By Mundi Kundoni
Searing beams of light caressed the shredded hull that hung lifeless in front of Saffron’s viewport. A satisfying series of beeps told her that at least one of the salvaging arrays had found something worth selling on the open market. She punched a few buttons and the salvager began towing a tangled mass of metal scraps into the hold.
She clapped her hands and rubbed them together to ward off the cold, cursing her ISK-grabbing boss - Captain Utriga - under her breath. He always turned the heating way down at night, inviting the creeping chill of the void to claw its way through the hull and settle nicely into the maintenance technician’s bones. It did not help her mood that it had been such a trying day. To his credit, the skipper had kept them close behind a quickly unfolding brawl between two Capsuleer groups that spanned several systems. Every time a ship got destroyed the captain would drop a bookmark on the wreck then skulk away like a fox in the night, happy in the knowledge that he had the chicken carcass saved for later.
With a big chunk of wreckage removed the shattered pieces of hull began to disperse and drift off into the dark void beyond the inspection lights of the Razzmatazz . Saffron tried not to think about what the future held for the charred pieces of flotsam drifting through the stars because it made her feel very, very small.
She winced as a blast of static roared through a dented speaker above her console, followed by a familiar voice.
“Saffy, you about done? We have a bunch more wrecks to trawl before we can safe up and get some sleep.”
Drew, the second helmsman was Gallente by birth, though he barely carried an accent after all the time spent among the stars, far from Luminaire. Not that lineage mattered out here. It was mostly the loyalist Eggers who cared about lines drawn in the dirt as far as factions were concerned, and those people who - for whatever reason - never leave their homeworlds behind both physically and psychologically. For the independent crewman out in the black, the name of the game was survival and that meant crewing up with anyone and everyone.
She cycled down the tractor beam and salvaging arrays, the gentle whine fading to nothing as the well-used but carefully maintained equipment went dark, closely followed by the high-powered exterior lights.
“We’re clear, get us en-route to the next one.” She said, slamming her hand down onto the push-to-talk rocker half sunken into the console. Saffron made a note to herself to hammer it back into position next chance she got.
There was the slightest sensation of movement as the battered destroyer turned lazily away from the quickly dispersing wreckage that made the technician nervous enough to pencil the stabilizers into her next maintenance pass. Her stomach turned as they entered warp and she tried her hardest to not think about the stresses currently gnawing at the hull, trying to find a way to breach the tritanium shell.
“This next one is a few systems over,” Drew called over the tannoy. “You probably have some time if you want to chill.”
Saffron double tapped the rocker switch as an acknowledgement and slid her hand into the thigh pocket of her cargo pants. The icy grip of a can met her already chilled hands but she didn’t care. She had got hooked on Quafe as a teenager and the addiction had carried into adulthood so that now not even the biting cold could put her off a hit of her favourite chemical combination chilled to near freezing.
The top of the can opened with a satisfying hiss as she peeled back the tab and snatched the handheld radio from a clip on the wall.
Rising to her feet Saffron struggled with one hand to zip up her leather jacket before conceding and using the hand bearing her precious beverage too, being careful not to spill its precious contents as she headed towards the cargo bay to check out the haul so far.
Spotlights boomed into life as she entered the hold, each one cutting a path through the gloom that pervaded the space. Countless motes of dust danced in the beams like fireflies around a campfire. The hold was mostly empty bar one corner where a few tangled masses of metal sat.
She wandered over and tossed her empty and crushed can into the nearest pile. The trip down to the hangar had been uneventful with everyone else aboard the ship fast asleep at this ungodly hour. Saffron liked the quiet of the graveyard shift but it meant that her little can of heaven seemed to last that much less time.
Armor plates littered the floor in front of her along with fried logic circuits and countless other pieces of scrap that would only be useful to the very lowest of bidders.
“-filament-t-t-t-” the words were just barely audible on the very outskirts of her hearing range, a shiver down her spine. A shaking hand was halfway to the radio when she heard the whispering voice again.
“-filament-” the disembodied voice added before dissolving into static. With a creeping feeling of dread crawling its way up her spine Saffron edged forwards, following the line of junk all the while listening to the crackling white noise grow louder with every shuffling footstep.
The device was trapped under a jagged metal scrap that threatened to cut even Saffron’s calloused hands if she wasn’t careful, but her father hadn’t raised a fool. She produced a pair of worn leather gauntlets from her back pocket and used them to slide one hand beneath the twisted tritanium, letting the tough hide take the hits. It took her going away to find a sturdy bar with which to lever the lump of scrap before she could extract the small recording device from its resting place.
The video recorder was old, and cheap by the looks of it. Broken images of barely visible faces flickered across the cracked screen while a fine layer of condensation covered the scratched plastic case, no doubt the result of water droplets once frozen to the surface melting as the technician’s warm hands fought to free it from the scrap heap.
A large chunk of the rear case had been sheared clean off exposing wiring and circuit boards underneath. The battery pack had picked up an unnerving dent. It was no surprise to Saffron that the playback was malfunctioning and erratic, it was amazing the machine was working at all. With a tentative grip, the technician pulled the battery free of its housing and placed it carefully onto the closest pile of scrap before twisting the camera between her fingers and finding the memory module slotted into the side of the case.
She used a belt knife to pry the cool metal slug free of the twisted plastic. That done, she tossed the camera back into the scrap pile next to her crushed Quafe can and made her way back towards the elevator.
“Hey there Captain Drew, how long do I have until I have to work again?” Saffron asked as the rickety lift did its job adequately while making it very clear with a cacophony of metallic moans and groans that it wasn’t happy about doing it.
The technician was all too aware of the worn-out motors and battered rails but as long as a piece of kit worked aboard the Razzmatazz she had little to no chance of getting funds to replace with new.
“Don’t call me that,” the helmsman hissed over the radio which protested almost as much as the elevator did with crackles and popping noises. “You know the Captain hates it almost as much as I do.”
Saffron smiled. It really was too easy at times.
“Sorry boss, I get bored.” She said quite truthfully and with an audible sigh. “But can you answer my question? I found something in the hold I want to tinker with.”
“Held up by gate control right now,” he replied, and Saffron did not need to see him to know the unamused look that was no doubt carved into his youthful features. “So you could have anything between five hours and five days.”
“I’ll be on my bunk” she replied, suppressing a chuckle.
It was another uneventful trek through the dark and gloomy corridors to her cramped room where she threw the power switch on her private terminal on top of her desk. The old device blinked into life, flooding the small chamber with an eerie blue glow that told something deep inside Saffron that she was home.
She jury-rigged the memory module into the terminal with one hand while the other wandered down to a weathered medical fridge she had salvaged from a wrecked Sister of Eve ship shortly after joining the Razz . The glass was still intact albeit heavily scratched and the chiller still kind of worked, well enough to keep her Quafe palatable at any rate. There was a pop followed by a panicked slurping sound as she fought to stop her terminal becoming a paperweight. It was still amazing to her that in an age where Titans wielded the firepower to level cities, no one seemed to bother waterproofing computer terminals.
“Let’s see what we have here, shall we?” she muttered to herself as she wiped a sticky hand on her jacket and punched at the terminal keyboard, navigating her way to the salvaged files.
“Wow, that’s a whole lot of corruption.” A voice whispered from behind her, causing her heart to leap into her throat. Saffron spun in her chair to see the reddened face of Drew looking at her sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to creep up on you.” He added, raising his hands in apology.
The technician took a couple of slow, deep breaths to gather her thoughts and stop her heart from beating through her chest. Drew was a young man for a helmsman, a position gained in no small part through his relationship with his father, Captain Utriga. Normally any role like this gained via nepotism would have earned Utriga the younger a spot on Saffron’s blacklist but the budding officer avoided this by firstly being genuinely good at his job and secondly because his father expected far more from his boy than he did anyone else aboard the salvager. Case in point, here junior was being forced to pull the graveyard shift.
“Well you still managed it, and almost killed me as a bonus prize!" she said between breaths before a thought struck her. “Who’s piloting the ship?”
Drew waved his hand dismissively.
“Don’t worry about it!” he said with a nonchalant laugh that made Saffron want to break a bottle over his head. “The autopilot will jump when we are cleared, then I’ll go take us the rest of the way.”
The attitude seemed a little negligent but Saffron had never considered herself anyone else’s keeper. If the old man woke up and found the bridge empty it was on Drew’s head, but she wasn’t about to go reporting him.
“It’s a memory bank from a personal recorder, you know those cheap ones people buy for family holidays or when you think your crewmate is stealing from your Quafe fridge?" She said, turning back to her console. "We pulled it off of that wrecked VNI in the last system, wondered if it was worth taking a look at. It might kill a few hours, or at least a few minutes."
Drew sat on the bed and turned so he could see the screen but even out of the corner of her eye the technician could see him subtly looking around her room for a recorder.
So you’re the culprit. She thought to herself, pleased to have solved the case of the disappearing Quafe stash.
“Go on then, play it!” the junior helmsman said after his covert inspection was finished.
“There’s not a whole lot that’s intact- ”
“Then just play the earliest viable file, that should at least give us an idea?”
Saffron flicked through the explorer until she reached the beginning and what appeared, as luck would have it, to be the first entry.
“-Hello? Okay, I think that’s on now.”
The face that appeared on the screen was young but grubby. He was in his early twenties if Saffron was any judge and had the look of a wastrel about him, too much time getting his hair to look good and too little time spent learning. Anything.
“So my uncle just passed away which sucks, even though I never really knew him too well,” He began, but if the boy with the idiotic smile on his face was really in mourning he was doing an outstanding job of hiding it so far. “But, he did leave me a gift in his will! I present to you my new cruiser, the Persephone.”
He stepped out of the frame and the camera auto adjusted the next most prominent object in the hangar, a Vexor, one of the nice ones with camouflage paint.
“Isn’t she beautiful!” he said as he stepped back into the frame. “Fully fitted and ready to fight!”
He picked up the camera and walked over to the gantry that overlooked the hangar to give viewers a better look. He continued speaking as the camera drifted back and forth over the unwashed hull.
“Now I know what you are thinking! ‘Sell it, and take the money Mickey’ but I decided not to do that, you see the ship came with a small inheritance which I am going to use to hire a crew and get the old girl working again. I am going into business baby!”
The video cut and the room was bathed in darkness once again until Saffron hit the key that closed the video window.
“What would you do?” She said to Drew as she scrolled through the corrupted files for another one worth watching.
“If someone gave me a VNI? Sell that ■■■■ and settle down on a planet somewhere. Do you have any idea what one of those things is worth? For baseliners like us, that’s set for life money. Doing what we do on the Razz is one thing but if you go out into the stars to fight eventually you will come face to face with an Egger and you will lose and you will die. End of.”
"Yeah, I would probably do the same." She said with a sigh. It would be a hard choice to make. She loved being among the stars, it felt like home to her. Maybe she would buy something smaller and take to exploration or something like that. Something nice and low-key. There was so much to see out here that the technician was unsure she could ever be truly happy planetside.
“Ah, here’s one!” she said triumphantly when she stumbled across a file with no dead sectors.
"Hello again and welcome to part thirty-six of my-our video series on taking on this challenge. For those of you catching up, I was left the ship you see behind me by a relative of mine and have decided to crew it up and take to the skies.” He once again panned around the hangar bay to give a good view of the entire ship before stopping on a middle-aged woman stood with crossed arms a little way down the gantry. She did not seem happy to be there.
“I told you I have no interest in being involved in your school projects,” the newcomer managed to say without moving her head and barely moving her lips. “You hired me to fly the ship, and that is what I will do, and damn well too.”
The man holding the camera let out a nervous chuckle.
“Yes, thank you, Esme. You carry on with whatever you needed to do.” He walked a little further down the corridor until he was out of earshot of his helmsman and held the camera closer to his face so he could whisper. “She scares the living hell out of me! Anyway, what I didn’t tell her or any of my crew is that I had a compartment built into the engine room that will bind an abyssal filament to the warp core if I just push this little button here.”
He held up a small device that looked like an old fashioned detonator .
“It is underhanded I know but abyssal space is by far the most profitable place right now without delving into null-sec space which would literally mean death at the hands of Eggers. It sucks to keep things secret but every prospective pilot I told about my abyssal plans laughed me out of the room. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and I mean how hard can it be?” He smiled a cheerful smile that turned serious as footsteps approached from behind. “Okay, be cool!”
Mickey turned to see Esme approaching from behind, there was a mumbled discussion before he turned back to the camera with a wide grin on his face.
“I will catch you later viewers, it turns out my drone operator just arrived for an interview! Apparently, the guy used to operate for the federation navy!”
The screen went blank as the file terminated. Saffron and Drew maintained a silence until the screen auto-flicked back to browser mode.
"Wow, that guy is a special kind of asshole," Drew said, clearly shocked by what he was seeing. “Who does that to people?”
Saffron shook her head in disbelief and looked at Drew. “I don’t know, but there aren’t many working files left. Do you want to keep going?”
Drew nodded and Saffron opened the next file.
"Hey, guys! Welcome back! This is episode fifty-two and I would like to introduce Cid” He turned the camera to show an older man with a moderately unkempt goatee beard, long greying hair and eyes that had spent far too much time looking at monitors. “Cid is my drone operator, he’s going to keep us safe from all those ships out there that want to do us harm! Say hi, Cid.”
The man raised a weary hand and smiled as best he could before turning back to a light drone that sat atop a workbench. It was hard to make out exactly where the pair were working but it looked to Saffron like one of the smaller workshops in an engineering complex.
“We have hired some time in this engineering complex so my man here can do some modifications to our hobgoblins to give us even more of an edge against anyone who stands between us as our enemies. What exactly are you doing, buddy?”
As the camera shifted back to Cid, Saffron could see an assortment of salvaged parts strewn across the floor around the deactivated drone.
“I am bringing these drones up to Fed Navy specs, should do a nice little bit extra damage and track better.” The operator offered up a toothy grin before turning back to his work. "In fact, if I just adjust this-"
A thunderous bang erupted from the drone as its blasters unleashed a volley into the nearest wall. Cid threw himself to the ground apparently on instinct as though this was not the first time he had almost killed himself performing modifications. Mickey turned the camera to look at a section of partially melted wall just as the sprinkler system doused everything with chemical-laced water. The green drone sat just where it had been, shimmering under a layer of fire suppressant with steam gently rising from its twin barrels.
“Holy ■■■■!” Laughed Mickey, clearly partially deafened by the blast. “I am going to have to get back to you! I have to go talk to the station manager! Keep watching for updates!”
The screen fell dark once again and Saffron thought she heard Drew stifle a chuckle.
“What’s funny?” she asked, her tired desk chair groaning as she swung to face him.
“He’s nuts!” The helmsman replied, exasperated. “Who almost gets vaporised at point blank range by drone-sized blasters and laughs about it? Okay, it’s only a scout drone but that’s still enough firepower to leave little more than a pair of gently smoking boots behind."
Saffron nodded. He had a point. She was about to agree with him when he took a deep breath and carried on.
“And what does he hope to achieve? He’s going to be on that ship too so he will die just the same as the rest of them.” Drew seemed to be getting more agitated by the second.
“I guess he is recording this for some kind of publicity stunt if they make it out. I am not sure if many baseliner crews have tried to pull this stuff off before. Looks like it never saw the light of day. You’re that sure the Vexor can’t survive in abyssal space? How much damage do the ships in there deal?”
“I-” he began before pausing in thought. “It’s not just a case of whether or not the Navy Vexor can tank it. It probably can, depending on the particular filament that’s going to be rammed into the core like a poorly made prison yard shiv. But the thing to remember is that the filaments are destructive to our technology by their very nature and X amount of time after activating one the core will melt down and kill everyone aboard, unless you manage to complete the abyssal site and leave via the exit point at the end which will sever the connection safely.”
A cold sweat passed over Saffron.
“And Capsuleers do this for fun?” she said, taking her turn to look aghast. The whole concept seemed needlessly risky without factoring in the strange alien faction and drifter ships that inhabited the pockets.
“More profit that fun, I imagine. Who really enjoys doing anything in New Eden?” Drew replied, his temper gradually subsiding. “I mean he’s not wrong, some of the tech you can pick up in there is worth several times its weight in gold. And let’s not forget that death means something else entirely to an Egger.”
Saffron turned back to her screen. “There are two more viable files. One of them looks like the last entry judging by the timestamp. I’ll play the other one first.”
“You did WHAT?!” a voice screamed over the feed as Mickey tried his best to hold the camera steady. In the background, through the bridge windows an assortment of what looked like glass or rock shards drifted around with intermittent bolts of lightning passing between them.
Drew leaned forward and whispered, apparently so as to not upset all of the other people watching the stolen video in the room.
“Electrical filament, one of the easiest there are! They got lucky!”
“I-I pulled us into abyssal space! Imagine the things we could find in here!” Mickey beamed, turning the camera back on himself as though to bask in his own glory.
“We’ll find our own graves, you bloody moron!” One of the other crew members, the introduction video of whom must have been corrupted as Saffron did not recognise him as Cid the drone guy. “When you asked me to come and command this ship you never said a blasted thing about abyssal space!”
There was a brief scuffle and the camera was wrestled out of Mickeys hands. The next face they saw was considerably older with short greying hair and a flawlessly smooth face. He spun the camera to show the view outside and then spun it back to himself.
“I am Captain Barrat. This bloody idiot has brought us to abyssal space and will probably see us all killed. To anyone who finds this recording please do me a favour. If I am dead and somehow Mickey is alive somewhere please kill him for me.”
He paused for a moment and looked out of the windows at the terrible scene before him.
“Right, time is burning.” He began after the briefest of pauses. “Helm, get us moving as fast as you can while keeping a good angular velocity on those ships. Try to edge us a little closer to the exit gate too – that’s the triangular thing on the other side of the field. Get me Cid down in the drone ba- Why am I still holding this bloody camera?”
There was the slightest of grunts and the image spun wildly before cutting out altogether.
"I probably would have found worse things to do with the camera than throw it at a wall," Drew said with disdain lacing his every word. "What kind of person risks other people lives like that for their own glory?"
“The worst kind, but one thing still confuses me," Saffron said, carefully. She was not a hundred percent sure she understood how abyssal space worked but she just wanted to be certain. "If they died in the site they would still be in the abyssal pocket, right? And if they did not beat the clock then they would have died in the pocket, right? So how did the ship come to be in high sec for us to salvage?"
Drew opened his mouth to answer but paused for a moment.
“I guess you best open that last file.”
Saffron hit the last icon.
“Yes! I knew you could do it!” Mickey cried as he captured an image of a huge red and black triangular gate growing closer and closer to the bridge windows. There was now a crack in the camera lens. “We are getting out!”
"According to our best estimates, there are still three minutes remaining until the filament fuses the core, Captain." A soft voice said from somewhere in the periphery. The captain didn’t respond. Mickey spun his camera to focus on him and the bridge crew beyond. There were several faces that Saffron didn’t recognise.
"See, we could have cleared the other caches as well, not just this one," Mickey said, sullenly and with every sign of sincerity. The captain shot him a look that could melt through the armour plating of a dreadnought.
“Mickey, when we get back to dock you and I are going to have a very serious conversation. For now, Helm, take us back into normal space please.” The captain intoned in a voice and cadence that sent chills down Saffron’s spine.
There was a flash followed by either some turbulence or some of the worse camera work the technician had ever seen and everything returned to normal.
“Right, here we are. Helm get us aligned to the gate back to- What’s that?”
Mickey swung the camera away from the bridge and back to the windows which once again showed the welcome sight of normal space. There was something else though, something which would send a chill down most Capsuleer’s spines, let alone a crew full of baseliners.
It was a battleship. Long, cylindrical and sported the usual imaginative colour scheme that all Minmatar ships left the factory in. It was a Typhoon battleship. The vessel seemed to look on in confusion for a moment, probably from the shock of seeing a baseliner ship emerge from an abyssal signature.
A claxon sounded as a warning to the crew that they had been locked by another ship. A series of glowing smoke trails emerged from the structure of the Typhoon and streaked towards the armoured glass which suddenly felt far too inadequate, even to Saffron who was only watching a recording.
“Bloody Eggers!” The captain roared.
A loud explosion shook the ship.
The camera dropped to the floor.
And the screen went black for the last time.