“It’s useless!” Maerin cried as she threw a stack of papers into the air and collapsed into her chair. It had been the better part of a standard month since she’d started looking into the mysterious piranha attacks against Plagtos whale vessels. She’d checked travel manifests, Imperial news reports of piranha activity, and reached out to every information broker that she knew, even paying for their rumors and whispers out of her own meager salary.
She’d learned nothing. A few planets produced rumblings about a mysterious group offloading black market goods that seemed suspiciously like Plagtos property and buying supplies, but every time she’d tried to dig a bit deeper into the specifics the trail had faded into nothing.
It was frustrating beyond belief to have every effort turn to dust, for every lead to stop cold and to be in the exact same place as you started after weeks of serious effort.
But she refused to give up. Reaching out, Maerin grabbed one of the pieces of paper that had fallen nearest to her chair and looked at it. It was a map of the stars near the Aguelot Empire’s third region, where the first whale ship had been attacked. In the flurry of excitement that had first spurred her to action she’d covered the page with writing. Her messy pen strokes and half-solved calculations were all that remained of her attempts to find relationships between the nearby planets, stations, and the location of the attack. It also had other scribbled thoughts and ideas. Frowning, she tried to make out a few of the words near the cluster of stars that she’d first started studying. Perhaps she’d had the germ of an idea that she’d forgotten about as she tracked down something else that seemed more promising at the time, and reading it would spark new inspiration.
Naturally, each and every one of the notes were completely illegible. Damn.
“Someday I’ll make the time to work on my handwriting,” Maerin vowed. It was probably the hundredth time she’d made such a vow, and if she was honest with herself, she knew that she’d probably make it a hundred times more before she actually followed through on it.
Leaning back in her chair, Maerin looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes. She spun herself around in circles, wondering what she’d overlooked, what she’d missed or failed to take into account. There were strange and inexplicable things in the vastness of space, for sure. The Empty held many secrets that it may never give up, but she was positive that the method making these attacks possible wasn’t one of them. There had to be some sort of logical explanation for a fleet of pirates that could appear out of nowhere and sink whale class vessels, even when those vessels were protected by entire companies of Chillswords. For the most part, the shipping conglomerate’s famed mercenaries had failed to stop the raiders, and Maerin had heard whispers that the company was hurrying to recruit new members to replace those that they’d lost. The panicked tone of these whispers and the way they invoked eldritch horrors gave her pause. She did not know much about the dark and arcane process by which a recruit became a full Chillsword, but she’d heard through snippets mentioned over years that the transformation took months, if not years to complete. Given that timeline, was it possible that Plagtos might end up short staffed for some time until they managed to replenish the ranks? The company had other foes beyond these pirates, and Maerin didn’t like the possible futures where they learned that Plagtos was under strength.
An intriguing line of thought, but not a relevant one. Maerin shook her head and tried to focus on the task at hand. Unfortunately, her brain protested the effort and her thoughts came back…hollow. She couldn’t muster the energy to bear down on any theory or idea for how the piranhas appeared, couldn’t connect any dots that she seized on, and decided that it was time for a break. She’d learned that there was no benefit to pushing herself further when this happened. Instead of great insights and clever solutions, she just ended up with a killer headache.
The alarm on her terminal beeped and reminded her that it was time for her to actually do some work that she was paid for. Luckily, completing her regular duties wasn’t much of a challenge and didn’t require much effort. Ever since her lost cargo ship, the captain had given her nothing but the simplest navigation tasks. Moving component ships from one dock station to another in company-controlled space, handling the logistics for payment vessels to and from headquarters, those types of things. They were the types of jobs that were almost so simple and consistent that they didn’t require a logistics navigator. These were far cries from the artist’s tapestry of uncharted space that Maerin had been born to work with. There was no chance for flourish, no chance for individual expression, no way for her to plot a course and watch the ship navigate it, solving problems and rerouting as necessary in real time.
The most exciting thing that’d happened in her new normal was when a random ion storm had caused her to reroute a tool ship carrying some heavy duty welders to the Borak shipyard. However, even then she hadn’t really had to do much. Ion storms were fairly common in the waves near Borak, and the ship’s pilot had already known of all the alternative routes that she considered. In fact, he’d flown all of them more than once during his years as a pilot and had been annoyed that she’d had to walk him through the pathing process.
“Damn fools think us pilots can’t find out asses with both hands, as if it ain’t us that make these damn routes in the first place,” he’d said. Maerin hadn’t been sure how to respond, and so she’d let him take his favorite route. While that was technically a decision, it was basically the same type of thing as deciding whether to boil or bake vegetables for a given meal. Ultimately, it didn’t really matter much since the end result was basically the same. What a waste of her time and talent.
Of course, that waste was the point. For some reason, the captain was hellbent on punishing Maerin for the loss of the whale. His animosity didn’t make any sense, since several other logistics navigators had vessels which suffered the same fate, and none of them had been so severely reprimanded and forced to complete such mind-numbing work. She couldn’t fathom why she was the only one to attract such ire, and the more she thought about it, the more it pissed her off.
Maerin punched the keys at her terminal with a bit more force than she was used to and brought up the day’s assignment. She sighed. It was another payment delivery, from one of the small stations in the empire to another. Another boring waste of time. With another few clicks, she brought up the report of expected adverse travel events for the sector, scanned it, saw nothing interesting, and spent less than three minutes typing out the route in the coded dictation that was company standard. Another button press – CLACK – and she was done with work for the day. Maerin balled her hands up into fists and squeezed them hard. It was so frustrating! A few weeks ago, she’d relished the extra time to work on the piranha issue that these simple assignments had given her, but the boredom of simplicity was wearing her down, especially when it joined forces with the frustration of not being able solve her bigger problem. Every day it seemed a bit less important than it had the day before to find the answer to the piranha attacks, and though she was disciplined enough to keep picking at the knot, so to speak, a few more weeks – or worse, months – and her heart wouldn’t really be in it.
Standing up, Maerin decided that she’d had enough of her workstation for the day. She walked past the other logistics navigators at their desks, and she smiled at the way they all studiously considered their holo-maps and terminals as they struggled with routes that she could make in her sleep. Oh well. Captain knew best, right?
She left the navigator bay and made her way down the hall to the lift. She wasn’t really sure where she was going, but she was comfortable enough to follow her feet and see where they took her.
Naturally, they led her to a series of lifts and shuttles before eventually setting her firmly in front of the cargo bay where Ballou worked, though she didn’t see him as she looked into the mass of young men and women wearing tan jumpsuits hauling boxes and crates back and forth. Mildly disappointed and shaking her head, she went back to the lift and headed for the cafeteria. Even if she’d been able to see Ballou, what would she have done? Asked him to skive off work and come to the cafeteria with her? Ask if he wanted to take a walk? Something more than that?
Maybe? Everything else aside what Maerin had really been hoping for was someone to talk to. Someone who, while maybe not terribly familiar with the finer points of logistics navigation – or pathfinding, as he called it – could have helped her see her problem with fresh eyes. The disconnect between their worlds was big enough that what she thought of as glaringly obvious might seem completely novel to him. Surely the reverse of that would be true as well. Over the years, there’d been plenty of times when she’d been working on a hard problem and had talked to Ballou about it, only for one of his “stupid questions” as he called them to give her a spark of inspiration that ultimately led to the solution.
Alas, this time she was stuck on her own.
As the lift silently carried her toward the cafeteria, Maerin looked around. This action in and of itself was nothing new, for she was constantly observing the ship as she moved through it, but this time she tried her best to still her thoughts. Instead of letting her mind freely move from thought to thought, path to path – the lift above her was going to the captain’s bridge, the one below going to the residence deck, things like that – she forced herself to fixate on a single lift and watch it move until it reached its destination or moved entirely out of view. It was a strange thing, to just look at the way things worked and moved. She wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Certainly, it was a means of focusing, but it was different than what she normally did. It was quieter, if that made sense. It was easier to experience too, with the single train of thought to keep track of instead of a shifting and malleable collage of futures that could shift in a heartbeat.
In all honesty, Maerin wasn’t sure what she hoped to gain from such an exercise. While novel, this way of thinking was slow and likely ineffective at handling complex problems. The environment of the ship was extremely simple compared to navigating through space and – okay, she was derailing herself again. Taking a deep breath, Maerin started at the beginning of her thoughts once more.
Maybe she could apply this technique of only watching a single point to the piranha attacks. So far, she’d worked on them as a chain of events, tried to force them into a set pattern and draw conclusions from there. Since that hadn’t turned up anything useful, maybe she should simply go back and look at the way the piranhas moved. Was there something that she’d missed there? Maybe there was a hint in the way they –
Her thought was cut off by the fact that the ship’s lights all dimmed at once and were replaced with a weak ruby glow. Muffling lights. Emergency lights. The vice-captain’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker.
“All crew, stop your tasks and control your breathing. Celeretsnom passing nearby.”
Maerin’s heart started racing, but habit honed by training took over and she drew in slow, deep breaths, held them for four seconds, exhaled slowly and then held no air in her lungs for six seconds. She repeated this process over and over again until her pulse returned to normal. She was sure that basically every other employee aboard had done the same. Plagtos was meticulous about such training, and anyone who couldn’t keep up with it was quickly relieved of their duties. Such a practice might seem harsh to the ignorant, but it wasn’t. After all, while the ruby bulbs of the ship’s emergency systems emitted a force field that muted regular heartbeat noise, they weren’t perfect, and for reasons unknown the great beasts of space were supernaturally attracted to the beating of human hearts. As such, it was in everybody aboard a space ship’s best interest to do what they could to reduce the chances of it being their heartbeat that the monster noticed.
What was a celeretsnom doing so close to the Heartbreaker? Usually the behemoths that “ruled” the Empty, dwelling between stars and planets in the most dangerous pockets of the most remote systems and sectors remained in their lairs. Celeretsnom kept to themselves, but devoured almost everything they came into contact with. It was speculated that the only reason spacefaring races knew that they existed was that sometimes they weren’t hungry.
There was no uniform shape or size for these creatures, and similarities in terms of physiology or biology were unknown, as any and all who attempted to study them closely met grisly, albeit rapid, ends. However, there was one physical feature that all celeretsnom shared: ash gray scales and eyes that glowed the truest red anyone could ever imagine.
Trying to move as little as possible, Maerin looked around the ship. She had no idea how close the beast was to the Heartbreaker, but if it was close enough to trigger the alert, it had to be close enough to see.
She spotted it beneath the ship. Longer than a hundred whale ships bow to stern – no, make that five hundred ships – and covered in an elaborate mesh of scales that seemed to crisscross, it looked like a snake, or a space dragon. Maerin had never seen one of the latter, but she’d heard the stories as a kid of the mighty creatures prowling through the Empty in a never-ending quest to expand their horde.
Whatever it looked like, it moved lazily through the void, as if it relished the opportunity to be seen. The way it wriggled and writhed almost made it look like it was showing off for its audience. The old, grizzled star chasers back home who were the source of almost all of her knowledge about the Empty had said that to be near one of the beasts was to know fear in a way that you never had before, but she didn’t think any of them had ever seen one, let alone been this close. At this moment, Maerin certainly didn’t feel fear. Instead, she felt something like elation.
The celeretsnom rolled over and Maerin saw that its underside was a slightly lighter shade of gray and the scales that covered its back were gone. In their place was a mat of tendrils that looked a bit like fur mixed with goo. The creature rolled back over and Maerin heard a voice inside the ship. Low and smoky, the voice crooned a tune that brought tears to Maerin’s eyes at the same time it made her want to break everything she could reach. The song filled her bones, tainted her blood and dominated her thoughts for eternity, and then was gone so quickly that she couldn’t remember the sensation a moment later. As the song faded, the massive creature did too. Its body faded away into space from the tip of its head to the end of its tail until there was no evidence that it had ever been there in the first place. Certainly, if it hadn’t been for the continued red glow of the ship’s lights and the lingering tingle of amazement, the logistics navigator would have doubted what she’d seen.
A few minutes passed, and the ship remained on alert, in case the monster returned. When it didn’t, the needs of business overwhelmed the desire for caution and the lights returned to normal. The vice-captain’s voice echoed over the intercom once again.
“Attention all staff. The threat has now passed. Please resume your tasks. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Maerin’s lift started moving again, as did the rest around her, and the hubbub of voices discussing what had just happened was a dull roar. Standing by herself on the lift, loneliness filled Maerin. She wished that someone else had been there with her, had seen the creature from the same angle she had. She’d find Ballou later, she told herself. Hear about what had happened in the cargo bay.
What if someone was holding something heavy when the celeretsnom appeared? Would they have just had to grit it out or were they trained to slowly put the load down?
There was a bump as the lift connected to the end of its route and Maerin stepped off.The cafeteria looked like a beehive angry after being disturbed. Workers scurried around with trays and drinks, and it was as loud as could be. Maerin looked up before she joined the fray and walked toward the serving bars.
Up on one of the nearby catwalks, she saw the Singer. Their silver robes flapped in a wind that was not there, and the jewel on the end of their staff was glowing ever so slightly. Though Maerin could not see their features through their starmarble mask, she got the distinct impression that the towering figure was happy. She wasn’t sure why she thought that, but there was something odd about the way the Singer’s shoulders were set. They were moving up and down, as if the Singer was laughing. But why? Were they happy that they’d gotten rid of the monster? No, the inner voice she associated with her intuition told her. They’re happy that it came so close.
Unprompted, Maerin thought back to Ballou’s offhand comment about the piranhas. Maybe it’s magic of some sort. Maybe the Singer was the key to figuring out the secret of the piranhas. She couldn’t quite see how the Singer’s attitude towards the celeretsnom was in any way related to the destroyed whale ships, but she trusted her mind and resolved to find a way to ask them some questions.
Something inside of her mind had clicked.
She just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
That was the fun part.