Monad Episodes: RUGRATS
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
RUGRATS is a canon short story that showcases the difficult times preceding Monad: Mega Corps. Follow Samena Guster, a member of Urian society's lowest classes, as fate lures her towards unexpected solar horizons.
Partholonian living conditions had regressed considerably since the days of the Tarakas and Anthem dynasties. More accurately, there were a whole lot more people now: more people to house, more people to feed, and more people to police.
Samena had been caught in the middle of the housing crisis. She wasn’t alone. A majority of Partholon’s population fought some kind of life challenge attributable to housing.
She also shared her appearance with most people. Her clothes were simple. She had hair charred by flames and eyes of rich mahogany. Toughness derived from continuous hardship. Compassion defined by genes and character, overshadowing the repressive projections of circumstance.
As the city’s high-rise monstrosities competed for the planet’s diminishing amounts of sunlight, on behalf of their wealthy occupants, the poor were left to fend on their own, on the streets. Samena had managed to scrape along by collecting second-hand steam filters—ideally MF44’s and early G’s—selling them to low-level scrap handlers in The Bins. She would ask to sleep in their workshops or storage rooms; anywhere with basic hygiene facilities, some notion of heating in winter, and an absence of rats. Rats were vicious nowadays. Bit without provocation. Hungry bastards. Like most people.
The scrappers were generally decent folks. The bad ones never saw her more than once anyway. Some of them had taught her the arts of mechanical engineering and scrapmanship. Even though nobody could afford to bring her on as a salaried assistant, she hoped that her skills would one day help her shatter the glass ceiling. Living longer than into the ’40s was a wishful dream for any one of her social stature. But she wanted to challenge that. Move somewhere nice. Maybe a small island off Ur. Or somewhere uptown. Like Arbalest or Cathedral. Anywhere out of The Bins, really.
“Now, I don’t need to see you here until next month,” the scrapper said as he packed up his most recent filter construction. He had merged an array of MF44’s into a single-slot MF176. As good as new. Could easily be sold up-market to a gunship mechanic or the odd steamknight.
“Thank you,“ Samena replied and bowed out of the workshop. Businesswise, the morning had been lucrative, but she had to find more filters and more buyers unless she wanted to rough the night in the gutters.
She ambled around the corner and onto Waterloo Alley, a street ironically shortened “Loo Alley” among locals, making it more illustrative of its practical use.
“Samena!” a young boy called from further down the alley. “Hey!”
“Rudolph,” Samena replied and smiled. “You’re still around!”
“I’ve been up and down all districts this month,” he bragged. “But nothing like coming back to The Bin for a reliable cash-in every now and then.“
“The Constabulary was after you, wasn’t it?” Samena inferred.
Rudolph’s sly display turned to hopelessness. He shrugged and indicated that yes, well, that pretty much summed it up.
“Well, at least you’ve still got the news!” Samena grabbed a paper out of a pile folded over Rudolph’s arm.
“Yeah, did you see?” he asked. “They discovered another galaxy. Draco. Shaped like a dragon, apparently. I saw the stills. Can’t say that I see any likeness.”
“Draco, huh, that’s great!” Samena exclaimed. “More galaxies means more exploration rockets. More exploration rockets mean more shipbuilding. This will put a great spin on the scrap market!”
She turned the first page and had barely started to skim the headlines when a steamhaul blew its horn. Akin to an enormous beetle scuttling through a bark canyon, the haul dominated the full breadth of the street as it pushed towards them, scattering the obstacular crowds as if they were pigeons. It was composed of solid metal and rows of digital lights. Its hull was tank-like. It was dragging a detached carriage behind it. Painfully so, if the black steam emanating from its pipes was anything to go by. It honked again.
“That’s a rickety piece of junk,” Rudolph said, back pressed to the wall. “But it seems like even rickety pieces of junk are worth more than us.”
“It’s the order of nature. If we’re not at the bottom, they would have to find somebody else to put there,” Samena said. “But this rickety piece of junk is a potent treasure, I’ll tell you that much. It’s falling apart. I can practically see the nuts and bolts flying off the hull!”
Rudolph laughed. He knew what she had to do. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you around, Samena. But before you go, I want to give you something.”
He gave her a pendant. A cogwheel-shaped stone hung in a simple chain. “I had this made for you. I was hoping I would run into you one of these days. You’ve meant a lot to me, growing up, you know. And I think you’re more special than you think you are. So, thank you.”
“It’s… uhm, beautiful,” Samena said and smiled. It wasn’t very beautiful. “Thanks Rudolph. That means a lot. It looks like a rock. But, still, you know, very nice of you. A nice rock.”
“Well, perhaps it’s not a masterpiece…”
Samena smiled. She took the pendant, strung it around her neck, blew him a playful kiss and dove after the steamhaul. “I love it. I’ll see you around.”
“Don’t forget that you’re brilliant!” Rudolph yelled behind her as she departed.
No cobblestone was left unturned when the hellish machine climbed the light incline of Loo Alley. Stealing a functional filter was wrong, Samena was a strong proponent of that notion, but if she could in some way catch one as it fell off, she had all moral right and environmental obligation to take on custody. She grabbed a rear bumper and climbed aboard.
Samena immediately noticed that something was wrong when her fingers touched the rusted hull. The steam oven’s external temperature far exceeded the norm, an issue that could often be attributed to old filters. But this seemed much worse. She advanced in a climbing manner towards the front of the vehicle.
When she reached the side vents, she discovered the most likely culprit: a large nest of crows. The poor avians must have made the machine their home at some point earlier. Now, this home’s intertwined branches and debris prevented proper airflow from the engine. No time to spare; the nestlings and parents were panicking. Plus, if the nest was not removed, the engine could blow up. Her altruism leaned more upon saving the poor birds, but a rescue mission would have the additional beneficiary of the steamtank itself. All in all, an intervention was both necessary and urgent.
It took her some time to identify which branches to remove, but her multitool was able to cut through even the most entangled branches. As soon as she was about to lift the nest out of the way, along with the increasingly enthused birds, the steamhaul came to a halt.
“Take her!” a man yelled. Samena had been preoccupied with removing the nest and oblivious to entering the industrial district. Once they had reached King’s Parade, houses and crowds had breezed past in rapid succession. It had all gone much faster than she anticipated.
Two strong men rushed up to seize Samena by the arms. They made haste to drag her across the street and through a large warehouse door.
“Let me go, you goddamn apes!” she yelled to no avail.
When they finally released her, a mysterious gentleman, in both poise and attire, looked at her with stern eyes. “A scrap thief who dares challenge the Loremesters? Has your kind of lowly plebeians still not dared yourselves to extinction?”
Samena fumed with anger, brushing some figurative taint off her shoulders. “You should be thankful!” Samena said. “Your tank could’ve exploded if I hadn’t jumped on there to clear the airflow!”
“What on Earth is she talking about?” the mystery man inquired.
“Sir, she was carrying this bunch of branches and shit—,” one of the strongmen said.
“Phrasing,” the mystery man interrupted. He inspected the branches and chiseled his eyes on Samena. “A bird’s nest, yes?”
Samena was visibly upset and, in thanks to her sarcastic inclinations, countered with “That’s what I’m trying to tell you?”
“Let her go,” the man ordered. “We don’t need a reputation of indicting good, fellow citizens who are merely trying to help.”
“But—” the strongman started.
“Young lady, we apologize for any inconvenience caused. I am Wilden, Wilden Loremester, and I personally guarantee that you are to be brought home and given something for your trouble.”
As much as Samena wanted to rebut the rough handling she had just endured, she was taken by surprise by the man’s offer.
“And you,” Wilden said, pointing at the strongmen. “Can you escort the bird lady to the cab and make sure to replace the filter on the steam haul?”
“There’s no time, sir,” the man replied. “The mechanics are busy in the silo, and we have to load the cargo. We’re already running late.”
“I can do it,” Samena said.
Wilden looked at her, intrigued and as if scanning her expression for intentions.
“I know these things, I’m also a mechanic,” Samena added, knowing full well that she was not. “I can replace the filter.”
“Very well,” Wilden said. “Replace the filter and then talk to the coachman for your ride home. My men will give you some credits before you leave. As a token of our appreciation.”
Samena raised her eyebrows at the strongmen, “Well?”
Replacing a filter seemed like rocket science to anyone mechanically illiterate, an all-too-common trait these days, but was easy money even for someone of Samena’s humble filter expertise. She was not a mechanic but knew filters inside-out, and was able to do the required work in a matter of minutes. Afterward, she was immediately and relatively impolitely ushered to the street.
“Where do you wish to be taken?” the coachman asked. He was a set man with unkempt hair, a substantial mustache, overcoat, and slyly slanted line for a mouth.
“The Bins will do,” Samena replied. “Or on the edge. If you’re scared.”
The coachman didn’t reply and instead braced himself against the footboard, beating a stick on the side and whipping the horses for urgent departure.
They took off in loud commotion, horses' feet smattering against the cobblestone underneath, mud being slung into the air. Once they reached the first turn, Samena became suspicious. At first on a subconscious level but eventually with all senses in accord. The coachman had turned his head around, inspecting her from top to bottom with a wicked smile and pernicious intent. “Hey, pigeon,” he said. “Awfully dangerous place to bring you, innit?”
“I can see after myself,” Samena replied.
But she knew that a man like him could not be trusted in a place like this. She knew the kind of degenerates that earned their living in the industrial district, and he appeared to be a prime specimen. They lived for their daily bread, with no life vision or moral conviction to curb their unholy inclinations. She couldn’t stay.
With an impetuous twitch, Samena leaned out over the edge of the cab, just as a steam haul passed by in the opposite direction. Her hands grabbed onto a ladder on the exterior of the haul’s container, yanking her out of the seat, instantaneously reversing her vector of transit. Although the jump was difficult, it was as if the ladder sucked her in. She willed it to happen. After a moment of shock and recovery, she hauled herself over the edge into the open cargo bed.
Iron ore. It was filled halfway up with iron ore dust. Could have been worse. These trucks transported everything from corn to human excrement.
The perceived size of the cab shrunk as their distance increased. After a few moments, it stopped, the driver looking around in confusion and irritation. She kept her head down to prevent detection. One precarious situation always had to lead to another, didn’t it?
The sky suddenly transformed into a ceiling. And not just any ceiling - the ceiling she had previously left behind. They had ended up back at the Loremester warehouse. The hauler transitioned from maximally utilizing its bumpers on the gravel road to providing a smooth travel experience on the more rigid concrete floor in the warehouse.
A symmetric system of neon illumination stretched across the ceiling. One row lighting up after the other, calling on the truck to proceed, like an alluring siren song. She was torn between two simultaneous urgencies: avoiding detection and alleviating any further complications. There was a difference between being caught on somebody’s vehicle once and twice.
By all appearances, the steam haul was headed through a terminal door at the far end. There were enough people in the warehouse to prevent undetected escape, and their uniform green workwear spoke against any attempts to try to blend in.
The terminal door closed silently behind them, pushed together through the extension of enormous hydraulic cylinders on each side, extending and revealing their shimmering, chrome piston rods.
“Well, this is it,” Samena determined. “This is how I die.”
They descended for what felt like minutes before arriving at an enormous open space, deep underground. The warehouse was a mere vestibule to its hidden, fortresslike interiors.
Due to continuous vibrations, she was unable to obtain a complete overview of the hall. She could perceive the rough silhouette of a large structure at the center. Vaguely. It connected to the ceiling, and its shape reminisced a dahlia as seen from above; multiple vertical cylinders were attached to a larger one in the middle.
The haul stopped at a dumping station, a steel structure that accommodated transferring content from one container to another. When the cargo bed started to incline in preparation for dumping the iron dust to its coming home, Samena attempted to make her escape. It proved more difficult than anticipated, and when she grasped for the ledge of the container, the incline came to a halt, disrupting her balance and propelling her through a funnel along with the iron ore.
She landed inside a new container after a brief tumult. Covered in reddish dust, she stood up to catch a breath of air. With some effort, she managed to climb out and onto the floor.
Four walls encased her as if she had been buried alive. There was only one opening. A small one. A few centimeters around the circumference of the funnel that had transferred her inside. She pressed her face to peer through the gap. It was unclear what kind of operation was underway. Workers, once again in forest green workwear, were moving bags and boxes from the ground and towards her approximate location.
Suddenly, the funnel receded away from the room. The resource transfer was complete. By the look of things, the funnel would leave a glaring hole in the wall, large enough for a person of adult size to escape. Samena stood ready. As soon as the path was clear, she would climb out. Whatever would welcome her had to be better than this. But what had initially seemed like an excellent opportunity unfolded as an impossibility when a hatch closed the hole instantaneously. Not only did it eradicate the opening, propelled by some kind of spring, but it also isolated her from the outside world.
Looking around, she could deduct that there was no other way out. The maintenance door at the back of the room was locked. It was marked with a faint text reading “Global Industries”. One of the mega-corps. They produced everything under the heavens. Didn’t tell her much of value.
“Fuck!” she exclaimed and banged her clenched fist against the wall.
Religion would play a role right about now, she thought. That whole prayer thing. Suffer now and reap the rewards later when heaven comes. Unlike most other Urians, she had not grown up with any belief in a conventional god. At least not in any omnipotent, good one. Like Adon. Adon was worshipped by most of the people back in The Bins. The church had a lot of influence back home. The closer to Templecast people lived, the more fervent their worship would be. The way she saw it, the world’s most driving force was entropy, and there was no truer evil than entropy. Why submit to anything that in its natural state enacted chaos? The only god Samena believed in was Mammon. The harbinger of evil and hard cash. At least cash was reliable. It was a means of creating structure rather than breaking it up.
The room remained dark. Minutes passed. Perhaps an hour. It was impossible to keep exact track of time without any external reference.
The noise of machinery and the bustling workforce was dampened. It seemed that very little sound, and practically no light, was able to make its way into her metallic catacomb.
The silence was interrupted by a public announcement echoing throughout the great hall outside. “VACATE PREMISES, ” it said. “VACATE IN T-MINUS 5 MINUTES.”
The announcement repeated itself each minute until reaching mere seconds.
Her room started shaking.
An odeur of blaggerwack, moist and fumes spread in her room. It couldn’t be.
She recognized this bizarre concoction of ethers. Mechanics had told anecdotes of them; of the occasional infinity scrap that had ended up in their shops. Emanating volatile, post-industrial molecules. They were strange. Odors that confused one’s mind. Made you delirious.
And they would originate from only one thing.
“TEN SECONDS TO INFINITY ROCKET TAKE-OFF.”
Infinity Rockets. Spaceships. The big kind.
The vibrations increased in both velocity and intensity. When the final announcement sounded across the hall, it was overshadowed by an ocean of engine noise.
Her world turned to chaos. A flurry of gravity forces squeezed her to the ground when the rocket departed. She clenched a handle with all the power she could muster, but soon lost the little vision she had. Black turned to blacker.
When she regained consciousness, sometime later, they had reached stable transit. A headache had made a somewhat expected entry, but the body—legs, arms, head—they all seemed intact. She slammed the wall, shouting for attention. But nobody heard her, or at least they didn’t respond.
She elevated her pendant, the one that Rudolph had given her, dangling it in front of her eyes. In broad daylight, it had looked like a common stone that somebody had amateurishly carved into the rough outlines of a mechanical cog. But here, in the oppressive darkness of an intergalactic cargo bay, it felt more profound. She could even sense a slight, bluish glow. “Well, whatever you are, little cogwheel, I guess it’s just you and me now.”
She had enough food in her backpack to get by a few days if required. Canned tuna, some bread, and water. She had a habit of always carrying everything she owned. Such was the life of a scrap collecting drifter. Food essentials. Tools. Pocket knife. A change of clothes.
She used her multitool screwdriver to etch a vertical line on the wall. Day one.
These episodes of isolation were when the demons came out. The demon of loneliness. The demon of failure. The demon of regret. They were urgent and strong when the light was weak.
Then came the fifth day, when everything changed.
In the middle of gymnastics—one had to do something to stay fit—a monstrous explosion threw her off her feet. The fall and noise inflicted some degree of tinnitus. Then there was an impact. An alien object collided with the infinity rocket. It sounded heavy. Metallic. She used the type of sounds that succeeded the first to imagine how somebody was slicing the hull open. Blow torch. Connecting. Docking. Entering.
A tumult arose nearby. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly where, but it was as if a fight had erupted in a corridor outside of her cargo room. There was shooting. Machine guns rattling. Shouting. Vaguely. Distant.
Suddenly, a blast blew the hold’s wall open. Right in front of her. Light penetrated the previously so dominant darkness, illuminating the many dust and wall fragments that sailed towards the ground.
She sat up against the opposite wall. She monitored the opening and whatever was beyond the destruction in the blast’s wake. A silhouette appeared. Two circular eyes materialized. White. About a decimeter each in diameter. After a moment she saw a gas mask, noting its non-standard, foreign filter. A silver helmet with a mega-corp insignia. A red cape. It was Krow. A Krow soldier.
“Oh, hey,” Samena said.
The Krow didn’t reply. It raised its gun, pointing it at her. She didn’t have time to display fear, remorse, or alleviate the situation in any way. But her heart knew the dire consequences of what might come. The anonymous, masked face offered no empathy towards its victim. No mercy. And she didn’t ask for any.
Just as it was about to pull the trigger, another figure entered center stage, knocking it in the head with the back of a rifle. Her hero was more familiar: a hardy Loremester soldier in a trench coat. Lacking his helmet. The Krow fell to the ground and the trenchman dove after. “Criminal scum!” the trenchman yelled. He tore the helmet off the Krow, revealing a man not too unlike himself. They exchanged blows, bruising each other’s already war-torn faces. The sweat and blood formed unified rivers, staining both armors and clothes.
Samena got on her knees, crawling closer to the fight. They were too busy to take notice.
The outcome was uncertain until the Krow revealed a sharp blade from underneath his cape, which he raised in the air in preparation to launch a blow. Samena saw the utter terror in the eyes of her cultural kin and made a stride to kick the knife out of the Krow’s hand. But before she reached the fighting men, the knife was hurled towards the back of the trenchman. She shrieked and reached for the knife, albeit still some distance away. The knife, as if by some metaphysical force, was pulled out of the Krow’s hand, flying out of sight. Confused and furious, his eyes pierced her. He understood that she was responsible. Somehow. What just happened?
Samena grabbed the Krow arm, pinning it to the ground. The trenchman tacitly welcomed her help and utilized the momentum to punch his enemy unconscious.
His eyes then met hers. They were the undisputed focal points of his dark, chiseled face. Wide-open. Hyper-active from the heat of combat. He was breathing heavily. The battle raged on in the background, and although he was tired and battered, he grabbed the crude gun from the Krow’s shoulder strap and disappeared out of sight. No words were exchanged.
Samena didn’t know much about war, and so the battle’s aftermath encased her in a sense of surrealism. First came confusion and bodily detachment. Secondly came self-assessment. Third, came external discovery. And eventually a flurry of either crazed laughs or expressions of confusion. She walked into the hallway, finally free of her prison—but perhaps now a member of a more dangerous world. Wounded soldiers of both sides lay scattered, propped up against walls, or just flat on the ground.
“Halt!” a Loremester trenchman ordered. He pointed his gun right at her, and his squad mates were quick to follow suit. “My Lord, take a look at this, ” he said, addressing another member of the group.
“Well, out of the many things I would not expect to find on my ship,” the other man said. “You, bird lady, was one of the least likely.” Wilden Loremester stepped out of the shadows.
“Likewise”, Samena replied. “I also did not expect to be on your ship.”
“Should I off her?” the trenchman asked.
“As much as it pains me to say it,“ Wilden replied, “she is an illegal passenger and trespasser. By violating intergalactic law, she has herself chosen death.”
“Please don’t kill me,” Samena heeded. “It’s an accident. I’m not supposed to be here. I didn’t want to be here, but—”
“Silence,” Wilden interrupted. “Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
At that point, another trenchman, on the ground and unable to move, called on Wilden. “Lord!” he requested, triggering a bad cough. He was one of the fallen, bleeding, injured, unable to stand up. “Custos, you’re alive,” Wilden responded and hurried over to help. He leaned in, releasing the soldier from his trenchcoat and armor.
Custos, the fallen soldier, whispered in Wilden’s ear. Something incomprehensible to everyone but Wilden himself. Wilden listened with due attention and gravity. A few moments later, Custos heaved his final breath, his chest compressing, releasing all air, his eyes closing, and what little words remaining, fizzling.
Wilden stood up. “Gandh, Jackson, bring Custos to the infirmary. Engie, you make sure to secure the hull. The rest of you, search for more survivors. Rendezvous at the breach in five minutes.” He then turned his gaze to Samena. “Bird lady, you are coming with me.”
Samena cooperated, fully understanding the balance of negotiative authority. Wilden took her to an office-like chamber a minute’s walk away. He leaned his gun towards the side of the desk that stood in the middle of the room and sat down in its chair.
“What are we going to do with you?” he asked.
“As I said, this is a misunderstanding. I didn’t want to be here. It was an accident.”
“Yes, fine, breaking into a well-guarded underground launch silo, an intergalactic spaceship, and into its storage room sounds like an accident. Could have happened to anyone. We will discuss how easily accidents can happen later when we have more time.”
Samena considered protesting but was relieved by the development of things. To open the door for future conversation implied that there would be a future in which she was still alive.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said. He stood up and walked to a locker, the kind you would find in schools or the locker room at a gym. “We are a bit short-handed, me and the crew. We could use another mechanic in our venture. This does not mean that I trust you. It means that we are short-handed.”
"What's in it for me?"
"Well, bird lady. Let's first see if we make it to Draco, and if we decide to let you live once we do. After that, we can discuss accidents and compensation."
He opened the locker, revealing a coat rack adorned with green workwear. After estimating her height, through a quick scan from top to toe, he grabbed one of the outfits and tossed it at her. She caught it reflexively. “Put this on and report to Engie at the breach, the one with the welding torch,” he said. “You have around three minutes until we board the invading vessel.”
The workwear had a large fit for someone of Samena’s meager proportions. It was made for a short man, undeniably, but still for a man. Besides, the Gusters had never been known for their tolerance of conformity. Her father had been a drifter. Her grandfather had served in the Urian army in his youth but been discharged after violating orders. Apparently hadn’t fancied the attitude of his commander. Disobeyed out of spite. This resistance to authority was in her blood. But even so, Samena felt a certain excitement and optimism when putting on the workwear uniform. Her entire life had been characterized by a daily grind to earn the crumbs of society, never knowing if she would have enough food to get by. Sleeping in dangerous places. Working with dangerous people. This was new. The workwear symbolized an anonymous entity. A cog in the wheel. And all cogs had to be alive lest the machinery would stop. By subsequent logic, someone would finally care that she survived. Maybe she needed this. For now.
She returned to the location where they had dispersed earlier, spotting a crew member with a weld torch a bit further down the hallway. Engie. Welding things up. A trenchman was also there, loitering, watching over Engie. Not from a position of authority, but from a position of kinship.
“So, you’re one of us now?” the trenchman asked when I came walking.
“I guess so, your boss told me to come help somebody called ‘Engie’,” Samena replied.
“You hear that, Engie? You’ve got reinforcements.”
The welder stopped welding, flipped her welding cap, and looked at Samena. She was a hardy but tired woman, a few years older than Samena. Oil-stained hair and workwear. “Keep up and stay out of the way,” she said. “I have enough as it is without a rugrat scampering around my legs.”
“If doing nothing is what it takes, then nothing is what I will have to do,” Samena shrugged.
Wilden and the other soldiers gradually filled the hallway. The banter they would have exchanged under normal circumstances was muted. Their few spoken words were in mourning.
The Krow ship had been smoked out by a scatter bot, spreading poisonous fumes in every nook and cranny it could reach. Even so, the trenchmen were wary of lingering life. After an exhaustive search, only a handful of unconscious crewmen were found onboard, having succumbed to the toxic gases. After ejecting their bodies into the cosmos, the ship’s cargo was unloaded. Anything essential was brought over to the infinity rocket: food, weapons, clothes, and building materials. The Krow stench was enough to put anyone off a complete strip, but in intergalactic space, all resources were valuable.
“Do you know anything about RSK ships, rugrat?” Engie asked Samena. She was making final adjustments to the mobile vacuum lock. When the troops were back on the rocket, they would be able to seal it off and dislodge the attacking ship.
Samena shook her head.
“Then what do you know?”
“Not much that is useful. I know a lot about filters. A thing or two about mechanical engineering.”
“So, you’re a scrapper.”
“Not even. Scrappers are higher on the ladder than me. But what I do know is that you should be using a 6.5-millimeter flathead instead of that 6 you’re torturing the bolts with.”
“Oh, sod off,” Engie replied. She chuckled, revealing emotion for the first time since they were introduced. “I torture bolts my way, and you can torture your bolts your way.”
Samena smiled. “Why did they attack you?” she then asked.
Engie looked up. “That thing they came with. The Krow ship. That’s an Eldritch Class vessel. RSK standard commission. They have weapons, space for plenty of crew, and so on. They can outgun most other ships. They attack because they can. Because there’s something to gain. It’s the Krow way. This rocket has tons of resources that they want to get their hands on.”
“But why with so few men? Doesn’t seem like a good scavenge tactic to go after ships with so much military defense.”
“This, here, isn’t normal. Lord Loremester is personally on this rocket along with his retinue. They’re the real deal, but most rockets carry unarmed civilians. You know, enough to kick off a new business colony. There’s usually no need for weapons. They’re expensive and weigh tons. We were just lucky that they didn’t know we were waiting for them; they thought they could have all of this,”—she gestured exaltedly—” without anybody putting up a fight!”
“That must be awfully dangerous for other ships. Never knowing then someone might jump them.“
“Well, rugrat, that’s not usually an issue. Eldritch Class ships are not known for possessing such power that they can disable the engines of an infinity rocket. There just shouldn’t be a way for them to stop us. Well, except literally standing in our way. But that’s what our vector scanner is for. You know, keeping us clear of obstacles. So, as far as I’m concerned, how they managed to stop us, that’s still a mystery.”
“And could very well become a problem for other ships, including haulers, if we don’t find out what caused it,” Wilden added, having appeared out of nowhere. “I see that you are educating our new junior?”
“It’s not like I have a choice, do I?” Engie replied.
“Rightly so,” Wilden affirmed. “But conversation is not mandatory.”
There was a debrief that evening, announcing that travel would be resumed the following day. The crew had gathered with an immaculate sense of timing. Samena wasn’t used to clocks, or even particularly familiar, but the crew used them like a baker used flour: to infuse structure into absolutely everything.
Afterwards, Wilden brought her to his office, once more. He had said that they “need to synchronize.”
Wilden’s face was without emotion. Stern. Fatherly. He offered her to sit down in a folding chair. She turned it 90 degrees so as to not face Wilden directly.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Took you a while to ask.”
“Well, as you know we have been preoccupied with rather important things.”
“Good to meet you, Samena. I am, as you may remember, Wilden Loremester. My father founded Loremester Industries. This is my infinity rocket, Daybreak. It is also the start of my new venture in Draco. And then there is you. One of my men told me that you saved his life. That you are a friend. I decided to trust him.”
“He was right, I’m a friend. I have nothing but respect for you and your corporation. I—”
“It makes me glad that you feel that way,” Wilden interrupted. “Then perhaps you don’t mind sharing something of a more, hm, personal nature. Custos, may he rest in peace, claimed that when you assisted him, you made something happen. Something of an exceptional nature.”
“Yeah, I helped him pin that other guy down. Not sure if that’s exceptional. I’m pretty strong.”
“You also—as he phrased it—made a knife literally fly through the air, as if pulled by an invisible force?”
Samena was surprised. Is that something that had actually happened? The episodic memory still imprinted in her mind made the described event’s being or non-being ambiguous.
“I—I’m not sure,” she stuttered. “That sounds a bit, you know, unrealistic, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, quite unrealistic,” Wilden agreed.
“I mean, I remember something happening. Something like that. But it all happened so fast. I don’t know if maybe he dropped the knife.”
“Maybe he dropped the knife,” Wilden repeated.
“Can you do it again?”
“I mean, no, because it probably didn’t happen?”
Wilden opened a drawer in his desk. He revealed an elegant, hand-carved dagger, observed its shimmer momentarily, stroking his thumb across the blade to assess its sharpness.
“Give me your hand,” he said.
“Okay… but, you know, don’t cut me,” Samena answered and reluctantly extended her arm with the palm upwards. Wilden took a firm grip around the wrist. A creeping terror took root in her body. His strong hand was like a human shackle.
“Do you function well under… pressure?” he asked.
“Is that a threat?” Samena asked.
Wilden pressed the length of the blade across her palm. He forced it beyond mere touch and into the realm of puncture. Samena didn’t speak but stared at him intensely. Her arm was shaking from a fear of imminent pain. He pressed harder and harder. Finally, the skin burst and a drop of crimson blood manifested, initiating a solemn journey, leaving a trail to the edge of the hand. Wilden instantly removed the knife. His face exhibited exaltation and regret, both at once. When he loosened his grip around her wrist, Samena withdrew it, shielding her hand under the elbow. She met his eyes. The betrayal and shock were worse than the pain.
The air was tense.
Wilden broke the silence, “I suppose that he dropped the knife out of his hand.”
In spite of the cruel trial he had subjected her to, she didn’t feel hatred. But trust is fragile; whatever trust they had previously accumulated was tarnished.
“I suppose he did,” Samena replied. In reality, she wasn’t sure. She had restrained herself. She had felt a strange flow in her body that she didn’t allow passage to the surface.
“I apologize for… this. There have been stories. I need to look after my crew.” Wilden stood up and walked to a medicine cabinet at the corner of the room. “Here,” he said and extended a small tube with a medical cross. “Put some on your hand. It’s a small wound but the paste will help the healing.”
Samena accepted the paste. Her subconscious nearly forced a “thank you”, but she bit her tongue to repress it. He didn’t deserve it. Not this time.
“When are we returning to Earth?” she asked instead.
Wilden was quiet for a moment as if selecting his words very carefully. “We will return in a while. We need to achieve our mission and establish the new business first and foremost.”
“And how long will that take?”
Wilden ignored her question, “Paste yourself up,”—he nodded towards her hand—“I will see you at dinner assembly. Engie will show you where and when. Dismissed.”
Wilden had been right; the small knife wound did heal fast. Gone in an hour. Not even a scar.
When dinner came around, Samena had already forgotten to make further inquiries as to when they would be returning back to Earth. Engie had kept her busy.
The Daybreak continued its journey for another few weeks or a month. Samena helped Engie perform routine maintenance on the ship. She learned about all the particularities of an infinity rocket: its segments, operational requirements, what it carried, and a whole lot of cable management. The Daybreak was produced by Global Industries, one of the largest corps around. Global Industries had made a series of around 100 ships capable of intergalactic travel on special commission. Very few could afford one. Most commissions were funded by other mega-corps as investments for future ventures among the stars.
What made them unique were the engines. Designs based on the revolutionary Vavruch Engine. The technology essentially allowed a vessel to propel itself using metaphysical connectors, called monads. It was fueled by a rare mineral called black iron.
When they eventually reached Draco, four probes were dispatched to a number of solar systems that had exhibited energy signatures indicative of hospitable living conditions. The plan, she was told, was to establish a foothold on a Terran planet and create a self-sustainable operation.
The probes had elected a system with a single type K star as a prime candidate for colonization. More precisely, they had identified one Terran planet in a circular orbit and three others that had yet to be analyzed. Wilden had named it Loremester Prime. “A simple name. We need hard work, not prideful creativity,” he had said.
Windows were sparse on the Daybreak, but there was an array of circular ones on the bridge that connected the assembly with the living quarters. Samena and Engie were peering out across the blackness of space as they approached the planet. A pale halo illuminated its contour. It was a majestic sight, unlike anything Samena had ever seen. She held her hand around her necklace, the cogwheel, as a sense anchoring while trying to comprehend the absurdity of their position in space. It was very much like a normal stone now. For some reason unbeknownst to her, its shimmer had faded in the past day.
“You know, the Daybreak is really smart, “ Engie said. “She is built in a way that allows for disassembly. This bridge? It will be used to connect the headquarters with the underground power generator. I can’t imagine the brains it took to figure this puzzle out”
“That’s impressive,” Samena replied. It made her think. “But if we take all of this apart, you know, how do we get back home?”
Before Engie was able to answer, the alarm started sounding. A childish excitement came across her face, “It’s time. Let’s go strap ourselves up.”
“We’re landing. We have to go. Come.”
The bunk beds in the living quarters also functioned as landing seats for most of the crew. They had five-point restraint harnesses tucked away under the mattresses. The crew helped each other prepare for impact while Wilden maintained communication from the command deck.
“Engie,” Samena said. The Daybreak was shaking now. They had entered into the atmosphere. ”I mean we’re out here now for, you know, a while. We’ll start a base on this planet.”
“Right,” Engie replied.
“So when are we going back home?”
The vibrations were now so intense that talking became difficult. When they had reached their pinnacle, she started to feel heavier.
“Don’t be worried,” Engie replied through the noise. “This is all normal.”
When the shaking subsided and the thrusters regained momentum, she felt as if a bag of bricks landed on her chest, pressing inwards. And then, finally, they struck the ground of Loremester Prime I. Red sirens were flashing somewhere beyond their dust-ridden chamber. Wilden was no longer speaking. Instead, the announcement system broadcasted a ringing buzz. A flurry of cursing spread from across the living quarters. Even though many seemed to anticipate the impact and its effect on the body, some of the crew members vividly demonstrated their innate, primal fright.
As the dust settled, the room’s emotional character journeyed from anxiety to relief. From uncertainty to anticipation. Someone howled from joy. Someone laughed. Someone cried.
Samena breathed heavily. She felt so strange. More than anything, she felt concerned. Not about whether or not they would make it. She had been too confused to truly take in the critical nature of the Daybreak’s landing. No, she had been concerned about the answers that were never given to her. Although her body was largely pinned to the bed, she turned her head to face Engie across the room. “When are we going home again?” she asked.
“Oh, rugrat,” Engie finally replied. She returned Samena’s gaze. “Who told you that we’re going home? This is a one-way mission.”