c. Frankie Perez
So lately, with the Rifts: Warlords of Russia campaign I’ve been involved in winding to a close, another person in my usual RPG group has now started up a Dragonstar campaign. For those of you who don’t know, Dragonstar is a setting by Fantasy Flight Games that essentially takes the usual high fantasy elements of a Dungeons and Dragons setting (ie Elves and Dwarfs, monsters, magic and necromancy, Undead and dragons, and quests for long-lost treasure given to you by strange people you meet in taverns, etc) and transposing it into a sci-fi setting. The setting overall is not too dissimilar to Shadowrun, especially since it is replete with mega-corporations and governments run by dragons. The fundamental difference, however, is that you are in space, and in the midst of carrying out random missions and jobs for people, you also have to worry about the rigours of space travel.
The GM encouraged us all to write up fiction for our characters. My own character, the ship’s engineer, is a Soul Mech– a dead soul transposed into an android body, and I decided I’d go the extra mile and write a short story about how he came to be. Enjoy!
Cadmus Asteroid Belt, two years ago
“Damn it, Hazel, shake them!”
“Trying to do so, Chief!” came the reply of the Pershala manning the conn station, her paws gliding deftly over the holographic readouts. “Unfortunately, whoever built this hunk of junk gave it all the maneuverability of a geriatric pigeon in freefall!”
In the captain’s seat, Grungnir Cragsson, commander of the Firebrands mercenary company, looked over the holographic damage report readout on the armrest of his chair, and scowled. Scowling was something he already did quite often, but right now the intensity of his scowl could melt through adamantium. “Broz, can’t you tag any of them?” the Dwarf growled, the movement of his mouth barely visible under the long orange beard that hung down from his face like some fibrous suit of chainmail.
“A bit difficult, Chief!” snapped back the Orc at the tactical station. “Given, you know, that we’re down to one defensive turret and the little fuckers are dodgy as—”
The bridge shook violently at that moment, as the Boxer took yet another direct hit. The damage readout indicated another hull breach, and Cragsson could only imagine the flaming atmosphere that was venting out into space as the battered old freighter raced through the asteroid belt. For what felt like the millionth time that day, Cragsson uttered a particularly foul Dwarven curse against the pirates that had chosen to ambush them that day.
“Nephala, anything you can do to mitigate the damage?” he asked, turning to his magicka specialist.
The specialist in question was standing in the middle of a runic circle etched onto the bridge, her grey-skinned Drow face etched in concentration. “I can try to ward off their weapons fire, or I can try to keep their anti-ship spells at bay,” she hissed, sweat glistening on her brow. “Pick one!”
“I still say we should drop the shields and stop running!” Broz growled. “If those bastards want to board us, I say we let them, and show them that they pissed off the wrong—”
Cragsson’s armoured fist slammed down on the armrest with a terrible clang. “No!” he growed. “Our contractors are paying us too much to recklessly endanger their cargo. We will get out of here and we will deliver what we promised, and I’ll skin the next person who suggests otherwise!”
It had been a routine mission, given to them by a corporate representative who had wished to keep his employers anonymous, but who had offered a sizeable amount of credits up front. They were to launch a surprise raid on a smuggler’s outpost on a remote moon, obtain the magically-sealed container that they were guarding, and bring it back to a secure meeting place on New Gibraltar. The raid itself had gone smoothly: after purchasing the Boxer, a used ore freighter in a local ship depot, they had made their way to the moon, they had landed and eradicated the smugglers in a well-timed ambush, wiping them all out before they could get any distress calls out. While making their way back to the jump point, however, they had been ambushed in the system’s peripheral asteroid belt by a squadron of light attack craft that had been hiding in the asteroids.
Cragsson had been sure to outfit the Boxer with plenty of weapons, in case they ran into pirate trouble during their trip. Whoever their attackers were, however, they sure as the Underdark weren’t pirates: they were too well armed, their ships too well-designed, and they seemed to have a generous number of mages aboard those ships. Cragsson smelled a setup, and his nose was rarely wrong when it came to the scent of treachery.
Still, even if this was some cloak-and-dagger double cross by their employers, they still had a contract to fulfil, and Cragsson’s Dwarven honour would not permit him to fail. He was going to get their cargo safe and secure back to the meeting place, no matter how many of his Firebrands he had to lose in the process. Although at this rate, the chances of them making the jump out of here were looking slimmer and slimmer.
Still fuming, Cragsson opened a channel to the engineering section. “Tank, I need an ETA on the starcaster, NOW.”
In the engineering section, Brian “Tank” Tchaikovsky ran a gloved through his blonde faux-hawk and shook his head at the readout in front of him. “Sorry, Chief, even bypassing all of the regular safeties, we still have ten minutes before she’s ready for a jump!”
“We don’t have ten minutes, Tank! Our new friends will either blow us to atoms or board us before then!”
As if to emphasize this further, the Boxer shook again, causing several nearby plasma flow conduits to burst. Swearing, Brian grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher and began to douse the crackling green plasma flares with repellant, once again inwardly cursing his boss for, in his usual stinginess, buying the cheapest and least structurally sound used freighter on the market.
“I’m doing everything I can here, Chief!” he shouted. “I can’t work miracles!”
“Given what I’m paying you, I expect miracles, Tank, now give me one!” the Dwarf snapped back, before abruptly shutting the intercom.
Exasperated, Brian threw the empty extinguisher aside as soon as he’d repelled the flames. “Dickwad,” he breathed, before turning back to the main engineering readout. By this point he was sweating profusely under his standard-issue rad suit, and would have given anything for some proper atmospheric controls on this flying brick.
Nearby, the company’s other resident mage, a young Gnome named Zil, snickered a little, though his concentration mainly rested upon the swirling, rune-laden metal ball that rotated in the confines of the starcaster core. His hands were raised as he tried to focus on keeping the magical device primed and ready for when they needed to jump.
“Be honest,” Zil asked, “is it that bad, or were you inflating the numbers again to look good?”
Brian shook his head as he stared at the monitor in front of him. “No, it’s that fucking bad, Zil,” the burly Human muttered. “Even with me taking all safeties offline and diverting auxiliary power to the starcaster core, we still have ten minutes before we’re ready for a jump—and that’s assuming that this old hunk of junk doesn’t just explode on us instead. How about you, can you magically charge this baby faster?”
“Nope,” Zil breathed. “Not unless we get Nephala down here to help me out, and then we’re sitting ducks to those anti-ship spells they’re slinging at us.”
“Terrific,” Brian growled. At that point, he briefly considered dumping the auxiliary mana vat into the starcaster, but with their safeties already stripped down to reduce the countdown for the jump, that would be suicide. “Maybe if I reroute the power couplings in tube B, that might give us some extra juice,” he muttered aloud. He flexed his hand, and suddenly, a spindly metallic shape popped out of a small compartment in the power-pack of his suit, several bright blue camera-lenses staring out inquisitively. “Spot, head into tube B and perform a level 5 rerouting.” The spider-bot chirruped enthusiastically, before scuttling down Brian’s shoulder, up the far wall and disappearing into one of the many alcoves on the side of the engineering bay.
“Okay,” he breathed, starting to type several commands into the monitor’s holo-lectern. As per his usual ritual, he spared a millisecond-long glance at the photo taped to the upper right hand corner of the console, the one showing him smiling for the camera with a half-Elven woman.
“Spot’s already managing to divert some extra power to the starcaster,” he said to Zil. “Maybe that will buy us some time, as long as we don’t take any serious damage—”
As if on cue, the entire deck suddenly lurched.
The inertial dampeners—or the ones on this ship that worked—kept kept him and Zil from being turned into a red slurry in that moment, but all the same, the artificial gravity could only do so much against sudden and catastrophic kinetic force. The violenty tremor that shook engineering threw Brian against a nearby console, the impact shattering…something, he wasn’t sure if it was some of the equipment or his ribs. He winced, and forced an eye open…just in time to see a hellishly bright white boring its way through the wall opposite him.
“Oh, fuck me,” he groaned, his thoughts suddenly racing back to thoughts of home—of the Kalleides Belt, of New Gibraltar, and of Elsine—before his vision was overwhelmed by the brightness.
“What in the infinite depths was THAT?” Craggson snapped as he pulled himself back up to his feet. That last hit on the Boxer had shorted out a good number of the bridge systems, and had sent a good number of the bridge crew flying. Some, he noted grimly, had not survived the impact, seeing where an unlucky few of his mercs had collided with bloody, bone-crunching force with bulkheads and walls.
They were the lucky ones. According the the damage readout, there had been a major hull breach on the aft side of the ship. As least six of his mercs had just been vented to die to a short yet painful decompression in the void.
Nephala was shaking as she pushed herself up, blood oozing from her scalp where flying shrapnel has sliced across it. “Th…they broke my barrier,” she managed to say, looking visibly disoriented. “They….sent a targeted spell…to engineering…”
“She’s right!” Hazel gasped, still miraculously unscathed where she sat at the helm. “We have no engine power! Chief, we’re sitting dead in space!”
Craggson swore under his beard, but did his best to remain as visibly calm as possible. He had an example to set, after all, and his one rule of thumb was to be a professional at all times. He tapped comms again. “Tank, what happened down there? What’s the status of the starcaster?”
At first, nothing but static could be heard on the other end. For a brief moment, Craggson suspected the worst, and his heart sank. Then, however, a voice could be heard on the other end—faint, stammering, and terrified voice that didn’t belong to the blustering Human.
“It…it’s Zil, Chief!” the voice said. Zil, Craggson remembered: the extra mage they had picked up back on New Gibraltar, to feed magical energies into the starcaster in order to better assist Tank in his role. “Tank is…T-Tank is…”
“Zil, take a deep breath. That’s an order ,” Craggson said firmly. “Now, I’m going to ask again: what happened?”
There was a brief pause as Zil seemed to compose himself. “There was a bright light—a high-yield radiation spell of some sort—it just bored right through the bulkheads! It created a blast effect, and…and… most of engineering is okay, but Tank…Tank, he’s…he’s…”
“Is he alive?” Craggson snapped. He glanced at the tactical readouts, and saw that the attacking ships were starting to circle the Boxer like wolves around a maimed deer. He recognized the prelude to a boarding action when he saw one. His gut feeling had been correct: whoever was ambushing them knew about the container, and wanted to take it for themselves.
“I…I think so, Chief,” Zil stammered. “But…he’s…” Craggson could hear the gnome make a retching sound on the other end. “He’s…fused…to the wall. Everything’s…melted….”
Craggson took a deep breath. Their engineer was out of action, and he knew for a fact that Tank was the only one who could get them up and running again. He had no idea why their attackers wanted their cargo so badly, but somehow he doubted that they were going to let him and his Firebrands walk out of this alive. He had to make a decision, and he had to make it fast.
“Zil,” he said, “listen to me very carefully. Are you qualified to carry out a soul-transfer?”
There was a short pause as he heard the Gnome’s frightened sobs subside a little. “W…why are you asking, Chief?”
“Because there should be an Soulforged shell in one of the alcoves to the far left side of the engineering bay,” Craggson answered. “I think you know what has to be done.”
He could hear Zil gasping on the other end. “Chief…that…that’s only for emergencies—”
“This IS an emergency!” Craggson snapped, his patience worn thin. “Answer me, Zil: can you do it?”
He could hear more of the Gnome’s insufferable stammering on the other end. “If I rush the spell, then yes, I can—”
“Then do it! That’s an order!” Cutting the feed, Craggson glanced back at Broz. “Do we have any weapons still active?”
The Orc shook his head. “No Chief, that last power surge knocked out the last of our weapons arrays. They’re closing in on us—looks like they’re getting ready to board.”
Craggson swore. Unless a miracle happened in engineering, Broz, at least, would be getting his wish for an up close and personal fight…although Craggson knew it was a fight they had low odds of surviving.
Not for the first time, he wondered what was in that ancestors-forsaken container. Whatever it was, there was a good chance he would be dying for it today…
For a brief, blistering moment, there was pain: raw, excruciating agony that seared like a hot lance of fire through Brian’s spine, like electrified staples jabbing into his skin, like someone slicing open his chest cavity and taking a blowtorch to his heart and lungs. It was unlike any pain that Brian had felt before, and he wanted to scream, to let out a big incoherent yell to the cruel heavens…but his mouth would not respond….
And then, in an instant, it was over. Suddenly, he was awake, and standing in the middle of the tattered mess that was engineering.
“What…the fuck…” He felt…disoriented? It was a difficult feeling to describe, like he had just been left free-floating in a vacuum for an hour and was finally stepping back into a compressed atmosphere. For whatever reason, his body felt heavier, his limbs more leaden. He remembered the burning bright light, and the pain…and he could now see faint traceries of white light flitting across his vision. Not good, possibly retinal damage. He might have to see the infirmary about that later…if they survived long enough, that was.
Oh wait. Survival. Right. They were in the middle of a space battle.
He strode towards the starcaster, noting Zil standing to his left, noticeable burn marks on his cheek. For the first time, Brian was noticing the severe burn damage scorching the walls and panels of engineering: by some miracle, everything was still functioning.
“Zil, you okay?” he asked. The gnome was staring up at him, white as a sheet. Probably shell shocked, he thought: this must have been the poor kid’s first space battle. The Gnome said nothing, but mutely nodded.
“Okay, great,” Brian said as he strode towards the starcaster, looking at the readout. Inside its plexiglass container, the rune-encrusted sphere continued to rotate. As his hands danced over the holographic readout, Brian swore at the information that popped up: the last hit they had taken had affected reduced the power transfer. The starcaster was still five minutes away from readiness from a jump. Given the damage that that last spell had inflicted, that was time that they didn’t have.
It was time to get creative.
“Okay, this is going to be risky,” he said aloud, pacing back and forth along the console and initiating a series of overrides. “If this doesn’t work, then we’ll all explode in a dramatic fashion. But it may be our only shot. Zil, I’m going to need you to be ready to help regulate a massive inflow of raw mana into the containment unit.”
Zil seemed to snap out of it at that moment. “You’re…you’re going to dump our reserve mana in there?” he gasped. “That’s insane!”
“It sure is,” Brian agreed, tapping in a command. In an instant, an alcove set into the side of the console next to the starcaster’s containment unit hissed open. “But it’s either dump mana in, and potentially blow up, or sit here and get boarded by pirate assholes and either get killed, or taken prisoner into a life of slavery, toil, and whatever horrible kinky stuff pirates are into.”
“Um…point taken,” Zil said, before starting to mutter ancient syllables under his breath, preparing a spell that would, hopefully, regular the reservoir of raw magical essence that was about to be unleashed.
As Zil did this, Brian strode over to the back of the engineering room, entered a code of his own, and unlocked a back panel, revealing a rack full of transparent canisters full of a liquid that glowed with an ethereal blue light. Brian could have sworn he heard some faint, echoing song in the background as he looked at the canisters, but chose not to focus too much on it. Magic, in his experience, could do freaky shit to the uninitiated.
He grabbed one of the canisters, and was surprised to discover how light it felt. Wasn’t mana supposed to be much more dense than this? Before, whenever he had had to carry these things, he’d always been forced to do it two-handed. He ignored the question for now and hauled the canister towards the open release valve, slotting it in place before tapping the panel again. The alcove slid back into the console, which in turn began to hum ominously.
“Okay,” he said, turning to Zil. “On a count of three, we’ll either be jumping forward several light years, or bits of us will be expanding several light years in all directions. Ready? One, two, three …”
He tapped the engagement rune. In an instant, the containment unit began to full with sloshing blue liquid, flowing upwards in a pattern that seemed to swirl and orbit around the starcaster before suddenly being pulled into it…
There was a tremendous surge of force, and Zil was blown backwards. Brian was more used to the pitfalls of spaceflight, and managed to grab onto the guard railing in front of the containment unit as the entire ship thrummed and vibrated with power around him, slamming the intake valve shut. The Boxer rumbled violently, seemingly trying to shake itself apart as the starcaster surged with unsafe levels of raw mana.
And then, after about ten seconds, the vibrations stopped. The starcaster, now a vibant blue colours, was humming contentedly with magical energy, and all of the readouts were lighting up in an almost celebratory green.
Somehow, despite all the odds, the Boxer had just jumped. Somehow, they were still alive.
“WHOOOOOOOOO!” Brian screamed, running over to where ZIl was gingerly picking himself up. “WE DID IT! You and me, Zil, we are fucking MIRACLE WORKERS, BABY!”
Zil laughed nervously. “We….we did it?”
“Hell freaking yeah!” Brian said. “We just performed an emergency jump with only a ten percent margin of success! TEN PERCENT! Only a handful of spacers in the galaxy can claim to have pulled a feat like that off! We just made fucking HISTORY, and I couldn’t have done any of that without you, little buddy. Drinks are on me when we get back!” He gave Zil a hearty slap the shoulder. To his surprise, the Gnome cried out from the slap, and dropped to his knees, clutching his shoulder as though it had been hit by a sledgehammer. “Oh shit, are you okay? I…I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It…it’s okay…” the Gnome hissed through clenched teeth. “Must have…hurt it when I got thrown by that spell blast earlier…”
“Huh.” Aside from a dim memory of pain, he couldn’t remember much about that spell blast. “”Well, that’s why you always wear your personal protective gear, Zil,” he said, idly pulling off one of his gloves. “It’s uncomfortable as all hell, but at least it—”
He froze. Something was wrong with his hand.
He blinked, trying to make sure that he was seeing it right. It was then that he noticed that he couldn’t blink: for whatever reason, his eyelids simply wouldn’t move. He felt a chill run through his body as he held his hand up: he had expected to find the pink skin of his flesh, lightened by years of living in space, the tiny hairs on the bank of his hand, visible in the dim klaxon-light of the engineering bay.
Instead, his hand had turned a smoothe blue-grey, its surface glossy and shining almost like metal. No, he realized, exactly like metal.
Slowly, he turned…and he saw it. There, on the far wall to his left, was something that he had first thought was structural damaged caused by the spell, a massive burn-mark left over by whatever arcane doom had been loosed upon them. It was only on closer inspection that he realized, with sick revulsion, that it was a congealed, burnt mass of flesh, plastered across the wall like some hideous, fleshy boil. Very little could be recognized of the person that this had once been, as skin, clothes, and other identifying features had all been burnt and fused beyond all recognition.
All, that was, except for the face, locked as it was in a dead rictus of pain.
“N…nnn…” He tried to speak, but wordless sounds came out instead. He stumbled, and tried to head to the armourglass containment unit of the starcaster. The shimmering lights in his vision were now resolving, and he could now see them for what they were: readouts and diagnostics, feeding him environmental data across his retinas.
He looked at the glass of the containment unit. In the reflection, next to the photo of him and Elsine, a gaunt, metallic face with glowing blue eyes stared back.
New Gibraltar dockyards, four days later.
Craggson stared down at the datapad. “You made quite the mess in engineering when you went berserk like that,” he sighed. “One smashed console, one cast iron bulkhead torn clear off of the wall, an entire EPS node torn free that caused a whole bunch of other power shortages throughout the ship…not to mention how you nearly punched several holes in the aft wall. To hear Zil describe it, it was almost like you were trying to tear open a hull breach.”
He scrolled down. “And then, as I’m sure you remember, when we all tried to restrain you, you broke Broz’s arm, shattered Zagras’ collarbone, and nearly concussed Tinea before we had to subdued you with a high-powered electric current. After that, we had to disable your motor functions for two whole days before your violent behaviour finally ceased.” He set the datapad down and looked up at the figure sitting across from him. “After all of that, I trust you have calmed down?”
The Soulforged did not reply. It remained motionless, its glowing blue eyes staring at Craggson unblinkingly.
Craggson kneaded his fingers together and leaned back, nonplussed by the metal behemoth staring down at him. “Normally,” he said, “I would severely punish this level of insubordination, especially where damage to company property and an assault upon fellow employees is concerned. However, in light of the…exceptional circumstances involved here, there will be no punishment, and the damages will not be docked from your pay.”
There was a faint, mechanical whirr as the Soulforged’s head tilted slightly. “So,” he said, Brian Tchaikovsky’s voice emanating from its speakers, “you rip my soul out of my body, and stick it in this metal shell, without my knowledge or say so…but at least you aren’t making me pay damages? How fucking generous of you.”
“I made a choice, Tank,” Craggson replied gruffly. “It was a difficult choice, but it was one that saved us, and one that I would make again.”
“Saved us,” the Soulforged repeated. Slowly, it leaned forwards, its blue-eyed stare never blinking. “The rest of you get to go back to your normal lives. The rest of you get to live on as flesh-and-blood beings. You talk about difficult choices, but it wasn’t your fucking body that had to be sacrificed. It wasn’t your fucking soul that had to be shunted into an automaton. Don’t you fucking talk to me about being saved.”
Craggson’s eye twitched a little at the Soulforged’s tone. “Tank,” he said, “I understand that you are going through quite a lot of duress right now, and I can only imagine what this is like for you. But as long as you are under contract, you are a part of this outfit, and you will respect the chain of command. I will not tolerate insubordination.”
There was another mechanical whirr as the Soulforged stood up to its full height, its blue eyes glaring down balefully as it loomed over the desk. For the briefest moment, a look of trepidation could be seen on Craggson’s gruff face.
“In that case, Chief,” he said, “with all of the respect due to your rank…shove your fucking contract.”
And with that, the Soulforged turn and headed out the door.
As the airlock door whirred open, Brian was greeted by the familiar sight of the New Gibraltar loading bay. This was the place where he had spent most of his adult life: moving from odd job to odd job, haunting the drinking holes with buddies new and old, gambling, wooing, or even just watching all of the ships coming in and leaving. To say nothing, of course, of all the times he had left this place and come back on hundreds of spacing jobs.
This time, though, it felt awkward, and wrong. He felt awkard, and wrong. Every movement, every step, every slight twitch of his body…it all felt horribly out of place. He couldn’t feel his skin. He couldn’t feel the wind of the artificial atmosphere flowing through the coreward tunnels of the asteroid. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t…
He paused. There was a small figure standing near the airlock, looking up at him.
“Hi Tank,” Zil said, edging towards the Soulforged. “How…how are ya feeling?”
The Soulforged said nothing, its only sound being a light whirr of its joints as its head tilted to look down at the Gnome.
“Listen I…” Zil paused, seemingly unable to find the right words. “I’m…sorry about what happened. I mean…yeah, the Chief and the rest of the assholes didn’t have to immobilize you and leave you in the cargo hold the way they did. They’re all a bunch of dickheads, don’t get me wrong. But I’m also sorry…for what I did.”
The Soulforged made no reply. Its metallic face showed neither anger, nor shock, nor sorrow. It simply stared.
“I…I’m the one who carried out the soul-transfer,” Zil finally said. “The Chief ordered me to. I…those pirates or whoever they were, they were going to kill us unless we jumped, and you…you were the only one with the expertise to make the starcaster work.” He clasped his hands together, his fingers fidgeting. “I’m…sorry, okay? What I did was a real shitty thing. In normal situations, I would have…you should have been asked if this was what you wanted. You deserved that chance. But we…there wasn’t time. I’m sorry.”
The Soulforged’s face remained expressionless. ZIl might have imagined it, though, but he could have sworn that the blue glow of its eyes was burning a little more intensely now.
“Listen,” he said, “I might still be able to help you. The soul-transfer was a rushed job: your soul hasn’t fully integrated with the mech, so you won’t have the full tactile experience. I could—”
The Soulforged’s fist whistled in from out of nowhere, colliding with the Gnome’s face with piston driven force. Zil crumpled to the floor of the dockyard, blood oozing from a crushed nose and jaw.
Wordlessly, Tank stepped over the unconscious Gnome and walked awkwardly out into the dockyard, towards what would presumably be the rest of his new existence.