Integration By Parts
Summary: Each crew of the starship Irrational Integral traces their mental lineage to a single person, a victim of a cult leader. In their mentor's memory, they travel the known worlds, investigating fringe theories and claims of the supernatural. They are ambushed by someone who knows them better than they know themselves.
Notes: This takes place in the Known Worlds from "Voices from the Void" campaign from the "Sword of Nerdom" actual play podcast.
We are more than the sum of our parts. Our memories and upbringing bring us together, but more than our vessel binds us. Knowing your crewmates and yourself are one and the same aboard the Irrational Integral. Regular listeners will know the reason, but allow me to describe it to new listeners. You may be aware of the psychologist Daniel Denton, a polymathic professor from Terminas Technical University, and his untimely death at the hands of the cult leader he'd exposed. Denton's exocortex and brain were partially intact, and as per his will, transferred into a host of synthetic and cloned bodies with varying experimental conditions. His untimely death spurred our first generation. As such, we are more than the sum of our parts.
We are a family of mind, beyond mere genetics. Since that time, our kin have filled a variety of professions, jobs, and roles across the Known Worlds, from the homeworld to Selgina to deep in the Rimward Autonomus Sector. You may know a few of them: Ironheart Armory's famed gunsmith Emilia Ghisoni, and her Thunder's Judgment hunting revolvers; the android experimental archeologist and urban explorer, Dr. Jonas Henry; the cyborg scientist-adventurer Dr. Jakob Vesalio, and the fascinating conversations between his organic and artificial sub-personalities; the art historian and counterfeit artifact investigator, Devi Chatterjee; Dr. David Ritter and his collection of still-living brains and restored memories from antiquity; the Hwarang-based synthetic rights activist Kumiho-8; the Maliki-based industrial designer and stellar mystic Jezail; the Amaranthi technomancer and restorer of the beamrider network, Captain Dinesh Brown; and many others. We come in many forms, but our minds stemmed from the same source.
Of the innumerable incarnations, we consider ourselves Denton's truest heirs. We continue our forebear's mission to investigate the strange, debunking rumors, false histories, and fringe theories. Our forerunner took inspiration from urban legends from his home city of Terminas, who battled deranged demigods and the fools that followed them. We see ourselves as indirect heirs to those Cult Crushers, taking their fight across the universe. While the exact difference between magic and technology is still a subject of academic debate, there are no shortage of frauds claiming to use each. The point of our voidcast, Integration By Parts, is to find extraordinary evidence to back extraordinary claims.
I suppose an urge to explore runs in the family. You might've seen some of Dr. Henry's own documentaries, where he explores booby-trapped tombs on Sjora, dead habitats, and abandoned space colonies. His calm, analytic demeanor is one that I strive to emulate, but I think I'm sometimes a bit too impulsive for that. Once I get excited, it's hard to suppress my thick Terminas draw. As a veteran pilot of the New Amaranthi Navy's Spirelight Squadron, fast speech was drilled into us. I may not be as erudite as others in the family, or even my crew, but I hope I get my point across.
The incident you might've heard about across the newsfeeds, from major network to Rapscallion News Network, started when our science officer picked up a peculiar signal. Ikto-8-Legs was a sentient robotic organism resembling a mechanical spider as tall as a toddler, with a disk-like device perched above their head. Back when they were biological, they were an ecologist working for the Brightwalker temple on Cornucopia, designing biomimetic machines. Due to a mortal injury, the spider-bot became their new body, and a flying scout-bot Spot, their persistent companion. The disk-like drone floated above their head. It buzzed around the ship on its plasma thrusters, undoubtedly excited by something returned by sensor scans. The whole robotic chassis was inspired by an arachnid-analog from Cornucopia, a small ambush predator which deployed a flying symbiote to scout for prey and hiding spots.
I engaged the autopilot and headed over to the engine room. The walls and ceiling were dominated by specimen containers, containing insects and their alien analogs from a dozen worlds. Ikto left spare parts for their chassis all over the place, as well as modified weapons and gear. I shoved aside their brace of custom pistols, Cold Wick-series coolant spike launchers, to get to the display readouts. Ikto beeped happily, before switching into Galactic Common. An unsettlingly human mechanical hand reached out from the spider's torso to the largest of the holographic screens.
"This unit detected a peculiar signal broadcast from a nearby source," they said, with each singsong syllable echoing in that polished chamber. "Spot says this is especially exciting."
It was hard to tell where Spot the recon drone and Ikto-8's interests began or ended. Then again, I could say the same for many others aboard the ship and family, including myself.
"How about signal content? Spectrum? Amplitude? Source?"
"Powerful radio and comm-laser, repeating every 12 minutes and 32 seconds," Ikto-8 said as Spot buzzed around. "No Void signature, nor records of such a beacon."
Something about it made my skin crawl. That was the exact time that it took the cultists to finish off our forebear. I flashed back to the augmented reality HUD flashing targets as the worn muzzle of a Newkirk Arsenal M64 arc rifle turned towards a dozen cloaked fanatics storming through an airlock. A bolt of lightning crackled across the corridor, but the others kept coming. I exhaled as I waded through the century-old memories, before once more pulling myself back to the present. I had the hunch Ikto-8 and Spot did the same, since the pull of those memories was like that of quicksand, or some psychic black hole. Even far into the future, traumatic scars still ran deep.
"This unit has performed a format analysis on the signal," Ikto said. "The contents are a single, compressed connectome file."
That was what made my blood run cold. Connectomes were cerebral snapshots, the basis of modern brain scans. They encoded personalities and memories for transfer between bodies, a technology pioneered directly by our forebear. The Loneward Account reinforced the Rosilican taboo against such research for generations, save for a few eccentrics. He'd enlisted Selginan researchers to support him, relocating to Malna-2. It took decades, but he transitioned from fringe to frontline. Who better to investigate other looney theories, than a former scorned scientist?
I looked over the connectome file's metadata, and long-dead memories assaulted me with unforgiving alacrity. I recalled my vision fading. I recalled the coppery taste of blood in my mouth. I recalled the sneering face of Father Branson Briar, head of the Order of Astrophages. My hand reached for my sidearm, a Newkirk Arsenal M6 Remote Injection Revolver. A heavy armored boot stopped down on my hand, breaking every bone in my fingers. He drove his bloody heel deeper into the wound, lubricating it with my blood.
Even close to death, my exocortex still functioned. It matched him with the information I'd obtained, confirming he was Rufus Rackham, former Red Fleet pirate. Scars like a scarecrow's eyes perched above his brows, themselves bushy and thick like poisonous insects. My vision faded, and my faithful brain implant void-casted my connectome back to my home lab. Even in death, his mission was accomplished. The data broadcast so carelessly across the universe was that very same connectome, that final message from a relentless investigator.
"It's for us," came a low, almost youthful voice. I looked up to see the ship's gunner and chief occult specialist, Stamford "Socket" Shen. He occupied a robotic boxer's body, a training dummy used by martial artists and Pro-Gladiators. He loomed a head taller than me, but he raised his oversized hands in front of his face, like a scared child. His metallic fists glowed green with his corrosive arcano-technical nanites, as they did whenever he was uneasy. I patted him on the shoulder. His twin white LED eyes blinked on and off, as I calmed him down.
"Don't worry, kid," I said. "They don't know who they're dealing with."
I thought I smelled burnt flay-leaf and reefer. I smelled Dr. Calyx Cartegino before he entered the room, since he brought the odor of his medical bay everywhere he went. His brown hair ran down the side of his head, surrounded by a bandana at its height. He wore a white lab coat, with green sticky stains across it. Underneath it was the rancid, ratty souvenir shirt he'd picked up last year at the Brightwalker temple, depicting his favorite five-pointed leaf. He drew a device from his pocket, a squirt-gun like apparatus he sometimes used as a bong.
"Nah, man," Cal said, with his West Kendrosi accent. "They, like, totally got our number."
Cal unscrewed the tank from the device, which resembled a water pistol. He jammed a fistful of green synth-flay pellets from the bio-replicator, and he filled it up at the utility sink. He swirled the tank around in his hand before screwing back on. He pressed a button on the side, and the device buzzed to life. He pointed it at his left arm, and he began to spray his skin with the green substance issuing from the device. His eyes went back into his head, and he began to stagger like a drunk.
Cal did this before, too many times to list. The Newkirk Parajector was a chemical sprayer for remote drug delivery, for cases where a dart would be undesired. I originally got it to spray pesticides to deal with asteroid lice, but Cal loved using it for things not covered by the warranty. As much as time as he injected himself with his own questionable pharmaceuticals, he was a competent science officer and ship doctor when we needed him. He wasn't helping here, though.
Socket hugged me tighter. Cal tripped over his own left foot and face planted onto the floor. Ikto's two forelimbs went up to cover their eight-camera "eyes," shaking their head like a disappointed parent. Since the crew was all present, I felt we had to come to a decision.
"Whoever this person, this entity is, I said, they know us," I said, mentally running down the list of vindictive frauds we'd debunked or exposed. There was the false honor creep, a mercenary war criminal posing as a medium preying on the grieving families of dead service members. There was the martial arts 'grandmaster,' who believed he had super-powers, even when Socket clobbered him in the ring. There was the hypnotist who used technomantic devices to "suggest" people sign themselves into indentured servitude. There was a prison chaplain who coerced and cajoled inmates into sleeping with him. There were so many others, but those were just the most egregious of them. Any of them, with enough anger, patience, and research about us, this would be the perfect ambush.
So of course I wanted to investigate. If one of these creeps is coming back for another pass, I'd be more than happy to put them in their place. Because if this ambush failed, the next thing they'd go for would be our friends, families, and loved ones. Where better to gather information than by reversing an enemy ambush? These creeps forgot who they were dealing with. They knew enough to plant their lure near the rim of the Sjoran system, near where we (or rather, Denton) typically void-hopped in and out from.
I am Major Rafael da Nanzo, veteran of the Spirelight Squadron. We are the Last Light, as my younger self eagerly recanted. My biological parents were Devlosi and Amaranthi, and my mental lineage comes from our forebear, by way of Captain Dinesh Brown. I was exposed to the memories of those men as I aged, them guiding me like spiritual advisors. Even digitized human memory was fallible, so I learned to trust my own initiative. The lives of others were signposts, but it was up to us to take the road.
The signal beacon was an invitation, likely from someone wishing us ill. I reflected on the possibility it may have been a trap set by someone wronged by one of my cerebral siblings, for not all of us had followed our sire's morality. We got a fix on the craft broadcasting, and I hopped into the pilot's seat. The Irrational Integral's inertial dampeners and momentum-modulation fields made the craft feel as smooth as an atmospheric fighter craft. If not for them, hard radiation shields, arcanotech heatsinks, and the avionics, human-piloted spaceflight would be impractical.
I pointed us towards the source, armed our weapons, and cautiously approached. Our craft was a Leoran Luminaries-made Parallax-series light freighter, originally designed for the beamrider network. We would normally deploy a light sail in front of the craft while underway, with our integrated laser cannon supplementing the mighty system-wide stellaser network. For now, I shifted to cold gas thrusters before cautiously approaching. I circled the craft like a wolf, lest we directly blunder in. "Battle stations!" I ordered everyone.
Amid a clangor of unseen machinery, Ikto vanished into the engine room with Spot. Socket strode towards the gun turret with spring in his step, eager to distract himself from his prior distress. Cal took another hit before sprinting to the main console. I ordered everyone to check their protective suits, which could unfold into spacesuits in the event of a sudden hull breach. Just as they don't pull life jackets off live people in boating accidents, I ensured my crew was always prepared. Whatever we were up against wanted us sucking vacuum.
I took evasive maneuvers, erratically weaving around this object as Cal scanned it. A magnetic slug passed underneath the ship, missing only by a few meters. Our sensors detected it, but Socket's distressed shouting from the turret first alerted me to it.
"Keep it together, Socket!" I said. "Remember, just like that fake ninjitsu master: Get in close and sock 'em!"
"Yay!" he exclaimed.
"Hey, Raf!" Cal shouted. "Scan's done!"
I looked into my augmented reality display. It was a small transport, a vessel no larger than the tractor-trailers that trundled across Sjoran highways or Curie's surface. It was a squat, ugly thing: a Republic Standard Utilit-Hauler cargo craft. The boxy craft had a spine-like beam mounted on it, from which protruded a shoddily elongated coil-gun. They couldn't take another shot with that piece of crap without damaging their own hull. Unfortunately for us, they tried.
By this point, I'd deployed our light sail. Our ship was a small cone contrasted against it, that immense web of composite materials that deployed fore of the hull. The utility laser switched to continuous pulse mode, accelerating us faster than our thrusters could alone. I swept us up and away from the enemy's firing arc, and their turned their craft towards ours. I put out an automated distress call, but we were too far from anywhere that mattered. Pirate raids still occurred in the Sjoran system, simply because space was too vast.
Just as well, since there was no such thing as an unarmed spaceship. The forces that propelled our machines made them capable of great and terrible things. Having been trained in military spaceflight, I was aware of all of them. Our foe, thankfully, had not. I saw the targeting reticle on my display, shifting towards the vessel's ad hoc cannon, and a lesser device I'd missed before: a small laser turret for micro-meteor point defense. It guarded the primary airlock like gargoyles guarded old Adelosian cathedrals.
"Socket, blast the point defense!" I said.
On my display, I saw the dome-like structure explode. Bits of superheated slag silently drifted away, but I had no time to celebrate. The second shot left the supercharged coilgun, and it punched through our light-sail like paper. There was no sound, no explosion, no muzzle flash. Just a hole where there had been a complete sheet a moment ago. Almost immediately, I reconsidered my strategy. Our foe had missed our hull, but it was too accurate for comfort.
I hesitated, realizing how rash I'd been. We learned aggression in Spirelight Squadron, just as ancient fighter pilots had. Our foe likely knew our background. They waited for us near a void-jump point our forebear favored. They'd have prepared for my tactics, since I'd voidcasted about them plenty. I felt the craft betray me, a second skin that sloughed beneath me. The damage to the solar sail made our trajectory unpredictable. I turned the joystick like a frustrated gamer, but the mad spin continued.
"Readjusting tension in carbon nanotube cables," came a robotic voice over the intercom. "Inputting commands to piezoelectric actuators."
Just as suddenly as it started, the erratic jerking ceased. My heart beat like the Mauler used it as a speedbag.
"This unit was successful," Ikto said. "Is flight stability restored?"
"Yup," I said. "Good work, Ikto."
I heard Spot beep happily over the comm channel. I focused on bringing down the enemy. After all, I would not be remembered as the fighter pilot who lost to a space truck. The Utili-Hauler and its main weapon were essentially a space technical, a pickup truck with a heavy weapon mounted on the back. While I appreciated the ingenuity, there was no substitute for experience. I swept the craft around a hundred and eighty degrees in a half-circle, so we faced the front of the Hauler at point blank range. We were in a gunfighter's duel, daring for the other to draw first.
"Now!" I shouted.
Socket knew what to do. The laser searched up to full power. The Amaranthite composite material comprising the light-sail allowed certain wavelengths through without issue. On the other side of the light sail, two beams struck the coil gun. The first was a visible, red beam, a lower resonant frequency of the invisible, but deadly, one. Higher energy beams were invisible to the naked eye, but Amaranthite emitted lower energy resonant beams in parallel with them, working like a tracer bullet. The debris field that had once been the coilgun floated off into space. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I ordered Cal to scan again.
The Hauler's rear thrusters were damaged, and likely, their void drive. They were crippled, cornered, and had nowhere to run. I wanted to just blast them out of the sky, but we needed answers. We had to go in, through whatever dangerous deathtraps they'd prepared for us, and find out who just tried to kill us. After all, that's what our forebear would do.
"Suit up!" I ordered. "We're going in."
Just as no spaceship is truly unarmed, so too are spacers. Mundane equipment on any spaceship can double as very effective weapons. My personal favorite sidearm, the Vector Signal Laser, is a frighteningly effective pistol. A powerful, portable lasers can be found as communications devices for cosmic distances, milling machines, medical instrumentation, and much, much more. Armored space suits and cargo loaders, with some minor modifications, serve on a comparable level to military-grade powered armor suits. Even old fashioned slugthrowers have a lot of utility, like launching towing lines and grappling hooks, launching tranquilizer darts on alien worlds, testing impacts on alloy plates, and other uses, similar to old fashioned Sjoran sailing ships. Best of all, they can be all be made from cheap, common parts. That's before we get into the purpose-built weapons.
Socket truly embodied that ethos. Despite his soft heart, I would not want to be on the receiving end of his dissolver punches. His body manufactured corrosive nanites designed to cut through starship hulls, which had proven useful on several occasions. As we moved towards the crippled enemy vessel, he'd be the first one aboard. He bolted himself into a geotechnical survey suit, which could withstand micrometeor bombardment like it was a spring breeze. A small shoulder-mounted laser cannon emerged from his shoulder, and he wore a hefty Pulgasari Protection riot shield over his other arm. He secured a line around his waist, and he strolled out the airlock. "This guy isn't so scary now!" he said.
Spot left the airlock after the bulky synth, with Ikto clambering along the side of our ship with his magnetic boots. Socket landed on the enemy ship, the crippled Utili-Hauler. He waited for Spot to come down, and to scan the airlock door for traps. He reached down with his mighty fist, and he pressed his palm flush to the iron surface. Steel warped and dissolved in slow motion, as though entropy itself was concentrated in Socket's hand. It was always a little disconcerting to watch, especially when he tied it on organic matter. I saw him cease burrowing into the airlock. Spot hovered directly above him. Something was wrong.
Socket hurled a small, cylindrical object into the void, away from our ship. He pressed himself against the half-corroded airlock door, diving for cover like a soldier. An explosion blossomed in the void later, as the grenade filled the void with another cloud of errant debris. The shrapnel would drift for eons, hopefully never striking any innocent bystanders. It was another message from the captain of that ship, one that we were not welcome. Unfortunately, for them, I had my own message to send.
My Vector Signal Laser was designed to communicate with ships in orbit, and spacers regularly used it to send other messages than those it was designed for. I had a clear idea what I'd like to community to the creep that tried to repeatedly kill me and my crew. Socket redoubled his efforts with a celerity explicable only by anger, forcing his way into the airlock beyond. Ikto lazily hovered over to the other ship on their cold gas thrusters, securing the line for us. Cal, his lanky frame revealed by an Ironheart-patten woven cord spacesuit, crossed after me. I wondered if he'd be the one to stop me from acting rashly again. I was excited, to put it mildly.
The problems began once Socket breached the airlock. An explosion blossomed out, an electromagnetic charge that caused him to flicker in and out of awareness for a moment. Ikto leaned away involuntarily for a moment, detecting the electromagnetic pulse. For a moment, Socket's big, bulky form seemed to drift dead in microgravity. I tried to radio him, but his two bright-blue saucer-shaped eyes came back to life. Like a punch-drunk boxer, he shook himself off and moved towards his quarry. If our foe truly had followed our voidcasts, they'd know it our synthetic crew members breached first. That's why they'd probably known to place the secondary trap, the EMP bomb, after we'd disarmed the obvious first trap. I was really going to enjoy interrogating this bastard.
Socket forced his way into the main cargo hold. It was completely depressurized, so there was no rush of air when we entered. The only sounds over the communicator were Cal's and my breathing, and the buzzing electronics of Socket and Ikto. With both visible and invisible spectrums, we scanned the interior of the cargo ship. The area was no greater than that of a standard shipping container, but it felt a lot larger. The stacked magnetic cargo boxes adhering to each wall, floor, and ceiling made the entire interior cramped and claustrophobic. My head-lamp swept through each dark corner, scanning for what would undoubtedly be another ambush. Detecting no signs of active electronics or arcanotech, I signaled for the others to advance. That was when they sprung the real trap.
No sooner had we all entered the cargo hold when a mist rose out of a crate on the opposite room. The magnetic crates sprung to life, moving with an unseen intelligence that turned the cargo hold into a labyrinthine nightmare. I hoped there wasn't enough power for all the crates to simply crush us, but Ikto's scan indicated something at the rear of the craft draining all the power. They emerged from behind walls of magnetic crates, crashing at us like phantoms from a haunted house.
We saw ourselves. Not identical copies, but something close enough. The gray, granular mist formed into each of our likenesses, only with a sickly, translucent sheen around it. They moved with our well-honed reflexes. The false Socket came charging at the real one, shield raised like a bulldozer. A false Spot took a potshot at the real one, and the two flying drones engaged in a dogfight in a corner of the room. A false Ikto lingered behind a wall of crates like a lurking spider, emerging only to deliver a spiteful burst of cryo-flechettes from their pistol. A sluggish, lethargic false Cal closely hugged cover. The last of these digital doppelgangers bounded between cover, moving with a familiar brash, reckless bravado. I raised my laser pistol and fired. So did he.
There were few times in my life I felt so genuinely doomed. That was one of them. My counterpart's laser struck my utility exosuit, blasting off a layer of ablative plate. The flash knocked me down, but I thought before I impacted the wall like a bullet. There were arcanotechnical ways to turn the imaginary into the actual, using nanites, holograms, and artificial gravity. If our enemy had our forebear's memory and followed our voidcasts, they could easily program a functional facsimile of us. The mind behind our evil twins was probably not a true, sentient artificial intelligence, but a tactical AI more than capable of killing us. Even a gaming AI could easily be modified for such a purpose. Either way, I took another shot at my doppelganger. My shot grazed his kneecap, but only caused the image to flicker for a second. I doubted it did any lasting damage. "Sitrep!" I shouted, hoping for good news from the others.
"Spot is heavily damaged," came Ikto. "And this unit is immobilized underneath a magnetic crate."
"He hurt me! He's gonna get us all!" shouted Socket, his voice like a toddler on the verge of tears.
"They're coming out of the walls!" Cal shouted. "Game over, man! Game over!"
I looked around, and I saw Ikto trapped by a magnetic box. Three of his legs were pinned beneath a magnetic container, including his two human-like manipulator arms. I had an idea. Ignoring my opponent, I fell back to my companion. I wasn't about to let someone else be better at being me, even if they were trained on similar experiences. Especially not a cheap hard light hologram.
I kicked off the walls as I floated through the air, building momentum as I bounced. I was going to hit the wall, but I could at least make it beneficial. I curled up, driving my shoulder out as I impacted the magnetic container trapping my mechanic. In standard artificial gravity, it would've been too heavy to move. I didn't need to move the whole thing, but just budge it. I saw it buckle as I met resistance, and that was enough. It was like the time a thug whacked me in the head with a club, but worth it. Ikto's limbs were free, and so was his pistol.
My counterpart was close behind me. He tracked me like a point-defense system tracked errant debris, his muzzle moving towards me. This time, I was no isolated target. Ikto overcharged his sidearm, unleashing cryonic flechette into the hard hologram. I fired at the same time, giving him a simultaneous dose of super-heating and super-cooling. I saw the results.
Thermodynamics was a wonderful thing. To most scholars in scientific and technological history, the primary difference between "mundane" technology and magic was the latter required loopholes and exemptions from thermodynamics. That principle was why the civilizations of the Known Worlds, in theory, could laugh off the heat death of the universe. Even arcanotech had its discrete limits, though. Mine and Ikto's shot had created a superheated blast of steam that erupted from the hologram's midsection. I fired again and again, as the false Raf evaporated like a bad dream.
"Target neutralized," came Ikto's singsong voice.
"Tango down," I said, smiling. "Hold on."
I saw the real Spot was still stalemated against his holographic counterpart. It reminded me of a drone laser tag match I'd participated in as a kid, in both my prior lives. Spot had holes from where all-too-real pseudo-matter projectiles impacted it. The hologram flickered precariously along its edges, buzzing like radio static over the communications. It reminded me of a swarm of mosquitos, and I spent the remainder of my battery putting the holographic drone out of its misery.
I dove behind a magnetic crate to reload, but I already felt the odds shift. I'd freed up two guns, and we downed three tangos. A bolt of energy crashed above my head, something massive and metallic reverberated through the hull, and I cautiously stuck the muzzle of my weapon out the side of the crate instead. I saw the mightiest of the holographic adversaries wailing on Socket, who curled up like a besieged bastion. His evil counterpart smashed against him with a phantasmal force, but I was not about to abandon him. Socket lunged up at his enemy, pinning him against a wall. Despite it flickering for a moment, a beam of green energy removed the apparent injury.
My eyes tracked it back to the phantasmal Cal, who used a holographic Parajector to mend his strongest, final ally. Just as I tracked a target, I saw gobs of noxious substances, a powerful acidic compound, squirt across the round. The hologram staggered for a moment, and I ordered the others to shift fire. I double tapped the false Cal, causing him to vanish in a burst of sickly green light.
"Get real, man!" the authentic Cal said, mockingly.
"Help!" Socket said, as he blocked a kick to the face with his shield. This time, there would be no hesitation. The last, and perhaps strongest, of these imposters would be dealt with. Cal, Ikto, and Spot joined me in a fusillade. Gobs of acid struck the robotic juggernaut in the torso. Cryonic flechettes, typically used to cool overheating machinery, emerged from Ikto and Spot's Cold Wick pistols. They put him on ice, even before I scored a hit on him. As the mighty machine reeled back and flickered, Socket finished him with an uppercut to the chin. I subconsciously expected to hear metal bend, but instead, he dissolved like all the others. Something sparked in the rear of the vessel, which I hoped was the device responsible for our woes.
The cargo hull went eerily quiet. The magnetic crates drifted silently in microgravity, as their electromagnets were entirely disengaged. It was like a forest of floating detritus, an ethereal nightmare like the ancient Corpse Wood near old Strova. I hoped this time, the unseen horrors had been banished. I handed out nanite medi-serums to everyone, as we gathered our wits. I asked Ikto if there were any more signs of activity. As tense as that fight was, there was only the cockpit left unchecked.
"This unit detects the life signs of a single human," Ikto said, pointing to the cockpit door.
I checked to ensure everyone loaded fresh ammunition. We'd try to take out adversary alive, but ending the threat by any means necessary was the top priority. That was what I trained for, and that was what I trained the others to do. If anyone was left when we were done with them, I'd be happy to hand them over to the Jadecoats or Outriders. Even if they weren't alive, we could potentially pull information from their mind. After all, our forebear knew of several worse fates than death. A quick end in combat would be a mercy compared to them. I formed up beside the door, as Spot overrode the controls.
Socket took point, but our opponent blasted out on jumpjets. The massive machine tried to grapple him, but he slipped through his grasp like a missed ball. I found myself tracking him with my pistol, but none of my shots connected. I heard shouting over the radio, and I saw him barreling towards me, in particular. He wore a spacesuit and carelessly fired a plasma pistol, until the weapon ran out. He struck Spot, and he seemed to weave with prior knowledge of our shots and blows. I jammed the muzzle of my laser towards his helmet, but he jammed a Baoshan combat knife into my torso. He pressed his helmet to mine, and I saw a face that caused me to black out.
It was the sneering, aged face of Rufus Rackham, the man who killed our forebear. He tapped his finger against my visor, and the room melted around me. I felt the void itself call to me, as the siren song of vacuum siphoned my sanity. I saw through the people, the machines, and the ship around me. I was one with them. I was beyond them. I was beyond crude matter, like the fey of ancient tales. Time slowed to a crawl, yet accelerated towards entropy snuffed the suns around me. I felt like I'd taken one of Cal's hallucinogens, without first distilling it in a tub of water. It was not a pleasant sensation. Then it got worse.
I saw the things which plied the void, like the ancient ships that made the perilous voyage to Xianjing. I saw an ancient dreadnaught, a colony ship that bore the name of the brave explorer to make that voyage, a Shang He-class starship drifting lifeless in the void. I saw the short, stumpy cruisers of the Rosilican Navy charge towards the Selginan fleet, like it was the petty pirate fleets they routinely faced. I saw their assault shuttles blasted out of the sky by thousands of drone star-fighters and their ships annihilated from across a solar system by relativistic mass drivers built into the hulls of Commonwealth capital ships. Such an apocalyptic war between galactic powers was unthinkable, yet I saw it as though it was clear as day.
I saw wet navy warships skittishly patrolling past the rancid sprawl of Jetsaw on Sjora. I saw an Amaranthi light-sail luxury spacecraft, with a hull of ruby amaranthite, blown to bits by an unseen foe. The escape pods quickly deployed solar sails, and turned their weapons to avenge their mothership's killer. I saw a Brightwalker organic starship, a cylinder-like organism with a hide like coral and soft bioluminescence like that of deep-sea life, playfully frolic in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant. I saw a cylinder habit, like those that filled a thousand systems, called by some sinister force in the dark between the stars. I saw what had once been a human ship, primarily devoured by spiny, organic growths. I saw these, and more.
Things beyond time called to me. Denton and my memories merged haphazardly, as I recalled myself struck down by Rufus Rackham in a number of agonizing ways. I heard chiming across the void, like the beckoning of starlight roads. I heard the voices of mad gods, beings once human. I heard things that were never human, nor comprehensible kin. I heard the insane, deranged piping of mad Azathoth. I felt space and time warp around me like a wet tongue, as though Yog-Sothoth himself tasted me. I felt even worse things that fed upon the minds, and souls, of all material beings, probing me with a malevolent gaze. These phantasmagoric nightmares dragged on for an eternity. These forces tried eroding me like a storm of supersonic silica, but I remained resolute. To fail myself was to fail my crew.
I came to in a hospital room on New Amaranth. A man with a green coat and badge, a Federal Jadecoat, accompanied my crew into the room. They obviously had much to say, but the law enforcement officer spoke first.
"Major da Nanzo," he said, addressing me by my old rank. It was rare for a Fed to show us Amaranthi such respect. "On behalf of law enforcement, I'd like to thank you for apprehending Rufus Rackham."
There were mysteries that my crew could not solve, ones that were not simply some urban legend or abuse of minor magic and machinery. I remember the legendary Lost Gentleman of Terminas, a man in anachronistic clothes around the old University of Kristoval campus. Denton had talked with him, and we'd seen, but not addressed the alleged phantom, an alleged ghost of a long-vanished faculty member. There were strange vistas in the cosmos, of planes beyond our own. Hard light holograms and virtual worlds were closing the gap between humanity and the gods, at least to my own feverish mind. Yet there was a more mundane mystery that we had never followed: the ultimate fate of Rufus Rackham.
After he murdered Denton, Rackham's face was all over the galactic infosphere. His allies in the infamous Red Fleet abandoned him for the unwanted attention, and he tagged along with less organized, but no less ruthless, pirates and slaver gangs. He blamed Denton for his misfortune, and he became obsessed with taking us down. All of us, all kind of Denton's mind-kind. In order to fully understand us, he joined us. He relived the late professor's memories, up to his untimely death.
Instead of learning empathy, Rackham descended deeper into his obsessive madness. He underwent senolytics to fight aging, so he'd have the time to prepare. He selected us, as the most publicly known of Denton's children, as his first victims. He researched us obsessively, preparing as best he could. He called in favors to refit an old cargo ship. He stole high-tech hard-light holograms, programming them in our mocking likeness, based on my prior voidcasts. He even learned a few minor spells, least technology or firepower was insufficient to end us. I'd almost succumbed, although I'd been out for two days.
Thankfully, Rufus was now in secure custody. We'd been awarded a sizeable amount for our efforts, which I immediately split amongst the others. We had repairs and supplies to refill, and other conventional expenses. We'd just completed a season out in the Rimward Autonomous Sector, after all.
Thus, listeners, I thank you for sticking with us so far. While events like these aren't our typical fare, we've got a new season coming up where we do just that. After the ordeal, though, I made a new resolution. I am going to change my habits. After all, a ship is the sum of its crew, and a crew is the sum of its parts. As you know, we are more than the sum of our parts. We're the integral. See you next time, listeners.