1st place - Outlaw’s Lament by Xeromus Plague
“All hands to the main deck.”
The message came blaring over comms, jarring me from my sleep. The computerized voice repeated itself, echoing ominously throughout the dimly lit red halls of the starship Kali. Half awake, I pause to consider the irony in this order - “all hands” was no more than a 200-man skeleton crew, aboard a Triglavian battleship fit for a few thousand. The quarters were so spacious, the staff had taken to claiming entire barracks as personal sleeping spaces, decorating them with treasures and souvenirs from their own travels. I yawned, and tapped the glowing red triangle on my communicator to indicate I’d received the order.
Though I disliked having my limited sleeping shifts disrupted, I begrudgingly strapped on my boots and prepared to make my way to the central command chambers. I’d signed up to serve under Subcommandant Plague in the early days of the Triglavian invasion; hoping to do my part against Edencom, expecting the job to be tedious… but it turned out, staffing a capsuleer vessel was surprisingly dull, solitary work. A bit of repetitive upkeep, a few shifts managing inventory and stocking radioactive munitions, punctuated by those terrifying moments of singing alarms, as we clashed relentlessly with Edencom forces. The pay was incredible, and the risks seemed few in comparison; for all his quirks, Plague always saw us out alive. He DID seem rattled by our close call in Niarja; but as was often the story, last minute evasive maneuvers had seen us jump out to safety before our hull cracked. Ever since the Triglavians had taken interest in the star, the Subcommandant had been unusually reserved, spending his days poring over trinary data vaults, translating ancient Triglavian philosophy. If he was already distant, living as he did in the very core of the vessel, he had practically been a ghost ever since the day we fled Niarja. He’d only comm me directly to request help with translations, or to ask for status reports on various invaded systems.
The port to the main deck whirred open, and I shuffled in to find most of the staff already waiting. Freed slaves, scientists, exotic dancers and janitors, misfits one and all; strays and nomads the Subcommandant picked up during a life of interstellar troublemaking. Some of these eccentrics had been serving under Plague since long before the invasion began… They told stories in the mess hall of campaigns against the Sansha, life as Blood raiders, efforts to smuggle enslaved peoples out of Delve. They spoke of BreadFleet, a force of interstellar anarchists who challenged all established authority in New Eden. Each of us, for one reason or another, had chosen to stand alongside Subcommandant Plague in defense of the Triglavian refugees… and, since we were all wanted dead by every Empire in known space, Kali was the only home many of us had left.
I lit a cigarette and found my way to a corner seat in the spacious command chamber, the tiny crew around me only amplifying the feeling of emptiness in the massive command deck. The main screen in the center of the room was still on standby, updates flickering across the bottom in Triglavian characters. Oh, how I’d come to hate those little triangles… for the many hours the Subcommandant had me spend deciphering old datavaults, I could nearly read the updates in real time without my translator. The great red chamber filled with the sounds of questions and curses, and the smell of cheap liquor; professionalism hardly a qualifying trait for service aboard Kali. I smiled, comfortably distant from the buzz of the crew; they could be a handful at times, but these folks had come to feel like family. Together, we’d kept this boat movin’ through the unlikeliest of circumstances, and each made a small fortune in the process. Sure, we’d helped some folks… and we were always always in it for the right reasons. ‘Principle over profit’, as the Subcomandant might say. But, to the benefit of all aboard, the profit was considerable.
At once, the vidscreen jumped alive; the room filled with the slender masked outline of Subcommandant Plague. It was clear, even from what little we could see of his surroundings, that he was in disarray. Empty nerve sticks littered the restricted flooring of his capsule, and he’d left uncountable screens up in the background, each referring to some obscure bit of Triglavian history, or some notes he’d taken from the datavaults.
At the sight of the capsuleer, the crew let loose a deafening cheer; the floors shook with the stamping of feet, and the shattering of liquor bottles.
“SALUTATIONS, ENEMY OF EMPIRES!!”
The applause and the shouting echoed throughout the hall, as drinks were raised to the screen bearing Plague’s still image. The hooded figure, apparently unmoved by the commotion, silently gestured with one hand for the crew to be seated. Almost at once, the noise cut to a hushed whisper, and the motley assortment found their way to their own seats. All eyes were fixed to the screen, when the Subcommandant began to speak:
“Comrades. I have called you here to let you know, I have set a course for Reblier. I will be docking Kali at an undisclosed station upon arrival in system.”
At this, the room started to buzz with the sounds of confused crewman. What business had we in Reblier?
“Effective upon our arrival, your contracts will be terminated. Upon docking, all crew and passengers will immediately disembark Kali, where you will be smuggled by covert shuttle into Syndicate. You will each be given a severance bonus of 10m Kredits each, enough to secure a comfortable life for you and your descendents wherever you choose in nullsec. You will not struggle nor want, and you will be secure for the rest of your days beyond the reach of the Empires.”
A short silence overtook the command hall… until, at once, the room erupted in anger and cursing. Plague’s face warped a little beneath the impact of a thrown whiskey glass, which shattered against the screen.
“… I understand this displeases some of you, and hope you will try to understand my decision.”
At this, I rose from my seat and thumbed my communicator, indicating I wanted the floor.
“Comrade Evingod, Comms Officer. You are recognized.” Plague’s voice spoke softly over the screen.
The room quieted down, as the crew all turned to look at the corner where I stood. I tried to keep my voice from trembling as I spoke:
“Perhaps YOU will try to understand the frustration, Subcommandant. Each of us chose to stand by you through… all of this. We went to war with Sansha’s nation. We shot at Concord, and then at Edencom. We’ve made ourselves outlaws in every corner of k-space… and never have we strayed from your service. Kali is as much ours as it is yours… and we care about Triglavian liberation just as much as you do. By what right do you banish us from our own home? With all due respect… that’s ■■■■■■■■, sir.”
At this, the room became deadly silent. It was unthinkable to speak to a capsuleer in such a way; the moment the words escaped my lips, I feared I may have gone too far.
Rather than respond in anger as I expected he might, Plague winced; recoiling as if wounded by my words. He paused, and slowly reached a gloved hand to the plated mask over his face. A small hiss, and then a ‘pop’, as the bioadaptive plate loosened, and he pulled it away. The revealed figure beneath the mask was pale; the glimmering augmentations doing little to conceal the worry lines and stress in the bits where biological flesh still existed. The mythos of the capsuleer was one of a demigod… a fearless immortal who could endure any hardship… But, the character on the screen seemed thin, worn down, and above all, afraid. Was it my imagination, or could I see a small tear forming in the corner of his cybernetically-enhanced eyes?
“… You are correct.” He began. “Kali is your home. You have stood with me through everything we’ve done, every crime we’ve committed. When they called us traitors, when they demanded our corpses, you chose to stay. You chose this life - you are Kybernauts.”
He shifted uncomfortably, and continued:
“I have risked your lives many times, and would do so again in the pursuit of our greater mission. I’ve led uncountable shipmates, brave crews just like you, to horrible thankless deaths in cold forgotten corners of the abyss. And yet, every time I’ve asked you to die, you’ve stood boldly in the face of unspeakable wickedness. You’ve made this vessel a place of principle… challenged the authority of slavers and corporatists, fought for the liberation of the enslaved. You ARE my comrades, and I value and respect you more than you know. It is for that reason, I have come to the conclusions I have.”
His weathered face hardened, as he stared directly at me through the screen. My heart thumped wildly as his words, slow and cold, filled the room.
“What comes next is not liberation. There is no glory. There is no ISK. There is little hope of survival. I have something I must do… and I will not squander the lives of this crew on a mission so hopelessly foolish.”
He stopped, apparently satisfied that he’d said all that needed saying. After an uncomfortably long silence, I choked out the question:
“What is it you intend, Subcommandant?”
“Glorification.” came his calm reply.
There was no more shouting, not even a whisper. Had the Subcommandant consumed too many chems?
“Glorification, Subcommandant?” someone called from the crowd.
“Yes,” he responded slowly. “These treacherous agents of EDENCOM have spilled the blood of our allies in every star we pursue. These lapdogs of the state, who have relentlessly sought vendetta against Kybernauts, have taken innocent lives in the pursuit of our own. These cowards have chosen obstruction, and now I must test myself against them.” At this, his eyes closed, his voice continuing in a chilling calm monotone: “The Kybernauts invoke Cladistic Proving. Glorification of the fit, and mortification of the unfit will unfold in the Flow. Corrupted Narodyna must be extirpated.”
We all looked at one another, concerned for the Subcommandant.
“… Xeromus? What are you talking about?”
His eyes opened back up, his lucidity apparently returning. “Send an encrypted comm to Imigo. Have him tell the people of BreadFleet… tell them I’m sorry, and that I’ll see them in Buyan. I am going to the graveyard of capsuleers, and I intend to leave a message in blood, floating amongst the wreckage. I swear this sacred oath, to ensure final victory in that godforsaken wasteland at all costs. Gather your things, and prepare to disembark Kali. Comrades Sindrina and Lou will have covert shuttles waiting to smuggle you past CONCORD, and to a new life of freedom. I cherish your willingness to stand at my side… but there is no kind end to this path.”
In my heart, I knew what he meant. “Subcommandant, surely you can’t be suggesting… CONCORD abandoned the system soon after we escaped - It’s a bloodbath!” I pulled up the SCOPE reports on my communicator, and pointed to the list of casualties. “The number of ships destroyed in the last hour alone… if you go back there, you are GOING to get podded!” I shouted at the screen in desperation. “The forces in system have it covered… let the Triglavians fight this battle. There is no reason for you to risk jumping that gate, when you’re almost certainly going to die in the process. WE BARELY MADE IT OUT ALIVE!!”
“There is nothing more to say, comrade. I will personally ensure the death of every Edencom agent left in the system. The Kybernauts have called for fleet commanders; I am prepared to face the consequences of this decision.”
I tried to respond, but he cut me off with a final utterance, before the screen went black and left the confused crew alone with our thoughts:
“I’m going back to Niarja.”