This story was written by Aenea Maim and won a second prize in Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden category in Pod and Planet Fiction Contest YC120. It is published here with author’s permission.
“Do you think they’ll come?”
“I sent the notification.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
Klimich fumbled with the datapad, furrowing his brow in feigned distraction. A faint fizzing sound filled the silence briefly, then faded back into nothingness.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see her staring at him in that way that meant he had to come up with an answer, and it would be easier to give it now than later.
“Sendra, how long has it been?” he said, declining to return her gaze.
“Since they left.”
“It’s uh,” she said. “Three? Three months?”
“Three months since that wormhole collapsed behind them,” he said with a sigh as he stood and walked to the lounge’s vista window, looking out into the stars. “And not a word since.”
“You don’t know that that’s what happened. Plus, Anoikis is a huge place, and so is New Eden. Who knows what could be keeping them.”
Tiny flares ignited from distant, unseen sources and streaked across the ink-black heavens, disappearing in a blossom of fire as the torpedoes hit the Astrahus’ shields. Static filled the air again with every impact.
He struggled to collect himself. Sendra knew what was happening as well as he did, but they couldn’t say it out loud. Neither, he imagined, could any of the thirty thousand plus other souls gathered together to witness this spectacle elsewhere on the citadel. Souls that, as Upwell’s appointed quality control director, Klimich felt responsible for in the capsuleers’ absence.
She moved next to him as he gazed out at the navigation lanes extending into space, grabbing his shoulder. “This has happened before. They’ve forgotten to fuel the citadel before. You remember, don’t you?”
He did, very well. The capsuleers were preoccupied with whatever it was that kept capsuleers busy when they weren’t killing Sleepers or huffing gas or sitting in their ships in the docking bay. The citadel ran out of fuel and went low power, and not long after roamers came. The shields were half gone before the capsuleers’ finally materialized and drove the enemy off grid.
This time, Klimich knew, was different. Never before had the small handful of capsuleers who owned and operated the Astrahus let a low power event last this long. Never before had they disappeared completely for this long either.
It took six weeks of their absence for Klimich to admit it to himself: they had been rolled out.
Always in search of new resources, new bounty, new “content” as he’d heard them call it, the capsuleers aggressively mass-rolled all the holes in their little corner of Anoikis, hoping for better luck with the next static connection that appeared out of the aether.
It was a risky tactic, but it paid off — most of the time. Klimich occasionally heard of individual pilots having holes collapse behind them, much to the delight of those other capsuleers spared that fate. Could it be possible that they all could have been on the other side of an evaporated hole? Or could they have perhaps all been podded by some malicious force, their fresh clones awakening in some impossibly far away system in known space?
Never before had Klimich imagined this to be possible. He just took it as a given that precautions were taken for that kind of disaster, and that there would always be a route back to the citadel. Now he wondered why he was ever so confident.
This revelation, if it was a revelation at all, wasn’t something he could share with Sendra of course, nor could he confide it in anyone else on the citadel. No doubt they too had some inkling of what happened, somewhere deep down in their psyche, just as he had. But there were jobs to do, children to raise, life to live. Letting such a dreadful realization rise to the surface of their minds would ruin that thin veneer of calm and order.
It helped too that this “low power” event was hardly as bad as it sounded. Life support, climate control, lights — they all stayed on throughout. Were it not for a red hue that illuminated the common corridors around the citadel, most people living there might not even notice there was a problem.
Klimich knew better. He knew how juicy a target they must look, floating in deep space, far from the the system’s sun or any of its planets. Anyone with the inclination and means could destroy this station. It would take less than 24 hours if they knew what they were doing.
Against all odds, such a foe had not materialized in the three months since they last saw their capsuleer protectors. At least not until this morning.
The Astrahus’ news and net never missed an opportunity to report on any ships spotted in system. Usually it was just one ship at a time, sometimes two. Sensors occasionally picked up a wreck floating in dead space.
Sometimes, maybe twice a month, routine long-distance scans picked up small fleets. Crowds would gather in the docking bay viewports, anxiously awaiting their masters’ return. They never came, but that didn’t stop Klimich from feeling immense relief that those anonymous fleets weren’t much concerned with him or his Astrahus.
Two days ago though, something especially unique happened, something Klimich saw for himself.
It began like any other day in the Astrahus control center, where Klimich spent most of his mornings. The room was a half-moon shape, terminals lined in rows before an immense, meter-thick curved window that filled the crew’s view when they weren’t busy at their terminals.
Klimich’s job was mostly delegation, but he still made a point to show up. He felt it made his underlings work harder and besides, he liked to feel connected with even the smallest goings on inside the citadel. It provided a false sense of control, a feeling he otherwise lacked without the capsuleer’s oversight.
The proximity beacon flashed for maybe 30 seconds before anyone reacted. The small, neon-green light was always flashing, at least when the capsuleers were still in system, and to anyone who had worked in the control room for long enough it just became part of the background. This was the first time in months anyone could remember seeing it however.
An Astero, about two kilometers off the artificial “east” of the Astrahus. It was decloaked, just sitting there. Klimich looked up the transponder information. The pilot’s name he didn’t recognize, but his group — or rather, his “alliance” — stood out.
“Delivery? For us? In that thing?” his assistant asked as he looked over Klimich’s shoulder.
Klimich hesitated. In a prior life, before Upwell even existed, before he ever even considered living in wormhole space, he served on a small transport ship. The pilot — a capsuleer — was the impatient sort, and often looked for short cuts between pickups and deliveries.
One such route took them through a wormhole just three jumps outside Amarr. Their Iteron met an unglamorous end shortly thereafter, exploding 5,000 meters away from safety of high-sec.
Klimich survived, along with a dozen or so other crew members. The capsuleer reached out to him later, after Klimich was transported back to the Imperial Family Bureau. Not to apologize, of course, but to share something he’d received after the disaster: a receipt for a “torpedo delivery”. It tickled the capsuleer greatly. Klimich, who had just lost ten friends and crewmates, wasn’t quite as thrilled.
Since that incident, he’d heard more tales of these people. They frequented wormholes without actually living in them, though you wouldn’t know it by talking with one of them. Their leader was famous throughout the capsuleer community, even if he was a better propagandist than pilot.
To their credit, they usually stuck to hunting down the odd Heron or Venture — the crews of which were few, if any. Despite his history with them, Klimich felt confident that they were among the more humane capsuleer groups in space not exactly known for its humanity.
One thing stuck in his mind though: a rumor he’d heard the Astrahus’ owners talking about just before they disappeared. Apparently, the “delivery agents” (as they called themselves) were organizing operations in search of low-powered structures. Unable to enter or plunder the citadels on their own, they resorted to destroying them instead — and claiming for themselves whatever capsuleer booty that escaped into space intact.
While it was just the kind of low-risk, high-reward job he knew them to be famous for, it didn’t seem in keeping with their usually limited scope. Did they even have the numbers, munitions and skills to destroy a POS, much less a Astrahus like his own? It seemed improbable.
Klimich’s reminiscing was interrupted by a buzzing behind him. His assistant yelped in surprise.
“The Astero is hacking into our security, Director. His ship scanner appears to be warming up as well.”
The buzzing continued even as Klimich and his crewed helplessly watched the capsuleer successfully broke through the Astrahus’ security, claiming whatever information he was in search of. Low-powered or no, Klimich lacked the authority to initiate the Astrahus’ proper active defenses.
Abruptly, the klaxon stopped. The Astero had cloaked up again, and presumably warped back to the wormhole connection from whence it came.
The proximity beacon stayed dim for days thereafter. To Klimich’s profound irritation, the long distance scans — usually done twice a day, now done at least once an hour on his orders — also revealed nothing. They were completely alone in system, at least according to all the means they had available to them.
Klimich barely slept, but he couldn’t stay busy in the control room lest he cause concern among his crew. To them this was an unusual but not necessarily threatening development. Something to keep them busy and occupy the Astrahus’ news cycle. Certainly not something that might spell their doom.
His residence’s common lounge offered a view out into space, but didn’t provide Klimich any way to ping a long distance scan. His datapad gave him access to the system’s local channel, which he checked frequently despite knowing that no one would be so foolish as to reveal themselves there.
So it was that Klimich found himself staring into the void with Sendra by his side, him watching the torpedoes getting “delivered” to the Astrahus’ shields, her searching his face for some sign of hope. He declined to offer her any.
“When the shields go down, there might be riots,” he began. “Gather your things.”
“What? Klimich, come now, this can’t be it? The citadel has defenses. It’s full to the brim with ships.”
Klimich scowled despite himself, turning to her finally. “Defenses we cannot man, and ships we cannot fly. You know this, Sendra.”
The confusion in her eyes melted away into despair.
“Gather what you can carry. We are going to head to the control room.”
The control room was overflowing with his extended staff, only a quarter of which were actually doing anything. The rest were there both for the view of the one-sided battle outside the citadel, and the control room’s proximity to the citadel’s escape pods. No one was going to evacuate this early, of course, but it appeared as if the rest of the Astrahus’ population was catching up to the danger they were all in.
He, Sendra and the rest of his crew watched anxiously as the Astrahus’ shield slowly-but-steadily dropped to nothing. The proximity beacon continued to flash right up until the last of the bombers cloaked up.
“Now what?” someone — Klimich couldn’t see who — murmured. The voice was anxious and broken.
“We wait,” Klimich responded, standing and walking down the aisle to the front of the auditorium-style control center. “Things are going to get bad outside of this room real quick. We need to limit the damage we do to ourselves until such time as the capsuleers return.”
“Will they though?” a different voice, again buried in the crowd, asked.
“I’ve sent the notification. That’s all we can do,” Klimich said. Optimism wasn’t going to go far with these people now that they were facing the reality of their situation. His only recourse was to hope they still felt a duty to see this thing out without devolving into the panic he knew was rising outside the center’s doors.
The next twelve hours were tense, but they went better than Klimich planned. Security details were sent to guard the Astrahus’ supply stockpiles and escape shuttle hatches. Violence was kept to a minimum as people mostly stayed in their housing units in the center of the massive citadel, close to their families and friends. Klimich ordered some of his favorite holovids to be broadcast on all networks.
The control center was too busy to enjoy them however as Klimich’s crew performed regular long range scans, scoured the capsuleers’ records for possible alternate forms of communication and delved into the histories of the various pilots assaulting their home.
At the appointed time, the proximity beacon began to flash once again. Stealth bombers, strategic cruisers and even a Tempest appeared on grid with the station. Long-range scans picked up a transport somewhere far off into space, no doubt waiting to scoop whatever wealth the Astrahus dropped. The first impact of their munitions vibrated the deck underneath Klimich’s feet.
He breathed slow and steady as he again transmitted the notification to their absentee capsuleers. The act provoked a surge of blind optimism in him, as if he could sense their saviors’ proximity.
Reality quickly came flooding back. The Astrahus’ hull wasn’t holding as well as the shield. With every exterior sector that lost atmosphere, with each part of the energy grid that went offline, with each sensor cluster that detected a new enemy ship on grid, Klimich could feel his crew’s confidence waning.
A small, pleasant-sounding ding broke through the tension in the control room. No, it couldn’t be. Klimish raced up to the main cluster of terminals. Security footage from the docking bay confirmed it: a capsuleer was in station, sitting in a Crane blockade runner.
“Who is it? Try to raise her.” Klimich asked, almost an afterthought in his excitement. One of the newer capsuleer recruits, he saw, not someone with any kind of permissions to control the Astrahus’ defenses. They must be trying to escape while they still could.
“No response, sir.”
“Sound for evacuation, have everyone make their way to the docking bay,” Klimich said, immediately wondering if he was being too hasty. The Astrahus’ hull was failing though, and there might not be time to give the order later.
Klaxons blared through the control room door. Klimich ordered that all non-vital personnel be among those evacuated, and gave the rest a choice whether to stay or go. Sendra didn’t budge, neither did Klimich’s assistant. Half of the rest couldn’t so much as look Klimich in the eye as they slouched toward the exit.
Klimich pulled up security footage of the access terminals to the docking bay. Crowds began to form, far too many people to fit into the Crane’s cargo bay, much less its actual habitable living quarters. Citadel security was breaking down in front of the mass of bodies.
Still the capsuleer failed to respond to attempts at communication. She sat in her pod nestled in the heart of the Crane, not making any move to allow the crowd in. Then, suddenly, the Crane went dark. The capsuleer’s pod emerged from the vessel and hung in space as the citadel’s automated controls moved it into storage.
Another craft appeared just as the Crane left. It was a Helios — a small, malformed exploration ship, the kind of craft the capsuleers used to scout and map chains down the wormhole network. Quickly the capsuleer’s pod fit itself into the pilot bay for the Helios, and its external lights illuminated.
Klimich pulled the numbers up on the ship. Crew, minimal. It could even be flown with only the capsuleer at the controls. Some cargo space, but not nearly enough. Klimich imagined bodies suffocating together in total darkness stuffed inside the Helios. A shiver ran up his neck.
Another gentle ding signified a request to undock, which the Astrahus’ automated systems immediately granted. The capsuleer was leaving, leaving with no one else on board but herself.
“She’s scouting a route in. The capsuleers are coming back,” his assistant said in a whisper, almost to himself.
Klimich clenched his jaw and looked for the Helios outside the control room’s windows. It came into view on its way out of the undock, still tethered to the Astrahus and thus invulnerable to the attackers.
The datapad in his hand vibrated quietly. He held it up discreetly, blocking Sendra and his assistant’s view of it with his body. It was a message, sent in the system’s local channel by the capsuleer still drifting in tether range.
The Helios turned just then, aiming toward some empty spot in the middle of space. It cloaked as it warped off grid. Klimich, in his last instant, imagined he could hear screams over the Astrahus’ sirens.