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"Anvil of the Nameless" - An "8000 Suns in New Eden" Contest Entry

Author
Thes Redav
State Protectorate
Caldari State
#1 - 2012-11-27 05:26:11 UTC  |  Edited by: Thes Redav
“Anvil of the Nameless”

by Thes Redav




Her voice woke him, its crisp, equalized timbre more familiar to him than his own.

“Autopilot disabled. Waypoint reached.”

Na’deran Sehtu blinked awake, encountering the surge of panic that always accompanied dry air. Interceptor pilot reflexes kicked in, mind grasping at his surroundings and grounding his reality. He remembered where he was, how he got here.

Empire.

How long had it taken to get back? How long before they caught up?

“That’s Derelik,” a rough voice found him, stuffy with anticipation. Before Na’deran could sit up in his cot, Valsint, captain of the ship he’d marooned himself on, was in the doorway of his makeshift compartment, arms folded. “You can pay me now.”

Na’deran rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched unused muscles. He hated the taste of stifled air, the way processed oxygen always burned the lungs after an extended stint in the goop. “Where are we?” he asked, voice scratchy and frail from weeks of disuse.

“Shedoo, en route to Sasta where we’ll refuel and ditch some cargo.”

Na’deran had no doubt that “some cargo” included himself. “I can pay you when we reach Pator.”

“We’re not headed for Pator.”

“You’ll get a better price for your salvage in Republic space.”

“The parts I can sell, sure.”

Valsint’s square-cut jaw was quintessential Civire, his glower etched in stringency. Na’deran had foreseen this problem when he made the deal with the old Caldari salvager, but put off resolving it until later. Now it was later. “You agreed to escort me to safety. I’ll be safe in Pator,” he said, which was a lie. Na’deran wasn’t safe anywhere. “I have isk,” he added.

Valsint harrumphed hard enough to pull phlegm up his throat. “I’ve heard that before. No thanks. I hauled you out of deep null-sec, as agreed. You can pay me now.”

“Pator,” Na’deran repeated. “And I’ll pay you double what I said I would.”

Valsint scrutinized him with eyes that said he knew better than to accept the promises of a desperate man; met with Na’deran’s harsh, space-black irises, however, and confronted by the risks they may be hiding, he traded his glare for a troubled look, and agreed.

“But don’t think you’re setting foot on any station until our transaction is complete.”

As soon as the Caldari was gone, Na’deran lowered his feet to the gelid steel and grabbed the storage shelf above his cot to pull himself up. Even on shaky legs, he stood well over six feet, his rangy frame broad but lean and muscled, lithe like the wolf of ancient lore. He hadn’t let his body go to waste like some of his kind, keeping up a physical regiment that matched the intensity of his skill training.

Even still, the disparity of his two selves was palpable. To be a body in space, with turrets for arms and thrusters for legs, to be one with every aspect of an armored battleship capable of scorching entire colonies….and then to be reduced to one’s base. To be the other self, the man who walked with legs and swung with fists. The inadequacy of the flesh was never so apparent as when faced with a crisis outside the pod.

How long?

This, he had to discover first. Tuo-Qua and the others wouldn’t have been fooled by his ruse very long. They’d have figured it out by now, and sure as Thukker vengeance, they were tracking down Valsint’s Cormorant this very instant.

But he wouldn’t last half an hour on an empty stomach—another hindrance reality forced upon him. Precious minutes that could be spent pouring of navigation logs, plotting escape routes, or scanning down possible threats were wasted on rudimentary bio-maintenance. Part of him yearned to get back in the pod right away and get the hell off the Cormorant, but that wasn’t likely to happen before Valsint got his isk. Too weak to fight his way off the destroyer and too cash poor to bribe the crew, he had no choice but the suffer this deal to its destination.

So he found the mess hall instead, or what passed for one on the Caldari destroyer. Valsint made use of every cubic meter of space he had, so the room was filled with colony grade bio-nutrient packs and zemnar, all of it likely contraband. Na’deran didn’t know what deal Valsint had with the Cartel that allowed him to pass in and out of Curse, but he was glad for it.

He found a plastic mug, filled it with lukewarm coffee, took a swig and spit it back out.

“Tastes like drone oil, doesn’t it?”

The glimpse of brown flesh snatched his attention to her, a young Minmatar woman maybe half his age. “I wouldn’t know what drone oil taste like.”

She chuckled as if he’d been joking. “You look like Fedo ****. Bad dream?”

“Something like that,” he replied, his voice neutral despite the disdain he felt. Na’deran deplored interaction with baseliners, but none so much as those who crewed a ship.

“Well, you had plenty of time for it. Been asleep since we pulled you out of the slime.”

“And how long’s that been?”

“I dunno. Maybe thirty-six hours? We made a couple stops.”

“Thirty-six hours?” The woman looked away from his grimace. A girl, really. Pretty and naïve. What the hell was she doing on a ship like this? “How many people are on this ship?”

“Including yourself? Thirteen.”

“So a crew of twelve….”

“Ooh, math whiz...”

Twelve meant Valsint was running with the minimum crew he could scoot around with, or near enough; a notion Na’deran agreed with, having always kept as few crew as possible on his ships. He even went so far as to hire agents to hire his crew, just so he didn’t have to handle the contracts. Learn the names.

The day for not knowing names always came sooner than you thought.
Thes Redav
State Protectorate
Caldari State
#2 - 2012-11-27 05:28:29 UTC  |  Edited by: Thes Redav
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Na’deran looked at the girl again and realized he was scowling. He loosened the frown and did his best to sound civil. “It’s nothing you said.”

“That’s a relief. I’ve got a bad habit of saying too much. Valsint warns me he’ll leave at dock if I’m not more careful.”

“What do you do on this ship,” he asked before he could stop himself.

“I’m the engineer! Keep this rusty bucket running.”

“Aren’t you a little too….young, to be the engineer.”

“You mean a little too ‘Minmatar’ to maintain a Caldari-made ship?”

Na’deran shook his head quickly. “I wasn’t implying—”

The cut of her laugh reminded him of Matar, and how long it’d been since he left. “Relax, I’m not offended. It’s what everyone thinks. That, and that I slept with Valsint to get the job.”

Na’deran had to bite back the curiosity fueling additional queries—where she was from, how she’d ended up on the Cormorant. Was she Sebiestor like himself? No, better not to ask. Knowledge was just an added liability, and he had enough problems on his hands.

“Who runs the scanner?” he asked instead.

“That’d be Drusky, but he’s probably asleep right now. He always sleeps on autopilot.”

That’s when you need a scanner most, Na’deran silently berated her.

“I know how to use it,” she said, eyes intent. “Is it something I could help with?”

“No. I’d rather not upset your captain anymore than I already have.”

“He’s not that bad. All gruff on the outside, but he’s a pretty decent guy—for a Caldari.”

Na’deran stood in the mess hall with the girl, both of them silent until, after a lasting moment, he realized that he was looking for something to say, and made for the door.

“I’ve got to go….”

“No.” She stopped him. “Stay. I didn’t meant to chase you off from your breakfast.”

“You didn’t.”

“Thanks for the lie, but I’ve got to get back anyway.” She turned and started out into the corridor, then stopped and ducked back in. “I’m sorry, but I just have to ask—because it may be the only time I ever encounter one of you—what’s it like?”

Of all the questions a baseliner could ask him, it was this one Na’deran hated the most. This one that kept him from socializing with people aboard stations or starships. This one that gave birth to nightmares in the sleeping mind while riddling the waking soul with ecstasy.

It’s like being a god.

But he didn’t say that. He never said anything, if they asked. Instead, he threw the question back on the curious: “What would you sacrifice to find out?”

And the expression, always the same, crisscrossed the lines of the young, pretty face. They couldn’t understand, and most wouldn’t want to. Every answer had its cost. Every piece of knowledge it liability. He left his coffee in the mess hall with the beautiful, confused girl.


***


He’d lied to her about the nightmares. You never really dream in the goop. It’s too visceral to be a dream, too surreal to be reality. If there is a nightmare, it comes at the flashy end.

The Burn.

Bright and molten, some said. Others described a feeling of ecstasy, of freedom from every fear and worry. Na’deran didn’t know the nightmare himself. Despite his many years in the pod, he’d only ever lost ships and the lives of his crews—never his own. But he’d encountered many a capsuleer who had, and he suspected—he believed—the ones that described it as waiting. Waiting to wake up from a dream in the deep, cold black that follows the inferno.

He’d been lucky. He’d been careful. But in null-sec, there’s no amount of luck or care that can spare you the Burn. The test of his immortality was long overdue, as this last mission proved. Alone and outgunned in pirate space, he’d fought his way through the Cartel defenses and blasted apart the hidden Serpentis research station they were protecting. He’d recovered the prototype implant as his employer requested. He’d fought his way out of the system swarming with Guardian Angels only to get caught in an ambush by the gate.

And then he’d done the unthinkable. With his shield sinking and his armor melting away, he’d ordered his doomed crew to insert the precious cargo—a prototype implant—into the sixth slot of the injection module on his pod. Mere seconds before his hull was ripped apart, they did.

Na’deran Sehtu should have died that day, but his luck held out a little longer. A slipshod bubble placement on the part of the pirates allowed his escape from the gate, and he fled into the depths of null-sec, pursued relentlessly by the Angels and their determined captain, Tuo-Qua. Twice they nearly caught him, and would have if not for the unknown benefits of the implant juicing his brain. Even so, with each evasion Na’deran was pushed farther and farther the wrong direction. They were herding him away from Empire, toward his own, inevitable doom.

And then he found it—a small salvage ship whose idents turned up known ties to the Cartel, cleaning up the leftovers of some doomed Federation battleship. At a glance he knew it to be a trap—a ploy by Tuo-Qua to bring him out into the open—but then he saw the Cormorant warp to an asteroid field when the Angels entered local, and hope sprang to his mind. Independent contractors with a good enough standing could sometimes gain access to the pirate-controlled space without fear of attack. But would such a person be willing to risk the good will of their employer on a risky gamble? With few options left to him, Na’deran opened a channel with the Caldari ship and made an offer that he hoped would be worth their while.

Whatever the Cartel paid Captain Henegro Valsint, it must not have been as much as what Na’deran offered, because the next hour they were meeting in the dark shadow of a sullen moon, modifying their cargo bay to hold the pod of a hunted capsuleer.


***
Thes Redav
State Protectorate
Caldari State
#3 - 2012-11-27 05:32:05 UTC  |  Edited by: Thes Redav
His time was ticking away.

Na’deran lay in his cot and tried to think of a way out of the situation he’d landed himself in. If Tuo-Qua and the Angels didn’t kill him, his employer surely would. Why hadn’t he just stuck with Empire contracts? Things always went “according to plan” in high-sec, or near enough that a seasoned capsuleer such as himself could adapt and win the day. The promises of riches had dragged him away from this certainty into the deep void where corporations vile and ruthless as the pirates ruled, and he’d paid the price for it. His crew had. Another list of names he didn’t know was filing through the registries, notices being channeled to next of kin across the universe. Would they curse the nameless captain who lived to kill another day?

The phase of gravity shifted and reset—another entry into or out of warp. How far were they from Pator?

Restless, Na’deran made his way to the bridge of the ship, where he found Valsint, plus most of his crew—ten anxious faces speaking in short sentences, exchanging shared, terse looks, as if not to be noticed by the others. They all fell to silence when Na’deran stepped onto the deck.

“There you are,” said the voice he knew best. She was already moving to stand beside him, her casualness from before held in check by new tension. “We were just talking about you.”

The rest of the crew shot her withering looks ranging from exasperation to contempt, but not Valsint, whose own mien was dangerously neutral. “We might have a problem,” he said.

Na’deran met the captain’s stolid gaze. “What problem?”

“I have someone named Tuo-Qua who wants to open a channel with me. He says I’m carrying cargo that belongs to the Cartel.”

“Where is he?”

“Ten jumps behind us, stuck at a high-sec security gate.”

Na’deran flushed with relief. “Then he can’t follow us. What’s the problem?”

“You’re right, he can’t follow us. But someone can, and someone will, if I don’t comply.” Even as Valsint spoke the words, Na’deran realized they had stopped moving and were sitting twenty kilometers off a gate—the Pator gate, to be exact. “You see, Angel Cartel is my bread and butter, and though what you’re offering to pay me is enough to retire nicely on, it won’t do me much good dead. And that’s what we’ll be, podder, whether you escape or not—they’ll get us.”

“They can’t kill you if they’re already dead. Get me to my hangar in Pator and I’ll go back and kill them.”

Some of the crew snickered at his bravado. Others, like the girl at his side, just ogled in disbelief: they knew he meant every word he said, and the truth of that struck them silent. Valsint’s composure, however, did not break, nor did his mind change. “I’m sorry. I know we had a deal, and I did every damned thing in my power to honor it, but I can’t do something that will jeopardize the lives of my crew. You seem like a decent man, and I hate doing this to a decent man, but you’ve stirred up some heap of Cartel trouble, and now you’ve got to go back.”

Instinctively, Na’deran’s eyes went to the men carrying guns. They hadn’t drawn them yet, but he could tell by their posture they were just waiting for an excuse.

He glanced at the girl’s eyes and saw protest in them. She might just be stupid enough to speak for him and cause herself trouble, so he beat her to it, robbing her the chance. “Very well. Call Tuo-Qua. Tell him you’re bringing me back.”

“What?” she started, and was quickly overridden by Valsint.

“Vaum. Drusky. Escort him back to storage and bolt the door.” The two armed men were already crossing the bridge toward him, the relief on their faces as palpable the rest of the crew’s, save for the Minmatar face beside him. As he was led off the bridge, Na’deran caught the eye of Valsint. The captain had the courage to face the sentenced, at least. “Thank you,” he said.


***


It hadn’t been five minutes when the bolted door to his compartment-turned-jail cell popped open with a hiss and the little trouble-maker peered in.

“Hurry up before someone notices what I’m up to.”

Na’deran remained in the cot, a curious buzz twirling in his mind. “What are you up to?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Getting you out of here!”

An escape.

He let go a sigh, wondering how to explain it to her. That they couldn’t both escape in the pod. That even if they did it made no difference, that his attempt at escape had been pointless from the start. That there were some things you could run from and some you could kill, but when you made yourself an enemy of the Dominations, there wasn’t a hole deep enough in the universe to hide away in. “Go away,” he started. “All you’ll accomplish is trading places with me—and for what? Some podder you don’t even know.”

“I know that Tuo-Qua guy will kill you when he gets his hands on you.”

“If it wasn’t him it just would have been someone else. Why does it matter to you?”

She looked at him in such a way that he thought he’d succeeded in chasing her off from this foolishness. Then she said, “Because you’re free.”

“Free?”

“Why do you think I asked what it was like? I chase a fleeting dream that dims with each job we take, a dream of setting my course and owning my own ship. But you….you are your own ship. Able to go wherever you want, chase whatever you desire. You possess freedom in a way most of us will never taste. In a way I’ll never know.”

He started to reject her claim but stopped himself. Everything she said was truth.

“Do what you want, but don’t sit there and die thinking you did me a favor.”

Na’deran had just started to stand when the alarm sounded. “I think we’ve been noticed.”
Thes Redav
State Protectorate
Caldari State
#4 - 2012-11-27 05:35:30 UTC  |  Edited by: Thes Redav
“That’s the combat alarm.”

“Combat?”

Together they ran out into the hall, to the nearest com panel. The girl mashed the channel button and the voice of a young man burst through the speaker, “They’re targeting us!”

“Aye, and you can be sure Concord’s targeting them too,” Valsint’s growled.

“Val?” the girl spoke into the com. “What’s happening up there?”

“There you are! Why aren’t you down in the engine room? We’ve got a Tornado boxing us right now and—”

“We’re locked!” the boy at the helm shouted.

A second crew member voice said, “They’re opening a channel with us!”

“Punch them through,” Valsint ordered.

The com clicked open loudly for all on the bridge to hear, and the voice of a man broke through the com, calm and cheerful. “Hello! This message is for your passenger, Na’deran Sehtu. Is he around? I would very much like to speak with him.”

“I’m Henegro Valsint, captain of this ship. Stop targeting us if you want to talk.”

The cheerful voice giggled. “Let me rephrase—I would very much like to speak with him before I blow your ship to pieces.”

For a moment, only static struck through speaker, then Valsint retorted. “Fire on this ship and you’ll follow us to the grave. Now who are you, and what do you want?”

“Who I am is of no consequence. I told you, I want to speak to Sehtu. I want to hear his voice so I can deliver a message to him.”

“Stop targeting us and I’ll let you speak with Sehtu.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Na’deran and the girl listened at the com. “Will he fire on us?” she asked suddenly.

“Yes. He’s only stalling to close range. The moment Valsint starts aligning to a gate he’ll scramble your warp drive and unleash a volley from his turrets—be assured they’re already linked to fire in unison.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s a capsuleer, sent here to kill me.”

To his credit, Valsint must have suspected something of this nature, because he hadn’t tried to run yet. Instead, he was trying his luck at bluffing. “We’re delivering the pilot you request to some friends in Curse. Maybe you know them?”

“Angels don’t concern me,” the capsuleer answered, “nor does Concord. Last chance.”

The bridge was silent.

“He’s gonna run for it,” Na’deran said.

“What do we do?”

“Get me off the ship. He’s only got one shot before Concord melts him – he won’t waste it on you if he sees me trying to escape.”

Without a word they ran for modified cargo bay where the pod sat—a perfect oval of a capsule, modified over the years from its original Jovian design to look like a steel egg. Inside, the bio-nutrient stew of Na’deran’s last stint had festered and the fishy reek of burnt electrodes spilt out into the cargo bay. Not first-class accommodations, but it would suffice until he could get to a station outfitted for pod pilots and have it properly flushed.

“Do you know how to hook me up?” he asked her.

“I’m the one who unhooked you.”

One misplaced wire would fry his brain but he had no choice but to trust her. Mere heartbeats since they left the open com, but there could be only seconds left before the Tornado opened fire. He’d never get fitted in time. “Patch us through to the bridge channel—I’ve got to try and stall him.”

She did, bringing up the voice of a very scared Valsint. “I promise you he is onboard somewhere – I don’t know where he could have gone!”

“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Na’deran yelled toward the com.

“Ah, there you are, Sehtu,” the cheerful voice returned. “Guristas send their greetings.”

Guristas. So, his employer had caught up.

“If they wanted me dead all they had to do is wait an hour. I’m on my way back to the Angels.” Na’deran climbed a step ladder and practically jumped into the goop, sinking in the stink all the way to his neck. The girl was right behind him. She reached for a cable. “No, attach those last,” he told her. “Grab the ear sockets.”

“They may not care who kills you,” the Tornado pilot was saying, “but I do.”

“Of course,” Na’deran answered conversationally. “Must be a nice bounty to blow a Tornado. Big money, easy target—is that what you told the crew you’re about to kill?”

“You’re a strange one, Sehtu. I’ve met capsuleers that bribed me for their ships, begged me for their pods, but never any that showed concern for the lives of their crews.”

She had the tubes over his ears and up his nostrils, but the neural jacks were giving her trouble. “You should get out of the pod more.”

“Spoken like a dead man, Sehtu. You know as well as I do – never leave the pod.”

“We’re not going to make it,” he said. “Just get to an escape pod.”

“Almost have it,” she said.

“It’s time for us to go now,” the bounty hunter squealed, his voice filled by the maniacal glee of someone who was about to cheat death. “I would say see you on the other side of the Burn, but alas, not this time….”

“Don’t do this,” Na’deran pleaded. “I can come aboard….” Something was wrong. She was wiring him out of order. “What are you doing?”

“I almost have it.”

Na’deran yanked his half-wired head around as much as he could and glimpsed her efforts—she’d foregone connecting his vitals and focused solely on patching his neural jacks to the burn scanner. A buzz whirred through his mind, the mind-scanning hardware booting to life just as Vaum and Drusky ran into the cargo hold, their guns drawn.

“He’s getting back in the pod!” Drusky shouted, never realizing his error.

No…

“Get us to the nearest station,” Valsint shouted, but it was too late.

“They’re scrambling us!” the boy at the com screamed.
Thes Redav
State Protectorate
Caldari State
#5 - 2012-11-27 05:36:28 UTC
And in that moment she looked at Na’deran, and for some goddamned reason he looked back. The look on her face, the hope, the searching, the realization—the terror—burned itself into his mind, even as the fire took him.


***


It turns out they were all wrong, the pilots that had been through the Burn. Na’deran experienced neither the ecstasy nor the horrors they’d ascribed to the experience. He did not wake from a cold, dark dream, but rather a fiery, hell-scorched one, in which hate and fury were smelted to his soul like carbon to iron, and thoughts of escape and a return to the safety of high-sec space were quenched by the face of a nameless girl who perished in the nameless void, a hundred systems from where he know breathed. For Na’deran Sehtu, the Burn was just what it sounded—a reforging of the soul through rage and fire, so that what emerged from the vats was not a clone but a man reborn, gifted with a single purpose.

Revenge.
Random McNally
Stay Frosty.
A Band Apart.
#6 - 2012-11-27 17:09:14 UTC
Great read! I loved it!

Host of High Drag Podcast. http://highdrag.wordpress.com/

Space music http://minddivided.com

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T'Esshe
Aliastra
Gallente Federation
#7 - 2012-11-29 09:20:10 UTC
Hey - really well written, congrats! I thought there was a few weak sentences, but overall, better than just about all the other ones I've looked at in the last month. You brought the lore to life - good job!
T'Esshe
Aliastra
Gallente Federation
#8 - 2012-11-30 14:43:54 UTC
Wanted to add - there's a discussion raging here about the 'pilot-in-a-pod' lore, that I think you also address nicely with your story.