By Gustavo Bondoni
Princessa Veria’s eyes glistened in the holographic candlelight, and her elegance threatened to overwhelm him. Countless beautiful women roamed the halls of the orbiting palace, but she was a jewel that sparkled even among the highborn. Smart, tough, scheming . . . The perfect noblewoman, born to rule entire planetary systems.
She was an anomaly Lord Carnetyde never thought he’d encounter: Someone he was willing to share his life and fortune with—the perfect foil to his own ambition.
He’d clawed his way to the top of the Meesa society from humble beginnings, with nothing but a minor title handed down from his broken father. He had no money and everyone who mattered looked down on him. He’d had to make himself useful—find niches where his talent and efficiency could generate income, broker favors, and become indispensable. He discovered that being true to his word, being faithful and loyal, built him a base that complemented more traditional and bloodied methods. He’d gradually turned that foothold into wealth—enormous wealth—breaking taboos and making the establishment loathe him. Finding someone who he could share that with would make his victory over the traditional wealth of the station complete.
They’d hate that.
With a flourish, he pulled a plush box out of his pocket and popped it open. “I invited you here tonight to ask you to do me the incalculable honor of becoming my wife. Name your liberty price. Anything. Take it all. I have money and agricultural estates on a dozen planets. I can make another fortune—a hundred more.”
Veria’s face lit up and she smiled. “I’ve never wanted your money.”
He returned the smile, adding his own warmth. To his surprise, it was sincere. How had this happened so quickly? And to him, who’d been persecuted mercilessly by her class until he grew too rich to attack? “I’m so glad to hear it.”
She looked down demurely, probably to hide what she was really thinking. “Your money isn’t important to me.” She looked back up, her semblance of innocence restored, and held his gaze with those angelic eyes. “But I’m so glad you said I could take anything. That means so much to me. I will take your life.”
He barely had time to be confused. In one quick movement Veria pulled the cap off a metal cylinder, pointed it at his chest and twisted. A thin beam of light was visible for an instant in the smoke from the candle. Then he felt a searing pain. The fact that he was dead registered when he felt the same pain in his back. The beam had burned through him.
The last thing he saw was the table rushing towards him. His last thought was that the assassination was both brilliant and legal. The Princessa had been the perfect choice to kill him.
He had said ‘anything’, after all.
And she had taken it. If not for herself, then for the political enemies he’d made within her class.
Then darkness came.
The funeral ship sailed ahead of the fleet. Painted matte, dark gray, it faded into invisibility against the starscape.
Family and friends watched a square of light appear on the hearse and saw a tiny speck emerge. The suit would be illuminated for as long as the stars shone—it would convert the starlight to electricity forever—and Lord Carnetyde would be a beacon of illumination, a memorial to himself.
The ceremony was touching, simple, emotive.
Exactly the opposite of what Carnetyde would have organized had he been alive.
But he wasn’t. He was in the suit, drifting into history.
Pain . . . Unbearable. He gasped and woke.
“Took you long enough. I thought we were going to have to leave you here,” a voice in his head said, followed immediately by a clashing static that sounded like obscene laughter.
Lord Carnetyde’s eyes flew open. No. They didn’t. They didn’t respond. He had no eyes.
Or, rather, he did: Because he could see. But they weren’t open. He couldn’t move them, and all he could see were spinning stars.
For a second, Lord Carnetyde panicked. Had someone messed up and put him into a suit, sending him to float among the stars while still alive?
No: The last thing he remembered was being mortally shot by the woman he had chosen to join him in his rise. There was no doubt about that. He was dead . . . Or had been.
The voice spoke again: “We should get moving, or the Hunt will go on without us, won’t they? Then we’ll have to find them, and better for us to have tried than failed.”
“Better for you, maybe,” Carnetyde replied instinctively—and stopped, surprised. How had he spoken?
“Better for you, certainly. And they’re faster than us, too, so you’d best hope they wait.”
Something jolted him—how did he know that? —and the starfield ahead spun crazily. He was looking out into space, that much was definite and . . . there, in front of him . . . a collection of metal and wires and a single thruster. If that was the kind of ship one was expected to fly in the afterlife, it wouldn’t be too long before one had to worry about the after-afterlife. That thing would disintegrate just drifting in space.
“Can you see me, precious?”
“For your sake, I hope not. If that’s you, you’re probably dying from the hull breaches.”
The static laugh came again. “You fancy yourself a comedian, huh? Just my luck, of course. You’re not a comedian: You’re just a ship with a brain. Now, come this way.”
“How?” He wanted to ask so many other questions, but that was the most immediate. It might be a good idea to take it one at a time.
“Just think of coming this way.”
Carnetyde did. The piece of junk he was looking at got closer.
“All right. You can move. That’s good. Now follow me.”
The scrap ship began to move and Carnetyde followed. He half-expected to get bombarded with chunks of debris as the pieces of pipe and cable he could see holding everything together dispersed. None of that happened. The junker ahead held together.
“What’s going on?” He had no mouth, yet the words came. Apparently, he was talking to a ship through a vacuum . . . and the sound was somehow arriving at its destination. Something was weird.
“We have an appointment to keep. I’ll tell you as we go. By the way, what should I call you?”
“No. That won’t do. How about Ragged? Yeah, that works. Suits you. You’re ‘Ragged’ from now on. I’ve just adjusted your transponder.”
“Listen. This may be a bit of a shock to you, but that body you had? It’s been disposed of. We just took your brain, pumped it full of Odin’s magic fluid, and plugged it into a few pieces of metal. I said you were a ship with a brain, but in reality, you’re a flying pile of scrap with a brain.”
“Like . . . like you?” Ragged, who’d been Carnetyde, asked.
The static came through. “Oh, no. You’ve got to be a little higher on the totem pole to look like me. I’m a beautiful piece of flight hardware compared to what you look like. But don’t worry, we go through a lot of trouble to get brains for our little community, following the funeral ships everywhere. We value our recruits. So if you do as I say and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll be able to upgrade. Hell, if you don’t give me trouble on the way back, I’ll even open your circuits so you can control something more than just your thruster. And if you do give me any trouble, I’ll cut that off and drive you myself.
“Where are we going?”
“Just follow me.”
Their destination resembled a floating junkyard.
The furthest reaches were full of tiny vessels that looked like Bunk—that was what his companion called himself—and some, though few, were even smaller and more miserable looking. Ragged—he needed to start getting used to the name—supposed he was among the puniest of the puny.
The smallest ships orbited in a cloud around bigger vessels. In the very center of it all, a huge dreadnought-sized cruiser—if he judged the scale correctly—floated in all its majesty. It was also built from scrap: But polished scrap.
“Where . . .” He began, but stopped. He recalled some aged relative, Lady something-or-other, who’d been slated to watch his creche when they were children. He remembered the night well, but only vaguely recalled the ghost stories the woman had told them. The real reason it was still so clear in his mind was that he’d managed to kill one of his clones that night, eliminating a competitor for his meager inheritance while his biological parents were out of the house.
Strangely, the stuff that had seemed minor at the time was turning out to be important. Stories of the Dark Fleet . . . He’d heard the tales many times, but always with the knowledge that they were just stories told to frighten impressionable youngsters.
Shows what I knew.
“Welcome to the Hunt,” Bunk said.
Ragged didn’t reply. He ran an inventory instead. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into the Meesa Station Defense Corps,” he replied. “They’d take fifteen minutes to clear this rabble from the starlanes.”
“That’s why we do things our own way.”
Ragged learned what that meant over the course of the next few months. The fleet, hundreds strong, stayed in the deepest shadows of the system, mainly hiding among the debris fields occupying the third orbit where a rocky world had never quite accreted and had left hundreds of thousands of asteroids drifting in orbit.
Every once in a while, a station patrol would stray too far from its mothership. It wouldn’t return, and its parts would feed the Hunt.
More frequently, traders, newcomers to the system, drawn by the promise of Meesa Station and the noble families living there, would enter the system from undefended directions. Their ships would be torn apart and added to the fleet, and the brains of their crews would be put in storage to be traded to other Dark Fleets at some later date. By longstanding tradition, the Hunt’s own victims could never become part of the fleet.
For this reason, funeral processions were treasured. People living in space stations—and Meesa, although colossal, was just another station at its core—didn’t waste their time with cemeteries or crematoriums. Bodies were simply spaced.
Fortunately, they were never released near the station or the shipping lanes, where they could cause a hazard. They were left in space where, once the funeral cortege had left, they were retrieved, perfectly preserved by the freezing temperatures, to be injected with Odin’s fluid—a type of chemical antifreeze that revived brain function—and plugged into a ship.
As the missions went by, Ragged made a name for himself. First, he proved to be a loyal subordinate, helping Bunk triumph over several battles. It was refreshing to be free from the ambitions and endless games of the Meesa nobility. He found himself growing first to understand why his peers chose to live the way they did, and then respecting them as individuals. To his own surprise, he began to make friends.
Furthermore, his training in astrophysics and navigation served the Hunt well, as did his experience in facing off against the near-suicidal ARS system racers. He was always the first to reach an objective, and enemy defenses never touched him. He received upgrade after upgrade.
Soon, he’d left his erstwhile mentor—and still good friend—Bunk, far behind. It wasn’t a bad life . . . But it was devoid of many of the pleasures of his old one: wine, food, and plotting the death of some unsuspecting family member.
But at least political maneuvering was still on the menu.
“Ragged, stop! This just isn’t the way it’s done,” Bunk radioed frantically.
His friend couldn’t stop him. His friend couldn’t even catch him. Ragged swooped between the Hunt’s upper castes, stopping only when he was right in front of the biggest ship. Every weapon on the dreadnought focused on the tiny craft in front of it. Ragged just shrugged mentally at the implied threat. He was already dead, anyway. What did one more death matter?
“Give me one good reason,” Thunder’s galaxy-shaking, deep bass reverb said, “That I shouldn’t blast you out of the sky for annoying me.”
“I have the right to ask a boon.”
“You’ve been here less than a year. What makes you think you’re worthy?”
“It’s not a question of worthiness. It’s a question of right. The revived have the right to ask a boon of their Master—even if they’ve been there for only one day.”
“We’re a bit too free with our traditions, I think.” One of the cannons, a particularly deadly-looking one, began to pulse with lights. “But I suppose I’ll have to listen . . . Or I’ll never hear the end of it. Speak. And make it good.”
“I ask for a squad, to strike against a single ship on a pleasure cruise. A noble ship.”
“With what aim?”
Ragged had expected this question. He had his answer, the only word that would get him what he wanted. “Revenge. But also, justice.”
The burst of static was as deep as the voice. The master laughed for a long time. “You? Justice? Lord Carnetyde’s exploits were famous even among us, out here in the dark and cold. You were the very worst of a society noted for its utter lack of decent human beings.”
“Even so, my claim is valid. I can explain.”
“Oh, this will probably be good. I’m listening, but only because you said something about revenge. You don’t deserve justice.”
Carnetyde disagreed. He’d never been a stickler for honesty, but there were conventions one respected. In his climb to the top, he’d always made it clear who his friends and enemies were, and treated each accordingly. Even neutrals knew their place. But Thunder wouldn’t care about the traditions of the nobility of Meesa. Ragged gritted his teeth and started his pitch, focusing on the revenge angle: And painting the strike he proposed as profitable for the Hunt.
Ragged surveyed the troops he’d been allowed. Seven of the very worst flyers in the fleet, along with Bunk, who’d volunteered. If he’d had a body, he would have sighed.
“It’s just one ship,” he said, “But it’s pretty well armed. It’s carrying a party of noble revelers to Titanie. For twenty minutes, they will be in the shadow of the moon, undefended by the planetary batteries, and also out of comm range. No one will be able to tell them we’re on the way. That’s when we strike.”
One of the tiny, worthless members of the pack spoke. “How do you know?”
“They do it every year on this date.”
“Attacking a noble ship is suicide. They’ll cut us to ribbons.”
“Don’t be a coward. I’ll be controlling your flight path and weapons. We’ll get through without problems.”
“Yup.” Ragged toggled the command that put them all, with the exception of Bunk, under his command. “Enjoy the ride.”
He wasted no further time and they sped out above the ecliptic. Their lightweight construction, and the lack of a body, except for a well-damped brain, allowed them to accelerate to relativistic speeds much quicker than a human-piloted ship could have managed.
The trip to their intercept took a couple of weeks instead of the month that a human-driven ship would have taken.
And the attack went well.
More accurately, the attack went well for Ragged. Bunk survived. The rest of his troops had been trashed. But Ragged knew that the only way to break open the ship was to ram it. Seven impacts plus Bunk and Ragged’s fire had barely sufficed to win the battle.
But it had sufficed, and the noble ship lay opened to the hard vacuum of space, hemorrhaging debris. Bodies, freeze-dried by exposure, floated lifelessly in the sky, contorted from the pain of decompression, sucked through cracks in the hull.
“See which of our pack you can salvage from the wreckage. Some of the brains must have survived, and no matter what kind of ship you find for them, it can’t be worse than what they already had. Then, tow what’s left of the cruiser back to the Master,” he told Bunk. “You will be well rewarded for that. It’s got some tech we can really use.”
“What about you?”
“I need to find someone among those floating stiffs.”
The ship, a sad and tiny hulk made of accumulated scrap, shook. Its systems came online slowly. Within minutes, however, it began to jerk from one side to another.
“What . . .?” The voice, weak and tentative, came over the comm.
“Took you long enough, didn’t it? I thought we were going to be here all day,” Ragged said, and laughed.
“What . . .? Where am I?”
“Alive. That should be enough for now.”
“I see stars. Did you manage to catch me before I died?”
“No. You died. Now you’re part of a ship. Just a brain in a bottle with no control over what you do—yet.”
“Who is this?”
“Look straight ahead. I’m that elegant, streamlined beauty in front of you.”
“That pile of crap? I thought our ship had exploded and that was one of the chunks!”
“Nope. That’s me, and I look like the Emperor of all the Galaxy compared to you. But that’s irrelevant. A better question is: Who are you?”
“Me? Why I’m Princessa Veria, Third of the Name, Star of the—”
“No, no,” he cut her off, laughing. “That will never do. Let me see . . . I think . . . Yes. We’ll call you Scrapheap. That works for you. I’ve adjusted your transponder to reflect that.”
“This is an outrage! Who are you? You will be punished.”
“My name is Ragged. You might have known me by my previous name: Carnetyde.”
“You . . . You survived? Impossible!”
“No. I died. Your treachery was successful. But I was revived, and that was your bad luck. You see, I wanted justice.”
“Justice? What I did was perfectly legal and you know it. You offered anything, and I took your life. A free transaction.”
“Ah, but there’s one thing you didn’t take into account, and that is why I was allowed to strike.”
“Even dead you’re still trying to lie to people? I’m glad I killed you.”
“No lie. My offer was contingent on you accepting my proposal of marriage.”
“So you never actually accepted my proposal. You just shot me. That means that the boon wasn’t yours to take, and you are nothing but a common murderer. Don’t worry, I’ve taken the liberty of sending that information to the proper authorities while you were being transferred to your new ‘body.’ They won’t care, but it seemed fitting.” He let her have a few moments to review her memories, knowing that every word was true. “I should at least have had the joy of hearing you say you would be my wife before I died.”
She said nothing in reply.
“But that’s all in the past. Now your new existence begins. I’m not a total monster, after all. I’ve decided that since I killed you and you killed me, we’re even.” He paused. “And since I have no more claim over you, I’m going to release you to live as you see fit. Besides, I couldn’t show you the ways of the Dark Fleet even if I wanted to, because you’re one of our own victims. What can I say? I still honor tradition. But there are other packs, other missions. So run along, Scrapheap.”
“You just want revenge.”
“I’ve had revenge. It came to pass the moment your frozen corpse floated out into the vacuum. Now I’m free to enjoy life for a while. You wouldn’t believe the kind of scheming and backstabbing they have in the lost fleets. No matter which one you land in, you’ll love it there.”
He laughed as he set a course towards his waiting pack, ignoring her furious messages.
About the Author:
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Lost Island Rampage (2021). He has also published three other monster books: Ice Station: Death (2019), Jungle Lab Terror (2020) and Test Site Horror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is www.gustavobondoni.com