Chapter 1: A Parody of the Apocalypse/We're Going Round the Cape
To most, Border Command was a cushy, boring, job. Most, in this case, weren't stuck up a creek without a paddle. And most had mouths to scream with.
Er, this is all metaphorical, of course! I... do have a mouth, yeah. A few hours ago, it was agape! Uh, because of the war declaration. I was pretty sure it was a war declaration, at least. Plant people against the entirety of humanity! Wow, what the fuck, how could they, this is screwed up, et cetera. Honestly, I didn't really give a shit. Sure, I was technically on a special military expedition or whatever, but really this is just exile. Thank god for nepotism. Rather than being dead, I was stuck without practically any human contact for the next several decades. Couldn't stop Elara Mulberry Milknova, though. My connections to major chocolate barons were the least of my many good qualities!
Well, assuming I didn't get found instantly, I'd be in for a boring war. If the plant people — the Affini Compact, I think? — were using the same physical laws as us, and also if they had like. Wartime rules of engagement? Yeah, I was probably gonna be fine for a few years. The damn ship I was in could barely hold more than an apartment's worth of shit in it, whereas most Terran ships were several times its size and had a slew of officers and such. I could really just like, hide in some debris for a while and it's likely that the front would advance far past where I was before I was found.
(And besides — I wasn't here on military business for nothing. The Magnolia Initiative was more than just exile, I was a scientist for god's sake! An inventor!)
I guess that put me in a weird spot. Either I accepted the terms of what the Accord was asking for and... well, gambled it all on what they meant, because I didn't trust their broadcast's bluntness at all, or I tried to stay stealthy as long as I could and ignored everything. At least the Affini seemed to want to keep humans mostly alive..? If not, our military outposts could have been hit by relativistic kill objects already.
Which. I'd know if they'd been hit. Despite everything, I was still an OCNI military officer-scientist-person, which meant that I had many frequencies (and a homemade universal-interceptor) that I could use to listen in on military shit with. So far, nothing — though, if it was from the other side of space, it would be nothing for a while as the information travelled — and the ding my ship made in the wake of a Border Command forward cruiser's in-jump sort of dissuaded me from listening too closely to the radio. I hated hyperspace jumps. The ship I was on had no jump drive, but it was just about perfectly sized such that the hyperspace kick from anything within a hundred kilometers caused it to sound like a fucking bell. Made of bronze or some shit. Something to do with the hull, I was told.
I sighed. Even in wartime, shit was boring for those who had no ability to move around. At least I could still view the cruiser from in my dinky little motorboat; I'd jury-rigged a telescope from the small amount of supplies I was regularly given at check-ins. Thank god for that, because things were about to start getting distinctly not boring.
There was a sort of soft "schuk-shoonk", and then a truly gargantuan ship... er, it sort of breached out of the inky blackness of space, first as a void blocking out countless stars and then as a megalithic starship with great wings of vines and gigantic gears lit by spotlights whose lightbulbs alone seemed to be about as large as the ship I called my own. Somehow, it was already matching the exact speed and heading of the cruiser — which, as far as I knew, was impossible for any jump drive to realistically do — and the materializing spacecraft seemed to have more prehensile vines encircled around the Terran ship in ten seconds. Maybe less. As the gears spun up and down, frantic ion cannon bursts and missiles were silenced by what could only be described as tiny holes in space; the ships matched vector almost as if it were a dance, and then the vines pierced into the Border Command vessel as if its armor were toilet paper. Lights began to shut off on the cruiser, and I could just about barely hear the first scream of a communications officer before a burst of static interrupted the transmission.
We were obviously outclassed in almost every way technologically, and, well. I'd be more concerned if I wasn't already well aware that if the affini ship wanted to it could have burned over here and crushed my ship in the time my mouth had been open. No communications came through — which kind of made sense, given that I was hidden among a belt of similarly-sized asteroids — and the ship submerged back into wherever the hell it came from quickly, tearing massive holes in the side of the light cruiser's hull until slowly-spinning shards of metal and glass were gushing from the sides of the once-proud military machine like a waterfall of blood.
After I ensured none of the debris was coming my way — and stretched my knees out of being all weak — I considered my possible paths from here. (Heh. Possible paths.) There might have been only two options before, but now... well, it was a little more complicated. Stealth was absolutely my safest option. If I screwed up and got seen — hell, even if they didn't see me, given the gargantuan size of their ships — then I'd be in for a quick trip to Space Davy Jones's Locker. Or worse, I'd be... fuckin' domesticated? Is that really what they were calling being a POW?
Anyways, my other option was initially deciding to go ahead and join their side, or surrender. That'd probably result in the aforementioned domestication, but it'd also be a total gamble on what their version of POW treatment was. Maybe it'd be okay, or maybe it'd be not so okay. Traditional human philosophy dictated it'd be better not to risk it, which meant that my other option was off the table.
Except, of course, I was an inventor. The grade-A quality science chops in my head were just begging to be let loose on some of that tech. And, well... of course, I could intentionally get myself caught, but that'd be a HUGE leap for even someone as addicted to technology as me. On the other hand, I could wage a guerrilla war against the affini — maybe not even a large group of the affini, just a single ship — and get chances at their tech from that! One thing I'd learned from the military was that every technology had its counter. Every method of target acquisition was limited by the speed of light, because you had to reach out and touch something in some way to observe it, or the thing has to change itself and emit some sort of particle in order to be observed.
I maneuvered towards the wreck and started gearing up to go outside. Now, looking at my frenzied form in an EVA suit, you might think that was a bad idea. But, hell — it wasn't "outsmarting the most technologically advanced people this side of the galaxy" that I was trying to do, it was just a littttle bit of trickery! A truly insignificant amount of tomfoolery! And for that tomfoolery, I needed two things: Materials, and information. I could get at least one of those things from the wreck of, uh... getting close to it, it was named the TCNS Stars Above.
God, what an ancient name. With the full TCNS prefix, and everything? Christ.
The wreck was... well, a wreck, if you'll pardon the obvious expression. I'd expected at least a few frozen crewmembers, but... honestly, it was totally absent of corpses. I'd gotten myself all psyched up for nothing, and now I was just sort of... anxious? Shit, dude, I dunno. It was haunting. I knew there wasn't enough time for the dead to float off into space and get lost forever, but even still — the ship felt infested with ghosts already.
It set me on edge. As I ventured into the habitation salvage, I could see little bits of fabric and paper spinning around in the air; the rooms looked almost untouched, if you ignored the obvious lack of occupants, air, and the messed bedsheets. A lot of the personal effects that were left behind seemed to be fairly clean, to be honest. It made me feel strange. Like an anteater had just sucked most of your siblings out of your hole in the ground, and you're just left with the stuff that they'd left.
Hey, at least they probably weren't dead yet. And if the affini were being honest — or just moral — then assumedly they'd be alive for a while. Still. I had no time to be anxious — the plasma cutter I was using was running out of fuel, and I needed to go grab some more from where the stores were roughly located on the quickly-decaying husk. I made my way towards the stores, and was greeted with a treasure trove of loot: multiple canisters of plasma fuel, extra tanks of hydrogen I could repurpose for water and the like, and a good deal of exotic matter. All things I really needed.
There was just one major issue — the whole section was cordoned off behind several blast doors, which were significantly harder than normal shit to cut through. And, of course, since this wasn't a stupid place for stupid people (just my luck that one of the few actually somewhat-well engineered ships would fall my way first), the walls were similarly reinforced. I'd run out of plasma fuel way too quick for it to be worth trying, and that was only at a glance.
Minor setback, though. If I just hooked up my ship's ion thrusters to some coilgun wreckage that I'd seen floating around nearby, I might be able to manipulate it into induction-heating the walls to slag. With a bit of luck. I made my way back to the CNIS Magnolia, and used a tiiiiny bit of my plasma to melt some coilguns and shit around her frame; nothing permanent, thank god, but just enough for minor maneuvering to be possible while keeping the guns on their mounts. My girl looked a bit more like debris than ship after that, but it was kind of a good look! Even if it broke me a little to see the paint on her hull scratched up...
Now, I had no actual projectile. And the coilguns were far too large and heavy-duty for me to cut through them. But I was hoping that I could utilize their capacitor banks and inefficient design — these were fifty years old, minimum — to induce magnetic heating in the nearby metals. At a certain point, I could cut the rest of the way through using a bit of plasma. All of this relied on me being able to induction heat the walls, of course, which could be made significantly easier by patching some spare wiring I'd picked up around the place over the walls in coils and connecting it into the coilgun system. It'd probably burn out near-instantly, but hopefully the heavy rolls of steel wire would convey a current a little better than just the coilguns on their own.
As I readied the capacitor banks in my ship (powered by a mini fusion-reactor, thankfully, so I didn't have to worry about running out of energy long-term), I noted a shadow forming quickly on the wreck. Magnolia was currently nestled firmly in between a few of the carcass's gaps, but I could see the bright reflection of Arkanidis being snuffed out from my position at the helm.
My heart caught in my throat, as a few voices came over my radio.
"-sten, I don't think there's any chance we missed anyone. I did like, four post-checks, and also if we missed anyone there'd be at least one person talking about it, right?" Shit. Shit shit shit. Fuck. Fuck. "I mean, entire hold full of people willing to tell us everything." The speaker turned aside, and I heard a scratching that felt like an organic version of a stuck fan. Maybe plants rustling? "Gosh, you would have thought we'd have to class-D at least one of them. After the cortisol eased up-"
Another person spoke. Their voice had a harder edge to it — not in the normal sense, though. Moreso a hard edge like the difference between someone's jaw and a slab of concrete. "Got it, Mefilden. As much as I'd love to talk about the hold, I — for one — have a live camera feed to it in my head, and two: I'm trying to work. I definitely noticed weird jump readings just after we left." Ah. I had a sneaking suspicion that was either me, or the exotic matter I'd been planning to siphon was a little more unstable than I'd thought. "It's probably nothing, but we can't leave without making sure everything is safe."
"Fine, fine, fine. You got me. Listen, we'll run this real quick and then I'll return you and the crew to base, alright? I don't really like this whole being-on-the-same-ship situation."
A grumble echoed through my speakers, then a noise roughly approximating assent, and I suddenly realized that if they ran it real quick I'd probably get found and captured. Honestly, it was a fucking miracle they were broadcasting. Entirely possible it was a diversion, though, which meant I needed a way to get that ship away from me — and fast.
My eyes were drawn out my porthole and to the jury-rigged heater setup as if though magnetized in their own right. Maybe just a little test. A bit of napkin math later — don't judge me, I spent way too long browsing military documents to not have the specific heat capacity of primary reinforced containment cell materials memorized — and I had a decently-good idea of what'd happen given I start heating the room that the exotic materials were in to a very high degree. No observed holes in the walls meant probably still air in the room, which meant things were going to get hot, which meant that spacetime around here was about to get a wee bit wonky. And, if the affini were able to track spacetime shenanigans, like they were saying, they'd probably get the hell out of dodge fast before they were shredded into little hyperspacial bits.
But I needed to make it seem like a natural result of tearing a ship apart like paper. So I slowly spun up the coilgun steppers, and the room began to heat slowly. The affini (well, I presumed they were affini) over the radio were quickly forgotten as I eyeballed the knife's edge I was walking on growing slimmer by the second. My heartrate spiked, pulse quickened; I could almost feel my eyes dilating. A lever being held at a certain position was what separated me from certain death by a million tearing fractures of space across my body. I loved it.
Carefully controlling my breath, I tried to quell the swelling in my chest. This sort of shit was what I lived for. My few exploits were well known by my handlers as, quote-unquote, "massive fucking PR disasters", and "incidents whose causes still remain inscrutable", and it was fucking glorious. I probably never would get over that knife's edge. In these moments, I felt as human as I could ever be without going full monkey mode.
Ah, we were nearly there. The exotic matter was doing strange things to the inside of my ship — and by strange things, I mean it was starting to rattle it around almost like a piano or harpsichord hit its strings. I eased off the throttle, and checked back into the conversation on the ship.
"Mefilden, I'm picking up... pretty sure these are spacetime distortions. Checks out with what we tracked on the ship. I'm ordering an immediate retreat, effective... immediately." I heard a cough. Good. I hoped. It could have been a ploy, but at this point I was teetering on the edge of sanity trying to keep myself lucid while balancing a more-than-lethal amount of exotic matter in the metaphorical palm of my hand. There was a bit of distant shouting — too quiet to make out, but I figured some sort of not-happy response. "No, I wasn't hired for my banter, I was hired because I'd never let any of my ships get scuttled in well over three times your lifetime — and that's just the times I was awake for it. We are leaving. Yes, now. No, you can't use the Firebreak to cut out the exotic matter, that'd do some really bad things to hyperspace."
There was a groan. I kept my hand carefully modulating the electromagnetic induction heater, aiming for a little too cold over a little too hot. God, this was torture — just damn leave already! You're risking several hundred fucking meters of ship getting instantly torn inside-outside-leftside-rightside! The seconds crept on, endlessly, until at last I saw the glitter of the local star on the holes in the hull again. I held the lever there for just a bit more, anyways.
After a couple more minutes of bated-breath waiting for the other shoe to drop, I finally turned off the induction heating. The containment chamber was glowing a bright white — which I was really glad wasn't visible from the outside — and honestly, anything inside was probably fucked anyways. I had more than enough synthecubes to survive until my next wreck anyways. The last stop on my docket was downloading the latest instructions from Border Command thru the Stars Above's onboard computer, which... yup, was thankfully still there. Seemed there was gonna be another ship rolling in pretty quick. A heavy cruiser, by the specs, but Border Command hadn't given shit for names and designations, so fuck me, I guess!
Overall, though, I couldn't be mad. A bit of heart-wrenching terror? Edging a military exotic matter holding cell? Information on who and what was coming through my section of space next, and maybe a go-ahead to piggyback them? Hell yes.
Now it was just playing the stay-quiet and keep waiting game. I was notoriously bad at that game, but I swear — I could do it for just a little longer. However long it took to get that heavy cruiser here couldn't be that long, right?
The seconds ticked by, and I began to start getting a little restless after the second day doing nothing. Just... a litttttle experimentation couldn't hurt...