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