Brenn poured a drink from the bottle of spirits on the table before him. Finely distilled, most likely from somewhere in Amarr space, a farewell token the other Astrometrics grads at the Republic University had given to him before he’d departed for the capsuleer program. He didn’t know how they’d smuggled it out, but all possibilities he could think of provided a wonderful finish to its smoky warmth. Every sip a wound to its makers.
A few minutes remained until his meeting with Brutus Wellforge, the manufacturer in Rens who’d contacted him a few days prior. Wellforge’s message had leapt out at Brenn immediately, simply by merit of not being another permutation on vague hopes and well-wishes like all the other communique amassing in his log since his recent departure from the University.
He’d thought Wellforge’s proposition seemed like a good enough deal at first glance—he’d be supplied with vessels free of charge, and a chance to finally travel beyond the borders of Heimatar. In exchange, Wellforge would use anything of interest that Brenn came across to keep profits healthy.
He leaned back against the dull metal bench in his quarters, and ran a finger over the newly-implemented jack at the base of his neck as he considered the potential consequences of accepting Wellforge’s offer. The material was pliable yet resilient to the touch, and provided its own sort of strange comfort in reminding him that certain things were no longer of his concern.
The screen in his quarters blinked to life at the designated time, revealing an illuminated image of Wellforge. Slashes of red ink had been tattooed across patches of burned flesh on the man’s cheekbones, and the pattern they carved out was enough for Brenn to allow him a small modicum of trust. We Matari weave our stories into our skin, Brenn recalled the elders saying, when they first pierced his chin and jaw with the sacred needles. Our joys and our sorrows. It had been years since Brenn had put any real faith in the power of their markings, but as he finished his drink, he found himself wondering what sort of sorrow had marred this man.
Wellforge took a drag of his cigarette, filling the screen with a fine haze. “Got an answer for me, Derrington?”
Brenn folded his arms, surprised by the stranger’s brusqueness. “D’you talk to all of your clients this way?”
“Nope.” A small orange glow pulsed within the smoke. “Never said you were a client.”
“True, you didn’t.” Brenn swirled his empty glass, rattling the ice within it. “Seems like a good arrangement, but you’re not the only one who’s approached me, you know.”
“Boy, are you a terrible liar. Going to need to help you out with that, if you’re going to be working with me.”
“I haven’t said yes.”
“You will,” Wellforge replied, stubbing out the cigarette. “Let me see if I can’t help things along a bit. Something a little more interesting than what I offered initially.” An image of an Astero appeared onscreen, and Brenn’s breath caught. He clenched his fist, hoping the manufacturer hadn’t noticed. “I….can’t fly that.”
Wellforge chuckled. “Patience is key to all things up here.”
“Trusting something like that to a pilot fresh out of the University whom you’ve never met before seems like questionable business practice.”
“I think you’re within an acceptable margin of risk.”
Brenn raised an eyebrow, pleased. “Oh?”
Wellforge lit another cigarette. “I know exactly what it is I have to lose, and what I’m willing to do to keep it. What about you?”
Brenn conceded a wry smile as he poured himself another drink and raised it to the display. “I can’t stand not knowing things, Wellforge. Send over the contract.”
“Excellent,” said Wellforge. “You’ll find details of our rendezvous attached.”
“Until then,” Brenn replied, and terminated the connection.
The small canteen Wellforge had selected for a meeting location mirrored Brenn’s impression of his new employer every way: functional but uninviting, and worn at the edges. The bowl of sodden cereal in front of Brenn had little more to offer, but he was hungry.
“I’m not paying you to eat,” Wellforge growled. “That’s your third helping.”
Brenn picked up the dented spoon from the table in front of him and drew a few arcs in the air with it before pointing it at the large station window behind Wellforge. “Interpreting scan results is hungry work, and I graduated top of my–”
“I know, I requested your transcripts from the University before I contacted you. That has nothing to do with the fact that you eat like a twelve-year-old.”
“About thirty-four by Matari reckoning, actually, or thereabouts,” Brenn said between bites. “Besides, it’s not like you can’t afford it.”
“Of course I can afford it. I can afford much better than this. I just prefer to have a little bit of control over how obvious I make that fact,” Wellforge replied as he pulled a cigarette case inlaid with crimson arkonor out of his pocket. “Smoke?”
Brenn shook his head. “And what is I’m meant to be finding, exactly?” He spun his spoon around on the surface of the table a few times, waiting for Wellforge to answer as it filled the pause between them with the dull grinding of metal against hard polymer.
Wellforge glanced around their table momentarily, before leaning closer towards Brenn. “Datacores that will assist me in designing new vessels that I think will help bolster the Republic’s navy. A page from the Gurista playbook in reverse, you follow?”
“And you had to tell me this in person because…?”
“Because I don’t trust any other method of delivery.”
“Because you don’t trust anyone but yourself, you mean.”
“It’s gotten me this far.”
“So, what you’re saying is you want me to sift through pirate garbage for scraps.”
“It’s for the good of the Republic, Derrington. Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t want to take a joyride in a souped-up Dramiel. Besides, I had no idea you were so sympathetic to piracy.”
“Wellforge, if I were paid for every time someone tried to feed me a line about how I ought to do something for ‘the good of the Republic’, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation.” Brenn scraped the congealed dregs from the bottom of the bowl and grimaced.
“Forget what I said earlier, you eat like you’re five.”
“A five year old with better navigational skills than you.”
Wellforge’s jaw tensed. “I’ve made arrangements with some contacts at Zoar and Sons for you to use their station in Habu as a base of operations due to its relative safety–”
“Zoar?! Habu?! No.” The constant din of the canteen patrons quieted momentarily in response to Brenn’s outburst, before resuming its previous volume.
“–and proximity to areas of interest to my clients,” Wellforge continued in lowered tones. “I’m regretting offering you that Astero, but I’m a man of my word and a contract is a contract. It’s waiting for you there. As motivation.”
Brenn took a slow, deliberate chug of the canteen’s thick coffee. “As a distraction, you mean. Do you know why I don’t know how old I am?”
Wellforge let out a long, exasperated sigh. “No, and I don’t need to. The rebels said I looked like two at best when they found me in my dead mother’s arms. Maybe your mother is dead too, Derrington. Or maybe your father is missing. Or they’re both alive, somewhere near Amarr Prime, and they took a gamble, handing you over to some wild-eyed vigilante they barely knew. Maybe your first memories are of the horrific swathes of light tearing through the clouds, or maybe just being beaten until your ears bled by some young noble for no good reason.”
He paused, and tapped the warped skin on his face. “The house was on fire from the Amarr firing on us from overhead, and my father had passed out from the smoke–weak lungs, weak heart from miner’s disease. He was lucky to even survive. It’s the always the same song, Derrington, always. Everyone in Heimatar knows how it goes, and no one lets it get in the way of doing what needs to be done. I’ll say it again: the rent is reasonable, the location is good, and pride is not a zero sum game. The minute you act like it is, you’ve already lost.
“Make contact with me when you arrive. And in case you get any funny ideas, don’t. You haven’t been around long enough for someone to actually give a shit about saving your skin from the consequences. You’re not worth it to anyone.”
“Got it,” Brenn replied curtly, too furious and stunned to say much more. He stood up, shrugged himself into his jacket, and dug his fingernails into his palms as he made his way towards the exit, refusing to let anything else hint at the fact that he knew Wellforge was right.
The rest of the station’s commercial thoroughfare was heaving with activity, and Brenn watched the constant stream of capsuleers ebb and flow through its countless airlocks as he entered the transport corridors. A dull roar overhead interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see orange contrails streaking across the commercial ring’s transparent ceiling, a short-lived sign that a Minmatar fleet had just departed.
Near Rens IV in the distance, two frigates circled each other as they filled the area with plasma charges, and he rolled his eyes. Yes, he thought, fighting amongst ourselves is exactly what the tribal leaders have in mind when they sponsor capsuleers. He grunted, gritting his teeth as he tried to stifle the dawning realization of his own hypocrisy.
The transport arrived, a few minutes later than the displays had indicated. The passenger standing next to him, a stout, balding Brutor with orange hair, snorted in amusement. “Reliable Minmatar engineering, eh?” he said, turning to Brenn as they boarded.
“Yep,” Brenn answered, still keeping half an eye on the activity above.
“Where you headed?”
“Back to my quarters.”
The man curled his lip slightly in disbelief. “At this hour? “What is it that you do, son?”
“I, uh–” Brenn hesitated, trying to think of a response that wouldn’t compromise Wellforge’s operation. You mean being an indentured errand boy isn’t what you signed up for when they shoved those electrodes into your spine? And whose fault is that, Brenn? “Cartographer,” he replied.
“Haven’t seen you before. They just bring you up from the surface? How many times you been, you know…” The stranger puffed out his cheeks, and made a loud popping sound with his lips, laughing.
“Five,” Brenn lied.
“Five? That’s it? You are green. Me, I’ve lost count. Tell you what, the first few hours after you wake up in a new lump of flesh never get any better.”
“This is where I disembark,” Brenn mumbled. He shuffled past the Brutor, feeling relieved he wouldn’t have to invent any more answers that he wasn’t proud of.
The grin on the man’s face dimmed. “Look, not everyone up here will admit it, but we all remember what it was like the first few times. We’ve just found our reasons to put up with it.” The transport doors chimed a short arpeggio and began to close. ”Good luck,” he said, raising his hand to Brenn in salute. Hope you find yours.”
“Thanks,” Brenn replied, and headed towards the residential blocks.
“Aura,” he said as he entered his quarters, “reset medical clone for the Zoar and Sons station at Habu IV, and have my belongings delivered there immediately. Prepare one of the Herons from Wellforge for undock.”
The empty capsule stood before him at the end of the gangway, waiting.
He stepped inside, and initiated the undock sequence.
Acidic jolts of pain scraped through his veins as the capsule established its connections, followed by a lurching pull from the frigate’s systems on his thoughts, as if it were trying to absorb them piece by piece into the blankness of itself. He focused on the precise, methodical patterns of the Heron’s demands on his consciousness, slowly letting the dance between them take shape. We are alike, you and I, he thought, curious and starved. Communicating with the ship offered him a clarity unlike anything else he’d experienced–words were shadows, approximations, and entirely unneeded. They departed the bay, and leapt into an effortless warp.
Brenn had mapped out the most indirect, meandering route to Habu possible. The Heron skipped nimbly from gate to gate, and Brenn smiled, letting himself savor both the journey and the irritation the delay would cause Wellforge. As he crossed into Yulai, an unusually high amount of signatures registered on his scanner. He slowed the Heron down, and began to focus on making sense of the incoming data to see if there was anything worthwhile to be found.
The first signature that resolved was an unstable wormhole. Anoikis, he thought. The one gap in the University archives. He remembered talk among the faculty about organizations within the Republic looking to map these uncharted sectors of space, and he had even heard a few stories describing reclusive groups of capsuleers establishing footholds for themselves there, but not much else.
As the Heron approached the location of the wormhole, Brenn found himself face-to-face with a distorted grey rift surrounded by a quivering teal corona. He crossed its threshold, and a flicker of pride and resentment burned within him as he remembered his first seminar at the Republic University, which had been conducted by a visiting professor from the University of Caille who acted like being sent to Malukker to work with Matari doctoral candidates was a forced act of penance.
An immense lava planet rose into view as Brenn emerged on the other side. Near to it, a small fleet of strange ships hovered. Dark and sleek, with hulls that appeared to absorb the very light around them, they drifted through the blue tendrils of vapor that surrounded them, silent as empty wrecks.
Sleepers. So that’s what they look like. He attempted to bring the Heron in closer, in order to obtain a better visual.
The high-pitched buzzing noise of the Heron’s warning systems needled itself through his brain as the engines of one of the smaller Sleeper vessels flared suddenly to life. A few moments later, the frigate’s defenses had been torn through by the Sleeper’s weapons as if they were paper. Alarms wailed incessantly inside his skull, followed by the bellows of buckled and sundering metal as the Heron pitched awkwardly out of his control.
Brenn’s connections to nearly all the Heron’s systems had been severed, leaving him alone in the darkness. He wondered who these Sleepers were, where they’d come from, what they wanted to keep him from. He wondered if he’d ever get the chance to find out more about them, or to finish his half-empty bottle of Amarrian whiskey that was likely halfway to Habu at this point.
A hysteric giddiness overtook him as he remembered who and what he was now. He attempted to activate the capsule’s ejection sequence, and was relieved to see it was still functional as the capsule slid from the crumpled remains of the Heron. You can keep this damn metal carcass, he thought, but not me.
He set a course for the system’s sun, hoping its distance from his current location would buy him enough time to end the encounter on what still remained of his own terms. As the star drew closer, he triggered the capsule’s self-destruct mechanism and watched as the Sleepers turned what was left of the Heron into a twisted husk.
I’d go through whatever happens next just to get another good look at you, you bastards.
Then a blinding wall of white, and then its absence.
Brenn opened his eyes, still feeling drained from waking up in a new clone for the first time. A brassy light flooded the Zoar station in Habu, ramming itself through his eyelids. The patterns carved into the ceiling of the sleeping bay bed blurred, froze, then blurred again, forming a sickening dance of arcs. He closed his eyes, and hoped to stifle the sudden rush of nausea it had triggered.
He hated this place already. He hated the Imperial banners that declared what was already obvious to anyone docked there, hated the way the grandeur of the hangar’s curved ceiling reminded him of the arrogance of its designers.
He reached for a half-opened bottle of Quafe on the floor near the bed, hoping to ease the heaviness in his gut. His mouth was dry, and the skin welded to the ports along his spine had begun to itch. He gagged again at the drink’s artificial lemon scent, this time finding himself unable to fight back a flood of metallic-smelling vomit. He closed his eyes, feeling grateful for the moment of warmth it brought him as it dripped down his chin and onto his chest. This station was cold.
The communications module on the display lit up, indicating two urgent incoming messages. He groaned, reached for a towel to clean himself off, and opened the first.
Heading into Anoikis in one of my ships? Did you think I wouldn’t find out? I track the location of all my assets at all times, and the signal from that Heron disappeared over eighteen hours ago. What the hell were you thinking?! A man can’t earn a living from an explorer who decides to self-destruct after getting himself lost up the devil’s asshole.
I am still awaiting yesterday’s shipment of datacores from you. As per your contract, payout for late shipments will be docked on an hourly basis.
Find a better way to get blown up than by doing it yourself, next time.
Brenn nearly deleted the message below it, half-expecting it to be another diatribe from Wellforge, but the corporation’s insignia, a wine-colored star superimposed over a pair of golden wings, was unfamiliar to him.
The message read simply:
You forgot something out here.
See you later today. Or never.
He squinted in confusion at the message, and wracked his brain to try and make sense of it. All of his assets were in order in Habu, aside from what had been destroyed earlier.
He tried to sift through his memories of his final moments in the wormhole before the capsule had initiated the consciousness transfer, but all he could recall were shrieks of rupturing metal, a desperate warp to a star, and then the high-pitched buzz of the clone bay lighting. Each time he reviewed the events in his mind for an answer, he came up empty handed, and slightly more infuriated at that fact. He sighed, rubbed his throbbing eyes, and let out a dry bark of a laugh.
Guess I’m going to need another ship.
The Astero that Wellforge had promised him lay at the end of the station’s ornate gangway. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he said, shrugging at it. “Don’t think this is going to work out. Not your fault you’re bugged.”
He checked the going rate in the region for the ship, which was around 75 million. Could be a nice little nest egg, he thought, selecting a local buyer from the display. I probably have a few hours before the new owner takes it out for a spin and Wellforge realizes I’ve sold it off. With the new funds, he purchased another Heron, and arranged for its immediate delivery.
He rubbed his eyes again, and began to compose a response to Wellforge.
To answer your questions, Brutus:
One, I didn’t know these hulls came with a leash. You’ve been doing business with the Amarr for too long.
Two, I was thinking ‘I wonder what’s in here?’, because you hired an explorer, not a hauler who happens to do a little hacking on the side.
Three, destroying my capsule was the fastest way to get back. I hate wasting time.
Four, fuck your datacores.
Five, I wouldn’t have had my first time go any other way. No one else deserves the privilege.
P.S. You need to re-evaluate your risk margins.
“This is a terrible idea,” he said, drumming his fingers on the gangway’s safety rail as he watched the Heron arrive in the hangar. Its engines let out a resonant hum as they entered standby, and he stifled a laugh. “Guess you have a name, then.”
An idly floating corpse, limbs frozen in agony, greeted Brenn as he jumped through the wormhole in Yulai a second time.The body was covered in gashes and rifts, though the face was relatively intact aside from its eyes. Brenn recognized it immediately as his own, horrified. He initiated warp, blindly choosing a destination at random. Anywhere but here. Anywhere.
Relief washed over him as he felt the rumble of the ship’s warp drives awakening beneath him, only to have it immediately replaced by panic. The dissonant surface of a warp disruption field exploded into Brenn’s view as the Heron shuddered to an abrupt and unbidden halt, and the steady thrum of its warp drives quieted to an agitated stutter.
The ship’s communications module activated, requesting a private connection, though nothing was showing up on his scanners. Resigned and unable to move, Brenn accepted. At least these ones have the decency to ask before shooting. What sort of sick game is this?
“Called it,” said a voice. “Leafy, that’ll be 20 million.”
“I thought we decided you’d call me ‘The Rune’ until we figured out if we like this guy or not,” replied a second voice, slightly exasperated. Both spoke with a Gallente lilt, though the second one sounded younger.
“We did, I just decided Leafy was better,” the first voice said. “Besides, here he is, which proves I’m clearly the superior judge of character. Overruled.”
“You have got to be kidding me.” replied the second voice.
“Pay up, Leafy,” answered the first.
“Fine, fine. It’s been a good month in the hole.”
“There we go. Oh–look, see, Brenn decided to say hello to us. Hi Brenn, I’m the Colonel.”
“No, he’s not,” interjected the second. “He’s Sanders. I’m Kale.”
“Leafy, that will be another five million for leaking extremely valuable corporate intel. Shame on you. Terrible. Anyway, Brenn, I see you got our message. You left this little offering at the sun earlier, and I know some of you Sebiestor are funny about holding on to old corpses. Thought you might want it back.”
Brenn’s nerves were still frayed from the confusion and adrenaline of getting trapped in the warp bubble, and his hands were shaking. “You dragged me all the way back out here to throw my dead body in my face?” he said in detached disbelief.
“Me? I just made a bet with Leafy here to see if you’d show up, and you took care of the rest. Thanks, by the way.”
“IT’S KALE,” interjected Kale, sighing.
“You’re welcome,” Brenn snapped. “Can I go now?”
“Go? Of course you can go,” Sanders answered. “I’ll have the bubble lifted a second. But one thing first: where are you going?”
“I…” Brenn paused. Wellforge would have almost certainly issued a bounty for him by now. “…I don’t know. I didn’t really think this through. What do you two want? Do you offer a corpse delivery and inquisition service to everyone who stumbles through your door?”
Sanders laughed. “No, just the ones who have a knack for Astrometrics and more curiosity than sense. Checked your records the moment we saw you head for the Sleepers on your own in a scanning frigate. Some of us figured you were worth a gamble.”
“So the message was a test.”
“Of course it was. Also, this isn’t our door. We’re a few blocks down.”
“Forgive me for not knowing the neighborhood.”
“That can be arranged,” said Kale.
“I don’t understand.”
“Brenn, you have two ways of leaving,” said Sanders. You can self-destruct in front of us–security measures, nothing personal–and you never see us again. This wormhole behind you won’t last much longer. Shame, really, Yulai’s a good one.”
“But leave your ship first, I’d hate to see another perfectly good Heron go to waste in one day,” Kale added.
“And the other way?” Brenn asked.
“You accept the data that Kale is about to send you, and we let you stick around. You help us map this place. It’s a job you’ll never finish, most of what and who you come across while you’re at it will try to kill you, and CONCORD won’t come running to save your ass when you forget to pay attention. You clean out the Sleeper carrion the boys leave behind until you’ve learned enough to take a swing at them yourself. You keep an eye out for any unwelcome neighbors. You harvest the planets in our system, and help us keep the station lights on.”
The communications module signaled an incoming request for data transfer.
“Lastly, you answer to the will of Anoikis and no one else. Probably a bad idea to piss us off though, you won’t last long out here on your own.”
At least if they try to fuck me over at some point, it’ll be an interesting ride along the way. Brenn accepted the request, and a new set of navigational overlays appeared in his field of vision. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“I can,” said Sanders, laughing. “The mapping tool should have uploaded by now; it’s a variant from what they use in empire space. I’ll send over the designation for our system, Phoenix. ”
“I can’t establish a waypoint on this,” Brenn admitted, feeling both embarrassed and bewildered.
“Of course you can’t! Not much point in maintaining a database of locations when it’s only going to be irrelevant in a matter of hours. Take another look, you can figure it out. Get us home, Brenn.”
“Nope. Hurry up.”
I suppose they weren’t going to let me in that easily, Brenn thought, but they already have more faith in me than Wellforge ever did. He studied the structure of the new map and overlay, and realized that beneath its veneer of unfamiliar designations and icons, it was essentially just a hierarchical tree. Location is irrelevant, so this only tracks connections between entities. Clever. He located the branch with Phoenix, and traced its chain of connections back to his current position.
Brenn steered the Heron towards the first location he’d derived. The light that seeped through was brighter than the grey wash of the wormhole he’d come through from Yulai, with larger flares.
“How do I know you’re not going to leave me stranded in there?” he asked.
“You don’t,” said Kale, with an edge in his voice that hadn’t been there before. “Sanders, I’m picking something up on scan.”
“Brenn, move,” Sanders barked.
He urged the Heron to enter the rift, and further into the unknown. The light throughout this new stretch of space was distorted, almost oily in appearance, and shifted every time he looked around. “What’s causing the light in here to–”
“Not now. Kale, anything?”
“No, but you know what it was like in here before.”
The hackles raised in their voices was enough to spur Brenn into warp. As the Heron approached the final set of coordinates he’d designated, the red-grey bruise of the final wormhole rippling against the black began to take shape.
Moment of truth, he thought.
The Heron leapt through the wormhole, and into a sky filled with the fire of countless pale nebulae. His scanners had come alive with signatures the moment he crossed through the threshold, but before he could activate the scan probes to examine them further, a new set of coordinates appeared in his field of vision.
“Almost there,” said Sanders. “This is the location of your new address. Got a view to die for–which is good, because that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. You can relax now, Brenn. You were completely safe the whole time.”
“Corporation protocol. We believe it’s a good idea to instill a healthy sense of constant low-grade paranoia into recruits as soon as possible.”
Brenn seethed silently as he set a course for the final warp. As the Heron reached its destination and entered the safety of the forcefield surrounding the corporation’s tower, he heard the telltale shattering sound of a ship deactivating its cloak alongside him. And then the same sound again, and again, and again, until he found himself in the middle of a makeshift cavalcade. His anger melted away, and he held his breath in awe as he looked at the fleet surrounding him as well as the ships hovering near the tower itself–Asteros, a Devoter, some of them he didn’t even recognize. He flushed, too proud to admit to any of them that this was his first time in a group of even this size, or that he’d never piloted anything larger than a destroyer-class hull.
“Brenn, meet some of your new colleagues,” said Sanders. “The gentleman in the Paladin is Chuck. He had your back the entire time. You’ll be cleaning up after these guys, once you learn how to properly record signature locations in our logs.”
“He’ll get the hang of it. After all, once you enter them 100 times, it’s as easy as walking,” added a new voice.
“With a broken leg, Loki,” said another.
A few hoots of laughter rang through the communications lines in response. “Good one, Crow,” said a third.
“Well, what do you think?” Kale asked.
Brenn gave himself a moment to take in his surroundings. The star that warmed Phoenix burned a vibrant pink, and nearer to the tower itself a slate-colored gas giant floated, its rings providing an imposing backdrop for the main structure and its accompanying storage arrays.
“View’s all right, I suppose,” he said dryly.
“Welcome home, Brenn,” said the fleet.