Written by: Amanda

The lull in the debriefing left Silvalinus time to study his team. A political mission never guaranteed a peaceful one.

Fnippith sat on the floor, adjusting the settings on her combat suit before switching to admiring the grenade launcher with a dozen new prototype mines from Farrah. Fnippith’s grin made Silvalinus certain of her happy trigger finger, which had a tendency to fly off at random times even without new technology to experiment with. 

The Terran performer, however, was nothing like his usual self. He’d locked himself firmly into his seat, piloting the ship while Silvalinus walked through the parameters of their mission. Where jabs at his captain’s severity would normally be, he held his tongue, staring out into deep space and the streams of light that lingered in the paths of the space lane they’d acquired permission to travel. 

“Are we all clear on the terms?” Silvalinus asked, piquing immediate attention from Fnippith who cocked the grenade launcher back over her shoulder, testing its balance with the new mines before flipping it forward into her other waiting hand. “Fnippith?” It always took a couple tries to get her reply. Farrah should have spoken by now.

“No weapons, no fighting—only talking and signing.” Clearly satisfied by her weapon, she finally set it aside. “Say we convince them to sign the treaty, does that mean we can take our ship anywhere we want once the space lane opens? There’s a planet south of Heldar by like…” Her voice lowered to a mumble, as if he wouldn’t hear her or consider the journey’s length, “…just a couple lightyears…and I heard from Asha—you know, the Qhurothi down by the city bazaar, with the remedies shop—anyway, she says there’s been talk of a transformative agent, like an accelerated variant of azothite that provides temporary effects at higher volume.” 

Her voice rose in pitch as she continued; it was amazing how long one person could talk, and the Otakke rivaled most. Silvalinus drew her attention back with a tap of his hand on the console stretched in front of him before switching the ship back to his control. 

From his right eye, he saw Farrah stiffen. The Terran drew a round object from his ACS, slowly coaxing it over his knuckles with a wave of his fingers, like it might have the power to explode and take them all with it. Not what Silvalinus wanted to see—restless energy never made for a smooth mission. They all knew that from experience. 

“The base on Heldar accepted the board’s request to be neutral ground for the negotiations,” Silvalinus said; if Farrah wanted to stew in silence over their orders, then he could. They had time, at least a span of half a day, before they would dock. “Show of good faith, no weapons once boots touch ground.”

Fnippith’s long ears twitched. She hid her annoyance well from those who didn’t know her.

“And the pirates? We’re trusting them to just hand their weapons over?” Farrah asked.

The pressure of a freefall into space, an immense emptiness beyond his combat suit, crept up in the back of Silvalinus’s mind. He forced a chuckle. “We trust they want the raw azothite New Carthage is offering.”

Lights in the pressurized cabin flickered. The ship’s hull shuddered as if struck, and Fnippith, still seated on the ground, shot a hand out to stop from slamming into the wall. A brief quiet followed. “Meteor debris?”

The question drowned in an onslaught of groans from the ship, like an animal in pain as the azothite woven through their ship activated. 

Of course. Silvalinus should have guessed. A neutral meeting place? It really had been too long since he’d been face-to-face with his former fleet admiral, and the reminder of who they were dealing with came with tightening along Silvalinus’s arms—the azothite in his ACS seizing. Whatever trick this was, it would run their ship into the next planet they passed. Janus had always had an affinity for strange inventions. 

From behind him, he heard Fnippith snatch the grenade launcher from where it began to float away. No artificial gravity. The weightlessness was right; it was freedom, and he pushed from his chair, long arms grabbing hold of the railings he’d hammered into the ship himself. They carried him past Farrah wrestling for control of the spiraling ship. 

Hullbreaker hung on the far wall. The alchemically enhanced laser could tear apart a ship. Janus would remember, and grimly, Silvalinus smiled as he broke the cabin’s pressure to leverage open the ship’s hatch, activating his ACS while ordering his team to do the same. 

He launched himself up, breaking into open space. The chaos inside the Brokerage-issued vessel disappeared. The galaxy stretched in all directions—endless, suffocating, and ignoring, ignoring, ignoring it all. His boots activated, the enhanced magnetic pull yanking him back to the ship. Anchored, he lifted Hullbreaker. 

New Carthage needed this treaty. According to the magistrate. This treaty would die with a single trigger pull, and he would scrawl in an almost empty record log about his failures as captain. Perhaps the Cloak of Olaos would no longer be his future…but his team at least would have a future.

Now, all he needed was a target.

The ship quaked beneath Silvalinus. 

In the vacuum of space, a presence loomed at his right—gone, and then to his left. He turned, chasing shadows and pointless mirages until black swallowed their ship whole. This again. Always with the dramatic show, and now, Hullbreaker fell useless to his side. The engine propelling them along the space lane sputtered and cut without a sound. Everything out here was always curiously silent. 

Around them, the nothingness shifted, snapped with color and shook; his boots disengaged and he jumped to the void. Invisible ground stopped him; the stench of metal in the air burned like a memory. 

Not in space anymore, but he dreaded this more. Terran flies and the magistrate’s incessant prattling would be far better. 

“Captain,” a voice rumbled out of view. “Ah, and your team. Welcome, Silvalinus, Fnippith, and an entertainer!”

“Janus.”

“It’s Fleet Admiral,” the Aidlean admonished, not even a shadow in the black of his ship’s hull. “Welcome to the Iron Spectre.”

___

The small object lay useless in Farrah’s palm. A simple push at its edges could activate it. The potential drowned out the voice of the Aidlean taunting them from outside their own ship. He knew them all by name–well, Fnippith and Silvalinus, at least. Entertainer was all Farrah got, but he’d been called worse before.

This Aidlean? This fleet? Silvalinus had turned his back on them for a reason, hadn’t he? They couldn’t even follow the simple terms the board established.

“Let’s go!” Fnippith said, appearing at his shoulder, a hand latched onto the rail above the pilot’s seat. “…What’s that?”

Farrah’s hand closed over the coin before fitting it beneath the plating of his ACS. “Good luck charm.”

The Qhurothi said to activate it when any critical information might be shared, if he chose to right New Carthage’s path. Now wasn’t the time. His captain wouldn’t go through with this treaty. Silvalinus was an Aidlean, but he was no pirate, and he’d left this behind him. 

The mines manufactured with a preview of the Qhurothi’s money gave Farrah the confidence to climb the ship’s ladder up to the hatch. Fnippith raced ahead—to be perfectly dramatic, he’d kill for her confidence. Or was she just not aware they might be about to die? Yeah, that seemed more likely. She must have missed the black ship building impossible speed until it overtook them. A thing of metal could not disappear without a trace, and yet, it had shuttered from existence with a flash only to reappear far from its vanishing point. Close enough to open its own hatch and engulf their small vessel.

A ghost ship. Were all rumors true then?

“This wasn’t the agreement,” Silvalinus said, out of sight. “The board sanctioned Heldar as neutral ground.”

Fnippith still had the grenade launcher in hand, suddenly free floating in dead air. Her cloak fanned out, just long enough for Farrah to grab hold of the ship’s edge and snatch her back from wherever she might drift off toward. They hung against the hull. 

Down below lines of azothite-activated metal set off a dull glow. Silvalinus stood in the center. Angry or stoic. It was always hard to tell with him, but especially with his back turned, and the hulking weight of the ACS hiding his head almost entirely. The rest of the ship was shrouded in heavy black.

It was simple. End this insanity now. That was all Silvalinus had to do, and Farrah knew he would do it; Silvalinus believed in the Cloak, believed in unification, and even believed in Farrah’s research.

With no free hand to grab a mine and throw—and no gravity to ensure his projectile landed where he wanted—Farrah held back, his lungs tightening before he realized the oxygen regulators in his suit were failing, the rest of his ACS glitching to follow the pattern of the ghost ship’s walls.

Fnippith tapped against the side of his suit. It whirred back to life while the shaking of the ship beneath them finally stilled. The tinkering Otakke reappeared in his vision, flashing an OK with her fingers before gesturing down. Whatever she’d done to his suit, his lungs filled with renewed air, and he nodded. The mine he knew she wanted would help them see what they were up against in the dark belly of the ship, if nothing else.

Fnippith’s eyes scrunched up, evidence of a grin hidden behind the scarf covering the lower half of her face. A tug at his belt told him she’d grabbed the shock mine. A dramatic name, but a simple tool. She didn’t find them fun enough to stock in her grenade launcher. 

A thunk followed a high-pitched whistle. The spinning mine soon erupted, and the Iron Spectre flooded with light. Aidleans hung from every side and crevice of the ship, as if nothing within had set direction. No up, no down, left or right. Only one oddity mixed among them, an Otakke with eyes gleaming and focused. He scuttled along toward the Cloak’s ship, scrambling for purchase, seemingly foreign to the gravity-less space. The rest of the crew turned to Silvalinus.

“And they ordered no weapons, yet here your team is.” The fleet admiral hung from the siding too, not standing like Farrah first thought, and neither was Silvalinus. The captain moved with ease through the strange ship, closer to the threat: Janus.

“Release our ship and let us dock, conduct this meeting peaceably.”

Fleet Admiral Janus. The name alone evoked a two-headed beast, and Farrah wondered if the imagery would be lost on a man who likely only cared for battle. Wasn’t that what the Aidlean fleets were? Warmongers. His skin crawled, and the open hatch down into their ship tempted him. They could blow a hole through the Iron Spectre and escape out of it. This treaty was doomed from the start.

“The entertainer can keep his toys, of course,” Janus said, waving one of his four hands to a member of his crew. “The rest, we’ll need.”

“Toys?” The outraged cry came from Fnippith now struggling to shove off from the ship and use the lack of gravity to her advantage. Farrah wrested her back, hissing for her silence, while she loudly protested. Reason upon reason were muttered under a bitter breath. “These are state-of-the art technology! Do they realize how rare it is to find development like this in something without azothite? Toys?!” 

“We will surrender our weapons to the denizens of Heldar,” Silvalinus said. It was almost admirable the unshakeable focus that refused to bend, not even to look at the member of his team stewing over a slight.

This was just a show, Farrah knew. The Aidleans wanted to prove they were in charge of this meeting and its terms. Intimidation, and a shoddy attempt…ignoring, of course, the slight shake of Farrah’s legs. He hoped no one noticed. It was Silvalinus’s show too, though. They didn’t realize the captain had no intention of agreeing to this treaty.

The chuckle from the fleet admiral set the hair on the back of Farrah’s neck on end. “It is good to see you, Silvalinus, and welcome an old traitor back into our ranks.”

Carelessly said, the word brought Farrah’s gaze sharply to his captain, just in time to see the surrounding crew of Aidleans closing in. They waited for their admiral’s orders, while the giant ship lurched and flashed with odd lights spiraling like veins through the metal. Farrah’s ACS gave an answering groan.

A hand reached out, approaching from behind their ship. Farrah flinched, already reaching for a mine until a small Otakke face peered up. Right, the oddity. He’d made it through the webs of Aidleans to cling to the edge of the Cloak’s vessel, eyes dark and pleading before darting around, as if ready for a large hand to yank him back. Janus droned on, nearly covering the Otakke’s whisper: “Please…find it before it destroys the planet…”

Farrah’s brow furrowed, pulling Fnippith back from the ominous words. This was a trap, no doubt, set by Janus. They couldn’t trust one of his crew.

Fnippith wriggled free and lunged for the small paper the Otakke held up. She floated for a second, perfectly content in knowing that Farrah would grab for her again and keep her from drifting off. He wouldn’t. Gah, of course he would. He grabbed hold and pulled her in, just in time to watch her unfold the small scrap of paper. Half the page of a scientific journal, it looked like. Even ripped on one edge, it was an unmistakable but unremarkable box, carvings along its sides with a gear set to the right corner. 

“My crew will see us down to Heldar,” Janus said. “Now surrender your weapons.”

The Otakke’s gleaming eyes flashed with alarm. “…like it already did to him.”

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