Little Troubles

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Balar scratched at an itch on his chin. He didn’t notice the flake of skin float away. He made adjustments to his calculations on the physics simulator and then ran a test. As expected, the battery couldn’t produce the energy required to power the laser rifle. He made adjustments to calculate for magical enhancement and tried again. This time, the computer registered an explosion.

“Khasis damn it.” Balar sighed and placed his face into his hands. He peeked through his fingers and saw that it was 25:03. It would be tomorrow in under an hour. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. The blinking green light indicated missed messages. No doubt his wife would be upset. Rather than read the messages, he shoved the phone back into his pocket. He’d be chewed out whether he read them or not.

He shutdown the computer and lowered the chair by a few feet so that he could slide out without difficulty. The desks at the elven university were far too high for a halfling to use without such aid.

The walk to his car was uneventful. Other than a handful of janitors in the halls, he was the only person left in the engineering college. He knew that he was far too obsessed with his current project for his own good, but he had no desire to upset his benefactor, and he was already well behind schedule.

He took some solace in the ease of the drive home. The late hour meant fewer drivers. While vehicles designed for halfling use travelled at the same speed as other vehicles, they were far smaller and less noticeable. Most halflings stuck to public transportation, but Balar preferred controlling the machine. He’d pilfered some of his research funds to purchase the human-designed sports car, and he wasn’t about to allow fear of a crash to stop him from enjoying his drive down highways curving through the ancient elven forests.

After the walk to his car and the drive, it was nearly midnight when he arrived at his little house in the halfling village on the outskirts of the city. As expected, the living room light was on. He let out a long sigh before getting out of the car and making his way to the door.

His wife, Hofit, didn’t say anything as he took off his shoes and loosened his tie. She just glared at him from the couch with her arms crossed over her chest.

“What did I forget?” he asked her.

“You missed Olivia’s science fair.”

He sighed again and rubbed his temples. “I don’t even remember what her project was.”

“She animated a clockwork doll. It’s standing on her shelf guarding her. Won gold.”

Balar sighed yet again. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re apologizing to the wrong person.”

Hofit stood and walked to a closet. She took out a blanket and pillow and threw them on the couch. Balar was surprised by what she said next. “I’m sure you’ll need your sleep. Take the bed. Goodnight, Balar.”

He tried to place a hand on her shoulder as she made up a bed on the couch. She slapped it hard enough to leave a red mark. He didn’t sigh this time.

He took the stairs to the second floor and checked on the twins. He’d rarely spent time with them in their whole two years of life. They could say Olivia’s name, but not “Dad”. They slept soundly; cuddled together in their bed with thumbs in their mouths.

Olivia’s room was across the hall. The door was closed and locked. Balar unlocked it with magic and tried again, but the door only opened a crack.

“No dads allowed,” came a slow and jerky voice. Balar forced the doll away from the door with a wave of his hand and just a touch of the aether. The door finally opened, but the doll—about waist high on a halfling—came back and began kicking him.

“Olivia, call off your doll, please.” Balar held the automaton at bay with a spell while waiting for his daughter to wake.

“It’s okay, Scrappy.” Olivia rolled over and sat up in her bed.

“Yes, mistress.” The doll stopped trying to attack Balar and he released it. It walked to the door and sat down—mechanical eyes watching him.

“I’m sorry for missing your science fair.” He sat down beside his daughter. “I don’t know if you’re old enough to understand how important my project is, though.”

“I’m eight. Try.”

“Eight…” Balar, for some terrible reason, had thought his own daughter was still six years old. He had been out of their lives that much over the past several years. A small part of him felt guilty, but he justified his absence to himself. His benefactor was powerful; the kind of person that you just didn’t say ‘no’ to.

“I’m working on a very important project for someone very powerful. I couldn’t say ‘no’. I’m already behind schedule and I might be in trouble.”

Olivia thought for a few seconds before speaking again. “Is he going to hurt you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Or you and your brothers and your mother could be hurt. I’m trying to keep you all safe. When I’m done I think we’re going to leave.”

“Where are we going?”

“I haven’t decided, yet. Maybe Aerchona. Maybe another planet or asteroid colony. Your mother and I will have to talk about it.”

Olivia pondered what he’d said for a minute, then sat up and hugged him. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Daddy.”

Balar held his daughter for some time before releasing her. “How about you show me your doll?”

Her eyes lit up. “Come here, Scrappy!”

The doll ran over eagerly and asked in its jerky voice, “Yes, mistress?”

Olivia picked up the doll with some struggle, as it was nearly the same size as her. “Daddy is now your friend, okay Scrappy? Let him take a look at you.”

“Yes, mistress.”

Olivia handed her father the doll and proceeded to describe how she built it, the troubles she ran into, and how she overcame them. The primary problem, she said, had been dealing with the wind up springs.

“The outsider spirit is the consussness-“

“Consciousness.”

“Con…scious…ness… Consciousness. But it couldn’t rewind itself and kept getting stuck. A few older kids were making clockwork dolls, too, but they all needed to be winded up again.”

“So what did you do?” Balar turned the doll over and inspected the physical mechanisms, seeing nothing obvious that would rewind the springs. There wasn’t even a key sticking out the back for him to turn.

“I put in a motor instead.”

“So it uses batteries? I don’t see a way to change them.”

“No, Dad! That was too easy; the kid that got 3rd did that. It’s kind of simple but worked. I got the idea from the bottomless bag charm. Except instead of empty space, I made a pocket fire dimension and put a steam generator in it. A couple of glamours stop the generator and wires from melting down. It doesn’t go forever, the dimension breaks down as the energy gets used, but Scrappy doesn’t use much power. It should last a few years at least.”

Balar was stunned. He’d known his daughter was advanced, but he hadn’t realized just how advanced.

Better yet, she had just solved his problem.

He kissed her on the top of her head and wrapped her in a bear hug. “You’re a genius, little girl.” He released her and looked into her face with one hand on her shoulder. “I have to go back to work. I need you to start packing a bag. We’ll be leaving tonight. I’m going to tell your mother. I need you to be a big girl and help her, okay? Get ready, then help her get your brothers ready. I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.”

“I love you too, Daddy.” She threw her arms around her father and hugged him as tightly as she could.

. . .

Balar raced back to the university, going well beyond a reasonable speed and leaving several police cars far in the distance. He had illegally masked his license plate and was going far too fast for the police to dispel the simple glamour. They wouldn’t be catching him.

He didn’t go to his parking spot at the university. Rather, his tires screeched as he halted directly at the engineering college entrance. Running as fast as a halfling could go, he got to his office and began punching numbers and code into the physics simulator. It wasn’t long before he ran a test and it succeeded. He had designed the first infantry-scale energy weapon. It was light and small, running off of a battery based on Olivia’s design; only he’d designed a pocket dimension directly made of electrons.

Rather than allow such technology to be held by one, he was about to upload the plans and data to an open source database when the door burst open and a team of soldiers entered and surrounded him. His hand hovered above the keyboard.

“Were you planning on doing something with our technology?” The silken voice belonged to his benefactor. Wearing long flowing robes, she was ordained with a small crown with a single emerald in the centre. She was tall and beautiful, her elven eyes a solid colour that matched the emerald on her crown. The elven Empress watched him carefully with a perfectly serene expression.

Balar didn’t reply. Nor did he move the hand hovering over the computer keyboard.

“We know you have been stealing from us, Balar,” the Empress continued. “We allowed it due to your faithful service. Why would you betray us like this? Have we not done enough for you?”

Balar still didn’t respond. Someone like the Empress would never understand his motivations. She desired nothing but ever greater power and dominance. There was no point in arguing with her.

“Step away from the computer, Balar. Our soldiers have already surrounded your house. We still need your expertise. Your family will be coming with you. Unless you take our technology from us. You don’t want us to harm your family, do you?”

He wouldn’t allow his family to become prisoners. “No, your majesty… And you won’t.” He pressed the Enter key, and the plans were instantly shared with the entire world.

“We wish you had not miscalculated, Balar.”

. . .

Before leaving for the university, Balar had awoken his wife and told her what he intended to do. She had pleaded with him for a time, but unable to dissuade him she had begun packing.

Balar then went to the basement—his personal workshop. He hadn’t had time to tinker for months. His old projects collected dust.

Old projects—and contingency plans. The new energy source his daughter had designed was easily adapted into something much more powerful in a short period of time.

An hour later, he’d gotten into his car to drive to the university.

. . .

“We have a go. No survivors.” The assassin unit that the Empress had sent to Balar’s house closed in. Years of battle experience and elite training had made them hardened killers. None would hesitate.

The Empress had to keep up appearances. The assassins were only armed with knives. No gunfire would wake the neighbours. After killing Hofit and the children, the scene would be staged to look like a robbery gone wrong.

The front door was unlocked. Four elves entered the little house, goggles enhancing their vision so that they could see in the dark. There was no sign of the family, so the four split up to check different rooms of the house.

The one that entered Olivia’s room was immediately set upon by Scrappy. The little doll kicked and punched the assassin to no avail. Scrappy was kicked across the room and into the wall.

The little clockwork doll stood up, speaking in its jerky voice. “Your turn, big brother.”

Movement behind her caught the assassin’s attention. She whirled around, blade at the ready. She looked into the orange eyes of a mechanical monster for only moments before it reached out and crushed her head with one hand. She didn’t comprehend what had happened until after her soul had left her body. Her brain simply fell to the floor in gooey chunks of flesh slipping through the combat android’s hand. Her body crumpled into a heap.

The sentient machine—loyal to the master that had given it life—stomped out of the room to hunt down the other assassins.

. . .

Olivia and Hofit ran alongside the four legged machine that Balar had built. Hofit carried the twins. The dog-like machine carried their bags.

They ran through the forests of the elven capital, buildings constructed between, inside, or hanging among the giant trees. Her father had explicitly told them not to use the car or the roads. He had told them that his friend would intercept them on the way to the port and get them to safety.

A gunshot rang out. Olivia and her mother screamed. The dog-like machine stopped and small gatling cannon turrets protruded from its shoulders.

“Easy boy,” came a  male voice through what sounded like a small speaker. “Balar sent me. Emergency protocol one-one-three-eight.”

The robotic guard dog’s weapons retracted. Out of the shadows stepped a halfling man in operative armour carrying a sniper rifle. An amulet to Mavet, the god of death, hung from his neck.

“I’m Varga. Old friend of Balar. Let’s get you folks out of here before more show up.”

“What about my husband?” asked Hofit.

Varga released a long sigh. “Got pinched. Let’s go.”

. . .

An advisor whispered something into the Empress’s ear. Her face never changed. Balar held his breath. The Empress dismissed the advisor with a wave of her hand, and he walked backwards out of the office.

“You have merely prolonged the inevitable. We will be sure to let you watch them die.” She turned around and two of her soldiers grabbed him, lifting him off the ground by each arm.

. . .

Varga led Olivia and her family to a shuttle. He helped them load their bags. There was no room for Balar’s four-legged robot and it remained behind as the shuttle lifted away.

Varga sat in the pilot’s seat and guided the ship low over the trees. Moving relatively slowly for a shuttle in order to minimize sound and avoid military detection, it took close to an hour to get from the capital in the heart of elven territory to the plains of the human lands. In the middle of a large field, he brought it down to a waiting transport ship. He docked it and took everyone on board.

Once aboard he finally removed his helmet, revealing the weary face beneath. His piercing blue eyes looked to Hofit and the twins, then to Olivia. He ran his fingers through short black hair and released a long breath, but said nothing.

“Balar never talked about you,” said Hofit. “How do you know him?”

Varga considered the question for a moment. He opened a pouch hanging from his belt and pulled out a cigarette. He pulled a lighter from a pocket. He took a long drag on the cigarette after lighting it, then released a cloud of smoke that curled and twisted as it was sucked into a vent in the corner above his head. “Balar and I grew up together. Caravan kids. Good life, but we were too stupid to know that. Hitched a ride on a merchant ship so we could see the galaxy.” He took another drag on the cigarette, the tip turned cherry red. The smell made Olivia cough. “Already knew how to barter so we made money pretty quick, bought Kipper here, and were off. Stupid is as stupid does—got into a lot of tricky situations. Thankfully, we were smart enough to hire muscle. Learned to fight. After a bit, Balar got sick of the life, settled down back on Hamuvtikat.”

“He told me he’d been a merchant,” said Hofit. “He never told me that…” Tears began to make their way down her cheeks. “Can… can you get him back?”

“If he’s alive, he’s in Imperial custody. It would take an army to break him out.” Varga took a final drag on the cigarette, then tossed the butt into a corner. “We have a warehouse on Tunkyke. You folks will be safe there.”

“What will I do for money?”

“Balar owns the ship. We’ll set up a new account for your share.”

. . .

30 years later…

Olivia stared at the holoscreen displaying an image of the prison ship orbiting Hamuvtikat. Pipp sat in the pilot’s seat, guiding them in. Varga, Tasha and Caylee stood around her.

“Prison Ship Scindia has not detected us,” said Sarah, the VI. “Weapons distance in 30 seconds.”

Floating around Kipper were dozens of drones that Olivia had spent years constructing, all sentient and fully loyal to her and her alone. She could sense their presence, and they her. They could act independently, but she could send them commands with nothing but a thought.

“Weapons distance in 20 seconds.”

Varga placed a hand on her shoulder. She placed her hand over his.

Lightning arced around Tasha’s hammer. “Time for some fun.”

“Weapons distance in 10 seconds.”

A single tear fell from Olivia’s eye. “I’m coming, Daddy.”

To be continued…

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A Dark Space Joke

Available for download in PDF, EPUB and MOBI on Patreon.

“Coordinates locked. Dark Drive powering up. All hands prepare to jump in 3… 2…” The transport ship lurched violently as it tore through the quantum foam and entered Dark Space, Avarat’s prison, and the only dimension that warped spacetime enough to justify interstellar travel.

Captain Olivia Littlefoot knew that something had gone wrong. The jump to Dark Space was never so violent. Time warped as the ship passed through the quantum foam; the jump seeming to take only moments and many years simultaneously. Either way, it was more than enough time to know that her ship and crew were in danger.

There were no showers of sparks or fires. Reality wasn’t some sort of cheesy Western. As power failed, technomagical protections suppressed any dangerous energy spikes, sealed chemical tanks, and insulated energy conduits. The thrusters simply cut out, main lighting failed, computers went offline, and the virtual intelligence rerouted power to keep basic systems running.

“Gods damn it, Pipp, what the Gehenna did you do to my ship?”

Her pilot leaned back and kicked his console, and the holodisplay came back online. “Piece of…” Pipp recited a list of elven curses he’d learned while on vacation before continuing. “Jump collision, Captain. Adamantine asteroid. Some shithead must have jumped in-system and ripped it out of the belt.”

“Sarah, damage report.”

“Thrusters, life support, shields, weapons, the power core, and Dark Drive have all taken damage,” responded Sarah, the virtual intelligence. “Life support will fail in approximately three days.”

Olivia massaged her temples. “Any good news?”

“The halfling crew uses less oxygen than other humanoids and should be able to survive an additional 36 hours after life support fails. Also, the asteroid would be better classified as a planetoid and is over 900 kilometres in diameter. Several other ships have crashed around the planetoid and parts could be salvaged for repairs.”

Olivia keyed the internal comms. “Varga. Tasha. Suit up and meet me in shuttle one.”

“What in Sheol is going on, Captain?” Tasha responded.

“We crashed. Gear up.” She switched channels. “Caylee, how’s everything holding up?”

“It be a real mess down here, Cap,” came Caylee’s thick accent – the astro-technician had been raised by dwarves. “What we hit?”

“Adamantine asteroid.”

“Ach, some idjit jumped in-system gods know how long ago and screwed us good.”

“And plenty of others. I’m taking a team to salvage parts from other crashed ships. You get started on repairs with what we’ve got in storage.”

“Aye, Cap. Have fun.” Caylee cut the comm from her end.

“Sarah, make a list of the parts we need and a map. Send it to shuttle one.”

. . .

The shuttle skimmed over the surface of the adamantine planetoid, a dark, metallic green that barely reflected the light of the shuttle’s flood lamps. Hundreds of trillions of credits of wealth in a single spot, now permanently inaccessible. Dark Space never willingly gave anything back to the material plane, and no corporation would ever risk a mining expedition.

“Grave robbing. We’re going grave robbing.” Varga clutched his amulet to Mavet, god of death.

“He’s not going to punish you for surviving,” said Olivia from the pilot’s chair. “When we get back we’ll report the crash sites to Zaka.”

Varga grunted. “Fine. But I’m taking leave to go with them.”

“We’re all taking a fucking vacation after this shipment.”

Tasha looked up from buckling her armour. “Hell of a lot of trouble for smuggling bobblehead dolls.”

Olivia glared at Tasha over her shoulder. “If you want to find the next job, be my guest.”

“Approaching first crash site,” said Sarah.

Olivia maneuvered the shuttle lower as they approached the wreck. The front half of the cruiser had fused with the ground while the back half had broken off and lay half a klick away. Hull fragments lay strewn across the surface and the ship’s broken skeleton looked like spires of some sort of alien hive. It was pure luck that the life support systems were still intact.

Sarah identified a safe landing area on the back half of the cruiser. Olivia touched down as softly as she could on the exposed decking, the cruiser’s skeleton visibly vibrating in response. “We’re only 20 metres from life support,” she told the others as she examined a holographic map. “But, the corridor’s caved in. Gonna be a tight squeeze.”

Tasha hung her warhammer from the mag-sheath on her hip. “Good thing we’re small.”

Olivia slipped out of the pilot’s chair and walked past Varga and Tasha to the back of the shuttle. Varga wore light operative armour, a sniper rifle slung across his back, and a fission machine pistol on his hip, his face obscured by a helmet covered in sensors feeding him visual and telepathic data. Tasha was in heavy combat armour, her warhammer being the only weapon that she carried, her battle hardened expression visible through the transparent spellforged mithril faceplate.

At the back of the shuttle, Olivia activated the atmospheric field and opened the loading door. It descended to act as a ramp. With some minor concentration and arcane gestures, she ripped the fabric of reality and rewrote the laws of physics. Stepping past the atmospheric field, the vacuum of space did her no harm. Magic kept the void and Dark Space at bay.

“I’ll do what I can to expand the tunnel. Eyes sharp. No telling what could be lurking on this rock.”

“The planetoid is more than 68.34% adamantine metal.”

“Shut up, Sarah.”

They had landed on the underside of an internal deck. It was jutting out from the wreckage but was still supported by the ship’s skeleton. This side of the ship was only a few degrees off from being completely upside down. The entrance to the corridor was several metres above her, clogged with debris. There was no way to climb up. But, that wasn’t a problem. Olivia released the magic holding her to the deck and transitioned back to the low gravity of the planetoid. She slowly bent her knees before jumping, soaring up to the corridor entrance without difficulty.

She grabbed a piece of piping to stop herself from going too high. Pulling herself in, she found the gap in the debris – a small tunnel barely wide enough for her to squeeze into. The others in their armour would never fit.

Reaching out with her magic, she could feel the extent of the tunnel and the structural integrity of the debris. Without reinforcement, it would likely collapse on anyone that tried to get through.

Magic was split into only a few primary forms. Industrial magics encompassed every skill and spell in the engineering, manufacture, maintenance, or repair of magical technology. The Littlefoots had been among the original technomagical engineers after the Dark Age and their proficiency in industrial magics had been passed down in their genes. That proficiency is what allowed her to read the debris. A combat mystic or technomancer would have destroyed the valuable life support equipment that they desperately needed – or killed himself.

She placed her hands on the debris making the tunnel then pulled it apart as she twisted it. The tunnel entrance widened and the debris twisted into braids and knots to form a stable shell. She stepped in and continued the process a few steps at a time, continually changing the position of her hands in order to direct the magic to just the right spots.

It was a laborious process. She was using multiple spells simultaneously, and even magical aid didn’t change the fact that she was bending and twisting alloys designed for spacefaring. After several minutes, she stopped to catch her breath – ironic, given that she was standing in a vacuum.

“Almost done, Captain?” came Varga’s voice over her personal comm unit.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking. Just a few metres to go.”

“Just wondering ‘cause there’s something coming.”

Olivia walked back through the tunnel and looked down at her crew. Varga motioned to her then pointed into the distance. Not nearly far enough away, she could make out a group of creatures moving towards the wreckage.

A simple spell enhanced her vision to the point where she could see the creatures clearly. Shambling corpses that moved unnaturally fast; their undead bodies preserved by the vacuum of space.

“Shit!”

“Captain? What’s going on?” asked Tasha.

“Varga, aim for the head and don’t let up. Tasha, get up here and help me salvage the parts.”

“May Mavet forgive my transgressions.” Varga aimed down his rifle scope and squeezed the trigger, a flash emitting from the barrel. The head of one of the creatures exploded. Dozens of others continued unabated.

“No transgression, Varga,” said Olivia as she grabbed Tasha’s hand and pulled her into the tunnel. “Those are void ghouls.”

Another flash as Varga fired, killing another void ghoul. “Then may the dead be brought to peace.” Another head exploded as he fired again.

Olivia summoned every ounce of magical energy she could muster. Forging ahead, the debris bent and twisted at the lightest touch. The tunnel widened and grew, and within moments she was through. Tasha caught her just before she collapsed, gently helping her into a sitting position.

“You’ll have to grab the parts,” she told Tasha slowly through heavy breathing. “Sarah, upload a map of all needed parts to Tasha’s HUD.”

“Data uploaded.”

“I’ve got it, Captain.” Tasha jumped from the tunnel to the life support equipment hanging from the ceiling and got to work. It took her less than a minute to extract the part they needed and get back to Olivia. The part tucked under her right arm, she pulled Olivia up and supported her with her left shoulder while they made their way back through the tunnel.

“Back on the shuttle! Now!” The mass of undead had reached the edge of the ship and were swarming up the sides.  Varga stood up and slung his rifle back over his shoulder, then helped Tasha support Olivia as they ran back to the shuttle. Inside, they deposited her in the pilot seat and she took off, leaving the wreck and the void ghouls behind.

. . .

Olivia’s crew stood around the table in the common room. “Life support is back online and I can fix most everythin’ with spare parts,” said Caylee. “Power core and Dark Drive be the problem.”

“Sarah, how far away is the mass of void ghouls?” asked Olivia.

“Two more masses have exited from caverns below the surface and all three are closing on the ship,” replied the VI. “The first mass will assault the ship in forty seven minutes and nineteen seconds.”

“Project a map and show me where the ships are with the other parts.”

A 2-dimensional map was projected onto the common room table. The wrecked ships weren’t far away, but there wasn’t enough time to go to both before the void ghouls got to the transport – let alone give Caylee enough time to fix it.

“Sarah, can you highlight the replacement parts on Tasha and Varga’s heads-up-displays?”

“Affirmative.”

“Okay. Okay, we can do this. Pipp and Varga get on shuttle two and get the power core parts. Tasha will drop me off behind the nearest mass of void ghouls and I’ll distract them while she goes to get the Dark Drive parts.”

“You can’t fight an entire mass of undead on your own,” objected Tasha. “That’s suicide!”

“I only have to get them running in the opposite direction. Get the parts back to the ship, then come save my ass and we can get out of Dark Space.

“You all have your assignments. Get moving.”

. . .

“So where did you get that warhammer and what happened to your sword?”Olivia asked Tasha. “The thing looks like it was pulled out of an archaeological dig.”

Tasha smirked as she leaned against the wall and gazed out the front window. “Let’s just say it was a gift from a suitor.”

“Well that’s an answer that needs more explanation.”

“And if we survive, maybe I’ll tell you about it. Or if you survive, anyway.”

The ship closed on the running mass of void ghouls. “Take the helm.” Olivia got out of the pilot’s chair and made her way to the back of the shuttle while Tasha took the controls. The loading door descended and Olivia walked to the edge to look down on the horde below.

“If you die, can I have the ship?”

Olivia took a deep breath. “You and Varga can fight over it.” She stepped off the loading door.

She descended slowly in the low gravity, the horde moving away from her. The shuttle maneuvered away as Tasha continued on her mission.

Void ghouls have a hive mind which was why they swarmed. All Olivia had to do was harm the ghouls in the back and the entire swarm would turn on her. She needed to strike before she lost sight of them, as close to the ground as possible. If she missed, they would attack the ship.

She watched carefully, waiting for the right moment. Just as she was losing sight of the front of the horde, she created a swarming mass of energy and hurled it at the back of the swarm of void ghouls.

The ball of energy flew to the exact point she wanted it to go. It struck the back of the horde and washed out in all directions, engulfing and incinerating dozens of the walking corpses. The assault caused the horde to stop in its tracks.

But it was mere moments before the dead knew where the attack had come from. The entire swarm turned as one and silently charged towards her as she continued to float down. It was surreal to watch a ravenous horde of undead charge towards her in total silence.

Summoning more magic, she increased her mass to simulate normal gravity and plummeted the remaining distance to the ground. She released the spell and landed relatively softly, her shielding absorbing the impact. The horde closing in, she gave herself supernatural speed and ran.

Unlike using increased strength while operating multiple other spells to bend spaceship alloys created with technomagic, rewriting the laws of physics to increase mass or run quickly was comparatively easy. Olivia sped across the uneven surface, increased reactions helping her find her footing. The horde followed relentlessly, not quite fast enough to catch her.

Time passed slowly as she ran for her life. Besides her perception of time being skewed by magic, she was also keenly aware that a single mistake could get her killed. Every footstep was carefully placed. The twenty minutes she’d been running felt like hours.

The voice on her comms sounded agonizingly slow. “Tasha to the Captain. I have the Dark Drive parts and I’m on my way. Be there in only a few minutes.”

“Make it quick!” Relieved, Olivia briefly wondered if she sounded like a talking squirrel from Tasha’s point of view.

The ground around her began to tremble. She slowed down to prevent herself from losing her footing. At first, she had no idea what was happening. Could a planetoid have a quake? Was Dark Space ripping it apart?

She realized her mistake far too late. Void ghouls didn’t just have a hive mind; they were intelligent.

She reinforced her magical shielding as the ground fell away beneath her. Massive boulders of adamantine ore hit her and sent her flying like a rag doll. She slammed straight into one of hundreds of void ghouls pouring out of the caverns beneath the surface.

They set upon her immediately. A dozen of the creatures assaulted her shielding. In the void of Dark Space, much of her combat magic was useless. The energy she’d summoned previously was dangerous in close quarters. She couldn’t summon anything from the domains of fire, wind or water while in the void. She was no technomancer and couldn’t conjure robots. Even if she had experience in summoning magical creatures, none could be summoned to Dark Space.

It was back to basics.

Her shielding on the verge of failure, she managed to get her feet under her. She began striking out at the ghouls with increased strength and mass. She tore through skulls and ripped out spines. One after the other the void ghouls came to final rest, and the pile of truly dead corpses grew beneath her.

But she was only one mage. The void ghouls seemed endless. Her first layer of shielding failed and their attacks began to get through. Her clothes were torn away by their claws, blood beginning to trickle from her legs and arms as they tore at her skin. She could feel their claws tearing into her back any time she couldn’t turn fast enough to stop an attack. She fought like a cornered animal and in many ways, that’s exactly what she was.

The blood loss was taking its toll. Even with magical aid, her reactions were slowing. More attacks got through and she got even slower. “This is it,” she thought. “This is how I die.” She thought about her crew; her family. They would live thanks to her sacrifice.

There was static in her comm unit. It must have been damaged by one of the ghouls. She couldn’t make out any words. She fell to her knees and put the last of her magic into the shielding, trying to think of something to say over the damaged comm unit, a last goodbye – assuming it could even get through.

A flash of light blinded her. The ghouls’ attacks stopped. “Is this death?” she wondered. When Olivia could finally see again she found Tasha at her side. Lightning arced from her warhammer, chaining from one ghoul to the next. The void ghouls that weren’t incinerated by the lightning were crushed and dismembered by Tasha’s hammer.

Tasha’s voice crackled in Olivia’s damaged comm. Olivia looked up to see the shuttle hovering above them. Tasha put an arm around Olivia’s waist and raised the hammer above her head, lighting striking out in all directions.

Her strength at an end, Olivia released all of her spells – including the one that let her breathe – and died.

. . .

Tasha opened the first aid kit so fast that she tore the box in half, scattering supplies across the shuttle. “Gorram it!” she yelled as she scrambled after the emergency stasis unit, fumbling and dropping it in her panic. Finally getting a grip on the ESU, she put it on Olivia’s chest and activated it. Metallic tendrils latched the ESU to the captain’s body and a pale red stasis field surrounded her.

For a few moments, Tasha couldn’t look away from Olivia’s green eyes, blankly staring at the ceiling. She pulled herself away from the sight of her dead captain and clambered into the pilot’s chair and pushed the shuttle’s engines to their limit.

“Caylee! Prep the medbay for resuscitation!” Tasha yelled into the comms.

. . .

Tasha carried Olivia from the shuttle to the medical bay and placed her on the bed, Caylee already there and the rest of the crew entering behind her.

“Sarah, auto-resuscitation,” said Caylee.

“Scanning… Severe blood loss… severe bodily trauma… brain function minimal… chance of success less than 5%.”

“Override!”

“Beginning resuscitation. Please stand back.” The crew backed away as the machines came online. Needles punctured Olivia’s skin and beams of healing energy stitched up wounds. Once all external trauma was healed, a capacitor charged up. “Clear.” Olivia’s body jerked as the electrical discharge attempted to restart her heart. “Clear.” Her body jumped again. “Clear.”

Caylee buried her face into Pipp’s shoulder. Varga prayed. Tasha could only watch as Sarah tried over and over again to restart Olivia’s heart.

Several minutes later, the machines stopped. “Brain activity ceased. Resuscitation failure.”

Caylee cried. Varga stepped over and gingerly put his hand on Olivia’s forehead while he blessed the departure of her spirit.

The warhammer at Tasha’s hip let out a faint hum, just loud enough for her to hear. She looked down at the weapon and grasped it in her hand. A voice that she couldn’t hear whispered instructions to her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Varga said as Tasha placed the head of the hammer on Olivia’s chest with her right hand on Olivia’s side.

She looked at Varga’s hand, then into his eyes. “Clear.”

Varga jumped away. Tasha cried out in pain as lightning arced through her body and Olivia’s. Olivia gasped as she bolted upright.

“Captain!” Caylee cried as she rushed over and threw her arms around Olivia.

Everyone surrounded the captain as she held Caylee and patted her on the back. “I’m alright.” She looked over at Tasha. “Now you really do have to tell me where you got that hammer.”

“Remember when I disappeared for a few days before we left Nisara? I went on a date with Hadad.”

Olivia stared at her in disbelief. “You went on a date with the god of storms?”

“Yup.”

“Let’s pretend I believe you for a moment… How was the sex?”

Tasha smirked. “Electric.”

Everyone groaned at the bad joke.

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Two Little Princelings

Available for download in PDF, EPUB and MOBI on Patreon.

“Have you gone fucking insane?” Brynas half yelled the question at his younger brother.

“You’re the one that said you need to do something to prove you’re not just some spoiled princeling,” said Tybrin.

“I didn’t mean hunting down vampires on another planet!”

Brynas and Tybrin were the youngest children of King Belduin Elvaris. Their father – an eccentric man, according to the extranet news feeds – had established the first feudal society on an alien world only a few years after the invention of Dark Drive. That was centuries ago, and the old half-elf wasn’t going to die anytime soon; not with modern technomagical aging treatments.

“Look man, we have two dozen brothers and sisters. Do you think anyone is going to notice us founding new colonies somewhere on this gods forsaken planet? ‘Oh hooray, you used daddy’s money to buy desalination technology and prefab housing!’ Get real. You want to be noticed, this is how we get noticed.” Tybrin tossed the tablet down on the bed beside Brynas.

“Neither of us have even been off world!” Brynas jumped off the bed, away from the tablet and the advertisement his brother had on screen. “And you want to hunt a vampire? What do you even know about vampire hunting?”

“Nothing! Read the ad!” Tybrin picked up the tablet and shoved it in his brother’s face. “Look! All we need to do is get transportation to the training facility and bring our own equipment. Dad’s not going to miss a scoutship or anything from the armoury. Hell, he’d probably encourage us to go.”

Brynas sighed and took the tablet. “Fifty fucking years old and you want me to go on a gods damned adventure… What in The Abyss is Grizzly Company?”

“They’re a new branch of Greywolf Corporation.”

“The mercenary company?”

“Yeah. They deal with training greenhorns that don’t have any previous military experience. You sign up, you train, and they send you on a few milk runs.”

How the fuck is killing vampires a milk run?” Brynas yelled.

“Calm down! Give me that.” Tybrin roughly took the tablet, opened a different window and shoved it back. “Look here. Vampires are super easy to kill with modern tech. The whole sunlight thing? All you need is a UV laser. Dad has a stockpile of prototypes he got on the black market. Easy pickings.”

His younger brother was right according to the info page Brynas was looking at. Vampires were vulnerable to anything that produced ultraviolet radiation. The page included tactics, like using flood lamps for herding and cornering. Even cheap personal armour and shield systems were more than good enough for repelling their strikes and bites. Vampires of every species were a dying race.

“It says here that they don’t use technology. That can’t be right, how’d they get off Hamuvtakat if they don’t use tech?”

“What… you think it’s impossible for a vampire to sneak aboard a transport or mail himself in a coffin? They’re old school, they’re not stupid.”

“What about magic? Don’t most vampires have innate magic?”

“Every team has at least one mage. Come on man, it’s all taken care of! We go grab a few things from the armoury, we take a scoutship to their training facility in the Teakt system, go kill some blood suckers harassing a bunch of colonists, and come back heroes! We keep copies of the combat footage and plaster it all over Epra. We’ll be gone for a few months, tops.”

Brynas pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. He didn’t see how it could be so easy. Then again, his little brother was 46 and just as educated as he was. The man wasn’t stupid. He’d certainly done his research.

“Not a word about this to anyone, understand? We tell everyone we’re going on a singles cruise or some other lame shit.”

“That’s more like it! You won’t regret this.” Tybrin playfully punched Brynas in the shoulder. Both of their parents may have been half-elves, but Tybrin had tended more towards the human DNA than the rest of his family. He was shorter, but stronger and tougher than his siblings.

“I already do,” said Brynas as he rubbed his shoulder.

. . . 

Brynas and Tybrin stood around the holotable in the drop ship’s tactical room with the rest of their squad as Lieutenant Urke – a rather fearsome half-orc who had a severe burn scar over the left side of his face, sported a cybernetic eye, and two cybernetic arms – went over the tactical plan.

“Pay attention you dumb fuckwits. I’m not going down there to babysit you. The last team I dropped here thought they were some sort of macho tough guys and didn’t pay attention in the tactical briefing.”

“If a team were here already, then why are we going?” asked Desmon. Desmon really was a fuckwit. A young human that had brought a single-shot charge-action rifle; it had to be hand cranked to charge up every round. The idiot thought it made him look cool.

“Brynas, slap Desmon,” said Urke. Brynas slapped the human on the back of the head.

“They’re dead, you moron,” said Brynas. “And if you get me killed, I’m going to haunt you until the day you die.”

“Can’t haunt me if I’m dead, too,” Desmon said, like he’d won a debate.

“Can it!” yelled Urke. He activated the holotable and the surface became a 3D satellite view of the mission area. “Here’s the crashed supply ship that the blood suckers live in. Debris prevents entry anywhere but the starboard cargo bay door; here. Your drop pods will land two hundred metres Southeast in this forest. You’ll hike in on foot. We don’t know where the vampire nest is, so stick together, follow the search pattern, and use your HUD to navigate.

“Gergram and Thelrus are the only two here with any kind of stamina.” Urke was referring to the dwarves. “You lucky little midgets get to carry the flood lights. Keep them on at all times. You see a vamp, you hit the UV burst. Corner it and let the others do the dirty work.

“Brynas is the only one of you with more than three brain cells to rub together, so he’s in charge. You follow his orders like he’s Colonel Laera. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” said all but one.

“Uh, sir, what’s my job?” asked Dagron, an elven mage.

Urke sighed and placed his face in a cybernetic palm. “Dagron, do vampires have magic?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And are you a mage?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And did Grizzly Company teach you to dispel magic?”

“Yes, sir.”

Then what the Hell do you think your job is?” yelled Urke at the top of his lungs.

“Uhm… dispelling magic?”

Urke’s metal hands clanked as he slow clapped. He stared the elf down as he did, and Dagron was unable to maintain eye contact for long. “Do I have to explain basic skills to you, Tybrin? No? You drop in 15 minutes. Gear up and get to the drop pods. Dismissed.”

. . .

Everything shook. Brynas squeezed his eyes shut as the drop pod plummeted to the planet, sealed into the one man pod like it was a coffin. In his radio, he heard Tybrin laughing like a teenager on a hovercoaster.

“I knew you were going to get me killed!” Brynas yelled into his radio. All he got back was the sound of the dwarves joining into the laughter.

The extreme shaking lasted only a few minutes. The boosters and inertial dampeners kicked in, and Brynas felt the pod touch down. The door lifted up and he fell forward onto solid ground.

He squinted in the light after the dark of the drop pod. When he felt someone grab the shoulder of his armour, he rolled over and whipped out his pistol.

“Whoa! Easy bro!” Tybrin was standing over him in his heavy armour, his helmet under one arm and his other arm up in the air. Brynas lowered the laser pistol and placed it back in his holster. Tybrin offered a hand and helped Brynas to his feet.

He took in his surroundings. Their pods had come down in the forest as planned, and they were in a neat little group. The others had all gotten out of their pods and had gathered around him. “Alright… It’s midday, and we’ve got… 12 hours before nightfall on this rock. Let’s get to that ship while the vamps are inside. If we don’t get them all before sundown, we book it back here for sub-orbital pickup. I’m not staying here overnight. Let’s move.”

The others fell in behind him as they moved Northwest towards the ship, their helmets’ heads-up displays providing direction. The forest was silent except for the sounds of six heavily armed and armoured men tramping through it.

They got to the crashed transport without incident. It was massive, easily hundreds of metres long and dozens high; the forest being the only reason why they couldn’t see it at a distance. The adamithral armour was immune to corrosion and the ship gleamed in the sunlight.

Brynas slowly and carefully led the squad to the cargo bay doors. They were only open a few feet, just enough to squeeze through. He grabbed ahold of the doors and pulled himself the couple feet up; then one by one pulled his men up and into the ship.

The interior of the ship was nearly black, the only light coming through the barely open doors and the small lights mounted on their shoulders and rifles. The dwarves, Gergram and Thelrus, pulled the flood lamps off their backs. The lamps lit up the cargo bay like little suns.

If there had been cargo in the ship when it crashed, it was gone now. The whole bay was wide open and empty. Catwalks ran the length of the bay walls a few dozen feet up. Entrances to passageways into other sections of the ship were spaced evenly apart both off the catwalks and at ground level.

Brynas thought carefully about what to do next. This was the first time in his life he had led anyone, let alone a combat mission. Worse, he was leading a group of idiots. “Okay… We’re going to follow the route that Urke gave us. We head to stern and make our way starboard to port and back moving towards the bow.

“Gergram, you’re up front with me. Tybrin and Thelrus, you’re protecting our asses. Desmon, I’m 99% sure you’re going to die no matter what I do, but you stay in the middle with Dagron. He’s our only protection from magic, so I don’t care what you have to do to keep him alive, just do it.”

“You’re all going to die.” Brynas turned to the source of the voice behind him. There was no one there.

“Which one of you said that?”

“Said what?” asked Tybrin.

“‘You’re all going to die.’ Which one of you assholes said it?”

The other five stared at him blankly. “None of us said anything,” said Dagron.

Brynas searched the confused looks on their faces. If they were screwing with him, they were perfect actors. “Nevermind. Helmets on and let’s go.”

They followed the pre-planned route through the ship, clearing rooms and bays one by one. They’d cleared nearly every stern system and bay – nearly a 3rd of the ship – when they reached the port cargo bay. Unlike the starboard bay they had entered, the port cargo bay was filled with crates.

The crates were nearly as tall as an average human. Stacked two high the crates acted as walls to either side, and more crates ahead blocked their view. The crates were almost perfectly smooth; there was no way to climb them.

Brynas shoved one of the crates, but it didn’t budge the slightest. “Dagron, any chance you know how to fly?”

“No. That’s a difficult spell. I’m not there quite yet.”

“Well, do you have anything that you can use to look over these crates? I don’t want to walk through here blindly.”

“Uhm… Ah! I have a spell that temporary eliminates gravity! I uh… failed my zero-G classes, though.”

“Of course you did. Cast it on Thelrus. Get to the ceiling, tell me what it looks like from up there, then get back down here.”

Thelrus looked like an ugly, hairy balloon as he floated into the air. With a push from Tybrin he floated towards the ceiling and grabbed a light fixture; then shone his flood lamp back towards the floor. “It’s a maze,” he said through the radio. “An actual maze. I ain’t that smart, but even I know someone built this.”

“Shit. Get back down here, now.” Brynas watched just long enough to see Thelrus push off the ceiling, then he looked back down at the others. “This is a trap. We’re going to find a way around.” Thelrus’ flood light slammed down onto the floor in front of him and broke. “Gods damn it you stupid-” When Brynas looked up, Thelrus was nowhere to be scene.

“Thelrus?” No response on the radio. “Computer, ping Thelrus.” An arrow appeared on his HUD, and he tracked it down. The ping indicated that Thelrus was on the other side of a wall of crates.

“Thelrus, respond. Fuck. Dagron, did your spell fail?”

“No. It collapsed.”

“The Hell is the difference?”

“A spell on a person collapses when someone else dispels it, or… the target dies.”

Tybrin put his hand on Brynas’ shoulder. “There was no sound. He didn’t fall.”

They hadn’t even killed a single vampire and one of their own was already gone. “Shit. We’re going back to the other cargo bay and finding a way around.”

“We can’t just leave him,” said Gergram.

“We’re not leaving him,” Brynas told the dwarf, “we’re going to circle back around. We find the vamps and we find Thelrus.”

“Like Hell! You pansies want to leave, then leave. I’m going to find Thelrus.” Gergram stomped off.

“Gergram, get your ass back here, now!” shouted Brynas. Gergram turned around, displayed his middle finger, then turned back and rounded a corner. “Gods damn it you little shit, get back here!” Brynas walked to the corner and turned after Gergram.

He was greeted by an impossibly long hallway of crates. Far longer than the ship was wide. Gergram was nowhere to be seen.

That was impossible. Brynas looked back at the group huddled near the entrance, then back around the corner. Near the end of the hall was Gergram, his helmet off, staring back. “Gergram, get your ass back here, now!” He blinked and Gergram was closer. He hadn’t started walking – the dwarf was just suddenly closer to Brynas. Brynas’ breath caught in his throat. “Gergram?” He blinked again. Gergram was closer – he could see Gergram’s eyes. But those weren’t Gergrams eyes. Gergram’s eyes weren’t red. He blinked again. Gergram was closer.

“Brynas, what do you see?” said Tybrin in his radio.

Brynas opened his eyes as wide as they could go and slowly backed around the corner. He stopped when he could just barely see Gergram. “When I give the signal, everyone run. Stay together and cut back to the entrance.” Brynas swallowed hard and strained against the pain as his eyes dried out. But no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t stop himself from blinking. Gergram was only a few feet away, his eyes glowing red, his smile wide. Brynas backed up as far as he could without losing sight of the dwarf.

“Now!” he shouted. He turned and ran, and felt something scratch the back of his armour. The other three ran ahead of him. They could barely breathe in the heavy armour, and the ship was filled with the noise of heavy boots slamming into metal bulkheads.

They ran back through the ship, then turned down a hallway that would skip past most of the stern and take them back to the open doors of the cargo bay and the safety of the sun. They burst into the starboard cargo bay, only to find its doors had closed.

Brynas ran up to where the entrance had been. “Help me!” He yelled, and tried to pry the doors open. Two sets of hands joined his as they tried to move the massive doors.

Two sets of hands? He looked to his left and saw Tybrin. He looked to his right and saw Desmon. Brynas turned around. Dagron was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Dagron?”

“He was right behind me,” said Desmon. “Oh shit, mama was right. I should’ve stayed on the farm. We’re gonna die!”

“Keep it together! There’s an airlock 20 metres away on the second floor. Let’s move!” Brynas ran to the nearest staircase, the others following right behind him. At the top, Brynas turned down a hall. Sure enough, the airlock was was only a short distance away.

“We should be able to pry the doors open, come on!” Brynas put all his weight into the manual override lever; then began pulling the door open while Desmon pulled from the other side. Slowly but surely, the inner door opened. That was when he realized Tybrin wasn’t there.

Brynas pushed Desmon out of the way. “Tybrin! Tybrin where are you!” Just as with Thelrus, there was no reply. “I’m going back to find my brother.”

“What? This is our last chance!” cried Desmon. “I can’t open the outer door without your help!”

“I can’t leave him! Tybrin! Tybriiiiiiin!” Brynas ran back to the cargo bay, Desmon screaming at him in his radio. From the catwalk, he used the light from his rifle to search the floor. In the middle of the room was Tybrin.

“Tybrin! What the fuck are you doing? Let’s go!” Tybrin didn’t move. Then Brynas realized that he could no longer hear Desmon on the radio. He looked back down the hall, and there was no one there. He turned back, and Tybrin, too, was gone.

Brynas turned to run, and found Tybrin standing in the hallway just past the airlock, his eyes red, open and staring at Brynas. Brynas held his eyes open and slowly walked towards his brother and the airlock. Tybrin didn’t move as he slid into the airlock and began to shut the outer door.

“Don’t blink. Don’t blink.” His eyes burned as he pulled with all his strength. Inch by inch, the inner door slowly closed. Only a foot to go. That was all. Just one more foot. The fear and terror kept his eyes open far longer than he’d ever managed while in staring contests with his siblings as children.

But it hurt too much. Blind fear and adrenaline could only do so much. Slowly, his eyelids drooped against the strain, and his eyes closed briefly before reopening. Tybrin was in the airlock with him. “I’m sorry, brother,” Brynas said mournfully. He raised his rifle and fired.

The beam of ultraviolet light did no damage. The visage of his brother smiled. The last thing Brynas saw was the fangs.

. . .

“Brynas. Brynas, wake up. Brynas!” Someone slapped him across the face and he bolted upright. His brother.

“Tybrin!” Brynas threw his arms around his brother. They hugged for a few seconds before Tybrin pushed him off.

“We gotta get out of here, man,” said Tybrin.

Brynas looked around. They were in some sort of large barn – it could have been from a dairy farm on Epra. But there were no cows or goats here.

On the opposite wall were hundreds of people suspended vertically, unconscious, pincushioned with needles attached to tubes. White fluid entered their bodies through some tubes, and red blood came out of a single large one from the inner thigh.

“Where are the others?”

Tybrin turned and pointed. Gergram, Thelrus, Desmon and Dagron were suspended among the other people. He turned back and pulled on Brynas’ arm. “Too late for them, let’s just go!”

“Go where?” came a disembodied voice. Brynas recognized it. It was the voice that had told him they were going to die.

Brynas stood up with help from Tybrin. “Stop toying with us! Show yourself!”

“Oh, but I do love the theatrics.” Tybrin’s eyes went wide, and Brynas turned. Gergram – or someone that looked like Gergram – leaned against the wall.

“What the Hell is this place?” asked Brynas.

The image of Gergram turned into Desmon. “I was sure the son of the great King Elvaris would know a barn when he sees one.”

“Barns are for animals, not people!”

The image of Desmon changed into a pale human in a lab coat. “But aren’t we all really animals? Oh, I’m not here to debate semantics with you.” The man smiled, revealing fangs. “No time for that. We have urgent business. You see, this whole colony is populated by vampires, and I’m afraid we’re running low on blood supplies. Not enough coming through Grizzly Company, I’m afraid.”

Realization struck Brynas. “You set this up!”

“My boy, we run Grizzly Company. Stupid recruits get diverted here to become… I guess the term “blood bag” is a tad offensive, isn’t it? The point is, we need blood and those that are detrimental to the gene pool provide it to us!”

“Then why are we alive?”

“Ah, yes! Simple. You boys are going to set up colonies of sapients on our planet! Once the population is naturally expanding, we will occasionally… harvest… some of the colonists for use as… well… blood bags.”

“And if we refuse?” said Tybrin.

“My, my, you are defiant! My boy, who do you think sent you the advertisement for Grizzly Company? Did you think it was just some random junk mail? Who do you think wrote the fake information page on vampires? We planned for you to come here. That pain in your neck? In your stomach? You’ve both already been bitten. The final stages should be setting in now. You are turning into vampire thralls. You’ll maintain all of your faculties, but you’ll hunger for vampire blood. And we’ll provide you with just enough to keep you alive. And maybe if you boys are good, we’ll give you enough to make you vampires.

“Now, my pets… Kneel.”

At the vampire’s command, Brynas felt himself slowly fall to his knees. Tybrin managed to struggle against the vampire for several seconds, but even he wasn’t strong enough to stop himself.

“We’ve created videos for you both. You can take them home and show your father just how you hunted down the vampires, avenging your fallen comrades. Then you can come back with supplies and people and begin establishing the colonies. We have some nice beaches on this planet too… maybe a resort? Ah! I’ll leave the particulars to you.

“We took the liberty of delivering your scoutship here. Now, off with you both! You have a lot of work to do.”

. . .

“And this just in from the Elvaris dynasty. The two youngest sons, Brynas and Tybrin Elvaris, have broken from tradition and are establishing two new colonies on an alien world. The brothers had secretly left home and cleared out a vampire nest on Cholla 342 seeking to make names for themselves. Their father honoured them with more startup capital than any of their siblings had ever received, and the two will be founding their colonies on the very planet that they rescued from vampires.

“That’s all for me tonight. This is Yana Maninsky of Hamuvtakat Galactic News, signing off.”

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Indrin’s Utopia

Download Indrin’s Utopia in PDF, EPUB and MOBI on Patreon.

When two celestial beings meet and converse, it isn’t like a conversation between two people. Mortals use words – noises projected from their throats and mouths in mutually identifiable patterns – to share abstract concepts that they interpret to have concrete meaning. Deities mimic this when interacting directly with mortals, but have no need for such basic biological limitations when interacting with each other.

The interaction with other deities is not something that mortals could comprehend with their limited minds. The gods see and know all in their domains of influence with no limitations. Communication with each other is less of a conversation and more akin to an instant sharing of advanced thought patterns. What would take two mortals hours to discuss is known to both deities in a fraction of a second when they choose to interact.

So when I tell you that Indrin – the god of individualism and democracy – and Dagan – the goddess of farming and fertility – had a conversation… you aren’t intelligent enough to actually comprehend such a thing. What you read here is a very loose translation.

Indrin looked down in amusement at his would-be followers, the so-called “Libertine Sect.” They took his tenets of individuality to such an extreme that they were no longer worshiping him, but rather the goddess of chaos – Lotan. They were far too absorbed in their own cognitive dissonance to actually understand that, however.

Dagan was overseeing the harvest on several worlds; the homeworld of Hamuvtakat being her primary focus. This put the attention of the two gods quite close to each other and the two had their… “conversation.”

“Your followers are weird.”

Indrin was amused by the comment. “They only think they’re my followers. They follow Lotan.”

“Those poor sops. Do you know how many harvests that bitch has ruined?”

“Do you have any idea how many democracies she’s destroyed?”

“In all fairness, she also brings down tyrannies.”

“And in all fairness, she causes genetic variability.”

“Yeah yeah… What are those mortals doing, anyway?”

“My wayward followers seem to think that they can eliminate any and all kinds of groups. They want to start a colony with no governing body on a planetoid. They aren’t even sending currency, just tools and resources.”

Dagan rolled the celestial equivalent of her eyes. “Mortals can’t hold any kind of society together for more than a century; they think that they can do it with pure individualism? Are you sure they’re not your followers?”

“Just because the individual is akin to divinity doesn’t mean that the group doesn’t exist. Even individuals require some societal structure. I don’t hear their prayers, no matter what they may believe. Well… except for one.”

“Just one?”

“Yes. A deep elf girl – barely an adult. Goeneth Aesatra.”

Dagan sent a minute piece of her vast consciousness to study the girl that Indrin had indicated. Tall even for an elf, dark and beautiful even by deep elven standards, perfectly white hair that flowed to her shoulders and silver eyes that contrasted with her skin. She was a happy girl with several would-be suitors of both sexes, and Dagan could feel Indrin’s pity for her.

“Her parents are dragging her along on the project,” he explained. “She doesn’t believe in any of it, but she loves them too much to leave.”

“Are you going to do anything about it?”

“I’ll help her stay alive long enough for her to learn how to take care of herself. But in the end she’s her own person. She’ll either fight or she’ll die.”

“And you’re afraid of Lotan.”

“And I’m afraid of Lotan.”

. . .

“Beat it, darkelf. No beggars.” The racial pejorative hurt Goeneth more than she cared to admit.

It had been two years since her parents had brought her to Indrin’s Utopia. Just as her grandparents had all warned it would be, it was an utter disaster. The initiative had fallen into chaos in a matter of months. After initial success in hollowing out the planetoid along ore veins, idealism broke down. Greedy and charismatic leaders split the populace into dozens of factions, all vying for control of the asteroid. The thirty thousand still loyal to the original tenets of the expedition – her parents among them – had been forced into a small area with little in the way of tools and resources.

After the breakdown of the sect’s original plan, currency had made its way into Indrin’s Utopia to replace the donation and bartering system that had existed prior. Goeneth’s family, and those like them, had no money anymore. Their disparate and leaderless faction was collectively referred to as ‘the poor district’.

In order to survive, Goeneth had been forced to become a capable thief. Had the shopkeeper sent her on her way with some kindness, she wouldn’t have stolen from him. But being called a darkelf hurt. The shopkeeper wouldn’t notice the missing seeds and vegetables until after inventory that night, not that he would ever figure out who took them (though he had his suspicions).

She made her way back through the winding passageways lined with power conduits and vents. Power and ventilation were some of the few things that the factions agreed had to be maintained as a public service. It likely had far more to do with self preservation than any kind of goodwill.

She was in a decent mood despite the situation. The stolen seeds were enough to kickstart a new hydroponics bay, something the poor district desperately needed. The carrots and potatoes in her bag were enough for her family to eat well that night.

There were a lot of people in the passageway. The population of the planetoid numbered over three hundred thousand, most of which were crammed into the interior. Only the faction elites lived in buildings on the surface. Making her way through the crowds, Goeneth picked the occasional pocket of those wearing newer and fancier clothes. Most people didn’t carry much money on the untraceable credsticks, but a few hundred credits could go a very long way when you had nothing.

There was a small crowd in front of the doors to the poor district. Goeneth’s gut told her that there was something wrong. Her height let her see over the crowd; two technicians in red coveralls were working on the life support systems. She forced her way through the throng of people. “What’s going on?”

“Life support failure in the poor district,” said a female half-orc working on the equipment. “All doors to the area are sealed until we get it fixed.”

“What about the people inside?” asked Goeneth. They didn’t respond. “What about the people inside?” she demanded more frantically. But neither technician would respond or look at her.

Goeneth realized that the other people in the crowd were also from the poor district. They cried, paced, and rocked as they waited for the doors to open; waiting to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Minutes ticked by like eternity before voices came over the technician’s radio stating that the systems were ready at their location. One by one, the reports trickled in until the half-orc finally closed a panel and radioed in an all clear. “System rebooting,” said a voice on the radio as the life support whirred to life.

“Let me in,” Goeneth demanded. The crowd began pressing forward behind her; people desperately demanding that they be allowed to pass.

“Oxygen levels are still low,” said the half-orc technician. “I can’t open the doors until it equalizes.”

Goeneth was beyond reasonableness. While surface elves were light and agile – adapted for moving equally well through trees or on the ground – deep elves were heavy and strong from fighting for survival in Hamuvtakat’s vast cavern and tunnel networks. Goeneth was as tall as any elf and as strong as any orc; something that the half-orc was reminded of the hard way. Holding her by her coveralls, Goeneth had the technician off the ground and pinned to the wall. “Open. The. Doors. Now!

“Okay, okay! Take it easy!” said the other technician. He input a code into the door controls and they slid open. Goeneth dropped the half-orc and was through the door before she hit the ground.

Dozens of bodies clogged the passageway beyond. Most were sitting against the wall or laying down with their heads on their arms or hands. Peaceful, like they had just gotten tired and fallen asleep. The crowd followed behind her; parents wailing and children crying. Goeneth wouldn’t admit it yet, but she already knew her parents’ fate.

She stumbled through the corpse-filled passageway in a daze. She recognized all too many neighbours and friends. Even a boy that she had been flirting with for the past several days, another deep elf like her. His face was almost serene, like in a peaceful sleep. But his chest didn’t gently rise and fall with the rhythm of his dreams. It was a slumber from which he would never awaken.

Goeneth entered a cavern that had been turned into a small neighbourhood. Small makeshift homes had been built from rocks stacked like bricks. Sheets of fabric acted as doors and roofs. But with no mortar, anyone could just peer into the cracks and see straight through the walls.

As with the passageways, the cavern was filled with corpses. They lay in the lanes between buildings, halfway through the doors in their homes, and on chairs and benches. As she made her way home she passed a makeshift playground – and the bodies of dozens of children.

Coming upon her home, she already knew exactly what she would find. She pulled back the curtain and entered. Her parents lay on their mattress, face to face and their hands clasped together in a final embrace.

“I’m sorry…”

Goeneth dismissed the whispered, disembodied apology. She shed no tears. She didn’t fall to her knees and wail or weep like the handful of other survivors she could hear – their voices echoing off the cavern walls. Something inside her had broken.

She laughed.

It started as a soft giggle, getting louder and bolder until she was laughing harder than she ever had in her life. She sat down in a chair and held her stomach it hurt so much from the laughter. Maniacal. Insane. Laughter.

Her parents had proudly proclaimed their absolute certainty in the success of Indrin’s Utopia. They had gotten into fights with her grandparents, insisting that only the Libertine Sect’s path was the true following of Indrin. Her grandparents were devout followers of Indrin as well, but they saw the Libertine Sect as extremist and dangerous. They had begged Goeneth to stay on Hamuvtakat with them. Her parents had made it clear that if she didn’t come with them, she was dead to them. She loved her parents too much to stay behind. “And now you’re the dead ones!” she managed through the laughter.

A voice brought the laughter back down to a soft giggle. “Hey there, pretty girl.” An elven man – a surface elf with pale grey skin, blonde hair and blue eyes – that Goeneth didn’t recognize had entered her family’s shelter. She continued to giggle as he spoke. “All alone now, I see. I’m alone, too. Maybe we could comfort each other.” As he spoke he slowly walked closer to her. Goeneth remained in the chair, holding her stomach and giggling.

“A little bit of close comfort, right? That’s it.” He put a hand on Goeneth’s shoulder,  slid it down her arm, and then to her side. He leaned in and smelled her hair as her mirth continued. The other hand found her left breast while his first hand slid between her legs.

Goeneth didn’t resist as he began kissing her neck. His clothes were tattered and grey from asteroid dust. The stench of his body odour clearly indicated that he hadn’t showered in weeks. The man groping her was a tunnel rat – loosely organized criminals that did nothing but take from others through violence. Apparently, some were graduating to rape.

A dagger on his hip caught Goeneth’s eye. The pommel was dragon horn; ornately carved to look like the neck and head of a roaring dragon. Gold had been poured into the carving and the dragon’s scales shone brilliantly even in the limited light of the poor district. Obviously stolen; probably from the corpse of one of the man’s victims.

The dagger easily slid out of its sheath and into her hand. It felt like it belonged there; like holding a lover’s hand as you walked through a forest by a stream. Her giggling finally stopped as she plunged the dagger into the elf’s neck.

It went in one side and stuck several inches out the other. She placed her hand on the man’s face and pushed it back while pulling the knife out and slicing through muscle, sinew, blood vessels, and his esophagus. Blood spurted from his arteries onto her face and clothes. His body slumped to the floor and his blood pooled on the ground.

She studied the twitching elf – the blood spurts weaker with every pump as his heart failed. He was already unconscious from the loss of blood pressure and died only a few seconds later as his heart finally stopped beating. Solid blue eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling. Goeneth could feel his soul leave his body and get swept away by Mavet.

An emotion that she hadn’t felt in two years came flooding back to her. It had felt right – even righteous – to kill the would-be rapist. The sight of the dead elf flooded her with joy. Pure, unrelenting happiness.

She had excelled in biology class back when she was young and in school. She knew exactly where to strike with the dagger for maximum effect. As she studied the blood on the blade, she realized that she knew every weak spot on the bodies of the Hamuvtakat sentient species. She knew which tendons were most important for mobility; which arteries bled out the fastest. Precisely where to slash or stab to leave someone incapacitated – or dead.

Goeneth took the dagger’s sheath from the dead elf and synched it around her waist. She walked out of the stone shack that had been her home – leaving behind the corpses of her parents and the tunnel rat that had wanted to rape her. They were just dead bodies now. Nothing more than tissue, blood and bone in the shape of people.

A muffled cry caught her attention. The soft shoes that she wore when she went out thieving made no sound as she moved through the shacks. In another makeshift house, she found the bodies of a man and two children. A tunnel rat had a woman pinned against the wall, trying to tear off her clothes. The sight didn’t fill her with anger or disgust. But the feeling of the dagger slipping between the man’s ribs, slicing through muscle and connective tissue before penetrating his heart, filled her yet again with joy.

She threw the tunnel rat’s corpse to the ground and left before the woman could say anything. There were more people to kill.

In another stone shack, a human tunnel rat was stripping the dead of their very clothes. He didn’t notice her soft step. This one she experimented on. A deft slash severed the tendon on his right heel. He tried to stand, but his leg buckled. She grabbed his left leg and severed the other tendon. He yelled for help as he tried to crawl away. Goeneth ground her heel into his knee pit, pinning him in place. Inserting a dagger between vertebrae is no easy task, and her first attempt to sever the man’s spinal cord was messy. He screamed and twisted under the knife and tried to protect his back by rolling over. Goeneth kicked him in the gut and bore down on his neck with her left foot. After several attempts she found the gap she was looking for. The man was now paralyzed from the waist down.

Satisfied, Goeneth turned the screaming man over and drove the dagger through his chin and into his brain.

She turned to leave only to find the doorway to the shack blocked by an orange-eyed half-orc in a navy blue business suit. Right behind him were two soldiers in full combat armour, faces obscured by their helmets, rifles pointed directly at her. “So this is it,” she thought. “I can join my parents.” She waited patiently for the inevitable end.

But the end never came. “Any particular reason why you were torturing him like that?” asked the half-orc.

She looked down at the tunnel rat’s corpse, then back at the half-orc. “Tunnel rat. He was stripping the dead. Another one tried to rape a woman. One tried to rape me.”

The half-orc looked over his shoulder and nodded before turning back to Goeneth. The soldiers lowered their rifles and left. “I take it you lived here in the poor district?”

“Yup. My parents’ corpses are a few houses over.”

“You don’t seem overly upset about that.”

“They’re just rotting flesh now. And it’s hard to be upset when I’m having so much fun. I haven’t been this happy since I left Hamuvtakat. Speaking of which, if you don’t mind, I have more tunnel rats to kill.”

“They’re gone. They fled shortly after you started torturing that one.”

“I doubt they’ll be hard to find.”

“Maybe, maybe not. But I have a proposition for you, if you’re interested.”

“Depends on the proposition.”

“How would you like to be paid to kill?”

Goeneth didn’t say anything for a few moments. The factions would begin expanding into what had been the poor district. If she didn’t join one, she’d have nowhere to go. And while she enjoyed killing, some small part of her morality survived. She wouldn’t become like the tunnel rats – only taking from others. “Go on,” she said.

“I lead a small group of factions called The Council. We’re attempting to form a governing body for Indrin’s Utopia. The other factions are resisting our overtures and are preparing for war.”

“I don’t want to be a soldier in your meat grinder.”

“I think your… proclivities… would be better suited to espionage than the front lines.”

“So… theft, sabotage, assassinations?”

The half-orc nodded. “Exactly.”

Goeneth grinned. “Sounds like the perfect job.”

The half-orc extended his left hand. “I’m Thusk Wulgraz.”

She clasped his hand and shook it. “Goeneth Aesatra.”

“Welcome aboard, Goeneth. Your training starts tomorrow.”

. . .

Goeneth waited alone in the padded training room as she’d been instructed. The floor and two walls were covered in red mats, while a third wall opposite the door was a giant mirror. She’d been waiting for thirty minutes. Fed up, she turned to leave.

“You’ll be the dead one if you can’t be patient.” Goeneth whirled back around. She had never seen anything like this creature before. She’d heard that some spacefarers had found sentient aliens, but no governments on Hamuvtakat had made any attempt at diplomacy and neither had the aliens.

It was bipedal with two arms and stood just over five feet tall, but it definitely wasn’t mammalian. Rather, it looked insectoid, though one of its ancient ancestors must have evolved lungs – naturally or with the intervention of a deity. Its chitinous skin was brown and rough. Its head reminded her of a locust, and its large, compound eyes didn’t blink or move. Its hands were clasped together, three fingers each. Unlike her, it wore no clothing – not that it had anything remotely resembling mammalian genitalia. It was terrifying and intriguing at the same time. 

“I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes,” she said to the insectoid creature.

“You were 30 minutes late. You wasted my time, so I wasted yours. Do not be late again. My name is impossible for the sapients from your world to pronounce, so call me Joe.”

“Where the Sheol were you even hiding in here?”

Joe faded away before her eyes and disappeared before reappearing several feet away. “There are many tools that you will learn to master under my tutelage – if you can listen and be patient. I’m told that you are already skilled with unaided stealth and have a good knowledge of anatomy, so we will be starting with hand-to-hand combat.”

“Is it going to hurt?” Joe nodded and Goeneth smiled. “Good.”

. . .

She trained for 12 hours every day with only short breaks to eat. For the first two weeks she collapsed into bed immediately after showering and slept for eleven hours. She hadn’t thought it was possible for a deep elf to bruise, and yet much of her skin was tinged with blue so dark it was almost black. And she was covered in tiny and painful cuts; Joe’s carapace had numerous sharp protrusions.

Slowly but surely the training toughened her body. She stopped bruising and her skin turned rough and calloused. Joe pushed her harder as she adapted. After three months, she was sleeping only five hours between training sessions.

During training one day, Goeneth was certain that she finally had Joe pinned for the first time. Her left leg and knee pinned his shoulder and throat. She had his other arm twisted around in her hands and pinned to her chest. After all the pain of months of training, she felt exhilarated at the prospect of having finally defeated her teacher.

It took Joe meer moments to shatter her sense of triumph. Joe’s left arm split in two, revealing one hard arm that she had pinned and a separate tentacle. The tentacle wrapped around her neck and easily threw her off. In moments, he had her pinned in a way that made her feel like a pretzel.

“Do not allow feelings of accomplishment to overtake you while in battle,” said Joe while Goeneth glared at him through fiery eyes. “Doing so dulls your senses and leaves you vulnerable to that which you do not expect.” He released her and she got to her feet while his tentacle returned to hiding on his arm. “And never be emotional. Emotions cloud your judgement and slow your reflexes. You can be angry before a battle and rejoice after one, but never allow either to take hold of you during. Either will get you killed.”

“If you weren’t a bug, that position would have looked sexual.” Thusk Wulgraz stood in the doorway, arms crossed, while he leaned against the doorframe.

“Mammalian obsession with reproductive entanglement never ceases to confuse me,” said Joe. “It isn’t even unique to this area of the galaxy. It seems to be universal to mammary-based species.”

“Evolutionary, my friend; we don’t hatch from eggs. Childbirth is painful and children are a lot of work. If sex wasn’t so much fun we’d have gone extinct long ago.

“How’s the training coming along?”

“Extremely well,” replied Joe. Goeneth wasn’t certain – even after three months she still had trouble reading the alien’s emotions – but she thought she heard a hint of pride in his voice. “We’re moving onto firearms next week.”

“Very good,” said Thusk. “Then I don’t see why she can’t go on her first assignment.”

“I wouldn’t say she’s ready for the field.”

“It doesn’t involve firearms. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Goeneth didn’t like being talked about in the third person and she was still angry with Joe for his deception. “What’s the job?”

“Theft. We need updated maps of the other factions’ territories. Goldstone Corporation is the largest and closest, and we’ve managed to access their ventilation systems.” Thusk retrieved a memory stick from his pocket and held it out for her to see. “Insert this into the first terminal you find. Our hackers will break into the system remotely. Get out as soon as you’ve inserted the memory stick.”

Goeneth was visibly disappointed. “No killing?”

“Next time. I promise.”

. . .

As I told you previously, Goeneth was as strong as an orc and as tall as an elf. Humans and their primate ancestors evolved in a state of semi-starvation. Due to this resource constraint, female humans used even less resources for themselves so that they could provide for their offspring in the womb and the early years of life. They are smaller, weaker, have less endurance, and less bone density than human males in order to preserve valuable resources for their young. A smart – if unfair – adaptation.

Elves (and dwarves) had no such resource scarcity and their gods were more involved in their early evolution. Males and females have no physical disparity. Additionally, the deep elves adapted to predatory and dangerous underground life, and strength became favoured over agility. Deep elves maintained their height, but their muscle mass and bone density radically increased.

Long story short… Goeneth was too large for the ventilation shafts.

“Fudge nuggets! Son of a motherless goat!” The string of curses didn’t make her feel any better as she desperately wiggled and inched her way through the confines of the ventilation system. It was an agonizingly slow process, and she could only pray that she wasn’t making too much noise.

An air vent into a room was only a few feet away, but it may as well have been miles. What felt like hours later, after a great deal of grunting and cursing, she finally managed to reach it. The room below looked like it was used for storage. There was no one in sight, and everything was a shade of gray to her night vision; not quite dark enough to activate her infrared receptors.

Joe had given her a burglar’s band; a technomagical wristband that housed numerous tools in a pocket dimension. While a sonic screwdriver was more compact, the tools on the burglar’s band were far easier to use and were much quieter while in operation. Simple mental commands called forth the auto-ratchet with the correct bit already attached.

One at a time, the screws holding in the grating fell to the floor. She grabbed the vent tightly in one hand while removing the last screw, then carefully maneuvered it up into the vent shaft. Luckily, there were several crates stacked up near the opening and she was able to pull herself out without falling. From there, she climbed down to the ground.

Goeneth smiled to herself. As far as she could tell, no one knew she was there. She just needed to find a computer terminal, then she could start the slow process of going back through the vents.

She walked to the door and held her ear against it, listening intently. There were no footsteps or voices. After several minutes, she decided it was safe. The latch turned easily in her hand and she slowly pulled the door open a crack.

The barrel of a longarm pointing directly at her was the last thing she wanted to see.

“Open the door and step out with your hands up,” said a commanding female voice from the other side of the door. Goeneth sighed and did as she was told. In the corridor beyond the storage room, five soldiers in combat armour had their longarms trained on her. A human woman in what looked like an officer’s uniform regarded her coldly while pointing a pistol at her head.

“I guess you heard me climbing through the vents?” Goeneth asked with a smirk. “Straight to execution, then? Make it quick; I have to pee.”

This brazen comment seemed to enrage the officer. Instead of pulling the trigger, she returned it to her holster and grabbed a stun baton off a soldier’s hip. The baton arced to life. “You’re not that lucky,” she snarled before jabbing it into Goeneth’s chest.

Even with all the training she’d received in the previous three months, Goeneth still screamed before blacking out.

. . .

The bucket of cold water jolted her back to consciousness. She was in a chair in a small interrogation room with the officer and a soldier holding a now empty bucket. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, the handcuffs chained directly to the chair. The chair was anchored to the ground; even though her feet were free, she was going nowhere.

The officer flicked a switch and a bright light shone in Goeneth’s face, partially blinding her. “Who sent you?”

“I’m one of Nick’s elves. I was looking for naughty boys and girls. You’d better let me go or you’ll be going right onto the naughty list.”

The soldier’s fist struck her in the abdomen. She exhaled at the last moment and was able to absorb most of the blow.

“Who sent you?”

“I’m a proselyte for Marqod. I was just looking for a dance partner.”

The next fist struck her across the jaw and she snapped her head to the side with the strike. Her jaw didn’t break, but it was still enough to make her see stars.

When her vision cleared, the officer was inches from her face, staring directly into her eyes. “Who sent you!?”

Goeneth licked her. She laughed uproariously as the officer recoiled.

The soldier moved behind her and put an arm around her neck and squeezed. Only a few seconds later – the blood flow to her brain cut off – she passed out.

. . .

When she awoke the room was empty and her feet were now tied to the chair legs. She spent an unknown amount of time pondering her predicament, her abandonment by Thusk and Joe, and the last two years on the gods forsaken Indrin’s Utopia. She got so bored at one point that she began thinking about the meaning of life.

Finally, the door to the interrogation room opened. A halfling man in a white lab coat pushed a small workshop cart into the room before closing the door.

“Hey little man. So what’s next? Lunch? I’m getting hungry.”

The halfling pushed the cart up next to her and opened a drawer to reveal various knives, pliers, probes, and various other tools and instruments. He selected a small knife, pliers and a nerve clipper, placing them on top of the cart. “These are my favourites,” he said to her. “Torture is a wonderful art form. I have to find just the right balance between maximizing your pain and keeping you alive. The nerve clipper only causes pain – no permanent damage – so it’s a safe start.”

“Sounds fun,” said Goeneth. “Maybe you can teach me some tricks some day.”

“I suppose that depends on what they do with you, doesn’t it?” He picked up the nerve clipper and pressed the head to the skin on her shoulder. He looked up at her and smiled, then turned it on.

Goeneth’s vision literally turned red. It was all she could see. The pain was so intense she was amazed that she didn’t black out. She didn’t even realize she was screaming until after the pain ended.

The reprieve didn’t last. The torturer selected another spot – this time on her chest – and again activated the nerve clipper. The time alone with her own thoughts became a mere moment of bliss compared to the time spent being tortured.

Through it all, the halfling asked her no questions. He just probed her with the nerve clipper, testing its efficacy at various points on her body. At one point he cut open the front of her pants and used it on her labia.

Wilkin! Enough!” came a voice over an intercom. The pain finally ended. Goeneth slumped in the chair, breathing heavily, as the halfling packed away his tools and wheeled his cart toward the door.

The door burst open to reveal a deep elf woman with blue eyes and red hair in casual clothing. “I told you that I would speak to her, first! Go play your games on a fucking criminal that actually did something heinous you cocksucking rat!”

“As you wish, madame homophobe.” The halfling wheeled the cart past the woman and disappeared.

The door closed behind him, and Goeneth heard magnetic locks engage. The new woman approached Goeneth, keys in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. “I’ll see about getting you some new clothes,” she said as she unlocked the handcuffs. “Milken doesn’t even do anything useful around her. He and the warden are just sadists.”

Goeneth’s muscles ached so much that she could only move extremely slowly. Gingerly, she reached forward and undid the ropes tying her legs to the chair. “A man after my own heart. I’ll kill him quickly.” She tried to stand, but the woman placed a hand on her shoulder and easily held her in place.

“Have some water, first.” She handed Goeneth the bottle. Goeneth did her best to drink slowly, but she didn’t know how much time had passed since she first entered the vents. “There’s a toilet behind you if you need to use it.”

“I’ve had to pee since some dumb hobknocker pointed a pistol in my face.” The woman let her rise and Goeneth went to relieve herself. “So tell me; what’s to stop me from taking you hostage so that I can get out of here?”

The woman smirked. “At least you’re smart enough to ask the question before trying. The floor is wired with a shock net. No permanent damage to the prisoner. Part of my daily routine on this job includes a pain suppressing drug, so I barely notice it.”

“And who are you, exactly?” asked Goeneth as she pulled her torn pants back up.

“You can call me Doctor Nodrien, and I’m a psychologist. I was hoping we could have a friendly chat.”

“Oh yeah, I’d love to have a friendly chat with you! I think we could be best friends! We could hold hands and gossip while we walk through fields of flowers.”

“I see that you use sarcasm as a defense mechanism. Can we at least start with your name?”

“Matilda.”

“Alright. Matilda. Look, all that they want to know is who sent you. There are too few people on this rock to be killing amateur spies that got caught climbing through vents. Cooperate and there’s a good chance you could live as a civilian in Goldstone. If not… well… The warden outranks me, and he has a personal collection of torture holovids. Appears to be a sexual kink.”

Goeneth sat back down in the chair and leaned back a bit, her hands behind her head. “No one sent me. I found an opening into your vents and I went looking for something to steal. Big mistake on my part.”

Nodrien sighed. “Even if that were true – even if Matilda was your real name – you’ll have to give them something or I can’t help you.”

“No one asked for your help.”

Wilken’s voice came over the intercom. “Doctor, I’m afraid that the warden has overruled you. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

Nodrien hung her head slightly. “I’m sorry, Matilda. I’ll try my best, but I won’t be allowed back in for a while.” She gently placed a hand on Goeneth’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze, then turned to leave as the door opened and two soldiers entered, followed by Milken.

The soldiers tore her clothes off before cuffing and tying her to the chair. They escorted the doctor out of the room. She was alone with Milken.

The halfling said nothing. He opened up his tool drawer, took out a pair of force boosting pliers and used them to break her index finger.

“Contrary to the good doctor’s claims -” Goeneth interrupted him with a scream as he broke her thumb “- no one cares about who sent you. You’re nothing more than my plaything, now.”

Through the pain and tears, Goeneth managed a giggle. “I do like to play. I think we’ll have some fun together.”

Milken grabbed her nipple with the pliers, then used a knife to cut it off. “Well… one of us will have fun, my dear Matilda.”

“Trust me, half-man. I’m going to have fun killing you. I’ll even make it quick. We’re kindred spirits, afterall.”

“Indeed,” he said as he pulled off the nail on her middle finger.

. . .

Goeneth awoke to someone pouring a liquid into her mouth. She sputtered and coughed but managed to swallow some of the bitter fluid, too thirsty to care about the taste. She felt the pain subsiding, her bones healing and fingernails growing back; a healing serum.

“Thankfully,” said Nodrien, “I have some contacts in upper management. I was able to get you a slight reprieve.” Goeneth felt Nodrien undoing the handcuffs. “I don’t have much leverage, though. Milken will be back in a few minutes.” She walked over to a corner of the room near the door and picked up a pile of clothes from the ground. “All you have to do is tell me a little bit about yourself and I can give you these.”

“I already told you my name.” Goeneth leaned forward gingerly and began untying the ropes around her ankles. “What else do you want?”

“Why did you come to Indrin’s Utopia?”

“My parents.” She leaned back in the chair again, arms crossed in front of her, her right ankle resting on her left knee. “They came on the initiative two years ago and I came with them. Can I have some underwear, now?”

Nodrien smiled and handed her the clothes. “There. That’s something, isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah, just wonderful.” Goeneth pulled the clothes on. “Like a luxury hotel right now. You wanna go get some grub? I’ll buy.”

“You’re very willful, Matilda. Where are your parents now?”

“Dead. They died when life support failed in the poor district.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why, did you break the life support?”

“No, I-” Nodrien stammered.

“Relax, doc! I’m kidding!” Goeneth laughed at Nodrien’s bumbling response. She sat back down on the chair. “Well, not about them being dead. They are very dead. No sympathy needed though. They did it to themselves.”

“Thank you for sharing that with me. Maybe if I can get you out of here, you can come see me for some therapy? Losing your parents isn’t something easy to deal with.”

“Oh, it was plenty easy after I killed the tunnel rat that tried to rape me. That was a lot of fun. Have you ever killed anyone, doc?”

Nodrien looked concerned. “That’s… That’s not a normal way for people to respond to the loss of  loved ones, Matilda.”

Goeneth shrugged. “Meh.”

Times up, doctor.

“Damn it, we’re making progress! Give me more time!”

The door opened and in walked two soldiers and Milken with his cart. Nodrien stood in front of Goeneth like a shield as Milken and the soldiers approached. “She’s not a toy! She’s a sapient being! Leave her alone!”

“Not your call doctor,” said Milken. One of the soldiers roughly pulled Nodrien away.

“Just hang on, okay Matilda? I promise, I can get you out of here.”

“It’s alright, Doctor Nodrien.” Goeneth began to hum as she leaned back in the chair and looked up at the ceiling. There was a subtle shimmer, the telltale sign of an invisibility spell according to Joe. “Everything will be fine.”

The gold on the dragon horn hilt of her dagger sparkled as it fell. She plucked it from the air and slammed it through the hip joint in the armour of the nearest soldier. She pulled it back out and stabbed through his neck as she stood up. Propelling herself off the chair, she pierced the other soldier’s side before ripping off his helmet and driving it through his eye.

Deftly tossing the dagger into her left hand, she swung backhand and drove it through Milken’s chest as he tried to run past her. She looked down at the little halfling. “I told you I’d make it quick.” With a jerk and a twist, she ruptured his heart and he collapsed to the ground.

Next, she turned to Doctor Nodrien and slowly raised the dagger to her throat.

“P-p-please,” Nodrien managed in a tiny voice. “Matilda! I tried to help you.” Tears streamed from her brilliant blue eyes down her dark purple face.

. . .

After Thusk had left the training room, Joe had taken her by the arm and pulled her in close. “It isn’t a real mission,” he whispered. “Thusk likes testing the loyalty of new recruits. My last two students switched sides and he had them killed. No matter what happens, you must remain loyal. After three days, I can come get you out. No matter what they do, do not tell them anything.

“They’ll torture you, but not to get answers. Someone else will be there for that. They’ll pretend to be nice, give you gifts, offer you rewards in exchange for information, even innocuous information.  That’s the one that’s really in charge and the most dangerous. Give them nothing about the Council. Do you understand?”

Goeneth had smiled. “Should be a nice little vacation. Sounds like I get to kill some people after all.”

. . .

Goeneth smirked at the fake tears of the woman that had been directing the torture the whole time. “Thanks for the healing serum, doc.” She pushed the dagger through Nodrien’s neck and cut off her head. It fell to the floor with a squishy thud.

“Adamithril dagger,” said Joe as he dropped from the ceiling. “Someone must have killed a dragon to get that ancient technology. We’ll have to do something about that hilt when we get back, though. Far too shiny.”

“I never did like sparkly baubles like the other girls. Got my one-shot?”

Joe handed her a wristband and she put it on. “The invisibility should last long enough for you to get back to Council territory. I’ll see you there after I steal the maps. Try not to kill too many people on your way back, it will just slow you down.”

. . .

The two gods watched Goeneth as she left a trail of corpses while escaping Goldstone Corporation’s base. She was brutally efficient, and the invisibility made it nearly impossible for anyone to fight back.

“Does she still follow you?” asked Dagan.

“She thought about praying to me a few times while being tortured,” said Indrin. “But no, she doesn’t want anything to do with the gods right now.”

“Can you really blame her?”

Indrin sighed sadly. “Not in the least.”

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Tragic Pun (content warning: sexual violence)

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Pun Meadowglade, a halfling, gently nudged the drone controls under the watchful eye of his dwarven master Grongreana Stonebend. Pun directed the drone through the unstable gravity fields created by the lingering magic. “That’s it… Just a wee bit more. Don’t overcompensate for the gravity shift near the core,” she said to him as the drone finally slipped the mass field manipulator into position on the gravity generator.

With a light click, the manipulator connected. “Get ready for the bump!” shouted Grongreana over the noise of the generator powering up. Pun grabbed a handhold at the last moment and swung into the bulkhead with a thud.

“Good work, mah boy!” said Gongreana from her perch on the ladder as he dangled thirty feet above the deck. “Even most journeymen struggle with that repair. I couldn’t have done it better meself!” She reached over and grabbed Pun around the waist with a single hand. Pun was small even for a halfling of thirteen standard years, and her thumb was only inches from her fingers. She gently plucked him from the handhold and placed him above her on the ladder.

He looked down at the smiling face of his beloved teacher, her skin pink and her beard a bright red. He had been apprenticing under her for the past two years, ever since his father had signed a contract with Stellaris Industries and the whole family had moved to the asteroid mining station.

Grongreana began descending the ladder at a leisurely pace and Pun scrambled to keep up. When they got to the ground, Grongreana tapped the controls on the ladder and it automatically shrunk down to a single metallic, grey rod. She slipped it into her tool belt. Pun handed her the drone controller and she used it to recall the drone. It hovered patiently above her right shoulder. They walked out of the transport ship’s engineering room with the drone in tow, and into its massive cargo hold which was completely empty while the ship was down for repairs. Dozens of metres wide and hundreds of metres long, this particular ship regularly transported millions of tons of refined metals from the asteroid mining station where Pun and Grongreana lived.

Most halfling boys Pun’s age were at least two and a half feet tall by now, but he was barely two foot three. His brown hair was a tousled mess and he had smudges of grease all over his dimpled, baby-like face. He had the typical oversized halfling ears and pale skin, lighter than that of most humans who tended to look like they’d been doused in honey. His bare feet made loud slapping noises on the metal bulkheads as they walked. Grongreana was practically singing praise for his skill while he grinned like an idiot.

“I tell ya, lad, you’ll be a master before you’re old enough to poke a lady friend!”

Pun’s face turned deep red at the remark. “Thank you, Master Stonebend.”

“Ah, Pun, no more calling me master. It’s just ‘Grongreana’ now. I already put in the paperwork. You’ll be a proper apprentice astrotech tomorrow morning. You still work under me, but as of tomorrow you be gettin’ paid.”

Pun looked up at Grongreana, astonished. “For real? I’m only thirteen!”

“Ach, age has nothin’ to do with it. You’re too skilled. I ain’t able to call you a younglin’ anymore. You deserve it, lad!”

“I gotta go tell Ma and Pa!”

“Git goin’, lad! We’re done for the day.”

“Thanks, Mas… Grongreana! See you in the morning!” Pun bolted away, running as fast as he could.

“Oh eight hundred sharp! Don’t be late!” Grongreana called after him.

Pun slowed so that he could turn and wave at his teacher, then he kept running as fast as his little legs could go. He went through the cargo hold and down a loading ramp, through the repair bay, and past three other ships of different sizes that were being repaired by technicians.

He stopped in front of a turbolift door, waiting for it to arrive. He hopped from foot to foot, too excited to stand still. The lift door opened and he nearly tripped a human technician exiting the lift to start his shift. As the technician cursed at him Pun yelled, “Sorry!” Then to the turbolift VI he said, “Residential section five,” the doors closed, and it was off.

A few minutes later, the doors opened to the section of the station where his family was housed. The halls were alive with people of all different local species: tiny but quick and tenacious halflings; short, muscular and hairy dwarves; tall and wiry elves with their single-coloured eyes, pointed ears and skin that changed based on the colours of their home; the adaptable humans; the rat-like humanoids known as kyilda, the size of halflings with a wide range of fur colours; semi-civilized half-orcs with greenish skin and pig-like faces, nearly as tall as elves and as muscular as dwarves; half-elves which looked like elves to Pun except for their human eyes and smaller ears; half-dwarves that were such a strange mix of human and dwarf that they were hard to tell apart from either;  there was even an occasional green-skinned goblin—only slightly taller than halflings and kyilda—making an effort at life in civilization instead of tribal lands.

Halflings and kyilda were in high demand for space-based industries. Small and skilled, they had better work output efficiency than the larger species thanks to their decreased living requirements combined with modern technology. Nearly half of the species in the halls were either halflings or kyilda—the elves, dwarves, humans and other tall species working hard to avoid tripping on the mass of smaller folk underfoot.

Pun bolted through the crowd, past men, women and children of all different species and through the legs of larger people while receiving good-hearted and angry curses alike. He didn’t care. He was too excited.

Running up to the little door of his family’s quarters nestled among hundreds of others big and small, he slapped the hand scanner so hard that for just a moment he was worried that he’d damaged it. The door slid up and he ran inside.

Pun was greeted by darkness, the only available light coming through the door. He could barely make out the couch against the far wall. “Ma? Pa?” No answer from his parents, he called for his older sister and brother. “Maria? Bertram?”

“What about your Uncle Krastin?”


“SURPRISE!” The lights came on. Crammed into the family living room were his family, his friends, and even his father’s best friend, a human miner named Krastin Lasker.

“Why would I expect a six foot tall human to be in a house only four feet high?” He laughed at the sight of the lanky Krastin sitting in the house far too short for him; his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them.

“What, and miss celebrating my nephew’s promotion to apprentice? Not bloody likely!”

“You’re just here for cake,” said his mother with a hint of a grin. She was a chubby—but not fat—halfling woman. Kind, green eyes, a warm smile, and the source of Pun’s curly brown hair and dimpled face.

“Cake? Real cake?” asked Pun. His eyes nearly popped out of his head as his father stepped to the side to reveal a cake with white frosting and the word “CONGRATULATIONS” emblazoned in green icing sitting on the table. On a deep space mining station, any food other than field rations was expensive. Stellaris Industries provided the field rations free of charge. Pun’s family—even with his father’s high income as a satellite technician, an expert in space station maintenance and repairs—only ate fresh food two days per week. Candy and other sweets rarely came more than a few times per year. A whole cake could cost as much as a miner’s monthly income.

Pun ran towards his dad, but his mother quickly got in the way. “Stop! You go wash up and change, young man.” She rounded on her husband. “I just washed your gods damned clothes! Don’t go making a mess!”

“Quick! Before mom gets the spoon!” yelled his older brother Bertram. Their mother had never once hit them with spoons, but it was a regular joke ever since she had once brandished a stirring spoon at them in anger. Bertram was the middle child, and twenty years old. He’d followed in their father’s footsteps and maintained the station alongside their father. Unlike Pun, he had their father’s blonde hair and brown eyes. He’d grown to their father’s height of three foot two—very tall for a halfling.

“I’ll get it!” exclaimed Maria—Pun’s older sister and the eldest child—as she ran to the kitchen and came back with a large spoon to give to their mother, who brandished it like a sword. Maria was pretty and kind. She had the same curly brown hair and green eyes as Pun and their mother, right down to the hairy feet. She hadn’t taken to trades, but was good with people and had an aptitude for biology. At twenty-seven years old she had her nursing degree and worked in the station’s infirmary. She wanted to go back to school to become a doctor.

Pun ran to the bathroom as if to escape his mother’s wrath, to the amusement of his friends and family. He slammed the door shut, stripped down, and showered as fast as he could. When he was finished, he wrapped a towel around his waist so as not to run nude passed the party-goers, and then got to his room and changed quickly. When he ran back into the living room everyone was talking and most had drinks.

Pun looked around, trying to find his best friend among the throng. Unable to find him, he asked his mother, “Ma, where’s Rathier?”

His mother looked confused. “You had a fist fight with him just last week and haven’t talked to him since. I didn’t think you’d want him here.”

“Ma, his girlfriend had just broken up with him. I told him to get over it and we had a fight. It happens, he’s still my friend.”

His father walked over. “The mark of a true man is to not let a fight get in the way of friendship. Call the boy’s family, Myrna. Get him over here.”

His mother sighed and rolled her eyes. “Boys,” she said in exasperation. She went to the communicator and called Rathier’s home. His father picked up, they spoke, and he assured Pun’s mother that Rathier would be coming over right away.

A few minutes later, the doorbell chimed. Pun ran through the crowd and opened the door for Rathier. “Hey,” said Rathier. Rathier was also a halfling, but bigger than Pun by several inches and two years older. He had black hair and blue eyes. His father was a miner, rare for a halfling, and Rathier was following in his father’s footsteps. The two families had very different incomes which had sometimes caused tension between the boys.

“Still sore that I whooped your ass last week?” said Pun.

“As I recall it, I’m the one that walked away after knocking you down.”

“Yeah, you ran away like a bitch.”

The boys just looked at each other for a few moments. Then they both burst out laughing. Rathier wrapped his arms around Pun, who hugged back. “My dad told me about your apprenticeship. Congrats, bud.”

“Thanks!”

Pun’s father grabbed a glass and rapped a spoon against it to get everyone’s attention and quiet the room. “Tomorrow, my son becomes the youngest apprentice in station history.” He motioned for Pun to come to him. Pun left Rathier and walked through the crowd. His father put a hand on Pun’s shoulder. “Son, I am very proud of you. Not because of your age and talent, but because you think, you listen, and you forgive. While you’re still a kid making mistakes, you’re kind, thoughtful, and loyal to your friends.”

Pun’s father grabbed a glass filled with a yellowish-clear liquid. Pun sniffed it. “Beer?”

“Time to have your first drink with your old man, son.” His father raised his own glass into the air. “To Pun!”

“To Pun!” everyone echoed. Pun took a swig.

He coughed and sputtered while everyone laughed. Pun grinned sheepishly. “Cosimo, you’re a prick!” yelled Krastin. Pun was more careful the second time and sipped the beer slowly, trying to get used to the taste.

“Who wants cake?” asked his mother. Everyone cheered.

The party continued for a few hours. Drinks, discussion, music, even a little dancing.

The next day, Pun started his new job. He worked as an apprentice in the morning and went to school in the evening.

. . .

It had been three weeks since Pun’s party and promotion. He hummed a jaunty tune as he pulled the wrist-sized vacuum hose to the fighter ship. He hooked it to the coolant drain and pulled the locking lever. A few commands into the remote repair computer attached to his wrist opened the drain. Another command and the vacuum turned on. The brown liquid rushed out into the transparent hose to be deposited into a collection vat for recycling.

While the dirty coolant was draining, he retrieved the fresh coolant supply hose and pulled it over to the ship, a slow process for someone his size.

“You need a drone,” came the lilting voice of the elf pilot. He looked over at her while he worked. She was a deep elf—the dark purple skinned subterranean elves from the homeworld of Hamuvtakat. Silver hair was bound up in a pony tail and ruby red eyes peered at him. Pun thought she was gorgeous, and her dark blue, ultra-thin and skin tight fighter pilot suit accentuated her female form in ways that made him blush.

“I’m working on one,” he said as he continued to drag the hose, averting his eyes so that he didn’t stare at the pilot. “I work six hours a day then have to do four hours of school. Grongreana helps get me parts, but I have to figure out how to build the drone on my own. I don’t have a lot of time and I’m new to scripting, so it’s taking a while.”

“Aren’t there premade drone VIs?”

“Yeah, but the ones that work on any platform cost too much. Cheap and free ones require modifying. I have to learn scripting anyway so why not start with my drone? Plenty of instructions available on the extranet, and I get a head start on the level three guild training courses that way.” Pun reached the ship and clamped the hose over the coolant intake. By the time he had gotten there the dirty coolant had finished draining. A few taps on his wrist computer caused the drain to shut and the intake to open. Another selection and clean, bright yellow coolant began pumping into the ship.

Pun unhooked the vacuum hose from the drain and began hauling it away to be coiled up. “My Pa made mistakes. Didn’t plan ahead too much. We were deep in debt, but Pa got lucky when Stellaris offered to bail him out in exchange for a twenty year contract. He really didn’t want me to make the same mistakes he did. I don’t want to either.”

“You’re on the right track,” she said.

The lights in the shop went red. A siren began to wail like a banshee, rising and falling in pitch. A sound that, outside of drills, Pun had hoped to never hear. It was a raid siren.

The station was under attack.

The pilot’s voice changed immediately. “Get that hose unclamped, now!” she commanded. She didn’t even bother getting a ladder. She hauled herself up onto a wing and jumped into the cockpit. At the same time Pun had dropped the vacuum hose and ran back to the ship, closing off the fluid intake and stopping the pump as he went. He pulled the clamp off and banged on the hull to alert the pilot.

As he backed away the ship started up, a delta-wing fighter equipped with energy weapons and missiles—designed to travel between air and space. It hovered and the landing gear retracted. It turned quickly and Pun backed away as its thrusters came online and the pilot guided it towards the maintenance bay doors. Other fighters that had also been down for maintenance moved into formation as they made their way out.

Pun gasped as several of the fighters started firing their laser cannons, creating a bright green light as they burned the atmosphere. When the beams left the bay and passed through the atmospheric shield, their visible light disappeared. Others joined into the firing with chain cannons—thousands of cartridges falling to the ground.

It looked like an action scene from a horror holovid, the ships firing at an unseen enemy. After several seconds, Pun could make out small explosions far away in empty space. One explosion after another got larger and larger. Pun finally understood what they were shooting at.

Missile barrage.

Someone grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around, pulling his eyes away from the sight. Grongreana. “What the hell are you doin’, lad? Run!” She pushed him towards the turbolift. Dozens of other technicians, younglings and apprentices were running towards the lift or had already gathered in front of the doors. Grongreana stayed close behind him, urging him on.

They reached the turbolift just as it opened and people began clambering on. As he tried to get in he heard the explosions for the first time. One after the other in rapid succession. He turned to look just in time to see a missile strike the lead fighter craft. The ship he had just been working on.

It blew apart, showers of glowing metal flying out like an exploding firework. A piece of a wing was thrown almost directly at Pun, and he felt the wind it created as it flew past. There was a horrible crunching and slamming noise. Pun slowly turned and nearly fainted. The wing that had just missed him had struck over a dozen people. Bodies had been torn in half. One woman’s head was completely crushed. A child lay on the floor wailing—blood poured from the stump on his shoulder where his arm had once been attached.

The wing had embedded itself in the turbolift.

Pun couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t comprehend the horror in front of him.

Grongreana grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away. “Let’s go, lad. Get to the utility shafts. We gotta get to the escape pods. We’ll see your family there. Move!”

Pun managed to pull himself together enough to run with Grongreana. As they ran more missiles struck the other fighter ships. One after the other they were blown into pieces by the incoming missiles. Pun and Gongreana dodged flying shrapnel as they ran to the utility shaft doors. When the last fighter was gone the missiles targeted the transport and mining ships, damaging or destroying every last craft in the maintenance bay.

The barrage finally ended. The air was filled with the smell of smoke, burning oil and charred flesh. Dozens of corpses littered the ground in every direction. Men. Women. Children.

When they reached the utility shafts, Grongreana entered an unlock code on the keypad and the heavy door opened. She turned and waved to several survivors trailing behind them. But something large outside the maintenance bay was heading straight for the entrance. It grew quickly as it got closer, until Pun could clearly see a ship. Seconds later it entered the bay at high speed, slamming into and embedding itself in the wall.

Everything went quiet. The small group of survivors stopped and stared at the ship, a small, rectangular transport. Pun could clearly make out large loading doors on the side nearest them. The doors slowly opened. Inside were humanoids in armour, blood red with strips of black. They all carried rifles. One by one, they dropped out of the ship.

Pun looked up at Grongreana for guidance. Above her hovered a drone he had never seen before. It bristled with weapons instead of tools and graspers. A small hatch opened on the bottom of the drone and an assault rifle dropped into Grongreana’s hands. Grongreana and the drone opened fire.

Bullets flew. Gases ionized. The attackers started firing back. Hissing gases hit the doors and walls around Grongreana, thick frost forming where they struck. Grongreana grabbed the back of Pun’s coveralls with one hand and threw him into the utility shaft. He heard screams over the sounds of gunfire.

“Get goin’, Pun! I’m right behind you!” Grongreana crouched behind the heavy door of the utility shaft and dropped an empty magazine. The drone dropped several full magazines on the ground beside her and she reloaded. As she was reloading, several of the freezing rounds struck her drone. It held aloft and kept firing for a few seconds, but finally froze up and crashed to the ground.

“Not without you!” yelled Pun.

Grongreana leaned out from behind the door and kept firing. “I said I’m right behind you! Go!” Pun was frozen, unable to move while his beloved mentor fought the attackers. One of the rounds of hissing gases struck Grongreana in the shoulder. Her bare arm began to freeze and she gasped in pain. She took cover behind the door again. “I can’t follow you until you get goin’, lad! Go n-!” She was cut off. One of the attackers had closed on her while she was talking to Pun. It rounded the corner and stabbed a bayonet into her stomach.

“No!” Pun screamed. The attacker sliced up, opening Grongreana from stomach to neck. She spasmed, jerked, and her guts fell out of her body. She slowly sank to her knees. In a final act of defiance, she hit a key on her wrist computer. The heavy door to the utility shaft slammed shut, closing Pun in.

Pun sank to the ground. He tucked his knees into his chest and began to rock as he wailed for his dead teacher. But the reality of his situation set in when he heard banging on the door. He stood up and began climbing the ladder in the utility shaft. His only coherent thought was that he needed to find his family.

The way through the utility shafts was clearly marked by maps at every intersection. It was nowhere near as fast as a turbolift. He lost track of how long he had been climbing and crawling before finally coming to an exit near his home. He tapped the keypad, the door unlocked and slowly swung open.

The scene out in the hall was every bit as gruesome as the one in the maintenance bay. Bodies were everywhere. Some people must have had some success fighting back, as several attackers were among the dead. Compared to the number of station dwellers, though, they were few and far between. There was no one alive in the hallway. He made his way quietly towards his home, stepping around and over the bodies as best he could. He tripped and fell and looked into the dead eyes of his Uncle Krastin.

He pushed himself off of his uncle’s corpse and kept moving. He reached his home to find the door broken open. Terrified, he ran inside without thinking and regretted it instantly.

Several of the attackers were inside, on their knees so they could fit. One held his father, mother, and older brother at gunpoint. They had all removed their armour and piled it into a corner, revealing a myriad of species; human, elf and half-elf, orc and half-orc, dwarf and half-dwarf. All men.

All naked.

He realized in horror that they were raping Maria. Naked and being violated by an elf, she turned her head to look at him, her expression blank.

His mother had her face buried in his father’s shoulder, weeping. His brother just stared at the ground. His father held them in his arms. Blood from his broken nose had poured down his face and dried on his clothes. He had no way of fighting. There was nothing he could do.

His father saw him. “Run!” Too late. The one holding them at gunpoint had noticed him, too. The attacker was a burly dwarf. He grabbed Pun around the neck with one hand and threw him across the room by his family.

“Shut up,” said the dwarf. Pun’s brother helped him into a sitting position against the wall, then sat beside him and put his arm over his shoulders. Pun leaned against him and cried.

The attackers took turns raping his sister over and over again. She was covered in blood, and more pooled on the ground beneath her. The attackers didn’t care. Her breathing got shallower and shallower until it stopped completely.

“This one’s done,” said a human. He grabbed Maria and threw her lifeless corpse out the door. “Get the next one over here, it’s my turn.” His mother screamed as one of the men grabbed her. His father tried to fight, yelling at the attacker futilely while trying to hold on to his wife. Pun and Bertram wailed.

The guard with the gun pushed the barrel against his father’s head and squeezed the trigger. His father’s head instantly froze solid. His mother screamed and wailed as her husband’s body fell. His head hit the floor and shattered into hundreds of pieces of frozen brain and skull.

The men tore off his mother’s clothes. The one that had thrown Maria’s body out the door bent her over and moved to take her from behind. Then he stopped. “You know what? You’re too old to fuck.”

His mother, still crying, fell to her knees. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” She said it over and over again, visibly relieved and simultaneously ashamed of her relief.

“You’re welcome,” said the man that had released her. Then he grabbed a nearby gun, pointed it at her head, and fired. Her head froze solid—her eyes staring straight at her sons.

“Anyone wanna start on the kid?” he asked.

“Yah, I got a thing for ‘em,” said one of the dwarves.

“I could go fer somethin’ tighter,” said one of the humans.

One of the men grabbed Pun’s arm. He was already too traumatized to fight and let himself get pulled away from his brother.

“Wait!” yelled Bertram. “He can fix ships!”

The man holding Pun’s arm stopped. “He’s just a kid. We already rounded up the living astrotechs and he’s too old for training.”

“He’s only thirteen and he’s an apprentice. Let him live, he’ll be useful to you! Please!”

“That true, kid?”

Pun looked up at the half-orc with a death grip on his arm. “Y-y-y-yes,” he said weakly.

“Alright then. You get to live. Your brother takes your place.”

The half-orc released his arm and grabbed Bertram. Pun sank to the floor and curled up in the fetal position. He didn’t look as his brother screamed.

His brother died in time, and the attackers left his broken corpse to rot in what had once been their happy home. Pun’s family was gone.

From there, Pun withdrew into himself, and he absorbed little. The pirates put their clothes and armour back on and took him through the station to the loading docks. There he joined seven other astrotechnicians that had been his coworkers. The rest, he concluded, including his beloved teacher, were dead.

Around them were the children of the station. Hundreds of them, boys and girls, all young children by the standards of their species. The attackers began boarding them onto their ships, for what purpose Pun didn’t know. Many of the attackers were also carrying corpses onto the ships.

Some sort of creature that Pun had never seen before walked down a loading ramp. It was at least eight feet tall with brownish-grey leather-like skin. Its arms were bigger than a dwarf’s legs. It had sharp horns coming out of its head and down its spine, and massive claws on its large three-fingered hands. Its face made a half-orc look pretty with massive tusks and teeth, drool dripping from its protruding mouth, and a flat nose and large red eyes. It wore no clothes.

The creature approached the group of astrotechnicians. It studied them for a few moments, then spoke in a deep, guttural voice, slow and measured, punctuating each word, and slowly pacing in front of them. “You are my slaves. You will fix my ships. If you work, you will eat. If you refuse, you will not die. You will wish to die. You will not join your families.” The creature looked down at Pun. It reached down, put a claw under Pun’s chin and forced him to look up. “Understand?”

“Y-y-yes s-s-s-sir.”

“Remember, little one.” The creature gazed into Pun’s eyes, like it was staring deep into his soul. “Only work can set you free.”

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