Story Substellar Vagary

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Tatterdemalion, Apr 15, 2015.

  1. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar



    1. an unexpected and inexplicable change in a situation or in someone's behavior.
    Welcome to Substellar Vagary, an ongoing episodic story series following the adventures of the crew of the Sucker's Luck, a band of rogues and misfits with no past and no future, as they struggle to make ends meet in a cold and uncaring universe. Each episode contains a self-contained adventure with an ongoing narrative and focus on character development throughout the series.
    Up until this point, I’ve never written in someone else’s universe, so this promises to be a unique challenge. I should explain a few things before I get started on the story:

    • I’m writing this as if it were a standalone story, so it could be told to someone who’s never heard of Starbound and still be enjoyable. (I hope.)
    • This is an eternal rough draft. Changes are always being made to what's already written alongside writing new content, so suggestions for either are welcome.
    • I will be filling in lore blanks and sometimes changing the Starbound lore with whatever I feel fits better with the story thematically.
    • I don’t really have schedule for writing this, so updates will come as frequently or infrequently as I decide to work on this.
    So, now that I’ve written a wall of text, on to the real wall of text! Huzzah!

    Chapter 1: Nines

    “Good morning. You have been in suspension for nine nine nine nine nine nine nine-” After all she’d been through, the very first words she’d heard upon waking up echoed in her mind the most. She could almost still hear the artificial, static-ridden recording waking her out of cryosleep. Nines… nothing but endless nines… How long had she been asleep? The ship was in ruins when she woke up. It had to have been years… There was no telling how the world had changed. If the world was still out there.

    Kathleen halted her trek across the endless field she’d been hiking across for days and gazed upwards. Not one, but two massive moons loomed overhead, silently gazing down at her. They’d been the only constant landmark for the past two days as she made her way across this endless field looking for some sign of civilization. She’d been rather shocked when she first saw the second moon peeking over the horizon; it hadn’t been visible inside the decrepit spaceship, and it’d been so long since Kathleen had stepped outside that she’d forgotten she wasn’t on Earth. The sight of the twin satellites had brought all the memories of her circumstances rushing to the forefront of her mind. Now the moons were clearly visible against the orange horizon, dwarfing Kathleen and everything else on this empty planet.

    She sighed and loosened the makeshift straps the held up the large containment cube slung across her shoulder. A battered and burnt cube a little under half a cubic meter in volume, with a small electronic lock embedded in the center of each face, it held no useful supplies, and was far too bulky for practicality in any case. It was little more than dead weight, but it felt wrong to just leave it behind after all they’d been through. It was the only fraying tether to the world she had left behind. Besides, it was something to talk to. If she could talk. Kathleen sat upon the cube and watched as the distant, orange sun began to set over the endless plain, casting the horizon in deep purples and reds. This whole planet felt like a dream. Maybe I really did have brain damage, and I’m just sitting inside some cryotube staring at a wall right now. Maybe I’m dead, and I’ll just wander this field forever.

    Kathleen ceased her contemplation and decided to keep moving. She needed to find something before her supplies ran out. There didn’t seem to be any danger in travelling at night; she hadn’t seen any wildlife at all since she left the facility. Before she continued moving, she reached into an improvised satchel she’d made and rummaged for the dwindling food supply she’d scrounged up inside the remains of the massive colony ship. Nothing but cans of beans. Why did they even bring so many beans? There weren’t any tools to make a fire with. She’d have to eat them cold. The beans, which were likely older than Kathleen herself, were slimy and bland, but they were all she had. Kathleen mentally swore to herself that if she ever made it back to Earth, she’d never eat beans again.

    After her quick meal, she hoisted her cube onto her back and set off once more. Time seems to flow differently on this world, Kathleen thought to herself as she continued her endless trek. It seemed that she had only set off minutes before, and yet the sky above was already inky black, with only the two omnipresent moons and the cold light of distant stars to light her way. An hour passed. At least, it seemed that way. The eerie silence of the night pressed down on Kathleen, and indomitable weight on her shoulders. I’m starting to think that I’m the only person left on this entire planet. I should-

    A noise echoed across the expanse. Kathleen immediately froze and tensed up, alert. Again. The noise, faint as it was, broke the intense quiet of the planet. She concentrated on the sound. Not just a sound- a tune! A few distant notes drifted through the air, carrying the unmistakable strum of a guitar. A rather unusual sign of life, but I’ll take it. Kathleen slowly turned about, hoping to locate the source of the song. It was slow, almost mournful, but off key. The song, coming in intermittent bits and pieces, echoed loudly in Kathleen’s ears after the long silence of roaming the planet. A soft pinprick of light in the distance caught her eye. A campfire! She nearly began running towards the fire, but caught herself. It occurred to her that perhaps there were some people she’d be better off avoiding. Crouching low in the tall grass, she began to sneak closer to the light to get a better look. Kathleen made her way to the fire as silently as she could, her storage cube jabbing her painfully in the side with every other step.

    As the got closer to the camp, she could make out she shape of a tent, as well as a second campfire. The vague silhouette of a person sat on a short stool near the two fires, its back to Kathleen. It looked as if they were indeed strumming an instrument of some sort. The tune was now accompanied by a strange burbling noise. She needed to get closer. Kathleen slowly began crawling nearer to the figure. The camp was very close now. Her side was sore where her cube kept banging against it, but she didn’t adjust her strap for fear of alerting the stranger. The camp was about 50 meters away… 20… 10… Kathleen stopped. Were her eyes playing tricks on her in the dark of the night? It looked as if there wasn’t a second campfire after all; the glow emanated from the head of the strange figure! But that’s ridiculous… yet… She strained her eyes closer, and it was true. The stranger wasn’t human.

    Chapter 2: First Contact

    Kathleen frantically searched her mind for a rationalization. It looked as if there were a glowing man sitting a few meters away from her. He- was it a he?- hadn’t noticed her yet, and continued simply strumming away at his instrument, which Kathleen now saw was similar, but not exactly like a guitar. The glowing man emitted the burbling noise which she had heard earlier. He’s singing. There is a starman singing to a guitar in front of me. I’m insane. Kathleen hastily began to back away from the scene when the strap holding up her cube slipped, upsetting her balance and sending her crouching frame to the ground with a soft “thud.” The music immediately ceased. Frozen with fear, Kathleen gradually forced herself to sit up and find herself face-to-face with strangest creature she had ever seen. Its entire body glowed a soft yellow, resembling a star. The creature had no facial features to speak of, only what looked like a black metal “plus” sign on the front of its head. Long rays of shimmering light extended from its head, resembling tousled hair. Its tall, lanky frame was clad in a faded coat and scarf over a vest, shirt, and pants resembling jeans, complete with belt buckle. The entire ensemble was topped by a battered cowboy hat. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the bizarre creature. It seemed to be staring back at her, still sitting on its stool. A moment passed, neither making a move. The starman cocked its head and began making the same burbling noises it had been making before. It must be trying to communicate. I don’t think it knows I can’t understand it. Its face pulsated with light as it “spoke.” Kathleen was glued in place. She could do nothing but stare as the creature kicked out its long legs and stood up, still animatedly burbling and watching her. It stopped muttering for a moment, seeming to realize that Kathleen’s dazed expression meant she couldn’t hear what was being said. He (Kathleen decided to think of it as a he) made a motion with one of his six-fingered hands, gesturing for her to wait. Still frozen in shock, Kathleen wouldn’t have been able to do much else. He leaned down to a backpack propped up against his tent and began rummaging through it, tossing aside various strange devices as he fished through one of the backpack’s many pockets. Then with an excited bout of chatter, the starman seemed find what he was looking for-and with an outstretched arm he offered it to Kathleen. The device in his hand looked to be some sort of metal earpiece, with a few knobs and buttons along the side. She cautiously stood up, took it from him, and investigated the device. The starman gestured for her to clip it to her ear. I’m already crazy. Why not put the strange device in my ear? Kathleen reluctantly clasped the earpiece in place in her right ear, feeling her torn earlobe as she positioned it. The device felt cold and foreign. It emitted a faint buzzing. The starman watched her, casually crossing its long legs. Suddenly, the earpiece sent the noise of what sounded like a bird’s song into her ear. Then the cry of a monkey. Kathleen was about to remove the device when she heard it emit a female voice, saying,

    “Calibrating linguistics module: Human.” Seeing the expression on Kathleen’s face, the starman stood up straighter, and spoke in a slight American Western accent:

    “Think that translator was originally made for an Apex, but what can you do?” He tipped his battered hat towards her. “Name’s Nym Galtby.” Nym Galtby then removed a pistol from a holster at his side, aimed at Kathleen, and fired.

    Chapter 3: Rendered Speechless

    Kathleen didn’t even have time to flinch; she was blinded for a split second as she felt an intense heat surge past the side of her head. He missed. There wasn’t time for relief, for an ear-piercing screech immediately sounded out from behind her. She whipped around to see a hideous, multi-eyed creature writhing on the ground a meter behind her, a smoking hole right between its central pair of eyes.

    “Gotta watch out for those raptors. They’ll get you. What was I saying before?” The strange star-creature cheerfully nodded at the dead monster. “The translator, right! Welp, I don’t know how you ended up here without one. Don’t see many fleshy folks with external ones these days. You hitchhiking?”

    I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t even know what he is! The disbelief must have shown on her face.

    “Say, are you alright? The translator working okay? It is pretty old, might be a bit-” Kathleen lifted her ponytail away and showed him the computer chip embedded on the back of her neck. “What’s that chip doing in your neck? What’s it for?” Exasperated, she gestured at her throat and shook her head. “Wait- you can’t talk? Looks like you got cut open there. That’s… odd.” Kathleen felt like she was drowning in confusion and couldn’t take anymore. Suddenly, an idea popped into her head. She cleared out a patch of dirt on the ground and began to spell.

    “I NEED TO GET TO EARTH.” The glowing creature shook its head, causing its shimmering hair to quiver.

    “No good. Translators work for words, not so good for writing.” He thought for a second, then his glimmering head perked up. “Maybe I could help you get your voice back? I might know a gal. I’ve got a ship.” Kathleen felt a spark of hope.

    A ship! This thing -Nym- seems friendly enough, whatever he is. If I can just get off this planet and back to civilization, I might finally be able to figure out what’s happening. It took only a brief moment of contemplation before Kathleen nodded her head vigorously at the glowing creature’s proposition. Nym produced a small device from his pack and pushed several buttons on it.

    “It’ll take a little bit for the ship to get down here.” The odd being began folding up his tent. While he was busy packing up his camp, Kathleen had time to gather her thoughts. She sat on her cube and stared up at the starry sky, her head resting on her hands.

    What do I even plan to do when I get back to Earth? Everyone I knew is probably dead. She glanced at her surroundings, and the still-smoking corpse of the beast that had nearly killed her. Whatever happens, it’s probably better than what’s out here. Just hold it together until you get some answers. Kathleen then realized that Nym had stopped working and was looking at her.

    “You’re one mysterious human, you know that? How’d you end up on this rock anyway?” He stomped out the last embers of his fire with a sturdy leather boot. Even with the fire gone, he emitted enough light to see clearly around him. He stopped packing for a moment and glanced at her. “I just realized I don’t even know your name. Guess I’ll just call you Mystery Girl for now, huh?” A faint thrumming noise echoed above the two, quickly gaining intensity. He shone brightly. “Well, Mystery Girl, looks like there’s our ride now.” Nym gestured to the sky with his peculiar, six-fingered hand. A small speck shone in the distance, rapidly growing in size as it shuddered towards them. Kathleen could make out the shape of a roughly cylindrical flying object hurtling at them. The blaring echo of engines rattled around her now.

    This isn’t like any ship I’ve ever seen… and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. Kathleen noticed that Nym was hurriedly futzing with the same set of controls he used to call down the ship. He emitted a burbling chuckle.

    “Might want to step back a little! She’s coming in hot!” The roar of the ship drowned out anything else he might have said. Nym held onto his battered hat as he made a leap out to the side and kept running. Kathleen hastily followed, the speeding ship nearly upon them. Just as the two had gotten to a safe distance, Kathleen turned to see a mottled-red hull strike the earth with an ear-splitting crash. The smoking spaceship slid across the ground for a good two hundred meters before it finally came to a complete halt. “Actually a pretty nice landing, all things considered,” burbled Nym. Kathleen couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

    What’s a bad landing look like? Now that the noise of the engines had ceased, and the spaceship had stopped moving, Kathleen could get a better look at it. The ship was at once marvelous and disappointing. It appeared to be more technologically advanced than anything Kathleen had ever seen; however, the ship also appeared to be an antique. Its chipped and dented red exterior was a shape that might have once been called streamlined, although now the countless pockmarks and scratches marred the surface. The roughly oblong ship was about 50 meters long, from head to tail. A pointed cockpit of dusty glass pulled back to the battered hull. Pipes and complicated machinery ran across the ship horizontally, until the rear culminated in a single boxy thruster, topped with a tall, aquatic-looking fin. Am I sure that I want to get in this thing? Nym responded as if he had read her thoughts.

    “I know she’s not much of a looker. Haven’t had her long, actually. I… er… needed a quick ride off a planet. Fish that sold her downright robbed me, but she’ll get the job done. Probably.” Nym trailed off into an awkward silence as Kathleen stared at the dubious machine. “Let’s get going!” Nym jumped up and began to walk towards a gangplank that had started descending from the side of the ship. Kathleen began to reluctantly follow when she noticed writing on the side of the spaceship. It wasn’t in any text she recognized. The script was fluid and bubbly. The faded white lettering reminded her of Japanese.

    Maybe that’s Nym’s language. She stopped and pointed at the text.

    “Huh? Oh, that’s the name of the ship. It’s in Hylotl, can’t read it. Seems to me that this ship doesn’t really need a name.”


    Nym walked up the gangplank and into the doorframe. “You coming?” He reached out a glowing hand.

    Kathleen gathered her courage and took his hand. It was almost uncomfortably hot. He pulled her up and into the ship.

    Finally off this planet. Let’s see what this new world has for me.

    Chapter 4: Another Bang-Up Landing

    “That planet was supposed to be abandoned. I was just stopping by to, uh, make a couple of repairs and then head off again. Actually, there were supposed to be some old settlements- human, I think- way back in the day, but those haven’t been habitated in- you okay?” Kathleen gazed out the front viewport of the old ship into the innumerable streaks of light rushing by in hyperspace. She had only been half listening to Nym for the past few hours of FTL travel, still a bit in shock over the past day’s events.

    This ancient ship, equipped for faster-than-light travel!

    The technology displayed was staggering; FTL was still in the realm of science fiction when she had left Earth. Nym, however, seemed perfectly content to converse with her, no matter how one-sided the conversation. Kathleen looked over to her glowing companion in the pilot’s seat and gave a halfhearted shrug. “I don’t know what you were up to down there, but it looks to me like you’ve had a string of bad luck.”

    Understatement of the century.

    “Don’t worry none about your voice. My friend’ll have you patched up in no time, once we get to New Phaeton.” New Phaeton was a nearby space station that served as some sort of local hub, or at least that was what Kathleen had gleaned from Nym’s spotty explanations after he pulled her aboard. The interior of the ship was no more glamorous than the outside hull, with decaying seats and rusted service panels opened to reveal tangles of wires and the occasional nest. The main bridge extended the length of the ship, culminating in the pilot’s and copilot’s chairs, where the two were seated currently. A few other rooms seemed to jut off, but Kathleen hadn’t felt the inclination to explore them. “Say, that reminds me- no offense, miss, but your clothes look a little, erm, worn.” Kathleen glanced at the torn remnants of her old jumpsuit, coated, much like the rest of her, in a layer of grime. “If you need to clean up, I think the water sprinkler still works, and I can dig around for some clothes for you.”

    The first good idea I’ve heard in ages. Kathleen gave a thankful nod towards Nym, who gestured towards one of the closed doors towards the back of the ship. Kathleen hopped out of her seat and ambled towards the automatic door to the “water sprinkler,” which was, as Kathleen suspected, a shower. The room obviously hadn’t been touched in a long while. I guess star-people and water don’t really mix.

    The stark, utilitarian shower, though it took a minute to figure out how to operate the bizarre controls, still provided an extremely satisfying rush of warm water. As Kathleen scrubbed clean the dirt from days of trekking across empty wilderness, and long before that, she began to relax for the first time in recent memory.

    Once I get to Earth, I’ll have to try and catch up on what’s happened since I’ve been gone. Humans have met these strange star-things, who knows what else has changed? I still don’t know what ‘hi-lottle’ means. Cheered up by the pleasant sensation of being clean, Kathleen heard a muffled burbling at the door to the shower. She had taken off her translator to shower. Grasping for the earpiece, she lifted the device to the side of her head.

    “-and I found something that might fit a human. I’ll just toss it in. We’re almost to the station!” The door slid open just enough for a bundle of clothes to drop through before promptly closing once more. Kathleen turned off the shower and dried herself off with a threadbare towel hanging off a pipe on one side of the room before investigating the clothes Nym provided. Sturdy, high-waisted pants made of a canvas-like material, a soft, light-coloured shirt made of a thick, yet flexible fabric, high leather boots and a woven poncho dyed with a diamond pattern. Both the pants and shirt were too long, but after cuffing the sleeves and legs they provided a decent fit. Kathleen couldn’t fit her foot in the boots at all, as they seemed to be a shape unlike human feet. Luckily, her old sturdy spaceboots had served her well, and were still holding up well enough to be of use. She quickly dressed herself and threw the poncho on. Space was cold, and she was shivering by the time she was fully dressed.

    “Well, looks like they fit all right, anyhow,” Nym chirped as she climbed into the copilot’s seat once more. “The clothes are actually my sister Bon’s. We’re- how do humans put it? Twins? I think that’s the word for it. You look like a right proper Novakid now.” A blinking light on the control monitor caught the alien’s attention. “You’re right on time, too. We’ll be coming out of hyperspace in three… two-” Nym’s countdown was abruptly ended as the entire ship lurched forward, throwing the two out of their seats. The entire hull creaked and groaned as the ancient ship shuddered out of hyperspace. Nym shakily rose off of the floor to take manual control.

    That didn’t sound right… I’ll be happy to get off this junker. Kathleen rose off the ground as well, rubbing a bruise that was already forming on her shoulder. She caught a glimpse of a spiraling structure spinning in space out of the front viewport.

    New Phaeton. The scale and technology of the station was unlike anything Kathleen had ever seen before. As the rumbling engines finally ceased their grinding cacophony, Nym adjusted his hat and stared briefly at the control console.

    “Well, this is a problem.” He manipulated the complex array of controls on the ship’s console, then muttered a curse whose meaning came across despite it not being translated. “Say, Mystery Girl, you wouldn’t happen to know how to fly a ship?” Kathleen quickly shook her head in response. Nym seemed to flicker with uncertainty. “Coming out of hyperspace broke the autopilot… among other things. I need to go repair the gyroscope in the back. Just- here, hang to this and keep us on course to that port over there, alright?” Before Kathleen could do anything, Nym grabbed her hands and placed them on stick in the center of the console, while pointing out a distant point on the sprawling station spinning in front of them. He then rushed to the back of the bridge and into the engine room, tripping on a wire before stumbling through the sliding door. Now alone and in charge of piloting a complex and malfunctioning spaceship, Kathleen stared at the controls with apprehension.

    Astrophysics was not my major. Shit. Just keep calm and guide the ship towards the rapidly-spinning space station that’s growing closer at an increasingly alarming rate and- All the lights on the ship went out, leaving only the glowing controls to illuminate the interior. Excellent. With trembling hands, Kathleen kept the ship aimed towards the docking port, which was now much closer.

    “This is New Phaeton Docking Port 366. Please stabilize and reduce incoming velocity,” a female voice suddenly announced over a speaker set in the controls. Kathleen glanced back at the engine room, where no progress appeared to have been made. She could now make out several other ships in the distance zooming in and out of the station. “I repeat, this is New Phaeton Docking Port 366 to unknown vessel. Stabilize before approaching the station. Do you read?” Kathleen silently cursed her lack of a voice once again. A cacophony of sparking machinery rang out from the engine room, followed by a shout from Nym.

    “Dodgasted old piece of junk! Miss, just hang on!” With that warning, all the gravity in the ship went out , leaving Kathleen floating behind the controls, barely clinging to the steering. The voice over the speaker called in again, growing increasingly agitated.

    “Unknown vessel speeding towards the station! You must pull away before catastrophic contact is made!” The voice could be heard speaking to someone else in the room. “Sir, the ship’s not responsive, I don’t think they’re getting these.” All at once, the ship’s spinning halted. Gravity turned back on. Kathleen fell to the ground. She heard Nym let a whoop of success, and saw him dash to the controls again.

    “Think we might a’ kicked up quite a row down on Phaeton,” Nym chuckled. Kathleen didn’t find the malfunctioning ship particularly amusing. “Now just gotta-” He grunted, struggling to slow the ship down. “Gotta make it into the station, then I’m getting rid of this crowbait ship.” She could clearly see the docking port that the ship needed was aiming for now. With a few jerks and twists of the controls, they passed through a transparent membrane separating the docking bay from space and were inside the station. Nym slowed the ship to a crawl, and finally dropped onto its landing gear with a loud crash.

    “Another bang-up landing,” Nym mused. The radio voice called in once more.

    “This is New Phaeton Docking Port 366 to unknown vessel. Are you getting this?” questioned the exasperated voice.

    Nym held down a key on the console and responded, “I, uh, copy.” He laughed weakly.

    “What were you thinking?! Your gyroscope and frontal thrusters are clearly non-functional! What’s your designation?” The speaker shrilly voiced.

    “Not sure, actually. Hylotl’s all a bit of bosh to me.”

    “The Hylotl on the side of your ship?” The speaker could be heard talking to others. “Naoko, get a read on that ship’s name. It’s called what?!” The speaker once again addressed the Nym. “Sir, your ship is called the Suicidal Insanity.

    Chapter 5: With Friends Like These...

    “You get what you pay for,” Nym grumbled. Kathleen was significantly more alarmed by the news that they had just travelled through space in a deathtrap.

    Let’s get off of this thing before it collapses on top of us. She swiftly slung her meager belongings and her cube over her shoulder in preparation. It appeared that Nym had the same plan, and in a few strides of his lanky frame he was at the shuttle door with his pack at the ready.

    “We should split before those docking folks get ahold of us. They’ve got quite a-” Nym trailed off as the shuttle door creaked as it slid open and its gangplank extended. At the receiving end waited a very irritated-looking woman.

    A human woman! Kathleen was would have been overjoyed at seeing another human face had that human face not been flanked by two large, armoured individuals carrying metallic rods. The woman wore a professional-looking outfit and carried some sort of holographic tablet. Her escort consisted of two hulking people-if they were people-in combat armour that completely obscured their features behind blank visors. The half-meter-long metal devices they carried periodically gave off sparks, and held them as if they’d use the weapons without a second thought.

    Nym whispered to Kathleen, “Just act natural, and let me do the talking.” Kathleen gave him her best sardonic glare. “Oh, right. Can’t talk anyways.”

    “You! Novakid! You’re the owner of this ship.” The woman called up to them. She phrased it like a question but spoke it like a command. “You could have blown a hole through this entire station! There are thirty thousand lives whose blood could’ve been on your hands!” She waved her clipboard at them. “You have no idea how much paperwork this is going to get me!” The woman paused and took a breath. “We’ll be taking you and your friend into central command for holding until we figure out what to do with you.” Her voice came out flat.

    “Hang on to something,” Nym whispered into Kathleen’s earpiece before sauntering into the doorframe and into full view of the New Phaeton authorities. “Gentlemen! Miss!” Nym drawled with all the bravado he could muster. “You misunderstand the situation! Me and the girl haven’t done a thing wrong!”

    “You two get off the ship or we’ll have to use force.”

    “Now, we’ll be down directly, but first I have a proposal for you fine people. You and us, we head to the bar, bend an elbow- I’m buying!- and we’ll settle this like gentlefolk over a round. What do you say?” Kathleen noticed that one of Nym’s hands had wandered into a pocket of his pack. She shifted to her right slowly as he was talking to grab hold of a pipe protruding from the ship’s wall. The woman signalled her two soldiers to seize the pair as she gave an exasperated roll of her eyes.

    “Damn starpeople,” she muttered. The pair of armed men began up the gangplank.

    “Damn USCM,” Nym muttered. With a glance at Kathleen to see she was gripping the wall tightly, he withdrew his hand from his pack and toggled a switch on the same remote he had used earlier to call down the ship. Immediately the engines roared to life, violently thrusting the ship forward , throwing the soldiers off the gangplank and tossing Nym and Kathleen around the interior like ragdolls. The thrusters were only active for a split second, but the ship propelled across the docking bay, creating an unbearable screech as it dragged and sparked across the floor. After a few seconds that seemed much longer to Kathleen, the ship ground to a stop and Nym immediately jumped off of the floor. He leaned to one side to balance himself; the entire ship now sat at a sharp angle. “This is where we burn a husk out of here!” he chuckled. “Glad that didn’t blow up the engine.” Kathleen was absolutely shocked at the insane move. Her brain raced, trying to find a way out this nightmare she’d woken up in.

    I’ve been travelling with a madman. Those authorities- they’re humans! They could help me contact Earth. Except now they think I’m a felon. I don’t have many options here. Nym might be crazy, but now he’s my best chance of getting of this station and back to earth. I just hope his “friends” aren’t as reckless. She dragged herself up and staggered to the hatch, joining Nym as they climbed out into the docking bay.

    The gangplank had been ripped out by Nym’s plan, so there was a twelve foot drop to the floor. First, Kathleen dropped her cube down to the floor with a thud. Kathleen hung out of the doorframe for a moment before dropping down herself. Luckily, she didn’t injure anything beyond general soreness. Nym dropped down alongside her and immediately grabbed her hand and practically dragged her away. She recovered her wits and ran alongside him, struggling to keep pace with his long strides as she lugged her cumbersome cube with her. She gazed in wonder around her as they ran. The docking bay was a massive room with a giant octagonal port that must have been a kilometer across staring out into space. A thin barrier that ships passed through freely maintained the atmosphere and pressure, as well as providing a startling view into the inky depths of space. Complex assemblies of scaffolding and terraces divided the port into a multi-level complex whose ceiling she could barely see.The port held ships of all sizes- some only the size of a large car, others resembling ocean liners in their magnitude. It was bustling with activity, with stacks of cargo being loaded and unloaded as ships embarked and arrived at the station.

    She turned her gaze to their ship, or the remains of it. Nym had parked in an empty portion of the bay- thankfully. Activating the thrusters in the station had shot the ramshackle ship across the length of the bay, leaving a burnt scar trailing behind it. The ship now rested on its remaining two landing legs, barely holding together. Kathleen followed the trail it had left until she spotted the soldiers sprinting after them in the distance.

    What had Nym called them… USCM? Nym seemed, if anything, to be enjoying this “adventure,” sprinting with a demeanor far too relaxed for someone being pursued by armed men. He directed their escape towards a smaller corridor extending out of the bay. As the reached the exit, Kathleen looked back at their pursuers and saw that several other soldiers had joined them in their chase. Nym abruptly halted his sprint, leaving Kathleen to run past him before halting and running back to the door he stood at. He pressed a light on the side of the doorframe and watched the soldiers run towards them.

    “We can lose them if this dodgasted elevator ever shows up,” he explained. Kathleen watched with apprehension as the pursuers steadily gained ground. Just as the armed men were nearly upon them, the lift dinged as its doors slid open and the two escapees slid inside. The door closed agonizingly slowly as the soldier caught up to them, only barely keeping them out. Kathleen leaned against a railing, trying to catch her breath. Nym folded against a wall alongside her, his glowing body pulsating with exertion, although Kathleen doubted his gaseous physiology included lungs. The interior of the cylindrical lift was well-worn and the walls had been defaced with graffiti in a number of languages Kathleen couldn’t recognize. Cheap-sounding electronic music played lightly through a speaker, providing an anticlimactic ambience at odds with their situation. She recovered enough to glare at Nym, hoping that he’d get the meaning from her body language.

    I need answers. Now. She was sorely disappointed.

    “You ever been to Phaeton before?” Her glare softened into a look of exasperation at Nym’s obliviousness. “No? Used to be a nice place ‘fore those USCM mudsills went and put it under ‘martial law.’ They’ve got their mitts halfway ‘cross the galaxy but can’t seem to hold onto any of it. Everyone know the real boss here is the Apex mob. Nasty fellas. Best to avoid them. We’ll just find Firth and you can get out of here.” Kathleen felt as if she understood a little under every other word Nym said.

    Probably best just to nod as if I understand and get answers when I can. The lift dinged and the doors slid open to reveal another astounding sight.

    “Good old district two!. Just follow my lead and act like you’re not getting chased.” The two stepped out into the full Phaeton station. It appeared as if a city had been built inside the shell of the gargantuan space hub. Futuristic buildings ascended like towers all the way to the curving roof high above, whose transparent construction gave view of the red-grey planetoid the station orbited. Bright screens coated the sides of building advertising all manner of products and services in a dozen languages. Kathleen even read some English.

    “The USCM needs you!”

    “Twelve-flavor Diet Glorp, imported directly from the Epsilon Frontier! Guaranteed safe for human consumption!”

    “Remember Earth!”

    Remember Earth? Kathleen barely had time to ruminate on the strange image before being caught up in the flurry of activity around her again. The most amazing part of the station had to be the citizenry around her. Bizarre alien creatures mingled everywhere she looked. Bulky, fur-covered ape creatures carted heavy cargo across the wide streets between towers. Diminutive, glistening aliens resembling three-eyed, humanoid salamanders conversed in small groups, jotting down notes on to holographic tablets with their webbed hands. She saw even stranger creatures- coated in feathers with backwards-bending legs manning shops stocked with complicated crystalline structures, massive four-legged aliens covered in shaggy coats of fur toting hefty-looking axes. Strangely, as she and Nym travelled through the crowded square, she noticed very few humans, and not a single star-person other than her companion.

    Remember Earth… The advertisement bothered her somehow.

    “Don’t look behind you, but I think we might have been found out. Just keep moving. Here- wear this.” Without even looking, Nym grabbed a hat off of a nearby salamander’s head without him noticing and placed it on Kathleen.

    At this point I don’t even mind the casual theft. The wide-brimmed hat covered her eyes, and she had to keep pushing it up, but she hoped it might obscure her profile from the pursuers.

    “That box of your’s sticks out like a sore thumb. Can you get rid of it?” Kathleen gave a resounding shake of her head “no.” “Let’s just hope we lose them down here.” She followed Nym as he abruptly turned down a small alley off of the main passage. Signs of urban decay were everywhere, from the graffiti to the broken bottles and bits of wiring on the floor. At the other end of the alley they emerged into a dingy street. It was less crowded than the street they had left, but there were still aliens all around.

    “Here we are. I hope.” The two stopped at the entrance to a seedy-looking building. Bright neon signs flashed what Kathleen assumed was the name of the place in some blocky foreign lettering. She took a step towards the door but was stopped by a sudden voice.

    “Whaddaya think you’re doing? You got a pass?” Kathleen looked about for the source of the voice before realizing it came from below her. An alien creature half a meter tall stared up at her, its arms crossed. It was covered blue-black feathers, except for its white-clad stomach. She never realized that beaks could look so irritated. In a ridiculous thought, Kathleen realized it somewhat resembled a penguin. It snapped a scaly finger at her. “What, do I look like I got all day?” Nym stepped up.

    “Ahem. We’re with Sanshoo. He’s inside?”

    “What, the Hylotl? Yeah, he’s in there. Poor sap thinks he’s winning. Anyone who knows their way around Phaeton knows you never win against those Apex. You can go in. But I got my eye on you.”

    “Thank you kindly.” The penguin stepped out of the way, and the door slid open. Nym sauntered in, with Kathleen following after shortly, after taking a last look at the bizarre penguin-alien. The building was a bar of sorts. Patrons of all kinds mingled as a humanoid robot served drinks in the center of the room from inside a circular bar. A stage took up the back where a band played unfamiliar instruments as a scantily-clad feathered bird-alien danced provocatively. The dim lighting was disturbed as Nym’s dazzling visage cast a yellow glow over everything near him, causing some to cast him dirty looks. Nym, either not noticing or not caring, walked straight past to a curtained-off section. Kathleen was too busy staring at the multitude of alien races to notice he had left. One of the three-eyes salamanders began giving her strange looks as she examined him a bit too closely and she turned and followed Nym. He had drawn back the curtain and she joined him as he stepped past the partition. A long, ornate but worn table was set up, stretching across the area. Six aliens were playing some sort of card game. Five of the aliens were monstrously muscular entities covered with manes of thick fur. Large ears, upturned noses, and jutting brows gave them a paleolithic look. She assumed they were the ones the penguin had called “Apex.”

    Across from the Apex sat a single salamander-esque alien. Like all the members of his species Kathleen had observed, he had three solid red eyes on his wide, glistening head. He was mottled cyan in colouration and had three fin-like appendages protruding from either side of his head. A long, streamlined neck connected to an equally lithe torso, although the species appeared to stand at about one and half meters tall. He wore a heavy, slightly threadbare coat and atop his head was a fez, of all things. This had to be Sanshoo.

    So that’s what a Hylotl is.

    Judging by the way piles of small cubes were distributed amongst the players, the salamander was winning by a long shot.

    “Dammit!” One of the Apex beat a meaty fist down on the table, sending the piles of cubes and cards toppling. “Cheating bastard! How could he have known?”

    “Gentlemen, remember to keep calm- You’ll give me all your tells,” the Hylotl spoke with a wry grin on his face. “Now, one more round? I’m confident you’ll make a comeback.” Kathleen noticed that with her translator the alien’s lips didn’t quite match their words, like watching a dubbed-over movie. She hadn’t been able to tell with Nym’s lack of a mouth. It was a bit disorienting. Nym quietly stepped forward and made a gesture to Sanshoo.

    “Nym? Back already?” He addressed the angry Apex. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have to address my… associate.” The Apex was seething. “Nym! What’s going on? You got the job done, right? I was counting on- wait, who’s the human?” Nym chuckled nervously.

    “Well, the job was going real smooth… right until it didn’t. Listen, I’ve been through a heap of trouble and we need to-”

    “We needed that money! You didn’t answer my question. Who are you?” Sanshoo turned to Kathleen. She pointed at the scar on her throat.

    “She doesn’t talk much. At all. She can’t talk. I was taking her to Firth, so she could-”

    “Oi! Fish! You’d best get back to the table!” one of the Apex growled.

    “Just a minute!” Sanshoo shushed the burly aliens. The indignity set the Apex trembling with rage. “We can barely support the crew as it is, and you bring along a bloody mute!” Kathleen realized she was still wearing that ridiculous hat, and quickly tossed it off.

    “I reckon we should just talk about this on the ship ‘cause-”

    “What! Fakes!” An Apex had rifled through Sanshoo’s hand and held up a swindled card. “You’re dead in the water, fish!” A low whine silenced the room as he removed and charged up a gun from under the table and aimed at the Hylotl. A moment of absolute stillness passed.

    “You drop gun. Now.” From the shadows behind the Apex emerged another alien. Large, black, unblinking eyes stared out above a mouth twisted into dual fangs. A tangle of waxy leaves and vines sprung from its head, and its segmented body was the colour of summer leaves. Incongruous from the rest of its intimidating appearance, a single pink flower sprouted atop the plant-like creature’s head. It dressed in worn but practical survival wear, and it poked a large gun into the back of the armed Apex.

    “You’re not the only ones with well-armed friends,” remarked Sanshoo, cocksure grin never leaving his face. The mobster slowly set his weapon on the floor and kicked it away.

    “We run this station, fish. I swear you’ll never be able to show your face in this system again,” the head Apex fumed.

    “Good thing there’s a whole galaxy out there, then.”

    Nym interjected once more, “We really should be getting out of here before-” Nym was interrupted yet again as USCM soldiers burst into the bar, scattering the other patrons. “Before they get here.”

    “What’d you do this time? There’s an exit in the back. Follow me. You there-” Sanshoo addressed the Apex, “-If you don’t want to get done in by the USCM too, you stay where you are.”

    “This isn’t the end of it,” an Apex sneered. With a gesture by Sanshoo, he, the plant-alien, Kathleen, and Nym all backed out of the curtained room into a another filled with metal crates, all the while keeping their eyes on the mobsters. Sanshoo moved two crates to reveal a door, and the group made their escape.

    Walking at a brisk pace, Sanshoo spoke into a small comms unit around his wrist. “Get the ship ready, we’re leaving early. Why? Well… multiple reasons.” Nym and Sanshoo caught each other up while the plant trailed them and Kathleen struggled to process the ocean of information she’d received in the past day. She was only half listening to the two talk, but it sounded as if Nym had been on some sort of delivery job that had gone horribly wrong. She was beginning to detect a pattern with Nym.

    “-So I had to skedaddle off planet, but the only ship I could find was some shoddy tug I had to pay through the nose for, which included the package. What were you doing gamblin’ with the Apex mob?”

    “Needed hull repairs we couldn’t afford. Thought I could get quick money off the suckers. Now we’re thirty thousand bits in debt. Where’d you pick up the human?”

    “Stopped at some abandoned planet to repair and camp for the night. Mystery Girl- that’s what I’m callin’ her for now- all but snuck up on me. Don’t know how she got on there or nothing.”

    “It never occurred to you that maybe she was abandoned on some dead planet for a reason? And her vocal cords are cut up, too? This is too risky, Nym. We can’t let her on board.” Irritated, Kathleen not-so-subtly stepped up right next to him to remind the Hylotl that she could hear everything they said.

    I’m mute, not deaf.

    “Just let Firth get her voice working again, at least?”

    “Fine. After that we see what she’s really hiding.” At last they arrived at another docking port, aesthetically similar to the one she and Nym had “landed” in. Sanshoo led the party down a scaffold until they reached a ship much larger than the one she had flown in with Nym. About 160 meters long and half as wide, A bulky, bulbous frontal cockpit tapered to a thin back end, surrounded on either side by large, flaring engines each with a pair of folded-back wings attached. She could see at least two small turrets, on the nose of the ship and directly on top. Kathleen was relieved to see that while not pristine, the ship was in significantly better condition than her previous experience. The entire ship was painted a dull blue-grey, and Kathleen was surprised to see that the name painted on the side was written in English.

    Escape on a ship called Sucker’s Luck. The universe has a sense of irony. The engines had already begun rumbling as they approached as whoever was inside prepared the ship for takeoff.

    “What a sight for sore eyes!” Nym chirped as Sanshoo had the gangplank lowered. The four walked up the gangplank and into the Sucker’s Luck. As the gangplank closed behind them, a second airlock door opened and the party stepped into the ship proper. Slightly cramped corridor, industrial but functional, with wires and piping snaking the walls, led to a slightly more spacious bridge at the nose of the ship, where a wide cockpit gave view of the spaceport and various control panels and a large holotable dominated the room.

    In one of the pilot’s chairs sat another Apex, just as large and muscular as the mobsters and easily two and a half meters tall. It was dressed in a grease-stained blue jumpsuit and had a wild mane of orange fur flying in all directions. Most peculiarly was the scar running up the Apex’s temple leading to a short antenna jutting upwards from its skull. The Apex spoke.

    “I’m glad to see you back in one piece, Captain. Nym, you’re back too? You weren’t supposed to be back for another cycle at the least. Wait, who’s that?” The Apex was female. Kathleen couldn’t have told from looking at the mass of muscle.

    “Nobody knows,” dryly responded Sanshoo.

    “She can’t talk. Found her on some dead planet. Can you rig her translator up, Firth?” Nym asked.

    The Apex-Firth-examined her. “She’s wearing an external. How peculiar. I have some cracked neural interface tech that could do the job. Let me see.” Kathleen felt extremely awkward standing and listening to others talk about her.

    “First let’s get in the air. Bon! We’re leaving!” Sanshoo shouted down a corridor.

    “Cap! Back so soon?” Drawled a western accent back. Emerging down the corridor cam another starperson who Kathleen knew could be none other than Bon, Nym’s sister. She looked startlingly similar to him, although his bright yellow glow was replaced by a blazing cyan. They shared their tall, lanky frames and plus-sign shaped face-symbols. She even walked with the same carefree saunter as Nym.

    “Nymbus! Why, I didn’t realize you were back! Heard you crashed a ship. ‘Course you did without me. Chase must’ve been fun though. Wish I was there. See we’ve got a guest. Human, huh? Well, pleased to meet you! Bonnibel Galtby, and you’ve already met my brother Nymbus. Is that my shirt?”

    Kathleen shook her uncomfortably hot hand while thinking how Bonnibel also shared Nym’s penchant for fast-paced chatter. The two twins sat at the frontal pilots’ seats and prepared for takeoff.

    “Human woman. Follow me to the engineering bay while we leave the station. I can modify your translator to allow speech.” Firth ushered her out of the bridge and down a hatch into another, larger room. Situated in the back of the ship, the engineering bay was filled with recycled scrap and bits of technology. A smaller, single-person ship sat in the middle of the room, one wing stripped of its plating and in the process of being reconstructed. A large door in the back of the room must lead outside into space. “You don’t see many lone humans anymore. You’ll have to give me your translator while I work on it.” Kathleen obediently handed over her translator, immediately losing the ability to understand the Apex language of primal grunts and bellows. Firth immediately began tinkering with the device. Quickly thereafter, Kathleen had to brace herself as she felt the ship take off, watching bits of scrap fly back in the wake of the takeoff. Eventually the ship settled and Kathleen wandered the engineering bay, struggling not to fiddle with the complex, futuristic technology.

    I’ll have to stop thinking of things as futuristic. This is now. There’s so much to figure out. Everything has changed. Maybe things will make more sense when I get back to Earth. With this sort of FTL tech, these aliens could drop me off, or at least to another human colony, right? For a while Kathleen watched Firth work on her translator before finding a relatively uncluttered section of floor and sitting down, her back against the wall. Her stomach growled. It seemed like ages since she had eaten. Kathleen heard a deep bass rumbling and realized that Firth was humming. Despite her troubling mood, she eventually drifted off into a fitful sleep.

    Kathleen was startled awake by being shaken gently by large, rough hands. She opened her eyes to the sight of Firth’s grey, apelike face staring at her, proudly presenting the translator back to her. It appeared fairly similar to how it had before, with a small extra pad that extended from a wire on the earpiece and fit on her temple. She placed the translator on again and heard Firth’s instructions.

    “-it was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. Human brains are wonderfully strange. This could take some getting used to, but simply thinking of you speaking should enable the thought-to-speech neural interface. I could adjust the-”

    “I have so many questions!” Kathleen spoke, startling even herself. She didn’t even open her mouth. This new voice was slightly flanged, and pitched differently than she remembered her actual voice sounding.

    “That took surprisingly little effort. Very impressive. I’m sorry, but Sanshoo gave me orders to bring you to the bridge immediately after restoring your voice.” It took Kathleen a moment to figure out how to speak again. This would take some getting used to.

    “Fine. But first thing I do will be getting some information.”

    “I think Sanshoo would disagree,” Firth spoke with trepidation. She led her back to the bridge, where Sanshoo, the Nym, Bon, and the plant-creature were still busy. “Captain, the human’s vocalizing.”

    “My name is Kathleen Jones, and I need answers. Now.”

    “Sanshoo stepped up to her. “Hold on. We have no idea who you are, and it’s my ship. Your story first, Miss Jones.” Kathleen felt the pent-up frustration built up from this entire experience bubble up into her response.

    “Listen here, captain, you have no idea what I’ve been through in the last few days. I’ve woken up on some abandoned planet, discovered alien life, crashed a ship three goddamn times, been chased as a criminal, all without having any idea what the hell is going on, and you expect me to answer your questions!? You’d better think again!” She looked around. The whole crew of aliens was staring at her. Sanshoo seemed to start to say something, then stop himself. He started again.

    “Alright then. Your questions first. But after, I expect a bloody autobiography.” Kathleen honestly hadn’t known what to expect. She had so many questions! She decided to start out with the simple:

    “What year is it?” Firth answered this one.

    “What year is it? 2525 Galactic standard.”

    Kathleen stood silent for a long time. Nym eventually called out, “Mystery Girl, er, Kathleen? You feeling okay?”

    … 2525? It’s been 200 years.

    Chapter 6: Asylum

    “No, no… that’s wrong…” Kathleen’s electronic voice whispered. She leaned against a wall, feeling weak in the legs. “Wait- no- what’s the difference between Galactic Standard and Earth years?” she asked in a brief moment of clarity through her panicked state.

    “Galactic Standard was developed by humans. They are Earth years,” Sanshoo answered. He seemed ill-at-ease at Kathleen’s reaction to the date. “Don’t you know that? Why are you-”

    “They said it was a five-year trip!” Kathleen’s outburst faded to a whimper, her mind racing to reconcile two conflicting realities. “Oh god. Everyone’s dead. It-it’s all different now. What do I do?”

    “What happened to you?” Sanshoo, confused on whether to feel concerned or alarmed. All three of his red eyes squinted in suspicion. Kathleen could barely manage to respond. She managed to produce a weak voice from her translator.

    “The Starbound Initiative. It was ground-breaking. We were going to colonize a brand new solar system. I volunteered, but… The trip was supposed to take five years of cryosleep… Now you’re telling me that was 200 years ago.”

    “That’s how you ended up on that planet.” Nym seemed somber for the first time since she’d met him. “200 years up to spout. I suppose that’s one mystery solved.” Kathleen held her head in her hands.

    “I just… I just need to get back to Earth,” Kathleen spoke, her voice weary. Silence. She looked up from her hands and saw the four aliens looking at each other in shock. Firth broke the silence.

    “Poor thing,” Firth cocked her furry head in realization. “You wouldn’t know, would you?” Kathleen had a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach.

    “Know what…?”

    “The Earth’s been destroyed for fifteen years.” Loss. The empty feeling of having lost everything hit Kathleen at full force.

    “What? What do you mean destroyed?”

    “Some geological force ripped the planet apart. What’s left is uninhabitable,” Sanshoo stated matter-of-factly. His blunt delivery didn’t help Kathleen’s coping situation.

    Remember Earth.

    “You don’t see many lone humans anymore”

    This was the looming sensation she had felt since they arrived on Phaeton. She wanted to cry but not tears came. She felt empty. Dried out.

    “Dinner’s ready! Hope you’re hungry, ‘cause-” Bonnibel burst into the bridge before quickly absorbing the terse situation. Her blue light dimmed. “Oh. Um. Dinner’s ready.” She hastily fled the room. The room was silent as the crew of the ship looked at Kathleen, curled against a wall and unresponsive. The crewmembers shot looks at each other, unsure what to do. It was the plant-like alien who Kathleen had barely heard speak at all that finally approached her.

    “Sad for the Kathleen.” She felt a waxy hand on her shoulder. “Lost home. Lost place. The Shrub had no place. Found ship. New place.” The plant-alien spoke with a accent that prolonged its sibilants, and its sentences sounded like a toddler’s, as if it had only recently learned to form words.

    “Shrub. You’re not really helping her.” Sanshoo gently tugged away the plant.

    “No, no. I- I’m fine.” Kathleen slowly stood up. The simple words of the alien actually did help, in a way.

    Earth is gone. 200 years have gone by and left me behind, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have no place, but that doesn’t mean I can just lie down and die; I have to make my way in whatever bizarre future I’ve woken up in. Kathleen felt something inside herself harden, dulling her anguish, at least for now. She took a deep breath and addressed Sanshoo.

    “I have no clue how the world- worlds, I mean- work anymore. There are still questions I need to ask.” Nym butted into the conversation.

    “Are you sure you’re alright? That’s quite a shock, and I’m not-”

    “I’m fine.” The shrill tone of Kathleen’s artificial voice gave away her true condition.

    “We’ll still be in hyperspace for some time, Miss Jones. Come to the common room for dinner, and we’ll figure out what to do with you,” Sanshoo said. The steely edge that had briefly vanished from the Hylotl’s voice had returned, Kathleen noticed.

    “I feel like I haven’t eaten in 200 years,” Kathleen joked, although the way she felt, she wasn’t sure how she even forced herself to speak.

    Dinner aboard the Sucker’s Luck was a strange experience for Kathleen. Despite her situation, she couldn’t hide the awe she felt at the variety of biology on display wherever she looked. The six crewmembers and Kathleen crowded about an elliptical table in the center of a cramped, utilitarian common room. Each of the crewmembers had a different meal laid out for them, for differing alien diets, Kathleen presumed. Bonnibel had placed a plate of some odd material resembling a cube of spongy, bluish meat.

    “It’s human-safe, I swear!” Bon had told her. Against her better judgement, Kathleen tried a small morsel and discovered it tasted somewhat like zucchini.

    At least it’s not beans. The shock of her leap in time and space kept hitting Kathleen over and over again, but she strengthened her resolve and forced her feelings down, at least until she got a grip on whatever reality was now.

    “You- you’re all alien life! It’s incredible- what are you?”

    “Alien life? You’re the alien here, Miss Jones,” asserted Sanshoo. “I’m Hylotl,” the salamander-esque alien explained as he picked at something resembling a salad with his webbed hands. Nym and his sister Bon weren’t eating, but instead passing a large bottle of clear liquid between each other, although Kathleen wasn’t sure how they drank without mouths. Each time one took a sip their glow flared brightly for a brief second. “The Galtby’s are Novakid. Gasbag aliens. They’re a rare sight. The two are out pilot and copilot.”

    “And damned good ones, at that!” added Nym.

    “Who’s pilot and who’s copilot?” questioned Kathleen.

    “Yes,” answered both glowing aliens in unison, leaving Kathleen puzzled at the cryptically useless response. Firth spoke next. She looked rather ridiculous, her bulk dwarfing the chair she sat in and wedging her in between the table and a wall. Her large, calloused hands cut at a large fruit with incongruous delicacy.

    “I belong to a species known as Apex. I have heard that you’ve already had experience with the less savory members of the species. I assure you that we are not all so crass. My name is Firth. I assume so, anyways.”

    “You assume your name is Firth?” Kathleen queried.

    “My memory is not always… clear. The Apex, you see, are entangled in a cruel dictatorship, one which I believe I used to work for, before my memory was altered and I was left for dead. The majority of my past is uncertain at best. This leads to my unfortunate circumstance as a wanted fugitive, although here I seem to be in good company. Captain Sanshoo took me on as engineer, which very well may have saved my life. But I digress.” Kathleen’s eyes drifted to the scar at Firth’s temple, and the short tangle of electronics jutting from her skull. She felt a pang of remorse for the alien’s past, or lack thereof.

    Next Kathleen turned to the threatening-looking plant-creature that spoke in simple sentences. It was currently engaged in devouring a large hunk of raw meat, tearing it apart with bare, thorn-tipped hands and swallowing it with a jaw that opened far wider than Kathleen was comfortable with. This was the only crewmember whose name Kathleen didn’t know yet. Absorbed in its meal, the creature didn’t notice Kathleen looking at it until she spoke.

    “Um. Who are you, then?” The plant immediately looked up with reflexes faster than she could have imagined. Its mouth was still slightly open, hundreds of tiny needles inside an unnerving rictus grin.

    “Shrub is Shrub,” the alien lisped. It continued to stare at Kathleen with dark, unblinking, almond-shaped eyes. Bits of flesh and blood from its dinner still stained the plant’s face.

    “What species are you, Shrub?” Kathleen asked, more hesitantly this time.

    “Shrub. Is Shrub.”

    Not really the talkative type. Kathleen glanced at Sanshoo, hoping for a bit of explanation.

    “Shrub’s a Floran. Mostly vicious primitives, they’re almost unanimously loathed across the galaxy. Occasionally you’ll find a halfway decent one like Shrub here.”

    “Shrub is not Floran! Shrub is Shrub!” The plantlike alien seemed agitated at being called a Floran. The fauna atop its angular head bristled.

    “Don’t get your back up, Shrub. He’s just describing species to the human,” drawled Bon, joining the conversation.

    “Shrub don’t think of himself as a right proper Floran, on account of his being grown in a bottle,” Nym explained to Kathleen.

    “That’s right,” added Sanshoo, “Scumbag criminals grow Floran seeds in labs to sell to as bodyguards, assassins, and the like. They’re almost perfect killers already; they just need a few genetic tweaks for obedience and rapid aging.”

    “Rapid aging?” Kathleen asked.

    “Shrub is four years.” The Floran eagerly showed Kathleen four spidery fingers.

    He’s just a little kid in an adult body. Everyone on this ship has some horrible past. Is the universe such a cruel place, so that everyone has a story like this?

    “Shrub not obedient. Stabbed master. Escape. Meet Sanshoo. Learn to speak, read, be good person.”

    “Can’t really blame him for doing what he was bred to do. I took him in. Put those skills to some conductive use.”

    “Conductive use? What do you do on this ship?” Kathleen began to grow uneasy in the presence of confessed convicts, killers, and thieves.

    “We do what we can to get by. I don’t know what you’re used to, Miss Jones, but the world you’re living in’s a tough place. Odd jobs, bounties, whatever pays.”

    “You’re just a bunch of criminals and mercenaries.” Kathleen felt like lashing out. She knew these rogues were her only lifeline in a strange world, but she didn’t care. All she wanted to do was rage. The captain rose out of his seat and moved in until his amphibious face was nearly touching Kathleen’s.

    “Listen here. Do you know what happens when cheap space travel across the entire goddamn universe becomes a possibility? I’ll tell you. Anarchy. Chaos. Government might try and stretch itself out, but there’s infinite space out there, and that means everything falls apart. The governments retreat back to their safe little sectors, and everything else goes to the dogs. You’ve got a ship, you’ll get jobs. You do what you can to survive, Miss Jones, and that means whatever it takes to keep the fuel flowing and the hull sealed. We’re not the villians. We’re not the heros. We’re just trying to make it in a shithole universe that just doesn’t care.” He spoke with a calm voice, but the intensity of his three eyes silenced any retort Kathleen might have come up with. The room was briefly silent except for the noise of Shrub obliviously tearing at his lump of meat. Sanshoo returned to his seat. “Nym, deliver Miss Jones to the unused bunk. That’s where she’ll stay for the night.” There was a finality in the order that Kathleen didn’t argue with. Nym rose from the table and led her out of the common room. She slung her storage cube over her shoulder and followed. After the sliding door closed behind them, Nym began to speak as he led her down the cramped corridors of the Sucker’s Luck.

    “I know doesn’t seem it, but Cap’s a good person. Just slow to trust. Can’t really blame him in times like these. Bon and me, well, our presence isn’t really often appreciated. Sanshoo’s kept us on longer than anyone since… well, longer than anyone has for a good while.” They reached an open doorway to a small, empty room. A single crate lay on the floor and a boxy niche in the wall with a thin mattress and threadbare blanket were the only furnishings. Kathleen entered the room and tossed down the battered crate she carried, the only possession she had left. Nym’s glowing, plus-shaped visage illuminated the door frame. “We’re not bad people, Mystery Girl.” The electronic door slid shut, leaving Kathleen alone with her thoughts. She crawled into the cubbyhole bed, flicked off the lights, and stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep.

    What do I do now? Nym, despite his recklessness and disregard for law, was rather endearing to her, and these people were the only ones she knew in the entire universe. Was everything really so lawless as Sanshoo claimed? Nym, in his awkwardly sincere cowboy fashion, seemed at least genuine. Perhaps this ship wasn’t the worst place in the galaxy to be, at least until she understood more about the times. Her mind made up, Kathleen drifted into a fitful sleep.

    Kathleen awoke to a grating buzzing from an alarm clock built into the side of the bed. She stumbled out of the niche and attempted to massage the knots in her back gained from sleeping in the marvelously uncomfortable quarters. She tried her best to smooth the rumples out of her clothes, the same ones clothes that Nym had lent her the day before. A brief hesitation at the decision she had made crossed her mind, but Kathleen forced it out of her head and made for the bridge.

    “Human girl! Mornin’! We’ll be coming out of hyperspace directly, and there’s a spaceport we’ll drop you off at,” cheerfully greeted Bonnibel from a pilot’s seat.

    “I want to join the crew,” Kathleen asserted as she strode into the bridge. Sanshoo was working at the holotable and the two Novakid sat at the helm, reflecting yellow and cyan across the frontal viewport . The amphibious captain nearly choked in surprise.

    “Excuse me?” Sanshoo exclaimed. “What happened to ‘mercenaries and criminals?’”

    “If the universe is really the shithole you say it is, I’m not going at it alone.” From the crew’s stories last night, it sounded as if Sanshoo had a thing for taking in misfits, and Kathleen figured nobody fit the bill better than she did.

    “Ridiculous. What say do you think you have? What skills would even bring to the crew?” Kathleen searched her mind for any achievements that might impress the cold Hylotl.

    “I have a PHD in xenobiology, combat training-”

    “All from 200 years ago, might I remind you, Miss Jones.”

    “That’s Doctor Jones, actually.” Now she was getting feisty. It felt good to take charge again. She instinctively reached to touch the scars across her throat. “My body is modified to survive in vacuum for up to thirty minutes, and-”

    “Oh, that’s why you can’t talk normal!” interjected Nym.

    “None of this changes anything, Doctor Jones. We’re barely staying spaceworthy as it is, and you’re dead weight.”

    “Cap,don’t be such an old croaker. Give Kathleen a chance- at least for a bit. I can vouch she’s no deadbeat,” Nym argued in Kathleen’s favor.

    “Sound’s like a fun time to me. If Nym’s for her, I’m game for the human miss.” Bon voiced her opinion from the pilot’s chair.” Kathleen looked expectantly at Sanshoo.

    “Who’s the captain onboard anyways? You lunatics must be getting to me. When we all run out of fuel and food, you know who to blame,” Sanshoo grumbled. “You board with us for the next few jobs. That should test you. After that, you’re out to whatever hick planet’s cheapest to fly to. But if you’re crew, you follow our rules. My rules.” Kathleen was couldn’t decide if asking to crew with these aliens was smart decision or if she was just cracking under the circumstances. Sanshoo began to turn back towards the holotable, but reconsidered and addressed Kathleen one last time. “Oh, and Doctor Jones,” he gave a slight bow, a sly grin on his wide mouth, “Welcome to the crew.”

    And goodbye to whatever’s left of my old life.

    Chapter 1: First Gig

    Tlilzin sat in the corner of the pub, a table to himself. He scanned the room, his scaly hands anxiously tugging at his feathers. It was a nervous habit that he had never been able to break. There were barely any patrons in the bar- a slow day, even for morning on this planet. A lone robot sat on the opposite end of the room, staring into his murky drink. A Terran and a Hylotl huddled at the bar. The bored bartender, the only other Avian in the pub, absentmindedly polished a glass. Tlilzin repressed a nervous giggle. He was being completely ignored! Accepting that he hadn’t been followed, the Avian eased into a relaxed posture. He ordered a drink- something strong and expensive. It was a time for celebration. He might be in some dreary bar on a podunk mining planet in the middle of nowhere, but he was finally free, and the richest bird in the sector, to boot. Tlilzin admired the colouration of the blue bartender’s tail feathers as she delivered his drink. She was quite a comely one, perhaps he’d- no, he needed to keep a low profile, at least for now. In a couple cycles he’d be off this rock and could buy himself all the pleasure he could possibly want. Tlizin glanced at the glass the bartender had dropped off. It was designed for a beak, thankfully. He took a deep swig of his drink, and then coughed and sputtered as it went down. The booze here was swill, but it did nothing to dampen his mood. Free at last!

    “See the Avian in the corner? No, don’t look at him! Avian, yeah. Feathers, beaks, backwards-legs? Yes, the ugly brown one, not the bartender. His name’s Tlilzin,” explained Sanshoo to his human companion.

    “Tlilzin what? No last name?” queried Dr. Kathleen Jones back to the amphibious alien.

    “Avians don’t have those. Neither do we, as a matter of fact. Last names are weird. You humans have them. Apex and Novakid too, I guess. Never really understood the concept, myself- we’re getting off the subject here.” Sanshoo snapped back to business. The two huddled at the bar, trying their best to remain inconspicuous. Sanshoo took a long drink from a glass of whatever Hylotl use for alcohol. He then pulled out a small spritzer bottle and gave himself a thorough spraying. Hylotl, he had explained earlier, needed to retain moisture to survive, which was why one didn’t see many on “bleeding sand-planets.” “The bird’s got a 13,000 bit bounty on his head for hacking some bank and then breaking out of prison. He doesn’t look like the physical type; it should be an easy job, right?”

    “Er. Right,” Kathleen hesitantly confirmed. She’d been travelling with Sanshoo and his crew for two weeks now, but this was the first “gig” he’d taken her out on. “So we just… go up and grab him?”

    “Bounty jobs like this are easy money. The tracking’s the hardest part. Now we just, ahem, escort him to the nearest govstation and reap the reward.” The pair had searched for the criminal Avian for most of the previous day, and all of this morning. Sanshoo had finally gotten a qlook at him and set up in this dive bar to wait for the escaped convict to come in. “You ready? We can’t wait any longer.” Kathleen’s heart was fluttering, but she shoved her emotions down and steeled herself to become an amateur bounty hunter.

    So this is what I do now, huh. She idly fingered the small machine pistol that she’d been given. Apparently, all guns used plasma instead of ammunition these days. Kathleen sincerely hoped she wouldn’t have to use it. Without any further delay, she grabbed the remainder of Sanshoo’s liquor and drank it down. Sanshoo gave her a grin.

    “Alright, let’s go.” Kathleen stood up, Sanshoo following suit. They casually walked toward the corner table where Tlilzin sat, absorbed in his own revelry. From what Kathleen had seen of the bird-like Avians, she’d considered them rather pretty, but Sanshoo was right about Tlilzin- he was ugly. A squashed beak hid under a coat of uneven, greasy brown feathers. His large, black eyes noticed their approach and widened in panic. He leapt up from his chair, displaying digitigrade legs poised to run.

    “No running. Don’t be an idiot.” Sanshoo withdrew his own gun, a submachine gun of sorts, from his coat. Despite possessing the short stature of a Hylotl, Sanshoo commanded attention. Tlilzin froze, eyes darting towards any possible escape route. Gasps were audible throughout the bar, as patrons and the distressed bartender caught notice of the situation.

    “W-wait! I’ve- I’ve got money! Lots- more than those bounties! They’re ripping you off. I’m worth significantly more than what they’re offering-” Tlilzin seemed to realize that his digression was not helping his case. He stammered out another attempt at a bribe. “A million credits! Just forget I was here!” Sanshoo took a step closer, followed closely by Kathleen. Imitating Sanshoo, she had drawn her pistol and kept it trained on the Avian. “Two million!” Another step. “A billion!” Realizing the futility of his offers, Tlilzin darted for the door. Sanshoo fired off a burst of red plasma bolts. Screams rang through the bar. The bird was more agile than he looked and bolted out the door. Kathleen, her old combat training kicking in, gave chase. Sanshoo, after throwing an extra tip the bartender’s way, ran off in pursuit behind them.

    Tlilzin sprinted across the single wide street of the sleepy colony, the sun beginning to reach a scorching temperature on the desert planet, casting the already worn and dusty-looking buildings in a harsh yellow light. He wove between the sparse groups of miners walking across the strip to their morning shifts. That insane Hylotl had opened fire on him in the middle of a bar! Now his Terran friend was hot on his heels, and he was running for his life.

    Just as things were starting to look up. He glanced backwards only to see the Terran woman gaining on him. Weren’t humans supposed to be slow? He redoubled his efforts, but with a crash that knocked the wind from him, Tlilzin ran into a hooded figure and slammed into the ground. The impact didn’t even sway the figure, but it knocked back the hood, revealing the grinning face of a Floran with a single pink flower on its leafy head. Wonderful. A ringing Floran too!

    To his surprise, the Floran simpled hissed, “Is sorry,” and continued on its way. Tlilzin staggered to his feet and sprinted off again, the Terran woman yelling behind him.

    “Shrub! That’s the one!” called Kathleen, not slowing her pursuit. Shrub, a look of perplexity still apparent on his segmented face, joined the chase nonetheless.

    “Is bounty?” the Floran questioned.

    “Yes!” called out both Kathleen and Sanshoo, the dry climate giving the Hylotl trouble keeping pace with his two companions. Tlilzin had almost reached the end of the main road. He began to curve towards a landing pad branching out from between two warehouses. A tiny single-seater spacecraft sat idle.

    “Doctor Jones, take a shot! Get a leg- don’t kill him. If he makes it to his ship we’ll lose him again!” Sanshoo shouted out, now lagging farther behind Kathleen and Shrub and out of range to take a shot himself. High on adrenaline, Kathleen skidded to a stop. She raised her shaking hands and released a short burst of plasma bolts. The shots scattered behind Tlilzin’s ankles. He jumped up in panic, but remained unharmed. She took a breath and released a second volley. Most scattered across the sandy ground, a few sparking as they made contact with a metal wall or post, and a single shot hit home, drilling a shallow hole halfway up the Avian’s ankle. Tlilzin released a squawking scream and immediately hit the ground, rolling several meters before coming to a stop mere strides from the ship that would have been his salvation.

    Shrub caught up to him at last and easily lifted him over his ropy shoulder, the wounded bird giving no further resistance, only releasing a long whistling moan from his squashed beak, now bleeding from the fall. Panting from the exertion of the long sprint, Kathleen couldn’t decide whether Tlilzin moaned from pain or mourned his brief taste of freedom. Shrub strode up to Kathleen, Tlilzin slung over his shoulder, and gave her a rough shake of presumably congratulatory intent.

    “Good hunt! Good shoot!” the Floran chanted, waxy leaves bouncing up and down. Kathleen stared at the black hole in the Avian’s ankle caused by her shot. It didn’t bleed; the intense heat cauterized the wound as soon as the plasma made contact. She managed a weak smile for Shrub’s sake, but she felt like vomiting. She just shot a man.

    I joined the army to afford university, but I never shot anyone. The worst part of the feeling was the sensation that this was only the beginning of violence for her new role in the new galaxy.

    Chapter 2: Down on Their Luck

    “Goddamn swindled!” Sanshoo stormed into the the bridge of the Sucker’s Luck, followed by a morose Kathleen and Shrub.

    “Sounds like you had a fun trip,” responded Firth in her best deadpan, not even looking up from the access panel she was repairing. The bulky Apex had her red-tinted goggles down. She appeared to be struggling to make sense of a tangle of slightly-nibbled wires.

    “Those lying bastards! We spend two rotations tracking this bird down and as soon as we turn him in the bounty’s been ‘reduced’ to six thousand creds!”

    “Six thousand?” This time Firth stopped her work and stared at the captain, an incredulous look on her face. “That’s not enough to pay for the fuel we spent getting here, let alone all the repairs we need.”

    “I should have accepted the bribe from the bloody hacker!” Sanshoo fumed. He still hadn’t fully recovered from their stint on the desert’s surface, and his usually-sleek skin looked dried out and chapped. Firth pushed up her goggles over the antennae emerging from her temple, staticky fur clinging to them.

    “What could we… We need another gig.”

    “If we were swimming in jobs, we wouldn’t be hunting bounties for spare change,” remarked Kathleen, feeling the need to contribute to the conversation. Sanshoo rubbed his temples with webbed hands and paced the floor.

    “Thank you for your cunning observation, Doctor Jones.” Sarcasm dripped from Sanshoo’s voice. “You know I could still leave you here on this backwater planet. I’d probably save some creds on supplies, too.”

    “Did you forget who actually caught the bounty today?” Kathleen couldn’t help pushing her luck with Sanshoo, sometimes.

    “The Kathleen has point,” remarked Shrub. Sanshoo sighed, squinting all three of his eyes shut in frustration. Kathleen noticed that he had two sets of eyelids, like a frog.

    “I’ll be in my quarters. Keep making those repairs, Firth. Doctor Jones, find one of the twins and practice your aim. It needs work.” With that, the captain exited the bridge.

    “We haven’t had a decent gig in weeks,” sighed Firth. “It’s got everyone on edge- except for maybe Shrub and the twins. We need fast money, or the Sucker’s Luck isn’t going to be spaceworthy for much longer.”

    Sanshoo clambered down the ship’s ageing corridors, through the cargo bay and finally into his converted captain’s quarters. The little room at the end of the cargo bay probably had a real purpose at some point, but when Sanshoo won the ship he’d taken it over as his personal quarters. Right now it seemed like his last stand. Sometimes Sanshoo just wondered if he could take off again, find some ship to crew on, worrying only about himself. It’d been easy enough just to wander before he got a crew. Forget that- the Sucker’s Luck was his ship, and he’d be going down with the old girl. He just needed a new plan. First, though, he needed something more important. Sanshoo opened a hatch and poured himself a tumbler of whiskey. He’d grown rather fond of the human drink, and required its services more and more frequently nowadays. After the first glass, Sanshoo noticed a blinking alert on his message console.

    Nobody uses my personal message console except the crew, and they’re all onboard. Intrigued, Sanshoo checked who could possibly be contacting him. He nearly spit out his drink as his hopes seemed to be answered at once. He regained his composure just as quickly, wariness replacing disbelief.

    Urgent request for assistance- 60,000 credit reward!

    Chapter 3: Heretics and Apostates

    "You card sharp! Three times in a row?!" There were groans all around as Bon collected everyone's money yet again. She, Nym, Firth, Kathleen, and Shrub were gathered around a table in the commons playing cards. Firth was losing terribly, Kathleen barely understood the rules, and Shrub was more interested in playing with a bug he'd caught than anything. It was mostly a battle between the two Novakid siblings. Bon passed her credit chit around the table, each loser plugging theirs into it and exchanging the wagered credits. It didn't matter particularly to Kathleen, as most of her money was currently borrowed, and her credit chit a hacked one given to her by Firth, as she technically wasn't a registered citizen of the galaxy. All currency was digital now, she had discovered, and you needed a credit chit to purchase anything. Kathleen felt a tad guilty over the borrowed money, but she had determined to pay every bit back once they landed a decent gig and she got her cut. Of course, that was assuming they ever landed a decent gig.

    "How do they do that?" grumbled Firth.

    "They've got no faces- no tells," Kathleen figured. Of course, the two glowing aliens never failed to get their expressions across even with the static symbols replacing a face.

    "Come on now, sis. One more round and I'll have you. Not like we've anything else to do when we're out here drifting." Nym was right about having nothing to do. No jobs meant floating aimlessly in space until they got any sort of lead.

    "All right, one more chance for you to earn your money back."

    "You in, doc?" Nym asked Kathleen.

    "Er.... Sure. I think I'm getting the hang of it, actually," Kathleen bluffed. She couldn’t tell if lying was easier or more difficult now that all of her speech was electronically transmitted from thought. The flanged sound of her own voice still occasionally startled her.Before Bon could begin to deal, however, the game was interrupted as Sanshoo burst into the room, practically leaping on them.

    "Nym, Bon, direct us to these coords!" He tossed a coord-drive in their direction. Nym caught it and the two twins jumped into action.

    "On it, Cap! Finally, something exciting!"

    "Firth, you've got the engines running?"

    "Not at maximum capacity, but running, yes."


    "Woah- what's going on?" Kathleen interjected. Sanshoo seemed uncharacteristically elated.

    "We've got a gig! One that actually pays, I should add."

    "What is job for?" questioned Shrub.

    "Briefing's on the bridge in twenty. What are doing standing about? Get your supplies together!"

    "Why can't you just tell us now?" Kathleen asked.

    "That's not how it works, Doctor Jones. Now get moving!" With that, the rest of the group dispersed. Kathleen rolled her eyes and navigated the corridors of the Sucker's Luck until she got to her quarters. As she exited the common room the floor lurched under her feet, a telltale sign that the twins had jumped into hyperspace. It was amazing how quickly one could grow accustomed to the advanced technology. As the rumbling in the ship stabilized, she arrived at her cabin. It’d improved a little since she'd arrived on the ship, and now she'd acquired a few blankets, toiletries, and a mirror. Her storage cube sat in the corner, the last connection to her old life gathering dust. She shot a guilty glance at it, for she hadn't had the nerve to open it yet.

    Someday. Kathleen caught a glance at herself in the mirror as she gathered her things and once once again startled by how different she looked. She'd finally purchased some of her own clothes to replace the ill-fitting borrowed outfits Bonnibel had lent her. Kathleen had been forced to cut off most of the rat's nest of her long hair, leaving her with little below her ear. This had the unintended side effect of prominently displaying the vocalizer earpiece that allowed her to speak. She stopped reminiscing and began to gather whatever she'd need for this mysterious job.

    It would help if I knew what we were actually doing. She strapped the holster of her pistol to her thigh and fitted the weapon snugly within. It seemed that people didn't bother concealing weapons when nigh-everyone carried one anyways. Her plasteel-fitted jacket, neckscarf, belts, and sturdy boots- all ready for whatever madness they'd be doing this time. Noticing the time on her digital display, she finished preparing and headed out to the bridge.

    "Alright, we're here. What're we doing?" Kathleen stepped onto the bridge, where Firth, Shrub, and Sanshoo already stood around the holotable. Sanshoo brought up a projection of a planet. With blue oceans and white clouds, it had a passing resemblance to Earth, sending a pang of loss down Kathleen’s spine.

    “This is Thessa IV b, a tiny moon in the middle disk. It’s not-”

    “Where are twins?” Shrub interrupted.

    “I already briefed them. They’re getting ready,” Sanshoo replied, his fins flicking. “Anyway. The Sucker’s Luck was contacted by someone on Thessa asking for “assistance.” I didn’t get much in the way of details, but here’s the clincher- whoever it is offered to give us sixty thousand bits for it.”

    “Sixty thousand! We could replace the whole diode array!” Firth exclaimed in awe. Kathleen hadn’t quite gotten a grasp on the value of “creds” yet, but she could tell by the reaction that this was an uncommon job. Just as quickly, the cynic in her got suspicious.

    “Okay, so there’s a location, a massive reward, and no other info? If this isn’t sketchy I don’t know what is.”

    “That’s what I thought as well, Doctor Jones, but the contact found our internal messaging console somehow- this wasn’t just on some bounty-site, they want us specifically. At this point, though, it’s either take the chance or sell the Luck for scrap, ‘cause that’s all she’ll be worth soon enough.”

    “They contacted us specifically…” Firth chimed in, “No offense intended, Captain, but who would choose us, whether for a trap or a job? We’re not exactly… impressive as it currently stands.” As if to prove the Apex’s point, a fuse blew out in a small eruption of sparks on the console behind her. Sanshoo sighed.

    “We’ll find out soon enough. We get there in twenty.” The captain’s three red eyes glanced at the planet display again. “There’s another important thing about Thessa. It’s-”

    Before Sanshoo could relay the information, Nym and Bonnibel ambled back onto the bridge. Nym was dressed in a ridiculous green tunic with clasps up the front and what looked like woolen stockings, and Bon wore a frilly purple dress, intended to be floor-length but obviously too short for her, revealing that underneath she still retained her denim jeans and cowboy boots. Nym’s battered hat still rested atop his glowing head. The already bizarre anachronism of their glowing, alien physiology and cowboy-culture was further compounded by the outlandish costume change.

    “It’s a Glitch planet,” Sanshoo finished. Nym tugged on his tunic, attempting to adjust the unwieldy article of clothing.

    “Are you sure we have to wear these, or did you just eucher me into lookin’ half a fool?” Nym burbled.

    “This dress is too big and too small all at once! Last time Nym and I visited a robot-planet, we didn’t need this kind of getup,” Bon agreed. “I suppose they did chase us with pitchforks for a while…” Kathleen shot quizzical looks at Firth and Sanshoo. The cowboy colloquialisms did nothing to ease her confusion.

    Every time I start to get a handle on things, somebody bursts in dressed like Hamlet.

    “Er. Glitch planet?”

    “The Glitch are artificial constructs- robots, one might say- that scientists believe were planted across the galaxy millions of years ago to model the growth of emerging societies,” Firth explained.

    “I’ve read about Glitch- sentient androids, right? So why are those two dressed like-”

    “Sentient is not always the correct term,” Firth continued before Kathleen could finish. “The vast majority of Glitch are connected to a hivemind that controls the simulation. To call them sentient would not be entirely correct. This hivemind has been, to excuse the pun, glitched, for aeons, keeping the Glitch technologically stagnant since before any spacefaring society we know of existed. They appear to have been stuck in an iron-age society based on serfdom and agriculture for thousands of years without progressing culturally or technologically. On occasion Glitch are built unshackled and sentient, and find their way into the galactic community, but they’re considered heretics and outcasts by the shackled Glitch society.”

    “They’re… medieval robots?”

    “Mid-evil?” Shrub questioned, his leaves rustling as he cocked his head to the human terminology.

    “Glitch are luddites, is what she’s saying,” Sanshoo interrupted, his sleek cyan skin reflecting the light of the planet projection. “They’re luddites who’ll burn heretics at the stake, and ‘heretic’ means anyone who’s thinking progressively or acting strangely. They can’t tell different species apart, but they can tell if you’re wearing strange clothes. Which is why you’ll be needing these.” The diminutive alien captain tossed a bundle at Kathleen, and distributed another to Shrub and kept one for himself.

    “You have got to be kidding me,” Kathleen sighed, holding out the long, décolleté red dress Sanshoo had assigned her. “I can’t even run in this!”

    “Gender progressivism isn’t big in Glitch society,” Sanshoo snidely replied. “Would you rather wear a dress or get burned at the stake?”

    “At least yours looks like it fits,” Bon grumbled.

    “Fine, but I’m wearing jeans, too,” Kathleen folded.

    “Firth, I need you to stay on the ship and monitor from above.” Sanshoo got back to business.

    “I am completely okay with that,” the towering Apex responded, shoulders relaxing in the knowledge that she would not have to squeeze herself into a corset.

    “Alright, now you two get changed and meet me by the teleport,” Sanshoo ordered to Shrub and Kathleen. Kathleen’s mind shot back to the several crash-landings and narrow escapes two weeks ago.

    “Wait, we have a teleporter?!

    Chapter 4: Substell’r Vægr’y

    “This day keeps getting better.” Kathleen struggled to find room amongst the four aliens as she was pressed against the wall. The “teleport bay,” she quickly found out, was obviously not manufactured for three people, let alone five. The stuffy costumes they had all been required to change into didn’t help. “For god’s sake, if you’ve got teleporters in the future, then why didn’t we use this before?”

    “Every other run you’ve made, we had to move cargo and refuel. Teleports aren’t for large-scale transportation of goods- things tend to, ahem, scramble. And you don’t want to travel long-distance by teleporter, either. Look up pics on the extranet sometime.” Sanshoo replied, his small stature buried amongst the other bodies in the room.

    “How reassuring.”

    “Hate to break up the powwow, but can we be goin’?” Nym twanged. He and Bon’s heads brushed the ceiling of the cramped teleporter room, their bright glows reflecting off of the metal walls. Much to the duo’s chagrin, Sanshoo had forbidden them from wearing their usual battered cowboy hats, so their wild coronas of “hair” sprang haphazardly about their luminescent heads.

    “The coordinates have completed calibration,” Firth’s voice played directly into Kathleen’s earpiece. She could hear the announcement emitting from the others’ commlinks as well. “Keep your comms on, and please try not to get burned at the stake.” With that, the constant hum of machinery on the Sucker’s Luck was replaced by the electronic hum of the teleport warming up.

    “See you-all planetside!” Bon whooped. She might have said more, but it was lost in the cacophony. The hum crescendoed until Kathleen felt her teeth vibrating. Just as she thought she couldn’t take any more, the racket ceased completely. The five stood in the tiny room in silence, the air thick with static electricity. Kathleen glanced at the others before breaking the silence.

    “Er… Is it-” Blinding light gave way to impenetrable darkness. Cold so chilling it burned. Kathleen felt her feet pushing upwards into her cranium. The sensation of being forced through the hole of a straw, then hitting the ground at a million kilometers an hour. More blackness.

    “Oh god. I-” Kathleen groaned as she opened her eyes. She squinted at the noonday sun above her, almost completely obscured by grey.

    Sun? I’m on Thessa. It worked! She groaned as she attempted to stand up.

    Okay, maybe just a sitting position. Her head pounded like the worst hangover imaginable. As Kathleen attempted to regain her sense of up and down, she heard serpentine hissing from behind her. She tilted her head back to see Shrub looking down at her. The hissing, she assumed, was laughter. The alien plant was dressed in a drab roughspun tunic, though his ragged brown cloak was still draped over his back and a hood hung over his head.

    “The Kathleen has never used teleporter? Is funny.” The Floran offered a sharp-fingered hand.

    “Yeah, it’s just hilarious.” Kathleen slowly grabbed the outstretched extremity and was pulled to her feet. The movement sent a new wave a nausea through her body and she fell to her knees, retching.

    “Humans do the darndest things sometimes,” observed Nym.

    “Wish I could do that,” replied Bon. The two misinterpreted Kathleen’s nauseous spell from nearby.

    “Alright, let’s get moving. I don’t want to-” Sanshoo joined the rest of the group holding a large paper map. Clad in a navy-blue doublet and high boots, the captain looked more regal and at-ease in his costume than the rest of them combined. Kathleen noticed that he retained his signature fez. “Teleport sickness, huh?” he chuckled. “Trust me, it gets better after the first few times.”

    “I’m fine.” Kathleen attempted to shake off the tumultuous feeling as she wiped her mouth and unsteadily rose to her feet. Now that she was able to get a better look at her surroundings, Kathleen was surprised to see the most Earth-like planet she’d been to yet. They were gathered in a clearing in the midst of a sparsely-wooded forest. Yellow sun, green leaves- Thessa could pass for Earth if not for the gas planet looming above, the only point of colour in the dismal sky. The climate even reminded her of England. Despite the chill, fog, and damp, the thought still brought a bittersweet smile to her face. “Let’s just- just start walking.” Kathleen spoke with as much bravado as she could muster. Sanshoo spoke into the commlink concealed on his wrist underneath a layer of billowy sleeves.

    “Firth, this is Sanshoo. Give me a heading. I can’t make sense out of this bloody map.”

    “Firth to all. From the scans up here, there’s some sort of small population center north of your location.” Firth’s voice sounded slightly grainy in the crew’s various commlinks.

    “That’s it. Stay alert up there”

    “Roger that, Captain.” With that and a glance at the sun, Sanshoo strode off without another word, Shrub shadowing him as always. Kathleen took a breath and staggered after him. The twins glanced at each other and shrugged, then loped along at the back of the group.

    “-And then he stands up, gun at my head, and orders a round of drinks on him!” Nym burbled, his face pulsating as he spoke. “Moral of the story’s to never get between a man and his-”

    “Hold up.” Sanshoo froze. The others followed suit, tense and alert. Kathleen looked about the horizon for any sign of movement. They’d been walking through a field of some wheat-like crop for at least an hour without any sign of life. “There.” Sanshoo raised a webbed finger to point at a hunched-over figure on horizon. A silhouette of a humanoid figure with a scythe could be made out. It didn’t appear to see them, as it continued meandering through the field, reaping the crop and storing it on a large basket on its back.

    “Why do robots need wheat anyways?” whispered Bon.

    “Do you see that in the distance? That’s where we’re headed.” Sanshoo ignored Bon. The hazy shape of buildings and walls on the horizon was just visible through the omnipresent fog. “We’re in Glitch territory now. We’ll need to at least try and blend in. Just act like you belong here and don’t stand out.”

    “Will do, Cap!” The motley band of aliens continued making their way towards the city. Kathleen cursed her impractical clothing once more as she tripped over the long dress she was forced to wear. The crimson gown was made of a sort of linen, and had embarrassingly low neckline and short ruffled sleeves that exposed her arms to the damp and cold. A corset crossed by numerous laces squeezed her midriff and restricted her breathing. At least she had kept her jeans on and pistol holstered beneath the skirts. Her sturdy boots were a comfort in the mud they trekked across.

    “I know the feelin’, Kath,” remarked Bon as she hitched up her ill-fitting skirts to pick her way across the dirty field. “Damnable dress,” she muttered.

    The vision-obscuring fog soon gave way to other telltale figures in the fields, vague blurs in the distance that took no notice of the five. They seemed to spot the workers with more frequency as the approached the hazy city. Kathleen thought that she spotted someone mounted on a horse canter across the distance, but quickly dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Soon they approached the first building, a windowless wattle-and-daub affair that was little more than a single room with a thatched roof. With it, there emerged a road, if one could label the narrow path of packed earth as such.

    The crew ceased any banter, even the twins, as the road widened and periodic buildings began to give way to the outskirts of the city. The first thing Kathleen noticed was the smell. A repulsive mix of mold, oil, and dung assaulted her nostrils as they approached the outskirts. Poorly-constructed and poorly-maintained buildings were haphazardly erected along the road, which branched and meandered throughout the dismal settlement. Kathleen finally got a better look at the Glitch who lived in this squalor.

    Just as Sanshoo had described, the Glitch were robots. About human-size, they were constructed of interlocking plates of various dull metals. Creaking, hinge-like arm and leg joints connected extremities of various size, shape, and condition. Their heads vaguely resembled, appropriately enough, the helmets of archaic armoured knights. A mouthless faceplate was mounted underneath a digital screen, which displayed the image of two slightly-pixelated coloured elipses- the digital equivalent of eyes. Beyond basic structure, the Glitch seemed to vary wildly in design. Height, girth, and colouration all changed from individual to individual. The adornments of their mechanical heads ranged from anachronistic to outlandish. One peasant wore a loose cap perched atop a satellite dish jutting from his head. Another's cranial dome was constructed of glass, eerily revealing what looked like a semi-organic brain.

    The one unifying feature all the Glitch they observed was the presence of abject poverty. Dressed in rags and threadbare roughspun tunics, the robots were pitted and covered in rust-spots. Kathleen had never pitied a machine before a Glitch on crutches, one mangled leg replaced with a crude wooden peg, shambled across the road in front of her. A Glitch-woman with her eye-visor cracked and exposing wiring was the first to acknowledge the crew's presence.

    "Pleading. A single copper to feed the family is all I ask," she croaked in a tinny voice. Kathleen would have obliged if she'd had any "coppers." Instead she just continued walking alongside her companions, sparing only an apologetic glance for the beggar woman.

    "Bloody depressing town," muttered Sanshoo.

    "Is sad place," agreed Shrub. Indeed, there was a sense of emptiness to the slum beyond the poverty. Kathleen noticed now that nearly every third door they passed had a crude, red "X" painted over it. A hunchbacked Glitch passed them pulling a cart laden with burlap bags of defunct mechanical parts- robotic corpses.

    This is a plague town.

    "We should get out of this part of town. Look-" Kathleen pointed at the crossed-out doors. "There's a plague here."

    "They're robots, remember? It's a computer virus- don't worry about catching it yourself," Sanshoo replied.

    "I wouldn't mind leaving directly, anyhow," Nym sparked, his corona wavering in the cold breeze.

    "Do you know where we're headed at all?" questioned Kathleen. Sanshoo unfolded his map and pointed at a circled area.

    "The employer said to meet him at a tavern called the 'Blink and Barley.' According to the map, it's inside the walled part of the city. All we need to find is the gate."

    "So what's somebody with knowledge of technology and the outside universe doing on this backwards planet?"

    "Guess we'll find out soon enough." The crew continued along the muddy path until cobblestones replaced the soggy earth and the cruck houses along the road grew larger and more well-maintained. Just as the map described, they arrived at a wall separating the central city. Twelve meters tall and constructed of rough-hewn stone bricks, the only entrance was a large pair of wooden doors in a gateway set into the wall. The road they travelled led through it, and the open gate allowed Glitch pulling carts of various amenities to travel in and out, monitored by two surly-looking guards armoured in belted tabards over full plate.

    Kathleen kept her head down and tried to avoid staring at the fascinating robotics on display as the group travelled through the gate.

    They had almost passed by with no issue when one of the guards pointed at them and stated, "Stern. You five!" The crew froze, not one saying a word in response. Finally, Nym smoothly sauntered towards the guard.

    "Yessir? We're just minding our own, passing through and all that," he spoke in a saccharine tone. The guard scrutinized the glowing alien for what seemed like ages.

    "... Begrudging. Here to pay your respects, I suppose. Very well. I want no trouble in the city, today especially."

    "Wouldn't dream of it, mister!" Bon bowed low, quick to back up her brother. The two exchanged looks before heading past the gates and into the city, the rest of the crew quick to follow.

    “What did robot mean, ‘Pay respect?’” Shrub asked. Out of habit, the Floran adjusted his hood to cover his fearsome visage.

    “I’ll bet anything is has to do with the gig,” replied Sanshoo. The walled city was much nicer than the slums beyond. Buildings constructed of stone bricks and timber reached multiple stories high. In the distance, the crenellated spires of a massive castle loomed high above the city. The Glitch they saw passing by, yelling out market goods and carrying supplies to and fro, were in better condition as well, dressed in a finer attire and possessing higher-quality mechanics. The plague-marked doors became significantly less common past the wall. The omnipresent stench of a medieval lifestyle still clung to the air wherever they travelled, and a gutter of exposed filth ran through the center of the narrow cobblestone streets. A bucket of a vile black liquid was emptied into the street from a second-story window as the crew walked under, only narrowly avoiding being drenched.

    Kathleen hadn’t realized quite how large the city was until they began to delve into its labyrinthian streets and alleys. Everywhere she turned she saw examples of this strange race of anachronistic robots. Dressed in tunics, petticoats, and doublets, they crowded streets in throngs, hurriedly clambering about their business. A baker hawked fresh loaves of a hard, crusty bread as they passed- how the robots ate, Kathleen had no idea. Glitch on scaffolding above the mobs clanked and rattled as they hammered in windowpanes and tiled roofing. Kathleen even noticed several mechanical chickens plucking at the ground and periodically emitting electronic “squawks.”

    “Ain’t it a sight?” Nym elbowed Kathleen as she took in the scenery. “All these robots living so backwards?”

    “Says the space cowboy,” Kathleen smiled, elbowing him back. “It’s pretty astonishing, really. There’s so much to the universe I could never have imagined existing. It seems impossible!”

    “Sure does. Um, what’s a cowboy?”

    Sanshoo, his three eyes buried in the paper map, led them down the maze of streets until they arrived a little, two-story wooden building with a signpost at the front in an unintelligible language.

    “This should be it. The Blink and Barley.”

    “How can you be sure? The sign’s written in Glitch-speak,” Bon said.

    “Well, whoever hired us said he’d be here, so we’ll know if we found it.” With that, Sanshoo led them through the sturdy wooden door into the building. Sure enough, it seemed to be an inn or tavern. A bar tended by an antenna-eared Glitch wench took up one wall, across from a crackling fireplace which unfortunately did little to repel to chill. Mostly-empty tables were scattered about the room. Kathleen examined each of the patrons, but none appeared especially devious or self-aware at a glance.

    “Melancholy. Come for a mug in his royal name then, lads?” called out the bar wench.

    “Er. We’re looking for a-” Sanshoo was interrupted by Nym.

    “A glass of the old base-burner for me, then!” Kathleen saw Nym was wearing a floppy felt hat he hadn’t been wearing when they walked through the city gates. Upon further examination, so was Bon. It seemed as if stealing hats was not a new habit for the twins. The wench filled a wooden tankard from a spigot behind her and slid it to Nym. Kathleen thought it looked and smelled suspiciously like motor oil, but Nym tossed it back without a second thought.

    “Business-minded. Two coppers a fill, if you’d kindly.”

    “Um. Coppers?” Before Nym could scramble to avoid paying with money he didn’t have, two shining hexagonal coins landed on the counter.

    “This drink is on me.” All were startled as a voice spoke from behind them. “You must be my heroes, yes? Come, sit with me.” A tall figure in a form-obscuring purple cloak led them towards a table set in an alcove on the far side of the room, away from prying eyes. He gestured for them all to sit before taking a chair himself. Sanshoo remained standing. The chairs weren’t sized for a hylotl, and standing he matched the height of the sitting figure.

    “I trust you found the tavern without trouble? The city can be rather confusing to travellers.” The figure was a Glitch; his full cloak and hood obscured all but two glowing purple optics, and he spoke with the same coppery tones of other Glitch, although he did not prefix his sentences with emotions or intents like others had. Kathleen felt uneasy around the figure. His words were amiable enough, but they were delivered with a cold tone that chilled her more than the dreich weather. Sanshoo leaned on the table.

    “Let’s cut to the chase. We need specifics before we start doing anything for you. You’re clear on the sixty thousand bits? I mean interstellar credits, not ‘coppers.’”

    “Very well. A man of few pleasantries, then. You’ll receive your compensation in full when your task is complete. I shall be blunt,” the Glitch craned his neck forward, visage still obscured in shadow, and lowered his voice. “The king is dead. Murdered by the very same virus that is rapidly killing off the peasantry in droves.”

    “You said ‘murdered.’ You aren’t murdered if you’re killed by a disease,” Kathleen interrupted.

    “You speak without use of your mouth, Terran woman. Interesting.” Kathleen instinctively traced the surgical scars down her throat. “You are observant. I claim ‘twas murder because this plague was manufactured. One hears superstitious whisperings of ‘black magic,’ of ‘witchcraft.’ I know better. I am enlightened. I know that a computer virus can be coded, introduced to mechanical beings and set to self-replicate, corrupt, and finally terminate its host. You are to find the mastermind behind this plague. I hope the weight of your quest is not lost on you.”

    “That’s all you’ve got for us to go on?” Sanshoo questioned.

    “Not so. This virus has passed by the late king’s younger brother, Duke Jaspar of House Dragonbook. The king was childless; the Duke is set to inherit the kingdom. I suspect foul play. I fear the duke has committed the heinous crime of regicide.”

    “To know how to create a computer virus, you’d need to be unshackled from the Glitch hivemind.”

    “It is possible he is enlightened. I have been enlightened for many years, yet incognito I remain.”

    “Why do you stay here then, if you know what’s out there?”

    “And why don’t you just figure this out for yourself?” Bon added. The Glitch leaned back a bit, pondering the question.

    “Simple. I love my country, and loyal I shall remain to her. I wish to remain undiscovered as an enlightened soul, so the quest falls to you. Now, I have no time for trivial inquiries. Take these-” A polished golden hand laid several scrolls on the table before withdrawing back to the cloak. “These dossiers will allow travel to the royal court. Tread carefully, for I fear intrigue plagues the city as thickly as illness.” A far-off bell sounded, soon joined by others across the city. “You should be going. The procession is not an affair to be missed.” The five stood up and went to examine the commotion outside. An unanswered question hung in Kathleen’s mind. She turned back to ask the mysterious, purple-cloaked Glitch.

    “Why did you choose us?” she asked, but the Glitch was nowhere to be found.

    Chapter 5: Devious Machinations

    Kathleen rushed outside to catch up with the rest of the crew, who had already hastily exited the tavern. She didn’t get far. As soon as she got through the doorway, Kathleen ran into a crowd of Glitch assembled on the side of the street. Nearly falling over, she steadied herself on a cart of half-spoilt vegetables. The Glitch she had collided with barely reacted at all. In fact, Kathleen quickly noticed, the din of the busy city had nearly ceased entirely. The only noise that remained was the deep, rhythmic tolling of bells across the city. Unnerved, Kathleen spotted the Nym and Bon standing head and shoulders above the rest of the throng. She shoved her way through the motionless robots until she reunited with the rest of the crew. Sanshoo and Shrub were perched atop a stack of barrels to get a better view of the events on the street. Kathleen climbed up to join them.

    “... What’s going on?” Kathleen wasn’t sure why she whispered; it felt right in the eerie quiet of the crowd.

    “Procession,” Sanshoo concisely whispered back. Indeed, as soon as the words left his lips, Kathleen caught view of a long train of Glitch, decked in full suits of ornate armour, mounted on equine, four-legged metal beasts. The glow of their optics cast a somber light on the silent crowd as the procession slowly trod forward. Beyond the knights came a carriage. Gleaming with sumptuous wood and gold leaf, this was surely the funeral carriage of this nation’s king.

    Solemnly seated atop the carriage on gilded thrones sat a regal Glitch woman, her chassis cast in soft gold and clothed in plush, black velvets. A mourning veil draped over her slim profile, obscuring her face but for the soft, green glow of her optics. Beside her sat a slender, sharply-dressed Glitch man. Cold steel clad in red silk. Duke Jaspar. It had to be. Despite never having been much of a nationalist herself, Kathleen found the grim march sending an icy chill into her heart. She wanted nothing more than to finish this job quickly and get off this godforsaken planet.

    “err:CRITICAL.cognate OVERFLOW” The deathly silence was broken by a warped, staticked cry. The procession halted as a shambling, decrepit Glitch staggered into the street towards the funeral carriage. “OMEN.exe::darkness;plague;death:: Mourn not for the golden tyrant:: Mourn. Mourn for the kingdom. CRITICAL.” Coated in rust and falling apart with each step, only multicoloured static flashed across the barely-functional robot’s optic display.

    A victim of this manufactured plague.

    “Sick metal man carries strange scent. Rust and death,” Shrub whispered. The plagued Glitch had nearly shambled to the carriage. With a wrenching clank that freed several of its rusted exterior panels, it raised a twisted arm and pointed straight at the duke. “HIM! accuse.exe::The Duke brings death::He brings the shadows. RISE_UP. DETHRONE THE FALSE-”

    With a slight gesture from the duke, one of the armoured escorts set upon the crippled plague victim. A single thrust of its polearm nearly ripped the ranting Glitch in half, its optics immediately blinking out. The wretched, lifeless body’s remains spilled out on the street. The silence resumed, and the procession wordlessly carried on. The throng of peasants continued to stare wordlessly until the carriage had travelled far upstreet. A smattering of Glitch scurried over the corpse of the destroyed plague victim, scrabbling for its parts and picking its chassis clean for salvage.


    Nym broke the silence. “Now, don’t go holding me on this, but I reckon the steely fella on the wagon might be our man.”

    “Astute observation, Nym,” Sanshoo replied wryly. “That’s why you two are going to follow him.” His webbed hand gestured at the twins. “We’ve got dossiers to let you into the court, and if I’m right, that’s exactly where you’ll find this ‘Duke Jaspar.’”

    “Hobnobbin’ with the elite? Count me in!” hooted Bon. Sanshoo gave a worried sigh.

    “Listen,” he said, handing them the court scrolls, “Don’t attract attention, don’t blow our cover, and-” he rubbed his temples, “-don’t make me regret this.”

    “Aw, ‘course not!”

    “What are we doing, then?” Kathleen queried.

    “Doctor, Shrub, you’re with me. We’re heading to the poorest districts in the outskirts. The virus is hitting the peasants worst, so that’s where we’ll investigate,” Sanshoo decisively stated.

    “Shrub has sick metal man scent. Follow, find more sick?” Shrub asked.

    “Exactly. We’ll keep connected with the comms. Let’s not waste any more time.” With that, the crew set off, Nym and Bon heading in the opposite direction of Kathleen, Sanshoo and Shrub.

    “Well, at least we’ve got some lovely weather.” Sanshoo noted as the three made their way down narrow cobbled streets.

    “Wait, are you being sarcastic? I honestly can’t tell.” Kathleen shot Sanshoo a quizzical look. The sun hadn’t shown its face since they beamed down, and an omnipresent dampness seemed to permeate the entire planet.

    “Reminds me of the ocean. What, don’t tell me humans like their weather dry?”

    “Well, humans aren’t amphibians. We don’t live underwater like Hylotl do.”

    “You’re a strange lot. Two eyes, dry skin, that fur on your head-”

    “Hair. That’s called hair.”

    How strange the universe is, that these species developed so differently, yet so alike in many ways. Kathleen caught herself staring at the three-eyed, salamander-esque Hylotl.

    “Stop.” The normally-silent Shrub spoke up, mildly startling Kathleen. He extended a segmented arm to halt their progress as he raised his head up and forwards. They’d travelled all the way to the very edge of the city. The cobbled streets had been replaced with track-lined mud paths, and the buildings were a nightmarish conglomeration of chanteys built on and around one another, barely supporting their own weight. The bustle of the inner streets had faded to a dull murmur, and there were no Glitch in sight. Shrub’s long, vine-like tongue flicked from his mouth, smelling the air around them. All Kathleen could smell was dirt, rot, and less appealing aromas. “Is here. Sickness. There.” Shrub whipped his head to face a daub-and-wattle hovel, the picture of squalor.

    “I suppose they don’t even bother to cross out the doors in these slums.” Sanshoo gestured for the Kathleen and Shrub to follow his lead. They slowly crept to the pitted door, and a small nudge from Sanshoo sent it creaking open. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but Kathleen saw no signs of movement in the one-room hovel. As she grew accustomed to the dim light she stepped inside. The only furniture within was a table constructed of a broken barrel, with a misshapen candle melted overtop, only recently guttered out. She almost didn’t spot the corpse face-down in the mud.

    “Here is metal-man. Broken now,” Shrub hissed as he lifted a rust-spotted arm from the mud floor. Half-buried in the muck lay the remains of another plague-infected Glitch.

    “Dead. Dammit. We’re too late,” Sanshoo scowled.

    “Can’t we find out anything from the, er, corpse?” Kathleen questioned. “It hasn’t been dead long. Look, the candle wax hasn’t dried yet.” She pointed out the still-warm puddle of wax on the table.

    “You’re the doctor. You want to perform an autopsy, be my guest.”

    “I’m not that kind of doctor, but then again, this is a robot.. Just let me, ah,” She struggled to twist the Glitch around, “Just let me take a look. I should probably be a little more disgusted by handling a dead body, huh? It being made of metal helps, I guess.” With a final heave, she managed to maneuver the corpse into a face-up position. “Urgh.” Kathleen removed her hands from the body; they were coated in rough flakes of rust. “This Glitch only died hours ago, judging by the candle. It shouldn’t be rusting like this, should it?” Indeed, after the rigors of being jostled about by Kathleen, large portions of the Glitch’s exterior plating were sloughing off in russet-coloured mounds.

    “No… Now that you mention it, the other plague victim, the one at the procession- He was rusting so much he practically fell apart. You might be onto something, Doctor Jones.” Sanshoo reached over the Glitch and gently tugged on the cranial dome. With a wrenching clatter, the braincase flaked off. The interior of the Glitch’s head was a mess of unrecognizable rusted scrap. “Shit. They’re rusting so fast that their memory drives corrupt before anybody can get to them.”

    “This was intentional! The virus must cause a chemical buildup of a caustic rusting agent in Glitch.”

    “Is acid that Shrub has scent of! Shrub tracked rust-acid,” realized the Floran.

    Kathleen had a thought: “But why would the duke, assuming he designed the virus, want to kill off his own citizens?”

    “Classic politician. Get rid of the poor and crippled and keep a spotless political record. No room for compassion in government. Only efficiency. Doesn’t matter if it’s some backwards Glitch moon or a galactic government- it’s all the same.”

    “That… sounds personal. Not that I blame you, of course. EarthGov left me for dead two hundred years ago.” Sanshoo didn’t respond.

    “Now what are you doing in here? You’d best be on your way. The shadow’s about here.” A sudden mechanical voice startled all three of them. Shrub twisted about fast as lightning, coiled and ready to pounce. Shanshoo and Kathleen both turned towards the door at once. Beyond the hovel’s doorframe stood a hunched Glitch crone wrapped in a dingy shawl. She leaned heavily on a gnarled old walking stick.

    “Shrub, relax. She’s not a threat,” Sanshoo commanded. Shrub hissed and bared his needle teeth at the woman, but refrained from attacking.

    “Aye, I’m nary a threat, but you’re standing about in the dwelling of old Jeffertin E’Malley, and he’s been down with the shadow for a fortnight, ‘tleast. If you don’t want to catch yer death, make haste and flee!” Sanshoo attempted to regain his composure. “Yes, woman. We’re, er, investigating the… shadows?”

    “Have you got a wish for death!? The shadow’ll claim whoever crosses its wicked path! Come with me, an’ I’ll offer you a safer place to stay, if you insist on it.” Beyond the crone, Kathleen could spot the sun nearly beginning its dip below the horizon.

    “That’s, ah, very kind of you. Come on friends, let’s get out of here,” Sanshoo muttered through a false smile.

    “Old Jeffertin was a good man. Always shared the harvest. Wonder where’s he’s gone off to now.” the crone reminisced. Kathleen hastily rubbed her hands clean on her dress, attempting to wipe off any evidence that she’d been rooting around in the corpse of “Old Jeffertin.” The hunched old Glitch woman ushered them out of the room. Kathleen left last, trying her best to conceal the remains of the dead Glitch. “Come now, I’m just up the lane a bit. Why, I’ve nary told you my name! They call me Magda. You, then?” Magda asked expectantly as she led them down the squalid path.


    “Is Shrub.”

    “Er, Kathleen.”

    “My, and what sort of names’re those? Foreigners, are you?”

    “You could say that,” Kathleen deadpanned.

    “Aye, here we are. ‘Tis mighty fortunate we’ve got room for a few more. Not many about here do.” Magda stopped at a shabby thatch-roofed house that was leaning dangerously towards one side. Nonetheless, wisps of smoke wandered out of the clay chimney and it was in better repair than most of the neighboring shacks. The old Glitch opened the door and invited the three inside. They stepped in a kitchen relatively free of damp. A small fire burned below a large, cast-iron cauldron, a stew bubbling within. Seated at a roughly-cut wooden table was an equally roughly-cut Glitch man. “Finnaeus? We’ve got company! Foreigners, too. Found them out by Jeffertin’s. ‘Investigating the shadows,’ they are! Can you believe it?”

    “Eh? The shadows? What thrice-damned foolery d’they are they up to?”

    “Ahem.” Sanshoo made his presence clear. “We thank you for the hospitality, but what exactly do you know about the virus? Er, the shadows, I mean.”

    “Nice save,” whispered Kathleen. Sanshoo elbowed her.

    “You’re foreigners, eh? The less y’know about the shadows, the better, I say!” the Finnaeus grumbled.

    “Don’t know why you’re so set on this ‘investigating’ business, but take a seat and we’ll tell you what we know, won’t we, Finny?” Finnaeus responded with an indecipherable grumble.

    The three sat around the table as Magda dished out servings of the stew to each of them. “Well, it all started back at the beginning of the harvest, when some of the field hands came back ranting and raving like devils, eyes crazed and skin mottling, falling right off the bone! Black magic, it is!”

    “Takes but a fortnight for a man to doff of into a pile of nothing,” interjected Finnaeus. Kathleen examined the stew that had been laid out. It resembled boiled cabbages and smelled like old coins. She pushed it away as politely as possible.

    “But then,” Magda continued, “it started spreading! Dreadful thing, all ‘round the edge of the city! Hit us poor working folks hardest. Aye, soon people took to calling it the shadow, for it hangs over you like a wicked shadow. An’ it’s evil- true evil, I tell you!” Magda had worked herself up just speaking of the plague. Her vocal processors simulated the sound of taking a breath. “Thankfully it seems the shadow’s passed us by. I doubt there’s nary another soul about these warrens without the shadow following them about.” As she spoke, her glowing optic display glitched, fizzing into coloured static for a brief moment. Sanshoo, Kathleen, and Shrub exchanged wide-eyed looks.

    She has the virus. Finnaeus probably does as well. How long until they begin to go mad and fall apart like the others? Treading carefully, Sanshoo continued to question the couple.

    “Is there a cure?”

    “A cure! I dinnae any cure worth its copper, I tell you that. Some sell their magic talismans to ward off black spirits, but I don’t trust those magic sorts.”

    “Alright… Do you have any idea where it might have come from? What the source could be?”

    “The… source…?” Both Magda’s and Finnaeus’ optics dilated wide. They stared straight at the three.

    “Accuse.exe::The False King brings tides of-”

    “Shadow as he taints the wretched throne, soiling our-”

    “Glorious nation::CRITICAL.” The Glitch’s voices began to fill with glitches and tonal errors as they spoke, completing each other's sentences. They sounded just like the plague-ridden Glitch at the procession.

    “BURN_THE_DUKE.” Just as quickly, they snapped out of the trance-like state.

    “Now, what was that you asked, dearie?”

    They don’t remember a thing. Sanshoo suddenly stood up, spilling the contents of his bowl.

    “Sorry to leave so soon, but my companions and I have urgent business to attend to,” Sanshoo bowed towards the couple. “Get up. We’re going,” he commanded to Kathleen and Shrub.

    “So soon? Well, best of luck to you.”

    “Aye, and don’t go searching for things you dinnae want the answer to.”

    “Thank you. And… good luck.” Sanshoo seemed genuinely emotional towards the couple.

    They’re doomed unless we find some sort of cure, if there even is such a thing. Sanshoo grabbed the two and practically dragged them outside, and didn’t let up on the pace, making brisk strides towards the castle in the centre of the city.

    “Nym? Bon! Galtbies! Come in, dammit!” Sanshoo yelled into his comm. There was no response. “Shit!”

    “What are we doing?” Kathleen breathlessly asked.

    “Didn’t you hear those poor bastards? This duke is the one causing all this, Nym and Bon aren’t responding to the comms… and I told them to follow him.”

    Chapter 6: Hobnobbin’ with the Elite

    “-don’t make me regret this,” Sanshoo muttered, webbed fingers rubbing his temples.

    “Aw, ‘course not!” Bon assured him. Nym led the way as they stepped through the crowd.

    Why would Cap ever doubt us? This is adventure the way it’s supposed to be done! The local metal folks seemed to give the two a wide berth as they followed the funeral carriage carrying the late king of this remote Glitch kingdom.

    “Robots with robot horses. Think it’s like riding buffalopes back home?” Nym wondered.

    “Only one way to find out…” Bon beamed mischievously, inspecting a stable of the mechanical steeds off to the left of the street. The two sauntered as casually as they could to where the “horses” were tethered. By virtue of travelling the stars together for years, they’d honed their system to a dull edge. Bon kept lookout, although it likely wasn’t necessary; all Glitch eyes were still on the procession. Nym smoothly untied the coarse ropes from two of the steeds. The horses didn’t react at all. Their glass optics were dull and inactive.

    “... Maybe you just get on them and they start up?” With the movements of experienced riders, the twins mounted the horses in unison.

    “‘G’yup!” Nym called his horse to a canter. No reaction. “Welp. Hmm…” He kicked the heels of his boots into the horse. The inactive robot’s sides let out a hollow clang. After a moment of searching, however, his heels found a slight indent. He pushed his boots in and the horse activated with a start. It immediately reared and bolted into the street, carrying Nym with it. “Not like ridin’ buffalopes! Not at all!” He could hear Bon’s guffaws behind him as she caught up.

    “Why’d-” Clunk! “You-” Clunk! “Give-” Clunk! “Me-” Clunk! “The rusted one?!” Clunk! Bon complained. While Nym’s steed was polished to a coppery sheen, Bon’s was coated in a layer of rust, and its mechanical innards seemed to jostle within the horse like a hoverbike on its last leg.

    “Aw, quit your bellyaching.” Nym brushed a stray beam of his corona from his face. “Least your’s isn’t such a bangtail,” he said as his steed bucked from under him. “Look down the street, Bon. It’s a straight shot to the castle from here.” Far in the distance, the royal castle loomed at the centre of the city. Its size made the structure appear deceptively close.

    “Yeah, and that Duke’s already there. This won’t be the first funeral we’ve crashed, huh?”

    “That one with the Florans doesn’t count, though. Wasn’t a funeral ‘til after we left.”

    “Right.” Nym and Bon rode down the street, the bleak greyness of the day growing only gloomier as the afternoon wore on. A sparse rain began to fall, fat droplets turning to steam as they fell against the duo’s gaseous composition. As the procession reached the castle, a switch seemed to flip in the populace of the city, the Glitch immediately returning to their daily lives. Like clockwork, the hiveminded robots didn’t even acknowledge the previous diversion from their repetitious schedule. The streets began to fill once more with the artificial hubbub of simulated life.

    It took slightly longer to pick through the crowd, but at last they arrived at the great iron portcullis to the castle’s curtain wall. More heavily-armed guards stood watch at the entrance. The most decorated of the guards rode up to the twins atop his own mechanical mount.

    “Commanding. And just what do you think you’re doing?”

    “Uh, we’re here-” Nym started.

    “The court won’t be taking any frivolous complaints from peasants today. Got quite a few visiting royals and dignitaries here for the coronation. Very important business, not for the likes of you.” If Glitch had noses, this one would be looking down his at the twins.

    “Yeah, we’re here for that!” Bon piped in. The guard scoffed.

    “Aloof. You’re royals? Ha! And I’m the bloody Queen of Lithilund!” Nym shuffled about his pockets for a moment before presenting the two neatly-wrapped scrolls their purple-cloaked employer had given them. “What’re these? Give them here…” The guard ripped open the ribbon binding the scrolls and his optics skimmed the contents before widening in surprise and looking back to Bon. Aghast with embarrassment, he nearly fell from his horse “Shocked. Oh! Gods! You’re- You are the Queen of Lithilund?! Oh, excuse my incompetence, please. Don’t- don’t tell the captain!” Bon turned up her chin and feigned disgust. The guard turned to Nym. “And her military general alongside her! I am ashamed, sire, at my actions! I- I’m a disgrace! I assure, the men here are top-notch! This isn’t normal behavior!” The guard fumbled over his words in his race to keep his job.

    Without missing a beat, Nym stepped into character with bravado. “Pah! As if such a mistake would be made in Glorious Lithilund! Your puny back-water kingdom is a disgrace! Now, let Her Majesty in at once, or your captain will be hearing all about this little… incident.”

    “Y-Yes, of course, sire!” The guard called out to the gatehouse “Open the gate at once!” As the portcullis ground upwards, Nym led Bon at a trot into the courtyard. She huffed and threw back her head as she passed the guard, enjoying her queenly role. Servants silently attended to their horse-machines as they dismounted past the grand portcullis.

    “How’d the purple-cloaked fella nab those scrolls?” Bon whispered to Nym as they paraded into the courtyard.

    “Not a clue,” Nym shrugged. He whistled, or at least the Novakid approximation of a whistle, as he took in their posh surroundings. “What a fandango!” The gathering seemed to have more celebration to it than funeral. Gaudy silver, black, and red drapes of rich silks were hung amongst tapestries fit for a museum. Long, solid wood tables were decked in a bizarre assortment of Glitch delicacies. Copper gears and small batteries were served alongside a massive crown roast and various fowl piled with alien vegetables. Servants in simple frocks served glasses of a clear liquid that smelled suspiciously like battery acid from massive glass bottles. “Best stay close… don’t want any a’ these mudsills to catch our scent,” Nym murmured, but as he turned to face her he saw that she had already flounced away towards one end of the large courtyard, a gangly glowing star in an ill-fitting dress standing half a meter above the rest of the attending royalty. “Hold on! Wait a pico!” He took one loping step towards his twin before stumbling into a plushly-dressed Glitch and nearly falling over. “‘Scuse me, uh, sire.”

    “Nonchalant. Oh, never mind that. I’m no knight; merely a simple bard am I! With braggadocio. Percivale Theremin, head musician for His Royal Majesty, at your service. The Glitch bowed low. His tones were exaggerated, especially for a Glitch. He was plated with a polished gold metal and his eyes gleamed purple; they matched his extravagant purple hat, plush with a long red feather jutting at a jaunty angle. Nym’s twelve fingers twitched involuntarily as he thought of taking the hat.

    “Say, Mister Theremin, you must know all about the highbrows here, huh?

    “I take pride in my repertoire of knowledge on the royal families, if that is what you intend to ask.” His eyelights blinked inquisitively at the Novakid. Nym leaned in and lowered his voice.

    “That dead King-”

    “Longing. Gods bless him,” Theremin interrupted.

    “Right, him. There wouldn’t have been any curly wolves, that is to say, nasty folks, out here who might want to…” He leaned in even further towards the Glitch’s audio receptors. ‘Do him in?”

    “Utterly shocked. Say no more! Treasonous words are as good as a death sentence in the wrong ears, my lord. The good king had a long a prosperous reign; very few could object to his rule. The worthless peasants, of course, had their foolish uprisings now and again, but they were always quashed with vigor. Ponderously. I see none here that would have reason to… ahem, yes.”

    “Well, let’s keep this under wraps, Mister Theremin,”

    “Good day, my lord.” With Theremin’s farewell, Nym set out to continue searching, but a polished golden hand pulled him back to back with the musician once more. “The Duke. Jaspar. The king’s brother was always jealous of his rule.” Theremin let go, and in barely more than a whisper, uttered a chilling, “Best of luck to you, sir…” Nym look back, but the bard had already made a swift retreat. A glance around the courtyard revealed Bon inspecting a group of nobles across the garden, trying her hardest to be subtle (and failing). Nym briskly strode to her to share his new revelations.

    “Bon! Sis! I’ve got a clue,” Nym whisper-shouted.

    “First time for everything, I ‘spose.” Bon laughed at her own joke. Nym ignored her.

    “Just talked to a music-man called Theremin. Said that the only who’d want to off the king’d be his brother- the duke!”

    “... Isn’t that who we were tracking already?”

    “Well, yeah, but-” Their conversation was drowned out by a burst of fanfare followed by a complex musical theme. Nym could spot Theremin conducting a small group of players next to a raised platform on one side of the courtyard. As the impressive music swelled, several figures emerged from the innermost doors to the keep and slowly strode onto the platform. Among them were the two seen atop the funeral carriage in the procession: the widow-queen and Duke Jaspar, flanked by several heavily-armoured guards. The music came to a sudden halt as Jaspar approached the front of the stage. Nym and Bon dug through the crowd to get a better vantage point. The duke was dressed in understated but obviously expensive red and black finery. His metal casing shone with a steely glint, and his red optics had a haughty glare about them.

    “Lamenting. It is with a heavy heart that I stand here on this day. My brother has perished. My… beloved brother.” The duke spoke with a soft, even voice, never rising in excitement. Despite its quietness, it was heard throughout the courtyard. “Reminiscing. With a passionate spirit did he rule, but now that flame has died. I ask that you not mourn, but rejoice. An era of peace has ended for our kingdom, but now a legacy begins anew. A new era, one of greater happiness and prosperity than has ever been known, begins today. Under my rule. Join me in my quest to further the kingdom, and I know that you shall all be remembered in the annals of history as great men.”

    A chorus of “hear, hear’s” sounded amongst the crowd. Jaspar nodded and strode off the stage, gliding out to mingle with the royals, a disinterested gaze permanently frozen on his eyescreen.

    “Let’s follow, see if we can’t talk to the big bug himself,” Bon said. With a nod from Nym, the two began ambling towards where the duke seemed to be having an intensely uninteresting conversation with stout, overdressed Glitch in a ridiculous collar.

    “Enraged. And let me tell you, the tariffs in Westbolton are reprehensible! The potter’s guild was without glaze for weeks! Weeks, I tell you!” The stout Glitch rambled.

    “Oh, yes, weeks. Reprehensible.” Jaspar seemed to be looking for any way out of the conversation.

    “Long-winded. And don’t even get me started on the state of affairs in the currentcorn industry! A travesty! Why, I-”

    “Ahem, excuse me, I must see to the others, yes-” Jaspar noticed the twin Novakid attempting to eavesdrop on the conversation and being eyed by a particularly-bulky member of the royal guard. “You two. Yes, you. Come over. I’m not entirely sure I recognize you.” He gingerly stepped away from the still-rambling, stout Glitch.

    “Queen Bonnibelle Galtethby, of Lithilund. And my senior advisor, good Sir Nymbushire.” Bon replied with a snappy farce that made Nym question if she hadn’t thought of these names beforehand. She leaned in towards Nym and whispered, “You just have to know how to speak their language. Leave the talkin’ to me.”

    Nym and Bon hung chained to the dungeon wall.

    “... Well, shit. That didn’t work at all.”

    Oh, just leave the talking to me, Sir Nymbushire. Bang-up job, there, sis,” Nym deadpanned.

    “Oh, shut up and help me look for a way out.” They were imprisoned in a small round room below the castle. A barred window high above them let in a meagre amount of light. The chains binding their arms to the walls were designed for the prisoners to hang by their arms, but Nym and Bon were tall enough so that they could stand with their arms raised, their boots soaking in a few centimeters of tepid water. The dank room was grimy and the smooth brickwork was being overtaken by various varieties of mould. There was little light, but the twins’ natural glows cast cyan and yellow ripples on the rusted remains of the room’s previous occupants, still hanging limply from their chains. Nym briefly struggled against his chains before falling back into an uncomfortable slump. The chains were flaking with rust, but still strong enough to remain firmly connected to the slightly-slick walls.

    “We’re the only ones who know the duke’s the one behind all this, and he’s got us locked up. Cap, Shrub, and Kath are still out in the city. We’ve got to warn them! Did you hold on to your comm?”

    “Naw. Took it with the rest of my gear. Called it a ‘tool for witches and heathens,’ or somethin’ like that.”

    “Maybe I can slip out if I just…” Nym put his long legs to use, flipping upside down and attempting to finagle his wrists from the iron cuffs. He only succeeded in becoming tangled in a mess of limbs and chains, an even more uncomfortable-looking position than before. “Urgh. Just let me-”

    Nym’s squirming briefly ceased as the banded door to the cell creaked open. A solitary Glitch entered, hunchbacked and carrying a heavy crossbow. A crowded ring of keys hung from a rope belt. “All right, what ‘ave we ‘ere? He stepped up close enough to Bon’s brand that she could see the pixels of his eyescreen. “A witch,” He turned to Nym, who was still awkwardly hanging in a knot. “And a warlock, both infiltrating the royal coronation, eh?” He flexed his fingers, metal joints popping and clicking. “This ‘ere’ll be fun.”

    “Stand back! I’ll, um, magic you! Yep, I’ve got witchy powers and I ain’t afraid to use ‘em!” Bon stammered, stalling for time. As the hunchback glared suspiciously at Bon, Nym began struggling to free his feet from their tangle in the chain.

    “Ha! Right. Yer ‘ands are bound, witch! Can’t cast yer spells at me!” He stated smugly. A look of uncertainty flashed in his optics. “... Right?”

    “Oh, um, ‘course I can! Didn’t you hear what got us in the hoosegow in the first place? Turned half the royal court into newts, just by lookin’ at them!” Bon bluffed. The hunchback, unsure of whether to be more confused by what a newt or a hoosegow was, chose not to take any chances. He raised his crossbow and aimed straight for Bon, backing away slightly.

    “You’d better not try anything, witch! I-I’ll loose a bolt before you can cast yer spells!” At this exact moment, Nym’s struggles finally succeeded in freeing his leg, which slipped out of his pointed cowboy boot. The boot sailed through the air, knocking the hunchback into the ground and sending an errant crossbow bolt towards Bon, who ducked her head and narrowly avoided the quarrel. The bolt instead lodged directly into the chain’s base set into the stone wall, freeing the chain from its binding, and Bon’s arm along with it.

    Nym stared flabbergasted at the unconscious hunchback, Bon’s freed arm, and his own boot sitting in the shallow pool of water on the floor of the cell.

    “That… was exactly what I expected to happen! ‘Course! All, uh, part of the plan!” He chuckled weakly.

    “Whatever just happened, I’ll take it!” Bon gave a sigh of relief. She strained her free hand towards the hunchback, still out cold, and just barely managed to retrieve the ring of keys from his belt. “Aha! Got ‘em!” She began cycling through the keys, searching for the set that would set them free.

    “Might want to hurry it, sis. I imagine they ain’t gonna be too pleased when they see this situation. Better burn a husk out of here before they catch wind.”

    “I’m hurrying! Just a pico- got it!” Bon triumphantly raised her now-free arms, clutching the proper key. She rushed to Nym and unlocked his shackles, sending him falling to the damp floor with a thud.

    “Oof. Let’s go find our gear, call Cap and the others, and nab this duke once and for all!” The twins went galloping down the dungeon hall, Nym still pulling his waterlogged boot back on, completely unaware of the purple-cloaked figure watching them from the shadows.

    Chapter 7: Malware

    “Something tells me they went this way.” Kathleen, Shrub, and Sanshoo slowed their sprint to a jog as they approached the castle walls. A wisp of smoke plumed from beyond the walls, and distant screams of Glitch bystanders carried from within the castle.

    “You can always count on the Galtbies to leave a trail of goddamned anarchy wherever they go,” Sanshoo spat.

    “Cover is blown,” Shrub added. “Time to fight?”

    “We have to find the king- duke- whatever Jaspar is! He’ll have Nym and Bon- or they’ll have him. I’m not discounting that probability just yet,” Sanshoo said to noone as he strode towards the portcullis. Chaos flowed from the entry as Glitch poured out. Nobles and servants alike fled by foot, carriage and mechanical horse-back. In the midst of the cacophony, Sanshoo had no trouble leading Kathleen and Shrub through the gates. The guards that weren’t fleeing themselves were too preoccupied with the panicked nobility to notice three commoners quietly sneaking the opposite direction.

    The three ran unimpeded into the courtyard, where the remains of a celebration were apparent. Banquet tables had been flipped and pocked with plasma bolts, tapestries hung in ribbons, and half-collapsed stage quietly smoldered. A series of abandoned instruments lay on the grass next to the stage. On the far side of the courtyard, the massive doors to the inner castle hung ajar, the occasionally straggling Glitch still fleeing outwards.

    “What happened?”

    “Nym and Bon.”

    “Hm.” As the three stopped at the threshold of the castle, Shrub skidded to a stop and tilted his head up. He hissed in excitement.

    “Sanshoo! Kathleen! Shrub has twin-scent! Follow!” Without waiting for a response, Shrub began charging down the maze of gloomy stone corridors, Kathleen and Sanshoo barely keeping pace behind him.

    This is insane. I’m storming a castle.

    “You know, I thought I had discounted the ‘I’ve lost my mind’ theory a while ago, but I’m starting to reconsider it,” Kathleen remarked.

    The interior of the castle was windowless and dim, lit only by torches and candles. The endless stone walls were decorated with tapestries and large paintings depicting hundreds of years of stuffy kings and nobles. Shrub suddenly stopped at a doorway and listened for a moment. Kathleen strained her ears but couldn’t detect anything through the thick wooden doors. Shrub seemed to detect something after only a moment and cried, “Is here!” Sanshoo kicked the door wide open and all three stormed in, guns at the ready.

    “Howdy, Cap! We captured Duke Dragon-whatsit!” cheerfully greeted Nym.

    “We’re heroes!” added Bon. She was occupied holding a pistol to Duke Jaspar, who was bound with a tasselled rope borrowed from a bed curtain. Nym had his pistol drawn towards the dozen royal guards surrounding them. They stood on a massive table in the center of a gratuitously large war room, while the guards held pikes and spears in a ring preventing their escape. There were four exits. Sanshoo, Kathleen, and Shrub had come in the small, side entrance. From the three others, more guards spilled in by the second. The guards nearest to Sanshoo, Kathleen, and Shrub turned and began to engage before Nym yelled, “Stop that! That is, unless you want to feel a taste of our magic. Ain’t that right, sis?”

    “Sure is, Nym!”

    “You told them you’ve got bloody magic! Galtbies!” But exactly as Nym had commanded, the guards ceased their attack.

    “Beseeching. Witches, do not harm our king! We beg of you! Your plague has taken one king. Must you take another?” one knight pled.

    “Silence!” the Duke shouted. This was the first time they’d heard him raise his voice. It echoed throughout the room and the clamouring between the knights and Novakid immediately stopped. “Demanding. Guards! You indolent buffoons will have us all killed on this day. Leave the room.”

    “Reluctant. Yes, your majesty.” The guards slowly backed out of the room and shut the doors. The tell-tale clank of armor revealed they were still in wait, just outside the room. Duke Jaspar addressed his captors. “You two. Witches.” Despite the grime and bondage, he still carried a regal air. “How did you come to capture me. What dark magics must you have wrought to storm my castle?”

    “Oh, we told the guard that I was Queen of Lithilund. Might want to give him the boot after all this,” Bon replied.

    “Now. What are your demands? Gold? I can provide a hefty ransom for your departure from my kingdom.”

    Your kingdom! You offed your own brother, you deadbeat!” Nym exclaimed.

    “Enraged. What?! How dare you accuse me of murder! I loved my brother like, like- like a brother!” The duke’s composure broke as his head turned wistfully towards the floor. “He was always the better son. The better king. I had my moments of jealousy, but he was the best ruler this kingdom has had in a thousand years and the kingdom’s well-being is always foremost in my mind.”

    “The kingdom’s well-being,” Kathleen accused. “That’s your rationale behind all this? When did you become unshackled from the Glitch hivemind? When did you realize that you saw that there was so much more to understand than your brother could ever conceive? You couldn’t stand the poverty, the destitute peasants soiling your perfect kingdom. And your brother, the king, wasn’t able to see the solutions you could.”

    “So you designed a virus.” Sanshoo stepped up to Jaspar. “What seemed like black magic to others you understood was just code and technology. Technology that you could influence to solve all of your problems at once. Kill off all your poverty and take your brother’s throne, all in one fell swoop. Quick and easy.”

    “Disparaging. You idiots! Do you not know a thing about the mathematics of ruling a kingdom? A kingdom needs peasants to provide labour! Their various riots and general appearance are revolting, but completely necessary. This plague of shadows has worked against my interests!”

    “You didn’t answer my question, Your Majesty. When did you become unshackled?

    “I-I don’t… know. Confused- Your words are...”

    “That’s quite enough.” The familiar voice commanded from behind them. Shrub jumped up and bared his fangs in surprise. He was not used to being snuck up on. The purple-robed Glitch glided through the door and came to face Jaspar. “The villain has said all he can say. I will have him confess his sins to the public now that you have captured him. You’ve done my kingdom a great service, heroes.”

    “Glad you’re happy with our work. The sixty thousand?” Sanshoo interrupted.

    “Already wired to your account. You may wish to take the back exit. The guards still believe that you are ‘witches,’ the unenlightened fools.” He leaned down to examine Jaspar, who was sluggishly shaking his head in confusion. Nym stared at the purple-robed, purple-eyed Glitch and cocked his head.

    “Just wait a pico…” Without a second thought, Nym reached out towards the Glitch’s cloak and pulled.

    “Wait, don’t-” The cloak unclasped and pooled at the Glitch’s feet, revealing his face.

    “I knew it! I knew I recognized that voice!” Nym leapt up in victory while everyone else gave him blank stares. “Theremin! You’re the music-man that told me that Jaspar’s no good, remember! Back at the party!”

    “Yes, I recall, you churl.” The golden-plated, purple-eyed musician stared at Nym with a look bordering on murderous.

    “This is who i told you about, Bon! And to think you were the purple-cloaked fella the whole time!”

    “The concealment of my identity was- is- a necessity. This is treason, after all. I have to keep up the ridiculous farce to conceal my involvement. It’s fortunate that only you have witnessed this. You’ve already fulfilled your purpose and will be leaving now, thankfully. For you.

    “Hate to break up your reunion with your old pal, Nym, but something’s wrong with the Duke,” Bon said. She gave the duke a vigorous shake to no response. His eyeplate was dark.

    “The ex-duke’s health is of no concern to you. You have your reward. Now. Leave.” Theremin was growing increasingly agitated. Kathleen knelt down to inspect Jaspar.

    “He’s not reacting to anything. Is it the virus?”

    “But metal-duke made virus, no?” Shrub questioned.

    “Can’t be…” Sanshoo thought.

    “LEAVE. YOU HAVE YOUR MONEY,” Theremin screamed.

    “It was you!” Kathleen realized. “You set up the entire thing!” Theremin turned towards the doors, but they had already been blocked by Bon and Shrub.

    “Now things are gettin’ interesting...” Nym laughed.

    “Listen, you repugnant fools. Everything I did was for the good of the kingdom. I’ve always been a patriot at heart. Now, how could someone as enlightened as I stand idly by and observe the monarchy making a mockery of this glorious land? The dirty, uneducated filth that pollutes our streets and villages? You wouldn’t understand. You don’t have anywhere to call a true home. I was obligated to take up arms. So I designed this plague to rid the kingdom of-”

    “You murdered the poor people and killed the king for the good of the kingdom. We just had this monologue ourselves,” Sanshoo intervened.

    “‘Cept you wanted to off the king’s brother, too, but why?”

    “With the brothers eliminated, the crown falls to Queen Ennexe, a woman, easily controlled-”

    “Excuse me?” Kathleen interjected.

    “And with I as her advisor, the kingdom would be mine to rule by proxy, to lead down the path of enlightenment.”

    “You’re a murderer and a psychopath, pal. Jaspar wasn’t even unshackled, was he?” Sanshoo said.

    “That still leaves the problem of who to blame the plague on,” Kathleen extrapolated “So you hire us, to do your dirty work and give you a scapegoat to blame the plague on. With the heretics found out, the investigations stop and there’s no pressure on you.”

    “Perhaps you’re not as dense as I thought.”

    “But…,” Kathleen’s mind wandered back to a question from their last meeting, “Why us specifically?” Theremin emitted an electronic sigh.

    “I needed a group of the most incompetent, idiotic, indolent brutes I could find,” he spat, “Ones who would never… who would never find out the greater plan…”

    “Hah! Welp, looks like you hired the wrong folks then,” Nym cheered.

    “On the contrary,” Theremin sneered. “Astonished. Help! Guards! The witches have murdered the new king!” He shouted. Almost at once, guards rushed from three of the war room’s doors.

    “Vengeful. It’s true! The new king is dead!” The leading knight exclaimed. “Don’t think we didn’t hear your entire conversation. Witches, all of you! The royal musician, too!”

    Theremin shoved past Bon and into the castle corridors.

    “Guards, attack!” The chase began, knights chasing the crew chasing Theremin through the castle. Nym took a couple of shots at their pursuers’ knees and feet, but there were far too many royal guards to stand and confront. Shrub led the crew, filled with a determination not to let Theremin escape. He followed the bard to the base of a wide, spiralling staircase. Kathleen was struck with a sudden sense of deja vu concerning the chase. She lifted her pistol and fired a short burst to down the Glitch, but only pocked the wall in front of her with dimly-glowing craters.

    “Damn it!”

    “Firth!” Sanshoo yelled into his communicator.

    “I trust the mission’s going as planned, Captain?” Firth’s voice crackled through their comms.

    “Get the teleport ready! We’ll be blinking out on my order!” They continued the chase up the stairs, round and round up a tower reaching far above the city. Kathleen could still hear the distant sounds of royal guards advancing towards the tower.

    Finally, Theremin reached the very apex of the tower and climbed up to the highest room through a round hatch. He hung his head out one last time and shouted, “You’ve ruined this kingdom, heroes. We’re all exiles now.” With that, the hatch slammed shut and a rumbling shook the entire tower. Bon and Nym, stumbling, leaned on one another for support. Shrub was knocked to his knees, and Kathleen struggled to stay upright as bits of masonry and stonework crumbled around them. With a roar of massive engines, the top of the tower lifted straight off, exposing the crew to open sky. The top of the tower had been converted into a ship of some sort by Theremin. Supported by glowing thrusters, it lifted off into the sky with a flash of light, disappearing from view.

    There was no time for contemplation. The horde of guards was fast approaching them. “Firth! Blink us up now!”

    “Yes, Capt-” The crew disintegrated into five beams of blue light arcing into the sky.

    Frigid, scalding heat compressed Kathleen into a speck, forced her feet into her head and out the other side, and she hit a wall of blackness with a resounding silence.

    “Oh god, my head. Urgh, nope. Never going to get used to that.” Kathleen struggled to get off her knees then gave up for the time being. They were back on the Sucker’s Luck.

    “Here, Doc. Don’t want you losing your insides again.” Nym offered a six-fingered hand. Kathleen gratefully accepted and leaned against Nym’s gaseous form for support as they made the walk to the bridge.

    “You look like you had fun,” Firth greeted the ragtag group. They were coated in grime, their Glitch clothes were in tatters, and they all looked as if they could sleep for cycle. “What were you doing on Thessa?”

    “Committing regicide,” Kathleen responded.

    “Being witches,” Nym burbled.

    “I borrowed this neat hat,” Bon chuckled.

    “We were scapegoat for some misguided nationalist,” Sanshoo said absentmindedly as he poured over a holoscreen. “Let’s get out of here. Galtbies, take us… somewhere.”

    “Aye, Cap.”

    “Theremin escaped. He had his own ship and everything.”

    “Yeah, but now the whole kingdom knows he’s a heretic. He can never go back. Besides, why would he?”

    “He said it was his home…”

    “Everyone loses a home, eventually. He’s no different from anyone else,” Sanshoo answered cynically.

    “I take it I won’t be replacing the diode array anytime soon?” Firth intruded. Shrub gave an uninformative grunt. All of a sudden, Sanshoo’s three eyes widened and a grin spread across his face.

    “No, he didn’t actually… He did!” He pointed excitedly at the holoscreen. “The sap actually transferred the sixty thousand bits!” He let out a hearty laugh. “I suppose the bastard’s kicking himself now! Congratulations, crew. We’re not out of a ship just yet.”

    Later that cycle, in the midst of a hyperspace jump, Kathleen worked her way past the cargo bay towards Sanshoo’s quarters. The teleportation sickness had faded away, especially after a shower and a change of clothes. The rest of the crew were celebrating in the commons, but she needed to talk to the captain. Hesitantly, she gave a rap on his door.

    It slid open and Sanshoo called, “Come in, Doctor Jones.” The captain was seated at his desk with a tumbler of whiskey typing something into a holopad. “Drink?” he offered.

    “Sure.” Sanshoo poured another glass. Kathleen accepted it and thought for a moment. “So, I’ve been on a few gigs, like you said…”

    “Hm? Oh, yeah, I do recall that conversation.” There was a moment of silence as they both took a drink.

    “And… am I staying aboard?”

    “Well, you’ve shown to consistently question and disobey orders and you’ve got no grasp on the workings of the galaxy. So you’ll fit in. Nym seems to have taken a liking to you, too.”

    “...Is that a-”

    “It’s not easy work. You’ll be paid as much as the rest of us, which is to say, next to nothing.”

    “Don’t oversell it, Cap.” Kathleen remarked.

    “No such thing as insurance, either.”

    “I’ll be in the common room, Captain.” She set down her glass and swaggered out of Sanshoo’s quarters.

    “Odd hours, work on holidays, no such thing as sick days…” The door slid shut.. “Cocksure human,” he muttered. Despite himself, he gave a begrudging smile.

    Vote for which idea you'd like pursued next here!

    For more stories in the world of Substellar Vagary and some behind-the-scenes discussion, take a look at my other thread Sucker's Luck Soliloquies!
    Please, give me all your comments and critiques on the work! Thanks for checking it out!

    Nym Galtby
    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    I'd love it if some other ambitious artists tried their hand at Substellar Vagary as well!
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2016
  2. I was initially drawn in by the title, whose eclat lexicon promised a story with the minimum of grammar and spelling. This has exceeded my expectations and I eagerly await new updates on the coherent adventures of Chell in this strange new world.

    That was a zinger of a first line, by the way. Excellent introduction.
  3. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    Chapter three is up! Shameless self promotion!
    Kaiachi likes this.
  4. Kaiachi

    Kaiachi Tiy's Beard

    Oh yeah, this is good. Looking forward to more! *Watches thread*
  5. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    Chapter 4 is now out! I've been considering the way I release these chapters, so I'd like some feedback on my plan from here. Very mild spoilers ahead. Chell's journey to New Phaeton with Nym will eventually culminate with them meeting up with Nym's friends and getting off of Phaeton on another ship with them, and all of what I've written so far could be considered part of this prologue/exposition arc. After this arc is complete, I'm thinking of releasing the group's adventures in an episodic form, with a self contained adventure in each arc, while still developing characters and working towards long-term goals. Does this sound like an okay method of continuing this story to anyone who follows this?
    Kaiachi likes this.
  6. Kaiachi

    Kaiachi Tiy's Beard

    Holy crap, I read through all of it again and the latest chapter, and it's nothing but brilliant! It's extremely well written, and flows like a stream. They each have so much character! I can't wait for more, oh gosh.
    The direction is perfect, really. I approve of the future goals, and wait with baited breath. A group of episodes sounds just fine by me. :D
  7. alibabaggypants

    alibabaggypants Scruffy Nerf-Herder

    This is great! I agree with one of the above posters that it was the title that drew me in, but the writing really holds ya, too! Episodes sound great to me as well!
    Kaiachi likes this.
  8. Captain Karo

    Captain Karo Cosmic Narwhal

    Wow, this is extremely well written! Great job! I can't wait to read more!
    Kaiachi likes this.
  9. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    Thanks a ton! Sorry I took a while to respond; I've been in South Africa for the past couple weeks. New stuff is definitely incoming! I've got to do some big edits and polish (as well as upload the last bits of) episode 1, and episode 2 is already in the works.
    Kaiachi and Captain Karo like this.
  10. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    Woo! Big changes and the release of chapter five! These keep getting longer, but I know the next chapter will be finishing up episode one. It's already pretty much drafted. Followers of the story will probably notice my largest edit, which is the replacement of our main heroine Chell. Poor Chell, but I wasn't really digging the whole crossover-thing and I'd rather write my own characters. So, introducing Dr. Kathleen Jones! Kathleen (or Lee, to her friends) has quite the mysterious backstory as well. Why was she alone on the desolate planet? Why has the universe changed so much to her? All will be revealed!
    Zebe and Kaiachi like this.
  11. Kaiachi

    Kaiachi Tiy's Beard

    HOLY CRAP THIS IS GREAT! I love the new chapter, I was absolutely hooked! I couldn't stop reading til it was over, and I want to read more! 200 years? Wow.
    And the way you described New Phaeton, it's great! I could see it all in my head, and it was glorious. You created a wonderful atmosphere. I want this to be a movie.
    Plus twin novakids, that's so cool. :D I was so excited to meet Bon, that's totally neat. :D

    The only thing I found strange was the frequent interchanging of Lee and Kathleen. It felt as though you were talking about two different people.
    But other than that, oh my gosh I loved it, I want to read more! :D
  12. The Squid

    The Squid Oxygen Tank

    This is a really good story! It's really well written. I feel like I already know the characters personally! I can't wait to read more.
    Kaiachi likes this.
  13. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    After a little bit of a hiatus due to travels, Substellar Vagary has finally been updated! Chapter 6: Asylum is now ready to be viewed publicly! With the addition of chapter six, Episode 1: Out of Time is now officially complete, and I'm on to the next adventure! (Note that when I say complete, I mean in a readable state. All my work is still an infinite draft, and I'll change things as I see fit.)

    I have a question for anyone who follows the story concerning the focus of my efforts next. Episode Two is already outlined, and drafting will begin promptly. However, I've been considering a bit of a spin-off project for a while now as well. I'd open another thread (right now under the working title Sucker's Luck Soliloquies) which will include short little stories, letters, audio logs, news reports, technical specs, and other tidbits of lore, world-building, and character development concerning the crew of the Sucker's Luck and the universe they live in. I imagine that it won't take much time on my part, mostly being tiny ideas that won't really fit into the main narrative, but is there any interest on the reader side? Tell me if you'd like to see that! Perhaps you have some completely different idea or suggestion for what I should write!

    I love writing this series and I'd like to thank everyone who takes time to read, comment, and critique my work. Now I'm really getting into the meat of the serial, and I'm highly excited for the things I have in store!
    Alkanthe and Kaiachi like this.
  14. Alkanthe

    Alkanthe Supernova

    I definitely would like to see your ideas that don't get said in the story necessarily! It'd be kinda like a behind-the-scenes look at things, definitely something I'd be interested in (maybe commenting on some of it, too).
  15. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    I think I'll set that up in the next couple of days, then. Glad to see there's a bit of interest. I actually forgot to mention a little teaser on my last update post: Episode Two will be titled Regicide.exe!
    Kaiachi likes this.
  16. Kaiachi

    Kaiachi Tiy's Beard

    Damnit I got shivers from that last chapter. It was an excellent read, I couldn't stop! :D Your story makes me want to live in that world you've created! Absolutely wonderful, I can't wait to see more!

    I do think a behind-the-scenes peek would be great too!
  17. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    Thanks, although I'm not sure I would want to live in the world I created. It can get pretty crappy there. I've decided to go ahead with Sucker's Luck Soliloquies (or whatever i end up calling it) and the first bits should be out maybe Sunday? Don't hold me to that.

    On another note, the art section has been updated with an awesome picture of everyone's favorite genetically-engineered, four-year-old mercenary Shrub! Shoutout to Miss Alkane for the art!
  18. Alkanthe

    Alkanthe Supernova

    Oh, and I just drew another of the characters...
  19. Tatterdemalion

    Tatterdemalion Phantasmal Quasar

    I just got your message, and Firth looks fantastic! Thanks for such a great set! I'll update the main page promptly.
  20. Warget

    Warget Giant Laser Beams

    I finally read the 6th story. And I have no regrets.
    I even want to put an easter egg inside my stories. :D

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