list of information, all coming from a gene chip embedded in his wrist. He hated having to verify his identity this way, as it made him feel like little more than livestock. But thanks to their deeply ingrained penchant for slavery and overtly classist views, the Amarr treated everyone like that, so he knew it wasn’t personal. However as a citizen of the Gallente Federation, he had been raised to believe that individual rights and self-worth were of paramount importance. So being scanned like a cow going to market—to be treated as ‘lesser than’—made him dislike these men from the start. He just couldn’t help it. But he choked back his opinion and allowed the inspection, since he just wanted to get the whole situation over with as quickly as possible.

The first guard frowned. “I don’t know why you are here,” he said with a haughty tone. “Your cargo should be at your hangar.”

Lucas pulled his sleeve back down and felt his blood pressure rise. “Passenger, not cargo,” he growled. “Do you really think I’d be here if my passenger were where they belong? The dockmaster told me they were being held. Pending… something.”

The guard sneered as he accessed a computerized list and saw a highlighted item. “Ah yes, your Matari cargo is being held due to irregularities in documentation.”

Lucas clearly heard the man’s tone and his blood pressure spiked. “Irregularities?” He put his hands on his hips, trying to not get upset at the pompous man and failing spectacularly. “The scientist in question is on an urgent mission for the Sisters. There’s no time for irregularities. This mission is of the utmost importance, or perhaps you’ve been too busy polishing your oh-so-shiny armor to hear the news about the Kyonoke outbreak?”

Lucas knew he was playing with fire by choosing to insult the guard, but he got a bit of a thrill as he watched the guard’s face slowly turn red as he dropped his shock rod by his side. “You had better watch your tone when you talk to me, Capsuleer.”

“Or what? You’ll become even more of a judgmental jackwipe?” Lucas put a hand to his heart in false shock. “I’m so sorry that your feelings are so easily hurt, but I thought you Amarr were more resilient that that.” He glanced down at the guard’s armor, noting the extra gold trim on the shoulder plates. “You look a bit old to be a lieutenant. Are you a little not-so-good at your job? Is that why you’re stuck here on guard duty?”

The Lieutenant’s face took on a truly impressive shade of purple in his rage, and his partner stepped up looking ready for a fight. “You must have been Gallente before you became an abomination in the eyes of God,” the Lieutenant hissed. “That’s why you are as ignorant as you are stupid.”

Lucas bared his teeth at the weak insult. At this point he couldn’t help himself and just kept piling it on, gesticulating with his hands for emphasis. “Outstanding! So now instead of doing your job, you’re trying to get into a cock-fight with me? There are millions of lives at stake and here I am, wasting my time with some pissant underling with delusions of grandeur, who seems to forget that the Matari are no longer yours to treat like fedo dung.” He stepped up and got right in the Lieutenant’s face even as he raised the humming shock rod and held it underneath Lucas’ chin menacingly. “Now unless you want to explain yourself to the Sisters who own this station—who are standing right behind you, by the way—I suggest you go and get me my passenger.”

The two guards froze in place and Lucas watched as the color drained out of the Lieutenant’s face as though someone had flushed a toilet. Lucas stepped back, got down on one knee and bowed his head. The Lieutenant’s lips pressed into a thin line as he lowered the shock rod and turned around to finally see what Lucas had seen a moment before.

Standing there was a woman of indeterminate age wearing the white ornamental robes of a High Priestess, with the cowl pulled away from her face and her red hair tied back in a severe looking bun. Her skin was pale and her features mixed. There were hints of Sebeistor Matari in her skin, forehead and high cheekbones, but her thin mouth and nose reminded Lucas of the Intaki, an old ethnic group of the Federation. Flanking her on both sides were four other women, hands hidden in their sleeves and faces obscured by the deep cowls of their rich blue robes. They were all members of the Servant Sisters Of Eve, and the way the five of them stood left no doubt that they were not happy.

“Lieutenant,” the High Priestess said in a calm yet disturbingly commanding voice. “Is there some sort of problem?”

The Lieutenant dipped his head while his partner bowed deeply. “I am—”

She silenced him with a flick of her finger. “That was a rhetorical question.” Her gaze bored into the man, sharp as a laser beam. “You are taking away time that cannot be recovered. Lives are at stake and we must not delay.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Lieutenant stammered, and gestured for his partner to go.

Again the Priestess cut him off. “I think it would be best if you delivered our honored and beloved scientist to the hangar personally. Someone of your rank and stature should be able to expedite the process, don’t you think?” She tilted her head ever so slightly, her gaze never wavering.

The Lieutenant bowed deeply this time, and without a second glance dashed off as fast as his feet could take him. The Priestess turned her head to look upon the other guard, and he quickly bowed and went back to his station at the end of the pedway.

Lucas kept his gaze to the floor until the Priestess stepped up and curled a finger. “Rise, Captain Ballard.”

Lucas stood up and fell in on her right as she began walking towards the capsuleer section he had come from, the other Sisters taking places in front of and behind the High Priestess. Bodyguards.

“You did not have to goad him so,” she said with a stern tone.

Lucas dipped his head deferentially, partly to hide his smile. “Apologies. I took a little too much pleasure from doing it.”

The Priestess glanced at him and smiled ever so slightly. “I would be lying if I said I did not find it humorous as well,” she replied. Then her smile faded faster than a raindrop in the desert. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, captain. Hubris is one of the Amarr’s greatest weaknesses. Being self-righteous is yours.”

“I cannot argue that,” Lucas muttered. “I try to be better every day.”

“And better you have become, Lucas. Your joining Signal Cartel has done much to polish the being within. But there is still much work to do.”

Lucas glanced at her quizzically, a little confused by the familiar tone she used when talking about him. But he did not let his eyes linger lest it be taken to be a rude gesture.

The Priestess smirked. “There is little your group does that we do not notice. Signaleers hold a special place in my heart, and that of the Servant Sisters. Those of you who find your calling with Signal Cartel are not like most other Capsuleers.”

Lucas smiled. “Yes, well our leaders help make sure we walk a narrow but rewarding path.”

She laughed, and the sound rang out like a bell, clear and bright. “Indeed,” she replied. “But they have been changed just as much as the rest of you. I remember when your dear leader took on her current mantle. She was not as kind as she is now. Hers was quite the wandering road that finally led her to found Signal Cartel.” She

leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “Did you know I knew her mother? I also know her true name, not just the one she goes by now. Such an amusing sobriquet.

But it no longer engenders fear like it once did.” She waved a hand casually. “Oh, and don’t even get me started on dear little Johnny.”

Lucas worked hard not to laugh out loud at the way the Priestess spoke about his superiors, and barely succeeded.

They walked in silence for a while after that, and Lucas watched as everyone they came near paused and gave the High Priestess and her accompanying Sisters deferential bows as they walked past.

As they approached Lucas’ private hangar, he looked at the High Priestess. “I wanted to thank you for allowing us to assist with this mission.”

She stopped and looked directly at him. “As I said once before, members of Signal Cartel are not like most. So when the Ladies Auxiliary recommended reaching out to your group for help, we were happy to approve. There are few that we would consider for this dangerous mission.” She turned and looked at Lucas’ frigate hovering nearby.

“An interceptor?” she huffed. “I must admit, I thought I would be seeing one of our frigates there instead of a Roden ship.”

Lucas regarded his Ares, which was painted in dark, matte colors and looked as stealthy as it did fast. But it was an asymmetrical ship if there ever was one. In fact, he thought it looked very much like an electric razor he had once owned. The designers seemed to have taken the separate halves of two completely different ships and slapped them together, yet somehow it worked, and worked quite well.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he replied, turning back to the High Priestess. “I love my Astero, and I seriously considered bringing her for this mission. But sometimes, pure speed is what one needs, and there aren’t many ships faster than Whispers.”

The High Priestess gave the ship one more sideways glance. “So long as our people arrive safely, who am I to judge the manner in which they are carried?” She looked past him and smiled. “And speaking of people…”

Lucas turned and saw two people arriving. The first was the Amarran Lieutenant, who was pushing a cart loaded with heavy looking cases of scientific equipment. His face was neutral, but his eyes were filled with an expression that could only be described as loathing.

Behind him walked a proud and attractive looking woman in plain clothes that was clearly of Matari descent. She had golden brown eyes, brown skin and dark brown hair held back in a thick bundle of braids by a thin golden chain, and was just as tall he was. Lucas could not see any of the traditional Matari tribal tattoos on her neck or face, prompting him to recognize her as a member of the Thukker tribe, a scattered group of wanderers that eschewed most of the old Matari traditions.

Why in the world is my mind picking out all these details? He wondered to himself. Maybe this new ocular filter implant I just got really is that much better than the base model… but standing here staring at her like a blank clone is not going to make a very good impression. Perhaps I should spring for the better Social chip next time I’m in Jita. Okay, focus!

As the two of them bowed to the High Priestess, Lucas caught the gaze of the Lieutenant and kept a straight face. He nodded towards the cargo lift and slowly raised a hand to toss him a subtle, but very rude gesture. The man silently fumed as he took the cart over to the awaiting workers, with an expression so full of rage that Lucas thought he might spontaneously ignite… and that made him chuckle. I am a bad man, he thought.

The woman reached out and kissed the Priestess’s hand, rising to her feet with a broad smile. “Reverend Mother,” she said in a rich alto. “I am so honored to see you and to serve the Sisters once again.”

The smile on the Reverend Mother’s face was a warm and genuine one. “And we are honored that you answered the call once again, Kaia. I wanted to be sure to tell you personally just how much it means to us.” She turned slightly towards Lucas, indicating that he could introduce himself.

Lucas, however, needed an extra second to process the situation after hearing the new woman say two words: Reverend Mother. He realized with a shock that he had been speaking not to a regional High Priestess. This woman was Santimona Sarpati herself, the Reverend Mother and head of the Servant Sisters of Eve.

Oh crap, he thought in a panic. I guess that new implant can’t see everything.

After his clone heart finished skipping a beat or two, he decided that passing out would look really bad and took a step forward, holding out his hand. “Doctor Kaia Hakuli, I presume? My name is Lucas Ballard, and I will be your pilot.”

Doctor Hakuli shook his hand. Her skin was warm and her grip was firm. “It is nice to meet you, Captain. I hope I can count on you to get me to my destination.”

“As fast and as safe as humanly possible.”

Doctor Hakuli paused, surprised by his words, then she smiled and the whole hangar seemed to light up. “Then let’s not waste any more time, shall we?”

Turning to the Reverend Mother, Lucas clutched his hands together and bowed. “Thank you so much, Reverend Mother. It was an honor to meet you.”

The Reverend Mother reached out and took his hands in hers, her smile never wavering. “I appreciate that you came to get Doctor Hakuli yourself. It is rare that your kind ever walk past those doors… I think that says something about the person you are underneath all of the technology. So the honor was all mine.” She stepped back and gave him a graceful bow, and the other Sisters followed suit.

Lucas was stunned, and for a moment he could not move. His face flushed and his heart raced with embarrassment from the wholly unexpected honor she had just bestowed upon him. The Reverend Mother rose up with a bemused smirk. After a beat she tilted her head ever so slightly towards his ship, and Lucas jerked out of his stupor. His eyes still wide with wonder, he stepped back and turned to Doctor Hakuli.

“Follow me, doctor,” he said and escorted her towards his ship.

Amused by his reaction, the doctor’s smile grew as they walked. “You never really get used to it,” she chuckled.

“Doesn’t help that I had no idea who she really was until you showed up,” Lucas muttered, and offered his arm which the doctor accepted after a second of contemplation.

He led her past his capsule parked at the edge of the platform, its doors open like the petals of some giant alien flower, inviting Lucas to enter. As she walked by, Doctor Hakuli could not help but stare at the strange Jove technology that made Capsuleers possible. She knew how it all worked, everyone did. But to see it in person was still something of a shock, as was the knowledge that this man walking next to her was not quite the human he appeared to be.

They walked up to the lift where her containers had been placed, stepped onboard and began floating towards the ship. Doctor Hakuli looked in wonder at a colorful turret hanging off the underside of the Ares’ fuselage.

“That’s a strange looking missile launcher,” she said. “I hope we aren’t planning on fighting our way to Oijanen.”

Lucas smiled. “This ship isn’t outfitted for combat, and that’s not a missile launcher.” As they got closer, she noticed the turret wasn’t just colorful. It was covered in odd scrollwork and stars, and glowed with a strange, eldritch light. Comprehension slowly dawned as they passed underneath it, and a shocked look came to her face as she gripped the safety railing.

“Is tha… is that a fireworks launcher?”

Lucas’ smile grew bigger and he glanced at her stunned expression. “Yep.”

She continued to stare at it as they slid past. “You Signal Cartel pilots are just as strange as I’ve heard,” she muttered in disbelief.

“Oh, you have no idea.” Lucas patted the back of her hand comfortingly. “I’m one of the mild ones.”

They floated directly to the cargo hold on the underside of the fuselage, which was mostly empty except for a couple of dock workers waiting for the lift to arrive. As soon as it rose up to the entrance, they took the containers and secured them inside while Lucas escorted Doctor Hakuli through the small hold and towards the front of the ship, stopping at a vestibule along the way. There was a set of crash seats against the wall next to the open hatch of an escape pod.

Doctor Hakuli frowned as she looked around at the spartan and windowless space. “I’m not sitting here, am I?”

Lucas put a hand on the back of a seat. “This is the safest place for you to be during the trip. And just in case we get caught, there is the escape pod. I’ve programmed it to warp to a safe spot or station in every system we will pass through.” He turned and looked at her. “I’ve also turned up the inertial dampeners in this part of the ship so that you won’t get sick.”

Doctor Hakuli gave him a disappointed look. “I’ve flown in ships before, Captain.”

“Have you ever flown in an interceptor, Doctor?”

Her eyebrows came together. “Well, no…”

“That’s why you should sit here.”

She regarded him for a moment, taken aback by his concern. She already found his kind and polite demeanor off-putting, since every other capsuleer she had ever met had frankly been so cold, aloof and uncaring.

But she was not the kind of person who wanted to simply sit back and hide from difficult things, which was why when the Sisters called her, she jumped at the opportunity. So she patted the headrest of the seat, and stepped right past him to continue down the passage.

Lucas let out a frustrated sigh and followed her directly to the observation deck.

In the non-capsuleer variant of the ship, the observation deck was the ship’s bridge, and had a forward-facing wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. But since he did not need a bridge, he had converted most of the deck into a lounge for himself for those times when he got tired of being in the capsule. Sometimes he spent many long and solitary hours in the lounge while parked and cloaked in deep space, but sometimes he didn’t go there for days. He made the shipwrights build a passage that led from the lounge directly to the capsule chamber so he didn’t have to walk all the way from the bow to the stern and back just to move four meters to the right. Stupid engineers.

The room had a small kitchenette, a comms terminal on a desk for talking with his fellow Signaleers, and right in the middle of the room was a comfortable L-shaped couch that also served as a bed. One section faced the windows, and the other faced a wall with a very large screen on it where he watched The Scope, holovids and entertainment programs. He had spent extra money on the best automated systems for the ship, so there was no other crew. It made for a lonely existence, but knowing that no-one else’s life could be lost due to any mistake he made helped him sleep better at night.

Watching the doctor park herself on his couch did not make him feel better, however. She rubbed the cushions and admired the expansive view, then looked back at him with a steady gaze.

Lucas frowned. “If we get into trouble, you’ll never make it to the escape pod in time.”

“They never let escape pods get away anyhow, you know that.”

“Well, you might,” he muttered.

She leaned back and nearly disappeared into the plush cushions. “I like to see where I’m going.”

Lucas walked over to the kitchenette with a resigned sigh. “Well, all of the furniture is bolted down, so hang onto something. We leave in ten minutes.” He came back to the couch, handed her a small paper bag and headed for the door.

She looked down at the bag in confusion. “What’s this for?”

Lucas paused at the door for a second and replied, “Try not to vomit on the cushions.”

He walked back down to the cargo hold, where he found the workers standing on the lift, waiting for him. He stepped up next to them with a smile, and together they floated back to the cargo platform.

One of the men turned to him with a look of concern. “Excuse me, sir. But is it true? Is the outbreak as bad as they’re saying?”

Lucas stared at his capsule as they slid closer to it. “Worse, I’m afraid… and so far everything points to it being a deliberate act.” He turned to the man and looked him right in the eye. “Your name is… Georda, isn’t it?” The man nodded in mild shock.

“Are you married, Georda?”

“Yessir. Seven years. Two kids.”

Lucas turned to the other worker. “And you?”

The man stood up a little straighter. “Paara, sir. Married one year, first child on the way.”

The lift settled onto the cargo platform and as they all stepped off Lucas paused to look at the two men. “Go home and hug them tonight. Times like this? Nothing is more important.” He reached out and offered his hand. “Thanks again.”

The two men shook his hand solemnly. “You’re welcome, Captain,” Georda said. “And good luck out there.”

Lucas watched as the men walked off, leaving him alone on the platform. As he looked around the vast hangar, he felt a strange sensation in his clone body, one that felt vaguely familiar. It took him a moment, but he eventually recognized the feeling as one of longing, and it made his not-entirely-human body throb like a bruise, a dull and persistent ache that started in his chest and worked it’s way out to his limbs.

He took a calming breath and walked over to his capsule and started undressing, pushing the emotion aside as he slowly stripped off the vestiges of his humanity one layer at a time. He folded his clothing and tucked it into a sealed box inside of the capsule and soon stood completely naked in front of the capsule, staring at the ovum blankly as it waited for him to step inside.

Lucas glanced up at his ship and felt a pulse of nerves as he noticed a silhouette in the observation deck windows. Doctor Hakuli stood there looking down at him, a

completely unreadable expression on her face. They stared at one another for a few seconds before Lucas stepped into the capsule.

To Doctor Hakuli’s eyes, it looked as though the capsule came to life and slowly consumed him. She watched as prehensile tubes reached out and connected to the ports up and down his spine, slowly drawing him inside. His body floated with a strange, waxy flexibility as it leaned back into the glowing pod, and the doors of the capsule slowly closed around him, hiding him from view. She shivered.

A few seconds later the capsule rose up and quickly flew over to the ship, and she heard it insert itself into the ship just a few meters away from where she was standing.

The deck began to vibrate as the ship sprung to life, thrumming with power.

Lucas’ voice suddenly came from seemingly all around the room. “Are you ready, doctor?”

She looked around for the speakers, but when she could not find the source of his voice, she turned back to the windows. “Yes, Captain. I’m ready.”

“We just received clearance to leave the station. Once we do, I recommend that you take a seat. I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Captain.” She could hear the gentle concern in his voice, but simply gripped the handrail and continued to look out the window and watch as the ship slowly swung towards the station exit. She took in the spectacle of flying through the heart of the station, with its towering walls that stretched for as far as the eye could see, speckled with dazzling lights, and vehicles traveling along suspended roadways. She watched as they slipped past a huge, bulbous freighter crawling towards what appeared to be a small dark opening at the end of the passageway. She could see ships of various sizes gliding along, all headed to or from the same opening which grew with each passing second, finally revealing itself as a kilometers-wide maw that led to the eternal blackness of space.

She had flown many times before, but never with such a view. So when they passed over the threshold, the sudden transition from station to space was a visually jarring one. All of the visual cues for size and distance seemed to abruptly vanish, and it made her body feel as though the floor had suddenly disappeared out from under her.

“Ok, here we go,” Lucas said, and swift as a whip, the Ares turned towards the first gate.

Doctor Hakuli’s body rocked around a bit, but she hung onto the railing and stayed on her feet. She saw the planet Sheroo X swing into view, partially obscured by the moon the station was orbiting. Less than two seconds later, the planet and moon vanished behind them, along with her sense of equilibrium. Her eyes were as wide as saucers as she watched space twist and warp around them, and a few seconds later she gasped as a small, sparkling dot grew into a jump gate so quickly that the only word to describe the experience was violent. The gate was huge, many kilometers across, and it appeared as though they would crash directly into the gate. But the ship stopped just a few hundred meters away from one of its pointed spires, which was the size of a tall apartment building. In the middle of the massive structure was a slowly spinning ring, filled with ripples of unnatural light that slowly pulsed and waved. A second later her internal organs seemed to catch up with the rest of her body and her throat clenched spasmodically. The entire ship rumbled and the gate disappeared into a swirling ball of light that engulfed them entirely.

When the light vanished, she found herself looking out at a beautiful golden nebula, and a bright star shone nearby, causing her to squint. Three seconds later, her guts were left behind once again as she watched the star go whipping past the window, and they soon came to another abrupt halt above another gate. Her insides began to churn in protest, and let her know in no uncertain terms that the abuse they were being subjected to was so not cool.

After the third gate jump, she sat down on the couch and looked around for the barf bag that Lucas had given her.

“You’re sitting on it,” Lucas’ voice called out.

The doctor fished around underneath her and pulled out the crumpled bag, opening it and looking down at it with a pained expression.

“There’s no shame in it, Doctor. And so you know, it will get worse.” From Lucas’ vantage point in the virtual construct he chose to be in, he was standing right in front of her. He watched as her lips pressed together tightly, and a thin sheen of sweat began to appear on her forehead. But she swallowed and gripped her knees, taking deep slow breaths. Her eyes came back up and looked right through him and out into space.

“Thank you, Captain,” she said in a quiet voice. “I will manage.”

He squatted down and looked her right in the eyes. She could not see him of course, but it felt like she was looking right at him. He found her determination to be most impressive. It wasn’t just the gut-wrenching flight. It was that she was flying directly towards one of the most dangerous and frightening situations anyone in the Cluster had ever had to face. The Kyonoke pathogen was something right out of a nightmare. It would kill anyone who breathed it in within hours, and do so painfully. Yet here she was, putting her very mortal and limited life on the line for millions of others to try and stop it.

Lucas abruptly felt the ache of longing ripple through his body once again, and grit his teeth to try and keep under control. Even so, it pained him to see her struggle, and he instinctively reached out and put his virtual hand on top of hers. And though there was no way she could feel it, she took a shuddering breath and the corner of her mouth came up in a slight smile.

“I’ll try to go a little more gently for now,” he said softly. “But once we reach low security space, I can’t hold back.”

Doctor Hakuli blinked. “I understand. And I appreciate it.”

Lucas turned to the window and stared out at the vast and glowing wonder of interstellar space. Connected to the ship, he could see so much more than a normal person could. Waves of energy on every spectrum flowing in every direction, all his to behold directly. He could be on the inside and the outside of the ship at the same time, and feel everything going on without and within. It was something they had told him about in his Capsuleer training, but words just could not capture how overwhelming and awesome the experience was.

Thinking about it, the life he now led was the stuff of legend. Here he was, an immortal demigod flying through the stars for adventure, glory and riches beyond anything most could even imagine. Yet despite all of the wonders he could see and the power he could wield, there was something cold about it. He knew it was all just a simulation. A highly refined and enhanced copy of what used to be. There was something missing, and deep down every Capsuleer felt it. Perhaps that was why most of them went to the extremes of behavior, searching for the piece that was missing, that essential part which had been lost upon their transition. They dove into the basest of experiences looking for the rush, the thrill of what it meant to be human, all while trying to avoid the simple fact that they no longer were.

What if that was the root of the Jovian malady that drove them all mad and eventually to their death? Some crucial piece of humanity that kept us sane and actually human?

Maybe the Jove gave us their disease along with their technology, he thought to himself. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Lucas looked back at the woman sitting on his couch and felt his chest ache once again, and with that he knew he was not gone yet. He still had compassion. He still cared for others, and still remembered why he had done this in the first place. He had become a Capsuleer ostensibly to make the world a better and safer place for everyone that he cared about. It had been less than a year, but looking back he felt so stupid for ever believing that abandoning his humanity was the way to save humanity. Now it felt all like a lonely, distant memory.

Come on, Lucas, he said, shaking himself out of his stupor. This isn’t helping. Focus on getting her there in one piece. With a sigh, he reached a hand forward and directed the ship towards the next gate, this time a little more gradually.

The next ten jumps went smoothly and was the doctor managed to stay relaxed. But Lucas knew it was about to get a lot more difficult as they entered the Bei system.

That was because their next jump was into Hagilur, a low security system free of CONCORD protection, and the local pirates just loved blowing up anyone foolish enough to take that path into the even more dangerous space beyond. And from what he was hearing on the Local intelligence channels, the pirates were having fun today.

He paused at a deep space safe zone he had set up the day before and gathered his wits, feeling the adrenaline start to enter his bloodstream.

“Okay, Doctor. Showtime. From here on out, things get interesting.”

Doctor Hakuli looked up from the couch, and her eyes were filled with fear and not a little bit of excitement.

“Define interesting,” she said.

Lucas bit his virtual and clone lip at the same time, holding back the words, oh god oh god, we’re all gonna die. Instead he said nothing as he aligned the ship to the Hagilur gate.

“Your silence isn’t helping, you know…”

Lucas glanced over at her as he engaged the warp drive once again, and all he could say was, “Here we go.”

The gate rushed up to meet them, and they watched as another ship disappeared, jumping through just a couple of seconds before his own ship. It was an Imicus, an exploration frigate Lucas had flown for the first few months of his new life.

I hope you know what you’re doing, capsuleer, he said after the anonymous pilot, and the gate control initiated their own jump.

Doctor Hakuli stared out the window, watching the space outside of the windows swirl and finally resolve into a beautiful view of the gate below them, suspended in front of a beautiful red nebula, one that she recognized from her own childhood growing up in the region of space known as Metropolis.

But her little trip down memory lane was shattered a second later by the shriek of alarms suddenly going off all around her. Her eyes practically flew out of her head in shock, and she watched as the Imicus that had jumped immediately before them activate its micro warp drive with a flash just a few kilometers away from them, and begin accelerating away from the gate as fast as it possibly could.

But Lucas could already see it was doomed.

He let their ship sit in place and saw beams of energy reach out to engulf the Imicus, watching as they essentially shut off its warp drive. Then it began to rapidly slow down. The beams came from three other ships hovering around the gate. Two battleships and a cruiser. He instantly recognized the cruiser as a Loki, because he had died in a hail of artillery fire from one of those wicked ships months before, and the memory was still fresh. The two battleships were Rokhs, which were big, slow, lumbering hulks which some pirates just loved to use. Their presence almost assuredly meant one thing: smartbombs. And as if to prove his theory, he watched as the Rokhs launched more than a dozen of the nasty projectiles, on an intercept course with the Imicus.

“What’s happening? Why aren’t we running?” she yelled out in alarm.

Lucas yelled, “Close your eyes, Doctor!”

In the milliseconds that followed, he could see that she would not do so in time, and reached out with his mind to shield the windows. But before he could give the command, he saw that they were already darkening. An instant later, the objects transformed into expanding balls of pure energy that engulfed the Imicus less than thirty kilometers away. The doctor gasped in shock, blinking at the sudden burst of light, and watched as the small frigate was blown into pieces, its fragile hull shredded by the force of the explosions. A second later, there was another series of smaller explosions as the pilot’s capsule was pulverized by artillery fire. The only sound was the alarms, but the visuals were more than enough to drive home the violence.

Thanks for the windows, Aura, he thought to himself, and the ship AI replied directly in his head.

We cannot have our passenger arrive at her destination blind, now can we?

No, no. That would be bad.

He knew his ship was invisible to the attackers, and would remain so for up to a minute thanks to the strange mechanics of jump gates. Until he made a move, that is. But he also knew the pirates needed a few seconds to reload, and by his calculations that left a two second window in which he could avoid the smartbombs blast and their ability to fire again.

Plenty of time.

He willed the ship into motion, and the nimble interceptor wheeled towards the gate. A second later, the expanding wreckage of the Imicus whipped past them almost faster than the eye could track. Doctor Hakuli gulped and gripped the couch cushions as her body reacted to the abrupt change in scenery. Before she realized it, another stargate materialized in front of her, and as they came to a stop, she could see that they had landed directly underneath a huge battlecruiser, bristling with large guns. She watched in horror as the weapons swiveled towards them as though they were living things, and she wanted to scream. But before she could even inhale, the ship disappeared in a swirl of light, and they were through the gate.

There was no time to recover from the shock, however. The instant they appeared on the other side, their ship hurtled off to the next gate, and the next, and her stomach started doing flips. She had never traveled so fast, and her body and mind were becoming overwhelmed. Lucas watched as she struggled to hold it together from his virtual perch.

“Well,” he said. “They know we’re coming now.”

The doctor belched and gulped. “What do you mean, they know?”

“These pirates live all up and down this pipe. I’m sure they’re telling their buddies up ahead.” He adjusted his directional scanner, and grimaced at what he saw, but barreled on just the same. “You may not want to look at the next gate.”

The doctor groaned in distress, but stubbornly did not divert her eyes. A few seconds later, she wished she had.

The space around the next gate was filled with the glowing wreckage of at least half a dozen ships. As they came to a stop in front of the gate, there was a thud, and Doctor Hakuli watched in horror as the frozen, naked body of a female capsuleer bounced off the window. It was twisted and torn, and its face was a rictus of agony. Its dead eyes seemed to look right at the doctor as it spun away like a piece of trash floating in a crystallized cloud of ruby red blood. With that, her insides decided that enough was enough, and she vomited into the bag.

Can you silence the alarms please, Aura? Lucas thought, and the blaring alarms went quiet, leaving them with nothing but the humming of the ship and the painful sounds of her retching.

He sat his avatar onto the couch next to her as they bounced their way through the next few systems, passing grisly scenes of death and destruction at nearly every gate, and she vomited after every maneuver from that point on until there was nothing left to purge… and kept on vomiting.

“I’m so sorry, Doctor. But please,” he pleaded with her after each jump. “Just go to the escape pod. You’ll feel better.”

She took comfort in the obvious concern he had for her well being. But if I’m in for a coin, then I’m in for the whole purse, she thought. So she simply shook her head and stared out the window, refusing to avert her eyes even though tears ran down her cheeks and mingled with the snot and spittle that she kept trying to wipe away.

As they approached the gate to Oijanen, Lucas could see more pirates nearby, looking to cash in on the added traffic at the gate.

More like trying to pile on the misery, he grumbled to himself.

He flew to a dead space safe spot just within sensor range of the gate, cloaked up and stayed there for a moment, surveying the scene. On the scanner he saw another three battleships, two cruisers and a pair of fast-tackle interceptors. As he perused the intel reports Aura pulled up, he saw they were all from the same corporation. Records indicated they worked together as a well-oiled machine, logging over a dozen kills in the past twenty four hours alone, including interceptors like his. They already knew he was coming. The second he uncloaked, they would be ready to splat the gate with smartbombs just as he arrived, and cause his flimsy ship to pop like a balloon. It was merely an exercise in timing.

“Well this should disrupt that timing,” he muttered as he aligned to the gate. “I hope.”

“What do you mean, you hope?”

Lucas flinched with shock just as he was about to deactivate his cloaking device. “Gah! Did I say that out loud? Sorry, Doctor.”

Doctor Hakuli looked around with a frightened but annoyed expression. “Yeah, you did. And please stop calling me Doctor. Call me Kaia.”

“Sorry… Kaia. We’re one jump out from Oijanen, and there’s a very determined welcoming party at the gate. So this next jump is for all the marbles.”

Kaia stood up, went to the kitchenette, and threw out her nearly full bag. “Okay, then,” she said as she rinsed her mouth and splashed cool water on her face. “I’m gonna need a new barf bag.”

Lucas chuckled, admiring her pluck. “Top drawer on your left.”

She retrieved a fresh bag and walked over to the window, gripping the railing tightly with both hands. Lucas’ avatar walked up next to her and gave her a sideways look.

“Don’t want to sit on the couch anymore?” he asked quietly.

A fierce grimace materialized on her face as she stared out into the darkness. “No. It’s bad enough being unable to do anything but sit here like a fedo in a cage. If I’m going to die, I want to watch it happen.” Her face softened, and she looked around the room. “You’re in here with me,” she said in a small voice. “Aren’t you?”

Lucas turned to face her and felt the ache in his chest once again. But this time he did not try to push it down. “Standing right next to you,” he whispered.

Kaia looked to her right, somehow feeling his presence, and smiled a nervous smile. “Thank you,” she whispered back. After a few seconds she turned back to the window, and slid her hand out on the railing a few centimeters, reaching for where she thought he might be.

Lucas looked down at her hand and could see her shaking ever so slightly, so he tenderly placed his virtual hand upon hers. Turning back to the window, they stood together in silence for a moment. He took one last breath, reached out to the ship with his mind and deactivated the cloak.

“Let’s do this.”

The space before them warbled and streaked as the ship leapt towards the gate, and just a few seconds later, the gate materialized right in front of them. But to Kaia’s surprise, it did not resolve into the towering structure every other gate had. It remained small and soared above their heads. The ship landed below and far away from the gate.

One hundred and fifty-five kilometers away, to be exact, Lucas thought to himself with a smile as he dimmed the windows and turned the ship towards the gate just as the space where his ship would have landed erupted with more than a dozen bright explosions. He activated the warp drive, and as the expanding balls of fire and energy dissipated, their little ship passed right through and raced up underneath the gate. Alarms screeched their warnings once again as all of the pirate ships locked onto them, but it was too late. Everything disappeared in a swirling ball of light, and they were through.

Aaaaaaaa-hah! Yeah!” Kaia screamed with excitement and her hands shot up into the air. She bared her teeth and smiled as she bounced up and down. “Yes, yes, yes! NO!

Her excitement came crashing down in an instant as they materialized on the other side of the gate, and saw a scary looking warship directly in front of them. There was a literal swarm of them flying around the gate like angry insects around their nest, and wreckage was scattered everywhere, blotting out the system’s primary star,

Lucas triggered the warp drive the instant they arrived, and before the pirates could react, the small ship skimmed over the top of the pirate destroyer and warped away, leaving them far behind. The alarms silenced, and seconds later the massive, sprawling shape of a citadel zoomed into view, stretching across the entire window.

There was a chime, and a pleasant female voice announced, “Docking request accepted.”

Kaia felt like she had been spun nine different ways, but she was so excited she jumped up and down anyways.

“We did it!” she cried, and then quickly clutched the railing. “We—hurrk—did it! We’re— hnnggg…” Dry heaves racked her body, but she just held the bag over her mouth, smiling the whole time. “We’re alive! Ohhhhh…”

Lucas laughed with relief, and said, “Welcome to Oijanen, Kaia.”

The ship floated through the huge hangar entrance, and by the time they had settled into a Capsuleer berth, Kaia’s body had finally calmed down and was no longer retching. She staggered over to the couch and laid down on it in relief, feeling as sore and exhausted as she had ever been.

She sat up a moment later when she heard the sound of clanging metal coming from the doorway.

“Captain?” she called out. When there was no reply, she got to her feet and went to investigate, following the sounds to their source just across the hallway to where Lucas’ capsule was. When she got to the door she found that his capsule stood open, and Lucas was standing with his back to the door, naked and dripping wet. The dark connection ports of his thin, pale clone body clearly visible up and down his spine. She felt a strong connection to this capsuleer, this man who had run a gauntlet for her and brought her safely to the other side. And truth be told, even though the connection ports on his body looked rather strange, the sight of a naked man so close to her was still thrilling.

Lucas turned to reach for the towel he kept next to the capsule, and instead found the doctor standing there, holding the towel out to him. He accepted it and quickly wrapped it around his waist, feeling self conscious from her presence in the capsule chamber.

She looked him in the eye, and a smile slowly grew on her face. “Well, Captain,” she said quietly. “That was certainly the most interesting flight I’ve ever been on.”

Lucas chuckled nervously. “Yeah, I did say that, didn’t I?” He ran his fingers through his wet hair and smiled. “And you can call me Lucas, not Captain.”

Kaia’s smile grew even more. “Lucas. I like that name.” Her smile vanished and she leapt forward and hugged him, her eyes wide and filling with tears. Her body shook as she clutched him tightly, the emotion of the ordeal finally spilling over. “Thank you, Lucas,” she whispered. “I really thought I was going to die.”

Lucas was completely taken aback by the physical and emotional contact, and slowly wrapped his arms around her. “You’re welcome, Kaia.” He held her until her trembling subsided. Only when she let go did he realize just how much he enjoyed the intimacy of that contact. However instead of reaching for more, he stepped back and sheepishly scratched his head. “Uh, mind if I get dressed now?”

“Oh!” She said abruptly and spun away from him, suddenly embarrassed by her behavior. “So sorry! I’ll meet you in the cargo bay!”

Lucas stared after her as she ran out of the chamber, biting his lip. With a sigh, he toweled off and dressed in clean clothes, trying to not think about how good her body felt against his, and failing spectacularly. But by the time he got his boots on, he felt in control of his thoughts again and walked to the cargo bay, where he found Kaia standing with two dock workers as they moved her equipment to the lift. He approached with a smile and together they all stepped onto the lift and floated away from the ship, which pinged and hissed like a living, breathing thing. No words were spoken on the way down, but Lucas and Kaia kept glanced at one another the whole time.

Lucas stepped off of the lift as soon as it arrived at the platform, and held out a hand to help Kaia step onto the platform. They just stood there, holding hands and looking at one another as the workers took the containers and walked past. Kaia was the first to speak.

“Thank you for getting me here in one piece, Lucas.”

Lucas smiled. “You’re welcome. It was quite the adventure, though it would have been better for you if you’d sat by the escape pod.”

She smiled at that, and it struck him like an electric shock. “Perhaps. But I would not appreciate where I am right now nearly as much.” She stepped a little closer, and Lucas’ skin started to tingle. “You know, you’re not the first capsuleer I’ve ever met. But you are by far the nicest.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek slowly. Her warm breath and soft lips sent a thrill through him that he had not felt in what seemed a very long time. He blushed and bowed his head, surprised by his own reaction.

His expression made Kaia feel an even stronger pull of affection towards him, but reluctantly stepped back and let go of his hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Captain.”

He looked up at her and blinked. “The pleasure was all mine, Doctor. I wish you and your colleagues the best, and I hope that you find a cure.”

Her expression soured at the reminder, but she quickly put a brave face on. “Thank you,” she said. “We’re going to need it.”

Lucas shuffled in place and gestured towards a set of doors leading out of the private hangar. “Your people will pick you up at those doors,” he said and stepped back onto the lift. They kept staring at one another as the lift slowly pulled away from the platform, and they each raised a hand in parting. “Good bye, Kaia Hakuli.”

“Good bye, Lucas Ballard.”

Lucas kept his eyes on her until the lift dropped him off at the cargo bay. He stepped off and slowly walked back to the capsule chamber, lost in thought. When he arrived, he stared at the capsule for a moment, grimacing with conflict. But he pushed his feelings down hard, removed his clothing and stuffed it into the box. With teeth clenched, he stepped forward and accepted the cold embrace of his capsule yet again.

Once he was fully connected to the ship, he flew out of the citadel as fast as he could and warped off to the second planet in the system. He placed the ship into orbit nearly one hundred kilometers away from the planet’s customs office station, and stared at the beautiful planet as the star was about to disappear behind it. He sat there and listened to the chatter on the radio, watching the Caldari Navy ships milling around the far side of the planet where the city of Myrskaa lay under quarantine. There were some thirty seven million people trapped inside the city, with thousands dying every single day, if not every hour. It was all anyone could think of. Except Lucas. All he could think of was Kaia, and the fact that she was going to go there and might never come back. He floated there lost in his thoughts, when Aura spoke up.

“Lucas, I can see that you are distracted, but shouldn’t you activate the cloak?”

Lucas nodded absentmindedly. “Mmmm, yeah. I know, Aura.”

“No, really. You need to pay attention to your scanner as well. There are destroyers—”

“Yes, yes. Terrible people want to kill me and use my body for target practice. What’s new…”

An edge of desperation came into her voice. “What’s new is that they are here!”

Lucas finally snapped out of his funk as his scanner flashed a warning, and he saw a destroyer warp in. It was a Svipul, just about the deadliest tactical destroyer ever made, and it was less than one hundred kilometers away, which was just a few seconds away from targeting range.

He spasmodically activated his cloak and angled away from the visitor, his heart suddenly pounding with fear. The pounding only got more pronounced as he watched the Svipul turn towards him and accelerate.

“Oh crap, oh crap. What the hell was I thinking?”

“Would it be too obvious to say you weren’t?” Aura replied with an annoyed tone.

The scanner flashed again, and he watched with a growing sense of dread as a Hecate and a Jackdaw warped in to join their partner, spreading out and moving in his general direction. They could not see where he was, thanks to his cloaking device. But he could only crawl along at a snail’s pace while it was on, and if they got too close the cloak would deactivate, and he would be as good as dead.

“Oh come on!” he cried out in frustration.

“To be more accurate, you were feeling lonely,” Aura went on blithely. “Now it appears that problem has been solved.”

“Not helping,” he growled. Lucas considered his options and found he had all of two: Get caught and die, or try to run. The first one was guaranteed if he did nothing, and the second option had a reasonable chance of survival, but only if he didn’t dawdle.

He aligned his ship to an asteroid field that he saw on his scanner, uncloaked just as the ships got within range, and warped off immediately. Knowing that his hunters would be hot on his tail, he marked a spot along the way and left it in the nav computer, ready for use. As soon as the ship came to a stop next to a very large asteroid, he realigned the ship as fast as he could. He held his breath and watched the Hecate land barely five kilometers away from him. Just as his warp drive kicked in, Lucas saw a series of flashes come from the blaster boat as the pirate tried to fire without a target lock, and he zoomed right past the pirate’s cockpit, leaving them far behind. But alarms started going off immediately and Lucas felt a few starboard sensors disappear from his awareness.

Eep, he thought. That was too close.

Once the ship landed on his new deep space marker, he immediately aligned with the citadel he had left just a moment before and warped directly to it, darting into the safety of the dock just as the other two destroyers landed right outside. He gave them a salute on the Local public channel and breathed a sigh of relief.

He let dock control tow his ship back to his private hangar while he surveyed the damage. Thankfully it wasn’t anything critical or expensive, but he frowned when he saw that the fireworks launcher was gone. The ship parked and Lucas immediately detached the capsule and flew it to the platform.

Aura spoke up. “Lucas, would you like your after action rep—”

“Not a word, Aura.” Lucas interrupted. “Not. A single. Word.”

“Understood,” she said with an amused tone.

“That was a word!” he snapped.

Aura was silent for a second, and then she began to chuckle.

Lucas blinked in mild shock. Aura was rather business-like most of the time, and had actually chewed him out on more than one occasion. But he had never heard her laugh, and in fact hadn’t even known that she could. He started grumbling to himself when he realized that her laughing at him was just as annoying as when a human did it.

Heaven help me if there is ever an AI with more of an attitude, he thought completely to himself.

He parked the capsule and promptly drained off the life-sustaining fluid he was suspended in. The capsule opened, the cables disconnected from his body, and he bent over to let the fluid drain out of his lungs. Lucas stayed there for a moment rubbing his face, and his body shook with aftershocks from the adrenaline that was finally fading from his bloodstream. When he finally felt normal he stood up, stepped out of the capsule and froze in shock.

Standing in front of him was Doctor Hakuli, holding out a towel and looking at him with concern.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” Lucas replied in a higher octave than usual, not moving a muscle.

She glanced up at the ship and gave him a wry look. “Your ship is smoldering.”

He turned and looked at the smoke coming from a hole where his fireworks launcher used to be. He cleared his throat and muttered, “That happens… from time to time.” He tentatively stepped up onto the platform and accepted the towel. “What are you still doing here, Kaia?”

Her lips curled up into a gentle smile and his chest started to ache. “My ride is late. They weren’t expecting me to get her so soon. So I was just sitting here waiting when I saw your ship come back, on fire.” She looked at him standing there, dripping and just holding the towel at his side. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Lucas didn’t move for a beat, just staring into her eyes. Then something broke and he suddenly stepped forward and hugged her, his body trembling. She slowly wrapped her arms around his damp body and pulled him even closer, breathing in time with him.

“I never should have gone out there,” he said into her shoulder, feeling the comforting warmth of her body beginning to soothe the ache in his chest. It had been over a year since he had experienced any meaningful physical contact with another person, and he became acutely aware of just how much he had missed it.

Kaia closed her eyes and leaned her head against his. “Mmmmm, that’s ‘cause there be pirates,” she said with a light tone that helped hide the fluttering she felt in her chest.

“That’s not why,” he chuckled nervously. Clutching her a little tighter, he whispered, “I never should have left you. I was afraid I would never see you again.”

Kaia gasped and felt relief wash over her. He had just expressed what she herself had been feeling since she had watched him fly away. She brushed her lips along his smooth cheek and looked into his blue-green eyes. “Then I am very glad that you survived.” she said and softly kissed him. They stood there clinging to one another with a quiet desperation, their lips communicating with one another on a very intimate, very human level, to the exclusion of all else.

Once their lips finally parted, Kaia took a shuddering breath. “Oh,” she whispered. “Please take me back to your quarters and tell me all about it.”

Lucas felt a tingle run through his entire body and bit his lower lip. “Don’t you—you know, have to go stop a plague or something?”

Kaia sighed and closed her eyes. “We can’t leave until all of my fellow scientists arrive tomorrow. And besides,” she whispered, resting her forehead against his. “Between our crazy trip and this plague, I am so scared, I could really use a life-affirming distraction right about now.”

Lucas’ smile was so big it made his head ache, and didn’t care in the slightest. “Anything I can do to help,” he said. They clasped hands and walked together towards the door to his quarters, leaving behind a trail of damp footprints, and one unused towel.