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Containing a selection of published articles from various print media.

E-ON Chronicle: 200 Rounds (fiction)

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“Well, that was worth a whole lotta nothin’.”

The ordinarily exuberant Avi Tarken’s voice dripped with disappointment as it crackled half-heartedly over her gang communication network. As though mirroring her state of mind with subtle manoeuvres, Avi’s unwieldy seventeen hundred tonne Kestrel frigate – overloaded with half-again that mass in trade supplies – seemed to almost slouch.

“You can’t win them all, rookie.” The reply came from Onan Dom-Dussuth, young Avi’s trade wing commander. The aged Ni-Kunni took his place beside Avi’s vessel. “The market ebbs and flows. Sometimes you ride the wave, and sometimes the wave rides you.” Onan’s attention turned to the third captain in the gang.

“Come on, Karn. Let’s get out of the Suck and go home.”

With those words, a third Kestrel emerged from the station orbiting the eighth moon of Altbrard IX. Altbrard was a neglected backwater system in Molden Heath, a region colloquially referred to as “the Suck” due to floundering markets and widespread poverty. Nevertheless, when word came down the traders’ grapevine that the CONCORD facility located there had put out massive buy orders for small arms and advanced electronics, they were quick to capitalize. Loading their ships to the brim with goods, they set out for Altbrard.

They were not quick enough.

By the time the three entrepreneurs arrived, the order had been filled. They caught the tail end of a massive freighter on their scanners, departing the system just as they crossed the gate. The hazardous trip into pirate infested Minmatar space was largely for nothing.

“There goes any hope of me managing the down-payment on that bloody hauler this week”, Karn-Enas Paskisen lamented. The Caldari had his heart set upon a second-hand Badger class cargo tug, an acquisition that would have boosted the three traders’ income immeasurably.

Onan chuckled, almost knowingly. “God rewards the patient, Karn! He also punishes greed.”

“A little greed never hurt anyone.”

Avi smiled in her capsule, her lips shut tight to avoid another taste of ectoplasm. It had been months since she first burst from Kisogo station, naïve and idealist to a fault. It was not long after, that she first encountered Onan in an asteroid belt, supervising a small omber mining operation. Kind words and stories exchanged, she was elated when the Ni-Kunni offered her a position in his start-up venture. Since then she had made her mark in the tiny corporate entity, proving herself an able trader and resource harvester.

Her ship, moving in tandem with those of Karn and Onan, lurched through stargate after stargate. The going was slow, all three Kestrels gutted internally to expand their cargo holds, thereby sacrificing a considerable chunk of their spryness. Still, they were cheap, easily replaced, and could hold their own in a fight. A recollection made Avi quietly grateful for her wing-mates, whom not two weeks prior placed their lives on the line when a pirate destroyer somewhere in the Suck decided to pick a fight. Their furious barrage of rockets drove off the interloper, and spared Avi her first resurrection as a clone – an eventuality she was decidedly not looking forward to.

Karn-Enas Paskisen was the first to come to her rescue that fateful day. Avi had developed a particular fondness for the lanky, camouflage-tattooed Civire. She learned of his past and service with the Caldari Navy, where he served as a ground-pounder – a marine support gunner. She eagerly absorbed every syllable of his frequently regaled war stories, and empathized fully with his reasons for retirement from service – as Karn had revealed to her in a moment that could almost be called intimate, he grew weary of hands-on killing long ago.

On the flip side of the coin there was Onan. To Avi, he was almost a caring grandfather, and complete anathema to the virulently Caldari Karn. A pacifist to a fault, the devout Ni-Kunni had even hesitated with his fire when Avi came under attack. He said it was the first time he had used his weapons in anger, and Avi refused to blame him for the delay – his mere arrival at the firefight was enough to send the pirates packing. The soft-spoken Onan kept mostly to himself, reluctant to delve into his past with the openness displayed by Karn, though the Caldari once swore to Avi that he glimpsed a legion of long healed whip-scars upon the sagely man’s back. Avi and Karn agreed that day, that they would avoid the topic of slavery altogether when speaking with Onan.

The old Ni-Kunni brought with him another asset however, one that saw the three adventurers outfitted with powerful Kestrel frigates within days of joining his corporation. He kept his ears to the ground, regularly catching wind of lucrative trade routes, hidden deposits of pristine ore, or abandoned ships ripe for salvage. Sometimes these leads fell through, as they did this day, but on occasion Avi found her wallet swelling with hard earned Kredits. The others frugally saved their income, while Avi made sure to send a sizeable portion to her family back home.

“Sooooo…” Onan cooed, his hoary whiskey voice laden with ill-contained excitement. “How would you two like to make up tenfold for that botched run just now?”

Avi perked. “Treasure?” Onan nodded. ”Treasure!”

“What’s this, what’s this?” queried Karn.

“Might be another wild goose chase, but that has not stopped us before. We’re in the region, so I figured we’d take a look. I have it on good authority, from a fairly reliable scanner jockey I have relied upon in the past, that there’s a cruise ship out there ripe for the picking. The Bellerophon.”

“I think I’ve heard of it,” chimed Avi.

“Not surprising. She was the Endless Corporation’s flag cruise liner. She was sold to Far Star Tours when Endless went belly up, and then went missing. It seems she’s not missing anymore.”

“Where is she?” Karn asked.

“That’s the tricky part. My source located the ship adrift and un-powered inside a dust cloud. He seemed wary of taking a closer look, so this might not be a milk run. He did provide a bookmark coordinate to get us to the general area, however I am not sure how accurate it will be. But you know what they say about cruise ships…”

“That they’re floating repositories of riches?” The grin in Karn’s voice was audible now.

“In a nutshell. If she was abandoned in a hurry, it’s likely we’ll find the last passengers’ belongings, perhaps a solid nav-sys or shipboard AI. Not to mention luxury food stocks! I bet none of you have had long-limb roe before!”

“You think all that will still be there when we arrive?” Avi probed, trying not to get her hopes up.

“If it isn’t, at least we’ll get some sight-seeing done.”

+ + +

It stretched beyond the limited focus of Avi’s camera drones, an angry cyclopean cloud tinged with ash and crimson. The locals called it the Maw, and for the most part, gave the red blot of hydrogen gas a wide berth, eager to sow rumours of pirates and creatures dwelling within. The three explorers gave these little heed, for such stories were often spread to discourage salvage operators from discovering hidden riches.

“I’m not picking anything up yet.”

Three rotating sensor beams scythed through the micro-nebula, stretching a mere two astronomical units across. Partly obscured by thick lanes of dust, the three found themselves relying on intermittent sensor pings to shift about the cloud, using each other as points of triangulation, occasionally finding the smashed wreckage of an unlucky frigate or hauler and cursing profusely over gang comm. Yet, steadily, the pings grew louder.

“Holy shit.”

“Look, there it is!” Karn was beside himself. His voice trailed off. “Would you look at that…”

The gleaming, pristine hulk of the Bellerophon loomed directly ahead. She was nestled in a particularly dense concentration of interstellar gas, such that her aft was partly obscured from sight.

“Okay. Stay sharp here, young ones. Let’s do a pass and take a look at her, check for battle damage. If she got shot down, whoever did it might still be here.”

Separating into three leisurely arcs, the Kestrels swooped over the opulent cruise ship’s hull, leaving a flowery wake of curling nebular dust behind them. Avi tensed up as she briefly lost sight of Onan in the dust, breathing a sigh of relief and sending a cascade of bubbles from her capsule’s re-breather as he emerged from the other side.

Karn radioed in. ”Looks clean and clear, Onan. Not a dent.”

“Good, good.” Onan thought for a moment. “All right, check for functional airlocks. Avi, starboard; Karn, port; and I’ll take the dorsal and ventral.”

The Kestrels closed in slowly, their orbits constricting around the cruise liner, and their docking requests going largely un-answered. “Maybe the shipboard AI is down?” Avi suggested.

Karn was clearly the resident hardware expert. “Nah, they have their own power supplies, generally. I’m reading power in all these airlocks, but they’re not opening. Perhaps they have been sealed?”

“Wait, here!” Avi exclaimed. “I have a functional one, second from the bow on the starboard. Breathable air is confirmed!”

”Only one? How are we all supposed to use it?” inquired Onan.

“We could daisy chain. It’s a bit risky…”

The Kestrel class frigate possessed two extendable docking ports – one secreted beneath the starboard wing, and one beneath the portside. In emergencies or situations that called for it, numerous ships could be carefully linked together by means of their ports.

The decision made, the three frigates began to delicately manoeuvre closer together. Karn’s frigate was first, mating with the Bellerophon’s sole functional airlock, and extending its other boarding tunnel toward Onan’s. His ship in turn joined with Avi’s.

“Let’s not spend too much time in there. This cloud is a graveyard, and if any debris hits our frigates while they’re daisy-chained, they’ll snap off at the airlocks and depressurize. Then we’ll be stuck here.” At times, Avi felt that the mischievous Karn delighted in terrifying her.

With the three ships now protruding from the flank of the massive Bellerophon, Karn suggested that the Kestrels’ power cores be re-routed through the cruise liner’s airlock umbilicals. Section by section, her un-lit windows and portholes blinked to life, and her emergency beacons began strobing a frantic orange.

“It’s aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive!” Avi bellowed comically, her roar sounding more like a meow.

Onan chuckled. “Our first priority should be enabling two more airlocks, so we can dock properly and offload more cargo simultaneously. After that, we shall have ourselves a lovely little scavenger hunt.”

“I’ll be first in.” Karn was always the first in. Though his taste for killing had waned, his ingrained sense of duty had not, and the tall Caldari saw himself as something of a bodyguard for Onan and young Avi. “Should I bring the gun?”

If there were one possession from which Karn could be called inseparable, it would be his gun. An impressive piece of hardware, the ex-marine had appropriated it as a parting gift when he retired from the service. The near-sentient 10mm Tacit Warrior smart gun was also one of the few weapons in the universe capable of talking smack.

Onan pondered – every fiber of his being told him to say no, yet he could hardly expect his comrades to walk blind and un-armed onto a ghost ship. “Yes, bring the gun.”

By the time Avi had crossed the length of the three daisy-chained Kestrels, Onan and Karn had already assembled a loose perimeter around the Bellerophon’s interior airlock. Karn shouldered his impressive weapon.

“Smart gun online.”

”Smart gun online, two hundred rounds available. One implosion grenade available. How are you today, Karn?”

”Great, you?”

“I am ready, willing and able, Karn.”

“Good boy.”

Avi watched with bemusement. She had seen Karn carry on conversations with that cannon as though it were a person on many occasions. It occurred to her that should it ever break down, Karn would mourn the loss of the gun as though it were a loved one.

The adventurers cautiously made their way through the ship, taking stops to admire the opulence of dining halls and quarters throughout, guided by Onan. The Ni-Kunni carried a data-pad with a map of the Bellerophon’s innards. Soon, they came upon the central starboard airlock.

Karn approached the airlock control panel. The inner door mechanism sprung to action, but the doors would not budge. “What the hell is wrong with this piece of shit?”

Onan ran his finger down the crack of the doors. “Well, they’re not sealed on the inside… perhaps someone welded the other side shut. I wonder what could possibly possess them to do that.”

“Think the others are sealed too?” Inquired Avi with the slightest hint of worry.

Onan half-nodded. ”Probably. We’ll check when we come across them. For now, let’s stick together. The bridge is still a ways away, and I propose we inspect the cabins and dining areas first.”

“I agree”, droned the smart gun in its synthetic voice. Karn laughed. “Thanks for your input.”

With Karn in the lead and Onan holding the rear, the three ventured deeper into the ship. Her halls were lit bright white, and for all intents and purposes, the Bellerophon was a functioning ship. As they progressed, helpful wall monitors lit up at their presence, and the scavengers updated their portable map with the Bellerophon’s detailed internal data.

A drawn out whistle caught Avi’s attention, and she noticed that Karn had sidestepped into what appeared to be luxury passenger quarters. She followed him in, and saw that he was standing gaping into an open wooden box. Karn reached in.

“I think this would look beautiful on you”, he murmured to Avi, approaching her from behind and gently pulling back her hair. She shivered slightly as the frigid metal of the ornate, bejewelled necklace first touched her skin, and Avi found herself blushing furiously. Karn merely winked and grinned, then promptly returned to shovelling greedy fistfuls of jewellery into his pockets, the jangle of gold and gems echoing through the Bellerophon’s empty halls.

“It’s freezing in here”, she stated absently, rubbing her hands together.

“It’s a miracle the life support backups lasted this long”, retorted Onan from a distance. “Perhaps a blessing indeed, considering we possess no spacesuits.”

Karn took a deep breath. “The air is a little thin…”

They ambled leisurely from quarters to quarters, taking their pick of booty. Karn mostly concentrated on the jewellery and personal possessions of the missing passengers, his every footfall sounding like a bag of coins being jostled. Soon, they returned to the lavish dining hall, with its hundreds of brass-belted mahogany tables and chairs, and glorious crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. Each twinkled like a million brilliant stars.

”Huh, that’s kind of odd.” Avi and Karn turned to Onan, who was pointing at one of the tables. There, upon expensive porcelain platters, lay the ashen remains of prepared food, some meals with forks still sticking out of them.

Onan continued. “Looks like they had to leave in a hurry. Avi, during your pass on starboard, did you notice any missing life-pods?” Avi shook her head no.

“Karn?”

“A couple missing on my side. Not enough to account for a full passenger complement.”

“And the capsule itself?”

”It’s still in there.”

Onan’s brow furrowed slightly. “Perhaps the AI can tell us more. We’ll ask it later; for now, let’s check the food stores.” Excitedly, Onan produced a large, sturdy duffel bag from his backpack and unfolded it. After all, haute cuisine was a rare treat for the oft-neglected bellies of capsuleers. Already, the old Ni-Kunni was rummaging through the refrigerators and pantry. With a triumphant whoop, he produced a small tin can, and began twisting it open.

“Here, try these.”

Carefully, Avi dipped a finger in the tin of long-limb eggs, scooping a quantity and sniffing at it gingerly before putting it in her mouth. “Mmm, this stuff is great. I can see what all the talk is about. Save me some?”

Onan nodded. Emboldened by Avi’s willingness to experiment, Karn also picked up a pinch of the priceless eggs, and tasted them. His expression froze, and he chewed the roe miserably, as though masticating broken glass.

“How does it taste?” Avi teased.

“About the way you’d expect eggs from an alien’s ass to taste.” With a sour expression painting his face, Karn gulped the mouthful of roe down. He coughed violently.

“So why’d you eat it, dummy?”

Karn replied. “Because it’s expensive.” A shrill beep at his side made him flinch in surprise.

“Smart gun is detecting motion, Karn.”

The scavengers froze. Onan launched into a quiet stream of expletives, prompting Avi to look to him questioningly. The Ni-Kunni spoke. “If there’s anyone else alive aboard this tub, we don’t have salvage rights and we’ll have to leave everything behind. God fucking damn it.”

“Hey now, watch the blasphemies”, chided Karn. “It’s probably just a Fedo. Smart gun, locate motion source.”

“Scan inconclusive. My ATAC-IDMS motion sensor has a limited effective range in enclosed areas. Beyond that range it is limited only to identifying motion, not pinpointing it. I am sorry I cannot be more helpful, Karn.”

As the gun spoke, Karn made the universal yap-yap-yap gesture with his free hand. “Smart gun, tacit mode.”

“Don’t like hearing me talk? Fine.” The gun seemed genuinely hurt, but obligingly switched to tacit mode – intended for tactical engagements, this setting limited the weapon’s vocal interaction with the owner to brief and concise statements.

“We better check this out. Please, God, please let it be a Fedo.”

“Maybe it’s your scanner jockey, Onan. Maybe he decided to take a crack at the prize after all.”

Onan shook his head. “No, he would have seen our ships docked outside and radioed in.”

His gun at the ready, Karn picked up the pace, forcing Avi and Onan to trot behind him. The opulence of the passenger areas was giving way to a utilitarian motif as they crossed into the crew areas. These were far worse lit, mused Karn, the darkened control rooms and glowing ops panels reminding Karn of the inside of a warship. No doubt passengers were not permitted in these areas, but confined to the Bellerophon’s lavish outward layers.

“Smart gun motion fix south.”

A tiny blip appeared on the Tacit Warrior’s mini-screen. With it came the distant clang of metal.

“Did anyone else hear that?” Avi asked, whipping about to face the source of the sound, coming from somewhere in the outer hull layers.

”Sure as hell wasn’t a Fedo”, replied Karn with trepidation. He turned to Onan. “You want to abort?”

“No, my curiosity has the best of me, I’m afraid. I’d like to investigate further. If we can just reach the AI core…”

Another clang. Another blip. “Smart gun, multiple motion fix south.”

“I’ve had about enough of this.” Karn took off running toward the motion fix. Avi shouted for him to wait, barely keeping up with the tall Caldari’s immense strides. Their footfalls echoed loudly enough that the three were oblivious to the distant clang of metal, now growing in frequency. In under a minute, they arrived before the massive double doors of the engineering section. Just beyond lay two, no, three motion blips.

“You guys ready?” Karn assumed a crouched position slightly diagonal of the doors, his weapon readied. He nodded to Onan, who hit the door control panel, prompting the two huge metal slabs to grind apart with a tired wheeze of pistons, releasing a cloud of dust from beyond.

The interior was pitch black. “Smart gun, illumination please.”

“Smart gun illumination active.” The brilliant beam cut into the darkness. The air inside was musty and stale, clearly not having been circulated properly. Dust and fog marred the beam; recently stirred cloudy swirls visible as the light passed over them. There was definitely something moving about in here.

“Hello?” Onan shouted.

No response.

“Anybody in there?” Avi added hesitantly, somewhat hiding behind Karn and his sentient gun, which erupted into frantic beeping.

“Smart gun proximity alarm.”

And then the gun’s automatically panning beam came to rest on something in the fog. Something that moved slightly and froze when exposed to the light. Karn tensed, and Avi felt her stomach sink in disappointment. The silhouette appeared to be vaguely humanoid.

“Can you hear us in there? We’re ah, salvage workers. Do you have claim to this ship?” Onan’s questions received no reply. “Perhaps we could come to some kind of arrangement, share the bounty between us, that sort of thing? Our ships are small and don’t carry much cargo! We won’t take much!”

There was no acknowledgement from the silhouette. It simply stood there, gaping at them, its features obscured entirely. Avi leaned closer to Karn. “There’s something wrong…”

The man-shape lurched forward, and what the adventurers saw next turned their veins to ice. He was largely naked, save for scraps of what looked like a crewman’s uniform. His eyes were locked in an unblinking gaping stare – they were the dry eyes of a long dead carcass. Most horrifying, the thing appeared to have suffered either severe cranial atrophy, or massive head wounds – the top of its head was largely absent, and the eyes lay nearly upon its apex, like those of some freakish amphibian. Where there should have been a forehead and scalp, instead there lay a spiny tangle of bizarre exposed electronics, their dim LED lights casting a nightmarish pall upon the advancing corpse.

“Motherfucker! True Slaves! RUN!” – “Smart gun gyro-stabilizer active.”

Onan and Avi did not need to be told twice. Both took off running, the deafening report of Karn’s gun at their back. Its thermite-tipped shells exploded viciously against the shambling monstrosity, and it dropped gurgling horribly to the ground, half of its midsection rent apart and innards slicking the deck-plates with filthy black blood. Karn ran after the other two, but spun around at the sound of sluggishly approaching footsteps, thumbing a switch on the gun’s fore-grip. He braced himself against a bulkhead and shouldered the weapon securely.

The recoil of the implosion grenade’s propellant shell caught him somewhat off-guard, and it went slightly high. He hadn’t fired one in decades, and cursed himself for the amateur mistake. Fortunately the yield of the weapon proved more than adequate. The blast of the grenade first sent the two pursuing ghouls flying end over end from the darkened engineering chamber like broken dolls, then ignited its implosion charge and shredded the flying corpses into garish confetti which was rapidly sucked back into the chamber. This secondary blast shook the entirety of Bellerophon’s hull, and prompted Avi to cry out in fright some hundred paces away.

“Smart gun, one hundred and forty five rounds available.”

The implosion knocked the wind out of Karn, and he took a moment to steady himself before taking off full tilt after Avi and Onan, his pockets still jangling with an overburden of pilfered jewellery. “We need to get back to the airlock!” he shouted ahead of him. The other two stopped and waited for Karn to catch up.

“Smart gun motion fix north.”

“Fuck! They’re in front of us!”

“Can we go around?”

Karn grinned, baring his teeth like a Slaver hound. “I’d rather go through.”

“Smart gun proximity alarm.”

Avi covered her ears and fell to her knees screaming as the Tacit Warrior belched forth a stream of rounds that cut down two more True Slaves, cutting one in half at the midsection. Her ears ringing from the weapon’s close discharge, she again stood and ran after Onan and Karn, both of whom were focused on returning to the airlock.

“I don’t believe this. We’re at the right one, right?”

The trio skidded to a halt as they came to face the airlock. The source of the strange clanging sounds now became terrifyingly apparent as their eyes rested upon the shattered airlock control panel, and the numerous monomolecular ram-bolts driven into the doors themselves, preventing them from being opened by any means.

“Use the grenade, Karn! Outer doors are still intact!” shouted Onan.

”Already used it. Besides it wouldn’t punch through these, they’re space doors.” Karn deflected, quietly wishing he had brought more grenades. His attention came to rest on Avi, whose face was white as a sheet. He followed her gaze to the largely intact second True Slave corpse, its abdomen pierced by three or four rounds, but its bizarre cranial implants fully intact. The thing’s left eye had rotted away, but the right was fixed on Avi in a loathsome unblinking stare.

“What are these things, Karn, oh god, what are they?” She was in tears and looked ready to throw up.

“They’re called True Slaves. They used to be people once, long ago. They are mad Sansha’s children, and they’ve got us trapped in here. That’s why it’s so cold in here: they’re trying to preserve themselves.”

“They mean to turn us into them, little one,” Onan groused. He glanced to the side, and picked up a heavy spanner-wrench lying in the corridor. Karn cast him a surprised glance.

“I thought you were against the use of weapons, Onan. Change of heart?”

”No, my friend… I am against killing. These unfortunate creatures are already dead.”

“Smart gun motion fix south. Smart gun motion fix west.”

“Shit. They’re trying to surround us!”

“Then we go east.”

Following the gun’s compass, they took off in the only direction not dotted with motion blips. They had not taken three steps away from the airlock when the cruise ship shook violently, and a deafening sound of tearing metal skewered into their ears.

”The window!”

Approaching a porthole near the airlock, Onan craned his neck to look along the side of the ship. His worst fears were instantly confirmed – their three Kestrels had broken away from the airlock. Perhaps, they had been broken away.

Onan decided. “The bridge. We need to make it to the bridge. It’ll have heavy doors, we can seal ourselves in, and we have ample food with us from the kitchen. We’ll wait the bastards out.”

“Oh good,” joked Karn, “more alien ass eggs.” He was doing his best to conceal his genuine fear. Being the only one with a lick of combat experience, he knew that if he showed the slightest hint of apprehension now, the other two would likely crumble under stress, starting with Avi.

They encountered no more of the creeping Sansha ghouls on their way to the bridge. Onan was right – massive, foot-thick blast doors, no doubt intended to repel or at least delay a hostile boarding party, protected the chamber. As these wheezed shut behind them, Karn turned to his gun.

“Smart gun, ammo status?”

“Smart gun, one hundred and nine rounds available.”

Exhausted from running and gunning, the trio of trapped explorers collapsed panting into the bridge crew’s command chairs. Onan opened his sack of food, and dug around in it busily, producing three instant-heat food packets and handing them out. He then offered the open bag to Karn, who looked at it with confusion for a moment, before finally cluing in and unloading his hefty haul of shiny baubles into the bag. Now he could move with a bit more freedom, and without sounding like a gambling machine hitting jackpot with every step he took.

The banging came loud and closer now, not at all distant like before. Something was hammering furiously against the massive blast doors. It was not the vibrant cadence of metal hitting metal, but perhaps flesh and bone; a dull and nauseating thump no doubt generated by something that lost all use for pain and nerve endings long ago. Then, as soon as it had started, it stopped.

“I figure they’re gonna be at it for a while. Until they get bored or break their arms, whichever comes first.” Karn dug into his meal pack hungrily. Avi couldn’t bring herself to eat.

“What if they don’t?”

“We still have a lot of ammo”, replied Karn, lying. He knew full well that even on the gun’s burst-fire setting, a hundred rounds would last for about five or six of these implacable horrors. After that, they were down to melee, and the last thing Karn wanted was a close quarters engagement with something that felt no pain. As he glanced toward Onan, he noted his sombre glare returned; clearly, the Ni-Kunni also knew they could not hold out for long, but stayed quiet to spare young Avi the fright.

“Looks like we’re stuck here”, stated Onan, finishing his meal pack and striding over to a console. “Might as well find out what the hell happened here.” He worked the controls, attempting to access Bellerophon’s artificial intelligence.

“Hmm.”

“What is it?”

“AI’s fried, or at least not responding. Maybe they got to it just now. The captain’s log is however present. Quiet down…” With this, he thumbed the playback button, and the screen in front of him slowly flickered to life. The three gathered around the console as the voice of a man long dead greeted them from beyond.

April 6, 103 EST – Successfully embarked on tour of Minmatar Republic. Passengers

having a blast. Our first stop on the itinerary is Matar with a scenic loop around Kulheim’s moons.

April 8, 103 EST – Next stop is the hanging statuary of Eram and the Triumphant Resort.

One passenger is complaining of food poisoning. I don’t know how anyone can eat that

long-limb crap. Give me a spicy pot of rassarat any day.

April 9, 103 EST – Received faint distress signal from a civilian ship. Pertaining to interstellar law, since we are the closest ship, we are duty-bound to offer aid. Some of the passengers expressed displeasure at this, but they’re mostly assholes. I’ll have the staff shut them up with discount vouchers for their next cruise.

“Wow, pretty casual sounding for a ship captain, isn’t he”, Avi intoned.

“People who command warships are a bit different from people who command cruise liners”, added Karn, half-smirking.

Onan shushed them. “Quiet, it’s still playing back.”

April 9, 103 EST – We found the source of the distress beacon. A Gallente Incursus class frigate. We were scheduled to loop through Konora system by now, and the passengers are getting restless, but damned if I’ll pass up a chance to save a countryman in order to

appease them. If they want a black hole to gawk at, I’ll show them one they won’t forget.

The Ni-Kunni chortled. “A Gallente, that explains it.”

April 10, 103 EST – We docked with the frigate and found it deserted. The capsule is empty, I have seven hundred pissed off passengers demanding refunds, and this is rapidly turning into the worst cruise this year.

April 11, 103 EST – Forget what I said in the last log entry. This is the worst cruise ever. We were planning to bypass Konora and the Ginnungagap black hole and head straight to Trieste Resort when I received a report of two passengers missing. Mon dieu.

April 15, 103 EST – I have declared an emergency aboard Bellerophon and taken her into a dust cloud until we figure out what the baise is happening. Three more passengers have gone missing and we’re getting erratic reports of systemic power drains and missing components all over the ship. We ran an internal scan and found something odd: The passenger manifest displays five missing people, but also a strange additional unidentified bio-signature we haven’t been able to locate. I fear something came aboard from that frigate. As a precaution I am firing the emergency CONCORD distress beacon and ordering all passengers to prepare for evacuation. The crew will remain behind to facilitate egress. I hope someone is listening.

April 21, 103 EST – This will be my last recording. Those things… they’re sealing us in, collapsing bulkheads and welding exterior locks shut. Some of the passengers made it to escape pods, I cannot account for the rest. I cannot abandon my crew. All I know is they’re not replying to the ship-wide PA. The number of “human” bio-signs keeps dropping, and their numbers keep growing. We have fallen back to the bridge, as it’s the most secure… wait. Devereaux! What the hell! Who opened… oh merde merde merde MERDE! They’re getting in! Oh god! What are they!

It was at this point, that the captain’s log disintegrated into a cacophony of anguished guttural screams, the sort a doomed man makes when his flesh is being torn and mangled. The three backed away from the console with a look of stark horror.

“They got in here before… that means they can get in again!”

Only now did they look down to their feet, and saw that they stood not upon deck-plate, but a smattering of dried, ancient gore. Fans of clotted blood adorned nearly every surface, something that escaped notice in the bridge’s dim illumination. There was a bloodbath here.

Cruelly flawless in its timing, the sound of the massive doors being slowly wrenched apart caused the three to leap in fright. Karn’s training took over quickly, and he slinked into cover behind a control console, steadying the Tacit Warrior against it. He pointed frantically, wordlessly ordering Avi and Onan to take shelter at the rear of the bridge. The doors cracked ever so slightly, and Karn let loose with a brief burst of fire directly between them. The rounds connected, and something made of meat hit the deck with a satisfying thud.

“Smart gun, ninety one rounds available.”

Yet still the doors were being pulled open. Bravely, Onan strode over to Karn, disregarding his order to hide. His heavy spanner was held at the ready, and the old Ni-Kunni’s eyes burned with deadly conviction. Karn admired the old Imperial for his willingness to die.

Avi cried out from the rear of the bridge. “We won’t be able to hold them! Didn’t you hear the log? There are seven hundred of them on this ship!”

With a final hiss of surrendering pistons, the doors gave way, revealing a throng of unsteadily shambling, cranially absent corpses dotted with LEDs and antennae. Karn took longer this time to steady his aim, Tacit Warrior’s gyrostabilizer aiding in the process considerably. One by one, the advancing corpses’ heads detonated in a putrid shower of decaying brain matter and arcane electronics. Closer and closer they advanced, some missing entire sections of their skulls and even everything from the neck up – a testament to Karn’s marksmanship – but still they came. One of the True Slaves demonstrated uncharacteristic tactical sense, slipping through the doors and trying to close in upon Karn from the side, using a computer bank for cover, but Onan was ready for him.

“In the name of God most Holy!” he screamed with his hoary whiskey voice, bringing the heavy spanner crashing down on top of the True Slave’s skull. It gave way with a disgusting crunch, but the True Slave was still functioning, and swiped Onan across the neck with long, ragged nails. The old Ni-Kunni gasped and stumbled backward, allowing Karn to place six center-of-mass shots into the Sansha golem, dropping it like a sack of bricks.

“Smart gun, sixty five rounds remaining.”

“Onan! Onan, are you all right?” Avi abandoned her shelter at the rear of the bridge and ran over to the old man, cradling his bloodied neck tenderly in a cupped hand. “Oh, they’re just scratches, pretty deep ones, but you’ll be fine! You’ll be fine!” The tears in her eyes told Onan all he needed to know.

Karn found himself faced with no less than ten of the stumbling corpse-drones, each trying to witlessly elbow past the other through the gaping bridge doorway. He raked them with a single quick stream of fire, dropping six or seven. The rest fell to aimed shots.

“Smart gun, seventeen rounds remaining. Ammunition expenditure imminent.”

Coughing crimson, Onan rose to his feet. He glanced about the bridge for more suitable a weapon than the blood-slicked spanner in his hand. He did not glance for long before his eyes came to rest on a plain square hatch on the rear wall of the bridge. He squinted, trying to make out the gore-obscured text printed thereon.

“That’s it.” Onan pointed.

Karn glanced over his shoulder for but a moment, already taking aim at the next wave of True Slaves. “What?”

“The pod.”

“I’m not following.”

He leaned closer to Karn, almost whispering, ensuring Avi could not hear. “We’re dead men, Karn. We have lived good lives but there is no getting out from this. Her on the other hand…” He motioned to the weeping, terrified girl with a subtle nod. Karn returned it.

Another savage burst of fire decimated the slogging wave of gray, gurgling bodies. As soon as they dropped dead, Karn and Onan seized Avi Tarken by the shoulders, prompting her to yelp in surprise. She fought, but was powerless against the two stronger men as they dragged her over to the capsule ingress hatch.

“Get in!” screamed Karn, turning to pepper the incoming True Slaves with more fire.

“Smart gun, two rounds remaining. Ammunition expenditure imminent.”

“No, I’m not leaving you! Keep firing! Why did you stop firing? You still have two bullets, they’re coming! Karn! Shoot! Shoot!”

Onan placed a hand on her shoulder, his breath rasping and his warm voice laboured. The blood from his neck wound had spread to form a crimson bib upon his shirt. “Little one… the pod has life support for but one person. Someone has to get out and tell the universe what happened here. Go on. It is my fault that we are here, and our greed has led God to punish us. Let us men of war do one last gallant thing to reclaim our place in paradise.”

Avi struggled, almost overpowering the weakened Onan, when Karn gave her a final shove and she fell backward into the egg-shaped pool of sludge. “Keep shooting! You still have two bullets!” she repeated, pleading for Karn to make some effort to defending himself. The things were only a few paces away now.

Karn slammed the capsule’s external control panel, and the egg shaped lid slowly began to descend over Avi. In moments it would seal her in an impregnable barrier – even these monstrosities would not be able to crack a shell wrought of complex fullerene. Before it closed completely, Avi burst from the pod and tearfully embraced Karn, leaving him slick with sludge.

“Keep firing,” she whispered in his ear. “You still have two…”

Karn held her close, and whispered back into hers. “The last two… are for us.”

She backed away from him, shock registering on her face. Shattered, she reclined in the capsule, and allowed it to close over her like a clamshell. As soon as it was secure, and the locking clamps engaged, Karn brought the butt of Tacit Warrior furiously down upon the external control panel, shattering it and rendering it inoperable. If only to buy her a few more seconds, he thought.

She heard one shot, and screamed. Then she heard the other, and wept once more. They would rather have taken their own lives, than become those… things. Her pod erupted from the damned cruise liner’s ejection hatch shortly thereafter, propelled clear away from the streamlined hulk by small explosive charges.

She clutched Karn’s necklace in her softly shaking hand.

This story originally appeared in E-ON Magazine.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm

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