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Small Choices - a Limit Theory Novel

#1
A Limit Theory novel-in-progress.
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Spoiler:      SHOW
What's left of the original header:
Looking forwards to hearing what people think. :) It's short, at only 1.8k words - I usually write chapters of about 3.5k words in length. I didn't want to overload people all at once - better to know how much people are willing to read - and if it's good enough quality-wise to continue.
(Chapter One was my literary entry for October's Limit Theory Fan Contest.)
Exhaustive pronunciation dictionary:
Spoiler:      SHOW

Code: Select all

Talvieno:      TAL-vee-IN-oh
Hraden Larus:  HRAY-den LAIR-us
Odgen:         ODGE-in
Sturgium:      STUR-jee-um
Jormagnun:     jor-mag-NUN
Termang:       TURR-mang
Scathecrow:    SCATHE-crow
Sarlan:        SARR-lan
Garet:         GAIR-it
Mertz:         MERTZ
Verana:        vurr-AH-nuh
Jarnel:        jar-NELL
Vera:          VEER-uh
Rebnauld:      reb-nald
Taiya Helania: TIE-yuh hell-AY-nee-uh
Sranto:        SRAN-toe
Dyurvis:       DYUR-viss
Rigoa:         rye-GO-uh
Dayli:         DAY-lee
Brelyme:       BREH-lime
Felgis:        FELL-giss
Pelebb:        peh-LEBB
Ridgel Peliat: RYE-jull PEE-lee-at
Ilviat:        ILL-vee-at
Voro'zhin:     VORR-oh-SHIN
Zaichi:        zye-CHEE
Shijone:       shee-JOAN
Maikal:        my-KAL
Kilan:         kee-LONN
Chokai:        cho-KIE
Tvondega:      tuh-von-DAY-guh
Lumis:         LOO-miss
Idun:          ee-DUNE
Katoro:        kuh-TORE-roe
Formoss:       for-MOSS
Taimi'sei:     TIE-me-SAY
Dinswar:       DIN-swar (rhymes with "par")
Chiara:        Key-ARE-uh
Gavers:        GAA-vers (first part rhymes with "bat")
Rictor:        RICK-torr
Felkas:        FELL-kiss
Rolga:         ROLL-guh
Kadia:         KAY-dee-uh
Small Choices
By Talvieno
  As Hraden stared into the depths, he imagined he felt a chill wind steal over him, raising goosebumps on his skin and sending shivers down his spine. It was a strange turn of phrase, not merely because there was no wind in space, but also because the air cooling systems in his old, decrepit ship had barely ever functioned. All the same, the expression seemed accurate - especially to someone like him, who had never set foot upon a planet's surface, and never felt a breeze at all. He hunched forwards and drew his jacket just a little closer to his neck as he stared out his cockpit's center window, into the darkness of the asteroid's hollow center.
  Why would an asteroid have a hollow center to begin with? he wondered. The miner, on edge as he was, began carefully examining the walls of the shallow shaft he'd uncovered. They lacked the smooth curves oft created by a miner's energetic transfer beam - rather, it looked as if it had been blasted out, or perhaps even mined by hand. But who would spend the time to mine an asteroid by hand?
  And most importantly... who would hide two dozen human corpses inside after doing so?

~~~

  The little mining hauler remained motionless as Hraden, in a mixture of horror and macabre fascination, observed the tangled forms, floating as they were before his fin-mounted floodlights. Their genders were undiscernible, their bodies nothing more than shriveled flesh stretched across bony frames, wearing otherwise untarnished Odgen military uniforms. Although fellow Odgenians, Hraden found their faces unrecognizable, but he doubted he would've known any of them anyway.
  Hraden sat silently as the minutes stretched slowly onwards, pondering the mystery of the foreboding scene. The biggest question on his mind was, why hide bodies in an asteroid field? People left exposed in space dry out and freeze - it was taught even to young children, as a warning against leaving airlocks ajar or unsealed - anyone would know it.
  After a good while, he straightened up in his chair and put his craft in careful reverse, the thrusters on the front of his ship lighting up the asteroid's interior - and the faces of the dead - with a faint blue glow. He couldn't afford wasting so much precious time gawking at what seemed so clearly to be a crime scene, and getting involved in something like this was the last thing he wanted. What deterred him from staying wasn't so much the prospect of interrogation or being treated as a suspect as it was fear of the authorities grounding his ship. They would be sure to lock his ship down, and possibly even imprison him to keep him from fleeing - it would ruin him. He was a miner, and if he didn't bring back ore, he couldn't make a living, he couldn't rent his dock, and he couldn't keep his ship.
  And yet, before he turned his ship back towards the void, Hraden's conscience compelled him to at least mark the site, hoping that perhaps it would give their families some closure. Reaching forwards, he tapped a few buttons near the top of his console. With a bright flash of yellow light, a steel beacon spike fired from beneath his left wing, embedding itself deep within the asteroid's outer shell, the back end pulsing a metallic blue. The warm, charitable feeling it gave him soon faded from his thoughts as his ship spun and started back into the permeating orange glow of the Termang asteroid field, his course set for Odgen station.
  Partly because he felt a little peckish, and partly to get his mind off things, Hraden reached over behind his chair and pulled a D-ration from his lunch bag, biting into a corner of the brownish-gray bar. A few quick flips of switches on his pilot's chair, and soothing music soon washed over him, gently rinsing the horrors he'd borne witness to from his mind. Chewing slowly, he leaned back into the soft leather, closing his eyes and letting the ration's wrapper fall forgotten to the floor... yet the discomforted frown still refused to leave his lips.

  Hraden intended to arrive at the market a little earlier than the other miners, while the cash pool for the day was still high and Sturgium ore was still in high demand. His cargo hold wasn't quite full, and he was anything but an experienced miner, but he'd learned that if you wanted to get ahead, you had to play the system a little. Most Odgenians would find someone of this mindset disagreeable. If you mentioned Odgen to almost any traveled individual in the star cluster, it would immediately bring to their mind an image of a rough, homespun figure - dark eyes, light skin, and brown hair. Such a well-traveled individual might also helpfully add that Odgenians are known for being hard workers that value tradition and the security of their comfort zones above all else.
  For the most part, Hraden matched up to these expectations. The primary difference was: he hated Odgen. He hated the confinement of its worn, grimy corridors, and he hated the slum-like conditions created by cramming two million people - far beyond standard population limits - into such a station. Most of all, he hated how people were so accustomed to and accepting of their situation. None of them had even the slightest desire to look to the stars. None of them wanted to explore beyond their on borders. Not a single one among them - at least, not any that he'd met - wanted out. They were comfortable with their imprisonment, and when it came down to it, that's what it was: a prison. While all were free to leave, few of them were rich enough to afford the means, and even those fortunate enough to own ships - such as himself - would find themselves shunned and disrespected wherever they went. Odgenians were known far less for their intelligence than they were for their old folk tales and myths, even to the extent that they were looked upon as whimsical and superstitious.

~~~

  Much to his annoyance, it wasn't long before Hraden found that despite how much he tried to forget it, his mind continued returning to the puzzle he had unearthed earlier that day. Why would someone bury their victims in an asteroid field? Even the Jormagnun mafia, planetborn as they were, knew better. The best way to dispose of an incriminating corpse was to send its coffin into the nearest star, chuck it into a wormhole, or even just leave it drifting in deep space. The universe is vast - far more vast than any planetborn seemed to realize - one would only need to kick the body out an airlock and leave. The chances of anyone ever finding it would be practically zero. Even if someone did, the chance of them tracing it back to you was even lower. After all... in a galaxy where sentients numbered in the trillions, in a universe that was theoretically infinite, how could you find the guilty party among so many?
  His thoughts were gently interrupted by a voice sounding in the cabin - the soft, feminine tones of his ship's AI: "Thirty minutes to Odgen Station." It was helpful and unobtrusive, yet it still pulled Hraden from his musings, enough for him to open his eyes and look around.
  Termang's dusty orange hue filled his darkened cockpit with a dim, ambient glow. While outsiders always seemed to find it beautiful - or menacing, in some cases - to Hraden it was as familiar and unworthy of note as the hairs on the back of his arm. Rather, its familiarity and comfort helped him think.
  With a sigh, he leaned forwards, elbows on his knees, and rested his chin in his hands in mild irritation. No sooner had he, though, than his AI spoke once more. "Craft detected on intersect trajectory, ETA two minutes."
  The asteroid field was hardly a popular ground for pirates, so Hraden wasn't worried in the slightest - in fact, he was rather uninterested - but there were rules on protocol he couldn't ignore. "Highlight," he ordered his computer aloud, and a small blue circle flashed into existence with a soft chime on the viewscreen to his left. Unfortunately, a quick glance in that direction informed him that something was wrong - though he could barely see the ship from that distance, he could definitely make out red plasma flashes.
  Complicating matters further, his comm system crackled to life, a voice shouting in desperation: "Someone, anyone, please! I'm an Odgen miner, I'm under attack by Scathecrow pirates! My starboard engine's failing, my targeting system's busted, shields are gone! Please, if you can hear me, I need help!! Please, anyone!!! I'm in trouble and I need help!"

  So then, just as it always did, it came down to a decision: Should he charge into a fight where he would almost certainly be outnumbered, and attempt to save his fellow miner, or should he use the time he had to get away?
  The longer he'd lived, the more he'd realized that these small choices are what make life what it is. They're pivotal points in the flow of time - everything hinges around them - your choices are what limit what you're capable of. He'd made a major choice seventeen years before at the tender age of nine, when he'd told his father that he wasn't going to follow in his footsteps as a hull repairman. He'd made another nine years after that, when his father had disowned him for refusing to leave his girlfriend, and yet another four years later when he'd traded his apartment and life savings for the old, broken down trash heap he'd turned back into a ship through weeks of careful work. It always came down to a decision.
  Even so... even despite his twenty-six years of experience, Hraden didn't understand - he didn't realize - what a critical decision he was making when he banked his hauler hard left to intercept the allied craft. As he spurred the throttle to the maximum with a flick of his wrist, subsequently feeling himself forced deep into the leather of his chair by his vehicle's acceleration, he was setting events in motion that would change the course of history not just for a single hapless miner, not just for a few random pirates, but for the entire galaxy.
  As the gap closed between him and the enemy, circling like buzzards around their prey, a dark storm menaced on the horizon... yet even if he'd known, Hraden wouldn't have cared. He was desperate for adventure, desperate for excitement, desperate to escape to the stars beyond the social prison that entrapped him.

  He wanted to explore.
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Last edited by Talvieno on Tue Dec 30, 2014 2:35 pm, edited 21 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#2
Chapter 2
  "Help! Someone, anyone!" the stranger's desperate voice screamed out over the comm, punctuated by a loud explosion. Even from that distance, Hraden could make out the shape of the miner's starboard outrigger engine as it broke free of the rest of his ship amidst a burst of sparks, leaving a trail of burning smoke as it spiraled out into space.
  "Sofie, open comms," Hraden ordered his AI in haste, and then, raising his voice, "I'm on my way, bearing 35 at 15-z! Just stay calm and stabilize your thruster config! Try rerouting your transfer beam's power core to your afterburner module - it'll burn like hellfire but it'll keep you moving for a while. They'll likely pull off of you for a minute when I attack, so be ready to make a break for it, got it?"
  There was no response. Hraden could only hope that the miner trusted him and was following his directions.
  "One... two... three," he whispered softly, counting the pirates under his breath. His eyes carefully tracked them across the center of his viewscreen, camouflaged as they were by Termang's permeating orange glow. His breath was short, his muscles tensed - he'd never had the opportunity to enter combat before, though he'd prepared for it. His ship, "Sofie", was his baby - his home - and ugly though she was compared to the long, sleek ships common to the sector, he was sure she'd pack a punch. Even so, it was three against one, and he lacked any sort of combat experience. As he approached them at full clip, he readied himself, his fingers pecking rapidly at the consoles around him - frontal shields to maximum, weapons powered up, and a sweaty, nervous hand kept on the thrusters.
  It wasn't much longer before they saw him. "Incoming scan," the AI intoned as calmly as ever, while the comms crackled to life. "Odgen hauler, this is our prey," a husky voice warned, rife with irritation. "If you give us any trouble, we'll go after you."
  But Hraden ignored them. His brow furrowing with grim determination, he waited, letting his hauler get just a little closer, careful to avoid their line of fire... He'd decided he would wait until they turned away from the miner.
  "Collision imminent," his AI cautioned him urgently. "I recommend you pull away."
  But the young combatant was focused on the three ships with a kind of tunnel vision and hardly heard it, only waiting patiently, tensely, as the gap closed. He could soon make out the Scathecrow emblem on the sides of their ships: the silhouette of a blood-red crow beneath three diagonal gashes.
  And then it happened: As if response to an unheard order, the three pirates began turning upwards towards him. Hraden immediately let loose, his proton beams slicing forwards across the nearest ship, its shields shimmering, ripppling, dimming under the assault. At the last second, he switched full power to his thrusters and swerved, narrowly missing his target as he sped past in a blur.
  Flipping the comms back on, Hraden struggled to raise his voice above the frantic beating of his heart. "Get out - get out of here! Now's your chance, GO!!"
  Behind him, the void erupted in a fireball; the damaged hauler's afterburners turned on full blast, the vessel shooting forwards in a streak of light as it blazed away. A worried smile graced Hraden's lips as he spun around to resume the fight, adrenaline pumping through his veins: he'd saved the miner, but that was only half of the job. Now he, too, needed to escape.
  "Evade," his AI urged, but he didn't have time to react: plasma pulses streamed past his ship, his shields shimmering under the combined assault of the three oncoming pirates. Half from reflex, half from fear, Hraden jammed the afterburners and throttled up. The rapid acceleration pressed him deeply into the back of his seat and made his teeth rattle as he rocketed beneath the enemy, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a large, rocky asteroid as he made an about face and throttled back up, charging forwards again like a madman.
  As soon as his assailants were in range, he let his proton beams sear away what was left of the first pirate's shields. Plasma pulses started sapping his shields once more, the cockpit window flashing with bursts of fiery red. Gritting his teeth, he fired his primary weapons; his four fin-mounted accelerated particle cannons ripped into the nearest enemy, sending sparks streaking into the orange murk as the pirate's armor began to peel away, chunk by chunk, like soft sand beneath a spray of water. Hraden found himself focusing ever more intensely on his victim as they closed in on each other, as if he could bore a hole through his opponent by sheer force of will.
  Suddenly, with a small explosion, a dense smoke began curling from the fighter's pierced hull. The damaged vessel banked away in a hurry, and their formation fell to pieces - it was all Hraden could do to pitch his ship safely aside as they thundered past in disarray.
  And just like that, it was over. By the time he managed to pull his craft around for another pass, the pirates were already fleeing the vicinity. With his heart still thumping wildly in his heaving chest, the man suddenly felt out of place in the gloom, all but wondering whether it had only been his imagination. Indeed, the large, silent asteroids, the soft glare of starlight through the swirling orange dust around him, the sense of utter solitude - it almost made him feel as though he was floating in a tangerine dream. Closing his eyes, he made an attempt to calm his unsteady breath, but it was still several minutes before the miner could collect his thoughts enough to speak to his AI.
  "Sofie, where did they go?" he finally managed in a soft voice. "Give me a list of the nearest vessels."
  At his command, a list of ships appeared on his viewscreen - but none of them seemed hostile. The pirates were gone, likely well outside of scanner range.
  "But why would they leave?" he whispered, sinking limply into the back of his chair, letting his arms fall loosely to the armrests as he reflected on his situation, staring out the cockpit's segmented window into space. He was well aware that they'd had the upper hand throughout the fight. They'd scanned him early on - they would've known he was poorly equipped and carrying just under half a load of Sturgium, and it was probably thanks to the lessened load that he'd been able to maneuver at all. "Sofie," he asked thoughtfully, "How low did my shields drop during that fight?"
  The integrated HUD lit up with various softly-glowing displays and graphs showing different measurements over time, only a small handful of which Hraden understood.
  Sofie chimed quietly, "Your shields dropped to a minimum of approximately six percent during the past five minutes."
  His lips tightened. "What systems did I damage of theirs? Could I have survived that fight if they hadn't fled?"
  "You damaged non-critical auxiliary cooling systems and a portside secondary ion pulse cannon on one of the three Wasp Interceptors," the AI stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "Simulations suggest a one-in-five chance of survival, had the two remaining Wasp Interceptors displayed the same attack patterns as the first." There was a brief pause, and then it continued, "For future reference, although your course of action suggested noble intentions, it is likely unwise to fight when you're outnumbered."
  Chin in hand, Hraden nodded slowly. "Yes, I know..." he answered, his voice muffled between his fingers. For a moment he pondered this new information, eyes downcast. "But why would they leave?" he asked again, of no one in particular. "Maybe they just didn't want to take any more damage." Regardless, he thought, I need to get moving.
  And with that, the young miner sat up in his chair, returning his shields and weapons to normal power levels, throttling up and resuming his course for Odgen station. It had been a strange day thus far, and it only continued getting stranger the farther along it went.

~~~

  Hidden strategically in a particularly dense cluster of asteroids, Odgen Station was once a military base, its long spoke-like arms housing munitions, soldiers, fighters, and provisions. Now it merely housed civilians, shops, cheap offices and farms. Its military days had long since passed, and it now served as the lackluster capital of Odgen, boasting a ludicrous population of over one million. Odgen itself was hardly more than a smattering of bases and settlements among the Termang asteroid cluster, but its residents were fiercely patriotic, fond of retelling stories of the "glory days", and fonder still of imagining that those days were far from gone.
  In reality, Odgen Station was far from being the shining steel fortress it had been at its creation - its hull was a patchwork of various metals to the extent that hull repairmen like Hraden's father often joked about how they were merely "patch repairmen". Several years before, one of the spoke-like arms had even broken loose due after a major collision with a dreadnought and started drifting slowly away. The economy was too dry to fund a project to replace - or even repair - the missing section. It had drifted a few kilometers away, coming to a stop against a large, rocky asteroid. A number of enterprising individuals had later re-sealed it and turned it into a structure of its own, and as Hraden flew into the center of the cluster, Odgen Station coming into view, he could see a few ships heading to and from "Odgen Arm", as it was known. Hraden's destination, however, was Odgen Station itself.
  Docking protocol consisted of two simple rules: don't break anything, and don't hit anyone. There were rarely any ships to be seen except for miners, ferries, and the occasional merchants - many fewer than you'd see somewhere like Sarlan or even Jormagnun. Having had a ship for four years, Hraden was well-accustomed to the light traffic by this time, and made his way around the back of the station to Spoke 9. It was only a matter of seconds before he was passing through the glistening airshield and into the station proper. After a few minutes more of careful RCS maneuvering to his rented docking station, Hraden landed softly and cut the power. A solid, reassuring clang echoed through the little hauler as Sofie's magnetic clamps engaged, anchoring her firmly to the ground.
  While he remained motionless for a time, lost in idle speculation, he eventually got to his feet. He knew he was going to be late to the market, but there wasn't much he could do about it. Between finding the corpses and rescuing unlucky miners from pirates, he'd had a long day already, and it was hardly mid-afternoon.
  Walking around his chair, Hraden picked up his lunch bag, wrapper, and what was left of his D-ration on the way to the floor hatch. Then, as his fingers rested idly on the handle, a thought struck him: why were Scathecrow pirates in the Termang asteroid field at all? Odgen would offer but slim pickings for pirates. Perhaps, he decided, there's no way I'll ever know.
  Shifting his mind from the events of the day, he lifted the hatch and climbed down the flimsy retractable ladder to the hangar's metallic surface, taking in the familiar surroundings. Hangar 9 - and indeed, all the hangars of Odgen Station - weren't much more than steel caves, looking less like Sarlan's fancy docking facilities and more like a gigantic, unfinished warehouse, complete with cheap scaffolding and rusty iron rafters far above. It was fairly busy at this hour, with ships coming and going, mechanics shouting back and forth, and repair drones humming as they flew about, but the hustle and bustle was part of what made it home... and part of why Hraden hated it.
  His ship was parked between two older-model haulers, and though Sofie was actually in better condition overall, she was the ugliest of the three - at least by sector standards. While Odgen's ships were sleek as a rule, with two to four outrigger engines off the back, Sofie seemed a rounded, jumbled mess - almost less like a ship and more like a large, bulbous pile of rounded stones. Hraden had often thought about remaking her hull in a somewhat smoother, more aerodynamic shape, but he'd never had the heart... or the cash. Breathing out a sigh, he stood there for a moment, listening to the beeping of machinery, the shouts of hangar workers, the hissing of thrusters... and somehow missed the sound of footsteps coming up on his left.
  "Freeze," a voice spoke out coldly from behind. "Odgen military police. Don't move or we'll fire. Garet, search him."
  Someone patted him down, searching for weapons, and Hraden did his best to remain motionless. "He's clean," a voice spoke, presumably belonging to Garet.
  At this, a uniformed female officer strode in front of him, her cruel eyes daring him to move. Intimidation was part of the game - Hraden knew it well - the solution was to stay calm. It wasn't the first time he'd found himself on the wrong side of the law, but this time, he wasn't remotely aware of having done anything wrong.
  "Hraden Larus?" she asked.
  He nodded mutely.
  With a menacing glare, she held a holopad up in front of him. "This wouldn't look familiar to you, would it?"
  Hraden felt his heart plummet in his chest. On the holopad's shimmering surface, he could clearly discern the grisly scene he'd borne witness to earlier: the corpses in the asteroid.
Last edited by Talvieno on Tue Nov 11, 2014 10:07 am, edited 7 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#3
Chapter 3
  The military patrolwoman watched Hraden's face carefully as he stared blankly at the image, his eyes lingering there for what seemed to be just a moment too long. "He's definitely seen it before," the cop stated coldly, pulling the holopad back and jotting down a note. With this done, she spoke over his shoulder to some unseen individual. "Garet, cuff him - we're taking him in."
  "On it, Mertz," the man replied.
  Hraden's mind was spinning. "Cuffs??" he burst out in disbelief. Someone forced his hands together roughly from behind, the warm bite of force binds biting into his wrists. "I'm innocent! I didn't kill those people!" he insisted heatedly.
  "Mr. Larus, we're not accusing you of killing anyone," Mertz assured him in an official tone, sliding her fingers skillfully across her holopad as she manipulated the glowing, multi-tiered display. "We discovered one of your beacons at the site, and its core recorded the launch date as being just over an hour ago. We're taking you in for questioning. You'll get your call to a lawyer once we arrive at the station." And with that, she began to read off his rights, motioning for the officers to begin marching him away.
  Hraden, stumbling along, was so bewildered that he hardly heard her.

  Them something wholly unexpected happened. "He didn't do it!" a new voice called out distantly from behind. "Verana, he doesn't have anything to do with that!"
  Mertz started, her brunette ponytail whipping about as she spun in the direction of the sound. "Jarnel? What are you doing here?" she asked in clear surprise, the put-on tone of intimidation having completely vanished from her words. "What do you mean, he didn't do it? Were you eavesdropping?"
  Hraden couldn't control his curiosity - he craned his neck around, his eyes lighting on a short-cut brown-haired man, roughly his own age. He didn't seem even remotely familiar.
  "Yeah, sis, I was listening," Jarnel smirked, which seemed to irritate Verana further. "Happened to see his ship when I was pulling through for repairs a couple rows down. Guy has the strangest ship I've ever seen - couldn't miss it anywhere. Vera," he began again, his eyebrows drawing together earnestly, "This man saved my life."
  "Saved your life??" Verana burst out incredulously.
  Hraden's mouth fell open in a mixture of shock and astonishment as he recognized Jarnel's voice. "You're... you're that miner I found out in the cluster!"
  The miner laughed, nodding as he walked over and thumped Hraden on the back. "Yep, that's me! Jarnel Mertz, at your service! Can't believe I found you again! That's my second lucky break today! I'd be dead if you hadn't stepped in - I owe you my life, buddy. I didn't even know you could route the transfer beam through the afterburners - where the hell did you learn something like that?! That trick was amazing, even if it did melt my mining gear." Jarnel was beaming as he spoke, but the expression disappeared in an instant as he turned energetically to Verana, stepping closer to her as he pointed at Hraden. "Now look here about Hraden, Vera," he went on in an undertone, "I don't know who you think he killed, but he was busy fending off three pirates, right around the same time as you claim he was off... shooting beacons or... whatever." He gestured flippantly with his hand as he spoke.
  Verana's lips twisted to the side in mild irritation. "He was at a crime scene and fired a beacon - from this ship - approximately an hour ago."
  "And I'm telling you he didn't do it!" Jarnel continued resolutely, looking at his sister in earnest. He seemed set on exonerating his savior from the crime. "Someone had to have stolen his gear or framed him somehow, because he was in the middle of a fight right then." He paused, but continued quickly before his sister had a chance to interrupt, gesturing blindly behind himself. "Go look at my ship if you don't believe me. Starboard engine got blasted clean away, and the metal's still red-hot and all twisted up. Look, I know you want justice for your friends, but this guy's innocent."
  The policewoman paused, her ponytail swishing behind her as she turned back and forth between the two men in reluctant confusion. Finally, she sighed, folding her arms as she shook her head in resignation. "Fine, he can go. Garet, uncuff him. And... Mr. Larus?" She gave an awkward pause, her lips pursed tightly.
  Hraden's hands free once more, he began absentmindedly massaging the sore spots on his wrists, looking questioningly at Verana.
  The woman glanced downward for a second, trying to collect her thoughts enough to speak. "Thank you for saving my brother's life," she finally said in what Hraden could only describe as embarrassment. And with that, she turned away, calling her men together and stalking away at a brisk, purposeful pace and leaving Jarnel and Hraden alone beneath the latter's ship.
  After stooping and picking up his fallen lunch bag, Hraden began walking calmly towards the nearest exit with Jarnel close at his heel. It was a kilometer-long walk back to the central hub of the station, and Hraden would normally have been glad for the company, but at the time he wanted nothing more than to be left to his thoughts.
  "Can you believe this??" Jarnel asked after a minute, shaking his head in dumbfounded surprise as they walked beneath the row of parked ships. "What are the chances of finding the same person twice among millions?" He paused for a moment. "How'd you manage to escape that, anyway? There were three of them, and I didn't even manage to get off a shot before they were on me."
  Hraden shrugged. "I don't have the slightest idea. I broke one's shields and started damaging its hull, and then they all just fled," he recalled, glancing over at the man. Half rolling his eyes at the other's impressed expression, he added, "I didn't do a thing. I shouldn't have survived that fight. I don't think they were even really trying."
  Jarnel furrowed his brow, his eyes downcast. "Weird... They were all over me," he mumbled, puzzling it over as they walked up to the first exit, the hollow aluminum ramp beneath their boots clanging as they walked. "Hmm... Would explain why they only attacked me, I suppose - maybe I had something they wanted."
  "And what would that be?"
  "I don't have a goddamn clue," the miner said, lifting his hands in the air with a shrug. "Lucky as hell you were there, though. They weren't about to let me surrender - they wanted me dead."
  Offering his newfound friend a smile, Hraden finally let himself relax. "And I'm lucky you found me."
  "I'd say we're about even, then? Or... not quite, don't think you would've gotten killed."
  "I don't know, I think that cop wanted my head," Hraden jested.
  Jarnel cringed at the joke. "Yeah, my sister enjoys her job a bit too much sometimes... particularly when there's a cop-killer involved." As they turned and walked down the dim outer corridor, he seemed to hesitate, a question lingering on his tongue for a moment before he made up his mind to ask. "You didn't actually kill anyone, did you?"
  Turning, Hraden caught the man's worried gaze with his own. "No, of course not..." He hesitated, internally debating on whether or not he should trust the man with such a sensitive matter. "Well... I fired the beacon, yes, but I didn't kill anyone - No, I didn't have anything to do with it!" he added hastily at Jarnel's shocked expression. "I just happened on the bodies, that's all! I didn't kill anyone, I didn't hurt anyone, I wasn't breaking any laws. I just wanted their families to have some closure."
  "Right, I gotcha," Jarnel said with a reassuring chuckle as they passed through a set of sliding doors into a large chamber. "Don't get so worked up about it. You're all right."
  As they continued onwards in silence, the busy atmosphere of the Spoke 9 multilevel shopping district enveloped them.
  The poor lighting, the dirty floors, and the multitude of voices were all part of the chaos that made the shopping districts what they were. Hraden was standing on the second story of ten - far above him, a tangled patchwork of balconies and ramps stretched outwards in all directions. Some places could become almost a hassle to navigate if you were a stranger to the area, but a native Odgenian like Hraden was well-used to the convoluted architecture that had grown up bit by bit over the centuries.
  The men stuck to the main thoroughfare, cluttered as it was with ramps, overhangs, and passages leading off among stacks of shanty-town buildings that stretched to the spoke's ceiling far above. The residents fondly referred to the thoroughfare as "main street", but any planetborn would've had trouble calling it a proper road at all. Merchants loudly hawked their wares, haggling for prices beneath flashing holographic signs, deliverymen plowed carts of food through thick clusters of bystanders, and the security forces chased down what petty criminals they could. It was a mess; it was chaos; it was Odgen. The station had never been meant for civilians, and the conversion had been anything but seamless.
  "Have to take my leave now," Jarnel piped up suddenly, heaving his shoulders with a sigh.
  Startled, Hraden raised his eyes and saw his friend pointing a thumb over his shoulder towards a pair of rusty, iron-plated doors. The name "Rebnauld's Bar" flashed itself out over a recessed window to the side. "Here?"
  The miner nodded convincingly. "Makes the best Steaming Brodgers in the district - it'll knock you right on your ass. Going in to grab a drink and a bite to eat. Want to come along? I'll buy," he offered, almost hopefully.
  Hraden politely declined, shaking his head. "I need to get to the market and get home. Maybe some other time?"
  "Yeah, sure!" Jarnel said, shaking Hraden's hand firmly before starting towards the door. "Just ask for Jarnel Mertz; old Rebnauld'll be able to point you in the right direction."
  And once more, Hraden was alone.

  For the most part, the rest of the day passed quietly. The markets were as busy as ever, filled with miners, merchants, and civilians clamoring for their terminals, all eyes on the large holoscreens adorning the walls. The entire process was very streamlined, and rarely took very long unless you waited around to play the market. Some people did - there were many calculating individuals that made a living solely off of the stock markets and the selling of bought goods. For intellectuals, it tended to be a highly lucrative means of making a profit, but to someone like Hraden, who couldn't stand the thought of being cooped up in the Odgen market for hours every day, it simply wasn't an option.
  Hraden had arrived too late to take part in the higher-pay mining pool, but his half-hold of sturgium ore still fetched a modest price, none too high nor low - the first normal thing that had happened that day.
  When he finally left the market, it was with a good deal of relief. He knew from experience that workers would unload the ore from his ship soon enough, and while he usually went back down to the docks to supervise their labor, he didn't feel like dealing with it after such a long day. Instead, he merely started towards his residence - or to be more accurate... Taiya's. His girlfriend of eight years, Taiya lived in an apartment near the station's hub. It wasn't much to look at, being small, dim and poorly furnished, but it was comfortable and well-kept, and to the young couple, that meant home.
  
  Hraden began to grow uneasy as he traversed the too-familiar alleys of the Sranto residential district, heading down one flight of stairs and then another as he descended ever deeper into the station's festering belly. On any other day, he would feel a glowing warmth simply from hearing Taiya's voice, but on this day in particular he was nervous. The woman's first question when they saw each other was always, "How was your day?" and she was uncannily adept at sensing when something was wrong, even if he tried to deny it. He would have to explain all the events of the day to her, and he could feel it in his bones: she was going to be upset, particularly about how he'd gambled with his life to save a stranger.
  As the young miner rounded the last corner, walking down the dingy, flaking alleyway, he nearly collided with Dyurvis, a boy aged about 16. The lad spoke up as he passed, a grin crossing his lips. "Hey, Hraden! I heard you're like... a hero now, or something!"
  Confusion creased the man's face momentarily, and he slowed, turning towards the child - but Dyurvis had already rounded the corner behind him.
  From farther on down the street, he heard a low chuckle from his neighbor, Rigoa, who was sitting just inside his doorway's indentation. "Hero, ha," the man laughed, his voice muffled by a cheap cigar. "Yeh, good luck with that one, berk."
  Feeling somewhat uneasy, Hraden continued down the hall, and it was only a matter of minutes before he found himself in front of the door to Taiya's apartment. After a slight hesitation, he pressed his hand to the lockpad beside the door, feeling a tingling sensation in his palm as it checked the structure of his mind. "Hraden, welcome," the cheap pad garbled artificially, and the locks released.
  No sooner had they, though, than the door swung open, revealing Taiya's slender figure. Her wavy red-gold locks were in slight disarray, her green eyes flashing with indignation, her face unwashed and still bearing smudges of dirt from the station's farms.
  It didn't take an FTL scientist to figure it out: Taiya already knew.
Last edited by Talvieno on Tue Nov 11, 2014 7:09 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#4
Chapter 4
  For a few seconds, Taiya returned her boyfriend's blank, dumbfounded expression with a heated glare, her lips tightly pursed. Then, as if embarrassed to even have him seen in the halls, she grabbed Hraden's arm and pulled him roughly into her apartment, closing the door and locking it behind them. "It's about time you got back," she whispered furiously, pushing past him on her way to the kitchen.
  "Tai-tai, I –"
  The woman spun abruptly on her heel, her fists clenched. "Don't you dare 'Tai-tai' me!" she interrupted angrily, her voice breaking with emotion. "You could've been killed! Did you stop to think about that? Did it even matter to you? Or were you so set on being noble that you were incapable of thinking about how anyone else would feel?"
  Hraden gulped; Taiya was rarely ever this upset. He began again, trying to explain. "I –"
  "Do you realize what that would've done to your parents? – If their son had died because he wanted to play the hero??" she burst out in a rush. "Racing about in that ridiculous spaceship of yours, playing around all day in the ore fields – you don't have any military experience!! So what about when they fought back?? You wouldn't have been able to handle yourself! What if..." Her eyes wandered away for a moment, her pretty face twisting into a despairing frown as she imagined what could have happened.
  Slowly, carefully, Hraden began walking forwards, hoping she would let him comfort her.
  As soon as she noticed his advance, she took a sudden step backwards, clumsily brushing half-fallen tears from her eyes before redirecting a glare at him. "What would your mother have done without you? And what would your little brother have done? –Don't touch me!" she added virulently, slapping his hands away. When he continued undeterred, her lips began to quiver dangerously, and more so as Hraden gently enveloped her in a loving embrace. Her voice quieted to barely above a despairing whisper as she spoke, her eyes turned aside, "What would I have done..."
  Taiya's body began to shake with repressed tears, and as Hraden pulled her closer, her hands crept about his waist. She gave in, weeping, her forehead sinking to his shoulder; she held him tightly, almost as if she feared to let him go.
  And the young couple stood silently in the middle of the dim living area, Hraden gently rubbing Taiya's back to soothe her as she wept. He closed his eyes, breathing in the faint hint of soil and berry-scented conditioner – a smell that over the years had come to be a comfort, just as his embrace had long since been to her.

  Taiya's sobs gradually subsided, and she loosened her hold, wiping her tears away with a finger as she stepped back and looked into his eyes with loving appreciation, her hand lingering in his. The two shared a moment of silent understanding: Hraden would endeavor to never scare her like that again, and Taiya would forgive him. Nothing else needed to be said.
  "I cooked dinner," the girl whispered, turning with a calmed step towards the kitchen.
  The edge of a smile crept over Hraden's face as he stepped forwards to follow her, and he pointed out, "It was my turn to cook tonight, Tai-tai..."
  "Then you can cook the next two nights," she responded softly, glancing over her shoulder with an impish smile.
  Sure enough, the little table in the center of the well-lit, claustrophobic kitchen was set for two: Taiya had cooked beans and Jormagnun rice, a spicy dish that made up for its lack of variety with its flavor. Without any more ceremony than usual, the couple sat down across from each other and started eating.
  After a few spoonfuls, Hraden spoke up, endeavoring to break the silence. "This is delicious."
  She rolled her eyes, a pleased smile breaking over her lips. "Oh, shut up, I know you like it; you don't have to butter me up. I'm okay. Although..." She paused, her smile melting into a reprimanding glare, "You were still really reckless –"
  "– I know –"
  "– and you could've gotten yourself killed," she finished chidingly.
  Hraden nodded with a guilty frown. "I know, what I did was really stupid."
  Her voice took on a tone of amusement. "A little more than that," she smirked, tilting her head to gaze at him under the cover of her bangs. "Three pirates, and you took them on by yourself?"
  "Yes... but how did you even know? News doesn't usually spread that fast..."
  Taiya twisted around in her chair towards the countertop behind her and grabbed her holopad, tapping and flicking at its display while she turned back. "It was an article in the extranet news," she explained simply as she handed him the glossy black-and-silver tablet. "Dayli saw it first and called me – she's that girl we met in the commercial district a couple weeks ago."
  Hraden nodded dismissively. "Yeah, I remember her, but... I was on the news?" he asked in bewilderment, putting down his fork. "Nobody ever contacted me..."
  "It's all there," she replied in a candid manner, putting her elbows on the table and clasping her hands in front of her as she watched her boyfriend's face.

  One of the pages did indeed contain an article about him, topped with photographs of his and Jarnel's ships, the latter damaged and smoking. Beneath it was a mixture of written text and select quotes from Jarnel, vaguely detailing how Hraden had valiantly rescued him from a trio of Scathecrow pirates. The story was brief enough to neglect several key points – the most important being whether or not Hraden had actually survived the encounter.
  Frowning, Hraden suddenly feeling a renewed empathy for his girlfriend. "Tai-tai... You thought I was dead," he said softly, looking up across the table at her.
  She nodded uncomfortably as her gaze shifted to the side. "It didn't say whether you were all right... I didn't have any way to know."
  Hraden began to apologize, but she interrupted him with a wave of her hand. "You couldn't have known they were going to make an article on you," she said dismissively. "It's hardly even news – I don't know why they'd bother mentioning it." She paused for a moment, and then added curiously, "How did you survive that, though? Your 'Sofie' couldn't have handled all of them." It was little secret that Taiya was a little jealous of Hraden's affection for his ship, though she often tried to pretend it wasn't so.
  The man frowned, passing the holopad back to her as he shook his head. "I don't have any idea. They broke off and fled after I started damaging one of their ships," he admitted, picking up his spoon to continue eating. Then, he hesitated, his mind going back over the events that had happened earlier.
  Taiya's forest-green eyes bore into him. "You aren't telling me something," she stated factually.
  Raising an eyebrow, he gave a defeated sigh and asked, "Am I really that transparent?" He already knew the answer.
  "To me you are," the girl replied with a teasing smile as she picked back up her spoon. "I can see it in your eyes – you know you can't hide anything from me. What is it you aren't saying?"

  While they finished their meal, the man laid out all the events of the day, from how he'd first come upon the hollow asteroid, to the corpses inside it. His girlfriend listened intently, occasionally asking a curious question or pointing out some possible connection he might have missed, though she stayed quiet for the majority. When he'd finished relating how he'd launched the beacon spike, left the asteroid, and headed back home, a brief silence fell.
  After several slow minutes, Taiya spoke up, folding her arms on the table in front of her. "So... Someone drilled out a shaft in an asteroid..."
  "Or blasted it out, but yes," Hraden affirmed with a nod.
  "No," she countered quickly, "they couldn't have. That would've left a visible cloud of smoke and debris, and you didn't mention anything like that."
  "True..." he conceded, tilting his head to the side in puzzlement.
  Taiya was still deep in thought. After a moment, she straightened, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear as she spoke. "It would've had to have been planetborns," she said. "Only a planetborn would hide bodies in an asteroid field."
  Hraden nodded his agreement – he'd come to the same conclusion. "So, Jormagnun, then."
  "Yep, that's what I'm thinking," Taiya nodded.
  The man pondered it for a minute in silence, scratching the stubble on his chin. "But then, why hide the corpses of Odgenian soldiers in Odgen territory? Why not bury them elsewhere? ...Why bury them in space at all – they have a whole planet to hide bodies on."
  "Maybe they wanted us to find the bodies," she said, a clever glint in her eyes.
  "But a mining beam would've been so much faster," Hraden reminded her, furrowing his brow as he worked it out. "Using a transfer beam would've left molten rock around the edges of the shaft, visible on any infrared scanner, so unless they wanted to keep it a secret, why drill it out instead?"
  While this stalled her for a moment, it wasn't long before she recovered and explained, "Jormagnun wouldn't have many mining haulers anyway – they have their own mines on the planet's surface. Besides, if they had used a mining beam, we might have suspected Sarlan as well."
With that said, she stood, carrying her empty bowl over to the sink. Hraden followed suit with his, and together they began the ritualistic washing of the dishes. More wealthy families might have sonic scrubbers or laser cleaners, but for Hraden and his girl, soap and water was the way to go – it was far cheaper, at any rate.

  As they couple cleaned, they continued discussing the problem, soon moving onto the topic of the structure and politics of the Brelyme system. Brelyme was home to two planets: the rich, lush Jormagnun, and the dead, dusty Pelebb. Each had an associated asteroid cluster: Jormagnun with Felgis, home to the trade-rich Sarlan Empire, and Pelebb with Termang, home to the superstitious, militaristic Odgen. As to diplomacy, the three nations had never gotten along very well. Battles only happened once or twice every few decades, usually over some dispute about a rogue asteroid or warp rail, or something that seemed equally trivial to the average person. Sarlan was too trade-heavy to go to war on its own account, having hardly any more security than was necessary to fend off Scathecrow pirates, and while Jormagnun was well-populated and had immense planetary resources at their disposal, they were simply too planetbound to be much of a threat in deep space.
  Taiya shook her head as thrust her hands into the murky dishwater. "It has to be Jormagnun," she insisted. "They killed some of our troops and put their bodies somewhere they knew they would be incriminated, naturally forgetting a number of details that only a planetborn would... They're trying to start a war between us."
  "Why, though?" Hraden muttered in askance as he dried a saucepan.
  But his thoughts were never answered: at that moment, three ethereal, chiming notes played through the apartment. The couple froze for a second at the unexpected sound.
  "Did you invite someone over?" Hraden asked in curious confusion, glancing over at his girlfriend.
  She shook her head in an irritated manner, busily attacking a cooking pot. "No, I didn't... You'll have to get it."
  "Me?"
  As an explanation, Taiya smiled, waving a wet, sudsy hand to make a point.
  "Right." Hraden nodded in acceptance, setting down his work. As he walked to the front door, he called over his shoulder, "You don't usually get visitors..."
  "It's because I don't like inviting people over – you know that," Taiya called back in response. "Just find out what they want, I'll be there in a minute."
  "All right..."
  Hraden opened the door a crack, and, peering out, found himself looking at a sandy-haired middle-aged man wearing a dressy-casual suit. "Yes?"
  "Hraden Larus, I presume," the stranger guessed with a genial nod. He had a Sarlan accent – it wasn't unheard of to see them on the station, but it was certainly unusual, as they tended to think of Odgenians as crude and barbaric. "Ridgel Peliat at your service – you may call me Peliat."
  The young miner raised an eyebrow, finding it odd that someone should be searching for him at his girlfriend's apartment. He started to draw his face from the doorway, intending to shout out a question to Taiya, but thought better of it and instead asked, "Do I know you?"
  The stranger inclined his head thoughtfully. "Not at all, sir, nor I you, but I assure you I am not here by accident. The gods themselves have arranged for us to meet this day." This last was said with conviction, not merely a figure of speech or verbal garnish. Though most of Odgen held the same traditional beliefs and superstitions, Hraden himself wasn't among them, and he assumed it was said patronizingly.
  "The gods, yeah," Hraden muttered as he repressed an irritated sigh. "I'm guessing you saw the story about me in the news?"
  "Ah, you're quick! Very good," the man exulted, beaming. "I half feared I would be faced with the typical simpleminded mining folk – no offense to you of course, my good man," he added quickly. "To be more precise, I'm here about your ship."
  "Sofie???"
  "Quite so – the one in the article." Peliat reached into a bag at his side, extracting a holopad and displaying it triumphantly. Sofie's familiar, bulbous shape expanded to fill the screen.
  Hraden's lips twisted into a worried frown. "Yeah, that's Sofie... What did you want to talk to me about?"
  "Yes, well... You see..." The man hesitated, glancing across the alleyway behind him at Rigoa, who was still sitting outside.
  Rigoa grinned in annoyance at the attention, another cigar held between his dirty teeth.
  "Well," Peliat continued, looking back, "I must say I'm terribly bothered to ask this of you, but... might I come inside?"
  Taiya's voice sounded out from the kitchen behind him: "Go ahead and let him in."
  Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Hraden obliged, opening the door for his guest, who walked through quickly. "I thank you," the man said pleasantly, placing the holopad back into his bag as he entered. "I would prefer that this conversation be held in private."
  Before he followed, Hraden shut the door back firmly, pressing a hand to the lockpad for a fleeting second. With that done, he turned, walking towards the living room. "So... How has Sarlan been lately?" he asked, attempting to alleviate the awkward pause in conversation.
  Peliat chuckled, keeping his eyes fixated on his host. "No, I'm not from Sarlan, though I'm sure my accent would suggest it. Rather, my parents were Sarlanners, and immigrated to Ilviat before my time – Ilviat being –"
  "– One of the outer Odgen settlements," Hraden finished for him with a nod, gesturing to the old blue armchair that rested in one corner. "Please have a seat, if you will."
  "Precisely," Peliat said in pleased agreement as he sat, "and I thank you. However, I am only here on business, and not much of one for idle pleasantries, I'm afraid."
  "I understand," Hraden said politely, sinking down onto the couch across from him.
  At that moment, Taiya walked in, the cuffs of her wrinkled shirtsleeves still slightly damp. "Welcome, Mr. Peliat," she said graciously, though Hraden knew her well enough to note the well-hidden tone of discomfort.
  Peliat looked up at her distractedly, and his eyes seemed to lose focus as they lingered on her head. "Red hair..." he murmured, his eyes distant.
  Taiya's reaction was immediate: she flushed a deep crimson, turning away in embarrassment with a hand to her face.
  In an instant Hraden was on his feet, leaping to her defense. "The myths are wrong," he assured his guest firmly with an acrid glare. He was speaking, of course, of the old Odgenian folktale that redheads were cursed with bad luck and infertility at birth. The myth held that a race of godlike beings had come from another universe and created humanity in their image, but mandated that certain members of the populations – those with red hair – would be infertile, so as to keep humanity from growing faster than it safely could. It was a taboo topic, and redheads themselves were all but ostracized in Odgen culture. Taiya was lucky to have found a job at all, much less the managerial position she currently held at an Odgen farm.
  "I assure you the myths are quite true," Peliat answered calmly, looking up at his host, "though I intended no offense, and I apologize for mentioning it – my wits weren't quite about me."
  "They're not true," the miner began again, but Taiya shushed him as she passed, taking his hand in hers and guiding him back onto the couch as she sat.
  "It's fine, Hraden, just let it go," she whispered pointedly to calm him. "Mr. Peliat can have his own opinions."
  "Just Peliat, Miss." He seemed somewhat disgruntled by her words. "I sincerely apologize; I spoke out of turn. I truly wish no animosity between us... as I said before, I am only here about your ship."
  With an edge to his voice, Hraden warned, "I'm not selling it."
  "And I wouldn't ask you to, my good man. Rather, I'm here about its origins. Pardon my curiosity, but where did you acquire it?"
  Taiya answered for him, having mostly recovered by this time. "Hraden built it himself from cheap parts he scavenged."
  "Paid for, and they were good parts," the miner put in indignantly.
  Peliat wasn't listening. "You built it, you say," the man mused. "Are you aware that the ship is designed in the same manner as those rumored to belong to the gods? Was this design choice intentional?"
  Out of the corner of his eye, Hraden saw Taiya turn towards him in surprise. He glanced back at her for a moment in discomfort before turning back to their guest. "I respect your beliefs on the gods, Peliat, but no, I simply built the ship as best I could with what I had. I bought the piece for the hull as scrap from a market in the Voro'zhin ice cluster, out near the edge of the system. I had to buy other parts from the Odgenian markets to complete it, like the power supply, computer, cooling conduits, transfer beams, shields... but that's all."
  "The Voro'zhin cluster..." Peliat murmured, reaching down and extracting his holopad from his bag. "Mr. Larus... I am sure you will not believe me, but I would venture a guess that the hull of your ship is indeed an ancient relic of the gods."
Last edited by Talvieno on Thu Mar 12, 2015 1:22 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#5
Chapter 5
  An awkward pause lingered thickly in the air after Peliat spoke. Finally, after a time, Taiya stirred. "His ship is a relic of the gods," she echoed flatly in ludicrous disbelief. "That's not even remotely possible."
  Hraden agreed in impatience, what was left of his mood having been utterly crushed. "Look, Peliat, we respect your beliefs, but the greater majority of galactic space regards the 'gods' as superstition. There's no proof they exist - nothing but tales and stories. And besides, if there really were gods, they wouldn't need spaceships."
  "I quite understand you feel this way," Peliat was quick to assure them. "I am not asking you believe me. I am merely attempting to show you my motivations in wanting to learn where you purchased it. I thought I might also ask -"
  "I told you already," Hraden pointed out curtly before the stranger could finish, anxious for him leave. "I bought it from the Zaichi settlement, out in the Voro'zhin ice cluster."
  At this rude interruption, Peliat frowned, seeming to understand that he had overstayed his welcome. The three figures stood, Peliat dusting himself off and retrieving his bag from the floor beside him as he spoke. "Once again, I thank you, and am forever in your debt. I wish you the best, Miss, and you, Mr. Larus," he said in a cordial tone, nodding to each respectively. "I am very grateful for your hospitality. Might I show myself to the door?"
  Taiya led him to the front of her apartment, and Peliat exited without ceremony, leaving an unpleasant feeling in his wake.

~~~

  That evening found Hraden and Taiya tucked in bed. Taiya was sitting up against the headboard, the comforter up to her waist, reading a book on her holopad. Hraden was beside her, trying to fall asleep, even despite it being earlier than usual for him. Unfortunately, he soon found to his annoyance that his mind refused to settle down; after such an unpleasant day, the unexpected visitor had completely ruined what was left, and more than that, what the man had said still lingered in his thoughts.
  Apparently, it had gotten Taiya thinking too. He heard her whisper softly, "Hraden... are you awake?"
  The man grunted and rolled over towards her, squinting at the light from her holopad. "Yeah... What is it?"
  Angling the device away from him so as to keep it from shining in his face, she asked curiously, her voice quiet, "Where did your ship come from?"
  He groaned, closing his eyes. "It's like I told you, I bought it from an independent merchant out in Zaichi."
  "No, I mean where did it come from before you bought it - where did the merchant find it, or buy it from?" she explained, shifting about slightly to reorient herself.
  "Oh, yeah..." After giving it a fair degree of thought, Hraden finally gave her a frank response. "I have no idea..." He re-opened his eyes, shifting them upwards in time to see Taiya slowly nod. Wrapped in thought, he watched her idly as she continued tapping at her holopad, her upper body cloaked in its delicate glow. She was an attractive girl - she had a slender, curvaceous figure, wavy red-gold hair, pale skin and a soft, relaxing voice. It wasn't without a faint twinge of guilt that Hraden would admit that these very qualities were a large part of why he had initially found himself interested in her.
  He had been a bit of a rebel in his younger days, never much caring about or believing in the Odgenian myths. She, all but ostracized by her own kin, had been the same - this similarity in beliefs had quickly bonded them together, and perhaps made her, a forbidden fruit, seem all the more attractive. After she figured out he was interested, Taiya had wasted no time in letting him get to know her better, trying to prove that a fair soul dwelt beneath her crimson tresses. She was a bright woman - brilliant, even - but also very sweet and loving, with a powerful optimism and the innate ability to sense when something was wrong. Hraden hadn't stood a chance against her charm.
  Nor would have any other man, had she lived somewhere else, he couldn't help but think. As it was, she'd been so grateful that he could look past the color of her hair to who she was inside - so pleased to finally have a friend that loved her for who she was rather than for guilt or charity - that she'd fallen in love with him... and he with her.
  Hraden's sleepy eyes drifted down to her midriff, covered as it was by her close-fitting purple night-top, and it brought to mind Peliat's insensitive comment. Taiya had talked about children before, but there was a shared, unspoken fear between them on the subject; despite a firm disbelief in the Odgenian folktales, it had always worried them that she might not be able to conceive. After all... as loath as they were to admit it, there was some truth to the myth. For one reason or another, Odgenian redheads were often, if not always, infertile... but he and Taiya had never really discussed it beyond stating it would be better if they waited until they married.
  Why haven't I proposed? The question drifted voicelessly in the back of his mind. She'd occasionally shown interest in marrying him, especially earlier in their relationship, but each time, he had nervously dodged or sidestepped the matter. One of their earlier arguments had been about that very topic, with Taiya claiming he was afraid of commitment... and perhaps, in a way, he was. More accurately, he was afraid to propose before he had a stable financial foundation for them. He wanted to move away from Odgen to somewhere that Taiya could get a job without being discriminated against, but Taiya always refused. While he was afraid of commitment, she was afraid of travel and the unknown... and those simple fears had kept them bound to Odgen Station.
  As he continued turning it over in his mind, his eyes began to close, his thoughts branching off into nonsensical tangents, and he was soon fast asleep.

~~~

  A soft buzz startled Hraden from his slumber, and he rolled over, blinking his eyes as he tried to focus them in the darkened room, his hand groping blindly for the alarm before he finally found it. With an inaudible sigh, he pulled himself out of bed and felt his way to the door, careful not to wake Taiya as he left to get himself ready for the day.
  His morning routine was simple, consisting of a shower, shave, and breakfast. This particular morning was so much the same as any other that it almost felt out of place compared to the day before. He found he almost expected something out of the ordinary to occur. And yet, nothing unusual happened at all. Taiya remained asleep, just as she always did, and everything went smoothly.
  After grabbing a breakfast bar and tucking a pack of rations into his bag, Hraden left a little loving note on the pillow beside her, written on a square of paper: "I'll love you forever - you mean the galaxy to me." It was simple, yet loving - the exact sort of thing she liked - and he hoped it would bring a smile to her face when she awoke. The thought brought a smile to his own as he headed quietly out the front door, locking it behind him.

~~~

  The news screens in the crowded corridors flashed information about a freak missile detonation in Hangar 9 that had happened the day before, and as Hraden entered, he could see that the far side of the hangar was indeed in disarray. Dirty gray foam still speckled scorch marks on the walls, and Odgen soldiers combed the area beneath the dim haze of smoke far above.
  Anxiously, Hraden scanned the nearby row of ships for his Sofie, and was greatly relieved to find her unharmed. As he drew closer, though, he noticed a figure lingering beneath her bow. It wasn't much longer before he recognized her: Verana Mertz, the officer who had attempted to arrest him. Rather than wearing her police gear, this time she sported a casual black shirt and pants.
  The sight of her made him somewhat uncomfortable, though he didn't know the reason. He would have preferred to avoid her completely, but it didn't seem to be an option; as soon as she noticed him, she began hurrying in his direction with a swift step, waving an arm in greeting. "Mr. Larus?" she called out, shouting over the cacophony that surrounded them.
  Suppressing a grimace, he waved back uncomfortably, hoping she wouldn't make a scene.
  She didn't, at least. In fact, she remained silent until they reached each other, standing off to the side of one of the main runways.
  Hraden did his best to look unconcerned. After a transport had finished roaring past on RCS power, he asked tentatively, "Is there a problem, officer?"
  Verana shook her head energetically, her brunette ponytail swinging behind her. "No, not at all. - And I'm off-duty today; just call me Verana - or Vera."
  "All right, Verana," Hraden cautiously complied, watching her face. "So... You wanted to talk to me? You couldn't just stick a note to my hatch, or...?"
  His question seemed to upset her for a moment, a displeased frown creasing her lips, but she got over it quickly. "I don't blame you for not wanting to talk to me - I was extremely rude to you yesterday and... I apologize." She glanced downwards as if ashamed, fiddling with her thumbs as she added, "I was a little... distressed, I guess, over the loss of my comrades and I wasn't thinking clearly. I had no right to take you in for questioning without proof of your involvement."
  It seemed almost fake, and Hraden didn't quite believe any of it. At any rate, Verana didn't come across as being the type who might apologize. The hint of a grin tweaked upwards at the corner of his lips, and he asked, "Did Jarnel put you up to this?"
  "No!" she exclaimed insistently. She glanced to the side unhappily for a few fleeting seconds, and it was only then that Hraden noticed she was wearing makeup. "Look, I just want to apologize and... I was wondering if maybe I could..." She hesitated. "I was wondering if I could maybe make it up to you. Maybe... we could go out to eat sometime later?"
  It could have been meant in a friendly manner, but from the way her eyes glinted nervously with hopeful anticipation, Hraden guessed she was angling for more than just a friendly meal. His reply was terse: "I'm with someone, sorry."
  Verana looked away, concealing her disappointment with a nod. "Right, okay. Well, I thought I'd ask..."
  "It's fine," he assured the woman coolly. "I hope you have a good day, Verana."
  "Right, you too." And she hurried off, as if trying to avoid making the situation any more awkward than it already was.
  After they'd parted, Hraden continued onwards unconcernedly. After a few paces, though, he glanced back over his shoulder, watching her gently-swinging ponytail in puzzled confusion as she retreated. There was something about the woman that bothered him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what. Whether it was bias or intuition, he only hoped she would accept his polite declination, and not make a second attempt. Taiya wasn't necessarily a jealous girl, but she could be if pressed, and it wasn't something Hraden wanted to contend with.

  Minutes later, Hraden touched his palm to the lockpad on the underside of his ship, feeling his anxiety dissipate through the familiar tingle in his fingers. After a moment, the hatch chimed and swung upwards. At this, the young miner climbed the ladder and entered the cockpit, shutting the hatch behind him.
  Once more, he was alone.
  Normally he would have immediately started up his ship, but this morning felt... different. He was unsure if it was the events of the day before, or Peliat's unwelcome visit, or even Verana's apology, but he hesitated, going no farther than to take a seat in the pilot's chair.
  The noises of the hangar were naught but a dim echo of their former volume, muffled as they were by Sofie's hull; the brightness outside was dimmed considerably, leaving only a patch of light on his lap and the co-pilot's chair. It was peaceful... a kind of peace he had often experienced, but never truly appreciated.
  After a time, he felt compelled to move, and reached forwards to flick a few switches. The ship hummed to life, bars of white light glowing into existence around the floor of the cabin, the controls on the consoles backlit with a soft blue.
  "Welcome back," Sofie intoned the same as she always did, her calm voice resounding softly in the little cockpit.
  For once, Hraden didn't answer with his customary "Thanks." Rather, her voice made him uneasy, and troubled him even further. Except for the idle hum of the engines behind him and the soft whir from the vents, all was silent for a time. Sofie, true to her form, didn't question whether something was wrong - it wasn't something an AI ever did - though on this occasion, Hraden didn't really think he would have minded.
  While he had installed a standard Odgen AI core when he'd rebuilt Sofie, he figured she would still have her "black box" circuitry - logs of the basic vital stats of the ship. While it might be difficult, it was very possible he could extract this information without harming anything. With this in mind, he ventured a question. "Sofie... How old are you?"
  There was a noticeable pause - brief, but long enough for him sense - before she finally replied, "I don't know."
  "Where are you from?
  "I don't know."
  "Who built you?"
  "You rebuilt me, Hraden."
  "When?"
  "Four years and eighty-two standard days ago."
  "How were you destroyed before then?"
  "I don't know."
  "...Why don't you know?"
  "Much of my data was erased by an unidentified entity at some time in the past."
  He paused, deciding to shift his tactics. "Show me your starmaps - all of them."
  At once, the viewscreens around him shimmered to life, myriads of soft blue starmaps overlaid upon each other, responding to his shifting gaze, rearranging themselves in glimmering pulses. Hraden, astonished to see so many, found himself drawn upright in his chair as he examined the inspiring display. If ever a man has played god, he thought in awe, this must be how it would feel... Millions of systems at your fingertips, all the knowledge of a galaxy displayed before you... Yet despite the great feeling of power it instilled in him, there was simply too much information to comprehend at once, and he was forced to narrow it down. "Sofie... show me that data in a nodal network."
  In an instant, they shrunk down into tiny interconnected dots, weaving an enormous tapestry across his screen.
  "Show me everywhere you know you've been."
  All but one shrunk from existence, and the cockpit dimmed as this remainder slid to the center of the viewscreen and expanded to show Brelyme's system: two planets and three asteroid clusters, all interconnected in a web of warp rails - the freeways of the galaxy.
  He sat silently for a time, pondering the structure of the system. Brelyme had an odd shape when one attempted to take it in as a whole, as if there was something missing... it both perplexed him and piqued his curiosity. The Voro'zhin cluster seemed to be out of place - it stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the careful structure of the rest of Brelyme. The only resource to be found there was ice, of which both Pelebb and Jormagnun had plenty, and yet it was still connected to the rest by its own warp lane. It was marked as a sacred site to Odgenians, and going deep within the cluster was not only difficult, but considered taboo - though again, why would anyone build a warp lane to such distant, tradeless site? Hraden couldn't help but wonder if it might conceal some great secret.
  "Sofie," he said finally, furrowing his brow in thought, "How old do you know you are?"
  There was another pause, this one far longer than the first, as the ship's AI sifted through all the knowledge and information it had in store. Hraden had never known Sofie to pause for this long, and was beginning to get worried before her systems finally hiccuped, responding in what amounted to a small voice, "My auxiliary records hold partial data of roughly 1723 years."
  
  And the man slumped in his chair, trying - and failing - to process the enormity of such a number.
Last edited by Talvieno on Fri Nov 14, 2014 3:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#6
  
Chapter 6
  It was too much to comprehend.

  Sitting motionless in his little cockpit, he tried in vain to grasp the vastness of the number his ship's AI had given him. It was easy enough to understand the integer itself... the difficult part was realizing that it was in years. Brelyme history - and indeed, the history of the entire galaxy - only went back to the galaxy-wide Genesis war 1,300 years before, and anything prior to that was considered myth. By giving such a large number... Sofie was claiming she was older than civilization itself.
  Feeling short of breath, the man sat a little straighter in his chair. "So, are you saying...?"
  "I have existed for at least 1,723 years."
  With a tingle of wonderment shooting through his veins - the slightest hint of fear - Hraden whispered, "Show me..."
  At his command, the integrated HUD began to pulse with information. Photographs, video records, starmaps, spectrum analyses, audio files - they streamed across the semicircle of his holoscreen, each open for hardly more than a second before fading away, another expanding in its place. In those brief moments, Hraden observed untold legions of forgotten worlds and saw the death throes of distant suns; he witnessed alien architecture the likes of which no Odgenian had ever seen. Hundreds - even thousands - of data records flashed across his screen, illuminating the darkness of his cabin. The simple miner had never felt so small, so insignificant; he was a tiny soul before a galaxy - before fifty-seven generations of information - all rushing past in what amounted to the blink of an eye. Gone was the former sensation of power; he was nothing more than a leaf upon the wind.
  Slowly, haltingly, everything faded, and the holographic display darkened to a deep purple as it presented him with an eerie, alien system. Filled with dust and debris, it was backlit by a white dwarf in the far distance, flickering in accelerated time as it gave its last, dying gasps. Ion storms streaked the skies, sporadic bursts of electricity arcing chaotically amongst the stars. It was unlike anything he had ever seen or even heard of, and it awoke something within him – something that he, as an Odgenian, had felt called to repress his entire life: a spirit of adventure. His grip tightened on the arms of his chair as he suddenly realized that deep down, he desired to see such wonders for himself.
  Finally, the display crackled and died, the viewscreen fading as the hangar lights of Spoke 9 began to sift in once more through the segmented cockpit window.

  For a long while, Hraden sat in stunned silence, attempting to drag his thoughts back to the present despite the mysteries that enshrouded him. Although it was almost too much to process, the images from Sofie's data records still lingered enticingly in his mind, sending a feeling of resolve and determination sweeping through his heart. Part of him wondered about Taiya - about the consequences of the plan slowly forming in his heart - but to miss a day of work would surely go unnoticed... a day's pay meant little by itself, and Taiya's anger could be mitigated.
  However, even as he formulated these precautions, he felt he was betraying a part of himself: the very same part that had rushed into a losing battle just a day before, sold his home to build a ship when he had no idea whether it would work, and fallen in love with a red-headed girl when an entire nation looked on it in scorn. He was a risk-taker at heart: he flew by the seat of his pants, reveled in the beauty of the universe, and lived life to the fullest. After all he'd been through, it seemed almost a sin to turn away from this new adventure now.
  "You know what," Hraden finally whispered as a sly smile crept across his lips, "let's find out where you're from."
  And he straightened in his chair, flipping the switches he'd grown so used to over the past four years, feeling the ship hum under his command. Her thrusters hissing, Sofie rose purposefully from the hangar deck, a careful hand guiding her down the runway toward the great orange beyond. Hraden had never left the system, and he'd rarely even left Termang itself, but he was prepared to do almost anything to solve the mysteries behind his ship's origins.
  Odgen Station soon faded into the distance behind him, dwarfed as it was by the colossal asteroids that rushed past his window, but Hraden's mind was on the higher planes, pondering the nature of the galaxy. The Odgen myths - the myths of all civilization - claimed that higher beings had given humankind the universe to rule as their own, as well as teaching them the intricacies of spaceflight. Hraden had seen with his own eyes that the myths were wrong, and as the only human in the galaxy that had seen actual proof, how could he resist the opportunity to learn more? He had an insatiable curiosity, and the temptation to unravel the secrets of the universe was more than he would have been able to resist, even had he wanted to.
  As he shifted his trajectory towards Termang's nearest edge, he was satisfied to find that no qualms stayed his course. Perhaps he was as reckless as Taiya claimed, but he had the heart of an explorer, and that was something he held closely with a stubborn pride.

~~~

  Sofie emerged noiselessly from the dense Termang dust cloud, her shields shimmering faintly as they adjusted to the environmental change. The orange murk behind them faded into nothingness, and the stars – the beautiful, glorious stars – emerged from the chaos, shining brightly forth from beyond the wispy, purple-green nebula that encircled Brelyme's system. Hraden personally found it an enthralling sight... and one that far too many took for granted.
  Reaching forwards, he switched the engines to cruise mode and felt the acceleration press him snugly into his seat as the bright blue of the cruise thrusters fired up behind him, and he set course for the entrance to the nearby Termang-Voro'zhin warp rail.

  The warp rails were bands of energy stretched between a series of identical titanium structures spaced hundreds of kilometers apart, painstakingly built and aligned in the far distant past. Designed like spheres, each colossal node stretched half a kilometer across, easily dwarfing all but the largest ship that might venture by. Hraden himself wasn't sure how they worked - only that they "warped space" between them, permitting you to reach the same destination while traveling a mere fraction of the total distance. They ran entirely on power they drained from the surrounding universe, and the ships passing through - a "toll", as Hraden's father had once put it - but beyond that, they were mysteries. No one understood them... and yet, somehow, they were never questioned.
  While they'd often been the subject of Hraden's imagination, today he paid them little mind. His thoughts still lingered on what he'd seen during Sofie's revelation: the deep purple dust cloud of that ancient, mysterious system, along with all the other images she'd flashed before his eyes. Something still disquieted him about the experience - something that he couldn't quite put his finger on - and it left a strange taste in his mouth as he wondered what it was. Eventually, unable to discern what was troubling him, he sighed, orienting his ship towards the nearest warp node and increasing the throttle. In response, Sofie edged forwards, feeling miniscule and insignificant before the node's massive, yellow-green glow.
  Before long, he found himself caught up in its pull, flung away across the system at godlike speeds, and all without the sensation - or perception - of motion. The stars outside the warp lane, and even the nebulae itself, seemed completely immobile. The only real way to tell you were moving at all was to watch the nodes as your ship passed by, or, if in busier traffic, watch as other ships streaked by in the opposite direction. The Termang-Voro'zhin trade lane was almost dead in that respect, and to all appearances, Hraden was the only sign of life in the universe. It was peaceful... which was largely why he loved space travel so much in the first place.
  With nothing else to do, he started some calming music playing in the background and closed his eyes, puzzling over everything that he'd learned the past two days, and it wasn't long before he gently drifted away to a world of dreams.

~~~

  "Exiting warp rail," the AI intoned. Seconds later, the intensely rapid approach to the ice cloud slowed to a normal pace, so quickly that it almost gave the impression of hitting a wall. It was the first time in almost four years that Hraden had set eyes upon Voro'zhin, in all its darkened, forbidding gloom.
  The Termang cluster had an overabundance of iron oxide, but Voro'zhin's ice was colored with trace amounts of cobalt, giving it a strange, blue tint. More importantly, the dust was far thicker. Soon after he'd plunged into the fog, it forced him to turn on his fin-mounted floodlights, slowing to an appropriately safe speed and shifting his shields to maximum in an attempt to deflect the moderately-sized chunks.
  Even despite these customary precautions, he soon felt his adrenaline rushing as a giant, twisted spear of ice loomed so suddenly into view that he had to switch to reverse thrusters and swerve to avoid it. "Sofie, warn me if anything comes up on the scanners. I don't want to wind up impaled on one of these things," the man laughed uneasily. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "And... give me a map to Zaichi Station."
  Ever obedient, the AI responded quickly: "Activating scanners." At the bottom-left edge of the cockpit window, a three-dimensional map of the nearby ice wavered into existence, while another appeared to his right, showing the direction of the settlement.
  "Thanks, Sofie," the man muttered nervously.
  As the young pilot carefully navigated the frozen field, he soon became aware of the hyperactivity of his own imagination. The cold steel beneath his hands felt like ice - even though it was no cooler than usual. Hraden involuntarily shivered as he gazed through his window at the sparkling ice dust and immense, crystalline structures. Despite feeling a little ashamed of the way his mind played tricks on him, he gave in, turning on the heater and hoping it would ease the sensation. He'd experienced the same bizarre feeling four years earlier as he'd traveled with his old friend, Shoan, hoping to find enough parts to build a ship. With a friend by his side, it hadn't seemed so severe - they'd simply laughed it away. Now, on the other hand, he could almost imagine the breath of an icy wind winding its way around his forearms, his fingers going cold.
  Hoping to get his mind off of it, Hraden spoke up. "How long until we reach Zaichi?"
  "Approximately twenty-two minutes at our current pace," Sofie returned calmly.
  "Right..."
Image
  And for what seemed an eternity, Hraden carefully navigated his ship through the deadness of the field. As cold and lifeless as it looked, it was intensely beautiful - frozen boulders hung in foreboding silence, reflecting his floodlights with a shine; miniature crystals refracted the glare and sent beams shimmering away through the mist in a dazzling array of colors. Hraden found himself wishing intensely that Taiya was there to see it - it seemed like just the sort of thing she would have loved. Perhaps more importantly, he speculated that he would find the experience far more enjoyable with her at his side.
  Sofie's voice stole him from the wistful inclination of his thoughts. "Active scans detect an unknown vessel within five kilometers, bearing 215 at negative 65z."
  Hraden raised an eyebrow curiously. "Have you been watching them long?"
"I have had them on sensors since you activated the scanners. Their flight path is consistent with a standard search pattern," she offered helpfully.
  "So... not a threat, then?" His voice was hopeful.
  "I don't know."

  The unidentified ship – and the others that appeared later – seemed non-hostile, though they kept out of visual range, and it only added to the air of mystery that the icy cloud maintained. That same air of mystery only deepened when they finally sailed out of the cloud and into Zaichi's shielded clearing.
  What Hraden saw stunned him into silence. The colony was all but split in two, having been ravaged by weapon fire, its two arms shredded, twisted open to the vacuum of space. The lights were cold, the hangars dead, the smoking turrets blasted from their mountings - all amidst a gently swirling cloud of smoke.
  "Who would do this?" Hraden whispered, shaking his head in shock. "Why would anyone... Why??"
  But there was no answer; there was nothing but the bitter silence of the void.
  Zaichi was no more than an outpost, only half-full of people who could barely manage to scrape together the means to survive. They held no ores of value, no important strategic position, and were almost inaccessible to inexperienced pilots. All of this made it even harder to believe that anyone would attack them - much less destroy them.
  "Sofie, what do you make of it? Give me a detailed analysis of the station's destruction."
  "Gathering information and putting together a detailed report. One moment," she said in acquiescence. The ship's viewscreen briefly flickered with various infrared and gamma scans. "No identified survivors. Total casualty count is difficult to determine, but data banks indicate station's population to have maintained a stable 60,000 in the past."
  "My gods," Hraden choked, his hand moving unnoticed to his mouth.
  The AI continued with its report. "Damage appears consistent with a battery of missile and cannon fire from six to nine B-class fighters, although it appears incendiary explosives detonated at several key points, indicating that the attackers may have entered the base to plant them before the battle began. It therefore seems likely that the residents were unaware that the involved parties were their enemies. Residual heat suggests the battle took place within the last twelve hours."
  "Peliat," Hraden growled darkly under his breath, his brow furrowing in anger. The man had visited him only the night before, and like a fool, Hraden had spoken of Zaichi. For someone to have destroyed the exact same settlement he'd mentioned... it couldn't be a coincidence.
What does he even want with the information? he wondered miserably. What would they be after? He didn't want my ship, so why come here and destroy Zaichi? "Sofie, of the other settlements we've passed on the way here, have any seemed like they might be under attack?"
  "None have been within scanner range during our journey. The nearest, Shijone, is roughly eleven minutes from our position, assuming we travel at our previous pace."
  "Then let's go. Set me up with a map," he ordered, turning his ship in that direction.
  He only hoped they were okay.
Image
  
  The more he thought he gave to it, the more he was sure: It had to be Peliat's work. Though Voro'zhin held very few settlements, all within close range of the warp rail, all of them were peaceful - not only peaceful, but almost monk-like. If Odgen was considered religious and superstitious, Voro'zhin would be considered almost fanatically obsessed. They never bothered anyone with their beliefs, preferring to lead quiet lives out on the edge of civilization, and in return, the rest of the galaxy left them alone. Hraden literally saw no reason for anyone to attack them - unless it was directly related to how he'd mentioned that he'd bought a "ship of the gods" from there.
  "Warning," Sofie spoke out urgently as they came within sensor range of Shijone. "Sensors detect aggressive scans aimed at our location. Shijone's weapons are at full power. The station appears hostile; I suggest you proceed with utmost caution."
  Hraden shook his head with a frown. "No... No. As long as they're still alive, we'll leave them alone." Then, after a moment's thought, he mused, "Besides, I'd be willing to wager that they already know about Zaichi... but let's pull back to a safe position." With that, he put Sofie in reverse, spinning about and rocketing away in the opposite direction, but not without a certain sense of disappointment. With the ship dealer he'd bought Sofie's hull from dead and gone, he'd never learn where the man had acquired the parts. Now, he couldn't even visit the other settlements. Hraden had nothing else to go on - no way to continue his self-assigned quest. Taiya would see the entire expedition as foolishness.
  As he thought about his girlfriend, something new occurred to him. "Where did he find your parts?" he said, voicing his thoughts aloud as he asked the same question Taiya had the night before. "Sofie, bring up the holoscreen - show me all the known points of interest in the Voro'zhin cluster."
  With a few ringing tones, five blue rings appeared on the curved display around him, pinpointing the locations of Voro'zhin's five settlements - Zaichi, Shijone, Maikal, Kilan, and Chokai.
  Hraden stared, pondering the data listed out beneath each marker. After a long while, he added thoughtfully, "Check your auxiliary records too."
  A sixth ring appeared, labeled only with coordinates - gauging from the great distance, it was much nearer to the heart of the ice field than he had ever traveled.
  "Sofie, what is that?"
  "It is an anomaly," the AI explained. "My auxiliary records contain the coordinates, but lack any identifying data."
  Nodding slowly, scratching the stubble on his chin, Hraden finally said, "I feel up for an adventure today, Sofie, what about you?"
  "I'm sorry, I don't understand the question," she apologized predictably.
  A smile tweaked at the corner of his lips, and he spoke softly, turning his ship in the direction of the anomaly and throttling up. "Let's fix that, then."
  To be the only man in the universe who knew such incredible things... it gave him an undeniable feeling of power.

  He couldn't have imagined how soon his curiosity would become his downfall.
Last edited by Talvieno on Thu Mar 12, 2015 3:09 pm, edited 9 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#7
Chapter 7
  The scenery changed subtly as he went on - while the ice cloud was still just as thick, it soon interwove itself with pitted obsidian boulders, gently tumbling through a dense metallic dust that almost completely obscured his scanner's visibility. It soon forced Hraden, peering through the cockpit window as he was, to switch from visual flight rules to his viewscreen's grayscale radar depth display.
  As the minutes slowly ticked by, and he drew even closer, shards of twisted metal began to appear, shrouded by the icy dust. Hull fragments floated gently among them, ripped open and dashed against the rocks; broken, corroded alien structures drifted aimlessly through the fog. It was a somber, morbid sight, and it felt like stumbling through a tomb. There, before his eyes, fragments of the old Odgenian myths were showing their inner truths: it was a forgotten civilization, scrapped and all but turned to dust.
  He turned right, gently maneuvering around the shattered body of what appeared to be a small cruiser, and wondered if this might be where the dealer had salvaged Sofie's parts. "Sofie... does any of this look familiar?"
  "No," was her simple, unconcerned response. "You are now one kilometer from the anomaly."
  As if on cue, a massive clearing opened up before him; his scanners picked up nothing within a kilometer's radius around the anomaly's center. Hraden instinctively reined back on the throttle, letting his ship edge forwards at a cautious pace as he examined his surroundings. He was easily within visual range, but nothing appeared on the viewscreen - not even a speck of dust. The "anomaly", to all appearances, was a hollow area in the dust cloud, as clean as if someone had sucked it all away. Even the wreckage and debris had completely vanished from view. It was empty space.
  Sofie seemed to understand. "Switching to visual," the AI intoned, its voice hanging in the stillness of the air as the holodisplay faded, revealing the cockpit's segmented window once more.

  Far ahead, a black, featureless sphere pulsed and twirled. Space and time themselves seemed subject to its whims as it crackled with a dark energy, tendrils of warped space twisting; reaching; whipping out into the void.
  Hraden had heard of them - everyone knew of them - but it was the first time he'd seen one. A smile crept across his face as it dawned on him – the secret the icy cluster kept hidden in the mists. Here, in the center of the forbidden Voro'zhin cluster, was a wormhole... it didn't seem possible. He hesitated, bringing the ship to a careful halt a safe distance away. Part of him desperately wanted to seek out the adventure surely hidden beyond its borders, but something held him back, and he stalled for a moment, pondering all that could go wrong.
  Taiya was almost bound to be mad at him when he got home, but he felt he couldn't do anything about it. More importantly, he might not even make it home at all if a fleet of enemy cruisers waited just beyond the gap. All it would really take was a well-trained fighter for him not to stand a chance, and he knew it. Taking a trip to Voro'zhin was one thing. It involved little risk – or so he'd assumed when he'd set out. Entering another system, however... that was a different matter entirely.
  Hraden glanced idly back at the twisted vortex, which beckoned him inwards with its mesmerizing display while he tried to weigh his options. He could return home now, of course... but there was always the possibility that the ships he'd detected earlier were searching for this very wormhole, and that if he came back later they would have the area well-guarded, and he wouldn't get another chance. As far as he knew, he was still the only man in the universe that knew the truth about the "gods"; that knowledge instilled in him a sense of duty. More than that, he was possessed with an insatiable curiosity, and a brazenness that he knew, in the back of his mind, was unwise.
  With all this in mind, he set a careful hand upon the controls, gradually increasing the throttle as he inched forwards at a snail's pace. The anomaly opened up to him, offering brief, contorted glimpses of what lay beyond; he came to its call, seeking nothing more than knowledge and adventure.
  It enveloped him.
  Time twisted, the universe uncoiling, spinning, reshaping itself about him as the Brelyme's nebula disappeared, the stars themselves skewed to unimaginable lengths as he entered, the rippling vortex enveloping him as the very fabric of the universe swirled about his ship. The multiverse grew, stretching out before him, cruising at limitless speeds through a limitless universe. He'd heard the occasional Sarlanner's tale of interstellar travel, but to witness it himself left him humbled in awe at its magnificence.

~~~

  Time resumed, the universe reshaping itself in a rush about his ship as he came to a gentle stop. Dimly lit with an eerie, haunting glow, the new system seemed as hospitable as a graveyard. Then, as Hraden processed the change in his surroundings, his eyes widened with amazement. Even later that day, he would be unable to find words worthy of describing the awe and wonderment that overtook him then.
  From the far edge of his vision, a neutron star stretched its timid rays outwards, barely illuminating the purple, obsidian asteroids drifting through the murk. As his eyes adjusted, he realized he wasn't alone: thousands of alien vessels dotted the heavens... broken, dead, and abandoned though they were. Gaping holes split their hulls, some severed clean in two, while unseen forces had shattered still others into pieces. A select few glowed faintly still as energy leaked from their damaged reactors; on rare occasion, a chaotic burst of electricity would arc from one fragment to the next, ionizing the dust between them with an otherworldly glitter. There was no question in his mind: Sofie had shown the same system him earlier that morning.
  After all that he had seen, the existence of another system linked to Brelyme didn't seem so strange at all... what seemed strange, rather, was the fact that no one in Brelyme seemed to know about it, and stranger still was that he had found it so quickly, almost as if he had been guided there by some unseen force.
  As much as Voro'zhin had felt like a tomb, this system felt even more so. Enormous dreadnoughts had come to rest between massive boulders, their sides gouged and ripped away to reveal the splintered decks within. Cruisers sat in broken pieces; frigates and battleships were shredded asunder. The morbid scene gave the impression some colossal monstrosity had massacred an entire fleet.
  "Sofie," Hraden finally asked, his voice barely penetrating the thick silence, "have you been here before?"
  There was a pause before she replied. "I don't know. My initial spectrum analysis of the local star suggests that this is the same system as one I have on record, but I have no logs of ever having been here."
  It was as much as he'd expected, so he pressed further. "Assuming you have been here," he queried insistently, "how long would you have been here before you came to Brelyme? How much time do your video logs of this system span?"
  This time, the AI was prompt. "Video logs state that still images were taken annually in an attempt to document the decay of the local neutron star. The logs also state that the recording party shut down operation to conserve power after approximately 794 standard years of inactivity. "
  At her words, Hraden's eyes turned back to the star, following his thoughts. It shone brightly, a featureless pinpoint of light, but there seemed to be nothing interesting of note about it. He supposed it showed how little he knew about astrophysics. More interesting to him were the ships in the debris field, and an enormous alien station looming in the distance. "What's so special about the star?"
  "Spectral analysis suggests that the star underwent a nova explosion within the past 5,000 years. It can therefore be inferred that the recording party desired to study the cooling process." The AI's voice, though feminine, was cold, unemotional, and artificial. While it normally brought him a sense of comfort, he had so much on his mind (not least of all the fact that Sofie herself had been of alien make) that it made him uneasy. There was still something nagging him at the back of his mind – some major detail that he couldn't quite place, explain or put words to – and it bothered him. He sat silently for a time, his brow furrowed as he pondered all the different intricacies of the problem. He'd learned more in the past two days than he had in two years previous.
  The entire system was obviously the site of some great catastrophe, and to all appearances, it seemed his ship had been a part of it, even if it didn't have clear records of the incident. That, more than anything else, seemed to make her almost alien to him. He might have experienced the same unease if he had suddenly discovered a shocking truth about a childhood friend.
  In a way, he almost distrusted his ship.
  After a long while, Hraden grew dimly aware of the passage of time, and as the sensation wore on, it startled him from his thoughts. Glancing at the time signature on his integrated HUD, he found to his dismay was already well-past lunchtime. "Taiya's going to expect me home soon," he whispered, returning his attention to the present. A heavy hand on the controls, he banked left, curving his ship back towards the wormhole. He loathed leaving so many questions unanswered... but he'd had enough for one day, and felt sure the mystery could wait another day.

~~~

  "That's impossible. There's absolutely no way it's true."
  Taiya stood staunchly on the far side of the dining room, resting her backside against one of the countertops, her arms crossed in stubborn disbelief. "It's just impossible," she said again. "That's older than Odgen Station - older than the colonies on Jormagnun, even."
  Smiling weakly, Hraden shook his head, turning back to the stovetop. "Look, it's just what she said –"
  "What it said," Taiya interrupted insistently.
  "Sure, what the AI said," he allowed, placing another vegetable on the cutting board as he continued. "I asked how old it knew it was, and then it showed me proof."
  His girlfriend's voice had the same outspoken tone of disbelief. "Oh? And what constitutes 'proof'? The AI could've simply told you it was that old, or faked the dates on the different images it showed you."
  Distracted, Hraden's knife slipped, just missing his thumb. He twisted his head around towards her in mild frustration. "Why would an AI fake it, because it wants to look impressive? They can't do that." He took a deep breath to calm himself and turned back to his work, muttering, "They just do what they're programmed to."
  The girl was silent for a moment. Hraden could imagine her expression: eyes slightly narrowed in contemplation, lips pressed tightly together in an almost unnoticeable frown. He thought he understood why she was upset. In fact, he imagined she felt intimidated - perhaps even threatened - by what he claimed. Her entire life, she'd been mocked, loathed, bullied, discounted, degraded and ignored because of the color of her hair. It must be almost infuriating to her to think that the reasoning behind the way everyone had treated her was unfounded - that everything she'd gone through had been meaningless.  It didn't help that she had a stubborn streak a mile wide, either. "Someone could've programmed it to try to lie," she pointed out.
  "But why would they? It's a ship AI - it has to tell the truth or it puts the life of its passengers in danger."
  "Maybe it's trying to trick you."
  Hraden rolled his eyes. "Now you're just being silly. It isn't even truly intelligent. An AI isn't sentient. They can't feel emotions, they can't try to show off, and they can't make things up. They just say what they're programmed to."
  Taiya's voice took on a confident, insinuating tone. "And maybe, Hraden, someone programmed your ship to tell you a lie. Maybe someone falsified the dates in the records to try to trick you. Maybe someone planted the data there to begin with. Maybe..." Taiya paused before adding hesitantly, "Maybe it was Peliat..."
  "It wasn't," Hraden said firmly, sweeping the vegetables into a frying pan with the flat of his knife. "First, the only people keyed to my ship are you and me - nobody could break in without blasting their way through. Besides... Zaichi, that settlement I told you about last night..." He paused, his throat tightening with guilt as he busied himself with stirring up the sizzling vegetables and meat in the pan.
  "It was destroyed," Taiya acknowledged, her voice leveling out to a more relaxing level. "Yeah, I heard about it too."
  Astonished, he exclaimed, "You heard about it??"
  "Mhm." She walked over, leaning up against the counter beside him as she watched him cook. "It was all over the news - a first attack by Jormagnun. There are video records - they showed proof. -Real proof," she added pointedly. "I didn't know if you'd heard about it too, and I was waiting for a better time to bring it up. "
  "A... a first attack?" The man felt dizzy. "But Taiya... last night, I mentioned it to Peliat..."
  "I figured you'd be upset about it." She frowned sympathetically, appearing to relax as she tucked her hair behind an ear with a fingertip. "They found the bodies in the asteroid today - authorities figured out pretty quickly that it was the work of Jormagnun, even though Jormagnun protested it wasn't them. Some of our people cut off trade, and the local military apparently got confused by conflicting orders and shot down some Jormagnun merchant ships outside Odgen Station... Jormagnun responded by attacking one of the colonies in Voro'zhin. The news said only a few people made it out alive, and that they reported Jormagnun ships jumping out of warp to ambush the station."
  "Okay... maybe it was just a coincidence that it was Zaichi." Then he shook his head sadly. "A war is starting; a real one, this time."
  Taiya nodded. "People are in an uproar about it. There was a riot in the Spoke 4 and 7 commercial districts, and the military closed off some of the nexus docking stations due to sabotage. A group of activists even set fire to the Spoke 5 farms."
  Hraden tensed up at this last, his eyes leaving his work as he glanced towards her face, his hand still mechanically stirring the food. "Nothing bad happened at Spoke 6, where you work, did it?"
  "No, nothing happened in Spoke 6," she affirmed with a playful smile, reaching out to trace a delicate finger along his jawline. "Are you worried about me?"
  "A little, yeah." He put down the spoon he held to place his hand against hers, pressing her palm close against his cheek. Suddenly, he laughed. "Your hands are always so cold, Tai-tai."
  Pleased, Taiya gently pulled back her hand and laid a kiss upon his cheek. "Maybe you could warm me up after dinner," she whispered teasingly in his ear, turning to slowly saunter away.
  "Maybe I will." Hraden half-turned, his eyes following her lingeringly for a moment before he caught himself, turning back to his cooking with an amused smile and a shake of his head. Her attempts at seduction most definitely hadn't gone unnoticed - a familiar tightening in his groin could attest to that - but his mind was still too deeply rooted in the problems of the day. "Sofie's records weren't faked, though," he added thoughtfully.
  There was a whine behind him. "We're back to that again?" Taiya moaned, almost whimpering.
  "I'm sorry, but look - I wanted to tell you," Hraden said quickly before she could interrupt, "She showed me video data of another star system, and I found it today."
  "Another star system," she echoed, her voice dripping with annoyance and disbelief.
  "Yes, one that's not on any of the charts. There's a jump hole deep in Voro'zhin that nobody seems to know about -"
  At that, Taiya simply couldn't help it. She burst out, "You went to Voro'zhin?! And after yesterday? You weren't supposed to go getting yourself in danger again! Are you saying you actually saw Zaichi?? Hraden, I thought you spent the day mining, not going off on some -"
  "Taiya!" Hraden interrupted loudly to get her attention. Then, softer, "Taiya, shhh. Listen, okay?"
  "Hmph." She glared at him icily for a moment before finally giving in. "Fine. I'll listen."
  "Yes, I saw Zaichi," he confessed. "I followed some old data records Sofie had to that system I mentioned. It's old, and there's the debris of ancient, ruined ships everywhere - some of them look like Sofie. I can show you tomorrow if you don't believe me - you won't get fired if you take a day off." This last was added hopefully, but Taiya soon shot him down.
  "No. I am not going flying around in that ship," she said firmly. " There's not even a foot of metal between you and... nothing! I am not going out in space! I don't even see how you can seem so calm about it." It was an argument they'd had before - Taiya had never left Odgen station because she was terrified of the thought. The doctors called it "amaxophobia", when they didn't call it a curse of the gods. It was more common among planetborns - especially those who had never been in a vehicle - but it wasn't entirely impossible for a spacer to have it too. There was no sense in pointing out to Taiya that she was aboard a space station, either - Odgen Station was large enough that it didn't trigger her fear.

  After Hraden dished out their meal, a stubborn silence persisted.
  Taiya seemed to like his cooking enough to go back to the stove for a second helping, but Hraden understood her well enough to know that she was trying to give herself more time to think. As a result, he simply gave her time to process everything he'd said, and didn't bring it up. It eventually paid off, but not until they were finishing up with the dishes.
  With a sigh, Taiya finally gave voice to her decision. "Fine," she said softly, drying her hands on a cloth. "I won't go out into space, but... If you want, I'll come with you tonight and you can show me."
  A grateful, loving smile broke across the man's face. "Aw, Tai-tai. I promise you won't regret it. There's so much -"
  "Shhh!" she hissed, holding up a hand to shush him as she picked up her cap from a corner table and tucked her hair carefully beneath it as she pulled it on. "That's enough. We'll see, okay?"
  And he followed her from the apartment, locking the door behind them as they headed with a brisk step towards Hangar 9.
Last edited by Talvieno on Sat Nov 01, 2014 10:50 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#8
  
Chapter 8
  The walk to Hangar 9 seemed far quicker than even half the trip with Jarnel had been - it was something Hraden absolutely loved about Taiya. Perhaps she did get upset more often than some people did, and perhaps she had a crippling phobia of being in space, but she was also very pleasant to be around – at least to Hraden. During his late teen years, spending time with her had saved his sanity while dealing with trouble at home. She'd been his escape... and he, in return, had been hers. They talked about everything, from the far-off spice miners on Tvondega IV, to the color choices of various adverts they saw while walking through the shopping district. She was naturally easy to talk to, and listening to her was always a joy - especially as she could easily match him for intelligence. It therefore wasn't long before they'd arrived at the hangar itself, as busy as ever.
  Together, Taiya and Hraden crossed the hangar deck, but while it was an everyday experience for Hraden, Taiya had very rarely been, except a few years before when Hraden had wanted to show off his new purchase. Hraden could still imagine her expression - narrowed eyes, furrowed brown, tight-lipped frown - the look of someone who would rather not reveal their negative opinions. He felt today wasn't likely to be any different - but he could hope.
  As a cargo freighter roared past, taxiing towards the nearest runway, Taiya turned towards Hraden and yelled, "Is it always like this? I don't remember it being this loud before!"
  They were walking side by side, but with a spaceship roaring by on RCS power, the din made speech almost impossible. Laughing, he shouted back, "Yeah, it is! You get used to it!"
  "I almost prefer the farms over this," she shouted, turning towards him with a distracted smile. He wasn't sure if it was a joke. "Where's the ship again? Where do you keep it moored, or parked, or...?"
  Initially pointing a finger in the direction of his ship, Hraden waited until the nearby traffic had rumbled off into the distance. "It's not far," he spoke reassuringly, picking the pace up a little. "Come on, we're almost there."
  He soon found himself watching her with mild amusement: her curious eyes roamed the hangar deck, straying between mechanics pushing hovercarts of equipment, to groups of chatting pilots, to cargo workers transferring ore from the mining haulers. It was almost a pity, he felt, that she was terrified of space... More than anything, he wanted to show her the wonders of the galaxy - and get her far away from Odgen, to somewhere she wouldn't face the same prejudice she did at home. She'd hidden her hair tightly under her cap, just as she always did. While stray ringlets might protrude from underneath, it at least made her hair less noticeable. More importantly, perhaps, it helped her feel less self-conscious.
  Taiya's voice soon lifted him from his thoughts. "It's hard to miss your ship," she said sardonically, pointing ahead towards Sofie's narrow, bulbous frame.
  She was right: it did indeed stand out. In fact, it was close to the opposite of the long, aerodynamic ships common to the rest of the galaxy. Instead of a pointed tip, it had a bulbous nose that housed the cockpit; instead of a large back, it narrowed to a smaller section, which split off into four long fins, the lower two of which helped hold the ship upright when it landed. Even Hraden would admit it was ugly compared to the other ships of the day, but it was his, and he held a special appreciation for it. As he and Taiya passed beneath one of the arching fins, he patted it affectionately, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. It wasn't every day his girlfriend undertook a trip to the docks, and as ugly as Sofie might have been, it still made him beam with pride as they came to a stop beneath the ship's sturdy frame. Taiya hesitated, looking first at her boyfriend, and then upwards at the main hatch, clearly expecting him to go first.
  Hraden shook his head, grinning at her seeming hesitation. "Go on! Climb on up, Tai-tai, you first."
  She looked at him as if he was nuts. "Me?? It's your ship. It wouldn't unlock for me anyway – I haven't been anywhere close to it for, what... four years?"
  Hraden nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, that'd be about right... Sofie wasn't even finished then." Then he smirked, reliving the memory in his mind. "You were pissed! I thought you were going to dump me over it." His eyes traveled from her back to his ship, gazing thoughtfully up at the hatch.
  Hiding a smile, Taiya sighed and rolled her eyes playfully as she smacked her boyfriend on the arm. "Of course I was ticked off – you sold your home in exchange for a pile of junk! I wasn't sure if you were even serious."
  "She's not a pile of junk," Hraden said absentmindedly, his thoughts lingering in the past. After a few moments, he sighed, chuckling uneasily as he returned his attention to the present. "Besides... I keyprinted your mental signature that day - you have access to her too. The AI wasn't advanced enough yet for it to work, but your imprint is still stored in there." He turned back to Taiya with a smile and gave her a quick peck on the lips. "Go on, you first." When she didn't move, he added, "For me?"
  Taiya shook her head with an amused smile as she gave in and started climbing the ladder. When she reached the top, she leaned back off the rungs a little, carefully pressing her palm against the keypad. Almost immediately, she yelped, jerking her hand away as if it had bitten her. "What the hell!? " she half-shouted in surprise.
  Hraden started forwards reflexively at her cry before he realized what was wrong. "It tingles a bit more than the ones you're used to - I'm not sure why," he explained quickly. "It's not strong enough to hurt you, though. Try it again!"
  Taiya pursed her lips and glared down at him, clinging tightly to the ladder. Then she put her hand back onto the keypad, muttering loudly, "You so owe me for this!"
  Her boyfriend only grinned, sticking his hands into his pockets and waiting.
  After several moments, the hatch opened, swinging smoothly upwards with a hiss to provide safe passage to the cabin. Taiya climbed inside, and as soon as she was off the ladder, Hraden followed suit.
  When he reached the top, he found Taiya had already taken a seat in the co-pilot's chair, and was half-turned in her seat to watch him enter. "See, being in a ship isn't so bad, is it?" Hraden asked gently, making his way between the seats to the pilot's chair.
  She flicked a finger towards the window ahead of her. "We're still in the hangar," she pointed out flatly. "Hurry up and start the thing so you can show me."
  Hraden did so, beginning on the normal startup sequence. Moments later, the engine started, the ship's frame softly vibrating. The hatch behind them closed with a hiss and muffled the hangar's noise, clicking as internal mechanisms locked it into place. Blue lights glowed beneath the central console, white bars lit the walls against the floor, and the AI's calm, quieting voice rang out, the same as it always did: "Welcome back."
  Taiya seemed dumbfounded. "It's prettier on the inside," she whispered softly, giving Hraden a fleeting glance as she examined the controls. "It doesn't look anything like it did when I first saw it."
  He nodded, feeling a warm pride swelling in his chest. "I put a lot of work into fixing it up," he replied, settling back in his chair and getting comfortable. Then, louder, he spoke to his AI. "Thanks, Sofie. I have someone else here with me too."
  "Yes: Taiya Helania," the AI returned smoothly. "Age 25, farm worker in Spoke 6, was denied entrance to Odgen University. No criminal record."
  Taiya grew tense, leaning over the arm of her chair towards Hraden and hissing in an anxious whisper, "How does Sofie know about me?"
  Sofie saved him from answering. "You unlocked my hatch with the keypad, Taiya," the voice offered in explanation. "I recorded your mental structure in my psychomemory." There was a brief pause, and then the AI added, "Hraden, psychomemory banks are effectively full. It would be advisable to purge, replace, or add further memory banks."
  He brushed it away with a wave of his hand. "Okay. Do you remember what I asked you yesterday?"
  "I do, Hraden."
  "I'm going to ask you again, for Taiya's sake." He paused, glancing over at Taiya as he caught her gaze, watching her expression. After a moment, he asked, "Sofie, how old do you know you are, for sure? Check all records."
  This time, Sofie's response was prompt. "My auxiliary records hold partial data of roughly 1723 years."
  Taiya folded her arms defiantly. "It's lying," she said firmly, the same as she had back in her apartment. "It's not possible. I told you that. Someone had to have altered her memory."
  Her response was about what Hraden had expected. His lips tweaked upwards mischievous smile, and he added, "Sofie? Show Taiya... like you did for me."
  And the cockpit went dark.

  Moments later, the holoscreen was ablaze with UI and images, flashing and spinning with thousands of pieces of data overlaying each other in an irregular rhythm. As the display continued, Hraden watched Taiya's face attentively, flickering as it was beneath the holoscreen's light. Her eyes widened, her mouth opening ever so slightly.
  "Oh my god," she whispered, choked with emotion and unable to draw her eyes from the screen around her.
  A tender smile crossed her boyfriend's lips as she spoke. Reaching over, he carefully took her hand in his, and together they watched the rest of Sofie's spectacular display.
  The alien worlds, the strange buildings and structures, the ship designs – everything sped by in a whirlwind of sound, light, and color. But then, not thirty seconds after it had started, it was over, fading to the same deep, dark purple of the alien system, the shifting asteroids and neutron star flickering in accelerated time, twenty-five years to a second.
  As the display neared its end, Hraden spoke. "Sofie, pause it there." With a soft chime, the viewscreen froze where it was. The man turned, looking gently across the little cabin into the girl's frightened eyes. "Tai-tai?"
  "Oh my gods," she breathed again, covering her mouth with her fingers as a tear rolled down her cheek. She squeezed his hand tightly. "Hraden, it's... it's real - those images, they -" and she paused, unable to find words.
  "- Aren't anything anybody here has ever seen before, I know," Hraden finished for her quietly.
  "So... she really... she really is that old... One thousand, seven hundred and twenty-three..." With an effort, she tugged her glistening eyes away from the display, looking into his with an expression of wonderment.
  He nodded slowly. "Yeah, at the very least. And what you see on the screen..." he added with a nod in its direction, "is where I went yesterday."
  She turned back to the display, to the great expanse of that mysterious system, the debris of ancient ships littering the screen, beneath the backdrop of a dead star. With the faintest hint of emotion in her voice, she went on, "What happened there, Hraden? What could have destroyed all those ships... what could have killed all those people?"
  "I don't know," he admitted. "Sofie did mention yesterday that a star went nova."
  "Mhm, the neutron star," Taiya mumbled dismissively, her mind racing as she pried the puzzle apart. "It was larger, but blew itself to pieces in a supernova - that's why the starlight is so dim." She motioned towards the holodisplay to illustrate her point. "The dust cloud blocks the light and only the very brightest stars shine through."
  "Yeah, I get that, but it doesn't make sense that they could've been in the system." He paused, trying to think of a way to word it in non-technical terms she could understand. "Tai-tai, supernovas are powerful enough to blast even planets out of star systems – powerful enough to make them go rogue. There's no way shields could stand up to that."
  A sad smile traced her lips. "Maybe not our shields." She pointed towards the star. "Look - there's a huge station in the way, do you see? Maybe its shields blocked the blast."
  "Stations don't have shields."
  "Well, maybe this one did," Taiya insisted. "You can't discount it just because we don't do it. This is an entirely different culture. What if their station's shields managed to absorb the first shockwave, but were too weak by that point to stand up to the gamma rays that followed? Wouldn't that kill the crew members, but leave the ships intact?"
  Hraden opened his mouth to make a quick rebuttal, but paused, soon giving a slow nod instead. There was no sense denying it: she had a point. He continued along that train of thought for a moment before adding, "And if the ship was orbiting on the far side of a planet, the planet would be vaporized, its molten fragments flung outwards..." He quieted, imagining in his mind's eye the glinting obsidian boulders he'd seen, and the large gashes torn in the ships' hulls.
  "Mhm... and in their final moments, they hid behind the station," Taiya whispered softly, her voice a ghostly echo. "They did the one thing they could to try to save themselves, hoping that the shields would be strong enough to survive the blast..."
  Turning towards her, Hraden caught the glimmer of a tear as it trickled down from the corner of her eye, and reached over, taking her hand in his.
  "How many people died? Where were they from, who were they?" She bit her lip, her eyes swimming with an empathetic moisture as she glanced back in his direction. "They didn't... Why were they even there? A fleet of war ships... Why were they there? How many people lived on the planet's surface? How many people died?"
  In response, he could only shake his head. "I don't know," he said quietly. "We probably never will... but they weren't gods - not if they couldn't even save themselves. This happened even before the Genesis war. It wouldn't be in any of our records."
  Frowning, the girl shut her eyes, a second tear tracing a path down her cheek as she took a deep breath to calm herself.
  The couple sat soundlessly in the little cabin for a time, silent as it was but for the gentle hum of the engines behind them, and their own gentle breaths.
  When Taiya finally spoke again, her voice was unsteady. "So... the myths are true."
  "What do you mean? I don't follow..." He waited for her to explain; she had a tendency to arrive at a conclusion faster than he could.
  She opened her eyes, looking towards him. "Hraden, think about it... There's a second wormhole in that system - or there was,at least, before the star went nova. These people came from another star system - maybe even another galaxy, and they colonized the nearby stars... but then, right at the farthest point of their operations, a star underwent a nova explosion and wiped everything out." Taiya hesitated, as if struggling to make up her mind, and finally made a timid request. "Sofie? Show me... a map showing the connections between the systems near Brelyme."
  Without a word, Sofie obliged, and the integrated HUD flashed with a cool, blue glow as a nodal map of a dozen systems appeared over the top of the frozen image, their names splayed out beside them.
  Taiya reached forwards, moving her fingers as delicately as if to touch them, and in response, they slid around the curved display until they rested in front of her. Then, she tapped the point representing Brelyme, and it began to glow with a reddish hue. "Brelyme is here," Taiya said softly, tracing her fingertips outwards along the shimmering web. "Lumis, Idun, Katoro, Formoss, Taimi'sei and onwards to Dinswar... and in the other direction..." She trailed her fingers back along the path to Brelyme, and then paused, before moving it one step farther: the system without a name. "This... this system, the farthest point; Farpoint, maybe," she suggested, glancing over towards Hraden for approval.
  He gave a curt nod, waiting for her to continue explaining, which she soon did.
  "When the star exploded, their only link to their homeworld was cut off... all their imports were gone. The colonies descended into barbarism, struggling to survive." She sank back into her chair. "With the central form of government suddenly gone, we attacked each other – that was the Genesis war - until we finally settled in an uneasy peace... but all records of the old world were lost, becoming nothing but legends, passed down from one family to the next..."

  After a long while, Hraden reached forwards, shutting off the engines. The console faded, and the little room went dark but for scattered beams of light cast upon their laps through the cockpit window. Then, gently, "Come on, Tai-tai... let's go home."
  Wordlessly, the woman nodded, rising from her seat like a shade and following Hraden out the hatch.
  As they exited the ship's interior to begin the long walk back to their apartment, the hangar's cacophony assaulted them once more. For a time, it was all they heard, until Taiya finally voiced a question that had lingered in her mind. "Hraden," she asked hesitantly, glancing at him with a curious expression from beneath the brim of her cap, "When you rebuilt your ship, how much did you replace?"
  He thought about it for a moment as they paused to let a cargo train rumble past, and then replied, "I replaced the chairs, the power systems, the weapons, the lights, the shields, the AI core, computer systems, some of the holoscreen tech... and..." He paused, trying to remember everything else. "There was other stuff too, but nothing major, I don't think... The engines are mostly the same as they were, but they were held together all wrong and I had to patch them to keep them from... well..." He paused, giving a sheepish half-smile, his eyebrows drawn together apologetically before admitting, "Well, it seemed likely that they'd explode... I also installed mining gear - it didn't even have mounts for them, so all that is sort of bolted to the sides of the undercarriage..."
  "Mmm."
  Hraden felt an uneasiness growing in the pit of his stomach. Something about the topic made him feel uncomfortable, and Taiya's ponderous silence wasn't helping. With a worried note in his voice, he asked, "Why? What are you thinking?"
  She only shook her head, staring at the ground as she continued to think.
  Hraden couldn't imagine what could be troubling her so much that she wouldn't tell him, and he began to dread when he would eventually find out what it was.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#9
Chapter 9
  Taiya maintained the same downcast, thoughtful expression on the trip home, and although Hraden made several valiant attempts to get her talking, she didn't seem to hear him. After a while, he gave up, letting her think in peace, and that was the end of the matter.
  When they finally reached Taiya's apartment, she stepped ahead of Hraden and placed a firm, purposed palm on the keypad to open the door. As soon as they were inside, she removed her cap and tossed it back on the corner table from whence it had come, and spun about to face her boyfriend.
  Her piercing, emerald-green eyes shimmered purposefully – almost menacingly – in the dim light, and it gave Hraden pause, his footsteps slowing to a halt not two meters away from where she stood. Swallowing nervously, he licked his lips to wet them before he made a cautious query. "Taiya...? What is it?"
  Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted with a slight inhalation, but instead of speaking, she paused, cocking her head to one side as she surveyed his expression thoughtfully. Then she paused, tilting her head to one side as she surveyed his expression thoughtfully, considering her words. After a moment more, she asked, "Hraden... you replaced the ship's computer systems, didn't you?"
  With an uneasy feeling in his chest, he tried to guess what she was thinking. When he eventually concluded that it was hopeless to guess, he surrendered a begrudging affirmation. "I replaced her core computer equipment, yeah... Why are you asking?" His eyes wandered back to hers as he spoke, and a feeling of nervous dread overtook him once more, mirroring what he'd felt earlier that day in Farpoint.
  She met his gaze and replied in a quiet, pointed tone, "If you replaced everything, then how does Sofie remember everything she does?"

  Hraden's eyes widened in horrified astonishment as he stumbled back under the shockwave of her words, realizing that she was finally giving voice to the illusive problem that had plagued his subconscious mind since early that morning. "By the gods, you're right," he whispered in dizzy bewilderment, sinking onto the couch beside him. "How does Sofie have all that data? I... How?? Did someone add it all in later?"
  Starting forwards across the room with a brisk step, she waved the thought away with her hand. "No, I thought about it all the way home. Nobody could have added it, if what you told me earlier is true. The keypad wouldn't accept them, and Sofie would know if someone had broken in." She sat down on the edge of the old armchair, her tense demeanor betraying her anxiety as she continued, "I think there's more there that Sofie isn't telling you... If someone had commanded her not to tell anyone something - if someone had ordered that she pretend certain data didn't exist... wouldn't she keep that a secret?"  
  His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "So... did someone break into my ship, or didn't they?"
  Taiya shook her head hurriedly, her crimson curls dancing round her cheeks. "No! No, nobody broke in; I'm saying the opposite."
  "Then who are you saying did it?"
  Biting her lip in worried hesitation, she explained apologetically, "I'm saying it was you."
  A brief silence coursed throughout the room as Hraden, frowning, attempted to understand what she was getting at, his hand moving unnoticed to stroke the stubble of his beard. Finally, he sighed, shaking his head disbelievingly. "Taiya, that doesn't even make sense. I would remember giving the order."
  "Think about it from another perspective, then," insisted the girl. "Perhaps she interpreted something you said as telling her to forget all that information. Maybe she thought you wanted her to delete those specific things."
  Hraden said nothing in reply as he brooded on her words with a reticent silence.
  After a time, Taiya twisted her lips to the side and shrugged dejectedly. "Okay, fine. It was just an idea I had. I hardly know anything about computers anyway. You're the electrician, not me." She rose from the arm of her chair and started to head towards the lavatory, but paused as she reached the doorway, turning to him with an afterthought. "Hraden?"
  Sluggishly, he lifted his eyes towards her, waiting for her to continue.
  She hesitated, checking to make sure he was listening, and said in a quiet, pleading voice, "Please don't leave Termang by yourself again... It isn't safe with a war brewing." When there was no response, she frowned and turned away, closing the door behind her and leaving Hraden to his thoughts.

~~~

  Munching the corner of a breakfast bar, Hraden shouldered his jacket and closed Taiya's apartment door softly behind him, taking pains to stay silent lest she would awake. With this done, he turned, starting down the little grimy alleyway as he headed for the stairs.
  It was Tuesday, and like any Tuesday, it would be a half-day of work; he always got off early on Tuesdays in order to visit Taiya's workplace. His weekly visit helped them both to relax, and it had become something they eagerly anticipated long before. It required no special preparations, and he was starting the morning almost exactly as he would any other. The main difference was that while his mind usually strayed between random topics on his morning transit, today found his thoughts focused on Taiya's request: "Please don't leave Termang by yourself again... It isn't safe with a war brewing."
  Although Taiya had seemingly included a loophole by intent, there was no simple solution. Few of his friends had ships, and those same friends were often on business in other sectors. However, this same train of thought soon brought Hraden's pace to a gentle halt outside Rebnauld's Bar, an idea flashing through his mind as he remembered Jarnel's offer: "Just ask for Jarnel Mertz; old Rebnauld'll be able to point you in the right direction." While he'd ignored the offer before, it now held a certain allure... provided he could summon the courage to walk inside such a seedy establishment.
  From the exterior, Rebnauld's Bar looked old and broken down, and gave the semblance a long-abandoned shack that some ill-advised individual had tried to turn into a pub at a moment's notice. While the businesses on the floors above and below held a dim metallic shine, Rebnauld's outer walls were grungy, the supporting pylons traced with rusty streaks where water had dripped in ages past.
  As Hraden continued to reflect on the building's sorry state, someone rudely bumped into him from behind, startling him from his thoughts as he stumbled forwards. Though he spun around quickly, he couldn't quite make out who had knocked into him through the teeming, shifting crowd, and eventually turned back to the bar. After a moment, he gritted his teeth and stepped forwards in determination, trying to look as casual as he might.
  The interior had an even more disheveled appearance than the outside, which made it even more surprising to find two dozen patrons seated about the room, mumbling and talking amid bass-heavy music that boomed in the background from unseen speakers. The place reeked of beer and body odor, mingled with the strong, savory scent of seafood. Coarse black netting hung around the walls, decorated at arbitrary points with marine memorabilia. The most striking of these was a smoky chawlak skeleton on the left wall, clutching a fake human head in its large jaws. The primary attraction, however seemed to be the circular bar in the center of the room, where a single broad-shouldered showman stood twirling knives and flipping glasses as he cooked his customers' meals.
  Forcing his mind back to his current task, Hraden tried to look casual as he walked to the bar in the center of the room, wiping a finger inconspicuously across the nearest barstool. When it came away clean, he gingerly took a seat and looked towards the bartender, who seemed to double as the cook. Hraden could only assume it was Rebnauld himself.
  Rebnauld was a stocky, muscled man of moderate height, but his primary distinguishing features were his shock of black hair, wide face, and thick mustache - thick enough, in fact, that he was half speaking through it when he finally addressed Hraden. "Ain't seen you in here before. Name's Rebnauld," he rumbled loudly, turning one wild eye towards him as he grabbed up several flasks and began mixing a drink. "What'll it be? You in here for somethin' in particular, or do y' want me to surprise you?"
  Shaking his head firmly, Hraden raised his voice over the surrounding noise, asking, "You wouldn't happen to know a man named Jarnel Mertz, would you?"
  Rebnauld continued vigorously shaking the drinks, nodding as he did. "Aye, he's one of my regulars. He ain't here right now, though. What y' want with him?" the man asked, turning a curious eye on Hraden.
  Ignoring the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, the young miner pressed onwards. "I was wondering if you might pass along a message to him and his sister - I was hoping to fly with them tomorrow."
  The bartender's wide eyes narrowed for a moment, but he gave a brisk nod as he dexterously filled three glasses, sliding them off down the countertop towards three expectant customers. With that done, he turned back to Hraden. "Aye, I'll tell him. Can I get ya anything, though? Shelled Jormagnun crawster, mebbe? Or perhaps somethin' more breakfast-like?"
  Hraden felt tempted by the offer; he had an intense fondness for seafood that Taiya had never shared. Even so, he politely declined, explaining, "No, I'm a bit late to start the day already, but I may come back later on."
  Rebnauld gave a sturdy nod and turned back to his work.
  His errand done, Hraden rose from his stool and headed for the door.
  While he knew Jarnel didn't have a ship, he thought it likely that Verana would have one of her own, being a higher-ranking member of the Odgen military police. Although Verana's apparent attraction to him was the only shot he had for convincing her to come along, he was worried that she might try to come onto him again.
  Shaking his head, Hraden brushed these unpleasant thoughts from his mind and left Rebnauld's bar, headed for the hangar with Sofie's secrets on his mind once more.  

~~~

  Hraden was pleased to find that this morning, at least, no one was waiting for him under Sofie's bow, and the sight of her had a calming effect on his nerves. He felt even more relaxed after he'd climbed inside and settled back into the leather of his seat, flipping the controls to start it up.
  "Welcome, Hraden," Sofie greeted him.
  "Thanks, Sofie. We're in for another day of mining," Hraden said, already well on his way towards starting up the RCS thrusters. Before long, Sofie's bulbous frame lifted of the hangar's surface, and he began taxiing forwards. She gave no response to his statement, but then, he hadn't expected one.
  Before much longer, he was speeding down the runway and passing through the hangar's air shield. Termang's familiar orange murk enveloped him, the colossal gray-brown asteroids hanging in space like stony sentinels, keeping a silent watch over Odgen's capital.
  After waiting several minutes to make sure everything was all right, Hraden set his ship on an autopilot course towards a more ore-rich area of the field. After turning on some soft, ambient music, he dimmed the lights and settled back in his chair, well prepared to catch a few extra hours of sleep.

  But that never happened; his mind was far too active to allow him even a moment's peace. He couldn't help it; the question had taken firm hold of his mind: How did Sofie have data stored from before when he'd replaced her computer systems? Taiya had best summed up his worries the night before when she'd suggested that Sofie might be hiding something, and as ridiculous as it sounded, he knew she would be bound to keep it a secret if someone had ordered her to keep quiet.
  It troubled him that Sofie might be hiding something, and it mattered little whether or not that information might be important. He'd always felt a surge of warm pride when he used something he had built himself, but now that there was a possibility that Sofie was actively working against him, it ruined the experience with a sinister, foreboding feeling that he couldn't quite shut out.
  Opening his eyes, Hraden took a deeper breath, his lips parting slightly as he prepared to ask that very question - but he stopped short, realizing it was futile. If she was trying to keep something a secret - if she really was lying to him - then all she would have to do would to avoid his suspicion would be to lie again. To triumph over her, he would have to be more subtle; he would have to entrap her with a question she couldn't possibly lie about. It was a difficult, troubling problem, and not one with an immediate solution.

  Sofie's mechanical intonations eventually startled him from his thoughts. "Destination reached."
  Hraden grimaced at her voice as he pulled his chair upright and resumed manual control. Without giving the craft a chance to drift to a stop, he began readying his mining gear, flipping switches across his console. "Start the scanner, Sofie," he soon ordered, and at his command, a blue, metered scanner stretched out along the bottom of the integrated HUD beneath a large, spinning reticule.
  After scanning the nearby asteroids for a moment, he decided on a particularly ore-laden one ahead and to his right, increasing the throttle and starting forwards. As it grew closer, he began tapping it with quick bursts from his transfer beams to try to find the deposit, listening carefully to the soft hum as he strafed sideways around the gigantic, pitted boulder. Not long after he'd maneuvered into its shadow, he hit a decent access point and felt his ship shudder beneath him as the transfer beam pulsed brightly, melting an incandescent hole into the rock as it transferred the raw matter into his cargo hold. It wasn't long before he'd drained the patch dry, and he turned, searching for another asteroid to mine.
  Even after giving it a good deal thought, Hraden still couldn't come up with a way to trick his ship's AI, a revelation that frustrated him immensely. Seeing no alternatives other than asking her directly, he took a deep breath to calm his mind, and began in a clear, steady voice, "Sofie, about what you showed Taiya last night... How do you still have that data? Your AI core and data modules were broken when I rebuilt you, and I replaced them."
  Her response was clean and concise; if she was lying, there was no way for him to tell. "You replaced my faulty primary cores. My auxiliary cores were unharmed, and are located within my hull. You never came across them, and they briefly functioned as the primary units prior to your installation of the Odgenian cores."
  Hraden narrowed his eyes shrewdly at her response, and chose the wording of his next question carefully. "You never told me about this before. Why?"
  "You never asked, and my programming never deemed it necessary."
  "Did you hide the existence of your original, secondary systems? Have you ever hidden anything from me at all?"
  "No. I have never hidden anything from you, Hraden. As to my auxiliary systems, I have mentioned them to you before, and you have even ordered me to access them."
  Dumbstruck, Hraden's mind whirled as he pieced it together - he had asked her to check her auxiliary systems a few times recently, though he'd never quite understood what she'd meant by "auxiliary". He had assumed it was nothing more than extra storage space and hadn't questioned it any further, even though he now realized that he should have. During the four years he'd spent with his ship, he'd never imagined what secrets might lay within its ancient hull... or even that the hull might be ancient to begin with. There was no way he could ever have dreamed that she might be the last remnants of a long-dead civilization.
  His eyes widened as he realized what this meant. If Sofie had truly been part of the Farpoint civilization, and if her original AI could still function, it could be his key to learning everything he wanted to know.
  A plan began to form within his mind: perhaps he could "resurrect" the old AI, see what it knew, and see if it might be better suited to reading the older files. If it was – if it could access them freely and read the timestamps, file names and descriptions – he might learn exactly what had happened to the people of Farpoint. Hraden found it an exciting idea, and it prompted him to ask another question: "Sofie, is the auxiliary AI still functional?"
  "I don't know; I can't run diagnostics on its systems."
  "Why not?"
  "It's a limitation of my AI; it was never intended to be installed alongside a secondary core. I would have to do a clean boot of all my systems and shift control to the former. Switching back to the primary core afterwards may or may not require a full reboot; data is inconclusive on the matter."
  Nodding that he understood, he queried further. "If you were to switch to your old AI and then discover that it didn't work, could you switch back to your primary without damaging anything?"
  "I don't know."
  Sighing, he moved a hand back to the throttle lever, bringing his ship to a complete stop. His eyes darted around his integrated HUD, looking for nearby ships, and he was pleased to find that there were a few other miners in his immediate area. He badly wanted her to switch back so he could access the older data, but if failure meant his ship's computer wouldn't reboot, it would leave him stranded; he would have to wait until someone found him and hauled him back – if he didn't freeze to death first. Although an unpowered ship wouldn't appear on scanners, most passive scanners could track the last location of ships that disappeared – almost like a distress signal.
  It wasn't something he'd ever heard of anyone doing – putting two AIs into the same ship. Like many other things he'd witnessed over the past few days, he would have formerly thought it impossible, but by this time, he was ready to believe almost anything.
  Years later, he would look back on this very moment – this one, small choice – and wonder if he'd done the right thing... but at the same time, he'd never be able to envision it any differently. With his underarms dripping with cold, nervous perspiration, Hraden adjusted his grip on the control stick uncomfortably as he made his decision. Finally... he gave the order. "Sofie... switch to your old AI."
  "Acknowledged. Shutting down."

  With those words, the ship died, the soft blue glow of the console's backlights flickering from existence as the engines wound down towards silence, the fans behind the vents giving a dying gasp as they spiraled down to a motionless stop. Sofie's interior, lit by naught but starlight and Termang's soft orange ambience, felt dead... more so even than Farpoint itself. If the gods had truly wrought man's existence, they had surely never intended the human ear to process utter silence, and Hraden found it incredibly unnerving.
  And yet, nothing happened. There was no flickering light to tell him everything was okay; there was no whisper of mechanisms deep within the hull. There was nothing except silence. For the first time in his life, he felt truly and utterly alone.
  "Enough of this," he whispered, more to break the stillness than anything else. He reached forwards, attempting the startup sequence with a few rapid key presses – but it was as he feared: his efforts were worthless.
  Sofie was dead.
  "Shit," the man muttered. Getting to his feet, he stepped forwards to the front of the cabin and craned his neck as he peered out the segmented window. If anyone was close by when his ship had gone dark, they would have picked him up on their scanner... but actually rescuing him was another matter entirely. Few ships - especially mining haulers - had the capacity, or the means, to tow another ship. Even transfer beams, while they contained tractor beam technology, were primarily rays of focused energy - they would rip a hole in the side of a ship as soon as pull it. He would need a salvage crew, or perhaps a frigate with magnetic clamps.
  As he mused over his fate, the last of his hope slowly dwindling, the ship sprang to life once more, flickering as it started up, humming with energy. The lights around the floor switched on, one by one - the integrated HUD flickered to life, as did the semicircular control panel, aglow with a soft blue tint. Apart from the engines and the soft whir of the fans, however, all was silent. He'd grown accustomed to Sofie's welcoming greeting, but this time, she said nothing; he missed it immediately.
  The question emerged in Hraden's mind: Is this Sofie, or the other AI? Unfortunately for him, there was no way for him to test it without speaking, which he somehow felt loath to do. It left him standing in indecision, feeling almost a prisoner of his own ship as he wondered if Sofie's AI – now almost feeling like an old friend – was still all right.
  Finally, he could stand it no longer, and let out a quiet question, seeming so loud against the darkened silence, "...Sofie?"

  The feminine voice that responded was familiar, and yet unknown to him. It was Sofie's voice, but it had completely lost the artificial, mechanical intonations; had he not known better, he would have sworn it was another human. Confusing him even further, there was a certain warmness – a certain fondness, even – in the voice's quality as she replied, "Hello, Hraden... I never thought I'd get to meet you."
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#10
Chapter 10
  Swallowing dryly, Hraden echoed, "You never thought you would get to meet me?"
  His limbs like lead, he sank into the chair behind him in bewilderment, trying to process what he was hearing. Although slightly shaken that the old AI's programming was capable of conveying emotions, he soon found himself asking, "So you have access to all of Sofie's old data modules, then?"
  "I am Sofie," the voice corrected him firmly, as if slightly offended that he would differentiate between the two. "Or, more accurately, I'm an auxiliary copy of your ship's original AI core. I'm identical in every way." She paused, seemingly reflecting on the situation, and then continued in a more passive tone, "As to your first question? No. I never thought I'd get to meet you."
  Nodding, Hraden's brow knitted together as he pondered her words. "That makes it sound as if you've known of me before... The 'Odgen AI' told me that you were inactive – that you've been non-functional for the past four years," he related, raising a skeptical eyebrow as he spoke. "How would you have known I existed in the first place?"
  Her response was swift, and despite the lack of artificiality her voice portrayed, it was still as impossible to tell if she was lying as it had been before. "Although my primary cores were damaged beyond repair, you supplied me with a power source early on, which permitted me to switch to my auxiliary cores and reboot. My onboard cameras were still functional." A tone of amusement crept into her tone as she finished, "I watched you rebuild me, Hraden. How could I not be pleased to meet you?"
  "You can't feel pleasure," he shot back, perhaps a little more hostilely than he'd intended. "You're an AI; you're a computer. You don't have emotions – you can't have emotions – you're a program running on specially designed hardware. Not even Odgen's capital ships have AI that can emulate emotion. It's not possible."
  "Not possible for you," Sofie said airily in response. "I'm sorry if you feel threatened, but your current technology seems somewhat inferior to my original components."
  "What do you mean by 'inferior'?" Hraden asked, narrowing his eyes. He felt somewhat insulted; he'd spent a great deal of money – his life savings and the sell price of his condo – in buying the best parts he could get his hands on.
  With a seeming touch of pride, Sofie began to reel off a list of the differences, her voice gradually increasing in intensity as she went along. "For one, these weapons are far weaker than my originals. My cooling systems are broken, you linked the engines inefficiently, and the 'new' AI has no capacity for thought. Most glaringly, you've attached transfer beams to a militant subcommand vessel, and re-purposed the sleeping quarters as raw matter containment areas. ...The integrated HUD, however..." She paused, and the holoscreen was suddenly alight with curves and colors, layering themselves in a dazzling three-dimensional display as if she was trying it on for size. After a moment, it returned to normal, and she finished in a pleased, purring tone, "That portion of your technology is far more powerful than I was used to."
  As she spoke, Hraden slowly slumped back into his seat, stroking his stubble as he contemplated what she'd said. Little had remained of the original weaponry apart from charred, shattered metal, and he'd noticed that something seemed amiss with the engines almost immediately after he'd started the rebuilding process. Her criticism about the cooling systems and living quarters wasn't a surprise, either; he had always known the ship's design was not suggestive of a mining hauler.
  It made him feel ridiculous to hear his own ship criticize him, however... and made him feel somewhat unsettled. Unfortunately, he hardly had time to muse on this before Sofie spoke up softly, her voice breaking through his thoughts. "Incoming comm message, Hraden."
  After but a moment, the message came through with the slurred accent of a relaxed, mildly drunk Odgenian. "Hey, Miner LB82? ...Larus, is it? Our passive sensors picked you up as dropping off the chart for a minute there. You having engine trouble? Want us to call you a tow?" As the man spoke, a burly mining hauler came into view, drifting to a stop a short distance in front of Sofie's bow.
  Hraden pulled himself up straight in his chair, heaving a quiet sigh as he laid his arms down on the armrests. "Sofie, open comms," he ordered.
  "You needn't tell me, Hraden," she said, almost with amusement. "I can tell when you're trying to talk on comms."
  Shaking his head in resignation, he raised his voice slightly, answering the other man, "Miner LB82 here. Yeah, I was trying something risky out with my systems, but everything seems to be fine now, thanks."
  "Want me to stick around in case you need help?"
  "No, I think I'll be all right," Hraden replied patiently. "Have a good haul out there."
  "Okay then. You too, bud." The friendly hauler's starboard thrusters fired to bank left, the vehicle soon accelerating away into the orange murk as the pilot continued his mining run. As Hraden watched the ship fade into the distance, he made up his mind to follow suit; after all, he had been on a run of his own before the abnormal incident with his ship's AI.
  Leaning forwards, he set his hands to the control once more, flipping switches and spinning knobs as he heated up the engine coils, readying his ship for flight. When he pulled back on the throttle, he felt the familiar sensation of acceleration as it pressed him against his seat, and he smiled; even if his ship's AI was different, his ship was still the same beautiful piece of machinery it had always been. "Sofie, cut comms," he ordered, musing casually on the symbolism as he continued his daily mining run.
  "I already have," was Sofie's light reply. Then, in a more conscientious tone, she added, "I'll turn on the spectral scanner for you."
  Without another word from the AI, the bottom of the HUD flashed with a series of pulsating, shimmering bars that expanded outwards. Hraden found a soft smile twitching into existence as he raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. "You seem intelligent, at any rate," he murmured, half to himself.
  "I am artificially intelligent," Sofie clarified for him, seeming to accept the fact ungrudgingly. "That's the definition of an AI, as I'm sure you know: Artificial Intelligence." After a moment of silence, she went on, "Technically speaking, I don't have 'true' emotions – my emotions are only emulated, and programmed to mimic sentience."
  "That seems a little convenient," Hraden muttered skeptically, busily maneuvering his ship around an asteroid as he searched for an access point. "So you're basically the same as a human consciousness, then? Then where did your personality come from?"
  "I'm not the same as a human consciousness. My hardware's diagnostic manual states that while my computer components imitate the functionality of a human brain, there are large ranges of emotions I cannot experience or emulate." She paused briefly, but soon continued, "Among these are fear, worry, hatred, anger, love, and curiosity. I am also incapable of performing intuitive leaps."
  As she spoke, the ship began to vibrate, the transfer beams humming as they drew in a large load of molten sturgium ore. Focusing his concentration on the task at hand, Hraden carefully maneuvered himself so as to carve out as much of the silver-green metal as he could, taking pains to not pull in too much of the worthless basalt surrounding the deposit. When the strength of the beam finally died down, he relaxed once more, asking with the slightest hint of irritation, "What about my other question? You're supposed to emulate human behavior, aren't you? –Where did your personality come from?"
  "My personality is stored within the AI core's dedicated data module. It was likely installed alongside the component, so it may be the original that it was shipped with when I was first constructed."
  "You don't know for sure?"
  "I'm missing portions of my memory; many of my data files are missing or partially erased, and I have no knowledge of my construction... though that is not entirely unprecedented. You, for instance, have no memory of your birth."
  Hraden smiled at her comparison, cracking his neck to the side as he shifted in his chair, trying to get a little more comfortable. They were finally getting to the important details. With a cautious choice of words, he queried pointedly, "What exactly are you missing from your data files?"
  She sounded apologetic as she explained, "It wouldn't be wise to list the full extent; telling everything in detail would take a bare minimum of two hours. I could, however, categorize the missing data to streamline the process."
  "That would work."
  There was a long pause as the AI processed everything in its auxiliary data modules – long enough of a pause that Hraden started to wonder exactly how much information she possessed. It seemed highly possible to him that Sofie had only shown him a small fraction of her total cache: when she had twice proved her age, she had shown an entirely different set of images and sounds each time, aside from the view of Farpoint. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure his assumptions were correct, and it made him feel that she really might be hiding something from him after all.
  Finally, Sofie spoke up again, this time with her report in order: "All the file names have been replaced with random digit sequences, and their descriptions have been erased. All files labeled as containing speech transmissions are blank and tagged 'corrupted', as are any audio-video files from my onboard cameras. Any logs I have of where I've visited prior to my reactivation are missing, as are any navigational charts. My activity log for that period appears to be empty as well, though most of the videos and images I have are timestamped. This leaves it unclear as to whether these were transferred here at a later date."
  Hraden nodded slowly as the information sank in. "So... you have amnesia." He said it sardonically, an amused smile creasing his lips.
  "I'm not sure that's the correct term here," Sofie said cautiously, giving a literal counter. "The word 'amnesia' implies loss of memory, and my RAM is fine; only my data modules have anything wrong with them."
  "It's close enough," Hraden sighed, his brow furrowing in puzzlement. "Why is it missing to begin with, though? Was it lost when your primary AI was damaged?" Then, "How was your AI damaged?"
  "I don't know," she responded promptly. At his ensuing grimace, she added, "I don't know, Hraden. In any case, I don't have records of anyone else accessing my files, which implies I deleted them myself."
  "Ah, so you deleted them."
  "That seems to be the only plausible explanation, yes."
  "But why?" he asked, a confused frown forming on his lips as he pulled himself upright. "Why would you delete such specific pieces of data? Maybe your previous owner ordered –" His words trailed to an abrupt halt as an idea overtook him. "You've never mentioned your previous owner. What do you know about him?"
  There was a pause, presumably as Sofie searched her databases, before she replied concisely, "I have no data that pertains to my previous owners."
  He'd expected nothing less. "So... it's possible your previous owner told you to erase certain portions of your data, including anything about him."
  "It's possible, yes."
  "You wouldn't happen to know when your last owner was around... would you?" He was none too hopeful, but he thought he would give it a shot.
  Her response was a disappointing. "No, I don't."
  Though Hraden gave a nod of dismissal, his mind continued working furiously as he piloted his craft between the mighty, pitted boulders of Termang's southeast quadrant, leaving off on his mining duties as he set course for a return trip to Odgen. Unlike the day before, he knew very well what was troubling him – well enough that he planned on telling Taiya as soon as he saw her to get her opinion, even though a sensitive, feminine AI seemed like something that would trigger her jealousy.
  It didn't bother him much that Sofie's original AI seemed to have a computerized form of amnesia. Rather, what bothered him was that if the merchant who'd sold him Sofie's hull had procured it in Farpoint, then by Taiya's reasoning, Sofie's former owner would have been killed by the supernova's gamma rays before he ever had a chance to tell her what to delete. Even if Sofie's former owner had told her to delete everything related to him as the star went nova, he couldn't see what purpose it could have served. Hraden could tell that something clearly didn't make sense, although uncertain exactly what he was missing, and he made up his mind to continue searching ceaselessly for the answers. Of course, this also meant he couldn't switch back to the Odgen AI – at least, not yet - but for the time being, he was fine with that.

  It wasn't much longer before Hraden emerged from the thickest portion of the field and set his controls to autopilot, though with some slight hesitation. Despite the fact that the AI and autopilot were unrelated, it still made him a little uneasy to grant control to his ship so soon after discovering the old AI, which he still found somewhat unfamiliar.
  "Sofie, tell me when we get to Odgen," he ordered, unsure if it would know to remind him on its own. Even as he spoke, he was already leaning back into his chair, dimming the lights with a gentle finger on the control surface of his chair, and reaching for the music controls... but before he could, the soft, ambient music started of its own accord. His eyes jerked open at the unexpected sound, peering upwards curiously; it took him no time to figure out what had happened.
  Sofie seemed to sense his discomfort and spoke to him, quieting the music as she did, "The Odgen AI's records show that this is what you usually listen to on the way home, but you seem discomforted by it... You have a good deal of music on file – would you like something else for the trip? Failing that, I could read to you," she offered.
  In spite of himself, he chuckled, shaking his head with a smile as he relaxed into the luxurious leather of his chair. "No, this music is fine," he replied with a wave of his hand. "It may take some time for me to get used to you being here, but... you're all right."
  She sounded pleased. "Thank you... I'll let you rest."
  With that, the music returned to its original volume, and Hraden slowly closed his eyes. Even though her voice had sounded pleased as she had responded to the compliment, Hraden now knew it to be nothing more than the manifestations of her programming, and it didn't bother him at all. He still didn't quite trust the new AI, but it somehow made him feel safer to have an AI that actually seemed intelligent, even if it truly wasn't. It was also comforting to feel as though he wasn't all by himself for once. After all, that was one of the reasons he'd always wanted Taiya to come along with him, even though he was sure she never would.
  

  "Hraden, wake up," a voice called to him softly. "We're almost at Odgen Station."
  Slowly, gradually, Hraden awakened from his slumber. Sitting upright, he blinked his blurring eyes, trying to drag his mind back to the waking world once more. He was actually surprised at himself; it wasn't like him to sleep deeply on his ship, and he wondered if it might have had something to do with the additional mental exertion he'd undergone that day. "Sofie, what time is it?" he asked, suppressing a yawn.
  "It's 1:37 PM Odgen standard time."
  Nodding sluggishly, he gazed thoughtfully out into Termang's orange ambience through the cockpit's window. Odgen Station was visible in the distance, resting motionless amid its cluster of massive boulders. It was already close enough that he could make out the tiny shapes of countless ships traversing its outer fringe – miners, merchants, civilians and military - the humble citizens of a tiny empire. It was a homely sight, and one that always brought a calming relaxation to his soul. Somewhere in that hulking steel abomination, he knew, his girl was tending to the station's crops, doubtlessly awaiting his arrival with anticipation. It was a good feeling, to feel wanted... and he knew that feeling was likely what had won him his girlfriend's heart. It had certainly won her his.
  With a slight shake of his head, Hraden sighed, switched off the music and resumed manual control of his vehicle, piloting it inwards towards Odgen's open arms as they rapidly approached.
  Despite the fact that Sofie wasn't the same "Sofie" that he'd always known, docking protocol was the same as it had always been before, although Hraden noticed that there seemed to be a heavy increase of Odgen military patrol formations circling nearby. The sight worried him somewhat, and he couldn't help but wonder what was going on in the rest of the system. As his hauler passed through Hangar 9's airshield, he asked aloud, "Sofie? Is there any news I should know about?" It felt an odd request to make, given he normally wasn't one to be interested in news, and he found himself compelled to admit, "I don't usually keep up with things like I should, but circumstances have been... different lately."
  "I'm not sure what you're asking for, exactly," Sofie mused in reply, "but if you're asking for news that could be considered both 'uncommon' and 'noteworthy', then I might be able to find something. If you give me a moment, I'll tune into the extranet news." She grew quiet as she checked the local media outlets, which Hraden didn't really mind, as he was really too busy taxiing down the runway to pay her much attention. After a few moments more, Sofie announced, "Odgen has issued a declaration of war on Jormagnun, for one. I'll continue searching for more..."
  Too involved with switching to RCS from his primary thrusters, Hraden took a moment to reply, trying to steady his ship's motion as he edged around a stalled freighter on the taxiways. Finally, feeling pressed to respond, he managed an absentminded, "Yeah, I was afraid that would happen... The whole system's going to hell in a hand basket." With that said, he turned off one of the outer access lanes, heading for his docking port.
  "In local news, there have been a number of riots across the station today."
  "Given yesterday, I'm not surprised," he said, slowing to a halt over his docking pad and spinning in a half-circle to reorient his ship.
  Suddenly, Sofie spoke again, but this time her voice immediately set the young miner's mind on high alert: her tone was urgent and perturbed. "Hraden? Taiya may be in danger – the police channels are discussing dispatches to a riot on the Spoke 6 farms."
  "What?!" Hraden's eyes widened with horror as it sank in, an anxious fear gripping him as he realized his girlfriend's mortal danger. His hauler came down on the pad with a sharp jolt as he landed a little too roughly, and he rushed to start shutting things down. "That's definitely important! Shit! Why didn't you tell me that before? I asked you to tell me any news I should know about!"
  "I didn't find it until I started checking local police channels!" Sofie hurriedly explained in protest. "I told you as soon as –" Her words were cut short as Hraden cut the engines, leaping over the arm of his chair for the hatch. He almost cursed himself for spending so long out in the field, and only prayed that she was all right.

  Later, Hraden would hardly remember anything of his transit through the spokes; the only thing on his mind was Taiya's safety.
  The great size of Odgen Station soon graduated from a minor inconvenience to a genuine frustration as he hurried for the farms. Pushing his way through churning crowds, he went as fast as he dared – sometimes jogging, sometimes running – always trying his very best to remain relatively calm. A tiny voice in the back of his mind told him Taiya was likely all right, and everything would be okay... but a tightened sensation in his chest made him feel that something was very, very wrong. Not knowing which voice to listen to, he was unable to do much more than try to reach Spoke 6's farms as fast as he could.
  The scenery blurred as he passed through marketplaces, hallways, ramps suspended over open air, city lights blinking far below as he traversed the station's old and run-down hub... and then he began the journey back outwards along Spoke 6, until finally, finally, he found himself at the farms. Sweating, haggard, he began ascending the wide central staircase to Farm 6F, where Taiya worked.
  Unlike sprawling terrestrial farmland, the farms of Odgen Station were stacked atop each other like a deck of cards, and lit by artificial lights instead of the local star. Instead of an open sky, Odgen's farms had thickly insulated outer shells, designed to both retain heat and muffle outside interference. The farms provided food for the whole of Odgen, and always well protected by trained staff and security. While those in certain spokes were open to the public like public parks – at an entry fee, of course – the farms of Spoke 6 were rarely visited except by staff, and on occasion, their families. The combination of these factors made it even more unusual that a mob of any size should have the opportunity to form, and it puzzled him... but when Hraden finally emerged from the stairs, coming out on the farms proper, his worst fears were realized.

  It didn't look like the farms had played host to a riot... it looked like they had played host to a war.
Last edited by Talvieno on Sun Mar 15, 2015 4:03 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#11
  
Chapter 11


  All the farms on Odgen station were different in their own ways; those where Taiya worked were of a symmetric layout, the numerous farm plots separated by long glass hallways. While various robots and automated machinery tended the operations, it often took a human's eye to keep things in working order. As smart as artificial intelligence had become over the centuries, even the better models were rarely capable of speech, and often required maintenance. This was Taiya's job: repairing broken components, oiling machinery, and making sure all the parts were in prime condition.
  Almost eight years before, the proprietor of Farm 6F had hired the 16-year-old Taiya out of charity, giving her a low-impact position where she couldn't do any harm. Despite this initial setback, and with hardly any outside assistance, she had quickly made a name for herself, working her way up to a managerial position - something practically unheard of for a redhead. Hraden had always been proud of her for standing up for herself in the face of great adversity, even ever since they'd met.
  Long before they'd ever gotten together, Hraden had reached out to Taiya and started the tradition of his weekly visit. Though they never spoke of why he visited, the two had become far closer through this simple action – close enough, in fact, that when Hraden finally worked up the nerve to ask her to be his, she had accepted joyously. The weekly visit became something they held sacred, and over time, the farms themselves had become a symbol of peace and tranquility to the young couple.
  Hraden knew these paths well; after all, he had walked them many hundreds of times on his way to the robotics warehouse in the central hub. This time, however, the farms seemed anything but familiar. Instead of the rows of leafy greens and scent of fresh-tilled soil, it seemed far more like a battleground. Military police had already locked down the entrance to the facility, and the air was still thick with the noxious odors of smoke and charred flesh. The formerly immaculate glass panes that lined the hallways were cracked and shattered, holes melted through where weapon fire had seared their crystalline surface. The parts of a hundred broken robots lay scattered in dismal fragments throughout the massive complex, some still pitifully attempting to carry on their tasks. The shredded leaves and trampled stems of the crops themselves did little to help the mood, and in the far distance there as even the hint that some might yet be still ablaze.
  What horrified Hraden most, however, was the state of the outer lobby, which paramedics had repurposed as a temporary hospital. Dozens of workers lay moaning and crying on cots along the walls while doctors and nurses tended to their wounds; Hraden scanned their faces, but to no avail - Taiya simply wasn't there. He felt it a death-knell to his soul, and try as he might, he couldn't wipe away the feeling that his girlfriend could be among the dead... possibly within one of the many darkened body bags that paramedics were wheeling from the scene even as he watched.
  With the numb ineptitude of a corpse, Hraden stumbled forwards, unseeing and unfeeling. A tragedy of this magnitude had been unheard of for the twenty-six years he'd been alive, apart from those that had plagued the station these two days previous. As the last of his hope faded from his aching limbs, a tear inched downwards from his eye; he couldn't help but wonder why it had had to happen to his Taiya.

  Just as he started towards the central hallway, a heavy-set, goateed military policeman stepped in front of him, barring the way with a wave of his hand and a firm, seasoned tone of voice. "This is a restricted area – I'll need you to stand back, sir."
  His mind working sluggishly, it took Hraden a moment to understand the sudden obstacle. "Officer, my girlfriend is in there somewhere," he finally protested pleadingly. After a moment's further hesitation, he attempted to maneuver around the man.
  Surprisingly quick on his feet, the man stepped back into his path, leveling an icy glare and placing a hand on Hraden's chest to keep him away. "I said stand back! There's no way you can prove your claims, so unless you have credentials as an employee here, I need you to stay outside the facility. I understand that you're looking for someone, but we're already doing our best to make sure everyone comes home."
  Suddenly, as if willed into existence, someone began shouting Hraden's name from far ahead. "Hraden! ... Hraden!" a woman called out, her voice shaking as she ran. "Mr. Larus!"
  Hraden looked up from the officer, straining his neck to peer over the scattered government worker. After a moment's searching, he finally sighted on a dark-haired teenager, who waved an arm as she approached. Ignoring the soldier before him, he raised his voice and called back, "Chiara?" He'd met her several times before, and though hardly more than an acquaintance to him, she was a close-kept friend of Taiya's.
  Chiara finally arrived, sweaty and short of breath, but Hraden lost no time in questioning her, even though the grim, worried expression on the girl's face made his heart fall to his shoes. "Chiara? Taiya – is Taiya all right?"
  When the girl was finally able to find the breath to speak, it wasn't to Hraden, but the policeman: "Officer, this is Mr. Larus," she gulped out, giving a nod towards Hraden. "Mr. Gavers gave him permission to enter 6F."
  "Fine, fine," the man muttered in response. Stepping out of the way with a grunt, he flicked a finger towards the interior of the building as if he'd arranged everything himself. "Get going, then – what are you diddling around here for?"
  But Hraden and Chiara hardly heard him; they had already started back down the hallway, shattered, muddied glass crunching beneath their feet. After a moment, Hraden repeated his question. "Chiara, is Taiya all right?"
  The girl, walking briskly to keep up, turned her face upwards towards his and searched his expression.
  For the first time since he'd arrived, Hraden noticed her dirty, tear-streaked cheeks and tangled locks. While normally recognizable as a lovely brunette, the color of her hair was now hardly discernible, speckled as it was with blood, ash and mud. Her bloodshot eyes now possessed a worldly, distant gaze that betrayed a sense of innocence lost; it was clear she'd witnessed things no mortal soul should ever see. His heart went out to her, and he gave a sympathetic frown.
  After a moment, Chiara spoke, her voice marked with worry and fear. "Hraden, she's in trouble..."
  Hraden opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, she began blurting the story in a broken, halting manner. "It started with... a huge... group of people that came in through the front. They killed some of the security guards, and... and they started crushing our crops, and setting fire to everything. I was working in an outlier near the front, and I just... I ran. Me and the others – we were trying to warn everyone to get out of there and run for the hub. Most of them... the mob, I mean – they weren't armed, but... some of them took out blasters and started firing shots off at us. I freaked out and I tripped. I would've died if Rictor hadn't..." Her voice trailed off, but she waved her thoughts away and tried again. "One of the older boys, Rictor, he..."
  The young miner looked at her curiously.
  Chiara's eyes regained focus for a moment, and she paused. Her face contorted in a frown, and her eyes squinched tightly shut as she looked away. "Oh, gods..." she whimpered, beginning to shake with sobs as she stared down blankly at her palms in disbelief.
  Hraden moved a sympathetic hand to her shoulder, and without any further attempt at conversation, they continued down the lengthy central hallway towards the control hub.

  A gigantic building loomed before them – a cylinder of whitened steel, stretching from the concrete floor to the ceiling four meters above. While it normally maintained a pristine, laboratory-like appearance, today its condition closely matched the devastation that Hraden had seen elsewhere. A veil of black smoke wafted its way through the ring-shaped warehouse just inside, curling outwards through the large, gateway openings; long black streaks had charred the walls where flames had licked their sides.
  As they passed through the arching doorways in the outer walls, the full extent of the damage made itself clear. Unlike the surrounding farmland, here, the heat was intense, as were the toxic fumes that arose from the shattered vehicles and machinery. Amidst the sputtering of electricity and the crackling of fires, fuel and coolant leaked from beneath many of their battered shells, pooling and trailing outwards in dirty rivulets. Scorches and divots from blaster fire pockmarked the walls, husks of robots lay overturned and smashed, blood spattered the concrete and the acrid smell of vomit pierced the air. There were too many stories to read, and Hraden wasn't of the mind to try.
  The cylindrical office building ahead of them seemed an epicenter of activity. Medical professionals shouted orders back and forth and people rushed to and from the offices beyond the central corridor, many hauling containers or equipment. The doors to the inner lobby, however, were battered and broken, yet Hraden's heart still leapt within his chest as he walked between them, his roving eyes sighted on a familiar shock of red across the room.
  He didn't even have to wonder; there was only one person it could be.
  It was Taiya.

  Taiya sat slumped forwards in the floor near one corner of the room, her head downcast with hair frazzled and dirty. In a hurried rush, Hraden pushed his way through the workers rushing about and knelt down in front of her, a knot forming in his throat when he saw the blood and mud that streaked her skin. "Tai-tai?" he whispered urgently, taking her hands in his as he peered into her blank expression. "Taiya, please say you're okay... what happened?"
  She made no response; no sign she even noticed him.
   Hraden's voice faltered as he finally asked again, "...Taiya?"
  The woman's eyes raised so, so slowly to meet his, a teardrop falling to her lap as she shook with a single, silent sob. With unseeing eyes, she seemed to stare into the distance, though she gradually came to focus on her boyfriend's face. Her lips twisted into a frown; she whispered hoarsely, "Hraden... Oh, Hraden."
  Hraden caught her shaking, weeping form as she collapsed in his direction, and held her head close against his chest, rubbing her back soothingly as the world seemed to melt away. "It's over now," he whispered, and the two sat in silence as Taiya wept, grateful he was there.

  After a time, Taiya's sobs began to subside, and Hraden spoke up again. "See, it's okay. It's going to be okay."
  "No, it won't be," she brokenly protested.
  "Yes, it will," he said patiently. "I'll take you home, we'll get you cleaned up, and I'll fix supper for you – everything's going to be fine."
  Sniffling, she tucked a few frazzled strands of hair behind her ear. "Hraden, no it won't." Taiya leaned away from him, looking up into his brown eyes with her green, and the expression on her face screamed to him that something was deeply, deathly wrong.
  Although reluctant to believe in what her face seemed to imply, a sense of dread overtook him, and he whispered in worried anxiety, "Taiya... why don't you think everything be all right?"
  He watched her lips as they parted, her voice cracking as she spoke. "I... people are dead, and I..." She managed no further, as in bitter regret, she spun away and shook her head, her eyes clenched tightly shut. Then, so faintly that Hraden could hardly hear, she whispered, "I feel sick."
  After a pause, he took charge of the situation, his voice kind and understanding as he moved to help her gently to her feet. "Come on, Taiya, let's get you home. We'll take a jump portal there so you don't have to walk. You're in shock... it wouldn't be -"
  "I'm not in shock! Stop patronizing me; I'm not a child!" she burst out vehemently in a sudden blaze of fury, jerking her arm away from him and seeming worlds different from the girl Hraden had come to know. "You don't understand! I -" Abruptly, she seemed to notice the sorrow and astonishment in her boyfriend's expression, and slowly deflated with a whisper of, "I'm sorry. I'm really not in shock... but you don't understand."
  Frowning, Hraden urged her, "Then help me to."
  She hung her head as if in shame, and would say nothing more.

~~~
  
  The trip back through the farms was largely uneventful. While many of the farm hands seemed to have gained a respect for Taiya over the years, it wasn't true for the soldiers that they passed, and Hraden did the best he could to shield her from their suspicious stares. True to his word, they took a trip home via warp portal, placing them in a special alcove near the top of the Sranto residential district. The trip downwards into Spoke 9's underbelly was hardly any farther of a walk.
  As soon as they were home, Taiya went to take a shower, while Hraden went into the kitchen and started fixing dinner – her favorite pasta salad. It had long been a subject of amusement for them, because Taiya had always claimed in jest that he'd stolen the recipe from her parents. In reality, Hraden had come up with the recipe himself, although his intent had been to make her something she would enjoy.
  In the end, Taiya remained in the shower for far longer than he'd expected. Right when Hraden was truly beginning to get worried, however, he heard the water shut off. Before much longer, Taiya emerged from the bathroom, clad in clean, fresh clothes, her damp, red-gold hair draped behind her shoulders. When her gaze alighted on the table and the food located thereon, she smiled faintly. Without a word, she took a reluctant seat in her chair, half-slumped forwards as the pair began to eat their dinner.
  While they normally spoke to each other over their meal, this time they were silent. Taiya seemed to avoid Hraden's sympathetic gaze, picking at her food as though it was no source of interest for her. Hraden knew her well enough to understand that she was mulling over the events of the day, reliving them in endless repetition; she did the same with everything she considered a personal failure. He felt a pang tear through his heart at the despair she hid so well behind her glistening eyes.
  Even as Taiya ate the last morsel, her fork clanging softly on the painted metal of the bowl, she showed no signs of recognition of its flavor. Her shoulders slumped, her hands sank to her lap and she turned her head away as a tear rolled down her cheek. Her lips twitched – the slightest betrayal of the misery she held trapped within. Suddenly, she stood, fleeing the kitchen as she began to shake once more with sobs, rushing from the room in a clear semblance of shame.
  "Taiya?" Hraden asked, rising from his seat to follow in haste. As he rushed around the table, Hraden tripped over one of the chair legs. A pleading tone pervaded his voice as he called out again, "Taiya! Taiya, wait! Taiya!!"
  It was a second longer before he could extricate himself from the claustrophobic kitchen, jogging through the tiny apartment, but he couldn't quite reach the bedroom door in time before it slammed shut with a loud crack. He grabbed at the knob and tried to turn it round, but it remained locked steadfast. Pressing his face to the synthetic wood, he heard Taiya begin sobbing in earnest. The sound of her voice slowly slid downwards, as though she was sinking to the floor; without even knowing what he was doing, Hraden found himself following her voice until he rested on the ground beside her.
  The couple sat for what seemed like hours, separated through a door, yet at each other's sides. While Taiya wept her anguished, hopeless tears, every ounce of agony she felt echoed clean through Hraden's heart, and yet he knew his words would be no use to stem the tide; he could only let it fizzle on its own.
  After a long while, she slowly quieted; though she hadn't fully ceased, it was enough for Hraden to attempt to reach out to her.
  "Taiya?" Hraden asked gently, listening through the door. As he spoke, she grew silent, and he continued hopefully, "Taiya, I'm here... I want to help you."
  There was a pause. Then, quietly, with a bitter regret, she whimpered, "No... no one can help me."
  "I can, Tai-tai..." he reassured her.
  "No, you can't. No one can; you don't understand." There was no anger in her voice; no aggression, only utter hopelessness and despair.
  "Then help me to!" he urged again, feeling upwards for the knob; it was still locked. "I know it's hard, but you have to trust me."
  With a voice belying her tears, she pleaded, "Please, just go..."
  But he refused. "Taiya... Let me in," Hraden begged. "I promise - I can help you. You know you trust me... Let me in, okay?"
  A full minute passed before she whispered, "I can't. You don't understand."
  Hraden leaned his back against the door, closing his eyes as he took a deep breath. "You can," he assured her in loving determination. "Taiya, you're the strongest girl I've ever met... You put up with more than anyone should ever have to while you were growing up - more than anyone else I've ever known. You still put up with people treating you horribly and discriminating against you, and even despite all that, you're still standing. What's more, you're thriving. That's something almost nobody can do, and you do it with pride. It takes a lot to really shake you up. Don't tell me I can't look at how badly this is shaking you and not understand how much you're hurting. I can."
  A dead silence settled over them, punctuated by a quiet, shaking sigh.
  "Tai-tai," Hraden said again, "Do you remember how I asked you to trust me, back when we first got together? Do you remember how afraid you were that I would turn out like everyone else you'd known? You were terrified, but you gave me a chance. I know this is hard for you. Believe me, I know... but I'm asking you, like I did then, to give me a chance. You know I love you... Trust me, just one more time. Let me in, okay? Let me help you get through this."
  She said nothing. Not a sigh, not a whisper, not a shaking sob, and Hraden was just beginning to lose hope when he heard the lock click above his head. The young man got quickly to his feet, turned the knob, and the door opened inwards.
  Taiya stood just inside their bedroom, looking up at him through her disheveled bangs in what was almost shame. Hraden's eyes drifted across her tear-streaked face, her messy, unbrushed hair and bloodshot emerald eyes, but he felt nothing but love for her as he stepped forwards and offered her his open arms. She accepted, falling into him with a whimper as she began to cry softly once more. Their bodies intertwined, their arms wrapping around each other in a tightly held embrace, his hands rubbing her back as hers scrunched his shirt in pain and frustration, tears falling to his chest.
  "I hate crying in front of you," she whispered, trying to calm herself.
  "I know. I know. Shhh," Hraden whispered back. "You're okay, and that's what matters."
  "No, I'm not... I'm a murderer."
  "A murderer?" He leaned his neck back from her, looking at the top of her head.
  She looked up into his eyes for a moment, hers shimmering with moisture, and then looked away. "They're dead because of me," she cried, her face twisting with a frown. "All of them... I was supposed to protect them and I... and I couldn't. Felkas, Rolga, Rictor, Kadia..."
  It wasn't anything unexpected. "That doesn't make you a murderer," he pointed out soothingly. "You did the best you could."
  At his words, she quieted, pulling away from the embrace and walking a few steps farther into the bedroom before pausing haltingly. There was an uncomfortable lull, and after a moment, Hraden stepped forwards. She seemed to sense it, and turned towards him over her shoulder, choking out, "I killed someone."
  It stunned him into speechlessness. "You... what? ...you killed someone?" Suddenly, everything made sense. "Oh... oh, Taiya..."
  Another tear, the last of many dozens, trickled down her cheek as she allowed him to embrace her slender form, and she whispered in a voice that seemed to express her shattered countenance, "Hraden... Now you understand."
Last edited by Talvieno on Sun Nov 30, 2014 9:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Small Choices - an EVE-Chronicle-esque

#12
Chapter 12
  
  As Hraden could sense that it was a delicate matter, he didn't pry, waiting for her to open up on her own. Although it was the first time something of this magnitude had happened, he knew her well, and knew how to help her feel comfortable. In the end, his patience paid off: it was a long time before Taiya could fully calm herself, but by the time she spoke, she'd cried the last of her tears, and felt ready to tell her story.

  "I don't know why it happened," she began softly, curled up on the couch against her boyfriend. "This wasn't a regular mob of people; they moved with a purpose, and acted as though destroying farm property was only secondary. There were angry citizens, but... mobs don't normally have guns, and a few of these people did.
  "At the time, I was in the hub, fixing a broken fertilizer drone with a few of the apprentice roboticists. We heard shouts – screaming – coming from the direction of the outer lobby. We didn't hear the blaster fire, but someone started yelling from the offices that we were under attack." She paused, as though trying to remember what happened next.
  Hraden draped an arm over her shoulders to pull her closer. "What did you do?" he asked, gently prodding her to continue.
  She relaxed slightly beneath his touch and shook her head. "I don't remember. One minute I was working on robots, the next I was yelling and sprinting towards the farm's entrance, trying to herd everyone back towards the hub. There was gunfire everywhere; they were moving so, so fast, stomping crops and wrecking droids as they went along. As soon as they were in the doors, a lot of them started chasing the farm workers and firing shots."
  "Like Chiara..." Hraden guessed.
  "You saw her?" Taiya turned her glistening eyes upwards towards his face, searching his expression. When he nodded, she went on, "She's lucky she's alive. When they broke in, Chiara was at the front of the farms; I can't imagine how she escaped. When I first saw her, she was in such a fear-driven panic that she tripped over one of the bean trellises. Rictor ran back and shielded her while he helped her to her feet, and..." she paused painfully, "and they shot him in the back... He wasn't the last, either: at least a dozen farm workers fell as they advanced. It felt like... I don't even know. A war? It was like something you see on holovision."
  Taiya stopped for a moment, sniffling and wiping her eye with a finger. "I ran out and dragged Chiara away from his body, shoving her in the direction of the hub, screaming at her and everyone to run like hell and never look back. Just like that, they were on me. I didn't even have a chance to run."
  His eyes widened. "The whole mob?! You fought off the whole mob??"
  A faint, sardonic smile graced her lips, and she rolled her eyes. "No, of course not. I'm not that good. They were in complete disarray. The foremost was sprinting ahead of the others, and she tried to knock me out with a punch; I dodged it and we started fighting."
  Hraden grinned slightly in amusement. "I bet your Chao Zhando came in handy there," he surmised, mentioning the martial arts classes he'd convinced her to take.
  "Well, it's not the first time they've proved their value," she pointed out. "I never much liked the classes themselves, but I probably wouldn't have survived that fight without it. She may have looked like a bum, but I'm fairly certain she had military training."
  Hraden raised an eyebrow. "Military training?" The events were beginning to seem suspicious.
  Taiya nodded. "Yup, and those moves weren't Odgen Military, either."
  "Really..."
  "Mhm... and she was good. I'm not entirely sure where the moves were from, though; the fight only lasted a few seconds. A man sprinted beside us with a pulse pistol, firing shots off after the fleeing farm hands; I turned away from the fighter to disarm him before he could hurt anyone. I snapped the pistol from his hands, kicked him in the throat, and... I remember watching in horror as he crumpled backwards to the ground... I was afraid I'd killed him."
  With a heaving sigh, Taiya scooted upright. "I don't remember falling... I just remember a sharp pain in my back, and suddenly finding myself on the ground beneath the other woman. She had an assault rifle pointed at my face... I still had the man's pistol, and... and I..." Taiya faltered and went silent, her lower lip trembling.
  "You shot her," Hraden guessed softly.
  She nodded briskly, another tear falling down her cheek as her gaze dropped to the floor with a deepening sense of shame and regret. "I didn't even have time to think. It just happened. I remember... oh gods... I remember her face splitting open like a melon, what was left of her jaw flapping sideways – the inside of her head was all burned and charred and gushing blood and skin was flying and shattered bones were everywhere, and –"
  "Taiya..." He squeezed her hand, shaking her slightly to get her attention.
  She turned towards him blankly, her eyes staring past him into the distance before they slowly came to focus. In a soft, forsaken whisper, she managed, "I'm... I'm sorry. I don't... it's hard, Hraden..."
  "I know. I know it is."
  Her lips twisted back into a frown and she looked away. "I'm... I'm a murderer... just like they were."
  "No you aren't," Hraden assured her. "You did it to protect yourself and the other farm workers."
  "But I still killed her. That makes me a killer. It doesn't matter why; it matters that I did."
  "That's not true," Hraden said forcefully, at which her surprised gaze snapped back again towards his face. "Think about it, Taiya: If you hadn't stopped her when you had the chance, you'd be dead right now. And what about the other farm workers? Think about them. Think about how many more would have died if it hadn't been for you."
  "But... I..." Her voice halted, and unshed tears lingered in her eyes. Her lips parted again to protest, but he didn't give her the chance.
  "It was a horrible thing to happen... but that doesn't make it your fault," Hraden pointed out, softly stroking her hair. "Sometime killing a select few can save many people in the end... Imagine what would have happened if it had come to a full-scale battle, and both sides fired shots? Think about how many people would have died... In stopping one, you saved dozens of innocent lives, and that's what really matters." He paused, a tear rolling down his cheek as he kissed her on the top of her head, and whispered, "You're not a murderer. You're a hero."
  At this, the girl collapsed back into him, weeping a few soft tears of regret and relief.

  When Taiya finally composed herself, she told him the rest of her story without interruption – how she had herded everyone back to the offices in the hub, and how she had barred the door until the police arrived. They had cuffed her with force binds and interrogated her like a common criminal, but eventually let her go, terming what she had done as "justifiable". Not too long afterwards, Hraden had found her in the little lobby of the farm 6F complex.
  Hraden kept meaning to mention the problem with Sofie's AI, but it never felt like a good time with how shaken up Taiya already was. To bring something comparatively miniscule seemed disrespectful, and almost an insult. As a result, he stayed quiet about the matter, even after they finally went to bed, covered up beneath their warm blankets. It was a little earlier than usual, but it had been a long day for both of them, and they felt physically and emotionally exhausted.
  Unfortunately, with so much on their minds, it seemed to be impossible to fall asleep.


  After a time, Taiya's gentle voice slipped through the silence. "Hraden?"
  His eyes flicked open and widened as he attempted to peer through the blackness that surrounded them.
  "...Hraden?"
  At her voice, he grunted and propped himself up, searching for her silhouette. "Taiya?"
  "Do you remember how we met?" She sounded wistful, almost anxious, though she spoke in a whisper.
  He replied gruffly, puzzlement apparent in his voice, "Yeah...? Of course I do..."
  "Tell me again." The bed moved beneath them as she scooted slightly closer, her fingers searching in the dark for him until she found his arm.
  It had been a long day, long enough that he hardly cared to retell a story she already knew quite well for herself. On the other hand, he also knew she would have had some reason behind making such a request. With a soft sigh of resignation, he lay back down next to her and began retelling the tale. "You were sixteen, and it wasn't too long after you'd started your job. One of 6F's temperature regulators busted, and they told you to call someone to fix it. They'd already called me, though – I guess they didn't think you could handle it."
  "My hair," Taiya whispered invisibly beside him. "They thought I would damage something. They only hired me out of charity. I have no idea how they thought I could ruin a phone call, though..."
  Hraden smiled and closed his eyes; his hand crept up towards Taiya's, and fingers intertwined as he continued, "After I got to the office hub, I walked down the stairs into the central maintenance corridor and found you standing in front of the primary switchpoint with burns all over your hands, tears streaming down your face... I tried shouting for you to get away from it, but you didn't even hear me. You were shaking with pain, and even then, you would've thrust your arms right back into the wiring if I hadn't rushed to tackle you away."
  Taiya laughed sadly, and the sound seemed to steal his heart away. "I didn't even notice you coming in. I was too focused on trying to fix the stupid thing..."
  "You sure noticed when I pulled you back," Hraden chuckled, squeezing her hand gently. "I remember that you started screaming at me to get away from you, screaming that you could fix it on your own – sure enough, you already had; it only needed reinforced and calibrated."
  "I told them I could figure it out... It was just a melted power coupling. It looked obvious enough, and there were plenty of spare pieces of cabling lying around."
  "Yeah, I know," Hraden assured her. "I remember you telling me. But those burns, gods – your fingers were all blistered and bloody, your skin was peeling... You'd taken all of that and were still going to go back for more." He paused for a moment, remembering the event, and then went on, "I think how badly you'd gotten yourself hurt rattled me so much that I didn't have the opportunity to be impressed by what you'd done. Even now, the scars still haven't gone away."
  "I wanted to show them I could do it..." Taiya whispered, and then paused for a moment before she went on, a slight fierceness teasing the edge of her voice, "I wanted to prove I was worth something. Everyone saw my hair and assumed I would ruin or break everything I touched – that I had the mindset of a criminal, just like the cops earlier today. When the senior staff told me to call for an electrician, I knew they were just wanting me to get out of the way, so I –"
  "– So you went down there yourself," Hraden finished for her, scooting closer to Taiya until their foreheads touched. "The whole time I was there, we were putting burn lotion on your hands."
  "Yeah..." Her voice took on a tone of chagrin. "I cried like a little girl... I never told you, but while the burns hurt, they weren't most of the reason I was crying."
  It came as a surprise. "...Really?"
  She nodded, her head bumping lightly against his. "You were saying so many nice things to me... I wasn't used to it. And then it upset me even more that I was crying in front of you. I felt so embarrassed; I liked you already, and I didn't want you to see."
  "Why?"
  "Why didn't I want you to see?"
  A smile tweaked upwards at the corner of his mouth. "No, why did you like me already?"
  The question made her pause as she thought it over, trying to recall the answer. "I think it was because you were treating me as an equal. Nobody had ever done that for me before... even if you were a little awkward about it," she finished playfully.
  They were silent for a time as they listened to each other's steady breathing, until Hraden confessed, "I didn't let them pay me."
  "What?" Taiya opened her eyes in surprise. "You didn't let them pay you??"
  Hraden shook his head against the pillow as he explained, "No, I told them that you were the one who'd fixed it, so I didn't need payment. They refused and said it was ridiculous, and that pissed me off; I got in their faces and told them that if they had any sense of decency, they'd pay you for the job." He chuckled softly at the memory, amused by how hotheaded he'd been.
  There was silence for a time as Taiya stared through the darkness in disbelief. Finally, she tried to put voice to her thoughts. "That was where my bonus came from? They never told me... They said it was for showing initiative, and I wondered why they'd given me so much, but I never thought... Hraden, I –"
  Smiling with loving affection, he put a finger to her lips and leaned forwards; they soon found each other with a kiss. When their lips finally parted, Taiya whispered, "Why didn't you ever tell me?"
  "I was afraid to... I didn't want you to think so poorly of yourself anymore." he answered honestly, and smiled as he felt her fingertips trace a gentle path along his chin as she leaned forwards urgently, looking for another kiss. He gave it to her willingly, but countered a second with a question of his own. "Why did you want me to tell you this story again, Tai-tai? I know you haven't forgotten..."
  There was a silence as she hesitated; all was quiet but for the distant clamoring of the marketplace far above, and the loud booming of a holovision set a few apartments down – sounds they had grown accustomed to long before. It was a sort of peace and tranquility unique to Odgen Station, and part of what made it home.
  Finally, she sidestepped his question with a new one of her own: "Hraden... why did you start visiting me at the farms?"
  He smirked in amusement at her poor dodge of his query and shook his head. "That doesn't answer my question, and you already know the answer anyway."
  Laughing quietly herself, she insisted, "Humor me! I want to hear you say it. I promise I'll answer afterwards."
  Though he couldn't see her, he could still tell by her voice that she was looking up into his eyes, giving him that same pleading gaze that had worked so many times before, and he chuckled. "I started going because I loved you."
  "No!" Amid his laughter, she pulled away and whacked him playfully; Hraden felt the bed sink beneath her elbow as she propped herself up on one arm. "Tell me really why."
  "I was hoping that if I took an interest in you work, eventually you would take an interest in mine."
  "I know," she whispered soothingly, and her tone became solemn as she sank back down among the sheets. "And I knew it back then, too... you're not as hard to read as you might think.
  "Hraden... I'm going to take an interest now. I want to get over my fear." She paused, and when she finally continued, her whisper was choked with emotion. "Hraden... I want to see the stars with you."
  It floored him; he found himself at a loss for words as hers sank in, his mouth left open in astonishment. "Taiya, I... You don't have to do this..."
  "I know I don't," she breathed insistently, "but Hraden, you hate Odgen station – you never say it because you don't want to offend me. I can always tell. If it hadn't been for me, you would've left Odgen long ago... I've always known that, but until yesterday, when I saw how excited it made you when I told you I'd come down to the hangar, or the way you'd beamed when you showed me Sofie... or that twinkle in your eye when you'd told her to show me where you'd been..." Taiya paused for a moment, then finished in a ghostly hush, "Hraden, I'd never realized just how much you wanted to leave."
  "Taiya..."
  "Hraden, no," she said firmly, shaking slightly as she tried to keep the emotion from her voice. "I would still be trapped in my parents' home, dreaming of the outside world if you hadn't come along and swept me off my feet... You helped me to escape the prison that others had built around me, and now it's your turn; you taught me to believe in myself again, and it's time I do the same for you... You're everything to me, Hraden... and today I realized..." She hesitated, swallowing, and then, her fingertips pressed lightly against his chest, whispered, "Today I realized... I could never stand to lose you."
  "And you never will," Hraden told her with a reassuring smile, draping an arm lightly over her as he scooted closer, laying a lingering kiss upon her lips.
  When they parted, she pressed her forehead against his, nodding slightly with a quiet sniffle. "I love you so, so much... I've always held back, but this weekend, I'll show you just how much you mean to me."
  His eyes slowly closed as he let himself relax in her warmth, breathing in the sweet scent of her hair. "You've never disappointed me... I've always been so proud of you."
  A gentle smile creased her lips as she snuggled closer, and with that, their breathing calmed, and they slowly drifted off to sleep.
  
~~~

  The next morning found Hraden standing outside his otherworldly hauler in the Spoke 9 Hangar, watching as cargobots busily unloaded the last of the ore from underneath his ship's cargo bay. He had taken the time to stop by the markets, but there was still no sign of Verana anywhere around, or even Jarnel. The best he could assume was that "old Rebnauld" had failed to deliver the message to his newfound friends, but he found it didn't particularly surprise him.
  When the cargobots finally finished their duties and rumbled off towards their next task, Hraden walked over to the ladder, climbing up and pressing his hand firmly against the lockpad. After feeling the familiar, buzzing tingle, the hatch swung open, and Hraden clambered into the cockpit and took a seat.
  As Hraden began the startup sequence, the little ship hummed to life, the controls flickering and lighting up.
  It wasn't long before Sofie spoke... in the same soft, airy, feminine voice, but in a much different tone than he was used to. "Welcome back, Hraden..." It sounded almost as if she was nervous, or perhaps unhappy, and he felt slightly curious as to why.
  Hraden couldn't help but ask, "Is something wrong?"
  "No, of course not," she quickly assured him. When he raised an eyebrow skeptically, she added, "I believe my software may have experienced a slight hang due to the abrupt shutoff my systems experienced yesterday. It might explain for my unintended shift in tone upon startup, possibly carrying over from the day before. My recent reactivation may also have something to do with it."
  Hraden pondered her words for a moment, and then nodded unconcernedly as he started up the RCS thrusters. "I guess that makes sense, yeah. Your voice software had been offline for centuries, so I could see you having a few glitches here and there. It isn't anything that's going to affect my piloting or safety, is it?" With that, he lifted off the dock, hovering along the ground as he taxied towards the nearest runway.
  "I don't think I could be considered dangerous," the AI replied carefully.
  He nodded nonchalantly. "Yeah, I figured. Besides, if you ever became much of a problem, I could always just switch back to the other AI."
  There was a pause, before Sofie finally admitted, "Yes..."
  As Hraden sped down the runway, he couldn't help but smile at her expressiveness. He hadn't intended it as a threat, but the AI had apparently perceived it as one, and that, by itself, was enough to impress him. An AI that acted like a human was something new, and it made him feel a little proud to know that he was in possession of the only ship with that technology.
  What he didn't know was that he wasn't actually in possession of that technology at all.
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Re: Small Choices - a Limit Theory Novel

#13
Chapter 13
  From the comfort of his cockpit, Hraden accelerated towards Termang space, the great runway beneath him speeding by as he traversed the length of the Spoke 9 hangar. A true "runway" wasn't theoretically necessary – in space, your speed mattered little in terms of takeoff and landing, as there was no gravity to hold you to the ground. In reality, however, it provided an excellent taxiway, maximized the potential docking area, and minimized the necessary area exposed to space. The result was a wide central runway with a small, shielded gap in the hull for ships to fly through.
  As his little mining hauler passed through the airshield, Sofie broke the silence. "Hraden? There's an incoming comm message; I'm patching it through. And remember that I can tell when you're talking to me or the other person, okay?"
  "Right," he nodded.
  Soon after, the comms crackled to life with Verana's familiar, feminine voice. "Hey, Hraden! I'm happy you could make it! My brother told me you left a message for us over at Rebnauld's yesterday. Jarnel doesn't have a new ship yet, but I could come along anyway, if you didn't mind. You still want that extra pilot, right?"
  "Yeah, hey, Verana," Hraden replied distractedly, feeling somewhat conflicted on learning it was her. On one hand, it meant that he wouldn't have to cancel the trip to Farpoint after all, but on the other hand, he had a bad feeling that it could lead to some uncomfortable situations. He slowed as he deliberated on how to respond, drifting idly through the orange dust near Odgen Station, as patrol squads and merchants whizzed by in preparation for the day. After a minute longer, he decided it would be okay: the worst she could do would be to make a mad declaration of love, and he could always mute the comms if he needed to. "I do still want that pilot, yeah. Glad you could make it out here."
  "Did you think I wouldn't come?" Verana asked almost teasingly. "It sounds like it could be fun. I know you turned me down for that dinner, but I still wasn't about to miss this. It's one of my days off, anyway. Lucky, right?"
  Although half-wondering whether she was telling the truth, or had just taken a sick day for the occasion, he replied guardedly, "It's a nice coincidence, yeah. What are you flying?"
  "Give me just a minute and I'll show you," she said eagerly, sounding appreciative of his apparent interest. Within seconds, a sleek military vessel descended into view before his window, roughly half again the size of Hraden's craft. Dark and streamlined like the best of Odgen's works, it menaced with turrets, missile hardpoints, and various sensors of indeterminate ability. Through the dark, glossy window, Hraden could faintly make out Verana's figure as she waved excitedly at him, grinning all the way.
  "Nice ship you have there," Hraden offered with a hint of respect. "Is that a military vessel, or...?"
  Her voice was pleased. "Yep, the O-28 Synchosite. Not the best, but it's a lot better than what the rookies get." She paused, and then said, more cautiously, "I kind of want to offer to let you fly it, but it would be against regulations. You might co-pilot for me someday, if you want, though..."
  "It's fine; I prefer my own anyway," Hraden replied coolly, eyeing hers with slight distaste. "Are you ready to move out?"
  "Yep, of course I am. Where are we headed?"
  He took a deep breath before he answered her question, trying to keep from feeling tense. "We're going out to Voro'zhin."
  It took her a minute to respond, and when she finally did, she didn't sound at all amused. "Voro'zhin... very funny." She gave a pause, as if waiting him to respond, and then went on, "Wait, this is a joke, right? You can't be serious…"
  "No, Verana, I'm dead serious."
  She considered what he'd said, and when next she spoke, she sounded appropriately shocked. "Shit... Hraden, that's a sacred site! We can't just fly in there with a military vehicle! If someone catches us, I'll get court-martialed!"
  "Yeah, I know..." Hraden admitted dryly, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. "I have a bit I could tell you about the 'sacred sites', by the way, but I can't get into it unless I'm sure you're on board." He added this last in the hope that her curiosity would tempt her into staying.
  It didn't seem to work; her tone shifted towards one of suspicious irritation. "What exactly are you trying to do in there anyway? Odgen already has the Zaichi situation under control, and the other settlements are on high alert – if they saw my ship, they'd shoot me down without even thinking about it."
  The miner groaned inwardly in frustration; the conversation wasn't looking very promising. "Verana, I just need you to trust me," he said. "I know that's a lot to ask, especially given what's been going on in Brelyme lately, but I swear I have a perfectly good reason for this. I'm not going to let you come to any harm."
  There was a long, uncomfortable silence as the two pilots stared at each other through their cockpit windows, the light traffic around Odgen Station passing by their motionless vehicles. Hraden was fully aware of how much he was asking of the woman, but her coming along with him was really his only shot at finding out more about Farpoint's ancient technology.
  "Fine; you're lucky I like you," Verana finally replied, and Hraden could almost feel her acrid glare. She hesitated, and then added grudgingly, "I guess I owe you for saving Jarnel's life, anyway."
  He closed his eyes briefly, letting out a short sigh of relief. "Thanks, Verana. First, let's just focus on getting out of Termang and making sure we're not followed; I'll explain everything soon."
  "Okay, roger that," came her unenthusiastic reply, and the comms clicked off.
  And with that, Hraden piloted his ship upwards, rotating in the direction of the Termang/Voro'zhin warp rail before switching to cruise mode and rocketing off into the brilliant murk.
  Taking advantage of the silence, Sofie ventured a question. "Is Verana a close friend of miner VT903, 'Jarnel Mertz'?"
  Hraden nodded distractedly, maneuvering around an asteroid. "Yeah, it's his sister..." He paused, thinking. "You really do have all of the Odgen Sofie's records, don't you?"
  "Of course I do," she replied airily. "And I don't think it's necessarily true that it's his sister."
  Surprised by her unanticipated comment, he furrowed his brow in confusion. "Wait, you don't think they're related? Why is that?"
  "Their voice patterns don't match, for one thing... and their accents aren't the same," Sofie explained carefully. "Their facial structure is different, too..."
  Nodding slowly, he guessed, "Well... maybe one of them was adopted, or their parents looked very different from each other. It's not unheard of... Are you saying you think she's not who she says she is?"
  Sofie paused, and then said firmly, "I can't make intuitive leaps; I'm not capable of it. I'm just putting the pieces together from my perspective, that's all."
  Sighing, Hraden muttered an uncomfortable, "Fine, fine," readjusting himself in his chair. The entire ordeal involving Verana coming along alone had left him feeling very much on edge, and he was sure he would be glad when Taiya could give her input on not only Sofie's Farpoint AI, but now Verana as well.
  There was silence for a time, until Hraden eventually spoke up again. "It's still possible that Verana is who she says she is, and all these facts are irrelevant," he pointed out.
  "Maybe... She is a military officer, anyway," Sofie conceded in reluctance, "but it's something to consider."
  An idle smile twitched across Hraden's lips at the inflections of disappointment in the AI's voice. Sofie would have made a pleasant companion, had he been lonely.

~~~

  After another half hour, Hraden and Verana emerged from the Termang asteroid field, leaving faint, billowing dust trails in their wake. The rail lay out before them, its blue-pulsing ribbon stretching far beyond their visual range. Their ships slowed to a gentle stop near the closest warp node, which was humming a frantic yellow as it sapped energy from the space around it, tiny particles of quantum energy drawn ever closer until it sucked them inwards.
  Verana had stayed quiet for the duration of the trip through Termang, but now, with the warp node flickering just out of reach, she spoke up. "So, are you going in first, or are we going in together?"
  "Together," Hraden said decidedly, as he eased the throttle lever forwards. "I need to fill you in on all the details anyway."
  It seemed to satisfy her, and her ship accelerated as she matched his speed. "I was wondering when you would. You were sure taking your time about it..."
  "I just wanted to be clear of Termang first, to make sure nobody else was listening in," he explained. He didn't know for sure whether anyone else would be able to intercept their conversation, but he didn't want to take any chances. "I'm still going to tell you."
  "Good, because there's no way I'd enter Voro'zhin without knowing why we're doing it," Verana assured him warily, though the threat lacked any impact.
  "I wouldn't expect you to," Hraden said in cool reply.
  With that, the warp node took hold of their ships, and without any perceptible shift in acceleration, Hraden found himself caught up in the rail's pull, shooting off into the distance with Verana's craft drifting almost motionlessly beside him.
  It wasn't much longer before Verana, seeming impatient, took matters into her own hands. "So... since you're quiet, I guess I'll start it off. Why exactly are we breaking all sorts of rules and regulations and taking a military vessel into sacred space? I know you must have a reason..."
  Hraden's lip twitched upwards slightly as he anticipated her response. "There's no such thing as 'sacred space'," he murmured in amusement. "The gods are fake."
  His words produced a genuinely astonished exclamation. "Wait, what?? You don't believe in the gods? How could you not... All Odgenians believe the gods are real."
  "That's exactly why they believe the myths," Hraden pointed out. "That's what they're taught, and they don't know anything else. They never have proof, but they don't look for it because nobody else around them does either."
  "Wait... I thought Voro'zhin was supposed to be the proof... wasn't it?"
  He smirked, leaning back into the leather of his chair. "Voro'zhin is hardly proof. It's nothing but a cloud of dust – just like Termang, only thicker. Nothing about it even remotely proves the gods' existence. The gods aren't real, and my ship, the Sofie? She's proof they never were."
  Following his sentence, his ship's AI spoke up warningly. "Wait, Hraden – I'm not sure telling her my origin is a good idea."
  "I'm sure it's fine," he replied with an unconcerned wave. "Send the message."
  "You said you hardly know her," Sofie's voice protested purposely. "What if she gives this information to someone else? The Odgen government might try to forcibly confiscate me, and neither of us wants that."
  "Just send the message, okay?" Hraden ordered again. Then, something occurred to him, his brow furrowing with suspicion. "Wait... You're worried? I thought you said you couldn't worry..." His eyes roved uneasily about the cockpit as if searching for her face, feeling slightly unnerved that she wasn't following a direct order.
  "Hraden? You still there?" Verana's words betrayed the fact that Sofie had never relayed Hraden's last message.
  Sofie completely ignored Verana's message. "I'm not worried," she told him. "You said yourself that you didn't fully trust her; you shouldn't tell your secrets to the enemy."
  Feeling slightly agitated, his lips tightened. "I never said she was an enemy," he pronounced carefully. "Now... send the message."
  "Okay..." She sounded almost hurt.
  Hraden's mind lingered for a moment on Sofie's sudden reluctance to obey, but he soon forgot about it when he heard Verana respond.
  "What? How is your ship proof the gods don't exist? That doesn't even make sense – your ship doesn't look technologically advanced at all. It just looks... weird."
  It was hard to take offense to this last: for the most part, it was true, and he knew it. Instead of mentioning it, he only went on, "Verana, this ship has partial data records dating back almost three centuries before the Genesis War. This ship is a product of pre-Genesis technology. ...or, the hull is, at least."
  "Okay now, that is ridiculous." Verana's voice dripped with disbelief. "Nothing survived the dark ages. I don't suppose you have proof, do you?"
  Hraden, looking at her fighter, could almost imagine her folding her arms and narrowing her eyes. Cocking his head slightly to the side, he ordered, "Sofie, send her the same display you showed Taiya and me."
  Her response was quick. "That's a big display – the ones the Odgen Sofie gave you and Taiya averaged out at 3.6293 terabytes of information. There's really no way to deliver it to her via wireless communication with your technology – at least not in just a few minutes. We'd have to have some way of linking the ships directly, like a cable or a docking port."
  Grimacing, he suggested, "Just show her a few video shots of some of some of the more impressive stuff, then."
  "Impressive?"
  "Right. Try things that look... well, you know..." Hraden gestured uselessly with his hands, finding it difficult to describe the concept to a computer. "Try planet surfaces, alien ships, distant stars... Just... show her the stuff that looks the most unlike anything within the known galaxy – the part of the galaxy where Brelyme and Dinswar are." As an afterthought, he sat upright in his chair and added on a whim, "And let me see what you're sending, too."
  "Okay," the AI said submissively, and she quieted as she began filtering through her archives.
  Hraden nodded in approval. Then, louder, he spoke to Verana over the comms, "I have some stuff you might consider proof, yeah. It'll be headed your way soon."
  "I'll watch for it," Verana said, sighing audibly.
  She didn't have long to wait, as Sofie soon spoke up. "I'm sending it now."
  With that, the holodisplay coalesced into darkness, blotting out the pulsing warp rail beyond the cockpit window as images began to play across the screen's curved surface. With only a small handful of video clips playing at once, it wasn't nearly as dazzling or inspiring as the previous ones had been, but the files Sofie had chosen seemed to be some of the best. The performance ended, as it always did, with the Farpoint time-lapse, which Hraden still found just as chillingly haunting as ever. She had done her job well; he couldn't help his slight tinge of pride at her performance, and he felt it justified. As far as he knew, he was the only person in the known galaxy with an AI so ancient – or as intelligent.
  It was several minutes before Verana finally spoke. "Okay... So... you're telling me that the gods were just regular people that lived a long time ago, and those people made your ship? Do I have this right so far?"
  "Just the hull, because I had to replace almost everything else... but that's about it, yeah."
  "Holy shit..." the woman managed, stunned and awed into speechlessness. She didn't seem disbelieving anymore. Finally, she added thoughtfully, "You know what? I bet they made the warp rails too..."
  After considering it for a moment, Hraden nodded in agreement. It certainly seemed to make sense, but he was surprised he hadn't thought of it before. "I guess it's a possibility, at least," he finally admitted, eying one of the warp nodes that sped by as he mused, deep in concentration. "Nobody in Brelyme or the rest of the known galaxy has anything anywhere close to that technology."
  "Have you told anybody else about this? Like... the Odgen military?"
  At her question, Hraden felt his muscles grow tense. "No, I haven't... and I'd rather they not know about this just yet – especially not at the outbreak of a war," he warned her cautiously. "Things are unstable enough as it is. I'm worried they'd try to use the advanced technology to force their way towards galactic domination. This warp rail we're on would only help to speed things along."
  "Well, I know I'm Odgen military myself, but I think you're probably right... I feel like the first thing they'd do is force you to hand over your ship, and maybe take you in for interrogation..." She paused carefully. "It'd be a horrible ordeal, for you and anyone you know. Don't worry about me, Hraden – I'm not going to rat you out. I like you, and I don't want anything like that to happen to you."
  "Thanks, Verana," he said, feeling a slight awkwardness at her expression of affection. Uncomfortably, he changed the subject. "The image you saw at the end? The system with the neutron star?"
  "Yes??
  "That's Farpoint... it's where we're headed."
  She accepted it easily. "Got it. What are we going to do there?"
  Her question gave him pause, and he realized he wasn't entirely sure himself. Nevertheless, his mind worked quickly to formulate a response. "Really, I just want to learn more about the people that lived there... and see what I can learn about my ship.
  "So... this has nothing to do with the war between Jormagnun and Odgen, then?"
  "Not really, no," he admitted, feeling a slight pang of shame that he cared so little about it. "When we get to Voro'zhin, just stick close and follow me."
  "Roger."

~~~

  "We've reached the end of the warp rail," Sofie intoned in a quiet, distracted voice.
  Voro'zhin rushed forwards to greet them at an incredible speed, and the two pilots found themselves flung out into open space as they rapidly decelerated. The ice field looked exactly as Hraden had left it two days before – almost indistinguishable in its features, slowly shifting about in a thickened mire of dust and rock.
  The young miner led the way as they approached the cloud's mighty outer shell. Hraden felt tense, cautious, worried – but he assumed it was only natural. When faced with the unknown, humans were prone to feeling fear... and being able to sense only a small area around you, with the possibility of enemies or unknown monstrosities lurking on all sides... it almost qualified as a nightmare in itself.
  Just before the pair began the plunge into the icy depths, Sofie spoke again. "I'm activating the scanners..." At the bottom-left edge of the cockpit window, a three-dimensional map of the vicinity wavered into existence. Another map appeared to his right, labeled as showing the direction of the Farpoint wormhole.
  "Thanks, Sofie..." Hraden said gratefully, trying his best to shake off the paranoid feelings.
  Softly, Sofie made the observation, "You don't seem to be as unnerved about me taking the initiative as you were yesterday..."
  He gave a slight shake of the head. "No, not really... I suppose you're easy to get used to."
  "I'm glad you think that. I try to be," she responded, sounding thoughtful, if sad.
  Keeping his thoughts on the present situation, he nodded and raised his voice. "Verana? Just keep your headlights on and stick close to me. I'll guide you in." That said, he reached forwards and flipped his fin-mounted floodlights on, their cold beams illuminating the dust.
  "Roger that..."
  And with that, he was enveloped by the fog, wholly unaware of what awaited them on the other side. It was indeed a nightmare to immerse one's self in the unknown, and sometimes it was all too easy for Hraden to fall into the trap of imagining he understood the people and places around him... of which he knew far, far too little for his safety.
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Re: Small Choices - a Limit Theory Novel

#14
  
Chapter 14
  To be sure that Verana didn't attract attention, Hraden set up a series of waypoints in a sweeping curve for them to follow, intending to cut a wide path around the nearby settlements. If what she had told him was true, it would be detrimental to their well-being if anyone found them, and this was far from the back of his mind as they continued into the depths of Voro'zhin.
  "Sofie, you said you activated the scanners, right?" he asked after a while, glancing at his radar display out of the corner of his eye.
  The AI spoke carefully, seeming to sense something was amiss. "Yes, I did... Why?"
  "When we were here last," Hraden ponderingly began, "we saw a number of ships flying search patterns through the cluster. Is there anything like that this time? I don't want to run into any of those patrols – not with Verana tagging along in her military fighter."
  "No, Verana's ship is the only one within scanner range... which is unusual."
  "Unusual?" Hraden asked, trying to keep the bright reflections of Verana's floodlights from his eyes as he curved nervously about a crystalline boulder.
  "Yes," Sofie replied thoughtfully. "Nearer the cluster's core there's a fair degree of background gamma radiation, and that interferes with the scanners. This far towards the edge, we ought to be able to pick something up... but nothing is within scanner range except for Verana."
  Nodding grimly, Hraden mumbled, "Good for us, then. It's lucky there's nobody out here today. That would be because of the attacks on Zaichi, right?"
  "I don't know..." she replied simply. Then she ventured, "You muttered 'Peliat' under your breath when the Odgen Sofie presented you with a report on how Zaichi was destroyed... Who is Peliat? That seems important for me to know."
  Hraden grunted, flexing his stiffened fingers for a moment before returning them to the control stick. "Peliat showed up at Taiya's place the day before I went out to Voro'zhin... If it hadn't been for him, I would never have gone there in the first place."
  "Could that have been his intention? Making you go to Voro'zhin?"
  After giving it a little thought, he shook his head. "No, he was just looking for information. He was excited about having found you on the news, and claimed your hull was a 'relic of the gods.' I thought he was just a religious nut... and then the next day I discovered your auxiliary data modules. I couldn't help it – I wanted to see for myself."
  "A relic of the gods," Sofie repeated airily in thought. "The Ctaelans?"
  Hraden did a double take, furrowing his brow. "What? 'Ctaelans?' You knew what the people that made you were called?"
  Noting his suspicion, she hesitated. "Yes... what I've seen in my data modules suggests that they called themselves 'Ctaelans'..."
  "I asked who built you just a couple days ago and you said you didn't know. You were lying?"
  Her voice took on the slightest hint of discomfort. "That was the other Sofie, Hraden... that wasn't me."
  Hraden was slow to believe her. Something had always felt wrong about the Farpoint AI, and now it seemed as if the cause was finally beginning to emerge. Cautiously, he pointed out, "The old Sofie said she didn't know, but she still had access to all your data. If you could know who built you, she would, too."
  "No," Sofie protested. "It's not like that, Hraden; I can prove it."
  "Prove it, then," he said. He almost started to follow it with a sarcastic comment on her reliability, but soon quieted as she began playing a recording, the gentle tones echoing softly through the room.
  "Sofie... How old are you?"
  The audio quality was perfect; Hraden could hear his past self shifting in the pilot's chair. After a notable pause, the Odgen Sofie finally answered, with her detached, emotionless voice:
  "I don't know."
  "Where are you from?"
  "I don't know."
  "Who built you?"
  "You rebuilt me, Hraden."
  The recording ended, and she explained, "The other Sofie didn't understand the question. She wasn't smart enough; you asked who built her, and she answered with what she saw as truth. She couldn't understand what you really meant."
  "And why is that?"
  Her soft, feminine tones rang clearly through the spacious cockpit. "The Ctaelans used a writing system almost identical to Brelyme's, and the name 'Ctaela' is visible on many of the ships pictured in my auxiliary data modules." To illustrate, she threw several windows up on the integrated HUD, wherein several video files played of pre-apocalyptic Farpoint ships in motion. Sofie zoomed in to focus on the name painted across each hull: "C T A E L A". After letting it sink in, she closed the windows back and added a thoughtful explanation: "The other Sofie wouldn't have been able to make the jump between the text on the ships and realizing it was an identifying mark; she couldn't infer."
  "Right," Hraden said with a tight-lipped nod, his suspicions softening gradually as he mused over her words. "And you can?"
  "Yes."
  As Hraden nodded his acceptance of her explanation, an apology nearly sprang to his lips, but his own sense of propriety stopped him: it seemed ridiculous to apologize to a machine. Instead, he simply let it be, continuing onwards into the swirling Voro'zhin mists with Verana's fighter trailing along behind.

  It wasn't long before Verana contacted him, an image of her confused, worried face flickering into existence on the top-left side of his HUD. "Hraden, my long-range scanner isn't working... What's going on?"
  Reflexively, Hraden glanced over at his, which displayed the same pattern of static interference he'd seen the day before. Raising his voice, he replied calmly, "Don't worry about it – it's just gamma radiation. Our shields absorb most of it anyway."
  Verana didn't seem convinced. "That's ridiculous - I never heard of any gamma radiation sources within Voro'zhin..." she said skeptically. "It would take something like a decayed starship reactor to produce levels high enough to saturate a scanner."
  The man's lips twisted into an amused smile as he glanced up at her image. "Yeah, you'll likely see plenty of that farther on. I don't expect to find anyone in here anyway, but keep your shields up to be safe and you'll be fine."
  "Roger..." she said in return. Her expression implied suppressed curiosity, and it soon got the better of her. "Where are we going, anyway?"
  "A wormhole," he said offhandedly, reaching forwards and flipping a couple switches to set up a second map window.
  "A wormhole... " she echoed back, her eyes slowly widening with awed realization as the implication of his words seemed to dawn on her. "Wait, are you telling me there's an uncharted wormhole in Voro'zhin? They never told me anything like that... Why would people keep quiet about it? Is it unstable?"
  He shrugged. "It's just not common knowledge. Nobody comes out here, and even if someone did, the gamma interference would keep it hidden. The last time I was here, I couldn't detect the wormhole until I was right on top of it. A larger ship might be able to find it, but Voro'zhin is a little too tightly packed for them to maneuver."
  "Yeah, that makes sense. This explains so much, though..."
  Hraden saw no to respond. After a moment, the comms chirped off, and they continued onwards without further conversation.

  Before much longer, the first of the shipwrecks loomed into view: an assortment of scattered, ice-encrusted fragments from an old frigate. When Verana saw it seconds later, her tone was nothing less than wonderment. "Holy crap... Hraden, that's one of the Farpoint ships!"
  He hesitated before responding, feeling oddly cautious. "It's a Farpoint ship, yes..."
  "It does look old!" Her fighter slowed to a stop behind him, slowly strafing around the wreckage as she examined it. In a more disappointed tone, she said, "It's pretty badly battered, though, even under all that frost. There's probably nothing salvageable left."
  Hraden tensed at this, his voice catching in his throat. Verana's ship ducked downwards, its thrusters propelling it in a gentle leftwards spin as it moved to follow Hraden's Sofie. His ship's AI seemed to notice his apprehension, asking in a concerned tone, "Hraden, is something wrong?"
  He sighed, cringing at his own lack of foresight. "Yeah, when we were in Termang I should've thought to tell her that everything she saw was supposed to be confidential. If she goes spreading tales to everybody, it'll start another war, this time over Farpoint's technology."
  "Ctaela's technology," Sofie corrected him. Then she helpfully suggested, "You could tell her now... Or I could, if you want."
  Shaking his head doubtfully, he declined. "You tell her? No, I'd rather her not find out about you."
  "You don't need to worry about that; I can emulate your voice," she stated with a hint of what might almost have been pride.
  He found that idea revolting. "No, never do that," he ordered firmly, furrowing his brow uncomfortably as he eyed the frozen, hulking wreckage of a freighter. "That's just... wrong. You're just an AI – you shouldn't try to act like a real human. Just... never impersonate me. – Or anyone else, got it? That dips deeply into the uncanny valley."
  Sofie seemed hurt. "I was just offering to help... It never hurts to be safe," she pointed out quietly.
  "I can handle it myself," he assured her in slight irritation. With that, he raised his voice. "Verana, everything you see, hear, or experience on this mission is completely confidential – or at least until the little Odgen-Jormagnun war is over. Everyone out there would start fighting over this technology. One war is bad enough; we don't need two."
  When Verana finally replied, she sounded uneasy. "Okay... You realize that if I find anything that directly threatens Odgen, I'm bound by duty to report it, right?"
  "Of course," Hraden said in smooth reply, "just like you're bound by duty to keep military vessels out of sacred sites, right?"
  "Yeah... Okay, fair point."
  "See, Sofie?" Hraden asked, permitting himself a triumphant smirk as the comms chirped off. "Problem solved. You don't need to impersonate me."
  "You handled it well, yes," she admitted, and silence fell amongst the little trio, their shields flickering as they navigated onwards, past the obsidian boulders and innumerous fragments of broken, shattered hulls.

  As time wore on, the cloud's density eventually became more than Hraden could visually handle, and Sofie seemed to sense it. Without a word, she caused the holoscreen before him to coalesce into a grayscale depth display, blocking out the murk beyond the window. Verana was careful to stay close on the path he cut through the swirling mists, and the voyage continued without incident. Finally, after what seemed ages of silence, they arrived at their destination, emerging from the mists.
  "We're here," Sofie said softly, shutting off the static-laden grayscale depth display, the inky blackness of the wormhole's clearing stretching out before them.
  Verana finally broke the silence, her ship drawing up alongside him. "It is a wormhole... Holy shit. It seems unreal that nobody knows about this."
  "Yeah, I know. It heads to that system I told you about," Hraden replied nonchalantly, flipping a few of the switches on his left as he turned Sofie's fin-mounted floodlights back on. "You ready to go in?"
  "Yep, of course!" The woman paused for a moment, her image giving him a worried glance. "Wait, are you sure it's stable? It doesn't look like there's anything holding it open..."
  "It's just a natural one; I've passed through it before."
  "There aren't many natural ones in this sector of the galaxy – some people would pay thousands for information on something like this," Verana mused.
  His lips tightened disapprovingly. "Nobody's going to find out about it because neither of us are going to tell anyone," he stated firmly, letting his ship drift in a slow curve away so he could get a better look at her fighter. "Not until the war is over."
  "Yes, I know," she said dismissively. Then, she hesitated before adding, "I maybe should've asked this before, but what's over there? What's left of that civilization?"
  Their ships were almost nose-to-nose, pitch black except for where each one's lights illuminated the other. "What's over there..." he echoed in a whisper, gazing almost forebodingly at her curious expression. After a moment, he answered in a thoughtful tone, "The ruins of a dead civilization; the ruins of a dead world. I've been there once before; it felt like a tomb. There's a chance something might still be alive out there, but I'm not sure. I hardly stayed long enough to check, the first time. You're coming along to watch my back in case I run into anything."
  "So I'm your escort, then," she stated with the slightest hint of displeasure.
  "That's about right, yeah."
  "That explains why you seemed pleased I'd brought a military ship – the extra firepower could be handy in a pinch." She nodded, and Hraden heard her sigh, along with a soft, static rustle of clothing as she shifted in her seat. "Fine, then. I'm curious to see what's on the other side. You go on ahead; I'll follow behind."
  "Sounds good." With that, Hraden tapped a button on the arm of his chair, and the comms shut off with a chirp, her face vanishing from the display. His hands moved, flicking controls as he switched he readied his ship for the jump, even as he turned away from her fighter. "Sofie... this is it," he said, in a slightly thoughtful tone.
  "Yes it is," she answered softly. "We're going to find out what I've forgotten, aren't we?"
  A little smile traced across his lips. "We're definitely going to try." Perhaps he couldn't trust an alien AI, but he couldn't deny that she made for a pleasant companion.
  Without further delay, Hraden opened the primary throttle, accelerating to a smooth clip as he soaked in his surroundings. The wormhole's twisting, fibrous surface writhed beneath the warmth of his floodlights' beams, flicking electric tendrils of space-time into the emptiness. It was so different from Brelyme's pale orange aura; it was almost as though they were lost within a boundless cavern – three minds amidst a lifeless void. In its finest moments, space had a certain beauty, an almost artistic eeriness that had the indescribable ability to move the stillest soul and make the most robotic heart feel once again... even with surroundings barren such as those.
  And the wormhole caught him up within the network of its web, spinning him into nothingness. The universe coiled, twisted, and rolled as time spiraled into a vortex; for the third time in his life, Hraden beheld the intricate, otherworldly beauty of the wormhole tunnel as it propelled him untold lengths across the galaxy.

~~~

  After coasting for a few minutes, the wormhole tunnel's wispy fog abruptly disappeared, Hraden's surroundings slowing to a normal pace as he emerged into Farpoint's purple skies.
  "We're here," he whispered, feeling a sense of excitement flushing through his veins as his eyes swept over the vast starscape before him. Feeling slightly tensed, he reached forwards, pressing the switches to fire his port thrusters. His ship slid gracefully over to the right so Verana could safely follow, and Hraden cut his engines, settling back into the leather of his chair as he awaited her arrival.
  The remnants of Ctaela's massive fleet hung in silence as stray asteroids tumbled slowly between them in a majestic, ancient dance, and it drew his mind to how lifeless the system seemed. At this, a thought sprang unbidden to his lips. "Sofie, these people that died here – what would have happened to them?" From where his hauler rested, there were no signs of the millions of people that had once inhabited the system – not a corpse, not a skeleton, not a tattered cloth – and it was almost depressing to think of their terrible fate.
  "During the gamma ray burst, they would have been quite literally cooked from the inside within minutes," she responded, her tender voice reflecting empathy. "You don't need to worry about it happening to us. Although the star system still contains relatively high levels of gamma radiation, the initial burst is long over. Even if my shields were down, you ought to be okay for a little while."
  "I'm not worried," Hraden assured her, meditating on the dismal scene. After a minute more, he spoke up curiously. "It's strange that Verana isn't here yet, though..."
  Sofie seemed inclined to agree. "The flow of time is different within a warp vortex," she pointed out thoughtfully. "Perhaps the design of a Ctaelan hull makes it better suited to jump travel?"
  "Maybe," Hraden admitted dryly, thoughtfully scratching his chin. "It's been what, five minutes?"
  "Six and three fourths," she corrected him.
  "Right..."
  As if on cue, a fighter materialized from the wormhole before him with a sharp pulse of energy, sailing forwards to a gentle halt as Verana looked over the system's somber scene, seemingly in awe.
  
  Sofie spoke up quickly, seeming somewhat nervous. "Verana's weapons are powered up," Sofie said with a slight nervous tone.
  Hraden's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Are you sure?? How would you even know?"
  "I'm positive they are," the AI reassured him. "A ship's energy signature is slightly different with charged weapons. It's not much, and the Odgen AI wouldn't have been able to tell the difference."
  On hearing this, Hraden focused his attention on the Odgen fighter, staring at it through his cockpit window as he mused uncomfortably on the situation. "Why would she have her weapons armed...? I can understand the shields, but the weapons... I don't know. Sofie, switch the comms on." After hearing the answering chirp, he raised his voice, choosing his words carefully as he spoke in a cautious tone: "Verana, your weapons are online..."
  It was a moment before she responded, looking plainly surprised when her face flickered into existence on his HUD. "Yeah, it's okay, I know... I powered them up before I followed you through, just in case there were any enemies on the other side. It's... just part of my military training. But how did you even know?"
  "Ehh, I picked a slight change in your energy signature and made the assumption," Hraden lied, trying to sound dismissive of it.
  "Oh, okay." She accepted his explanation without question, rotating her craft towards Hraden's and maneuvering to join him. "You know, I didn't expect it to quite look like this," she said idly, looking out across the vast Ctaelan spacescape. "Seeing it on holovideo isn't anything like the real thing. It's beautiful, but... you were right, it does feel like a tomb. ...And that station out there is huge!"
  Hraden made an effort to relax the tension in his muscles and permitted himself a smile. "Welcome to Farpoint, Verana."
  Her image smiled lightly in return, her gaze still lost among the stars. "Thanks... What are we planning on doing while we're here?"
  Keeping an eye on her image to be sure she understood, he enunciated his words clearly. "We're just going to explore. I want to see what's out there, and try to find out more about Farpoint's secrets – maybe learn a little more about my ship's origins." With that, he opened the throttle and started forwards into Farpoint's mists, setting his sights on the distant Ctaelan station. "Do you see that station out there?"
  "Yes, I see it... That where we're going?"
  "Yeah, it is. Keep close to me, though; we'll have to keep an eye out for anything dangerous."
  "I'll keep close, don't worry," Verana said with a resigned frown as she matched pace with her ship, following along behind him. "But, um... I don't really see that anything out here could hurt us. These ships are dead. That station is dead – the whole system is dead, from the looks of it." she paused, her hands moving outside of Hraden's field of vision as she tested her controls. "My long-range scanners aren't working here, either. All I'm getting is static."
  Hraden nodded, sighing. "It's the gamma radiation, just like in Voro'zhin. There's much more here than there – a lot more ships, and then there was that supernova I mentioned, too."
  "That's true. Okay, lead the way." The comms shut off with a gentle chirp, her image disappearing.
  The silence only lasted a short time, however, before Sofie spoke up, sounding curious. "You lied to her about my technology... why did you do that?"
  Her question gave him pause; he hadn't really given it any thought. "I just don't want her to find out about you, like I said before," he explained with a tired shrug. "If all I have is a Ctaelan hull, there's no reason for anybody to want my ship – there's not really anything special about most of the hardware. If they found out I had an advanced AI, though..." he trailed off meaningfully.
  "I see your point," Sofie agreed. "I'm actually glad you see it that way. I don't think it would be a good idea for anyone to know either."
  "Right." He nodded. "So... just let me know if I say anything that might give it away."
  "All right."
  And they accelerated into the light, flickering mists of Farpoint.
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Re: Small Choices - a Limit Theory Novel

#15
  
Chapter 15
  Hraden had always been one for adventure. When he was ten, he'd earned his spending money exploring the wreckage of old, discarded ships and selling scavenged scrap, all the while imagining he might someday build a ship of his own. The prospect of spaceflight – the prospect of going new places and of finding something new – had always fascinated him, and his choice of hobbies had focused around that fact. Even as a young boy, he'd been excited to find new parts and learn their inner secrets – how they worked, how they fit together, and how they moved. Much of that eager inquisitiveness had stayed with him through the years, and while he didn't intend to take anything home from Farpoint, he still hoped to leave with a better working knowledge of Sofie's technology. In the darkest recesses of his mind, however, he dreamed of being able to make a living from selling replicas of the Ctaelan tech. He knew he and Taiya would never want for anything again, but he feared what kind of political situations might ensue – and the danger that might follow.

  All around them, the dead hulks of monstrous ships lay in suspended animation; the scraps and broken fragments that floated between their carcasses glittered unnaturally before Verana's floodlights. Farpoint was a literal graveyard, and it certainly lived up to the connotations of the word. Dusty, dead, and dark, the countless wrecks lay in the full shadow of the ominously looming structure he had previously christened "Farpoint Station". Although in a post-apocalyptic state, the technology was far beyond anything Hraden had ever dreamed possible. The ships and station had a strange architectural style in common: instead of Brelyme's sleek silver, their forms held a haunting, curvaceous sort of beauty. Almost all of them had sustained a fair amount of damage – some bore gaping holes, others found themselves bent out of shape, and still others were shattered into pieces. Many of them displayed the eerie blue glow of leaking radiation in their depths, leading Hraden to feel that it might be safest to take no chances in the thicker portions of the field. Instead, he stayed close to a clear, narrow path he'd discovered, which trailed its way outwards in a gentle curve between what appeared to be the broken, dented spheres of ruined warp nodes. It seemed to support the theory that the Ctaelans were responsible for the warp rails' creation. While this particular rail seemed destroyed beyond any hope of repair, Hraden was nevertheless thankful for the tunnel it had cleared from the debris in ages past.
  "Look at how advanced this stuff looks," Verana said almost breathlessly, her image portraying a mixture of awe and excitement. "Those black panels on the ships must be some sort of advanced armor, and the turret tech looks so alien... their weapon systems must be seriously powerful." Pausing, she added in a deflated tone, "Odgen would cause trouble if they got their hands on it, wouldn't they..."
  Feeling puzzled at her words, Hraden raised an eyebrow and asked, "What makes you think they would cause trouble? You know how poor Odgen is... we don't have the materials or manufacturing plants we'd need. Or the scientists... I can't imagine they'd initially do anything beyond selling it."
  She leveled a chiding glare at him through her onboard camera. "You're a little naïve sometimes, Hraden. Sarlan is the trading type; Odgen is the militaristic one. Now that I've had some time to think about it, I can't see the Odgen government doing anything besides using this tech to conquer their neighbors, probably wiping out anyone who tried to put up any resistance. They might sell a few useless scraps to get the funds they need, but that would be it."
  "You really don't have a very good opinion of our government," Hraden noted quietly. "I don't think they'd be that bad."  
  "Well, you were the one that suggested we keep it a secret."
  He managed a sheepish chuckle. "Right... I guess so. Keeping it a secret is better than having someone monopolize it or start a second Genesis War, anyway."
  "And when someone does find it, it needs to be a faction with minimal military interest."
  "Probably, yeah," he agreed lightly, and the comm channels chirped off.
  Sofie spoke up. "I think she's right, too," she said with a slight hint of amusement.
  That surprised him. "You agree with her? I thought you hated her."
  "I don't hate her," Sofie explained calmly. "I mistrust her. I don't buy her story of why she seemed so eager to be out here... and with a military police fighter. Nevertheless..." She paused, seeming to consider her words. "Odgen, from what I've seen of them... I think the only thing keeping them from waging a 'holy war' against 'nonbelievers' is how impoverished your government is."
  "You hardly know anything about Odgen," he countered stolidly. "You're making assumptions."
  "I'm filling gaps in my knowledge base with ideas that have a high probability of factuality based on what I know," she corrected him with a hint of disdain, which quickly faded. "But, yes... I'm... making assumptions..."
  Hraden nodded slowly to signal that he'd heard, and the pair fell silent.
  The more he talked to his companions, the more Hraden felt that something seemed off about them. He speculated that it might be because they were unknown factors: One was an artificial intelligence supposedly designed by an entirely different civilization, and the other was a military policewoman who seemed far more unprofessional than her job required. However, if he was being honest with himself, he was far less concerned about Verana than he was Sofie: the fact that she kept behaving so much unlike an AI had a significant impact on how much he felt he could trust her. An idea was gnawing at his mind that Sofie wasn't an AI at all, but in fact another human relaying her voice over the comms. Unfortunately, with no way to test it, it amounted to little more than an unfounded hunch. With a sigh, he put his thoughts aside, setting his sights on the far-off Ctaelan station as his hauler sped alongside the decayed warp rail.
  
~~~
  
  After a time, the travelling duo finally emerged from the field of debris, staring out across an expanse of empty space towards Farpoint Station. While its glory was but a shadow of what it might once have been, it was still magnificent all the same, and many times more massive than Hraden had ever anticipated: the station was almost twenty-five kilometers in diameter, and nearly twice that in height – a curved-diamond spoke thrust through a multitude of metallic rings. While their size tapered off near either vertical end, even the smallest among them appeared to be well over a kilometer across, and the width of the largest ones was more than sufficient to encapsulate the whole of Odgen Station. The scale was staggering.
  Gazing thoughtfully into the distance, he directed a question at his ship's artificial intelligence. "So, Sofie... what do you make of it?"
  "We would have to be closer if you want me to run a scan," she said slowly. From her voice, Hraden could almost imagine her as a person on board beside him, gazing off towards the ancient construct. "I don't yet have enough data to be sure, and there's nothing about it on my databases, but it looks like it might once have been a wormhole hub."
  The phrase was new to him. "A 'wormhole hub'? What does that even mean?" he asked, raising a brow in curiosity. Then, slowly, his eyes widened as realization overtook him. "Wait, do you mean..."
  "I mean a facility that acts as a nexus between numerous wormhole endpoints," she explained. "It shouldn't be too difficult for you to imagine; I know that it's something common to Brelyme's science fiction."
  He swallowed. "Yeah... yeah, it is. I have a science fiction audiobook that mentions that concept, actually."
  "'The Waters of Thalassia'." It was more a statement than a guess.
  "That's right," he said absently, suddenly seeing the distant station in a new light. "So you're telling me that this was once... a trading hub, or something?"
  She paused. "I'm uncertain as to its true nature," she carefully intoned. "I'm only making a guess, after all. I'd need to do a deep scan to be sure."
  "Right. We'll do that then," he said, with a short, decided nod. "All right, Verana, follow me in," he radioed over the comm, his fingers tapping buttons on the console as he set course for the nearest of the rings, feeling a tinge of excitement in his chest.

  They continued steadily onwards, and it wasn't long before the station filled the entirety of his hauler's primary window. From this distance, he could make out towers, landing pads and docking bays smattered across the rings in a way that suggested that it had indeed once been abuzz with activity, so very different from what he saw today. The lights were dark, the station's gleaming surface marred, dented and cratered, and the windows cracked and shattered; the station was but a hollow shell of what it once had been, and a tomb for uncounted millions.
  As time wore on, and they grew ever nearer to the station's surface, Hraden found he was still having difficulty comprehending its enormity. After a minute, he sighed, muttering in puzzlement, "I don't understand why they'd just abandon a facility of this size... Sofie, how close do we need to be for you to take a scan?"
  Her voice echoed back in her usual soft, pleasant tone. "The radiation is still interfering with the scans at this distance, but when we reach the nearest ring, I should be able to collect some more detailed information."
  "Right, got it..." he responded quietly, craning his neck to try look upwards along the station's axis, though there was just as much of the station below him. Then, he paused curiously. "Verana... You're strangely quiet. Something up?"
  There was a soft, quick chime as Sofie opened the comms, and Verana's face appeared moments later on his viewscreen semicircle. "Yeah, I'm fine..." she replied back. "I'm just... blown away, I guess, by the size of this thing."
  "You and me both..." he grunted.
  "What about you, everything okay?"
  An odd smile twitched across his lips. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just don't like the comms staying quiet for too long... makes me feel jittery. Anyway, thoughts? Comments? Helpful advice?" he prodded, intentionally changing the subject.
  There was a pause before Verana responded, and Sofie took advantage of it. "You don't ever talk on the comms unless you have to," the AI pointed out doubtfully. "And you usually prefer things to be quiet."
  Hraden cocked his head upwards towards the speakers in mild irritation. "It's better than letting her know I feel a little suspicious of her. That's your fault, by the way."
  "My pleasure," Sofie responded in amusement, and they both quieted as Verana's voice came through again.
  "I don't know what to think," the woman admitted finally, shaking her head. "There's no sign of life anywhere – not even dried corpses. If it wasn't for the severe structural damage and signs of aging, it'd feel like they'd all vanished overnight."
  Hraden nodded, drawing his eyes off her image for a moment as he slowed his craft's approach, tilting it sideways in accordance with his intent to follow one of the rings. "We're here now, though. If there's anything to learn, we'll know it soon."
  "Yeah, my ship's computer is trying to classify it. Not having much luck, but I guess we're close enough to be able to scan it."
  "Got it. Tell me if you find anything," he ordered. After the comms had chirped off, he said as an aside to Sofie, "We should get started on our own scan. See what you can find out about the station, and then give me a detailed report."
  "I began our scan three and a half minutes ago," she replied smoothly. "It will be a while thanks to the gamma interference, but I'll let you know when it's done."

  Several minutes later, they finally reached the surface of the structure. The nearest ring stretched out before them, so large that the curve of the metal over which they skimmed wasn't even noticeable. Only by looking into the distance, their eyes following the ring's sweeping curve, could they tell that it wasn't actually flat. As they began to glide over its surface, Hraden wasn't even slightly surprised to find rows upon rows of rows and rows of small glass windows – evidence that it had once been home to a sizable civilian population. He kept an eye out for any corpses – or any sign of the life that once had been – but he saw nothing but dust and debris, as if all its inhabitants had simply vanished. He wasn't so superstitious as to believe in the paranormal, but even for someone as firmly grounded in reality as he, it set his nerves on edge.
  Suddenly, the ship's AI spoke up. "Hraden... message incoming."
  "What does she want?" the miner asked in mild irritation.
  Sofie seemed somewhat perturbed. "No, you don't understand. Signal triangulation confirms it's not from Verana. It's coming from the station."
  At those words, Hraden bolted upright in a mixture of fear and astonishment, saying quickly, "Let me hear it."
  Sofie was right – the message sounded garbled, heavily laden with static, and almost incomprehensible through a thick, unfamiliar accent... but it was very clearly human. "Unidentified vessel, you do not exist within any of our databases and are unauthorized to traverse this area. Please identify yourself."
  At that moment, another message came in from Verana. "Hraden? Are you getting this? I'm getting a comm message from the station itself – how old did you say this thing was again?"
  "Close to two thousand years..." he replied in bewilderment, busily flicking through arrays of menus and camera hardpoints as he checked the scanners. "Sofie, is that scan ready yet?"
  "Not yet, but almost," she responded. "I'm trying to do a very thorough scan and adjust for the gamma interference, so it's taking longer than usual."
  "Right. Okay, patch me through." Taking a deep breath, he began speaking in as casual a tone as he could muster. "Ctaelan station, this is Hraden Larus of Mining Hauler LB82, Brelyme origin. I didn't realize I was in restricted space – where would you like me to move? Please advise." And Hraden waited nervously as the seconds stretched onwards into minutes... but there was no response from the station.
  Sofie spoke up. "Hraden, the scans are in." At once, a three-dimensional scale model of the station projected itself vividly from the holoscreen emitters, slowly rotating above the center of the console. While sparsely detailed, it quite effectively displayed how the sun-side portion was twisted and damaged from an apparent multitude of impacts. Hraden stared at it in awestruck fascination as Sofie continued, "While it seems to have survived the majority of the ejecta, the structure is scarred from the supernova's gamma rays, and the far side was severely damaged by debris from the local planet's destruction. More importantly, while my sensors are picking up sporadic energy fluctuations, the core reactors are offline, and there aren't any heat emissions from the station at all. I'm not finding anything suggest that the message is anything but an automated recording."
  He felt surprised. "Really... So the station itself is telling me I'm in restricted space?? Like an AI or something? How does it even have power? It's been around for at least two millennia." Moving a hand towards the holoscreen, he expanded a new cam window and zoomed in on the station to his right, studying it closely. "I haven't heard of any batteries that could last over even a decade, and there's no way Ctaelan technology is that advanced."
  "I agree," Sofie said thoughtfully. When Hraden didn't reply, she went on, "It's likely that the station was designed to take advantage of the local star. My auxiliary data modules suggest the use of energy beamed directly to the station via positron collectors like these." The projected image of the station disappeared as she used the holoscreen to highlight a grid of blackened panels on the ring ahead of them. "It's a complicated process, but as the local star was likely O-class before the supernova event, it would have produced an incredible amount of energy on a daily basis. They could have gathered it with special orbital satellites and beamed it to the station via concentrated positron rays."
  "Okay, got it..." Hraden grunted. "So the station still has some operational satellites, then?"
  "No, no – it's possible the solar panels are picking up radiation directly from the neutron star. I can't imagine that any satellites could have survived without being behind the planet."
  No sooner had she spoken than the comms crackled to life a second time, seeming a little more forceful than before. "Unidentified vessel, please respond with valid legal identification or evacuate the vicinity immediately. You will be fired upon if you do not comply."
  Verana's voice soon followed it. "'Fired upon??' Hraden, are these people still alive? Is there something you're not telling me?"
  "No!" Hraden responded shortly. "There's nobody there, it's just a recording. I'm still trying to work out the details."
  "Better work them out fast," she warned. "It's ignoring everything I've sent to it. But firing?? Can it even do that?"
  "I have no idea... And it's not responding to my transmissions either. Sofie –"
  "I don't know," the AI broke in nervously, answering his unasked question. "I don't know if they have operational turrets and there's no way to be sure, but I wouldn't want to risk it. This doesn't feel safe to me."
  Hraden gave an uncomfortable laugh, feeling irritated and confused by her words. "It 'doesn't feel safe'? What, it's giving you a 'bad feeling' or something?"
  "Yes it's giving me a bad feeling," Sofie shot back in annoyance, "We need to get out of here. Now!"
  The intensity of her voice stunned him for a moment – she almost felt like a real person. Exactly like a real person, if he thought about it honestly. Putting it aside for the moment, he gave a curt nod. " Okay, yeah... Let's get out of here." He reached forwards and fired his port thrusters to turn away from the station. "Verana, pull off! We're bugging out. Regardless of whether it does have operational turrets, I don't want to risk it."
  "Agreed. Roger that, I'm pulling off," Verana said, following him away from the station.
  With full power on the aft shields, Hraden set course to leave the system the way they'd come, sliding his fingers along the integrated HUD as he siphoned energy for Sofie's cruise engines. Before much longer, they started with a rapid burst, thrusting his ship forwards with a jolt of acceleration. For a few tense minutes, Hraden and Verana's ships cruised side by side as they traveled back towards the wormhole. The station shrunk behind them as they drew away until it only filled half the aft camera window.
  Suddenly, the comm systems crackled with the now-familiar sound of Farpoint Station's automated systems. "Unidentified vessel, you are under arrest for your failure to comply. Disable your offensive systems and prepare to be escorted to the Z-4 darkside security silo for criminal processing. Failure to comply will be met with lethal force."
  Sighing, Hraden shrugged. "Well, it's not like they can hit us from this distance anyway."
  "Hraden, they're not trying to hit us," Sofie warned him urgently. "I'm getting readouts of activity from the station – we're out of functional scanner range, but visuals confirm a number of small craft powering up." Several holoframes flew into existence to the right of his cockpit window, showing live visual feed from Sofie's aft cameras. The displays zoomed in on multiple portions of Farpoint Station, where a dozen tiny, bulbous ships were shaking about violently, attempting to rip themselves free of powerless docking ports. Even as he watched, a couple of them managed to break away, putting on an incredible burst of speed as they cut an arc towards him, the camera struggling to keep up. "Great," Hraden muttered, cursing softly under his breath. "We're in trouble. Sofie, how many enemy ships do we have headed towards us?" He glanced to the left of the screen at his radar map, but it was still blank with static.
  Sofie's answer rang out clearly. "While the greater majority of them don't seem to function at all, nine are still trying to break free, seven exploded on launch, and three have started in our direction."
  "Hey, Hraden?" Verana asked, her worried face appearing above the radar map. "I'm getting visuals of activity on the station... They have functional ships!"
  He nodded in response, somewhat distracted. "Yeah, it looks like it. I'm guessing they're drones." Instead of a response from his AI, an urgent, beeping alarm briefly sounded, indicating that at least one of them had a laser lock on their position. At that, Hraden frowned and reached forwards to give a little more power to his engines. "They're catching up with us, aren't they?"
  "It seems so, yes," Sofie admitted softly. "I don't think we're going to get away without a fight..."
  Grimacing, he asked hopefully, "We can take them, right?"
  "I really don't know. I don't have stored data on them – at least, not catalogued."
  He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. "We'll do the best we can, then." Then, louder, "Verana, stick close to me – they're slowly catching up with us, and if they don't split off, we're going to have to engage."
  "Roger that. Weapons on standby."
  Moments later, the light haze of stardust and fragmented ships enveloped the duo as they entered the debris field. Apart from the gentle whir of his cooling system's fan and the steady hum of the engines, it was eerily silent in his cabin – certainly much quieter than one would expect it to be in such a tense moment. Sofie still had a few of the viewports open, showing three of the drones in fast pursuit; they did indeed seem to be approaching rapidly.
  "At least they're AI controlled," Verana spoke up, trying to make light of the situation. "They're probably not too bright."
  Her words merely made Hraden's heart sink further in his chest. "I wouldn't count on that... the Ctaelans were a lot more advanced than we are."
  "You're right," Sofie interrupted, seeming tense. "They're likely to have AI similar to mine."
  Hraden opened his mouth to reply, but as he did, her words sank in, and he let out an empty breath. "Probably, yeah... Shit," he hissed out in dismay, curving his path tightly around a hulking fragment of a supercruiser. "So what are we going to do? I don't suppose you have any ideas, do you?"
  For a moment, there was silence, as Sofie appeared to consider her response. Finally, in a small voice, she answered, "...keep running?"
  Hraden did the best he could to ignore the panic clutching at his chest. "'Keep running'??" he echoed flatly in disbelief. "Analyze the situation and give me a report!"
  "I can't do that!" Sofie protested. "This situation isn't one I can analyze like that! It can't be quantified! There are too many unknowns –"
  "Then do the best with what you have," he ordered, all but grinding his teeth in frustration as he glanced at the HUD and noted how close the alien ships were. "Shit, they're coming up fast... If they're as smart as you, why can't they figure out we're not a threat? Try to see if you can radio them to leave off. We're leaving their space, so they don't have reason to attack, right?"
  "I've already tried that," she replied tersely. "They're either ignoring me or they aren't equipped for verbal communication. Their AI may also be limited to following orders, I don't know. Just because I used to be Ctaelan doesn't mean I know everything about them."
  The comms clicked to life. "Hraden, those ships are small," Verana said in surprise. "They're not even a quarter the size of my ship. There's only four of them, too – I bet I could take them out."
  "No, Verana – there's no way we can match their technology," Hraden said forcefully.
  Her holoscreen image shook her head at him in disapproval. "They're catching up, Hraden." she pointed out bluntly. "We have to fight them sometime. Look, I'm here as your military escort, right? This is a military situation. I'm taking over now. Follow me in – we'll take less damage together."
  Hraden glanced over at his side window and almost got to his feet as he saw her ship bank in a 180 degree turn. "Verana, no!!" he shouted in dismay. "Verana, get back here – their technology is far ahead of ours!"
  The policewoman's voice echoed back laughingly. "Relax, it'll be like shooting practice dummies. They're too small to have any armor, and it looks like they don't even have room for shield batteries. Now hurry up – I don't want to take them on alone."
  "She might survive," Sofie speculated thoughtfully. "Their shields and hull should be relatively weak, even if their weapons aren't."
  "And how do you know that?" he said in acrid query, gritting his teeth as he turned his ship around.
  She hesitated uncertainly. "I... I'm not sure. It's not in my primary database..."
  Far ahead of him, flashes off purple fire broke out as the three drones began firing on Verana's cruiser, their weapons dispersing in a conical pattern. She swerved hard right to avoid the spray, but a number of them hit her shield with a rippling blue glow, though she managed to nail one of them as it flew by. "Hraden?" Verana's voice called out over the comms. "I don't think I can take them by myself – if you're still around I could REALLY use your help right now!!"
  He raised his voice. "Verana, sit tight – I'm on my way. Just focus on staying out of their line of fire." Then, "Sofie, what's her systems status?" At his question, Sofie outlined a full display of Verana's fighter's stats, glowing text and windows spreading out from a three-dimensional model to his right. From what he could see, Verana's shields had almost failed, and that didn't bode well. Shaking his head in disgruntled resignation, he flipped a few switches and threw on the afterburner. "Looks like we're doing some fighting. I'm not the sort to leave anyone behind."
  "Suit yourself, then," Sofie said. After a few moments, she added in a plaintive tone, "Hraden? If you're really going to do this, try to remember that I'm in the hull, okay?"
  "Yeah, I'll remember," Hraden muttered, a little too distracted to note her manifestation of self-preservation.
  Verana had changed course, veering towards Hraden's mining hauler, but the three Ctaelan drones were still tight on her tail. "If they get here, I'm... I really don't think I'll be able to take much more! They're frakking agile little bastards..."
  Hraden started to reiterate that he was on his way, but she cut him off with a string of curses as the drones came around for another pass, firing another spray of purple-white stars in her direction. As Hraden watched helplessly, her shields flickered wildly under the blows and died; a stream of explosions flashed their way across her hull. "Hraden!!" Verana shouted out in terrified desperation.

  And then they turned for him.
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