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“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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%.”
“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?”
“Let’s pretend I believe you for a moment… How was the sex?”
Tasha smirked. “Electric.”
Everyone groaned at the bad joke.