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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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Scifi, some fantasy, Mature. Anything that gets my gears going. Not opposed to Yaoi or Yuri.

For ze_kraken ze_kraken :

Posted here is a full description of your home system:


Mercure, central hub for all commerce in the Rival system. If you want to smuggle something in or out, stow away on an outbound ship, or sample the widest variety of goods this side of the Milky Way, this is the city for you.

Phayles has the bustling nightlife, exotic shows, and seedy underbelly you crave! Some of the nicest hotels, casinos and secret dives in the galaxy can be found here. Dignified in the great towers, but there's darkness in those shadows. Watch your step.


Vaticia, the first Holy City of the Great Migration. Paipas was a bit farther from the home star than Rivas, and so greenhouse gases were pumped into the atmosphere to make the world a viable home. Without argument, this process began here, in Vaticia. While the rest of the planet has made itself more temperate, the Holy City remains humid and overcast. Still, as a central hub for religions ranging from Christianity to Hindu, it rapidly grew.

Arnell Cosat, the Last Named City. So named because not only was it the last city in the Rival system to be named, but because its last name is that of Emil Cosat, the man who brought Unism to the system. It's clear on the other side of the planet from Vaticia, and is home to the more eastern religions; Buddhism, Hindi, a few Muslims and of course Unism and the Sacrificial Pious.


While there are at least ten thousand floating cities in the waters of Aguaceles, none rival Glim. It is the largest, most beautiful, and the premier vacation spot in the system. Aguaceles has the most delectable seafood ever conceived, nourished by asteroid particles in the water.


Home to the Ray pilots. Elesandes is a world with only the most basic of terraforming and simple shelters. Most of the wilderness is kept wild to train new recruits to be adaptive to any situation.


A mining moon orbiting the Jovian planet Persepolis. Deep down near the world's core is a heavily magnetized ore. When separated, melted, and forged, it produces a magnetically strong metal, ideal for starcraft. On this moon the single biggest concern is health. Toxic gases are regularly released during mining, causing numerous illnesses.

This is not the end. Far from it. There are a whopping 15 planets in the Rival system, as well as over 70 moons.{/slide}{slide=Crime, Religion, and the Families|center}Crime:
The criminal element of the Rival system begins on Rivas, but spreads like a cancer through the lesser worlds. Drugs, weapons, and dirty dealings under the table all make up the secret lifeblood of the system. Unwritten contracts and credit swaps built Mercure and Phayles.

At the head of this empire is Bolbast Frate. He has run the underground of Rivas for years, but he no longer works things over personally. He leaves things to his mediator, Tyrese Conner.

On Paipas every religion that was on Earth is present there, too, but so too are the newest faiths.

Unism - a combination of the philosophy of Hinduism, the spirituality of Christianity, and sprinkled with the latest knowledge of quantum mechanics. Unists believe that the universe is the literal body of God, and that the soul is a piece of the divine gifted to all beings. Everything is connected, everything is one, and to be kind or cruel to others is to be the same to yourself.

Sacrificial Pious - the Pious believe everything Unists believe, but they go a step further. They believe it is possible to return your soul to the entity of God, and your body becomes a tool to carry out the Divine's will. They believe they literally have no souls, and that as servants of God they are no longer responsible for their actions. They are the most common causes of extremist action.

The Missionary Problem: Paipas, like any religious center, loves to spread its faiths. But often times when missionaries of different religions arrive on the lesser worlds they conflict with each other. Miniature wars break out in underdeveloped colonies.

For most, this means nothing, but there are a few families who hold special status as founders of the Rival system.

The Joneses - the first person to ever set foot on Rivas, according to legend, was Captain Oregon Carson Jones. At first, the Joneses kept the military and political mechanics of the system in check. But times change, and the great Jones family grew and diversified. Some are mayors, some are soldiers, and others are simple fishermen. They say you can't go five blocks on any given planet without running into a Jones.

The Tulleys - like the Joneses, they were among the first settlers to arrive, but unlike them, they selfishly kept their growing wealth and influence within their family. Their names are plastered over Phayles and Mercure.
{/slide}{slide=The Rays|center}

The AI brains are all spherical processors about the size of soccer balls. The Rays were designed and built by what has been called the Mother Unit, a quantum computer vast and highly intelligent. No one has ever seen the Mother Unit in person, but everyone knows of its contribution to society. Simple AIs are in almost every city and every interstellar transport.

The Rays are designed to be perfectly streamlined, but their external and internal paint jobs vary in correspondence with their pilot. The Rays' skins have micro-golfing; trillions of dimples to better slide through the air, and of course the most advanced ion propulsion system out there, to turn on a dime in space and air.

But more important than their outer appearance is the relationship they have with their pilots. The Rays can't speak, but are very intelligent, at least as much as their pilots, but it's suspected they're far more. They communicate with beeps, flashing lights and groans from altering the pressure in the air pipes. The pilots gradually learn to understand them perfectly.

Rays begin as blank slates, with no real personality or preferences. Once they select their pilots they begin to adapt to form an effective relationship between them. They either mirror their personalities or form a contrasting one to provide balance.{/slide}{slide=The Pilots|center}More than just soldiers of fortune, the Ray pilots are heroes, peacekeepers, and celebrities. Originally the finest military pilots in the galaxy, they soon became anyone that could be recruited. The Ray's picky nature and apparent disposition against soldiers meant that a hunt for pilots became a necessity, and produced a number of unique qualifiers:

Strict warrior James Alfred Singh, pilot of Priya

Levelheaded negotiator and daring acrobat Pedro San Colypsis, pilot of the Archipelago.

Sex symbol of the unit Arabella Luna, pilot of the Cloud 9.{/slide}{slide=The Gauntlets|center}The Gauntlet is a pilot's most important weapon. Each pilot, upon being chosen by a Ray, is given a painful wristband grafted into their skin and plugged into their nervous system. They vary in size and design, but all of them have the same tools.

A kinetic blaster: like a miniature warp engine, this gun bends spacetime in a concentrated beam, destroying anything it comes in contact with.

Hologram Projector: perfect for displaying maps or decoys.

Microfilament Grappling Hook: for when a pilot needs to swing into action separate from his Ray.

Data Slit: like a USB for hacking enemy systems.

Standard Interplanetary Timepiece: can tell you the time, atmospheric conditions, and local gravity on any planet you're on.{/slide}{slide=The Wanderers|center}The Wanderers are the non-human enemy of the Rival system. The settlers have been fighting them for close to 150 years, and yet there is still no knowledge of their language, social structure, or origins. Even their basic anatomy is a mystery to all but the Rival system's military brass.

It's difficult to say what set them off. The prevailing theory is that they are a scavenger race. The first known sighting of them was when a group attacked a shuttle passing from Aguaceles to Rivas. They stripped it bare, ripped through the siding, and stole not only the basic materials of the ship, but the ship's primitive AI. There were no survivors.

Every time the soldiers encountered the Wanderers, they changed. At first, they had large heads and virtually no bodies or limbs to speak of. Then when they came back they had armored tentacles. Then they had larger, thicker limbs. And so on. Each encounter made them change.

At first it was believed they were different species, but it soon dawned on them that they were the same race, changing. Upgrading.

One thing that was just recently discovered was a massive machine in space about three light years from the Rival system, a short walk for the Wanderers. It is as large as Neptune's orbit, as thick as ten earths, and has trapped in it a G-class star. Shockingly, experts believe this captured star has traveled millions of light years from where it was born, and that it is now being used as an engine.{/slide}[/stabs]
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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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Scifi, some fantasy, Mature. Anything that gets my gears going. Not opposed to Yaoi or Yuri.

Mercure - Planet Rivas

Of course everyone heard about their arrival. It wasn't every day that the Ray Corp used public shuttles to come to a planet. It meant there was a search at work. The shuttle was long, bulky and slow. It made port in Mercure's dish-topped tower and settled into its offline mode. The shuttles weren't very maneuverable in atmo, not without a very skilled pilot. And the shuttles usually came without a pilot at all.

As the gates opened two individuals stepped out to a mob of attention. Waist high fences - the sort used to separate fans from performers at concerts - flanked their gate as they walked out. The middle-aged man with the thick mustache and proud bearing did his best to ignore them, but his partner gave them what they wanted. She smiled coyly at them as they snapped pics and had a special saunter to her gait.

"Don't tease, Arabella," James muttered. He cradled his arms and tilted his right wrist back, projecting their address onto his palm.

"You're just jealous, Singh," she quipped back. "I've told you, you can have all of this...if you just shave that damn mustache."

"It makes me look distinguished."

"It makes you look like a wookie." She looked over his shoulder at the address. "Damn. That's all the way out in the valley."

"You know it?" James asked. "You never say where here you grew up."

"Never been there, but you need a fat credit card. This better be legit. Don't want to come this far for a spoiled brat."

James looked back to the crowd. There were a few still snapping pics, some hovering, but most everyone was starting to leave for their gates. They had other places to go, other things to do, other lives to lead. He could scarcely recall what that was like. "We'd better get going before the next crowd turns up."


Downtown Mercure

The door to the alleyway burst open and a young man lugging a basin of filthy water stepped out. He tossed it in the alley and planted himself on an overturned bucket. Max popped a fruit chew and sighed. It just didn't satisfy like his old vices.

He pulled out a strip of clear plastic with metal ends and looked through his messages. None. Of course not. He crumpled up the strip, but when he relinquished his grip it rebounded back to its original shape. Max remembered when he would check his messages every day. Then once a week. Now it was once a month.

He pocketed the device and went back inside. He had this busboy job for about a month. It was annoying, but not hard. And it kept him under the radar. As the lunch shift came to an end Max traded his apron for his shiny grey coat and stepped back out. He untied his red scarf from his waist and looped it once around his neck. He popped another chew as he stepped outside. Mm. Lemon.

"Hello, Max." A well-groomed man in a black jacket came into the alley, flanked by two men easily a foot taller than him.

Max took a step back and felt a splash at his foot. The alleyway was still wet.

"I think you have the wrong guy," he said. "I don't know you."

He smiled. Max noticed the grin was oddly flirtatious. "Name's Tyrese. And I'm certain I have the right man, Max. I don't make mixups like that. I'm here about an opportunity, one you'd be wise to accept."

The big men on either side of him came forward. He looked around. The alley was narrow, there was a fire escape a few yards behind him, and the ground was wet. Maybe he could get out of this. "I think I'm good. Sorry, but I don't want to be in anyone's debt."

"Everyone's in someone's debt," Tyrese replied. His smile was predatory now as his thugs got closer.

Max turned and slid down the alley. The men chasing him weren't prepared for the slippery surface and fumbled all over each other. They recovered quickly, but Max jumped up and grabbed the fire escape ladder. As he climbed up, the pair tried to grab him, but couldn't. One grabbed the ladder, and started following him up. As he got onto the first platform he flicked the lock to the ladder, and the man following was sent back down. When the ladder stopped, he dropped and hit the ground hard.

Max kept climbing until he got to the roof. He looked down at Tyrese, then jumped. His feet hit the pipework balcony, and he leapt over to the adjacent roof. Then he took off.

Tyrese touched the device in his ear. "...Yes, sir, it's me. No, he...he scaled the building. I'm impressed. Little turned on...yes, sir. I'm sorry...no, I know where he's going. Don't worry, Mr. Frate. I'll take care of this."
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Victoria Green stood, rather awkwardly crouched, at the main viewport of the Gypsy Moth, eyes fixated on the empty void beyond. In the distance she could see blips of grey light standing out against the inky darkness, distant stations and ships light years away. Lone blue and red disks, slightly larger and brighter the distant stars, ambled through their graceful orbits, the planets' movements impossible to notice. No surprise there: the Gypsy was as close to standing still as anything could in the void.

Though barely out of the orbit of Aguaceles directly beneath her, the comfortable feeling of low gravity enveloped her. Grabbing hold of the support railing above the viewport and using it as a launchpad, Victoria hurled herself to the other end of the Gypsy's galley, snatching onto another railing mid-flight. Lurching at the sudden cease of momentum, Victoria grunted with exertion to keep her side from slamming into the hallway and gently idled to her feet.

"Theorem, open the door to the cockpit," Victoria ordered.

A brief pause followed, broken by a single, low electric whine as the door opened. The Gypsy's AI was rudimentary, more akin to the technology found in most household electronics: simple-minded, programmed to run through a basic set of tasks with very specific key words. Operational if not exactly flashy or useful in a pinch.

The hallway into the cockpit was narrow, the ceiling barely high enough for Victoria to walk through without hunching over. To her left and right rested control panels for the external cargo bays, essentially large drums full of whatever cargo the Gypsy happened to be carrying at that particular moment. Today those drums were as empty as the ship, the internal hold empty, the galley a ghost town, the quarters left untouched.

"Theorem," Victoria began, seating herself in the cockpit of the Gypsy. "Deploy atmospheric shielding."

No response.

"Theorem," she repeated. "Deploy atmospheric shielding."

There. Feeling the familiar vibration of the ship as the external shields, designed to improve the aerodynamics of the ship, extended, Victoria eased the side thrusters to kick the Gypsy into orbit and let gravity do the rest. The ship began to buck and shake as air began pushing against it, denying it entry to the surface. Shifting from side thrust to retrothrust, Victoria flicked the shields into proper position with a quick command to Theorem and let out a sigh of relief as the retrothrust took her plummet from frightening to graceful.

Two minutes later, the clouds broke and exposed the endless ocean beneath, broken up by sifting, monolithic islands of grey. Sprawling mountains of concrete and glass, steel and plastic, wires and pipes. Faint orange glow of the perpetually exposure to the sun. Aguaceles was home, no matter how established she had become: she could live in Glim's towering high rises or the lowest slums next to the open sea, it did not matter.

On final approach to Glim. Theorem's interface registered across the main flight path monitor in pale green characters.

Useful, Victoria mused as she took pressure away from the retrothrust, beginning the routine docking checks: verification of identity, approved space dock space, registered ident-card, all delivered by a droll, automated program. Once the line between the Gypsy and the dock was severed, Victoria opened a new link with a quick request.


For a brief moment all she received was silence, broken by the occasional shift in Gypsy's thrust.

"That's my name," came Walter Khan's reply. Despite the poor audio connection, a result of her negligence to update the communications array on Gypsy or perhaps cloud coverage, the man managed to put his usual flare into the statement.

"Wise ass," Victoria remarked dryly.

"My, I'd nearly forgotten what a wonderful conversationalist you were," Walter responded, chuckling.

Below, the glittering gem that was Gilm was coming into full view. The man-made mountains were forming into recognizable structures, the support beams of the city coming into clear view. The sun above cast harsh reflections and intense shadows across the waves as it soared overhead. Lost in enjoying the view, Victoria neglected to respond.

"As much as I enjoy calls to remind me of my wise-assness, I think I'll disconnect unle-"

"No, no," Victoria interjected, caught from her distraction.

"What you need?"

"Judgment day," she stated matter-of-factly. "Remember?"

Walter paused.

"Well I'll be damned," he muttered in response. "Who knows? Maybe the Rays'll make me reconsider my criminal ways."

"Dear, I don't know where you get your sarcasm, but it's most unbecoming," Victoria hummed.

"You did just call me a wise ass."
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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
Original poster
Invitation Status
Scifi, some fantasy, Mature. Anything that gets my gears going. Not opposed to Yaoi or Yuri.
Starship Crusader
Mercure Spaceport - Rivas

The ship was roughly the size of a skyscraper, easily 50 meters long with jets on the sides of its angular, cigar-shaped body. Cutting through the top of the seating area was a huge skylight, and on the sides were wide rectangular portholes at each seat. The cockpit was locked off at the front, and underneath the main passenger section was the cargo hold for all the luggage that wasn't on board.

That's where Oswin had wandered. She had been told by the two Ray pilots not to wander off. Like she would ever! Who would ever walk away from the opportunity of a lifetime? But staying in the empty passenger area was insanely boring. She went to the cargo hold to go through her bag, the only thing she'd taken with her from Paipas. The hold was so low she had to crawl in the narrow space. Of course, it was made to be emptied from the outside, so comfort wasn't stressed here. And thankfully, being the only passenger, the lack of lighting didn't impede her from finding her things.

"Okay, here's a copy of the Bible. Haven't looked through this since I was 14. Don't know why I brought it," she said. She tossed it back in. "I converted to Unism...Here's my red leather vest. Thought it might make a cool battle outfit. Maybe I can line the inside with Kevlar..."

She turned her head at the little mechanical butterfly on her shoulder. Ever since they came to her and issued the test, she'd had the small AI unit by her side. It had trusted her, and she had gotten attached in return. It wasn't normal, and she knew she'd have to give it back eventually, but she asked to hold onto it for a while. The AI fluttered its eight wings and landed in her dark hair. Oswin smiled and patted it.

"You make a nice accessory, by the way. And a great listener. Do you think my Ray will be like you?"

It flicked its iridescent wings in response. She didn't have to know what it meant.

She tucked her things away again and went out to port. She bought a fajita wrap and sat on the doorstep of the Crusader. As she ate, the AI butterfly fluttered from her hair to her shoulder. Sometimes to her knee. She smiled at it as she waited for the pilots to return.


Meddel Valley
Mercure - Rivas

"This public transportation thing sucks," Arabella said as their automated cab entered the gated community that was Meddel Valley. "If I had 9 I could have been there and back twice by now."

"You know we couldn't," James replied, still looking down at the address his gauntlet was showing. "There's no room for passengers."

"I know but..." She paused as they passed double-garaged mansion. She upturned her nose at how filthy rich this place was. "Look - are you honestly going to tell me you think we're going to find someone a Ray will bond with in this neighborhood?"

"It's a long shot, I know," he replied. "But you never know what the Rays will pick. And her application went through screening..."

"And we're in the cab..." Arabella added sourly. "Just wish it was clean..."

The auto-cab pulled up at the house. It was a beautiful, contemporary home with rounded walls and exciting angles to the roof. The cab's doors popped outward, slid apart, then swung open. The pilots looked at each other and climbed out. Arabella set the cab to "pick up" mode, so that as it sat idle the fare it racked up would be smaller.

When they rang the doorbell, James added under his breath, "A hundred bucks it takes to her."

She suppressed a snicker, but nodded.

The door opened and a young redhead was standing there. She was pale, about a foot shorter than Arabella, and her eyes were wide with shock. She looked down at their arms, at the gauntlets making lumps on their sleeves.

"Oh my god...you're actually here," she looked up at them, her eyes locking on the woman. "You're Arabella. Oh...um...please, come in."

As they stepped over the threshold Arabella whispered, "Maid. Just wait."

They found the house surprisingly sparse. It looked like someone was getting ready to move. The walls were bare, there wasn't a speck of furniture in sight, and off in the living room to the right they saw a bunch of boxes stuffed to their brims.

The girl quickly ducked out, Arabella assumed to fetch their applicant. She brushed by a woman who came up and shook their hands. She was an obvious former-bombshell. Her large breasts drooped slightly in her dress, and her eyes were a canyon of wrinkles. Her light hair might have been red like the girl's, but it was now blonde to the point of almost being white.

"Hi, I'm Danica Struthers," she said. "So...what do you think?"

The pilots looked at each other. "I'm sorry. Of...?"

"Jennifer. Oh God...did she really not leave an impression?" She started breathing heavily. "Please. Please give her another chance. She has so much to offer the Corp if you just let her try - "

James put up his hand to silence her. He didn't like the reflexive flinch. "Take it easy, Ms. Struthers. We've had some pretty awkward candidates. Your daughter's fine."

"But we would like a few words with her before the test," Arabella added.

"Of course..."

Jennifer returned. She had changed into a grey pair of pants with a matching vest fastened tightly around a white blouse. Her hair was held back with a jeweled headband. Her mother got up and placed her hand on her shoulder. They smiled at each other and she left.

"So...how does this test work?" she asked.

"Before we get to that," James said. "First tell us why you enlisted."

"To prove I'm worth something," she told them. She scowled and walked over to the kitchen counter, bracing her hands against it. "The Family doesn't think I am. I want to prove them wrong."

"The Tulleys," Arabella offered. "That's what your registry labeled you as. Jennifer Tulley."

She nodded. "My mother was Arguile Tulley's mistress. The Family doesn't share its wealth with illegitimate children. But it does do great child support." She gestured at the house. "The deal is I get raised here by my mother, then cut off at 18. My mother got an extra year after that to find a new place before they bought it back.

"I've had trouble finding work, getting on my feet," she continued. "The Ray Corp...you people are idols. They say the Tulley family steps on the little guy all the time. It's true. I'm a reject to the scum of Rivas. I want to prove I'm more than that. That's why I enlisted."

Arabella smiled and slid her hand into her coat. "Getting proven wrong every step of the way on this one. Okay. Time for the test."

She pulled a long cone-shaped object out of her pocket. As she brought it in front of Jennifer, the iridescent, multicolored wings slowly opened and its body uncurled. It fluttered its wings lazily.

"This is a very simple AI. It's programmed to seek out heat to charge its battery, and avoid dangers. It's equipped with biometrics, reading body heat, heart rate, and neurological impulses. Like a Ray, these can be very picky. If it trusts you, you will come with us."

Jennifer looked at the little butterfly and nodded, holding out her arm. With a flick of her wrist Arabella released the butterfly. It flew up to the ceiling light, then over to the window. It stayed put over there for some time because of the sun, but it couldn't find purchase on the glass. As it flew back Jennifer eagerly held her arm in position like a falconer. The butterfly hesitated, and Arabella smiled at James. Then the girl relaxed her posture and held out her hand. It touched her fingertips, then alighted on her palm. She gasped out her baited breath.

Arabella rolled her eyes and plopped her crisp hundred in Singh's hand.


Downtown Mercure

Max's walk home didn't usually happen on the rooftops, but he was hesitant to show his face on the streets again until he was sure he lost that Tyrese character. He got to his apartment in the floor-mark district and jumped to the balcony. He was renting the place in secret by paying the landlord for the unused space. He'd also been saving up. Guess he needed to get out of dodge faster than he thought. He slid open the balcony door and hurried in. He grabbed his duffle bag and started going around the apartment, shoving in clothes, a few books, and a geisha doll. When he went to look for his money he froze. It was all sitting stacked neatly on the overturned box he used for a table.

"I think we should try this again."

He turned to see Tyrese stepping out from behind the kitchen divider. At Max's perplexed look he chuckled. "It's amazing how much quicker you can get somewhere with a car. It's a very nice car. Should be out back. Go on. Take a look."

He gave him a suspicious glance, but inched to the balcony and looked out. A gunmetal grey 2351 Chrysler sat in wait.

"Must have cost a lot," he mused casually. He looked around outside and saw one of the men from the alley standing around.

"Oh, more than you have here," Tyrese boasted. He picked up a stack of money and flicked it through his fingers. "Looks like you have enough here, though."

He turned back. "Enough?"

Tyrese rolled his eyes. "You can stop playing dumb, Max. It's not as cute anymore. Ticket off-world. That's what all this is for, right? Think you can run away from your debt. Well you can't, Max. You know who I represent, I'm sure. Mr. Frate doesn't believe in loose ends."

Max felt his blood boil over as he backed away from the window and rounded on the man. "I didn't make a deal. Not with Frate, or with you, or with anyone. I don't owe him anything!"

Tyrese tutted and shook his head. "Max...you owe him your life."

The two stared at each other as they grew closer. The "representative" held up his arms wide, like he were going to embrace him.

"Come on, Max! It won't be so bad. You have potential. Saw that by the way you were jumping around. It'd be a crime to hold you up in a mine. Not like your dad. Lived on Curgis, died on Curgis, right?" Max's fists tightened til they were bone white. "But you can settle your debt here, and trust me, you can be very well off, very successful doing it. You're not being punished. You're just being asked...to fulfill an obligation."

He practically growled in reply. This was going too far. Tyrese stepped forward and grabbed his scarf, feeling it as he brought it up to his eye.

"Nice scarf."


"If you take the offer, you might be able to get a better one. Even higher thread count." He smiled that somewhat flirtatious smile again.

"Thanks, but this one's lucky," he replied.

It all happened so fast. He thrust his scarf into Tyrese's neck and wrapped it around. As he pulled tighter he inched his way to the door. When he got it open, he found the other thug behind it. He shut it again, holding the scarf with one hand and slipping in the chain lock with the other. The door started banging and cracking.

He threw Tyrese down and started shoveling the money into his bag as the criminal coughed for air. He had the bag, he was making for the balcony...


Tyrese was on his knees, massaging his throat and holding up a gun. That playful smile was gone.

"Not...cute...anymore," he wheezed.

He shot and Max doubled over as he felt his explode at his side. He stumbled back and hit the railing. He looked down. The car. It was his only chance. He wrapped his scarf once around the railing and tumbled over, holding it for support. He could feel his grip weaken as he hung there. When he let go he fell on top of the thug guarding the car. Clutching his side he got in and looked around.

Wheel...turns...lever...on button. The car pinged as it came to life and he sped off. He took a look at his wound a few blocks up. It didn't look like anything was punctured. If he could just get to the spaceport he might be able to patch himself up in the bathroom.
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"Could've told me you weren't taking anything important on the Moth," Walter remarked as Victoria clambered out of the craft.

"She's Gypsy," the woman retorted, indignant.

"I see both words on the starboard."

Stepping down from the 'boarding plank' of the ship, Victoria offered a shrug. "Sometimes I think you just call it Moth only because I call it Gypsy."

Letting the conversation drop, Walter turned and began to walk from the landing pad into Glim's center, Victoria trailing behind him, hands tucked in her jacket pockets. The landing pad, inconveniently enough, was located on the very fringes of the city, technically extending off the 'mainland'. Still high enough to avoid direction impact from the waves, the city was still reeked of salt water. Only towards its center did the salt stench come to be replaced by the normal odors of city life: people, exhaust, and filth. Even the top tourist location this side of the galaxy was just like any other city outside its core attractions.

Their walk continued in silence as the security networks and support structures of the docking bays gave way to the proper urban environment. Catwalks and narrow walkways widened into sidewalks and streets, crowded with people, cars, and maglev trains. Walter hated the crowd. He had been raised on a smaller platform on the ocean world, away from too much of the urban sprawl: compared to the 'small life' of private islands, this sprawl, this plasteel and concrete jungle was utterly alien to him.

Victoria, on the other hand, fit the life perfectly.

"Come on, maglev," she stated.


Ten minutes later, the pair exited the maglev train, ending in the high-life commercial district of Glim. Glimmering ad-boards meters tall graced the sides of buildings, flashing from advert to advert within seconds. It was an assault of bombastic colors. An invasion upon the senses. Everything was designed to tug at the attention, flinging it to this or that product.

The height of hundreds of years of market research, Walter thought with some amusement. Not so long ago, he would have viewed himself with an arrogance only youth could harness, that somehow his criminal enterprise was different from theirs. That thought had vanished long ago, even if he still felt he was the more honest of the two. Corporations and companies would lie to steal credits, Walter just took contraband from point A to B.

"You know where you're going?"

Victoria halted mid-stride, mulled the question over for a moment, and perked up. "Right across...that one."

Her arm raised to point towards a shorter building smashed between two towering pillars. By comparison, the slick and polished glass building appeared modest. Walter nodded.

"Did they tell you why they were setting up camp in the corporate sector?" Almost nonchalant, failed.

"Central location," Victoria shrugged. "Why?"

"This place crawls under my skin," he chuckled. "Suppose that's just the richie in me talking, but too much's going on. City's one thing, city and a lack of decorum and subtlety's another."

"Can't say I follow you there."

"Never said you had to."


"This will be stage one of your test," the spick-and-span officer informed Victoria. "To test your general aptitude, you will be required to proceed with this simulation. The Rays aren't looking for soldiers, or even military-style pilots, but if you can't fly, you can't fly with the Rays."

There was a subtle pride in the man's voice that contrasted his subdued appearance. Dressed in a stark white shirt and pants, hair slicked back, and his face clean shaven, the man looked to be more natural on a cruiser's med team than he did testing recruits. His counterpart, on the other hand, could not have been further from the stereotype the Rays portrayed. Slight, dark-skinned, a beard sprawling over his face in an uncontrolled mass of salt-and-pepper hair. That one hadn't spoken beyond a word or two in the entire registration process.

Now he did.

"In essence..." A pause as he mentioned to the set-up terminal. "You'll be plugged up to this. You'll be in a fighter, unspecified make and model. You'll start in atmosphere and we'll see how you handle atmospheric and airless combat. This is less a test on your fighting prowess as it is your thought process and reactions. Anybody can shoot well with autolocks: we need thinkers."

Victoria nodded, offering the terminal a look of trepidation.

"Shall we begin?" the stout man questioned.

"Not getting any younger," Victoria mused.


Victoria sat in the cockpit of a lithe, short-winged beast of a fighter. The diagnostics screen below her indicated three rear thrusts alone with limited turning capability once she broke atmosphere, one thrust per side as well as one upon the top and bottom. Not ideal. Casting the thought aside momentarily, she eased the wing-mounted thrusters into life, sending the craft bucking forward along the short runway: no VTOL for her. Feeling the entire cockpit shake as the fighter gathered speed, Victoria grimaced and braced herself for an uncomfortable take-off. She'd grown accustomed to Gypsy's ease of exit and entry, this fighter, which stank of old-Earth craft, was as unruly as a wild stallion.

Once she felt the craft thud and shake as it cleared the runway, Victoria initiated the third thruster and felt the force of acceleration shove her back into the seat of the cockpit. Not even a proper crash couch, designed to hug her body in cases of extreme acceleration gravity, the old leather felt more like a concrete wall as air fought forward momentum. For an agonizing minute the violent shaking continued until her altitude stabilized.

Then, right as she felt truly situated, the first radar ping registered, two kilometers to her front. Then another one kilometer to her right.

"Let's get this show on the road," she muttered.

Already her targeting computer was attempting to mark the target to her front, but nothing (neither from the ship ahead or to her side) registered on her end. Taking the secondary thrust control and executing a tight turn, Victoria altered the attention of the ship to the target now in front of her at nearly half a kilometer. She flicked the safety from her weapon - a short-burst MAC - and shifting the aim of the lock to account for the ship's speed. A tight burst rang, shaking the center of the ship, and the sharp tungsten shards sped forward at one quarter the speed of light.

"Lock registered."


Not bothering to check upon the status of the first shots, Victoria sent the fighter into downward drag, flipping around with the secondary thrust in a hastily performed koiogran. The fighter's nose dipped in the aftermath of the koiogran, sending her in a downward spiral.

"Lock registered."

Shut the fuck up.

"Lock registered."

Clutching the controls for dear life, Victoria tugged them up and attempted to stabilize using the upper and lower thrust. After an everlasting three seconds of uncontrollable spinning, the craft evened out, the lock still registered. The din of the computer's automated voice faded as Victoria diverted all energy into main thrust, sending the inept ship into a steep hike in altitude. The ship, now a kilometer in front and well above her, had reacted by matching its speed to hers, attempting to angle itself for a perfect shot to the lower armor. Grimacing, Victoria cut the center thrust off and dimmed the power in the wing-mounted engines, evening herself out with a nudge to the top. Now more-or-less head-on with the enemy craft, she allowed the computer to score a lock on the enemy ship.

"Fire incoming."

Too late. Three pellets of tungsten slammed into her wing, dipping her downward sharply. Cursing, Victoria angled her weapon upward and fired blindly at the enemy craft to purchase herself precious time to readjust and analyze damage. Sweat beaded down her neck now, her teeth gritted in fierce determination and frustration.

No good. Her left thrust was disabled, meaning that her right thrust was sending her in a gradual spin. Easing that engine while diverting more attention to the central one, Victoria braced herself as the ship spurred into forward movement...

...Directly towards the ground.

Pulling up with all her might, kicking energy into the low thrust, Victoria groaned in exertion as she ship creaked further and further forward. The ship above her had halted its pursuit, either satisfied in her fall or simply impotent. Letting drag carry her upward, easing the thrust off, Victoria focused herself on reacquiring the target lock as air resistance carried out the work for her. Dangerously low, barely 500 meters above the ground, she was at the disadvantage.

"Let's see how you handle this..." She grunted.

Flicking the lower thrust on to give herself a quick kick into position to slam upwards, Victoria slammed into the leather seat once more: her back would protest for days after this abuse. Only when the enemy ship realized that she had not crashed did it bother to respond, but by then it was too late to escape. Lock acquired, weapon trailing to adjust for movement, Victoria squeezed the trigger, sending out a burst of five shells towards the target. Dead miss. Slamming a fist against the seat in frustration, she adjusted her flight course to, more or less, follow her prey. Letting loose another burst, she was granted the satisfaction of seeing one round miraculously catch the enemy ship's fuel intake and puff in a sudden orange-yellow burst clouted in oily smoke.

Then she was dragged back into reality, heart threatening to burst through her ribs, nerves frayed, breathing short and shallow.

"What's next?"
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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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Mercure Spaceport - Rivas

The auto-cab pulled up in front of the towering spaceport. There was a small crowd before they had even gotten there, and it had Arabella's attention. She nudged James, who immediately shrugged it off when he saw it was just a grey Cadillac crashed into a streetlight.

Tyrese had slipped through the crowd and took long, deep drags on his E-cig as he surveyed the damage to his car. The front was crumpled in around the pole, the windshield was smashed, and one of his gold hubcaps had fallen off.

"I'm gonna kill him," he muttered as he took another pull from his E-cig. "I'm gonna fucking kill him."

He turned to his men standing around him and pushed them back through the crowd. "What are you waiting for? Go to the ships that are making for off-world and wait for him!" He stopped as his pocket buzzed, then pushed them along with even more urgency. "Get moving! I'll catch up."

As they headed into the tower Tyrese took out his phone. "Hello?...Mr. Frate, I have it handled. No, but...who told you about that?...Mr. Frate, I used the lightest force available. The shot's completely survivable...Damaged goods?! Sir, if you want to talk damaged goods, he wrecked my car! And he choked me without me paying for it..." He took a deep breath. "Yes, Sir. Yes, my attraction is not going to get in the way again. No, Sir. He won't escape a third time."


"Ah! Son of a - !" Max paused as a boy stepped out of one of the bathroom stalls. " - female dog."

As the kid left he turned back to the mirror and his wound. It wasn't as bad as he first thought. Apparently Tyrese had pulled back on the charge in his gun, as the bullet had only grazed him. But still, there was quite a lot of blood, and there was a definite patch of skin missing. And he was in a bathroom with only toilet paper for bandaging.

He was on his second attempt. Naturally, toilet paper wasn't an ideal material to work with. He had a patch over his injury and was trying to wrap the thin tissue around his waist to keep it in place. He got it, but he needed something to hold it down. He looked through his bag and reluctantly pulled out the geisha doll. He sighed and stroked its lifeless wooden face. Then he pulled off its earrings and used them to hook the toilet paper in place.

Max gently slid his shirt back on and stepped out in search of a ship to board. Ideally, he'd love to catch one to Paipas, but just about anywhere away from Frate and Tyrese was preferred. And he could relax, too. There was always a busy crowd in the towering spaceport, so even if they were here he could blend into the traffic.

As he walked he caught sight of Tyrese's men searching from gate to gate in front of him. He gently listed to the right, across the platform and out of their path. He ducked behind a kiosk as they went past. Then he went stiff as he felt something on his shoulder...


Oswin was getting bored. Even her little digital companion seemed to be growing restless. It fluttered to her knee, then would make a circle as it sat there, like it was looking for something. Occasionally it flew off her and started crawling on the floor, turning back every time a human foot got close to stepping on it.

This went on for about an hour. Oswin was not one for waiting around, staying in one place; she was almost certainly ADD. It was probably what helped her in the tests. But now, waiting around for the pilots to return - she wanted to scream.

The little butterfly started fluttering its wings again and took off. This time it didn't nervously tiptoe out of range but took off out of sight.

"Hey! Come back!" She jumped up and ran after it, worried what the Ray pilots would say if she told them her butterfly - proof she might be good enough to be one of them - just took off away from her. Would they revoke her chance? And what if the little AI got hurt?

She followed it and slowly came to a stop as she found the AI. It had found somebody else in the process. Oswin slowly approached as the dark haired young man - about her age, maybe a bit younger - reached out and stroked one of the butterfly's iridescent wings. He looked up at her, but seemed to be darting his eyes all around.

"Is this yours?"

"Um, yes...well, no. It belongs to the Ray Corp," she explained. "They let me hold onto it after passing the test." She didn't mean to sound so proud when she said that.

He brought up his finger and the butterfly crawled onto it. He then gave it back to Oswin. "That's pretty impressive. Don't want to lose that. Seriously, that's cool."

She nodded as the little machine fluttered back to her. She looked at the stranger. He passed the most important test. What would a Ray pilot do?

"...Are you looking for a specific ship?" she asked.

He looked over her shoulder, at the two searching the gates. "No. Just a ride off-world."

She reached out and tugged at the strap of his bag. "You can board the Crusader. The pilots won't mind, I'm sure."

He chuckled. "I'm trying to get out of trouble, not into worse. No thanks."

He started walking off. The butterfly on her shoulder flapped its wings in panic, and she agreed. He couldn't go!

"We're going to Aguaceles," she said. "A good place to start over. Unless you think of somewhere better along the way."

He frowned at her. Uh-oh. She didn't like that look. "What do you want from me? Why do you want me to come with you so bad?"

"The butterfly," she blurted out. She pointed to it on her shoulder. "You've got the potential to be a Ray pilot like me, at least according to this. I think they'd be mad if I let you walk away from the chance."

He looked at her, then at the butterfly. Then at her again. He started laughing, but quickly clutched his side.

"I don't think their roster is quite that low," he said. "I never signed up. I never took the tests."

"The butterfly is the final test," she insisted. "Come with us." She grabbed his arm and tried to pull him in. "You look like someone who's running from something. You can't run faster than in a Ray."

He fished through his bag and pulled out the doll. He remembered the games he used to play with his sister. The geisha game was Tulleys and Joneses. It was a strange but fun game of child politics. Then there was the other game, his old favorite: Rays and Wanderers.

"What do you have to lose?"
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"Next," began the sleek 'medical officer', "you will be tested for your physical capabilities. Though the Rays are a company of pilots, you must be able to fend for yourself without your Ray to help you."

Walter nodded.

"As with the earlier simulation, this program will be designed to test your ability to think as well as your raw talent. You will be given a random objective in a random location, how you complete said objective is limited to your resources and your ingenuity."

Limited to my resources? Might as well tell me the sky is blue, he thought bitterly.

"Will I be hooked up to that again?" Walter questioned, jabbing a finger at the VR set-up the pair had provided.

"Had you come to any official Rays training facility, few as they are, the proper materials would have been given to you in real-time. As it stands, we may only prop up your capabilities and environment in the world of ones and zeros. Shall you deny this examination upon the basis of medium, then I am afraid I will have to ask you to leave. There are many who are not dissuaded by the use of the virtual in place of the physical."

"Was an idle question is all."

The way the man nodded told Walter that his comment was not well-received. Still, that brief flare of distaste, that moment of humanity, faded as the man strode to the set and beckoned for Walter. Swallowing another comment, he followed the slick man's lead and sat himself once again in the VR generator. Gently, the man slid the transistor over Walter's head and he was out, vision fading to black within seconds...


When perception returned, Walter found himself in a wide chamber, walls stretching endlessly into the sky, their colors becoming indistinguishable from one another. The grey floor below him was polished to an unnatural sheen, faint blue lines pulsing where one tile met another. Upon a single pedestal, a block about one meter tall, rested a small golden sphere. An arrow materialized above the sphere, pointing down to the pedestal.

Retrieve the sphere? That was it? In an empt-

The world began to shift and change. The arrow vanished, the tiles below rose upward and formed a wall of cubes well beyond his ability to climb. Then he heard it. The scuff of plastic upon plastic, the woosh of air. Walter offered a glance over his shoulder and cursed: the cubes behind him were falling one by one. Without further thought, he began to jog, taking the first left he could.

This passageway was narrow, with only one meter from wall to wall. Every so often a cube would rest upon the floor or a meter above the ground. The faint woosh was growing louder behind him. Grimacing, feeling he was about to make a very poor decision, Walter broke out into a run towards the first cube. Leaping into the air about half a meter from the cube, he extended his arms to brace his fall and latched onto the surface, heaving himself up a moment later.

From his vantage point, Walter attempted to trace the rest of the passageway to another turn. None - another cube blocked his line of sight. The sound of falling cubes growing closer, Walter nodded once and started to run from the edge of the cube, jumping from the surface, arms stretched high...The other cube was within reach...

The satisfaction of gripping the very edge of the cube, clinging to it with but the tips of his fingers, was short lived. Walter's momentum carried him into the cube, driving the breath from his lungs. For a moment he hung there, fingers and arms burning with strain, air slowly refilling his chest. Left out a grunt of pent-up frustration and exertion, Walter wrestled himself from the ledge and on to the second cube. To his dismay, the walls (which would have been short enough to climb from his height), extended a cube higher. No matter. He'd make his own way.

Dropping down to the ground, feeling his knees buckle under the strain, Walter spared one glance back to the falling tiles behind him. Close. Though it already pained him, with his shoulders and arms screaming in agony, lungs still struggling for breath, he broke into a run, ducking beneath the next cube that hung half a meter in the air. After recovering from his skid, he rose to his feet. Nothing more down this hall. He kept going.

Walter made it two meters before a cube shot up from the ground directly ahead. Going too fast to stop himself, Walter cried out in pain as he struck the cube head-on, toppling over it and landing on the opposite side. Dazed, air once again snatched clean from his chest, the man lay there in a crumpled mass. A moment passed and his attention snapped back. Shooting straight up to his feet, Walter gazed blearily behind him to find that the cubes were still falling.

A minute became two, two became three, and still Walter ran down the straight passageway. No more surprises awaited him, but the nagging suspicion that this hallway should have turned by now. When at last he did run out of breath, Walter came to the conclusion that he was never meant to reach the sphere. Sliding against one of the two walls enclosing him, he fell to the floor and waited for the falling cubes to reach him. When they did, his vision went dark and all was silent.

"Thank you," he was back in the set-up. "That will be all. You will be contacted within the week by another test administrator."

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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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The Crusader - Between Orbits

Space. Max had never been to it, only dreamed of seeing beyond the atmo of Rivas. And now he was there, traveling who knew how many thousands of kilometers an hour through the black. A few distant colored specks marked the neighboring planets, before slipping past the porthole's field of view. The endless field of stars, concentrated in a band going left to right in an ascending line - the Milky Way.

"Ah!" He winced, brought back to his situation by a harsh stinging at his side. He did his best not to curse in front of Arabella. Call him a typical guy. He wanted to make a good impression on the Wet Dream of Rivas.

It wasn't working.

"Don't be such a baby," the pilot complained. She grinned at James. "You men. Act all big and tough to flirt, but as soon as you need patching up you turn into big babies."

"I have a hole in me," Max grunted out. He pounded his fist on the armrest as she smeared the extracellular matrix across his wound. "I think I'm allowed to whine a little."

"There's a little, and then there's what you're doing."

Standard first aid provided everything he needed for what was a surprisingly mild bullet injury. Extracellular matrix, derived from pigs' bladders and ground into powder, had amazing boosts to human regeneration. Arabella mixed it with a bio-friendly gel so it sealed the hole. The matrix would act as a scaffold, encouraging cell growth. There wouldn't even be a scar.

Arabella topped it off with a basic adhesive bandage. "There. Good as new."

"Thanks." He pulled his shirt over his chest as she walked off to the cockpit. James continued to glare at him.

"You were shot," he said. "By who?"

"Um...no one. I...had an accident at work. It was my last day and I wasn't being careful..." He stopped. He wasn't buying it. "Fine. His name is Tyrese. He works for Frate."

The young woman who was trying to ignore all this first aid business suddenly snapped her head in their direction. "Bolbast Frate? Oh God. What did you do?"

"Nothing!" he retorted. "It's a...from birth contract of sorts. Long story. Just...please don't take me back there."

"We'll see about signing you up for the protection program if a Ray doesn't choose you," Singh said curtly.


"Ugh...why is this noob even here?!" Jennifer cried. "He didn't even apply! Didn't take any of the tests! Look, the butterfly means they might accept you. It's not a guarantee."

Max looked at her, then at Singh. So this could still all be for nothing. He could still have a lifetime of looking over his shoulder ahead of him. He turned and looked out the window. The stars looked less welcoming now.

The door to the cockpit opened and Arabella swaggered back out. "Next stop, Aguaceles. ETA three hours. Did he say who shot him?"

"Name's Tyrese, and he works for Frate, so it'll be just about impossible to stick a charge," Singh replied.

"Frate? What did you do, kid?" the beauty asked.

"He won't elaborate."

"Do you owe money?"

"Maybe it's drugs, or you've stepped out of a business holding with him."

"Shut up," Max muttered.


"I said shut up! Both of you!" he snapped. He whirled around and stood up. The pilots' right arms drifted from their sides. "I'm not a dealer, I'm not a former thug! My family's been trying all my life to get away from this asshole! I don't have to justify myself to anyone, not even the great James Alfred Singh!"

He threw himself back in his seat and glared out the window. "Just leave me the fuck alone so I can get out of your hair."

Oswin looked at him from the back of her seat. The butterfly rested on her head, neither of them turning away from Max.


Glim - Aguaceles

Jennifer leaned back in her chair, tapping away at her screen, keeping herself entertained with a game. The pilots had told them not to go away from the ship. While rather dull in this older model spacecraft, she wasn't about to jeopardize her pass to the Ray Corp.

"Oy, Silver Spoon!" Oswin said as she plopped on her seat. "Let's see the sights."

Arabella had given her the nickname on the flight to Aguaceles, and from her it sounded like an endearing pet name. When Oswin - a Jones - said it, it sounded more mocking.

"No thanks," she said sourly. "They told us to stay here."

"Stay by the ship, not keep yourself cooped up," Oswin chuckled. "Come on! We're not soldiers. We gotta live a little! Explore! Right, Max?"

Her smile dropped and she looked around. He was nowhere in the passenger section.


She saw the seat where his bag had been thrown. It was empty, too.

"Son of a bitch. Come on!"

The Crusader was docked on one of the floating ports that served for Aguaceles. Great giant towers weren't practical on a water world. With no solid landmass to anchor them, it posed an interesting engineering challenge. Somewhere in the past someone must have realized they were space ships, and decided to try to dock them like boats. Long channels with rounded bottoms were built to house the ships, with a system of hollow tubes designed to displace water equal to the ship's weight, keeping it neutrally buoyant instead of sinking to the bottom.

The whole dock wobbled with each step Max made on it, and soon wobbled even more when Oswin and Jennifer started catching up with him.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?!" Oswin demanded.

"To find work," Max replied, not looking back. "I'm not cut out for this hero thing."

"Still running, huh? Running from what?" she challenged. "Not that Tyrese guy. You're free and clear out here. Even freer in the Corp. So what is it?"

He scowled back at her. "Careful, Jones."

She clenched her fists and stood her ground. "You're a coward. That's all there is to it. Afraid of what you can be."

"What I can be?!" he retorted. "They're not going to choose me! I got lucky getting this far, Oswin!"

"Press your luck further, then!" she called back. "Give it a try!"

He shouldered his bag and walked back to her, the walkway shaking like they were dancing on a waterbed.

"What do I do when they don't pick me?" he asked her seriously.

"Why are you so certain they won't?" Jennifer asked suddenly. "What do you think is wrong with you?"

Max looked at her, then back at Oswin, then he stared at his shoes.

"I shouldn't have been born," he muttered to himself. He lifted his head back up and gave them a sad smile. "But I was. I cheated some crazy odds...I'd better get that Ray, Oswin. You hear me?"

She smirked and nodded. He threw his bag back into the ship and they headed down to the boardwalk.
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At the stern of the ship's upper deck was a small room set there for lounging, chatting, enjoying a few drinks - anything to pass the time a little faster. Back when theCrusader was in service, this was a strictly first-class accommodation. But now, as a rental, the commoner could while away the hours with a good drink and a decent snack.

Singh had the bar, a half circle built into the front wall, facing back the way they'd come. The entire ceiling of the little room was glass so they could see the stars above, and the back had a long window so they could see the worlds - and the ion trail - they were leaving behind. The back wall had stylishly displayed gauges for the engine's output information, making it look more like a decoration with its blue glass and dark wood. Vending machines that were crafted to look like part of the walls flanked the room. A circular fridge that doubled as a table occupied the central space. Singh was putting the finishing touches on his Three Worlds Julep, a strange drink combining mint, cream, and berries.

"I still think it's bullshit," Walter remarked dryly; for now the bar was empty, save for himself, Victoria, and the standing-in bartender. "Put me through falling cubes, fighter simulations, and an application process for this?"

The man held up an outstretched hand, forming a fist with the index finger pointed outward. Standing precariously atop the knuckle where finger met hand, a metallic, glittering butterfly rested entwined around his finger, tail hanging and swaying gently by his thumb. Its eyes periodically moved around with a subdued noise not too unlike a lenses refocusing. When Walter's glance moved from the insect to Victoria, he noted her eyes speaking of half amusement, half agitation.

"My, what happened to Rays changing your past ways?" She asked, sounding utterly disinterested, almost sarcastic.

"Not a Ray yet, am I?"

She snorted at that.

"You're pretty much on the doorstep of it," Victoria remarked, letting the statement hang in the air for a moment.

"It's just a little bug - how's that prove anything?"

"Well, if you aren't even appealing to a little droid, how're you appealing to the Rays? I mean, I don't see what it sees in you."

"I don't think it sees anything!" Walter grunted, too loudly. "It's just sat around."

"More like you than it knows," the woman mused in response, allowing a smile to break through her masque of passive indifference.

"That's not-"

He was cutoff by the entrance to the bar opening with a high-pitchedring and the scuff of automatic sliding doors.

The first to poke her head in was Oswin. And she quite literally appeared head first, looking around before stepping in. Jennifer was right behind her and immediately turned around when she saw it was a bar.

Singh paused in enjoying his drink as he spotted them and craned his neck back to follow her. "Where are you going?"

Jennifer halted and turned, but didn't venture further in. "Sorry. I...I'm not of legal age."

"Not in Mercure," he nodded. "But rules vary from planet to planet. And city to city. On some the drinking age is eighteen, like Aguaceles. On one it's sixteen. High teenage pregnancy rates there."

"So, you're saying...?" Jen took a few hesitant steps toward the bar counter.

"If you wanted I could fix you something very mild," he offered. "But it's probably best you stay sharp."

"You should join us, anyway," Oswin added. A thunk announced the freedom of a package of cookies from one of the vending machines. She fought with the package and took a seat next to Victoria. "Plant yourself, Silver Spoon. Let's get to know our teammates. Arabella won't let me get to know the ship."

She sighed and sat across from them. "I wish you'd stop saying stuff like that. We're potentials. It's not a guarantee for anyone here but you."

"Why me?" Oswin popped a cookie in her mouth. She frowned and threw the rest out. Stale. How long had those been there?

The teen sighed. "Since the Corp's founding there have been eight Joneses. You've all but got one lined up for you. The rest of us? It's chance. So don't tell anyone - especially not Max - that they're getting a Ray."

She scowled and looked away. "It's not right to set people up for disappointment."

Oswin frowned and moved a seat closer to her. "What's got you in a twist?"

"I just don't like your optimism," she replied bitterly. "Talk about something else."

She didn't like Jennifer's negativity, but she turned back to her potential partners. "Okay...how about we compare scores?"

At the question, Walter crossed his arms, letting the butterfly move from its perch atop his finger to the crook of his elbow in a few seconds. Victoria offered him an inquisitive glance before turning her attention to Oswin.

"I all but aced the flight test, something like ninety percent," she stated proudly. "The endurance one handed my ass to me. I made it longer than Walt here, but he actually tried to escape the maze."

She had assumed that would be enough to drag the dour man into the conversation, but he only stared intently at the butterfly, a slight glare adorning his face. Typical.

Oswin chuckled and looked over at Victoria. "Not much of a talker, is he? I was told I got one of the highest scores ever in the flight one. You lose points for every shot you fire, but I managed to beat it without shooting once."

Jennifer snapped her head up and looked at her. "How the hell did you manage that? That shouldn't be possible."

"I knew the controls," she shrugged. "I've played with just about every flight simulator they make, and I knew that ship model had emergency power rerouting controls. I switched the charge in the guns to the fuel cell, so I just had to evade the ship until it drained its power and crashed."

"Wish I'd tried that. And I took the test seven times," Jen muttered bitterly. "Still got a 79."

"I went with it the old-fashioned way," Victoria grinned. "Damn impressive, though, draining 'em out like that. Makes me look more like a humble space freighter when you say that."

She paused.

"Name's Victoria, by the way."

She smiled and extended her hand. "Oswin Juenva Jones. Friends call me Ozzy, so as soon as Silver Spoon looks past our family feud, she'll be calling me that, too."

Jennifer frowned and looked away, only to turn back and ask, "How'd everyone do on the second test?"

Oswin laughed as she remembered. "I don't think we were supposed to beat that test. After the floor fell away I braced myself on the walls until the whole room jerked 90. Hit my head and didn't make it much farther."

"Yeah," Walter finally chimed in, attention wrenched from his own thoughts. "I tried to climb up the walls, but they just stacked on top of each other when I moved to take the high road."

Victoria offered Walter a slight smile and moved to Oswin.

"And I fell when I tried to backtrack down another hallway," Victoria added.

"Because I took it seven times I tried just about everything," Jen said. "Tried different hallways. Tried climbing. It's unbeatable."

Singh smirked at the bar.

Oswin bumped shoulders with Victoria, smiling. "It was damn fun, though, wasn't it?"

"Certainly was interesting," the woman laughed. "Strangest job interview I'll have ever, that's a certainty."

"I heard the Sacrificial Pious are worse," Jennifer says. "Don't they take a part of your skull out?"

"Don't ask me," Oswin chimed in with a chuckle. "I'm Unist."

"Didn't think that was still legal," Walter admitted, sounding disinterested.

"Depends on who you ask and where you go," Victoria shrugged.

"The skull thing is supposedly to free their will to the universe," Singh commented as he took a sip of his drink. "If it's consensual, nonlethal, and protected under the Freedom of Religion laws of their world, you can do what you want, pretty much. One thing you'll learn if you get a Ray: the religion clauses can be a bitch to skate around."

Just then one of the doors slid open and Arabella sauntered into the room. She seemed to saunter everywhere she went.

"Bourbon, barkeep," she teased her partner.

He smiled and reached under the counter for a bottle. "Where's the other one? Max?"

"What, you think I let him in the cockpit?" she retorted, knocking back the bottle. "No. He's texting out a letter to his sister." At Singh's raised, bushy eyebrow she shrugged. "I didn't know he had one, either...ETA is a couple hours, by the way."

Without warning the whole ship lurched to the right. Singh fell over and his Three Worlds slid across the bar. He caught it before it shattered. The pilots looked at each other.

"Gravity blast."

Arabella nodded. From out of her sleeve two bars came out, a handle forming from the tips and joining in her hand. Another pair of bars came around and clicked over her hand, forming a gun that encircled her fist. "Wanderers."

Singh downed his drink in one gulp and flicked his arm up. A handle and barrel jumped up from the crux of his elbow, forming a more traditional looking weapon.

"Fuck me," Walter cursed.

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Quiet One

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"With us," Singh ordered the potentials and led them back into the main passenger cabin.

Arabella pushed a red button on the doorway and metal screens covered the skylight. The lights turned red. Max looked up and back at the approaching group.

"What's going on?"

"We've got Wanderers," Arabella said. She synched up a pair of gloves and fiddled with the collar of her silver shirt. It crawled up her neck. "Do any of you have easy-seal clothes?"

Oswin padded her vest. "My vest and pants just for kicks, but I don't have a full outfit."

They didn't seem to be listening as the pilots flicked the emergency latches in the ceiling and safety helmets dropped like oxygen masks. They each grabbed two and placed them on their heads. A yellow visor in the front and a solid backing curled around their heads and snapped in place.

"I'll take outside. You've got in?" Singh asked his partner.

She nodded, her blaster wrapping around her fist again. "Protect the cargo."

"You know, if we'd taken an escort..."

"I swear if I hear an 'I told you so' out of you I will shave that damn moustache off you in your sleep," Arabella retorted. She turned to the others and her eyes flitted to each of them in turn. "Since you don't have any makeshift spacesuits on you, keeping this crate airtight just became a priority. Here or the cockpit. We're going to seal off the lower levels to give us more fighting ground - "

" - and maybe lure them away from you," Singh added. They were rocked by yet another gravity blast, and this time it was accompanied by a heavy thud and a reverberating chink in the stern-end of the hull. "One's latched on. We have to move."

They took the exit and the doors to the passenger hall sealed shut. Oswin looked at the other potentials, affixing her gaze upon Walt, Victoria and Jennifer each in turn. "Don't suppose you want to take the pilot's test again?...Max, we can give you your first one."

She rushed down the hall to the cockpit. Jennifer just stared at her. "She's crazy."


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"Fuck me," Victoria chorused.

Deftly, she reached down and tugged at a security tab at the base of her vest. The cloth puffed outward then snapped tight to her skin, drawing an audible grunt from her. Victoria repeated the process for her pants and sealed her boots; Walter merely watched with a raised eyebrow as she did so. The woman rose from tightening her shoes and placed a hand on a cocked hip, giving Walter a look.

"'Lemme guess," she began.

"Hey, Singh here said to have an escort, right Singh?" Walter looked to the fill-in barkeep, who merely shrugged, eyes twinkling with amusement as his helmet clasped over his face. "Why the hell would I wake up thinking I'd need to-"

Victoria cut him off by raising her hand.

"Doesn't really matter. I figure as long as we're in the cockpit, we're good. I trust Singh and leggy."

Walter's look communicated as well as spoken word: leggy?

Victoria returned the glance with a blank stare, and then something flickered in her peripheral vision. Oswin. The woman spun on her heels to find the ace pilot running to the cockpit followed by an exclamation by the other girl - Jennifer, Jennifer. Victoria paused, head cocked.

"What do you suppose she's 'gonna do?" She asked to no one in particular.

"I don't think she can run Wandered out of fuel," Jennifer remarked matter-of-factly. Walter rolled his eyes.

"No use hanging around here - might as well follow her," he stated plainly.


The group clambered through the narrow main corridor of the ship to the cockpit, finding Oswin seated happily at the controls.

"Fuck me," Walter muttered.

"Don't make it a habit," Victoria replied, amused. Then, to Oswin. "I hope you meant 'retesting' in a light-hearted since, yeah?"
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Quiet One

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"Sure. Lighthearted." Oswin studied the controls to keep her lousy poker face out of view. She was suffering from equal parts joy and terror. She was in a cockpit! She felt twitching and wound up like a spring. She also felt afraid for obvious reasons.

"Where is the weapons array...?" she muttered to herself. She noticed a few joysticks safely hidden under plastic. "Ah! Let's hope they still work."

"Um, how? We can't even see." Jennifer gestured at the cockpit windows, all of them covered in the same metal shrouding as the rest of the ship.

Oswin poked the touchscreen and looked at the display. On the inner glass a screen appeared, showing mostly empty blackness, but drifting around were a few Wanderer ships.

"They look different from the pictures I've seen," Max commented.

"They must have upgraded again," Jennifer said. "We're totally fucked, aren't we?"

"Not yet. Victoria, Walt; think you can give me a hand here?"


Heavy thuds and the sound of metal ringing and crushing rang through the ship. Arabella and Singh looked up to the ceiling and then to the door.

"If we give them an opening they'll stop trying to make one," the Indian said.

Arabella nodded. "And we can bottleneck them. Let's open up the back door."

She clicked her heels and her stilettos hummed, magnetizing to the floor. She grinned at her partner. "You got outside, right?"

He smirked behind his bushy moustache and flicked his wrist. The gun went away and the gauntlet rotated around his arm. He nodded to her and she opened the door. Explosive decompression forced him out with blistering speed. His gauntlet launched a grappler that stuck firm to the Crusader. He was pulled back to the ship and clicked his own heels, making purchase with the siding.

It was their first look at the new Wanderers. The last time Singh had gone against one, it had six limbs, dark grey armor from head to toe, and small fin-like plates on its back. Now the Wanderers had eight limbs, thicker, even stronger armor, and the small plates had grown into a movable shell around its back. One thing that never changed were the two sideways diamonds on its face; those hateful red eyes.

He flicked out his blaster and fired several shots of raw kinetic energy at the head of the nearest one. It bent down, the spatial warp that followed the trajectory of each invisible shot glancing off its thick wide head.

"The crest is stronger," Singh reported over the com in his helmet.

"Yep! Did you notice the extra arms?" Arabella replied.

The Wanderer grabbed him and threw him into the siding of the ship. It straddled over him and slammed him repeatedly against the metal. Two other arms pounded painfully into his abdomen before pinning him down, the first pair encasing his helmet and squeezing.

"Noticed..." He grunted.

He brought his arm up and set his gun to rapid fire. Most of the blows just rippled over the alien's face, but its left eye shattered and went dark. He shot at the neck, watching the thin ringlets bend and deform. "Eyes and neck are still weak spots!"

It grabbed him with all four arms and threw him off the ship entirely. Singh shot his magnetic grappler at the Wanderer, but it slid right off.

"They aren't magnetic anymore!" he announced and flicked his wrist. The magnet opened up into a proper hook and latched onto the Wanderer's arm.

"How many have you got?" Arabella asked through the com.

"One...make that two," he amended as a Wanderer ship came in and another one of the creatures launched itself out of it. "You?"

"Three. These sons of bitches are smart. I can't get close enough for a solid hit. On the plus, they're away from the doors."

Singh shot forward and stuck to the side. He jammed the barrel of his gun right into the Wanderer's already damaged eye socket and fired. Its head shell moved and vibrated as he turned the inside of its head to bits. It reeled, but even with a hole to its head it shockingly didn't fall. This was a disturbing new upgrade. It raised its arms to attack and Singh forced his gun into a hollow chest cavity he just noticed. A few quick shots there and the Wanderer slumped over, before falling off the ship and drifting away behind him.

"One down..." Another Wanderer latched on, making for two approaching him. He groaned. "Of course."
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"Walt," Victoria began, all business now. "I need you on the weapons - you're the better shot."


"You failed on a make and model you were unfamiliar with. These are just like the Gypsy's weapons. Point and go, they're even swivel mounted."

"I see way more ships behind us, swivel's not going to cut it," Walter retorted, taking a seat at the gunner's console. "Right, you ladies work on moving this thing."

The weapon systems roared into life, sending vibrations through the cockpit as they spat into the void of space. While Walter worked on firing, Victoria sat beside Oswin and nodded to herself. Copiloting. That she had not done in a while - with Walt as her wingman, she had been the one to control the stick more often than not...But Oswin, Oswin was the one to be the main operator and she knew it.

"Right now we've got a quarter of our energy from thrust working on making what little gravity we've got," Victoria announced. "If we increase that, we can shift around with the fuel pellets we've got for about two hours on full burn. Problem is if we do that, acceleration gravity starts going again in a direction we don't want. We could divert energy from the weapon systems to inertial dampeners, but then we'll be pissing in the wind."

"Weapons are shit anyways," Walt remarked. "Not so much as a torpedo tube."

"Go back to playing Space Invaders," Victoria snapped in response. "Jennifer, seal off the cockpit's hallway so we can divert more power to the gravity."

The woman nodded and dashed for the control unit.

"Walt, we need to worry about ammunition?"

"No, these fire nanofilament slivers. Basically raw energy, we can keep this up for days."

Need to get me one of those.

"Right, start firing bursts to get them moving. Look for effect, not damage. Prioritize the closest ones otherwise we're done for," Victoria's attention wheeled to Oswin. "Oswin, think if we divert energy from maintaining gravity to thrust that you can pull some tricks?"

As she waited for an answer, Victoria flicked open an operations tab on her copilot station and monitored Walter's progress. About as expected. No registered damage to Wanderer ships. No noticeable burn through ammunition. Forget the low energy, already is pissing in the wind.... With ill humor, Victoria wondered if this was just another test and that she was still back home...

...If only.

"Oh, and Max."


"See if you can't check in with our friends on the lower decks."
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Quiet One

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While Victoria was beside her, Oswin was beside herself, as well. In a simulation, her piloting skills were perfection. From little kiddie ones when she was six to training simulators for military, commercial, and private starships. Oswin had mastered them all. But this was her first time actually driving. She stared at the wheel, a round control unit with a touch screen curved around its rim set on a pivoting joint. It was reminiscent of an old-timey boat from Earth. She was never overly fond of this steering arrangement, but as the Crusader shook from another concussive blast, she conceded she couldn't be picky.

"Max, there's a communications hub right there." She pointed to her right, Victoria on her left. "Every emergency space helmet should have coms, so we can warn them if we're about to unseat them."

"Okay. Um..." He leaned over the screens and fooled around with them. Whether by some subconscious intuition or just dumb luck, this always worked for him. He found the helmet frequencies and narrowed down the ones in use. "James, Arabella. This is Max. Do you...what do I say? Copy?"

"Kid, what are you doing playing with the communication system?" they heard Singh's exasperated, edgy voice call to them.

"We're playing with just about everything," he muttered under his breath. "We're trying to help you hold them off."

"The guns are shit," Arabella said. They heard her grunt and whoop suddenly. "Got another one."

"We've kinda figured out the guns aren't very good...any suggestions?" he asked.

"Little busy at the moment!" Singh snapped.

"Same here!"
Arabella added.

"...I've got some ideas," Oswin said. She turned to her copilot. "Victoria, this bird isn't built for fast turns. It's built to stay stable. Our old girl here has dozens of small thrusters keeping its trajectory level. Shut them off."

Oswin put forth her best "trust me" face, and watched her switch off the ACC - automated course correction. She nodded. The bow and underside of the hull were the strongest parts due to the heat of reentry. If they were going to be a target, might as well be a tough one.

"Vic, I'm going to need you to play pass-around with the power."

"Pass-a-what?" Jennifer interrupted.

"I was in a church youth group. Shut up." She pointed at the power readings in front of Victoria, then placed her hands firmly on the wheel. "Shut off everything but what I tell you to, including the gravity. Max, tell Singh we're about to do a backflip."

"God, I wish there were more seatbelts in here," Jennifer groaned and braced herself against the ceiling and wall.

"Full gravity to stern. Altitude descent full in rear, ascent full at bow," Oswin ordered.

She pushed the wheel down. Her directions to Victoria were for power distribution, not for steering. She had to do that herself. There was a sudden shift in the weight of the ship as the gravity jerked them all back. The stars moved on the display, the only indication they were tilting the entire ship back.

The Wanderer ships that had been behind them appeared overhead. Oswin looked at them again and still marveled at the complete lack of viewports of any kind.

"The ships must have cameras or sensors of some kind to be completely blocked out like that," she mused out loud. "Walt, do you think you can shoot the fronts of the ships? We may not be able to damage them but maybe we can blind them to make our escape."

"On it."

Jennifer looked at Oswin from where she was standing braced against the wall. "You have a thing for fighting without actually fighting, don't you?"

"Guns don't mean shit if your enemy's got brains," she retorted with a grin. Under her breath she added, "brains and no small amount of luck..."


"Keep us in our current arc, but slow burn. I want a graceful flip," she ordered Victoria. She wasn't usually so assertive. The captain's chair was giving her confidence.

As the Crusader flipped around, the enemy ships eased closer, cautious from the commercial craft's unexpected maneuver. The energy bolts from the guns hit the ships and made their lights flicker and made them slow down. Soon the heavy ship was nearing 360° of rotation.

"Full ascent port and full descent starboard," she ordered and turned the wheel hard right. They heard light thuds as they bared the underside to enemy fire. "Realign trajectory and gravity. Let's steady her out. Remember where the thrusters are now. 75% ascent at the bow..."

She pulled up, which was now "down" since the ship was flipped, and drifted under the asteroid belt they were nearing.

"You are planning to go under that, right?" Jen pleaded.

"Of course. Ship can't take the hits anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"This model is from 2285," Oswin explained. "Any ship nut knows that between 2279 and 2286 there was a shortage of magnetized ore. The Crusader didn't meet standards when she was new, and that was seventy years and who knows how many Wanderer upgrades ago."

"So the Wanderers now?" Max prodded.

"Would rip through the hull like tin foil," she said. "Hence why we're fleeing. With style."
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Walter grimaced at the mention of manipulating thrust and gravity. Everything experience aboard the Moth had told him screamed that those were two things to be altered in moderation, and Oswin made the act sound so trivial. So blazay. Something like changing the channel on a holoboard or setting a thermosphere a notch higher. Tossing the thought aside, returning to his weapon station, Walt fell back into the routine of sight, chase, kill, sight, chase kill, sight chase.... Except, he wasn't 'killing' so much as he was spitting into the wind.

In the peripherals of his hearing, he could hear Oswin open her mouth again. "Vic, I'm going to need you to play pass-around with the power."


"Got it," Victoria responded. "Working on it now, Walt, your guns'll lose some umpf. Sorry about that."

"Wasn't doing anything anyways," Walt sneered. "Do what you need to do."

A moment passed, the guns still barking into the empty void with not so much as a muzzle flare, just a shuddering vibration throughout the interior of the cockpit. Then the ship began to lurch, sending Walt slumping forward with it for a brief, terror-inducing moment. Then Victoria shifted the gravity again, and the sensation passed as quickly as it had come. Shaking the lingering vertigo away, Walter rotated the weapons on their swivel and readjusted his sights.

"Walt, do you think you can shoot the fronts of the ships? We may not be able to damage them but maybe we can blind them to make our escape."

"On it," he remarked.

Give him fighting in atmosphere any day. Something about the restriction of a planet's gravity, air resistance, and space felt more comfortable than the possibility for infinite directional travel. Viewing the enemy shops from the opposite angle now had driven his aim off enough to rely upon the auto-correct feature the weapons console provided. As the computer corrected his aim and the fire continued, Walter noticed the ship arcing over into a tight flip. That he could handle. Confident in the stability of his firing platform, he continued.

"Wait, wait, under what?" Walter asked, catching the last end of Jennifer's question.

"Asteroid belt," Victoria snipped.

"So we are flying under it?"

"Listen to Ozzy here."

Walter nodded and set the weapon systems offline.

"Right, these aren't going to do anything the auto systems can't do for a while here - what do I need to do?"

"Sit around and look pretty for all I care," Victoria grunted. "Something useful, sounds good."

"Right, Oswin, tell me what I really need to do," Walter repeated. "'Gonna need a little more micromanagement than 'something useful'."

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Quiet One

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The acrobatics made fighting the Wanderers...interesting. In space, orientation meant nothing; up and down didn't apply, so as long as Singh had the Crusader to act as his "floor" he could fight. But the lurching of gravity made keeping his stance on the hull tricky. More than once he swore as he was thrown onto the metalwork, fighting on his back.

He shot in rapid fire, trailing up the armor of one of them. Most of the armor protected it, but the few weak spots he'd discovered already were hit, rendering it immobile. He got up, shot it in the face, and kicked it off.

"Oswin, roll us so the top grazes the belt," Singh said into his com. He saw a few Wanderers at the ceiling window of the bar. They ripped the metal shielding off like wrapping paper at Christmas. They started punching the durable plexiglass, causing it to warp.


Oswin winced at the command. They'd be just kissing the asteroid belt, but that could rip the entire roof off if she wasn't careful.

"Uh...got it," she replied. She looked over the controls, remembering they were upside down now. "Full ascent port, descent starboard. Give me full control of ascent/descent when we're flipped."

She started turning the wheel back around. God, she hated these things! Suddenly, massive rocks, many larger than the ship, loomed overhead through the visual screen.

"Walt, you want to be useful? Get me a visual on the asteroids overhead. I don't want to get too close."

"Unists don't pray to a god, do they?" Jennifer deadpanned. She was gripping a wall handle so tight her knuckles were white.

"God doesn't listen to prayers, Silver Spoon," she quipped. "Too busy making the worlds go 'round."

"That's comforting," Max muttered next to her.


Singh hung over the edge of the ship as it was slowly guided into the asteroid belt. He imagined the bangs and scraping sounds that should have accompanied what he was seeing. The meteors glanced or scratched, wiping the Wanderers clear off in pieces of armor and floating pools of black goo.

As the ship lowered down again, he peered over the side. The bar was breached - much to his personal dismay - but the threat was gone.

"Singh! I've got a puncture! I'm sorry, but I'm locking up...Rgh!" He snapped to at the sound of Arabella's voice. "You're on your own."

"Arabella, we're clear out here," he replied. After a pause he added, "is it serious?"

"I've got a severed claw holding the wound sealed. I'll be alright."

"Get inside. I'll be in shortly after."


Jennifer leaned over Walt's shoulder, looking at the same screen he was. She laughed, feeling a relief in tension for the first time in hours.

"They're turning back! You guys did it!" she whooped.

"Still a few hanging on, but the ships are clear. And we're clear of the belt," Oswin added with a sigh. She slouched back in her seat. Her heart raced, and she was breathing kind of heavy. That was a rush!


The five of them froze and hesitantly looked at the cockpit window. A set of metal claws snuck through the plating, grabbing on and pulling back. With a hard yank, the sheet was ripped off easily. More plates were torn up, and a Wanderer stared through the glass.

"Oh my God..." Jennifer inched back. Oswin's eyes fearfully darted over the controls, looking for some way to fight back. Max wrapped his scarf around his hand. This was the end...

Except it wasn't. The Wanderer just stared at them. Its burning red eyes passed over each of them in turn, but it made no move to tear the cockpit open.

Suddenly a flash of blue light. The Wanderer was now in half, and its pieces bumped into the sides before drifting off. A ship shot past them. No - a Ray. A pristine aquamarine with sand-colored rings encircling it, its wings stretched out to their farthest. It had strategic armor enhancements and duel switching thrusters that could be turned fore or aft in seconds.

"It's the Archipelago," Oswin said in awe.

"Pedro, Archie, where the hell have you been?" They heard Singh say over the radio.

" 'ad to circle 'round to tag vous pursews," came the heavily accented reply. It was definitely deep space talk, some strange combination that sounded like Spanish and Scottish strung together.

"That's Pedro San Colypsis," Oswin added. "I recognize that Nueva Venu accent. Never heard anyone else ever talk like that."

"We got a few bugs here. Think you can pick us clean?" Singh quipped.

"Tu es ready por da catilia. Couple badges here an' there."

The ship shuddered a little as each remaining Wanderer was blown off.

"Tell tu, dough, boss, shoulda rung sooner."

Oswin and the others looked at each other, confused. Max chuckled.

"I sent a distress call," he shrugged. "Nobody really thought about calling for help?"

The door behind them banged three times. Oswin went to open it.

"Wait!" Jen said. "What if it's a Wanderer that got in?"

Ding, ding da-ding-ding.

She sighed. "Never mind. Wanderers ain't got rhythm."

The doors opened and Oswin was the first out, Max rushing in front of her as he saw that Arabella was wounded. She was leaning against the aisle, slowly extracting a severed alien hand from her side. It had three long fingers stiffened into daggers. Her grey easy-seal jacket with its blue filigree was ruined, a huge stain of blood on her waist. Her helmet was cracked on the outermost pane. After the pilot threw the hand away she immediately clicked the lock by her ear and tossed it aside, too.

"Where's that fucking med kit?" she demanded.

Max quickly retrieved it from the seat.

"Give me the local anesthetic first. Then a blood-clotter." Arabella sighed as her suit unsealed itself, letting her skin breathe. "And if the bar's intact give me the bourbon. All...all the bourbon."

Jennifer went to check while Max sorted out the first two injections. She inched her way to the bar door and checked the readout on the side panel. Room compromised. Hull breach. Arabella won't be happy about that.

Then the door gave a hard clang, followed by the high-pitched whine of steel being pierced. Jennifer went stiff with terror and backed up as the two claws sticking through the door made a gap.

The lights went red, a warning siren rang through the hull. As the door was pushed the hiss of escaping air drove her into a panicked retreat.


The Wanderer forced its way through before the door automatically shut behind it. Its claws clattered against the floor and ceiling as it filled the passenger bay. Eight limbs, glowing red eyes, full body armor.

Arabella leapt into action, her blaster forming around her fist and punching through its chin with a resounding shot. Before it could get its footing, she was on the alien, each gravity-charged punch ripping off a piece of its face. Black liquid splattered the seats and her face as she tore in. There was not only no face, but not even a neck as she grabbed the heavy crest and yanked the head off. For good measure she shot down its neck hole.

She panted, looked at them all, then past through the cockpit window. She gave a weak smile. "Welcome to Elesandes."

She lowered herself in the aisle, catching her breath. Through the torn cockpit screens a gas giant loomed in front of the ship, dominating the view. It had a huge system of rings like Saturn, except two thin ones didn't fit the main group, askew by angles of forty-five and fifty degrees. The planet itself was white, orange and just a little bit of blue, an unexplained addition of nitrogen in its turbulent atmosphere.

On their approach was a little whitish blue ball, casting a small, faint shadow on the main world. The orbiting moon of Elesandes, home of the Ray Corp.
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Victoria, first unaware of the Wandered forcing its way through the viewport, had been surprised to find the entirety of the cabin looking away from the cockpit. They'd won. It was humans one, wanderers zero. Right as she felt her muscles relax, about to pat Oswin on the shoulder and offer some snide remark to Walt, the Wanderer's eyes raked over her. Victoria's gaze met the creature's, stunned in place, hand reaching for a stunner she knew wouldn't be there.

Quit stalling, do it! Victoria glowered at the Wanderer.

Only, it never did tear into the cockpit, suck out their air, leave their corpses to freeze-dry in the void. Blue-white light flared, and the Wanderer floated away, corpse rent down the center. A fighter craft zoomed past them, weapons flaring again. Not just a fighter...No, Victoria had never seen that make and model.

A Ray?

Rather than asking, admitting she didn't know what a Ray even looked like, Victoria huffed out a mildly annoyed breath. "See, Walt? That's what-"

"Not in the mood, 'Vic."

The woman slumped back into her seat for another brief, fleeting instant before the doors behind her swung open after brief hesitation by the 'crew'. Arabella. The 'brains' of the operation barked for a med kit and set to patching herself up. Right as Victoria was about to set the forward momentum of the Crusader to a more comfortable, sustainable acceleration, the cockpit was disturbed by another sound clambering out from the door. At Jennifer's sudden backtrack, Victoria knew it wasn't another Ray with more charms than personality. In equal parts curiosity, agitation, and even fear, she wheeled about to find a Wanderer clawing its way through the door.


Arabella promptly shot it, beat its head in, and fired through the cavity that had been where a neck should have been. Walt watched with an amused, if slightly disturbed, attention while Jennifer averted her gaze entirely. Its blood, if it was even blood, joined Arabella's own, mingling in a disgusting stain upon her sleeve.

"Welcome to Elesandes," she remarked calmly, offering a quick grin that melted back into exhaustion as soon as it had come.

"Anticlimactic." Victoria admitted, adding. "Can I sit down and relax now?"

"'Dunno, can you?" Walt questioned, with only half of his assumed swagger and sarcasm. He sounded defeated, almost.

Hotshot can call all the shots he wants until it matters.

Victoria gave him a look and nestled back into her copilot's chair. "Hey Ozzy," she started. "Sure hope God was watching, otherwise you're going to make us look worse than we already are."

She laughed the statement off and set to altering the Crusader's course to a safe, linear path into orbit. She glanced left and noted the Ray flying a close escort - a meaningless gesture at this point. Victoria doubted she, or any of the 'crew' had the energy to fend off another Wanderer ambush, and in either case, Walt had managed to treat the guns too poorly for them to properly rotate. They'd shared a joke about his 'rich boy' habits and always wanting the shiniest, over-compensatory weapon like the Gypsy's twin-blaster turret, but even that didn't evoke a reaction.

"What? I can say anything right now, then?" Victoria questioned, looking from her terminal to Walt. He offered her an amused twinkle and inclined eyebrow.

"Just about," he responded dryly. "Just know I'm storing up the comebacks. They'll sting, mark my words."

"I'm terrified."

Jennifer looked, incredulous, to Victoria. "What? You can make jokes after that? We almost died!"

"Keyword almost. Wanderer's are the boogeyman, but Arabella's here. Bonafied badass," Victoria mimed a finger gun at the doorway.

Arabella only snorted.

When Jennifer did not add to the conversation, Victoria set to monitoring their descent to Elesandes once again, adjusting the thrust and atmospheric shielding: it would not do to survive a Wanderer attack and then burn up in reentry. Arabella pointed to the moon orbiting Elesandes and rolled her eyes.

"Turn around, you're looking for the moon."

Victoria was quick to explain herself, but Arabella only shrugged. Either the 'homicidal rage' of post-Wanderer encounter had fled, or she just didn't have the energy. She could live with either of those. A moment passed, Victoria corrected the course, then handed the stick off to Oswin.

"Alright Ozzy, your turn to do the boring piloting," she offered a look to Walt. "I need to stop being exciting - I might upset Walt."

"Oh, these comebacks will hurt."

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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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Scifi, some fantasy, Mature. Anything that gets my gears going. Not opposed to Yaoi or Yuri.
The doors behind them opened again and this time it was Singh that joined them. He walked stiff and his helmet was even more cracked than Arabella's. It seemed the Wanderers had tried to beat his head in, but failed. Still, he had a killer headache.

"Aspirin," he grumbled as he took the bottle from out of the med kit. Max was finishing up applying the extracellular matrix, going by memory of how she did it for him.

Arabella gave him a weak smile as he finished. "Thanks, sweetheart. Quid pro quo, right?"

He nodded and backed off, hiding his blush. She looked up at her partner, smiling. "These guys were good. Didn't panic, helped where they could...I think we've got a good batch."

He chuckled. "The pain's making you delirious. But you've got a point...where's Oswin?"

"Cockpit. I'm gonna buckle up," Jennifer said.

He walked down the hall to find Ozzy in her element, calmly checking readings, making course corrections. It looked like she'd done this a million times. Her little butterfly came out from behind her hair. "Now you show up, huh? That's right, it's all alright now."

He sat with her and guided her. There was some sudden turbulence as they entered the atmosphere - a warning light told them the bar was being burned - and the artificial gravity had to go in favor of the real thing. They drifted through the small moon's cloud layer and came upon the world proper. An endless field of pale blue-green grass met them. White water in either large lakes or very small oceans came into view. There were few trees present, and those that were there were only saplings.

"This place is beautiful," Oswin said softly.

"If you're lucky, it'll be home," Singh replied.

She felt her cheeks warm at his words. A sweet sentiment, but so far this world looked completely untamed. The Crusader continued on until at last they saw signs of civilization. A small village of public housing popped up over the next hill, overlooking a factory that was easily five stories tall. The factory itself overlooked a natural runway made of flat, unyielding stone. A few Rays circled around the field, and there were a dozen perfectly identical shapes in the grass not far from the runway.

"Set her down there," Singh said.

Oswin nodded and turned the ship. It was so awkward and heavy of a craft that she had to be careful. She found the landing gear easily enough and lowered them down. The whole ship bucked sharply, everyone being jostled around in their seats. When it stopped Oswin blushed and smiled sheepishly.


"It's alright," he chuckled, and suddenly he seemed so much more...human, as opposed to this larger than life figure. "Come on. It's time for the final test."

They walked back into the passenger section. Arabella was at least coherent again - though still in considerable pain - and Max was looking at the Wanderer body curiously. He flicked at bits of metal that scattered the floor.

"Don't do that," Singh said. He turned to Arabella. "We all set?"

"Where's the squishy stuff?" Max mused.


"The face you shot apart. There's just metal here," he explained. "No skin, no muscle, no bones. I mean, what the hell?"

"The living stuff is further in," the pilot replied. "The center part. That's why it's so heavily armored. Everything else is a suit."

"Just leave it alone, Max," Jennifer pleaded. "It's creepy."

"Yeah, come on," Oswin chimed in. "It's time to get a Ray!"
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When Walter exited the Crusader and walked into the Ray Corp's runway, he had thought that had been the end of their time in crew bays: they would be taken deeper into the base, or stick around the Crusader before heading elsewhere. For a while their group of trainees hung by the rear exit doors, sharing idle chatter: everyone was reaching for a topic as far from their encounter with the Wanderers as they could get. Part way through Victoria telling another story of how Walter hated to be "the rich kid", with her usual sarcasm attached, Arabella and Singh exited the Crusader and gave the group one quick look-over.

"Well, you're here," Singh stated.

"Don't be so ceremonial," Vic snorted sarcastically. "I'm under-dressed."

No one reacted, and Singh kept talking.

"This'll be your first easy day here with the Rays - but before we go any further, get you situated and all that, there's one last test-" He turned to Walter. "Not involving cubes." To Oswin. "Or running your opposition out of fuel. Call it more a test of your character. If you'd go out of those doors directly behind, Arabella and I will be right behind."

The doors opened....to grass. About to make a sarcastic remark, Walter opened his mouth only to be elbowed by Vic.

"Look, there they are..." She muttered in hushed amazement.

There they were. Ten, no twelve, chrome Rays, propped up on delicate landing gear. None of them looked at all like the one that had intervened with the Rays, these were too bland, too obviously standardized. Had that one been a custom-made one? Or altered over months and months of time to tinker? Walter had barely taken another step into the hanger before Singh's voice sounded again.

"Alright, so, here are your Rays' numbers...Oswin, you're with...."


After each being assigned a Ray number, Walter moved on to his predetermined craft. It had taken him more time than expected to differentiate between the identical fighters, not certain of the number to the left or the right of the Ray determined which one it was. The Ray was nothing like he had ever seen or piloted. Whereas most ships were bulky, designed to function either or out of atmosphere with little capable of doing both, these Rays were the most refined piece of machinery he'd ever seen made. He couldn't even feel the countless dimples beneath his hand as he ran it over the underside of one of its curving wings.

"Cockpit'll need some getting used to...." He muttered; Walter had never piloted a front-mounted cockpit craft. There was almost always a bridge or distant command center like the Gypsy's. "Alright, what's this test..."

The Ray let out a high-pitched beep. Walter started, almost falling off his perch half-way up the ladder that led to the cockpit's hatch. The mechanical insect tucked in his jacket pocket stirred, clinked in tone with the Ray, and went silent again.

Great, you're just a bigger bug.

Another beep, this one lower pitched from the Ray behind him. He noted Victoria running a hand gently over the flank of the fighter, smirking in equal parts smugness and appreciation, at least, he thought it was appreciation.

"What's the catch?" Walter asked no one in particular. The insect stirred again.

Useless as you were a few hours ago....

But then, more things changed, more they stayed the same.

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Quiet One

My God! It's full of Stars.
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Scifi, some fantasy, Mature. Anything that gets my gears going. Not opposed to Yaoi or Yuri.
Arabella chuckled at Walt's question, then winced as the wound in her side acted up. "This would be a good time to tell them."

"They have to be chosen first," Singh replied under his breath.

Jennifer and Max looked at each other, then at the Rays. They were both completely lost. Oswin, on the other hand, was like a kid in Candy Land. She looked at every one of them, examining their fronts and backs, feeling their wings, simply excited to be this close to the most efficient StarCraft in the galaxy.

"Oswin!" Singh called to her. "That's like ogling someone else's girlfriend! Find your Ray!"

She blushed then and looked over the vehicles. She was number three. Where was three...then all of a sudden one of the Rays revved its engine. Everyone jumped back as it roared for attention. Oswin looked at it and inched closer. Third from the left. She rested her palm on it and the revving died down into a steady purr. Her butterfly fluttered out of her hair and rested on the micro-golf paneling.

"So you're mine, huh?" she asks. "Sure are an eager little guy."

A hatch in front of the Ray opened, forming a circular hole in the front of the ship that would easily accommodate her wrist. The Rays in front of Walter and Victoria opened up the same holes.

"This would be a good time to tell them," Arabella commented.

"What one's yours?" Jennifer asked Max.

"Uh...eleven..." He looked at the Ray lineup, trying to figure out where it started.

"And I'm two," she said with a nervous chuckle. "So if we pick one, and it's not ours, it must be the other's..."

Oswin waved to them from her Ray. "Three's over here!"

They shrugged and parted for opposite ends of the line. Jen rested her hand on the designated Ray, but it remained silent. Still. She turned her head down to the grass and started to shuffle back...


She whipped her head around. Was that...? She stepped back toward the Ray, but still nothing. Beep. She turned to the one next to it, the first Ray in line. It looked like all the others, but it opened up to her - quite literally as the same hole in the other Rays made itself for her. She walked up to it. Given the size of the hole, she could guess what it wanted her to do. She reached out...

"James!" Arabella barked.

He rolled his eyes and nodded. "Everyone wait! The holes are for your arms to receive the final bonding. It's where you get your gauntlet - " he lifted his armored forearm up " - and become a Ray pilot. You get this, there is no going back. This will be your mission. Your life. And it will hurt. Not by design, but the gauntlets have to be grafted to your nervous system..."

"If any of you have ever had red hot needles injected into your arms, you'll have an idea what you're in for," Arabella added. She glared at Singh. "Honestly, you take forever to get to the point."

Jennifer and Oswin looked at their Rays with new apprehension. Jennifer actively flinched when her Ray beeped again.

Oswin swallowed and shrugged. "C-Come this far, right?"

She stuck her arm into the hole and waited. There was a pause, then a blinding pain. She screamed and dropped to her knees, arm still trapped in the socket. She could feel tiny, hot somethings spearing her arm. She was stabbed again and again, the sound of clicking coming from the hole. When finally it stopped she yanked her hand free.

She had a gauntlet. Her arm was pink where it had been grafted on, but there it was. It was black, with yellow and red lines tracing the different plates. There was a long bit down the back of her forearm and a triangular shape on the back of her hand.

"Ah!" Jennifer got the same treatment from her Ray, and when her hand was free she had a beautifully jeweled gauntlet. The sections looked like large, polished strips of nearly-transparent crystal, varying in color from rose, to jade, to a light yellow topaz.

Oswin offered a small smile. "Looks good on ya, Spoon."

"Um...th-thanks. Y-You too..."

Max groaned and paced around them. He went from Ray to Ray, growing more unsettled as each one stayed quiet. None of them were picking him!
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