The Utopia System, was, in any measurable sense, completely unremarkable. Its star was a blue dwarf, just like most others in this sector, and none it’s eight planets supported a significant atmosphere, let alone sentient life. There were no asteroid clusters, comets, nebulae, or any other remotely interesting stellar phenomena nearby; there wasn’t even anything worth mining in the minimal ice belts. In short, there was absolutely no reason for any living creature to ever come here.
Which was precisely why Lord Foren Soln had chosen this particular spot for today’s experiment.
“We’ve reached the designated coordinates, my lord” Takia Warren reported. “The shield projector is ready and standing by.”
“Excellent,” Soln replied from his command chair. “Activate it and bring us about.”
The Horseman rocked slightly as the inertial compensators tried to keep up with the stiff change in direction, and outside the viewport Soln could just barely make out the small, grey sphere floating five hundred meters in front of them. A single red light glimmered on its surface as its projectors came online, but the shields themselves were naturally invisible. Soln glanced over to the tactical hologram on his left to confirm that they had indeed been activated, and then he allowed himself a thin, satisfied smile.
The projector itself wasn’t important, of course; it was a common bit of technology found in almost every planetary defense system. It was what the sphere represented that he cared about – namely, the first step in taking back their freedom from the Empires. The first step in the reascension of the human race.
“The projector’s shields are at full strength.” Warren said. “The Golem is moving into position. They’re ready whenever we are.”
A flicker of motion on the right side of the viewport drew Soln’s attention, and his smile vanished when he caught a glimpse of the massive black, misshapen mass of his command ship hanging in the distance. Practically speaking, the Cartel vessel was nothing short of an engineering marvel. He wouldn’t have believed the parts of so many disparate ships could be fused together into a functional cruiser if he hadn’t seen the results with his own eyes. Its shields and armaments were equally impressive – it was more than a match for any capsuleer ship outside of a battleship or a dreadnought.
Yet somehow when he looked upon the Golem, all he could see were the accumulated failures of his species over the past century. A hundred and fifty years ago, humanity had commanded entire fleets of sleek, deadly ships, and the four Empires had reigned supreme across most of the galaxy. His direct ancestors had lorded over trillions of lives, and galactic civilization as a whole had enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity since the dark times. Now here they were on the farthest fringes of known space, the last of a motley band of insurgents fighting a hopeless war from inside a mangled abomination generously called a starship.
How times had changed.
“My lord,” Warren said softly enough that the others would have trouble overhearing her. “I feel compelled to once again protest this decision. As the master of our house, I don’t believe it is appropriate for you to take the risk of -”
“Our house,” Soln spat, not bothering to control his volume. The men and women stuffed into this tiny shuttle were all implicitly loyal, and he felt no obligation to spare them from the truth. It wasn’t like he was going to tell them anything didn’t already know. “Our house hasn’t been relevant since before your mother was born, Takia.”
The young woman winced. “That may be, my lord, but without you we lose our last connection to that lineage. There are others who could do this in your stead, and I’m sure if you asked them, they’d be more than willing to volunteer.”
“I’m sure they would, but that doesn’t change anything. I have the best chance of making this work, and that’s all that matters.”
It was an old and tired debate, and for a long moment Soln thought his first officer was going to rehash it one more time. But instead, Warren merely sighed and glanced back out to the floating shield projector in the distance. Soln allowed the silence to settle over the bridge before turning to the elderly man busily working at the console to his right.
“Is everything else ready, Doctor?” he asked.
“As ready as it’s going to get,” Henry Varn told him. “The fail-safes are in place in case your vitals drop to dangerous levels. For the record, though, I agree with the girl. Someone else should be strapped in that chair.”
“Maybe someday,” Soln murmured. “Maybe sooner than you think.”
He glanced down to the restraints binding him into his command chair and couldn’t help but notice how absurd this whole setup would appear to an outsider. Here he was, a ninety-two year old man surrounded largely by people a third his age, and he was pinned down by enough straps to contain a Brutor warrior pumped up on adrenaline boosters. But it was all necessary to ensure his protection … and that of the others.
“Let’s begin,” he said, taking in a deep breath. None of these tests were ever pleasant, but if everything went as he hoped, it would all be worth it. “Take the core offline.”
Henry nodded solemnly and began entering commands into his console. A moment later the lights dimmed red as the ship’s primary power core flickered offline. The secondary core kicked in to maintain life-support and gravity, but it would be up to Soln to provide the rest.
“Primary power is offline,” Warren reported. “Everything is ready.”
Soln turned to the Doctor. “Give me the serum.”
His old friend swallowed heavily and nodded. “Right.”
There was the slightest prick as Henry broke the skin with his injection, and Soln forced himself to relax and wait for sensation to return. During the last trial a few months ago, it had taken almost ten minutes before he’d been able to feel anything.
Not this time.
At first it was merely a whisper flitting at the edges of his consciousness, but soon it swelled into an all-out scream. He could once again feel the minds of the others around him, the pulsating thrum of their thoughts pressing against his own. It was all an indecipherable mess at first, but after only a few second he could pick out specific emotions: Warren’s worry that this was all a mistake, Henry’s concern about his fluctuating vitals … and then behind them both, buried deeper in their subconscious minds, the desperate hope that this would finally turn their war against the Empires around.
“His blood pressure is spiking.” Henry warned. “One-fifty over eighty and rising. Now one-sixty …”
Soln tuned the doctor out and focused instead on the other stirring in his thoughts. This one was a raw and primal yearning, but it wasn’t coming from the minds of any of his crew – it was coming from the shuttle itself. The Horseman hungered for power, and he was the only one who could sate it. Just like the grand fleets of Jovians in the days of their dominion, this ship’s power core required a human battery to operate. And at long last, he was finally ready to plug himself in.
“Activating the core,” he announced.
The thoughts of the others vanished, and the mental tingle was swiftly replaced by a sharp jolt of pain. He felt like he’d just grabbed onto a live wire; his teeth clattered together and his muscles spasmed … and then, as abruptly as it had all begun, it stopped. He could no longer feel his body at all.
Thankfully, he didn’t need to.
“Power levels are rising,” Warren said, her voice shaking in amazement. “You’re doing it, my lord!”
Soln could barely hear her. His mind had fully merged with the shuttle, and it took every scrap of his willpower not to drown beneath the flood of new sensations. He had read about the merging a thousand times in capsuleer prep manuals, and old Jovian holos, and in their last trial he’d gotten a small taste of it … but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. He could feel everything that happened to the ship as if it were his own body, from the impossible cold of vacuum against his skin to the subtle fluctuations in power across its myriad systems. And it was every bit as glorious as he could have possible imagined.
Warren and Varn were saying something else now, and Soln forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. Already he could feel his power waning, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to hold on for much longer. With a flicker of concentration he brought the weapon systems online, and with another he locked them on the shield projector floating just ahead of them. He fired.
And the moment he did so, a fresh spike of pain lanced through his limbs. He was dimly aware of his body screaming, but it seemed so distant he wasn’t sure if it was real. His control over the shuttle faltered, and the thrum of the crews’ minds around him dissipated. He was once again trapped inside a feeble old body struggling for breath, and with his last conscious thought Soln wondered distantly if death might have been preferable to this miserable, insular existence.
The one the Minmatar Republic had forced upon them. The one he had yet failed to escape.
“Can you hear me, my lord?”
“Yes,” Soln said softly as his eyes fluttered back open. He squinted against the all-too-familiar lighting of the Golem’s infirmary. “What happened?”
“The fail-safe measures kicked in and disconnected you from the shuttle,” Warren told him, her face pale with concern.
“What?” Soln snapped. “Why?”
“Because your heart was going to explode, that’s why.” Henry scolded him from the other side. “It nearly did anyway. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Soln growled and tried to sit up, but the bed’s restraints held him firmly in place. “I was fine. I was trying to fire the weapons.”
“You did,” Warren said.
Soln blinked. “And what happened?”
She grinned down at him. “You pierced the shields.”
“With one shot?”
Warren nodded. “The projector was completely destroyed. Even the forward cannons on the Golem couldn’t manage that in one hit.”
A wide smile drew across Soln’s parched lips. “So it worked.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Henry muttered. “I realize no one here actually listens to me, but you have to remember that this isn’t a permanent solution to the Capsuleer problem, or to whatever killed off the Jovians. This is a booster shot, nothing more … and unfortunately, the side effects are getting worse.”
“It’s worth it,” Soln coughed. “And you know it.”
The doctor sighed and squeezed at the bridge of his nose. “Look, your immune system is going crazy attacking itself right now, and your white blood cell count is critically low. I have you so pumped full of drugs that you’d fetch a nice ransom on the black market, and I’m not sure when or if that’s going to change.”
“But you learned something useful from the test, right?” Soln asked pointedly between coughs. “You can improve the serum?”
“Probably. It’s more data than we’ve ever had before. I just need to sit down and start analyzing it.”
“Then get started, Henry – we’ll perform another test as soon as you’re ready.”
Warren placed a hand on his shoulder. “Right now you need to rest, sir. We’ve already jumped away in case the eggers come looking.”
“Good,” he rasped as a sudden wave of nausea passed over him. His eyelids were already growing heavy again, and he knew he wouldn’t be conscious much longer. The last time he’d used the serum he’d been mostly useless for days, and this it would probably even be worse. “Do you have anything else to report?”
The two others shared a brief glance, and something odd flickered across Warren’s face. “Nothing that can’t wait, my lord. You should rest.”
Lord Foren Soln, part of the Dominations of the Angel Cartel, wanted to protest, demanding she speak now, but the words never escaped his lips as darkness overtook his frail form.