Once in a Blue Moon
Enver Paille, technician first class, stepped back from the panel and started cursing. “Great, just great.”
“What is it?”
“The pump just stopped working.” He turned away from the red warning lights dominating the control panel and pointed upwards to a smooth, rounded shape barely visible between the lights on the deck's ceiling.
The other tech followed his pointing finger and sighed. “Of course, that thing again. I swear, the nano assemblers building this deck must have fucked up pretty badly when they made that coolant pump.” He crossed his arms and looked at Paille expectantly.
Enver just shrugged and turned to grab the control reader he had left connected to the panel. While he carefully declamped its magnetic links, he answered the unspoken question hanging in the air. “I'll try to see if the reader can access the internal pump controls and force it to start up again.“
“But if that doesn't help, we have to bridge the coolant flow over to the other pumps and then open this thing up to see what can be done.”
The other technician nodded. “Then I guess I should prepare a pair of full-body suits.”
Paille made sure the reader was working and then pointed it at the faulty coolant pump.
“Yes, you go and do that. I somehow doubt this thing will suddenly start working again on its own.”
Just a typical day of life for two technicians working on one of the oldest industrials still flying for the Gallente Federation Navy.
The indomitable Loriot's Revenge, an Iteron-class industrial, was on its way to transport captured Caldari-personnel from a skirmish at the border back to a suitable prison camp. Technically, the ship was now part of the Nereus-class, thanks to its new drone bay. But the crew still called it “that old Iteron”. Besides, the navy somehow had never gotten around to actually fit the ship with drones.
The crew didn't mind. Some of them had served for years on this ship and were well accustomed to its many quirks. Malfunctioning repair drones, accumulating heat damage because of coolant pumps breaking down, and sometimes the atmospheric scrubbers gave the air the sweet taste of mustard. All in all not having combat drones to defend themselves didn't really rank high on the list of things wrong with the ship.
Captain Inardo, proud non-capsuleer and stalwart refuser of all help modern technology could have lend his ailing body, looked around his bridge. A mess of broken equipment, slowly breaking down equipment, and repair drones whirling around through the air, trying to keep up with the decay. Sighing deeply, he sat back in his command chair. Sometimes he felt a bit lonely. On the Loriot's Revenge, most of the work, even on the bridge, was done by drones. This was quite normal for a ship of the Federation Navy, but on this old industrial the effect was felt particularly extreme.
Thanks to his ship getting closer and closer to being decommissioned each day, the number of crew men assigned to it had steadily decreased until it hit the bare minimum about a year ago. After that moment, the ship could be lucky if it at least got replacements for crew lost or reassigned.
Captain Inardo had pointed out on more than one occasion how stupid it was to use a ship with a dozen crew men to transport close to a hundred prisoners. But his superiors, all capsuleers, had just pointed out they would have had no problems controlling a ship like his. If they had had enough time, of course. Or if a capsuleer-capable industrial would have been available, of course.
So they just crammed everyone in, jettisoned the crates of rifles he had been supposed to transport and ordered him to take the POVs back all the way to Orvolle for questioning.
Annoyed he adjusted his chair a bit. Of course, this left him with a bit of a mess. A lot of people, some of them also his superiors, would be quite disappointed to hear of the fate of his rifle-shipment.
A grating, metallic voice interrupted his meandering thoughts.
“Exit out of warp in 15 seconds, arrival at gate to Osmeden imminent”
“Acknowledged. Jump into the Osmeden-system as soon as possible, please.” He got no answer, but then he didn't really expect the boxy navigator-drone replacing an actual navigator on his ship to give him one.
“Skipper, something is wrong here.” Indardo flinched at hearing the unexpected voice. He did actually had one other human left with him on the bridge. He leaned over to look at the stations his 1O was overseeing. “What is it?”
“Our communication-drone claims it has intercepted a scripted override protocol aiming at the gate ahead.”
“Who the hell would try to override a gate?”, asked Captain Inardo incredulously.
His 1O, an average looking guy locked into a dead end position in his career, like so many others on this ship, just looked back at him.
“It's not aimed directly at the gates. Someone tries to interfere with the gate guns.”
This didn't sound good. “Are there still naval ships at the gate? There should be some customs officers hanging around, at least.”
The 1O shook his head. “No, that's too expensive nowadays. We're still in the Maut-system and the ships protecting the system are busy elsewhere.”
In this moment the ship finally dropped out of warp. Automatically the drones controlling the ship aligned the small industrial to the gate connected to Osmeden and accelerated to get into jump-range. At the same time, other drones detected the waiting ships close to the gate and raised the alarm.
Both humans flinched at the buzzing, shrill sound of the emergency siren suddenly blaring into their ears. The drones remained completely oblivious.
“What the hell? 1O, cut that off! I can't hear myself thinking”, shouted Captain Inardo to his fellow officer.
The 1O reached over the weirdly smooth shape of the drone connected to the communication-station and into a hole where something had dissolved the metal plating.
With shocking abruptness the painfully loud siren was gone. “What did you do?”
His first officer shrugged. “I ripped the intercom main router out of his casing. It's rather easy to replace, after all.”
The captain sighed. “We have to look up the AI-routines responsible for the siren. I'm fairly sure it's not supposed to be loud enough to drown out everything.”
“So now what, why the sirens?” His 1O looked at the sensor station. “Pirate ships, waiting at the gate. Looks like the signal we intercepted was them trying to neutralize the gate guns.”
“I guess in a few seconds we see if they were successful.”, said Inardo cheerfully.
“Ten seconds to gate jump.”, grated the navigator-drone.
On the sensor screen, the ships were identified as belonging to the Serpentis Corporation. A strike force comparable to the one they just left, down to the ship types involved. Three sleek, smooth Vigilante-class cruisers and a couple of small frigates hang around, slowly orbiting the gate. For an ignorant observer it looked like someone had just taken a couple naval frigates and cruisers and painted them black.
Suddenly the small force changed to an intercept-course and accelerated like mad. The frigates rushed forward, leaving the slower cruisers behind.
The navigator-drone and the drone controlling the sensors spoke at the same time, blithely obliterating useful information into an incomprehensible, slightly metallic sounding mess.
“Five” “Warning:” “seconds” “Foreign” “to gate” “targeting impulses” “jump.” “detected.”
The 1O and the captain looked at each other. “I don't think we'll go through that gate, skipper.” The captain nodded solemnly.
They didn't jump through the gate.
Four frigates targeted them with multiple warp scramblers, disruptors and stasis webifiers. The warp scramblers and -disruptors made it impossible for the small industrial to warp away and the stasis webifiers slowed their sublight-speed down to a crawl. Less then a thousand metres before they could have been close enough to the gate for a jump, the Vigilante-cruisers arrived and added even more webs to the net holding them. The ship practically came to a stop, immobilized by the electronic weapons targeting its warp core and engines.
The Loriot's Revenge was left completely helpless.
Far away from the bridge, Enver Paille and his helper were still fighting with the faulty coolant pump. The blaring siren surprised right during the process of checking each others' suits for faults. “What the hell is going wrong now?” Paille was furious. The entire ship had just twelve people on it and chances were, whatever just went wrong, he and his pal would have to deal with this.
“I have no idea. We're just a couple of jumps from Orvolle, it can't be a pirate attack or some nonsens like that.”
“Jack, try to reach the bridge, I'll make sure the coolant isn't still pumping through this broken piece of shit.”
The other technician nodded and turned to the next internal com-panel. Enver winced silently. He had completely forgotten most people on this forsaken ship had no implants or other upgrades to interface with the machinery. They had to do everything by hand.
He turned to the pump over his head and made sure his suit was connected to both internal and external interfaces, then he slowly overrode the small pump-AI and closed the valves leading into it. “Now the thing at least won't suddenly explode and flood the compartment with coolant.”, he mumbled to himself.
Behind him, his assistant technician looked back over his shoulder. “Enver, communication to the bridge is blocked. I can't reach them!”
Silently cursing, Enver Paille rerouted his com-implant to try to get to the bridge himself. Nothing. “Looks my fancy implants can't get through, either.”
Jack frowned and turned around. He opened his mouth to say something. Then the world ended.
“Skipper, I don't think they believe we can't talk to anyone on the ship.” “Well, I wouldn't believe it myself if someone told me. But we surrendered, what do they want more?”
“I guess they think we'll try to destroy the cargo.”
“Message incoming.”, interrupted one of the drones. The two humans exchanged a quick look. “I hope this time they accept our surrender.”, said the 1O.
“Luther, I fear they will do exactly this, just because it is the only thing I can think of which would make our day even worse.”
The 1O smiled. “Let's hope they don't and we get the others out of this alive.” The Captain couldn't help it and smiled back. “Yes and let's hope the pirates will also tell us what they want with some third-rate prison transport.”
“Maybe one of them owes them money?”, joked his 1O. This absurdity was too much, both the captain and his first officer started cackling like mad. Maybe they already were.
Right then the commander of the Serpentis strike force finally decided to end the stalling by the valiant Gallente officers. He was now sure a relief force of the Federation Navy must be close. This was the only explanation why the lowly captain of an aging Nereus-transport would dare to talk back to him with one inane thing after another.
This Captain Inardo actually had the gall to tell him he couldn't reach the rest of his crew because of his internal communication breaking down just as he dropped out of warp! He also seemed to think the Serpentis commander would accept a surrender while his crew was busy destroying the valuable cargo the ship was supposed to have. The commander ordered his force to open fire. The cargo was also supposed to be incredibly durable. Better to fish it out of space instead of wasting more time with those federal jackasses, he thought.
The combined fire of fifteen neutron blasters hit the Loriot's Revenge. Shields and armor were instantly gone. Compartments were ripped open, atmosphere vented into space. Engines exploded and a flood of plasma rampaged through the writhing wreck. By sheer coincidence, one of the guns happened to fire directly into the bridge, killing the captain and his 1O instantly.
Enver Paille's head hurt. He forced his eyes open. What happened? Everything around him seemed half-molten and broken. Even more so then usual. He suddenly noticed he was lying on the ground. Slowly he sat up. A spike of pain ripped through his spine. “Jack? Where are you? I think I need help.”
No one answered. Silently cursing, he got up himself. Very carefully. It was still painful. He tried to remember what happened. His full-body-suit was blackened, his telemetry told him half it's functions were dead and his oxygen was already half depleted.
Enver tried to orient himself. A large hole in the wall. That shouldn't be there, he thought faintly. Behind him on the ceiling, another hole where the pump had been. Drops of coolant were slowly moving through the air. Wait, his suit told him the atmosphere was gone. There is no air anymore. Well, then just call it empty space, he thought in the silence of his own head. For some reason this seemed really funny to him and he started to laugh.
More pain raced through his head. He decided to stop being funny and get on with it. Enver slowly moved through the room. First he had some trouble getting forward, but then it finally dawned on him the magnetic links in his boots prevented him from floating in the zero gravity and he stopped trying to swim. He walked out of the compartment, one clunky step at a time.
After carefully avoiding a part in the wall where the bulkhead had just melted into the com-panel, leaving a mess of wires and something which looked disturbingly like swarming rogue nanites, he finally found Jack.
Jack's suit was a broken ruin. And what was left inside, barely human. The same force which had pushed Enver down to the ground and shoved him into the edge of the compartment must have hit Jack with full force, sending him out straight through the bulkhead.
Enver fought down the sudden urge to vomit. Poor Jack. And he had been supposed to leave the ship for retirement in a week. Why do I think of this now? I hope I don't suffer from some brain damage.
He took some long, deep breaths. It depleted his remaining oxygen even more, but calmed him down somewhat and cleared his thoughts. I guess there was an attack, multiple simultaneous equipment malfunctions seem rather unlikely. The siren did have a reason, after all.
Think positive, he told himself. Even with Jack dead, there were still ten other people left with him. So he just had to go and search for survivors, then they had to head to some remaining escape pods and get out of here. Easy. Just hope the attackers are finished and gone, or this still could end nasty.
After sometime, his unwieldy steps brought him close to the ship's cargo hold. This of course meant not much on a cargo vessel, he still was a long way from anything important. He remembered the Caldari prisoners and wondered if they were still alive, protected by the cryogenic chambers they were transported in.
He decided he couldn't just ignore them and went to look for survivors.
The first cargo compartment he accessed told his com-implant everything was fine, then opened into space. Cursing and thanking the gods for his magnetic boots anchoring him to the ground, he closed the compartment again as fast as he could. Apparently that part of the ship was just gone. The next compartment also opened, but the cargo space inside was a lumpy mess of molten metal. Still hot enough his suit immediately warned him of impending danger. He hastily closed this one, too.
Feeling a bit unreal, he wandered through the cargo area in total silence. Nothing worked, no-one seemed to be alive or even able to reach and use a communication device of some sort.
A third cargo compartment refused to open. He got his implant to connect with a still working camera-drone inside and got a confusing picture of metallic spikes and boiling clouds of some indefinable mass in dazzling rainbow-colors. Enver decided this looked too much like malfunctioning nanites and moved on.
The fourth compartment gone like the first one. The fifth one was so broken nothing worked. The bulkhead looked so twisted he decided to not even try getting it open anyway. The sixth cargo compartment finally worked like normal, even though it too had taken extensive damage. Enver opened the access hatch and crawled in. Not for the first time he was thankful the engineers responsible for the Nereus had at least added walkways like this one, to enable some quick maintenance without accidentally blocking main access to the cargo.
Enver found his way blocked by a burst cryo-crate. Again he had to waste precious time to avoid sharp edges. He also tried his best to avoid looking into the destroyed cryogenic capsule inside the crate. Something told him vomiting inside his suit would be the last thing the did before suffocating like a moron.
Suddenly his implant send him a warning: Unknown foreign communication detected. He wasn't alone anymore. And whoever was close enough for his implant to pick them up, wasn't exactly part of a federal rescue operation, it seems.
Speeding his progress up a bit, he hastily stood up inside the main cargo area of the compartment and tried to find a working cryo-crate. About twenty per compartment, he thought. He saw and discarded ten immediately. They weren't as broken as the one he had to crawl over on his way in, but they were still clearly dead. As fast as he could he tested the nine remaining crates.
His implant send another warning. It was clear now someone was boarding the wreck, the signals were far too close for the source to be outside the ship.
Another dead Caldari. Another broken cryo-crate. Five left. Finally he got life signals! Enver crudely marked the crates he found just in case.
Now he just had to find the maintenance-chamber close by, drag out two suits and enough tools and materials to restore atmosphere inside the compartment. Then he just had to rescue the two Caldari by himself. Easy!, he thought. Hey, maybe even some more survivors would show up to help him?
He went to work.
Diane Zuo had seen better days. First the Caldari expedition she had been a part of got mistaken for a hostile recon force scouting the border between Pure Blind and Placid. Then she and about a couple hundred other survivors were taken prisoner. The last thing she knew before getting stuffed inside a cryogenic capsule was: They were supposed to be transported to a federal navy base for a more intense interrogation as was possible on board a warship. So she was understandably surprised when she instead awoke to weird Gallente drones trying to get them out of their capsules and inside of some escape pods.
Still a bit drowsy from being roughly ripped out of cryogenic sleep, she barely noticed the drones closing a clunky space suit around her. Then something had hit her in the head pretty hard and she went back to sleep.
Now she was awake again. With some additional headache, because why not? Apparently she hadn't suffered enough already. But hey, she was free at least. Now she just had to escape from the airless wreck the Gallente-industrial had turned into. Easy.
After taking a good look at the compartment she was in, she decided to head out to find some other survivors. This room was just some kind of storage area for maintenance work. Trying to think around the pulsating headache plaguing her, she vaguely remembered the drones dragging people out of the cargo area. If that had happened to her, too...
She walked the way back she remembered. As she thought. The maintenance area was close to the cargo-compartment she and her comrades had been stored in. But her high spirits immediately fell down to earth again: She had no idea how to get into the cargo-compartment. She had no idea how to access the Gallente-interface controlling the maintenance hatch she was standing in front of. Basically, she had no idea if there even was anyone alive back in there.
For a moment she just stood there, silently despairing. Finally, she decided to go on and search for an escape pod. No use dying here too, she thought.
Just as she entered a new passage-way, her suit suddenly piped up. According to the readings suddenly appearing in her helmet HUD, a crew member of the Gallente industrial was near, and slowly getting closer each step she took. She swallowed and tried to calm down her suddenly racing thoughts. Maybe she could convince the other survivor to work together? Now she only had to hope the other one wasn't one of those nationalist fanatics sometimes cropping up at the most inopportune moments.
Then she smirked. The Gallente survivor must be thinking pretty similar thoughts right now, considering how the history of Gallente and Caldari went.
A communication request interrupted her dithering. Apparently the other survivor had indeed noticed her. Silently hoping for the best possible outcome, she accepted and with an audible click the connection between their suits established itself.
A strained male voice suddenly spoke into her ears.
“OK, who the hell are you? I'm reading your suit's telemetry data right now and you are showing up as 'unknown'. Are your one of those Serpentis-freaks? You sure as hell do not belong to my crew.”
Diane was shocked. Serpentis? She guessed the Serpentis Corporation must have been the attacker, then. One riddle solved. She tried to hold her voice steady and answered.
“No. I'm one of your Caldari-prisoners. Your drones started thawing us out and then stuffed us into spacesuits.”
“What?”, came the incredulous answer.
“Well, into one space suit.”, she corrected herself. “Everything exploded after the drones finished closing my suit. And I was the first one.”
“OK, this is seriously weird. Our drones were not supposed to do this. On the other hand, I'm also sure Serpentis boarding parties won't be wearing our full-body suits and claiming to be our prisoners of war.”
Before Diane could get a word in edgewise, he continued.
“Just to be clear, those boarding parties are already on board and we don't have much time, so let's speed things up a bit. I'm sending you the coordinates of the place I'm sitting in right now. It's rather close, so please hurry up so we can get to an escape pod and out of here.”
“And I guess those Serpentis-guys will just let us go?”, Diane asked sarcastically when the voice finally paused for a moment.
“Well, do we have a choice?”
Diane shrugged. They really didn't.
“You're right. I'll come to you and then we go and get out. My name is Diane Zou, by the way. “
“Enver Paille, nice to meet you.”
The rest was easy. More or less. Diane carefully made her way through the wrecked ship, lead on by her suit. Finally she arrived at another wrecked cargo-compartment. The access-hatch worked, however. She entered and stopped surprised. A thin layer of something was on the other side of the hatch. An emergency air lock maybe?
“Good, you made it. Now please wait a moment until the hatch is closed.”
Another full-body suit in even worse condition than hers was waving at her from behind a opened-up cryo-crate.
“What are you doing here?”, she asked.
“Two of your comrades are still alive. I'm trying to get them out of these things and into spacesuits.”
She was impressed. An egotistical Gallente willing to risk his life for some POVs? Not something you saw often.
“Let me help you. I was a cryo-technician on my ship.”
“You're a technician, too? Talk about coincidences. Come on over, then.”
After the hatch closed behind her, she carefully pressed through the thin air lock material and went to the open crate. But just as she reached the Gallente guy, Enver, she reminded herself, an alarm was send to her HUD. She froze for a second.
Enver jumped up from his work. “Shit. I guess the boarding parties finally found us. They're on their way through the passage-way right now.”
Fighting her growing panic down, she tried to deal with this new development. “Do you have a weapon? Can we get those two out of here right now?”
“Only my sidearm. I didn't find any other working weapons.”, he said, pointing to the ion gun hanging on his side. “And no, we did what we could. We two aren't probably going to fight off those guys on our own.”
She bit back an angry retort. He was right. And more, the frustration in his voice told her he liked this no more than she did.
In this moment the hatch behind her blew apart. The atmosphere streamed out immediately as shrapnel pierced the thin emergency air lock and pulled them both off their feet. They stumbled awkwardly over each other, cursing. Another salvo fell into the room, wreaking havoc among the cryo-crates.
“How?”, whispered Enver somewhere below her. “I think they were cloaked.”, she whispered back.
Armored figures in black carapaces filed into the room. Black, featureless plates scanned the room. One of the armored figures waved his weapon to one of the few cryo-crates still undamaged. He fired.
Another looked into the ruins of the crate they had been standing above just moments before. He just made a insulting gesture and straightened up again.
“I think he is dead, too.”, Enver whispered and Diane understood. The sudden depressurization had killed the other Caldari-prisoner. Now she was the last survivor, like Enver Paille was the last surviving Gallente on the ship.
One of the blank masks swiveled to them. Suddenly, their suits started complaining about outside interference breaking into the communication-circuits. A stark, emotionless voice cut in.
“Just so you two understand, for the stupid bullshit your captain pulled, we will throw you out into space. We won't even take you scum out of your suits. Would make the suffering not long enough for the commander.” When the voice stopped speaking, another Serpentis-soldier had retrieved Enver's ion gun and pressed his armored fist hard. The gun just crumbled apart like a broken toy.
“Man, once in a blue moon I wish I could be lucky.”, whispered Enver over the com-link. The soldiers came closer. Enver and Diane remained silent. What was there left to say?
The capsuleer was annoyed. He really had no idea why a force of Serpentis pirates were trying to blockade his route and he really had no time to deal with them now.
But he also was really, really bored. When the small Serpentis fleet started targeting his ship, he just activated his micro jump drive and waited. As he thought, before any of the ships surprised by his sudden appearance through the gate could get close enough to stop him with a scram, the MJD jumped him a hundred kilometres away from the danger.
Not far enough away to escape the fast moving frigates, but far enough away to target them and blow them away before they could get close enough again to be a danger.
The three Vigilante-class cruisers followed in the wake of their smaller consorts, obviously trying to get close enough for their short-range weapons to deal with him. He smirked. He was experienced enough to know the weaknesses of those Serpentis cruisers, he had a good ship and a good crew. And not a single enemy capsuleer among the pirates. This was a slaughter, not a fight.
For a moment, he thought about why those pirates were so keen on sacrificing themselves to his boredom. What was so important to them? Then again, he wasn't that interested. He shrugged mentally and launched drones from his old Raven battleship. Just in case some of the frigates survived his long-range bombardment with cruise missiles. But with a target painter leading the missiles, this wasn't really a possibility.
“Hey look at this couple, isn't that cute?”
“Get away from that pod, you dolt! I have to see if they're hurt”
Diane and Enver, still encased in their blackened and bruised suits, blinked in the sudden light shining at them.
It took the people surrounding them almost no time at all to pry them out of their suits and transport them to some sort of hospital ward.
“Where are we?”, whispered Enver, after he and Diane were finally left lying on two white beds next to each other.
One of their saviors, a lean girl with short, black hair and concerned looking green eyes, just looked at them and said:
“Don't worry, you're safe now. We found you two drifting close to our gate and took you in. You're at the Osmeden-gate in Maut. Just be glad the emergency-beacons of your suits still worked.”
“The gate people took us in? I guess this time we're the lucky ones”, said Diane Zou with a tired voice.
“But what happened with our attackers?”, asked Enver.
The girl shook her head. “The Serpentis ships, I assume? An independent capsuleer with a battleship turned up and killed them all.”
Enver felt Diane grabbing his hand and he looked around to her. As their eyes met, she said: “I guess once in a blue moon we do get lucky.”