Out in deep space, far away from where Chevalier was now witnessing a full-blown cosmorc brawl – which definitely shouldn’t have been possible, given the chieftain’s wounds – Maerin Haldorf was standing at attention on the command deck of The Heartbreaker. Okay, so technically the ship was known as FC-3 (short for Fleet Command – 3), but she always thought of it as The Heartbreaker. FC-3 was a Kraken-class ship, one of the few deep space command centers operated by the Plagtos conglomerate, and it was so big from end to end that if Maerin had been forced to walk its length, the trip would have taken her days. Thankfully, there were lifts and belts that made the trip much faster. Unfortunately, the engineers hadn’t developed any technology to make the reasons for the trips any more pleasant.
Her commander, Rufus Bluetongue sat in his chair and looked at her over steepled hands. Maerin clenched her jaw and remained still, though she couldn’t stand the way that the froglin’s bulbous eyes swept up and down her body, lingering on her chest and hips.
“Ah, Haldorf. What do you have to say for your recent, guh, failure?” His voice was thick and more than a little wet-sounding. His triple chin and protruding stomach wobbled as he stood up and took a step towards her.
“A failure, boss? I’m not sure its entirely fair to call it that.”
“Oh? Do you deny that CC-17, a ship that you personally handled the routing for, guh, was attacked and destroyed in the deep space fairly close to sector five of the Aguelot Empire less than two weeks ago? Are you aware that the ship was carrying valuable cargo and since it was our responsibility to route it safely to its destination, we are now responsible for collecting sufficient additional, guh, income to pay back the loss?”
Maerin sucked in a breath and shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t deny any of that, but I must push back on calling it my failure. There had been no reports of piranha activity in any of the nearby sectors, and CC-17 had made a similar trip twice before without any issues. I followed the company’s protocol for creating safe voyages to the letter, and it’s not my fault if they failed to defend themselves when attacked.”
“Bah,” Rufus said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Excuses, excuses. It’s always the same with you logistics navigators. Nothing is ever, guh, your fault. You all should be ashamed of your incompetence. We’ve lost four ships in the past two months!”
“I was not involved with the voyages of the other three. CC-17 is the first cargo vessel I routed that fell to piranha attack. I remind you that I’ve solo routed almost seventy voyages, which means that my success rate is still the highest on this ship.”
“Be that as it may, you’re no longer perfect, are you? Beyond that, you failed to anticipate the threat to CC-17 and must be held accountable. How do you propose that you make amends?”
Maerin felt her cheeks redden with anger, but before she could answer there was a hiss at the door to the command deck. Maerin and Rufus both turned to look at the newcomer. It was the Singer, and Rufus mumbled something in his native tongue before dismissing Maerin with a curt gesture.
“We will discuss this more and finalize the details at some future point, Haldorf. It seems that I have other business to attend to at the moment.”
He turned to face the Singer and Maerin took her leave, grateful to be out from beneath the froglin’s scrutiny. As she walked across the thin steel bridge that led back to the lifts, she paused and bowed deeply to the Singer as they walked by.
Draped in a silver robe and wearing a thick starmarble mask that obscured all of their features, the Singer was a mystery given – human? – form. They were tall and willowy, and carried a twisted rod with holes like a flute carved into the side and a red gemstone affixed to the tip. Singers were responsible for helping navigate the deepest sectors of the Empty. Their ethereal songs allowed ships to safely travel through places where no mechanical or computerized navigational tools functioned, and their ritual magics warded off the aggressive, nightmarish monsters that called such places home.
The Singer stopped and turned toward Maerin. Though their mask was a smooth plane with no defining features, Maerin couldn’t help but feel that the Singer’s eyes were burning into her.
“Be at peace, child. Your heart is heavy, and it should not be.”
What a strange, melodious voice, Maerin thought as the door slid closed behind her. She’d never heard the Singer speak before, and wondered if she ever would again. It would be a shame if she didn’t, she decided.
The hallway that led to the lift was a long and narrow corridor of gray panels interspersed with soft lights. Near the end of the hall, a lone cube of blackened metal zipped and zoomed back and forth. It was a cleaning droid, tasked with collecting the random bits of detritus and debris that found their way up the lift shaft and disposing of them. The droidkin beeped and buzzed to itself and occasionally stopped to deploy the small broom and dustpan mounted just above its wheels.
Maerin saw no sign of any mess as she passed the droid and pressed the button for the lift, but she didn’t doubt that the little droid had cleaned something up.
She took the lift down to the main dwelling level of the ship and, ignoring the way her stomach had twisted itself into a knot during the rapid descent, decided to make her way to the nearest mess hall. The stress of being called to report to Captain Bluetongue directly had manifested itself as a ridiculous hunger, and before too long she was sitting at a table scarfing down a bowl of soup. It wasn’t the tastiest thing she’d ever had – the broth was bland and the vegetables were soggy – but it was hot and filling, and that was all she was really interested in just then.
She looked up to see Ballou heading towards her with a tray of his own. Like her, he was a human with brown hair, but he was tall and heavily muscled whereas she was short and skinny. Ballou had worked in the Heartbreaker’s cargo bay for just over six years, where he helped hoist heavy boxes and bags into ships that docked. He was a decent, honest guy and a good friend. And also…maybe something more than just a friend? Maerin had a rule where she tried not to think about it, and took a big bite of soup to help her do so as Ballou sat down across from her.
“So, I heard that you got called up to Bluetongue’s office,” Ballou said as he dug into his heaping plate of pasta. “Everything okay?”
Maerin shrugged. “I’m not sure. One of the ships I plotted a course for was destroyed for piranhas a few weeks ago. We tried to recover as much of the cargo as we could, but there wasn’t much left and scavengers snatched up a good bit of it too.”
“Yeah, piranhas. Pirates. It’s an old nickname for them. I don’t really know where it came from.”
“Huh,” Ballou said through a mouthful of food. “I’ve never heard that before, but some of the guys in the warehouse said there’ve been a lot of pirate attacks recently. One of my buddies over in the repair bay has said that he’s been having to do way more battle damage repairs than usual, too. But, I don’t get it. Where are all these pirates coming from, and why hasn’t the company made a deal with their king or whatever to get our ships safe passage?”
Maerin shrugged. “We don’t know who their king is, or if they even have one. These piranhas, sorry – pirates, aren’t like the ones Plagtos is used to dealing with. Most of the time, pirates just hang out near shipping lanes and harass slow carriers that pass them by. Our ships don’t really fit that description, and so most of the time they leave Plagtos vessels alone.”
“And these attacks are different than that?”
“Uh-huh. Almost all of them happened in deep space. Pirate activity is pretty uncommon out there; it’s hard to successfully equip and maintain a ship big enough to spend prolonged periods of time out in the Empty like that. Even when piranhas do pop up from time to time, there are usually plenty of signs we can detect that give us some warnings so we can avoid them. Big, stationary energy signatures, thermal images, things like that. These recent attacks don’t fit that mold, though. Reports from the vessels that have escaped say that the pirates just appear next to them. One second everything is fine, the next second you’ve got jumpers crawling all over your hull and trying to cut their way in.”
Ballou shook his head. “Sounds like a nightmare. How do you think they’re appearing out of nowhere like that?”
Maerin took another bite of soup. “No idea. None of us have ever heard of anything like it before. Even small ships are too big for most teleportation technology to work, so that can’t be it. I know some of the other logistics navigators have been combing the company’s logbook and guidelines for any hints, but no one has found anything.”
“Maybe it’s magic of some sort. I mean, the Singer can carry us through space, right?”
“But there are less than a hundred living Singers, and all but three of them work for Plagtos.”
“See? Maybe it’s those three!”
Maerin relaxed and smiled. She could see from Ballou’s expression that he was just winding her up.
“Yeah, I guess that could be it.”
With a burp, Ballou pushed his plate away and started cleaning his teeth with a small pick. He smiled back at her. “Well, I bet the captain is furious. Must have been a rough meeting.”
“It was,” Maerin said as she also finished her meal. “Bastard said that I’m going to be held responsible for recouping the ship’s losses. I’m not sure if that means the ship and its cargo or just the cargo itself, but either way, it’s way more than I’ll ever be able to afford.”
“I’ll say. Heck, you’d have to become a pirate yourself –and a damn successful one at that— to ever get enough money to do that.”
A droidkin ambled over to the table and took the dirty dishes away. Ballou and Maerin thanked it, and left the cafeteria side by side. As they walked, they left the topic of the pirates and Maerin’s debt behind and chatted about nonsensical things that didn’t matter. Maerin mostly just enjoyed hearing Ballou’s voice. With plenty of things left unspoken, the two parted ways at the workstation lifts, and Maerin headed back to the navigation center. She’d looked back as it was leaving the hub to see Ballou looking back at her, and so she spent the entire trip thinking about the things she didn’t like thinking about that instead of CC-17.
When she got back to her office, Maerin focused. Sh.e’d have plenty of time to figure out what to do about Ballou later, and she’d be damned if that froglin bastard Bluenose was going to make her pay for the lost ship out of her wages. Sitting down with maybe a touch more force than necessary, Maerin started rummaging around the stacks of papers in front of her, looking for her star charts. Maerin’s desk was cluttered, but not messy. She had a system, albeit not a particularly neat one, of keeping things organized, and so the search didn’t take her too long. She pulled the binder onto her lap and opened it up. She flipped through page after page of systems, smiling at the notes and calculations she’d scrawled in the margins over the seven years she’d worked for Plagtos.
“Sector three. Sector four. Ah, here it is. Sector five of the Aguelot Empire. Let’s do some looking.”
She typed the coordinates into her nav computer and watched the holographic projection flicker to life on her planning table. She slid her chair over to it and consulted her chart. Most of her colleagues preferred to only work with the computerized models, but Maerin always felt that the old paper copies offered the best field for analyzing space. She couldn’t explain why. The flattened lines of shipping lines and cosmic weather phenomena just felt right. The computer was better at calculating distances and disaster probabilities, but when it came to just looking nothing compared to the yellowed sheets of paper she had on her lap.
“Now lets see,” she said as she closed her eyes and visualized the expanse of the sector in her mind’s eye. “What could I have missed?”
Maybe it’s magic of some sort?
She mulled the possibility over. Honestly, she couldn’t really think of any other way that the piranhas could have appeared out of space the way they did, but she was going to figure it out. If she couldn’t come up with a solution the normal way, she’d consult the Plagtos company digital archives too. The task was exciting, and part of Maerin was looking forward to it. She was one of the best logistics navigators Plagtos had ever hired, and she wasn’t going to let any more of her routes be ruined by piranhas.
As she scanned her charts and consulted tables of historical and current data, Maerin imagined Captain Bluetongue’s face when she showed him the method the pirates were using to appear out of space. The information would be so valuable that he’d call off her debt, and then she could get back to solving the real problem she was interested in. It was one that she’d been fixated on for the past three years.
Finding a way to get the hell off The Heartbreaker. Forever.