From the space between stars.
published: Oct 27 2022
edited at: Oct 27 2022
!!! SYSTEM RESET REQUIRED !!! !!! SYSTEM RESET REQUIRED !!! !!! SYSTEM RESET REQUIRED !!! Pending action: install new SVOS software. DISCLAIMER: Installation of new SVOS is not recommended and it is up to the user to ensure that the new SVOS is compliant with ISFA standards and that the software is designed for the specific model of vessel. Ship model: Condor LR-920, REVISION 1, YEAR 3653 WARNING: SHIP WILL REBOOT TO LIFE SUPPORT MODE. INSTALLATION WILL TAKE TIME (10 minutes aprox). ENSURE OXYGEN SUPPLY IS SUFFICIENT AND ALL PERSONS HAVE ACCESS TO E.V.A SUITS. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO CONTINUE? Y/N: Y_
My freezing legs shift, getting sore after kneeling on the plasteel floor for this long. Coloured wires and avionics boards encompass my periphery. Light from a small, monochrome display on a hinged swivel makes my white-yellow fur bloom against the darkness. An archaic, clacky keyboard is bolted to the bottom of the screen, favouring the dependability of mechanical switches over volgraphics and neurofaces.
I’m alone amongst the consuming, claustrophobic clusters of cables, in the freezing underbelly of the ship, wearing nothing but a thin tank top and dark skinny jeans. I hold in the urge to shiver, focusing my attention on the screen. I’ve done a lot to get this far, and I need those extra functions for the rest of my journey.
But now, comprehending the terminal’s ultimatum, forcing my tail still so as to not catch any wires, I can’t help but feel dread slither up my neck.
I swallow. A clawed finger finds the enter key and pushes down.
!!! Let me ask you again. !!!
My ears fall back. But I read closer, and they spring back to form. A comical, exasperated sigh escapes me. It’s just a sanity check.
The same warning as before is spat onto the screen, as if it doesn’t want me to proceed. My cynical side believes that’s by design.
Recomposing myself, skimming over the specifics one last time, I type in “Y” and press enter again.
This time, there is no sanity check.
COMMENCING SHUTDOWN....................... ..................... ................................................................................................................................................................................................ BOOTING INTO LIFE SUPPORT MODE. YOUR SAFETY IS NOT GARUNTEED. WE ARE NO LONGER LIABLE FOR ANY HARM CAUSED. THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING CONDOR. FLY SAFE.
A chill runs down my spine as I follow the output. This is it, no turning back.
Something shunts in the back of the ship. I feel… light-headed. As I move to place my hand against my temple, I notice my fur begin to flow — as if it was submerged in water Startled, I move to shuffle out of the cubby, but my knees lift from the floor with me in tow.
The FORM drive — it isn’t powering gravity anymore!
Struggling against thin air, I grab a handle bar on the floor to keep close, hind legs arcing into the air and toes splaying. The wires around me lose their sag, rising from their contortions.
Somewhere behind me, deep inside the ship, a low hum that was always background noise makes itself known. It begins to pitch down, like a motor spooling off —
I jolt and yelp as a violent, thunderous snap tears across the ship.
It sends me tumbling, nauseous and flailing, claws scratching against metal, and outstretched limbs catching on wires in an attempt to stop myself. All sense of balance and position are lost, and I cry out as the cables ensnare me. I wrench and writhe, but in my panic I can only slam my eyes shut, take a deep breath, and wait — as the lights blink out.
A rumbling, almost organic moan reverberates from somewhere in the walls, before the hum that seemed so innocent before falls into the ringing, screaming silence.
My eyes squint open — darkness. Then a little wider, and when I still can’t see, I use a free hand to try and grasp the monitor. Its sharp, untreated edges give away where I am.
The air reeks of perforating ozone. That snap was the shield’s power cutting out. No damage to the ship, presumably.
Exhaling, controlled but shaky, I test the wires I’ve caught myself in. Twisting my other arm in and through the coils to free it, I unravel the wires around myself to escape the tangle of cables, pulling my legs up and over, wraps sliding from my tail. Once free, I gently tug myself towards the monitor with one hand.
The screen flickers on as I coast towards it, assaulting my unadjusted eyes. The backlight coats the maintenance inlet in a dim, white glow, and text appears on the screen:
!!! REPLACEMENT SVOS INSTALL INITIALISED !!! New target: /media/fundrive/CLOVER.svos Wiping ramdisk... 2% ~~~~ Est. Time Remaining: 00:10:33
I sigh in relief.
Head turning, ears twitching, I see the vent I used to enter this space from across the room behind me. It lets through a dim shine, different from the artificial glow of the little screen. A telltale glint bounces off the plasteel floor from outside, beckoning me, drawing me out from the cubby I’ve crouched in for so long. I could use a good stretch now, anyway.
Twisting my torso, I flip myself around using the handle in the floor, grasping at cables to pull myself up to speed. Gliding along the length of the shaft and towards the opening, the glimmer shines ever brighter.
As I reach the square hole in the tunnel’s ceiling, I bank backwards and use my feet to gently push myself out and through. Inertia carries me upwards — “up” determined by the subtle signage on the walls that emphasises such.
I emerge from the floor and into the cockpit cautiously, my body arcing back, hands reaching up to the ceiling. The space is somewhat cramped, only being about one and a half metres wide. The floor’s chrome vibrance is offset by the darker, steel-clad walls, cloaked in a thin, grey paint. They are lined with inlet shelves that have various boxes and equipment strapped down to them with yellow ratchets — a fire extinguisher, MREs, water bottles, a green first aid box — as well as various grips and bars that allow me to grapple around the room without gravity.
The ceiling concaves down as the walls curve closer towards the end of the cockpit, where the centrepiece of the room resides: the pilot’s seat, with a flight stick, twisting throttle, and two peddles to control the six axes of movement. A fitting throne for anyone crazy enough to fly out here.
I’d argue that isn’t the true centrepiece, though, for above it is the conical canopy. It’s made of a single obsidiglass piece, letting through a breathtaking view of the gas giant whose rings I hide within — a vibrant marble of turquoise wrapped in bands of nickle. Exploding out from the planet is a disc of crystalline, icy asteroids, stretching out far into the distance, becoming so small that it becomes a haze across my vision.
Their seemingly infinite numbers betray their sheer scale: the one my ship is attached to, like a fly sitting on a fruit, is about a kilometer in length. Its ancient, blue-tinted surface reflects even the faintest of light, and I see myself in it — a bang of dark hair shadowing half my face, the deer skull decal on my tank top almost perfectly imaged.
The meagre star this planet orbits sits a cosmic stone’s throw away — a white dwarf, peeking out from behind the giant’s girth, casting a fantastical horizon of blues and yellows across the diameter of the planet.
But, despite looking out at this bright, abyssal beauty, I can’t quell a screaming nervousness from deep within. Something tickles the back of my throat as I tightly grasp a handle bar on the ceiling, desiring some kind of control. Zero-G always caused my anxiety to spike, but today, that’s only the beginning of my problems.
There’s a reason I came to a planetary ring before reinstalling the SVOS: I’m the smallest needle in the largest haystack imaginable. I don’t see how I could be found here, and I’ll be on my way out of this uninhabited system in about fifteen minutes’ time. But the thought lingers in the back of my mind.
“Anything can happen. No odds are zero,” is what Fegn would say.
I swing myself up and push towards the seat, gliding over it feet-first. The canopy is so clear that part of me swears I’m going to go straight through it like an open window, but thankfully my paws make contact with the freezing glass. A sudden nauseating feeling overwhelms me, as if I’m standing on a transparent floor over an endless drop, so I push backwards quickly. Grasping the armrest of the seat, I spin myself around to sit down.
My back finds its way into the plush, G-shield cushioning, tail slithering through a small gap behind me to let myself lean into the seat. I grapple at the spring-loaded straps to buckle myself in, giving myself the feeling of weight again.
The weight on my lap only does so much to ease the malicious thoughts. Running through the series of events that happened over the last forty-eight hours, I should have waited until I got to the next station. But even that comes with its risks — OWNID spoofs only get you so far, as it only takes a security guard with a clean visor to notice the discrepancies.
Then again, if the worst happened in either situation, which would I want more: a life of imprisonment, or death?
So, I’d rather do it here. There was no other option, right? The only way I could get that new SVOS installed was to hide myself in a planet’s ring and pray to whatever cosmic deity who rules this place to do no harm. Nothing else I could have done would have been safer.
But I don’t stop thinking about it.
The blackened hull of the ship feels thin. The canopy before me, the window to the outside, looks like a gaping hole. The belts don’t stop my insides from floating around, causing that unenviable sickly feeling that comes with zero-G. The only thing I can do right now is sit still and wait.
I don’t want to, though. That’s the thing about being on the run: the paranoia. That alone is what drives anthros in the same position as me to madness.
The stars look so much brighter now. The whole cabin is lit up by the outside. But as I stare, a tendril of malice begins to ensnare my mind. Something could be out there, watching me, just outside of my periphery. Perhaps from the edges of the canopy —
I swallow - its dry, scratching the insides of my throat, mercifully breaking my train of thought. A drink would help, preferably something fizzy.
Undoing the straps with a click, I grasp the top of the seat and turn myself around slowly, making sure I keep the canopy out of my field of view as I ease myself over it with a push. I float across the pilot’s cabin towards a door, split down the middle with two inlet handles for pulling it open. It leads to the small living area of the ship, and with the power out it should also be loose as a safety measure.
My hands find the handles, taking my weight as I float into it, paws bracing against it, pulling them away from each other —
They don’t budge. Nem.
I pull harder, adrenaline now coursing through my veins as those dark tendrils slip into the folds of my brain. Grunting, mercilessly tugging at the doors, I’m practically prying them apart —
“You are more dangerous when trapped. But you are equally vulnerable when you think you’re trapped.”
I inhale sharply, and hold. A pause. My muscles relax, and I let loose the tension on the exhale.
The tendrils recede.
Gathering myself, I look left, then right, glancing around the cabin. Levers, handles, hooks? Any emergency release anywhere?
There: just below the door is a panel with a handlebar on it. A paw finds it way through the handle and pulls me down, the panel coming loose at the same time. I kick the piece of metal aside, revealing the release lever, and push it down with with my paw.
Something inside the door shunts aside. As the slab of metal floats to the front of the cockpit, I jump back up and try one more time to pry the doors open. Fingers find the inlets, and I heave.
Too hard. My hands slip and the two metal slabs fly to the side, slamming against the mechanism in the doorway — robbing me of catharsis.
The starlight from the canopy shines on the second airlock door blocking my way.
I let out a strained, annoyed moan, cursing this old junk-pile. Forget this. This is too much effort for a drink.
Reaching for the door frame, I pull myself into the small, white room and arc backwards, paws landing on the door further in. I move to push myself off —
My fur stands. Faint, but present, feeling it course through the ship’s interior. Less like something hitting the hull, such as a stray rock or a probe, but more as a wave breaking against it, enveloping it in its wake.
Wake. FORM wake.
No. No no no, my fears were not just validated. This ring stretches out for tens of thousands of kilometres, they’d need to search for hundreds of years to find me. They couldn’t have found me!
But as a new light begins to shine through the canopy, casting a shadow in front of me, I am reminded that the odds are never zero.
I whirl around, staring out the canopy from the airlock like a caged lab rat backed into a corner. Another vessel, floating about two kilometres away, just above the ring. A beam of light catches my ship — it’s too bright for me to make out any details, the crystalline surface of the asteroid and the icy fog amplifying the glare.
Thrusters flare blue dragonfire. It’s moving now, edging closer.
Somehow, part of me is almost relieved. Finally, some actual stimuli, I guess. But common sense fights back — I know for a fact that this isn’t some chance encounter. Maybe they knew I would try to install a new SVOS. Did they supply it? Is there some kind of tracking virus? Maybe they planted a tracker physically onto the ship while docked somewhere. Perhaps they were on my tail this whole time.
Doesn’t matter right now, though. They have me cornered. I take a breath.
I kick off the inner door, shooting across the cabin and twisting mid-air. Knocking that floating metal panel aside, my hands find the pilot’s seat, stopping myself before I fly snout-first into the canopy. Whoever’s in that other ship can definitely see me by now, my wide eyes staring back at them.
The archaic, battery-powered transponder coos to life. My toes curl.
My heart burns. I know that voice — smooth like silk, a ghost in the machine, slithering its way around the cabin.
I reach for the armrest and flick a switch.
“You always fit the stereotype,” I growl, holding back my growing rage. Why him of all people?
“Well that’s harsh, darling,” he hisses back through the static. “We both know that if you were on better terms with the Dirge, you would be—”
“If you want me,” I singe, fangs flaring, the seat creaking from my tightened grip, staring right where his stupid little face would be if it wasn’t so bright outside, “I’m right here.”
My other hand slips to the pistol at my belt — it’s ballistic, but resonant rounds and gunpowder have more shelf-life than plasma.
“Now, see…” I can hear his smirk through this new, matter-of-fact tone, “that’s where things have changed, hun.”
My head tilts. His ship gets closer.
“You refused an order and went on the run, avoiding your punishment,” he explains with a malicious candidness. “Yes, we were initially sent out to just capture you — Fegn raised you, after all — but you kept running.”
His voice lowers to a drone.
“And he only has so much love to give.”
Kmyet… I was prepared for this to happen, but only mentally. A quick look around at my situation reveals no loopholes. It’s been nowhere near ten minutes for the SVOS to finish installing, and the ship is stuck in life support mode until it’s over. Could I try to EVA out? No, he’ll just broadside me into oblivion.
No emergency pods, no way to fire the guns, no escape.
“Never were the talker,” he sneaked. “I liked you for that.”
His searchlight shuts off, at last allowing me a glimpse of his ship through the mist, sitting about a hundred metres away — it feels like centimetres. His crescent-arced vessel is about the same size as mine: a medium-sized personal ship, painted a light-sucking black that siphons the life from the glistening ring. The canopy is blacked-out obsidiglass, stopping me from seeing his sneering face from inside his cockpit. I don’t need to see him to know.
Two panels on either side of his ship, close to the canopy, slide open with double-doors. Hardpoint platforms silently slide out, each equipped with blackened, triple-barrelled guns, plasteel shining against the dim star’s glow. Behind the barrels of each gun is a chamber with a glowing, hot-blue element on the outside, getting brighter by the second.
My heart and mind race each other. Thoughts that once flowed as a stream now rage as a torrent that churns and twists inward, filling my stomach with a seeping dread mixed with a sickly hatred — of both him and the inevitable.
The barrels take turns shunting back and forth like pistons; calibrating, reloading, unscrewing. Flashes of hydrogen flame spit from the lateral thrusters dotted around his ship’s hull, steadying it; readying his aim. Everything suddenly feels insignificant, pointless.
"‘Sure you don’t have anything to say?" he coos.
“Smaryv yolnich, xio,” I reply.
.............................. ....... . ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;``
I notice it to the corner of my eye, just as the first neon-blue plasma rounds begin to crash into the hull, sending shockwaves through the ship that rip, tear, and screech. It’s all too distant for me to care, irrelevant.
Shimmering… like the scintillating scotoma from a migraine, or sunspots from looking at a star. But these are real. I whirl around — they’re floating all around me, these little strands of nothingness, twisting and tying, bending the light.
I reach out to grasp one with outstretched, clawed fingers. It disappears when I clench.
The canopy cracks.
asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``'; ¬¬¬¬`'''`''`'`''``''''''''``'``'`'``'`;`;;;;`` asdjgdf'¬¬ asdjgdf''''''``'``'`'``';
The ship roars.
Lights flash all around me — alarms fire, life support hisses, engines thunder — and a logo made from three petals appears as a volgraph. Adrenaline surges.
A deep, calm voice rings out.
« “Welcome to CloverOS —” »
“BONSAI!” I scream above the plasma impacts, scrambling into the seat head-first.
The emergency word recognised, the introduction skips. Everything returns — the ship’s HUD across the canopy, volgraphics displaying urgent warnings, and my control.
My tail smushes against the back of the pilot’s seat and I clench the flight stick.
A violent lurch shunts through the vessel as it jumps from the asteroid, scattering ice into space as the landing gear rips out of the surface. Still taking hits — each one like a punch to the gut — I grasp the throttle, slam my paws onto the peddles, and punch it.
The engines lament a defiant howl, and I howl with them. I’m pressed back into the seat as I accelerate directly towards my assailant. He tries to dodge, ceasing fire and burning to move left.
My wing clips him. The hull tears and sparks fly — I cry out as I’m punted against the seat, pain shooting down my thigh.
I catch a glimpse of my opponent hurling to the side, spinning in my wake.
The world comes back into focus, just in time to see a monstrous, pale asteroid consume my vision. Inhaling sharply, I yank the stick back to bank up, tensing as the world tumbles downward. The G’s try to squash me, underside thrusters shuddering.
The ship’s belly skims against the surface of the ‘roid, kicking clouds of wistful mist glimmering in the dying sunlight. I level off, keeping with the surface and orbiting around the miniature planet, using it as cover.
Then, I reach the top of the asteroid. Everything comes back into view. Mist breaks against me. An ocean of white, ice-coated asteroids moves across my field of view, reaching far towards its own horizon, meeting with the blue and gold marble that they call home.
“Damage report!” I demand, panting over the immense engine noise and shuntering surroundings.
« “Extreme hull damage - 39% integrity.” »
The cockpit rendered and sparking, wires dangling and tangling.
« “Thrusters nominal.” »
My fur stands to their electric pulse behind me.
« Canopy cracked - atmosphere leaking, survival estimate: 1h 29m." »
The crack is only visible when the dwarf’s light catches it, but it curves long across my field of view.
Enough for me —
Sirens wail: missile lock-on. The HUD shifts red as I heave everything forwards, the ship diving back into the icy ocean.
My fangs glisten. A distance readout clicks down fast as a much smaller asteroid races towards me. I flick up a cover on the flight stick and press the button it covered.
There’s a shunt as something fires out the back of the ship, before a cloud of sparkles and flashes plumes behind me — chaff.
Red turns to yellow and the distance readout stops. I bank left as I rush past the asteroid and catch sight of the missile; bellowing blue flame, zipping past as a blur. It slams into the asteroid and obliterates it into a dense cloud of white that shatters and smashes around me.
Mist breaks against the canopy as I emerge, and I feel a draft of cool air through the crack. I leave a dust trail behind me. But it isn’t long before the rear-view cameras show him emerging, his ship like a black moon, cutting as a scythe through the cloud. The three-dimensional minimap finally catches him — right on my tail.
Blue flares of plasma shoot past starboard. Shit! I bank to port, diving towards another gargantuan asteroid.
“No escape this time, chikor!” he stabs, audibly spitting.
Shouldn’t have tried to kill me slowly, I retort internally.
An eerie blue ripples across my canopy as I roll left. The shield is on, and taking hits.
Careening under the bottom of the asteroid, I pull up into orbit, following its curvature and racing across its surface upside down. My stomach churns as the Gs push me into my seat, plasma pellets punting up plumes of ice above me.
I push the throttle harder and I afterburn, clinging to the controls against the forces at play, inching over his horizon where he can’t shoot me. Then, steeling myself, I decouple and flip front-first to face behind me.
The thrusters hum a sudden quiet. I swallow back something in my throat, the asteroid now under me. Inertia carries me in the direction I was going before, away from the asteroid.
He boosts over the horizon. Crosshairs align, and I pull the trigger.
A rhythmic thudding assaults my flattened ears as the ballistics fire. Yellow streaks shoot across space and into the black crescent, blue ripples warping and bending under the weight of speeding metal. He pulls up, showing me his underside, before afterburning. He’s flipping.
« “Target shield 62%.” »
Ceasing fire to let the old guns cool, I re-couple. Immediately, I’m kicked back against the seat. Engines purr as the ship slows itself to a stop, just before another smaller asteroid behind me. Ice melts and steam jets up as I blast forwards again. I glance up —
Xoiv, too late! He’s already flipped around to face me.
Steering towards him, I push peddles to align myself laterally. Jousting it is.
Aiming reticles on the HUD focus on his hull as we fly directly towards each other. He fires, and I return. Plasma ripples across my canopy and bullets bend his shield. Blue turns to white as the shields begin to weaken. I hold my breath.
One kilometre… Point-five…
« “Shields critical!” »
His? No — I smell ozone.
An instinctive growl escapes me as I afterburn once more, shifting the ship underneath him just as we’re about to pass. He screams over my canopy, and I swear I catch a glimpse of his face through the blackened glass: teeth gritting, his forked tongue flailing between those venomous eyes.
« “Engines overheating!” »
Sparks. The thudding stops. I pull back on the throttle, but there’s only a whimper. Something must have blown out when he tried to execute me.
Instead, I pull back the stick. Whatever’s in my stomach leaps up my throat as I flip upside down again, turning to face my opponent. The throttle goes forward and the engines behind me fire up. They take their time to slow me down as they limit themselves to control the heat.
And that’s when I see them: two flashes, either side of him, giving way to faint silhouettes of vessels. Then, two extra dots on the minimap. A doubled boom echoes through the canopy as the ship simulates the sound from outside.
« “2 contacts detected.” »
The HUD goes red and my ears drop.
I roll to the left and hope that the thrusters respond. The engines strain and wail, but I still accelerate towards the nearest ‘roid, a few smaller ones between me and it.
Two more flashing dots light up the radar — missiles.
I pull the trigger to chaff, sparks and shine shooting from the stern. One veers off to the left, flying between me and a ship-sized rock. It skids against the ice, sending it spinning in a great display of flame and dust, before the explosion rips into my vision.
The ship shudders as it screams through the blast, and I glance to the minimap to see —
The other getting closer.
Chaff’s still reloading.
I roll hard right.
I’m thrown against the armrest. My head hits something metal.
Searing pain. Ears ringing. Sudden heat.
I’m resting against something. Everything’s flashing red. Alarms, thuddering, creaking and churning. Asteroids and stars blur past the canopy, and my insides feel like they’ve been rearranged.
« “HULL INTEGRITY COMPROMISED!” »
« “THRUSTERS DAMAGED!” »
« “COOLANT LEAK, POWER PLANT THROTTLED!” »
“End of the line, runt,” I hear a new, raspy voice say through the garbling transponder.
I raise my head, glaring out into space through my messed hair. The ship is tumbling towards that asteroid. I need to stop it.
I tug on the throttle —
« “THRUST IMBALANCE!” »
The ship doesn’t turn the right way. The main thruster is damaged. Some lateral ones, too, but I can stop it. I have to stop it. I hear them lament in agony, trying their best to slow me down.
The ship slowly stops spinning, but the ‘roid is starting to consume my vision, heading towards me side-on.
I pull one more trick: easing the throttle forwards and firing the afterburners.
The engines howl and the ship leaps forward, still moving laterally. I don’t know which way I’m facing, I just need to get out of this damn ring. The asteroid begins to move diagonal to me, individual cracks coming into focus.
I just barely scrape past it, seeing my bloodied reflection in the ice.
Then, nothing. Stars, galaxies, who knows. But in front of me is nothing, and behind me is the ring. I have to escape. I steer towards the direction I’m headed, barely any control left in my hands. Pieces of stardust peck against the canopy — the original crack now sharing a new, vertical twin — and I look down to see the minimap is gone, damaged in the blast.
I finally let myself breathe. Fast gulps of air, staring deep into the void in front of me in a wrecked, near-dead starship. Three hostiles on my six, no shields, and not enough power to recharge them. I’ve only one option left.
I hold down a button near my thumb on the throttle and pull the stick’s trigger.
« “FORM DRIVE SPOOLING.” »
A whistle, somewhere in the bowels of the ship. Then a hum; a deep, liquid growl, mixing and pumping, edging louder and higher. A new counter appears on the HUD, split by the crack in the canopy, going up in percentage. If I can jump out of here, I’ll have control of the FORM cruise — I don’t need thrusters for faster-than-light travel. I can escape.
But the percentage stops.
It’s only now that I realise I can’t hear anything from outside. The soundstage simulation must be damaged.
I look to my left and see him alongside me.
“Sorry,” he states. Unapologetic. Dry. My blood boils. “But we have a job to do.”
He’s using his ship’s mass to inhibit the FORM drive.
Seething, I yell and roll right, trying to clip him with my wing, but he glides just out of reach before I get him.
I see the shimmers again, but the HUD going sickly red starves them of light. He begins to eclipse the small white dwarf, denying me life.
I scream —
Expedita sit est distinctio aut maxime. Eum adipisci accusantium aut. Quia pariatur nisi explicabo et repellat minima. Voluptas assumenda voluptatem rem qui sed. Eligendi sunt consequuntur autem sequi dolorem asperiores ut recusandae. Doloremque reiciendis vel maxime dicta in eligendi assumenda libero. Repudiandae possimus ut in unde. Ea pariatur qui sapiente. In est maxime exercitationem. Doloribus tempore asperiores in itaque maiores mollitia accusantium quod. Atque corrupti voluptatum sit quae quas. Autem quisquam laudantium dolore rem quam.
What… is this?
The HUD’s colour is normal again. The lights are on, and I can now see the blood dripping down my head, staining my fur. I’m shivering from the… cold? Exhaustion? Adrenaline? Maybe all three.
A crimson droplet breaks free from the wound, but something catches it, suspending it.
The shimmers. I turn around to look, hands aching as I finally release the controls, using the peddles as footrests and twisting myself to the right. Little tears in reality, all around me, like floaters in the eyes that steal your sight. The strands are longer, weaving and interlocking with one-another, making lines that stretch from the tip of my snout to the airlock door.
“Am I dead?” I whimper, asking the shimmers. “Is it over?”
They tell me no.
They also tell me to keep my eyes on the ‘way.
“Wait, Fegn? —”
The strands align. They shine. The HUD returns red.
Inertia returns and I tumble back into the seat in a crumpled mess. A bright flash encompasses my vision, followed by screams over the transponder — before they are cut off by utter silence. All around me the ships lose control; the black scythe to my left veering off-course and tumbling, silent through the vacuum of space. Then, a new shimmer flashes outside the canopy, bending the light in waves of chromatic aberration — reds and blues outlining the cyan-gold planet to my right.
« “READY TO JUMP.” »
It does it for me. Otherworldly, mind-bending waves sweep the canopy, emanating a wet crackling sound that crawls across my ears. Then, a thunderous thump that rocks the cockpit, and I watch as the rings get smaller behind me.
It’s been three hours. No sign of them.
I healed my head wound earlier using the reg-accs from the first-aid kit. It was uncomfortable at first, but the cell-cream did its thing in accelerating the scarring process over the next five minutes. The medical scanner that also came with the kit showed no skull damage. Natural healing can take over now. Thankfully.
After that, I also applied some glass gel to the canopy to “temporarily” fix the cracks. It means the view is distorted, but not enough for me to care. I just want to keep breathing.
Outside the canopy, away from the light pollution of that white dwarf star, the sky reveals itself in full splendour. A band of billions plays its light show; the Milky Way is a stripe of stars that wraps around the canopy, brighter in the centre before tapering off towards the edges. It’s a cosmic horizon line, a way of orienting yourself compared to the rest of the universe — its centre is galactic north.
The sky shifts. If you stare at a distant star long enough, you can watch it move across the canopy as you go faster than light, with others moving at different speeds depending on how far away they are. It’s a perspective I’ve never truly appreciated, seeing the stars move like this as specks of dust in the wind. It melts your brain the first time you see it, though.
FORM cruise is calming. It feels safe, somehow, despite screaming across the universe at millions of kilometres per second, bending physics to fit our will with a device that no-one knows the inner workings of. For me, it means you’re impossible to hit with a gun, and invisible to traditional radar. The drive emanates a repetitive thrum from the rear of the vessel, giving you a quiet background noise that never leaves you in silence, and the hypnotic view out the window only makes you even drowsier.
I checked the damage done to the ship’s components earlier. It’s pretty heavy, and the thing can barely keep in a straight line. I might have to spend the remainder of my emergency credits on fixing just the thrusters and just putting up with the extra damage. Nem, might even be worth just stealing a new one. The shield generators are damaged, but theoretically operational. But the power plant is in survival mode — it isn’t producing enough energy to generate the shields.
Other than all that, it seems to fly fine when cruising. Little surprise there, the FORM drive handles movement in cruise.
Speaking of, there’s one last thing to look at, and some questions to ask.
The maintenance room door shudders as it begins to unlock.
It hisses, plasteel-reinforced carbon fibre shifting across the cramped space. The claustrophobic, white-coated airlock is increasingly filled with the light seeping in from the crack in the door — a dimmed, haunting purple that refracts against the whites of my fur. My heart beats heavier. Despite the various esoteric warnings stamped across the walls, I’m still just in my casual clothes, bloodstained from the battle before, my tank top soaked in sweat.
The door jams half-way open with a thud. That’s fine, I muse. Half-way is all we can manage sometimes.
I scoot around the thick mass of metal. The floor freezing under my bare pawpads, I take a careful step into the room, pausing to look around, still clutching the door. It’s a thin, black corridor, its walls lined with flat-surfaced panels that reflect that same violet hue coming from the far end.
The light’s source is clear now: a final panel against the back wall. This one is semi-translucent, letting through an alien tinge, like shining a light through dark stained glass.
I take another tentative step inside, my fingers tracing along the white airlock door until they run out of ground. My hands recoil to my breast. I feel… vulnerable, fur standing on end — trespassing. Clouds of condensation form at my nose as I creep through hall of panels hiding the shield generators, power plant, and whatever other organs this beast holds.
A hand finds its way onto a dark-steel, frostbitten handle. I examine the translucent light-letting panel. It thrums, deep and hypnotic, murmurings of a machine far beyond anything our greatest minds could understand, let alone “hit it with a spanner” me.
Looks good, no scuffs or marks. Should be safe and sound inside. I spin on one paw —
Blood drains from my face, tail curling between my legs.
It… stops me. Little specks of lightless dust cluster in front of me, blocking me from leaving. The strands are short, like stray hairs on the wind, forming a cloud before me. The condensation hitches through my shaken breath, staring, frozen in place. My consciousness is clear enough now to comprehend what I’m seeing, but I don’t have an explanation. Fears and anxieties begin to taint my train of thought, unravelling — did I hit my head harder than I thought? Is there still an oxygen leak? Poisoned reg-accs, maybe?
I blink. They persist. Stepping forward, I try to waft them away with a cautious hand. They dance around it, shimmering vividly, but advance back towards my recoiling arm.
The drive’s thrum resonates across the hall’s smooth walls. It… beckons me.
I swallow, taking a moment to allow myself to let the shimmer out of my vision. The world shifts around as I orbit to face the translucent panel that bleeds light. My fingers curl around the cold metal handle protruding from the wall, and pause.
Is this what it wants me to do? Am I going insane? I’ve probably got some head trauma, but… Is it coming from in there?
I twist it, clicking it ninety degrees left.
A hiss. The panel comes forward, out from the wall by about a inch, and light spills out from the seams. It cakes the room in a vivid ultraviolet, contrasting the black walls and turning the whites of my fur an otherworldly cyan. The panel then begins to slide up, uncovering a solid window of purple fog that cloaks white piping and mechanical madness, just beyond its veil.
Contrasted against it, looming from the fog, is an impossible, sports-ball sized, black sphere.
It sings a hymn of dark reverberations that creep across the tight corridor’s four walls. It spins at an improbable speed, yet the alcubium liquid that encases it shows no signs of ripples or disturbance. It exists, defiantly.
The FORM core; the heart of the FORM drive, the dual-purpose faster-than-light travel system and gravity generator.
New shimmers begin to appear around me, advancing closer — listening. I lean in, staring into the core, placing a hand against the window. It’s warm.
“H-hello?” I croak, unsure of what I’m doing anymore, part of me embarrassed at myself. It’s just a ball.
No response. It does, however, begin to sway softly in its rotations.
“Who… are you? —”
It stops dead, now a pyramid.
My heart stops and I recoil. Fuck that. It’s meant to be imalleable, so strong that a planet couldn’t crush it. It’s not meant to… do that.
Staring at each other, we face off, its tip pointed at my eyes. I bite my tongue.
It’s… looking at me, following my faint, nervous sway.
And then it’s back to a sphere, spinning once more. The reverberating returns.
The shimmers disappear.
“Did… Did you save me?” I ask, cautious. My voice hitches.
I’m alone. I think.