Something Wicked

I’ve started work on Tyche’s Demons, the first of the Tyche’s Progeny series. Here’s a real, real, like fucking real rough start. First draft, usual caveats apply: this is brain to page, and the brain is based on a fifty-million year old design. Be kind.

Something Wicked

Five minutes. That’s all it took from we’re having a good time to we’re going to die, horribly.

El entered the bridge, swagger dialed up to eleven, and gave her second a practiced glare. “Price. Report.”

“Captain on the bridge.” Price, for his part no stranger to the Captain of the Skyguard wanting a little bridge time, stood from the command couch and slipped sideways into Tactical. “Captain Roussel, sir. We’re about to jump into Paloma. Still nothing on scan.”

Not that nothing on scan was a surprise. The Troy floated in the hard black, somewhere between nowhere and haven’t got there yet. They’d jumped into a system with an angry red star, a couple rocks in orbit that had been tagged and bagged by a research team years back, and then forgotten in one regime change or another. El wasn’t sure whether it was the regime change from Empire to Republic, or Republic back to Empire, and her field of fucks was barren on that particular issue. All that mattered from a stars-and-charts perspective was this system was empty, and made a convenient jump point to Paloma. The bridge’s holo stage lit the center of the room, all calming green as the Troy mapped out in-system bodies, exactly where they should be. The bridge itself was an Empire design, familiar, the gold falcon on the floor bright and new.

She slung herself into the captain’s acceleration couch. “Lieutenant, we are a couple light years—”

“Fifty light years, sir,” said Price.

El raised an eyebrow. If it wasn’t for his too-damn-pretty-to-die good looks, she might have said something, but the bridge deserved a little cheer for all hands. She suspected that Dot Sound — the Comms officer on station to El’s right — had tapped that particular well at least once. “Fifty,” said El.

“Yes, sir.”

“You do know, Lieutenant, that ‘a couple’ is a variable unit of Guild measurement? It’s in the manual.” El kept her face deadpan.

“The manual, sir?”

“That’s right, Lieutenant,” said El. “Anyway. We’re a couple light years out. Hell, if we were a single light year out, anything we got here from Paloma would be dead news anyway. But it’s good to know nothing’s out there wanting to eat our faces.” Catching a snort from Helm, El turned to face Leo Shackleton, a man who used the callsign Hot Shot. “Ensign,” said El. “You have something to add?”

“Coming down with a cold, sir,” said Leo. He wasn’t pretty in any way except the way he flew. El had scooped the kid up from the Skyguard’s flight school and put him on her bridge crew before he’d done three weeks. When she’d asked him where he learned to fly so well, he’d given her a smile — all crooked teeth and acne — and said hell, I used to work in a circus. El didn’t know what circus or where, but she was going there someday to do a little more recruiting. He hadn’t done his Guild cert for Helm, but El knew a person. Being connected was good. So Leo Shackleton, eighteen years old and change, maybe the ugliest damn person she’d ever seen, was now Helm on the destroyer Troy.

“Very well,” said El. “I figure we go see what’s out there. Comm?”

“Sir?” said Dot, who had been practicing her don’t get involved routine.

“I want you to broadcast a high-five and a hearty hello when we jump in,” said El. “I want everyone who hears us to know that we’re more interested in dancing and a good night out rather than firing up our rails.”

“Sir,” said Dot. “Pearls, black dress, and a show, on it.”

“Price,” said El. “Why are we still here?”

Price cleared his throat. “A good question. Helm, ready for jump?”

“Helm is ready for jump,” said Leo.

“Comm, ready for jump,” said Dot.

“Tactical, ready for jump,” said Price. “Captain?”

“Lieutenant.”

“I’ve got a knife in the boot and a gun in a shoulder holster, just in case our dance partner is a mugger,” said Price.

“Just the way I like it,” said El. She frowned. El didn’t much like flying into dangerous situations, but if she had to, having a hand-picked crew of non-imbeciles was her preferred way of doing it. “Let’s go.”

“Negative space bow wave forming,” said Leo. “Bridge, bow wave is stable. Route is green. In three.” Accompanying his words, the big number 3 lit the bridge holo stage. “Two.” The number shifted to a big 2, this time flashing. El caught fuck yeah from Ella’s breath, and she couldn’t hold back her own smile. “One,” said Leo. “Jumping.”

Space outside the bridge windows stretched, pulled, and El felt—

Her skin, warmed from the hearts and minds around her. The remembered taste of coffee, heaven-sent. Her fingers, gripping the arms of the acceleration couch, not in fear, but in joy. The pure thrill of acceleration, impossible, unbelievable acceleration. She couldn’t feel it. She was it. She was everything. She was the universe.

Stars stretched, made points of light that streaked past the Troy’s bridge.

They jumped.


Five minutes was a relative measure, of course.

The Troy shuddered into place in the Paloma system. El ran a hand through her hair, still feeling the post-jump rush, her skin alive with sensation. “Report.”

Dot shifted in her acceleration couch. “Nothin on comm. Hailing.”

“Well, that’s unexpected,” said Price. El followed his line of sight, taking in the bridge’s holo. Where there should have been comforting green lines, the Troy was painting the system in angry reds.

“Where’s the damn outpost?” said Leo. “Uh. Sir.”

“It’s all right, Ensign,” said El. “The same question was on my mind too. Price?”

The lieutenant worked his console, no doubt looking for answers. While he worked, El turned her gaze from the bridge holo to the windows. Out there, in the hard black, was Paloma’s yellow star. The system had four planets, none of them terraformed. That was as expected. When the cap — fucking hell, El, he’s the Emperor now — the Emperor had said put a Guild outpost about there, pointing at a star chart, finger hovered over the system that would bear the name Paloma, people had scurried. Autofactories had been sent. A Guild Bridge was constructed. A station, a big one, not to orbit a planet, but the system’s star. No one asked why, because when Nate had a hunch, it was usually good.

The reason the Troy was having a panic attack was because Paloma Station wasn’t there. Gone. Missing. A big tub, twenty thousand souls aboard, the kind of thing you couldn’t miss. If it was hiding behind the star, sure, but it shouldn’t be, unless someone had pulled up a planet-sized tug and given it a nudge. No tugs. No nudging. No Paloma Station, either.

Get your shit stacked and in order, El. “Lieutenant Price,” she said.

“Sir.”

“I want you to find me that station. I don’t care if you need to get out there in a suit and walk between Paloma’s star and Paloma Delta. I want you to get every spare crew member of the Troy up and looking out portholes. I don’t care if they’re sleeping, Lieutenant. Stations do not disappear.”

“Comm has … something,” said Dot.

“Specifics are useful, Comm,” said El. She shifted in her couch, the straps feeling constricting rather than comforting. “‘Something’ isn’t a super good descriptor. On speaker.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Dot. She clicked a button on her console, and the bridge speakers were filled with a sound that was too orderly for static. Like, what static would sound like if it found itself in a marching band, a conductor at the front, and a firing squad to shoot any stray piece of disorderly sound. Racked and stacked, but … meaningless.

“You’re right,” said El. “That is something.” She frowned. “What is it?”

“Working on it, sir,” said Dot. Her voice was distracted, attention on her console.

“Found it,” said Price. “Or, enough stray mass to be a station.” He clicked buttons on his console, the bridge holo clearing, zooming, and reframing a section of the system. Just empty hard black to the naked eye, but to the Troy’s keen gaze, full of what would best be determined as space sand. Spread out in an orbit around Paloma’s star, an ovoid shape of debris, each piece about the size of a marble. The area it was spread over was huge, a Jupiter-sized area of space, if you squashed Jupiter and stretched what was left.

El leaned forward, staring at the holo. “Lieutenant Price,” she said. “Are you saying that Paloma Station was destroyed? And that what destroyed it was so thorough that they rendered the station down to nothing larger than an after-dinner mint?”

“Tungsten, steel, ceramicrete, and, uh.” He licked his lips. “Water, and carbon. And. Uh. Yeah. That’s Paloma Station.” The holo was scrolling with the thousands of material traces in the debris cloud, the major chunks alongside polymers and proteins. All the things busy human hands made, and a bunch of what looked like the remains of twenty-thousand Guild Engineers and their support teams. There were — or had been — Empire Navy crew on that station. Good men and woman, out on the edge of space, because the Emperor had said, right there.

Your shit is not stacked and in order, El. “Helm.”

“Sir,” said Leo, his normal cockiness bridled and tame.

“Light the fires. Take us closer.”

“Aye, aye,” he said. El felt the gentle push of the Troy’s fusion drives, the ship seeking through the hard black. “2Gs, holding.”

“Don’t spare the horses,” said El.

“Aye, aye. Burn at 4Gs.”

The gentle push turned into a shove, the rumble of the mighty drives something El could feel through her couch now. El looked at Price. “Fangs out, Leuitenant.”

“Bared and grinning,” he agreed. His console’s holo was bright with telemetry, looking for a target. Railguns, online. Plasma cannons warmed and ready for a conversation. Lasers and masers. PDCs, watching for anything that wanted to come close enough for a cuddle.

“Comm. Report.” El turned to Dot. “I need data.”

“It’s a pattern,” said Dot. “It repeats.” She played a snippet of sound over the bridge speakers, about two seconds long. “That is the message, repeated over and over.”

“It’s a two second message?”

“It’s a two second pattern,” said Dot. “I don’t know if I’d call it a message. There’s a lot of data in that two seconds. It could be a shopping list. It could be a compressed sample of a holo show. But I think it’s something else,” she said.

“What?” said El. “You know I don’t like playing the whole guessing game, right?”

“Sorry, sir,” said Dot. “Here.” She worked her console, the sound stopping for a second, replaced with something that sounded similar. Definitely not the same, but similar.

“What am I listening to?” said El.

“This is a coded construct message between autofactories in the Troy,” said Ella. “When they build something, they ‘talk’ in short bursts. They coordinate peer-to-peer.”

“You’re saying the broadcast out there is an autofactory?” said El.

“Maybe,” said Dot. “It’s not one of ours, though. If it was, I could tell you what they were constructing. But it’s a similar type of messaging.”

“Inbound target. High velocity approach vector. Burning hard.” Price’s voice was hard, taught with straight, the bridge holo bright with telemetry shared from his console. El noted his use of target rather than ship. The Troy’s LIDAR and RADAR reached out, caressing the inbound vessel, showing them what they were up against.

“What the fuck is that?” said Leo.

“Ensign,” said El. “If there’s going to be swearing on this bridge, it’s coming from me.” She turned to Price. “What the fuck is that?”

The holo had painted a ship a little smaller than the Troy. It was a polyhedron, roughly spherical but with defined sides. El wasn’t up to counting ‘em at this particular moment, but it looked more-than-ten-but-less-than-twenty. Each side housed a drive core and a set of protrusions the Troy guessed were weapon mounts, but the ship wasn’t sure. It was burning from out of the lee of Paloma’s star, making what El would call very good time. The Troy said it was pouring on 10Gs of thrust, the kind of thing that would make your bones hurt.

“It’s a spaceship,” said Price.

“Don’t be an asshole, Lieutenant,” said El. “I can see it’s a—”

“Incoming fire!” shouted Price. “Railgun rounds.”

“Evasive maneuvers,” said El. They were too far out for the enemy’s railgun rounds to be anything other than a probe. See how the Troy might react. And El was up for that party. “Helm, do your thing. Take us right to that motherfucker.”

“Aye, aye,” said Leo, hands on his console. The Troy’s drives pushed harder, making breathing hard. The big destroyer changed direction. The ship pointed its prow at the polyhedral enemy. The bridge holo was bright with inbound fire telemetry.

“Transponder?” said El.

“No,” said Dot.

“No?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing we can hang a sign on.” Dot paused. “I’m getting that same kind of signal again,” she said. “Same but different.”

“Tell you what,” said El. “Why don’t you send ‘em a message?”

“What message?”

“Tell ‘em to go fuck ‘emselves, with my compliments,” said El. “Price? I need a firing solution.”

“On it, sir,” said Price. The bridge holo blinked, zooming out from the enemy ship, showing the Troy on the display as well. The distances were vast, but given enough time they’d get to tangle with the enemy. “I’ve got multiple scenarios loaded into Tactical. I can give ‘em a nudge from here, if you like.”

“Do it,” said El.

“Firing,” said Price. The Troy had three railguns mounted topside. They woke up, shifting the big twin rail arms towards the hard black where their enemy awaited. There was a deep hum, then a flash of white as the rail arms superheated, accelerating their payloads to over a third of the speed of light. The bridge shook as the rails fired, then again, and once more. “The Captain sends her regards,” said Price. “Nine rounds, outbound.”

“Track those rounds,” said El. “Was a time I used time and distance to great effect. Wouldn’t want us snared in our own trap.”

“Tagged and bagged,” said Price.

“Incoming hail,” said Dot.

“You what?” said El.

“Incoming hail,” said Dot. “It’s, uh.”

“Let’s hear it,” said El.

The bridge speakers crackled, a flat voice, not male or female, not hot or cold, spoke. The words were well-formed, but slightly off, like the speaker wasn’t from around here. Where they might be from, El didn’t know. She’d not heard an accent like that. It was almost like it was a bunch of accents, all jumbled together. “Empire destroyer Troy, we have you.”

We have you. That sure was an interesting turn of phrase. “Unidentified vessel, this is Captain Roussel of the Troy,” said El. “This system is under Empire jurisdiction. You are ordered to stand down and prepare to be boarded.”

“The Empire,” said the voice. “The Empire.”

“There a lot of cousin-loving on that ship?” said El. “Yes, the Empire. Under whose flag we all sail.”

“We fly no flags,” said the voice. “Your ship is constructed of metal.”

El frowned. She looked at Price, muting the comm. “You think this guy’s a little bit star-touched?”

Price shrugged. “I think he’s spent too much time alone, sir.”

El unmuted the comm. “The Troy is made of a lot of things,” she said. “But anger is one of them, for the lost souls on Paloma Station.”

“Paloma,” said the voice. It sounded a little bit like a waiter she’d had in a high-class restaurant once, except the waiter hadn’t been quite so … unique. “Paloma Station? They were rendered.”

“You assholes destroyed Paloma Station?” said El.

“You are not like other Empire communicators,” said the voice. “They were more desperate before rendering.”

Rendering. El turned the comm off. “Fuck this guy,” she said. “I want a jump, in-system. Ensign Shackleton? I want you to jump us behind them. Leuitenant Price, I want pretty much everything you’ve got pointed at them, and turn the volume up. I’m going to give a good ol’ fashioned Empire display of ‘rendering.’”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Leo. “Jump is ready.”

“Tactical is hot,” said Price.

The emergency collision alarm sounded in the bridge, the lighting switching to an angry red. The ship’s computer spoke, urgent, his voice — as if a machine could have a male voice, but whatever, right El? — mirroring the words scrolling on the bridge holo. “Brace. Brace. Brace. Impact imminent. Brace. Brace. Brace.”

“They’re outside,” said Dot. “They … jumped to us.” She turned to the bridge windows, the polyhedral ship off their port side. This close, El’s eyes could pick out subtle details. It was mostly metal, but had chunks of rock used in its construction. Like an Ezeroc asteroid ship had fucked a toaster, and this was the baby. It rotated slowly, the polyhedral faces catching reflected light from Paloma’s star. Each face had a huge drive core, and the predicted weapon mounts. Many, many weapon mounts. Up close, El got a feel for the size of it. It was a little smaller than the Troy, and if El was thinking in terms of decks, which she felt somehow wasn’t quite right here, she’d have said it was six or seven. It kept pace with their thrust, making it look easy.

“Helm is not clear for jump,” said Leo. “Gravity well of foreign ship—”

“I know how it works,” said El. “Price? Make it rain.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Price, and El heard the satisfaction in his voice. The railguns on the Troy’s topside rotated to port, and El know the railguns on their keel were doing the same. And unless Price was a moron, there would be a another set of plasma cannons on the port side, about to say hello, asshole. “Firing.”

The Troy fired, bright flashes lighting the bridge as the topside railguns fired. Impact flashes appeared on the other ship’s hull, pieces of metal and rock flaking off into the voice. Blue-white plasma fired, lances of molten fury hitting the enemy starship. The surface of the polyhedron glowed with the impacts.

“Good effect on target,” said Price. “Oh. Hang on.”

“Price? Not in the mood,” said El. She realized her voice was tense, harder than the Gs pressing her into her acceleration couch. “What have you got?”

Price ignored her. “Helm, I need you to roll us. Put the bridge away from them.”

Leo looked to El. “Sir?”

“Do it,” said El. As the Troy tipped, she caught a last sight of the enemy ship rotating as well, rolling unmarked and undamaged panels towards them. All studded with drive cores, and those many, many weapons. “Price?”

“Captain,” he said. “The interior of that ship is solid rock. We’re blowing chunks out of an asteroid that is coated with drive cores and weapons.” He didn’t say, they’re taking no evasive action other than to turn functioning weapons to face us. Price also didn’t say, I told the Helm to roll the ship so the Bridge won’t get torched. “My assessment is we should get clear for jump.”

“Where to?” said Leo.

“Anywhere but here,” said Price. The Troy shook, the holo updating with damage control. Decks four and five, hit with railgun fire. Estimated casualties at a thousand souls. A thousand of El’s sailors, gone in an instant.

“Helm,” said El. “I want you to—” She was cut off as the Troy shuddered again, a decompression alarm sounding. She looked about, nothing that she was still alive, and was about to start some quip about false alarms when El noted that Dot wasn’t there anymore. There was the ruins of her acceleration couch, blood and tissue all over her console, the holo stage flickering. El took a second to process that. One of her bridge team was gone, snuffed out like a candle, by a round fired through the Troy, bottom to top. It wasn’t a railgun round, leastways not one that she was used to. A railgun round would have cored the Troy, leaving nothing at all of the bridge and her valiant crew. She took in the tiny hole above the Comm station, air whistling out into the hard black, and thought, they fired something new at us.

“Pour on some joules, Ensign,” said El. “I want those drives on a full burn. I don’t care if I stroke out. Get us clear.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Leo, hands working the console. The Troy roared at the hard black, the heavy hand of thrust pressing at El, an elephant standing on her chest. She felt her bones grinding against each other. A tooth chipped, and she swallowed blood and enamel. “Twelve Gs.”

The holo stage blinked, showing the enemy ship holding alongside, burning with them. “More,” croaked El. Leo’s hand movements were labored, trying to work the micro console under his fingertips that probably felt like they weight twenty kilos each. The bridge holo shone a warning, HUMAN SAFE LIMITS EXCEEDED. “More,” said El. “Everything.” Her vision was blurring as the lenses in her eyes flattened under the thrust.

The other ship still kept pace. Price was still firing at them, and they were still firing at the Troy. Ship to ship, the Troy’s tonnage and weapons load out should have been enough. But the other ship was maneouvering easier. Or the crew weren’t human, without the problems humans faced in high G situations, like getting a brain bleed.

The Troy rang like a gong, the entire ship groaning through her frame. Thrust eased, and El’s vision — still blurry, but the letters on the holo were big and bright for a reason — noting that they’d lost two drive cores from precision shots from the enemy. Thrust was down to a modest 6Gs, not that it mattered. Pushing 15Gs before didn’t do anything.

They weren’t going to get clear. They were all going to die.

El turned to Price. “Leiutenant.”

“Sir.”

“Don’t run. You just die tired.” She raised a shaking hand that still felt like it weight more than her acceleration couch to point at the holo. “I want everything you’ve got to core that fucking thing. And if that doesn’t work, ram it.” She closed her eyes for a moment, thinking of the Emperor. Her captain, who had shown her how not to be afraid anymore. Right here, right now, she knew death was coming for her, hungry, yellow-fanged, and relentless. And that was okay, because she’d take a piece of the monster with her to the grave.

Price didn’t answer her. “Helm,” he said. “Cut thrust.”

“Belay that order,” said El. “This isn’t the time for mutiny.”

But Leo was nodding, working the console, cutting all thrust. They were still on the trajectory they had, continuing through space like a thrown stone. “Thrust is cut,” he said. Leo’s eyes were low for a moment, then he looked at Price. “They need to know.”

Price unclipped his harness, another hit shaking the Troy. “And they will.” He made his way to El’s couch. “Captain.”

“What?” she said.

He bent over, working the clasps on her harness. “Time to get out of your chair.”

“Is this … are you fucking serious?” she said, trying to push his hands away.

He stood up, a sad look on his face. “I’m real sorry about this.” He pulled his hand back and slugged her in the jaw. Her head rocked against the couch’s embrace, and she saw red and black, her brain trying to come up with something that made sense here. It’s mutiny vied with he’s got some kind of psychosis, keep him talking. But when Price’s hands unclipped her harness, she was too fuzzy-headed to resist.

“Price,” she said. She was slurring, the pain in her jaw making a mockery of her words. El wondered if Price had broken her jaw. “Please don’t do this.”

“Sorry, Cap,” he said, slinging her over a shoulder. She had a moment to see Leo’s wide eyes as she was swung around, then Price walked towards the bridge airlock. “Just, you know. You’re the best I’ve ever flown with. I hope you don’t think worse of me for this.”

What the fuck is he talking about? “Price.” She scrabbled at his back, feeling feeble, like a newborn kitten. “Put me down. We need to save the Troy.”

The airlock opened, revealing a familiar corridor lined with escape pods. He kicked the release of one, the door hinging open with a beep. Price slung her inside. When she tried to get out, he hit her again, this time — merciful Christ — in the stomach. She sagged, but Price forced her back, clipping the pod’s harness tight about her. He gave it a tug, checking it was fastened correctly. “Captain,” he said. He offered her a salute before reaching up to grab the pod’s door.

“Price,” she said. “Let me save the ship.”

His face was hard around tired eyes. “The ship’s dead, sir. No getting out of this, not for all of us. But maybe, just maybe, if the eye of the Empress is on us, just one can get clear. Send a warning. I hope you understand.” The ship shook again, the lights flickering. “Godspeed, Cap.” He pulled the pod door down, sealing her inside. She could see him through the glass of the door as he entered coordinates into the pod’s systems.

El tried to open the pod door, but it was sealed, a flashing EMERGENCY LAUNCH EMERGENCY LAUNCH on the glass. She screamed, “Price!” but her second in command turned away. The pod bucked as it launched into space, the lines of the Troy stretching away from her as she escaped into the hard black. The pod would be working hard on its tiny thruster to get to safe distance before its own Endless field kicked in, taking her … wherever Price had sent her. Was he in league with the enemy? What was he doing?

Bright fire bloomed at the base of the Troy as Engineering was cored by a railgun round. The enemy ship was spinning faster than she remembered, each face of the polyhedron bring a new array of weapons to bear on her ship. Her ship, her Troy. The Captain of the Skyguard. Sucker-punched by her second-in-command. Lights on the Troy flickered as it lost power, a gentle list taking hold as it was hammered by enemy fire.

Another explosion tore through the Troy, and — even at this distance — El was sure she could see bodies hurled into the void. Her hand was on the glass of the escape pod, and by God she was going to get back to her ship if she had to get out and walk. El’s hand found her harness release, and—

Every part of her soul, stretched and painful. Ten thousand sinners, judging her as she ran. An enemy, faceless, without remorse, hungry like they’d never been fed. The cry of the Troy as it died, a strong ship, deserving of a better captain. The pure thrill of acceleration, impossible, unbelievable acceleration. She couldn’t feel it. She was it. She was everything. She was the universe.

Stars stretched, made points of light that streaked outside the pod’s window.

She jumped.

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