Prologue – The Dead Ship
“Blackest Space…she’s real,” Scapa breathed, staring out of the viewport at the huge object they were cautiously approaching while his hands continued their experienced dance across his vessel’s control panel, “the damn brainbox wasn’t lying. She’s really here.”
“Here” was an otherwise empty stretch of space, remarkable only by how unremarkable it was. Besides Scapa and his crew, there was nothing else out here, so far from the galactic plane. No stars, no planets, not even a pebble floated nearby to relieve the oppressive emptiness. Nothing, except the Ship.
“This is what you’ve been searching for, Captain?” his first mate Dallas inquired in her own melodious language, her alien throat and beaked face ill-equipped to reproduce human speech.
“Only my entire life,” Scapa Flow, Captain of the deep space salvage tug the Rift Diver confirmed.
“Who is she?” Dallas asked.
“Who!? Who is she!?” Scapa sputtered, “she’s the Flying Dutchman. The Marie Celeste. The Event Horizon. She’s the fucking Anomaly!”
Dallas swiveled a predatory yellow-rimmed eye onto her excitable captain and ruffled her head feathers in the Torb’n equivalent of a confused shrug.
“Barbarians,” Scapa complained, “I’m surrounded by ignorant barbarians.”
“What we have here,” he gestured to the enormous hulk the Rift Diver was slowly sidling up to, like a minnow to a blue whale, “is a ship that shouldn’t exist. But she does exist, and she has existed for a long, long time. There is some evidence that she is over three thousand cycles old, maybe more.”
“So it’s an old ship. What’s so special about that? We’re a salvage operation. We’ve seen old ships before. They are, to borrow a human expression, our bread and butter. That Kwann hauler we pulled in on our last contract was probably just as old. Space, that creepy Scholar Construct you insisted on speaking with before this run is probably closer to a million cycles old.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing,” Scapa waggled a finger at his first mate triumphantly, “the brainboxes are an elder race and have been around longer than either of our species even existed. And the Kwann were already traveling the stars when my people were still crouching in caves and poking each other with pointy sticks. Check the data. How long does it say humans have been an interstellar species?”
“Hmm, the computer says about a thousand cycles,” Dallas warbled.
“Yeah, that’s what everybody says,” Scapa replied, “but they’re wrong. Look!”
The Rift Diver had completed her circumnavigation of the drifting space hulk, and Scapa had focused her powerful searchlights on the enormous nameplate painted on the derelict’s hull, each gargantuan letter larger than Scapa’s entire ship. Ark Four, the surprisingly well preserved white and blue letters read in the blocky script Dallas recognized as the written form of the human language.
“Do you see?” Scapa grinned, “that’s a human ship out there, but she is too old, and too big, and too advanced to have been made by any of the existing human colony worlds.”
“What does that mean?” Dallas asked.
“It means that she’s come from somewhere else. Somewhere we humans lost a long time ago. Somewhere most of my people just consider a myth.”
“Where is that?”
“Home,” Scapa answered, “that ship was built on Earth.”
“And now,” he rubbed his hands together with gleeful avarice, “she’s all ours. Tell Numbers and the Martian to suit up. We’re going in.”
The old ship appeared dead, its intimidating bulk dark and cold. The Rift Diver’s hails provoked no response, and their scans returned no evidence of power or life. Their cautious flyby had found no signs of significant damage, other than a modest amount of pitting and scarring on the ship’s armored gray hull, courtesy of a few millennia of impacts with spaceborn debris, so it really appeared to be in rather good shape considering its age. From their external scans, Scapa had found no immediate explanation for why the ancient human ship was abandoned. After satisfying himself that his prize was, on the outside at least, mostly intact, Scapa gently brought the Diver in for landing, the process complicated by the slow rolling of the derelict. Finally aligned with his chosen landing site, magnetic grapples shot out from the bottom of the Rift Diver and clamped securely onto the larger ship’s unpainted hull, pulling the salvage vessel in tight against the wreck, like a mosquito onto the back of a corpse. Looking much like a mosquito’s proboscis, an articulated boarding tube was next to deploy, smart material forming a secure seal around the external hatch Scapa had targeted with his landing. Once the Diver was locked in place, Scapa left control of the bridge in his first mate’s capable talons, and shrugged quickly into his exosuit. Dallas, a Torb’n renegade, and possibly the only one of her kind to have ever gone into space, was simply too tall and too strangely jointed to fit into the generic human-shaped exosuits Scapa had stocked onboard the Diver, so until and unless the wreck could be powered back up and filled with atmosphere, she would remain comfortably protected in the Diver, providing coordination and oversight via the remainder of the crew’s helmet communicators and HUDs as they made their way through their prize.
Scapa, on the other hand had no intention of staying safe and cozy on the Diver when he could risk life and limb wandering through a dark and mysterious ghost ship from humanity’s forgotten past. Dodging low hanging pipes and a pile of boxes he could have sworn he already told someone to move, Scapa jog-walked through the cramped corridors of his utilitarian ship until he met with the remaining two members of his crew at the Rift Diver’s airlock door.
Unlike Dallas, these two were able to fit into the human-shaped exo-suits. Like his captain, Numbers was a human male, but compared to the dark-skinned and somewhat portly Scapa, he was frightfully pale, with the stretched and brittle look of someone who had spent their formative years in zero gravity. Scapa truthfully didn’t know much about the man, beyond the fact that he had escaped from some sort of laboratory facility, where he had been an unwilling participant in various unpleasant experiments. The trauma the man experienced there had left him nonverbal, physically scarred, and terrified of crowds, but the biggest changes had been to his brain. Whatever was done to his mind had turned him into a genius, but left him compulsively obsessed with numbers, thus the name Scapa had given him. Dallas had once spilled an entire bag of rice when preparing dinner, and Numbers had been inconsolable until he was allowed to count every grain. The damaged man’s quirks were often an inconvenience, and indeed sometimes rather troubling, but he was even better than the Rift Diver’s glitchy computer system at keeping track of their outfit’s inventories and expenses, and Scapa begrudgingly admitted that the damaged man’s financial wizardry was often the only thing keeping the Diver out collecting salvage instead of becoming salvage itself.
The fourth and final member of Scapa’s crew was another alien. Kharakum Lesser was radeacheri, one of the small-bodied, grey-skinned bipedal aliens whose territory bordered humanity’s own, and whose gifts of FTL technology had helped turn the humans from a fractured and declining species trapped on a handful of disintegrating O’Neill cylinders orbiting uninhabitable worlds in undesirable systems, into a burgeoning galactic power. Although smaller and weaker than Scapa or Numbers, Kharakum was quick and clever, and his technical abilities made him an invaluable member of the team. He was too polite to ask why his captain insisted on calling him “The Martian,” and Scapa couldn’t have given him a satisfying answer even if he did. That’s just what humans called the little grey aliens. Nobody remembered why.
“Ready lads?” Scapa asked as he joined his crew at the floor hatch.
“Ready sir,” Kharakum confirmed. Numbers rocked a little and flapped his hands. He was ready too.
“Alright then,” Scapa twisted open the hatch in the floor, exposing the Rift Diver’s cramped airlock, “down we go.”
Dropping through the narrow opening, he helped the smaller Kharakum shimmy down behind him, and then both men squeezed to the side of the chamber to give Numbers as much space as possible as he slithered down as well. Once all three were in, Numbers dogged the hatch shut and Scapa radioed Dallas to cycle the pumps, emptying the airlock of air. After the pressure dropped, the second airlock door opened beneath their feet, dumping them unceremoniously down into the vacuum-filled boarding tube which led to the anomalous Ark 4.
The switch from the Rift Diver’s artificial gravity to free fall was always a bit unsettling, but the three men had years of experience with this maneuver, and were each able to deftly propel themselves down the boarding tube feet first until they made contact with the hull of the larger ship, and engaged the electromagnets on the bottoms of their boots.
The old ship may have once had top of the line security protocols on its external service hatches, but they were three thousand cycles out of date. It took Kharakum almost no time at all to patch his tablet in to the door control pad and bypass the locks.
“Okay Captain, you can open it now,” he radioed.
“Wait,” Scapa replied, “this is a Big Moment. Shouldn’t we say something clever, you know, for the history books?”
“I don’t know, I can’t think of anything! What about you?”
“I hope…we get rich,” Kharakum said. Numbers wasn’t even paying attention, and had instead become fascinated by a smudge on his exo-suit glove. He of course said nothing at all.
“Barbarians,” Scapa said, his lamentation a familiar one to his crew. Then he pulled open the hatch.
Kilometers away, deep in the bowels of the ancient ship, a light blinked on.
Chapter I – The Disobedient Princess
The damage didn’t look that bad from up close. A small micrometeoroid puncture and some hairline cracks in the hull of one of the ancillary cargo holds seemed to be the extent of it.
Vasiliy would have breathed a sigh of relief, if his lungs hadn’t been frozen. When the impact alarms woke him just an hour before, he had feared the worst. He flexed his fingers, flakes of ice cracking free and floating away to get lost in the debris cloud which spread out for miles behind the ship and its captive comet. He needn’t have worried; this was something he could fix. Even so, the minor scarring was troubling proof that the Night Ripper’s shields weren’t what they used to be. His ship was getting old.
If he could have snorted, he would have. His ship had been getting old for thousands of cycles.
Vasiliy curled his nimble toes around the exposed rivets on a support buttress, working to keep himself stationary as he directed a spray of smart ceramic into the fist-sized hole. Once the canister was depleted, he tossed it lazily into the cloud as well. That was against code, but the odds of anybody or anything passing through this desolate patch of space again within the next million standard cycles were extremely low.
Even if somebody did happen by, Vasiliy was near the end of this harvest, the errant asteroid his asymmetrical vessel lurked beside already stripped of useful volatiles. He would soon be long gone. That is, if his makeshift repair held.
He knew that it would take more than a simple pebble impact for his ship to be in any real danger, but major repairs would have wasted valuable time. Even with the new self-replicating nanotech he had purchased, an extensive hull repair could have taken weeks to complete. In the violently competitive world of deep space mining, weeks could sometimes mean the difference between a lucrative pay day and a failed expedition.
Humans had been travelling between the stars for a long time, and throughout that entire timespan an important fact remained unchanged. The galaxy was a big place, and it was mostly empty. Where there should be life, there wasn’t. Where there could have been life, there wasn’t. Where there had been life…there wasn’t. Frustratingly, there was evidence that the galaxy had once been much more crowded. Ancient ruins could be found on dead world after dead world, murdered planets whose devastation made the loss of Old Earth seem paltry and mundane by comparison. Drifting space hulks of immense size and unfathomable technology were seeded throughout the inky depths of space. Ruined ring worlds, destroyed disc worlds, devastated Dyson spheres, obliterated O’Neill cylinders. All had been found, and all had been found abandoned. Myths and legends existed everywhere, but of the elder races who had created the ruins, there was no sign. Nor were there any clues as to what had caused the mass extinction which had left the galaxy free for the taking by humanity and the handful of other similarly young and energetic species now drifting in from the edges.
It was a slow drift too. Those long departed ancient aliens may well have discovered the secret to instantaneous space travel, but for humanity, even with the knowledge of a half-dozen allied alien races, and the most advanced FTL propulsion technologies available, travel between colonized systems took time. Colonization efforts meant they were now in a post-post-scarcity economy. The resource needs of all those far flung colonies were many and varied. Conveniently exploitable resources were less abundant.
In relative terms, the outer edge of the galaxy was just now becoming populated once again, its resources owned, regulated, and harvested by various competing empires, republics, hegemonies, theocracies, oligarchies, anarchies, and most significantly, uber-corporations of both human and non-human construction. Entire kingdoms unto themselves, these rich and powerful corporate entities held tightly controlled monopolies, bankrolling huge fleets of industrial class mining ships, behemoths that could strip entire planets of useful elements in a matter of weeks. Around the still mostly unexplored galactic core however, where secrets were old, stars were young, and current civilizations even younger, corporate rule had not yet penetrated, and there remained ample opportunities for smaller scale expeditionary mining operations. As the only crewman in an unaffiliated fleet consisting of exactly one ship, Vasiliy was reasonably certain his operation was the smallest.
Not that the ship itself was small. Far from it. The Night Ripper was almost 42 kilometers long, and had started life as one of nine sublight speed generation ships, part of a fleet that had launched countless cycles ago, her original crew desperately fleeing from the resource wars of Old Earth with thousands of hopeful colonists stacked like cordwood in the prototype cryogenic coffins which lined her holds. At some point in their centuries long flight, something bad happened. Her eight sister ships and all of those colonists were never seen again.
In the following millennia, the ship reappeared periodically, always with a different name, often with a new owner and a new crew. Sometimes she was recognized. Mostly, she was not.
Little of the vessel’s original systems survived unaltered. One owner after another had upgraded, modified, and bastardized the ship in oftentimes vain efforts to adapt her to changing purposes and technologies. In her current incarnation as a long range miner, the Night Ripper was surprisingly efficient. When she was working.
The Night Ripper would never be mistaken for an atmospheric capable craft. She was an ungainly stretched ovoid shape, her lower half larger and longer than her upper half, making it look like her upper and lower decks had been built by two different shipyards, who only upon completion realized that one of them had used the wrong unit of measure, but then they decided to weld the two mismatched halves together anyway. Basically, she had an under bite. Adding insult to injury, thanks to millennia of practical modifications that completely disregarded aesthetics, external cargo pods and modular habitats now protruded haphazardly from her main superstructure like fatty tumors on an old dog. Her bow featured a small forest of pointed antennae and sensor spikes and her stern was dominated by enormous drive blisters and engine nacelles. If Vasiliy hadn’t once bribed a military shipyard to paint her an expensive uniform midnight black, she could easily be mistaken for the flash welded rubble from a devastating multi-ship accident. The vantablack paint was designed to minimize a small fighter or interceptor class craft’s visibility and sensor signature while running covert operations in deep space. Those ships had complex cooling systems and insulated heat shields to minimize their sensor profiles which, along with the stealth paint, made them very nearly invisible to most human sensor technology. For a ship the size of Night Ripper however, with her massively large, powerful, and inefficient engine systems, all it did was help hide some of her flaws.
There were more of those every day.
Vasiliy’s repair of the newest flaw completed, he sprung off from his perch, angling his body expertly as he floated along the spine of the ship. Vasiliy’s flight took him along the patch-worked and oft-repaired outer hull toward the steeple shaped blister amidships which housed the bridge and his living quarters. At the base of the steeple, a hatch stood open, yellow light leaking out to do battle with the dark of space. Thanks to countless cycles of zero-G experience, Vasiliy’s trajectory was perfect, and he was able to spin gracefully for a feet first landing as the double portal irised shut behind him. Now airtight once again, the ship’s automated systems kicked in, filling empty vacuum with heat and air.
Vasiliy bounded off down the corridor, his leaping strides becoming shorter and shorter as the Night Ripper rebuilt her artificial gravity. He welcomed the painful tingle as his body thawed, since the air circulating through his lungs meant he would soon be able to communicate with his ship once again. By the time he reached the bridge, his strides were almost normal; the artificial gravity plateaued at about one-third earth standard here, away from the strange matter plates bonded along the ship’s central core. The Night Ripper wasn’t quite so old that she had to rely on centrifugal force or acceleration for artificial gravity, but the charged strange matter system she did have was rudimentary at best. It would never feel natural to Vasiliy, but it was sufficient for purposes of mobility. He didn’t have to worry about bone density loss with his metabolism, and any higher would strain the ancient ship’s cobbled together systems.
“How do I look?” Night Ripper’s voice filled the bridge, now that there was enough air for sounds to travel efficiently.
Vasiliy popped his jaw a few times before answering solemnly, “I’m sorry Ripper, but there was nothing I could do for you.”
“There…there wasn’t?” the AI’s digital voice trembled. The Night Ripper was a good ship, but her quirky programming made her prone to theatrics.
“Nope,” Vasiliy answered slyly, “you’re still fat and ugly.”
“Vasiliy! That’s not funny!”
Part of Night Ripper’s non-standard computing core had been salvaged from a sleek military star-fighter, and the integration had never fully processed. That part of her electronic soul had a hard time reconciling fragmentary memories of what once was with the ship’s current form. She was self-conscious about her weight.
“I know, I apologize. The damage was very minor, I took care of it. You’re good as new.”
“Nothing about me is as good as new, least of all the captain,” Night Ripper retorted.
Vasiliy clutched his pale chest in mock anguish. “Cease your hurtful words my lady, lest I die of a broken heart, and then where would you be?”
“Flying my fat ass back to civilization, that’s where. Just because you don’t have any friends doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely on these long trips.”
Vasiliy settled back into his captain’s chair with a shrug. Friends were…problematic. Besides, he liked the peace and quiet. At least he didn’t have to wear clothes when he was alone.
“Plug me in Ripper; we’re done with this rock. Let’s head back to Station for better repairs before we deliver this load to market.” At his command, cables snaked from the sides of his chair, driving needle points into his body and skull. As his consciousness grew and merged with his ship, he could still hear her complaints crackling over the bridge speakers.
“Station? And that’s supposed to make me happier? Have you seen the kind of ships that frequent that place? They’re probably all pirates. I’ll be lucky if I’m not forcefully boarded…”
Station was just that. A big space station. Torus shaped and massive, its main superstructure was composed of a dull brown metal that defied identification, from which mundane titanium spokes, which were clearly recent retrofits, led out to various sized docking clamps and tethers. Constructed an unfathomably long time in the distant past for unknown purposes by one of those mysteriously departed elder races, and rediscovered just a few centuries ago by a Kwann Hegemony World Fleet governor with more ambition than good sense, the place was…underwhelming. After pouring massive amounts of credits into renovating and updating the antique deathtrap in a vain attempt to build an off-the-books grey economy resort paradise, the governor only succeeded in making the structure moderately habitable for some species, and entirely uncomfortable for most, in addition to bankrupting his world fleet, setting Kwann expansion efforts in the region back by decades, and ultimately dying in a suspiciously under-investigated “accident”.
Vasiliy shared some of Night Ripper’s misgivings regarding the place, but their current proximity suited his desire to quickly unload his current cargo. That, and the structure was so dilapidated that the current management, a loose and fractious coalition of independent business entities and tribal spacer interests, were usually desperate for the types of volatiles and processed ores that Night Ripper carried, so Vasiliy generally departed at least somewhat satisfied with the results of his negotiations.
Of course, if he was honest with himself, quick sales aside, there may have been one or two additional reasons why he liked to visit Station more often than not.
The Flights End was a dive with a nasty reputation. Not that it was entirely undeserved, Kat ruefully admitted to herself as she wiped her rag compulsively across the pitted and scarred bar top. The bar, like all of the furniture in the dark and cluttered room, was made from repurposed bits of wrecked spacecraft. Li Dian, the half-mad proprietor, had a thing for spaceship wrecks ever since a plasma core explosion ended his flying career. He had survived the loss of his ship, barely, but had been marooned on Station ever since. Crippled from the waist down, he was lucky to be alive at all. Not many of the wrecks incorporated into the End’s macabre décor had survivors. Even the name of the bar was creepy if its thirsty patrons bothered to think about it.
Li Dian’s obsession was unsettling, but that didn’t keep his establishment from doing brisk business. Li’s firewater was the most powerful distillate on Station that, if enjoyed in moderation, wasn’t guaranteed to make you go blind. It seemed to Kat that every spacer who docked at Station eventually claimed a place on one of the Flights End’s uncomfortable bar stools.
Kat’s breath hitched as a familiar figure darkened the front entrance. Even Him.
“Vasiliy,” she whispered excitedly, blushing. She hadn’t realized he was around. It didn’t take long for word to spread throughout Station when the Night Ripper was docked. The fact that she had heard nothing meant he must have only just arrived. His strange black ship was almost as big as Station itself, and rumors wreathed it like a cloak. When a ship as old, and big, and mysterious as the Night Ripper was in local space, people took notice.
Still slouched in the door frame, the pilot smiled slightly as if he had heard her, which of course was impossible. The Flights End wasn’t busy, but it was loud. The few grizzled spacemen, spacewomen, and ungendered spacebeings clustered around one table were arguing boisterously about something, a Tinker cyborg slumped drooling in the corner, a bonded pair of Kwann Dreamers were playing a fast paced dice game, and the semi-sentient music box in the center of the room was shuffling through its favorite jazz progressions.
Kat beckoned the new arrival to come inside. As always, Vasiliy had waited patiently for her acknowledgement before entering the bar.
“Katherine,” he nodded politely as he took a seat in front of her.
“Vasiliy, you know that if the door is open, we’re still serving. You don’t need an invitation to come in.”
“What can I say?” Vasiliy’s quick grin showed surprisingly white teeth, “I’m old-fashioned.”
Kat wiped an imaginary smudge from a bar glass with her rag as she studied the slender pilot. She did not offer him a drink. Vasiliy had been an infrequent visitor to Station for at least as many cycles as Kat had worked for Li Dian. Even if nobody ever saw any of his crew, fueling wild rumors about their health, habits, and even species, he himself always stopped by Flights End while his ship was being unloaded and prepped for its next trip out. In all that time, she had never seen him order anything from the kitchen or the bar. She wasn’t surprised about the kitchen. Everybody knew better than to eat Li Dian’s cooking.
She remembered their first meeting, almost five standard cycles ago. Then, like now, he had appeared in the doorway, looking mildly uncomfortable in his utilitarian flight suit. The suit was an older style, very retro, Li Dian had declared approvingly. On that occasion the old man had been behind the bar and almost sober, his wilted frame supported by a homemade exoskeletal power suit as he instructed his newest employee on the fine art of getting spacers drunk.
Kat had been surprised when her new boss actually clanked out from behind the bar on his artificial legs and greeted the youthful looking customer at the door. It had taken her no time at all to learn that Li Dian rarely showed anyone younger than himself even a modicum of civility. Li Dian had reached a state of advanced curmudgeonly decrepitude where he no longer bothered to make new friends, and most of the ones he once had were long dead from old age, accidents, or worse. And yet, the old man’s respect for this oddly dressed spacer was obvious even from the other side of the room, and incredibly curious. With the arrival of the stranger, the normally taciturn Li Dian had become almost chatty. Li Dian had even introduced her in passing as the two men made their way back to his office behind the kitchen.
Left alone to run the bar for the rest of her shift, Kat should have had little time to think about Li Dian’s mysterious visitor. She had thought about little else.
She guessed him to be about thirty cycles old then, at most. Now, she wasn’t so sure. It had been five cycles since that first meeting, and visually Vasiliy didn’t seem to have aged a day. Some people were lucky like that, Kat knew. Spacers especially, if they spent extended periods of time in cryosleep during long flights. She stared at the dry skin of her hands as they clenched unhappily on top of the bar. There were no cryogenic-coffins on Station. Even if she was now only approaching thirty herself, she worried that every minute of the past five cycles could be seen on her face and figure.
Vasiliy reached out over the bar and patted one of her hands with his own. Kat shivered involuntarily. His long fingered hand was cold. He must have come straight from his strange archaic flying cathedral of a ship to the bar. Station’s frugal management kept the temperature on the maintenance level to which the Night Ripper was undoubtedly tethered just above freezing.
“Is Li Dian here?” Vasiliy asked quietly, his accent, so unlike anything Kat had ever heard before, sounding as musical to her ears as ever.
“Yeah, he’s in back, in his office.” Kat replied, mesmerized by Vasiliy’s gaze. The man was pale, space pale, and kept his dark hair cropped short, in a standard shipman’s cut, but behind his long lashes his very non-standard eyes were an intoxicating silver that seemed to soak up and reflect back what little ambient light was available in the Flights End’s dim environs.
Genetically or mechanically modified eyes were a familiar sight amongst human males who spent any significant period of time between the stars. A med-student friend had once explained to Kat why the men of her species were much more likely than women to suffer irreparable eye damage from extended exposure to zero-G. She couldn’t really remember the physiological reason for the phenomenon, but she was certainly used to seeing the red glow of bionics, or the disconcerting film of secondary eyelids on the space faring human male denizens of Station. Vasiliy’s eyes were somehow different. While unusual, they seemed…natural. Kat supposed a man wealthy enough to own his own ship could pay for better modifications than the riff-raff she usually saw hunched over her bar. The eyes were just another part of Vasiliy’s mystery.
As always, Vasiliy’s gaze kept drifting from her face onto her long dark red hair. He had told her once, cycles ago, that he loved its color. She hadn’t the heart to tell him it was a dye job. She had stocked up on a generous supply of the coloring agent however.
“If it’s all right, I would like to go back and say hello,” Vasiliy nodded back in the direction of Li’s office.
“Of course, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
“You know Katherine,” Vasiliy responded, as he let himself through the kitchen door, “I don’t think he will.”
Kat laughed, although she wasn’t sure Vasiliy had been joking.
Minutes turned into hours that seemed like day cycles. Kat’s shift dragged on, the tedium barely alleviated by a pathetic trickle of customers. She kept sneaking peeks into the rear of the kitchen, hoping to catch a glimpse of Vasiliy, but the bulkhead door into Li Dian’s office remained resolutely closed. She would have happily wandered back there, just to visit for a moment, but she was the only person working, and the last time she had snuck out and left the music box in charge, the Flights End lost nearly its entire stock of unlocked inventory to opportunistic thieves within minutes. Li Dian was still garnishing her wages for that particular disaster.
Eventually, the bar emptied. Kat sealed the door with a relieved sigh, and did one last lap, to make sure nobody had passed out in a dark corner or the cramped lavatory. Satisfied that she was the only person left, she made a note to remind Li Dian that the air purifier was acting up again, then told the music box to get some sleep, and began to make her way back toward the neglected kitchen, and the office beyond.
She paused. The distinct thud of multiple pairs of hard soled shoes could be heard in the corridor outside of the Flights End, and they were getting steadily louder. Kat rolled her eyes. There was only one place where that many people could be going on Station at this late hour. Her suspicion proved correct when, moments later, an insistent tapping began at the door she had just closed.
Sighing good naturedly, Kat palmed the control pad, preparing to disappoint this newest crop of thirsty spacers. The door irised open.
“Sorry guys, but we’re closed,” she began, before cutting herself off. The men standing before her weren’t thirsty spacers.
Station was a rowdy, low class, rough and tumble place, frequented by rowdy, low class, rough and tumble people. It was a broken down hulk in an out of the way backwater of the galaxy, without a parent star or even a runaway planetoid to orbit. If it didn’t mark the midway point between multiple stable T-state drop nodes, it likely wouldn’t exist at all. It was a pass through, a glorified truck stop on the galactic highway. That was why, when the men in the business suits filed quietly into the Flights End, she knew she was in trouble. People who belonged on Station did not wear business suits.
There was no doubt in her mind that they were there for her.
“Good evening,” the first greeted her, grinning meanly, “I’m Randal Craig.”
There were eight of them. She didn’t give the rest a chance to introduce themselves.
“Who sent you?”
“Your father sent us,” Craig responded. The man’s voice was calm, soothing. She hated it. “You’re a hard woman to find Miss Loster.”
“Obviously not hard enough.”
“No, not hard enough.”
“Well, congratulations, you found me. You can tell my father I’m completely safe. Now see yourselves out.”
“Oh no, we’ll be taking you with us. I don’t imagine you’ll complain,” Randal Craig wrinkled his nose in disgust, “this place stinks.”
Station did stink, the stale recycled smell of inefficient air circulators and expired filters layered over the aroma of too many unwashed bodies of various species, each more pungent than the last, all living in close proximity. It was a respiratory infection waiting to happen, and Kat hated it with all her heart.
“No, thank you,” she informed Craig, “I’d much rather stay here.”
Randal Craig’s velvety voice hardened to steel, “I’m very sorry Miss Loster, but that isn’t an option. Your father’s orders were quite clear. You’re going to have to come with us.”
Kat fought the urge to cry. She had left home ten cycles ago, and had no desire to go back, but it appeared that the decision had been taken from her. She knew what kind of people her father employed; these men were likely trained killers, disciplined and merciless. They clogged the door, which remained tantalizingly, cruelly open; effectively blocking the only route she may have taken to flee. Even though, if they really had been sent by her father, they probably had strict orders not to injure her, they would have no problem stopping her should she try to make a run for it.
The man who had spoken smiled a smile that never reached his eyes. He knew she saw the truth. There was no getting out of this. She had fled to the furthest, most out of the way spot imaginable, and still they had found her. Her flight ended here. At the Flight’s End.
It was almost funny.
She half-giggled, half-sobbed, then jumped, only partially stifling a shriek when somebody placed a hand on her shoulder. She whirled around to face her attacker. It was Li Dian, his withered body supported by his hydraulic exo-skeleton. Unnoticed by Kat, the old man had laboriously clanked out from his office, and now stood in clear support of the young bartender.
“You alright, girl?” Li Dian’s hand remained protectively on her shoulder. His voice was strong and steady, but Kat could feel his hand trembling through the thin fabric of her shirt.
“Stay out of this old man,” Craig replied for her, “This doesn’t concern you. The girl is coming with us.”
“Do you wish to go with these men?” Li Dian asked.
“No,” she whispered.
Li Dian shrugged at the eight strangers apologetically with his hands spread as if to say sorry, I tried. “Well, there you have it fellows. She doesn’t want to go.”
Craig laughed harshly. “And who is going to stop us from taking her old man? You?”
“Me?” Li Dian smiled a nasty, rotten-toothed smile, “No. Not me. Him.”
Kat jumped, startled again. Somebody else was suddenly standing in the center of the room, between her and her and the threatening men. It was Vasiliy.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “you should leave now.”
Kat did not think of Vasiliy as intimidating. He was tall, but not very tall, and he was slender, with the willowy body of a spacer. The men facing him on the other hand were built like brick shithouses. Lined up in a row like that, they were an entire neighborhood of brick shithouses. A suburb. Vasiliy was standing in their circular cul-de-sac. They all had the thick, lumpy physiques which marked them as natives of a high-gravity home world. They would be freakishly strong, and quick too. Such men and women were prized for their resilience; they were often hired as military or security personnel. Kat was not surprised that some high-g mercenaries had made their way into her father’s employ.
She was surprised however that Vasiliy did not seem at all scared by them. He stood casually, a lone sheep among wolves, empty hands by his sides.
“Vasiliy, don’t,” she began, “these men are dangerous.”
His reply was quiet. “They are only men.”
Craig sighed in disgust. “Don’t be a hero, spaceman,” he said, suddenly holding a dart gun in his boulder-like fist, its barrel pointed unwaveringly at Vasiliy.
“We’re leaving,” he addressed his companions, “grab the girl.”
The men responded swiftly to the order, excited to be completing their mission.
Vasiliy moved quicker.
Kat wasn’t sure what happened. One moment, Randal Craig loomed with his gun pointed at Vasiliy, who stood almost three meters away. The next moment, Craig was somehow lying on the ground, staring in shock at the shattered ruin where his gun hand used to be, and Vasiliy was stepping casually over him as he stalked toward the other stunned mercenaries, who hadn’t even begun to react.
Li Dian’s grip on Kat’s shoulder became painfully tight. Yanking violently, he pulled her around the bar, and shoved her down behind it, crouching beside her as low as his mechanical legs would allow.
Kat covered her ears with her fists, her eyes clenched tight as she tried to block out what was happening in the Flight’s End. Vasiliy had moved impossibly fast. He had attacked eight trained killers, empty-handed. Only Li Dian hadn’t seemed surprised by that. Kat ground her knuckles harder against her ears but she still couldn’t fully keep out the sound of the horrors happening on the other side of the bar.
Vasiliy had said they were only men.
Only some of the screams were her own.
What was he?
“She’s not coming with me.” Vasiliy shook his head adamantly, “It’s not going to happen. It can’t happen. Where would I even put her? You know Ripper ‘s systems aren’t very reliable. They might not be able to handle…” his voice dropped, “they might not be able to handle a human’s needs. What if they fail mid-trip? She could die!”
Li Dian groaned in frustration. The argument had begun once they finished cleaning up the Flights End, getting rid of what little had remained of Katherine’s would-be kidnappers. Katherine herself had been taken back to the cot in Li Dian’s office where, after polishing off half a bottle of his most potent medicine, she now dozed fitfully.
“Ripper’s a good girl. She’ll outlast us all and you know it. Besides, she could use a friend. A female friend, damn you. And Katherine is in trouble. These won’t be the last mercs coming here Vasiliy. You heard what they called her. Loster. Our Kat is Katherine Loster. Of the Loster-Yutani Losters! Even living out among your comets and asteroids you know what that means, damn it! If she stays here, they will come again, and they will take her. I’m just one crippled old man. I can’t protect her from them Vasiliy. You can.”
“Maybe, my friend,” Vasiliy refused to meet Li Dian’s eyes, “but who will protect her from me?”
That gave Li Dian pause. “Oh Vasiliy… you need to forgive yourself. That was a long time ago. It’s not going to happen again. I trust you. And you owe me.”
‘I know I do, but,” Vasiliy began.
“No. You owe me. Get Kat somewhere safe and we’re even.”
Vasiliy shook his head again, this time in defeat, “I’m going to regret this.”
Li Dian watched his old friend depart from the Flight’s End, his slender arm around a still tipsy Katherine. Vasiliy would be back around of course, but he was going to miss the girl. Princess or no, she was a good bartender, and good help was hard to find in this spiral. Oh well, he’d manage. He always did. His lips quirked into a smirk. The surprise his regular customers were going to get when they started straggling through his door in a few hours and saw his ugly troll frown waiting for them instead of Kat’s smiling face would be a pleasure, but nothing compared to the surprises he knew awaited the poor woman on the Night Ripper. He couldn’t wait for Vasiliy to return so he could hear that story. Li Dian allowed his smirk to blossom into a full grin. In the meantime, he had some new souvenirs to add to the décor. He spent the next few hours happily contemplating where to hang up the oversized shoes he had harvested from the deceased mercenaries. He tried out, and decided against several likely locations, and ultimately had to leave the task undone when his first customers for the day arrived. That was okay. It didn’t do to rush these things. He’d find the perfect place eventually.
“Ripper, open up!” Vasiliy banged his palm against his ship’s hull again. He and Kat were crowded into the umbilical tube leading from Station to the ship, which was neither warm nor comfortable. Ripper was too big to fit in any of Station’s pressurized repair bays, so he had to settle for what repairs could be done by its mechanics in hard vacuum.
“No!” her voice crackled from the speaker beside the hatch, “there’s a girl with you!”
“Yes, I know. She’s a friend.”
“She’s pointing a gun at you.”
“Be that as it may, she’s still a friend, so let us in!”
Night Ripper wasn’t wrong. Kat had indeed acquired the late and unlamented Randal Craig’s needlegun, and it was once again pointed directly at Vasiliy. He was really starting to hate that gun. Even at point blank range, it presented no real danger to his super tough skin but still, it was the principle of the matter. Kat pointing the gun at him hurt his feelings.
He had to admit, gun and all, she was taking it pretty well. It being the revelation about his true nature. At least she hadn’t run away screaming. Well, technically she had, but Station isn’t that big of a place, and she had returned to the bar eventually. Their second conversation had gone much smoother.
“So… you’re a…” she choked on the word, “a vampire.”
“Yes… And you are Loster-Yutani’s runaway princess.”
“Honestly,” Vasiliy grinned, “I never thought you were real.”
“You never thought I was real!? Ha!”
“Well you have to admit, it does seem a little far-fetched. Young Katherine Loster, the only biological daughter of Peter Loster, the undisputed ruler of the Loster-Yutani mercantile plutocracy and arguably the most powerful human being in the galaxy, is ordered to marry the crown prince of Persephon, but she doesn’t love him, so on the eve of the wedding, she slips away from her retainers and vanishes without a trace. Quite the scandal, according to the ansible ethercasts. A lot of people were looking for you, you know that? A lot of people are clearly still looking for you. And here you’ve been this whole time, very alive and very unmarried, quietly tending bar on Station, of all places. Your life is like some sort of bedtime story.”
“Oh?” Kat responded, “So what does that make your life, Mr. space vampire?”
Vasiliy extended his fangs for a quick grin, “A scary bedtime story.”