Tension rose higher than the crow’s nest atop the Obsidian’s mast. She flew no flag, for there were no countries in this wasteland sector of space. Her only company was her crew, and the crew’s only solace was a hope of home.
The Obsidian was shaped like a wooden water-sailing ship of the past age, with an arcing keel and three masts. Her planks were made of polished metal. Her sails were pearl white and once fluttered full in the light of suns, though now they were tied snug against her rigging. A year ago she had sailed through the open starways of space with the grace of a nebula. A year ago the colors of adventuring Riders adorned her mast and hull, but now she was dully armored against the toxic cosmos through which she sailed. She was the only reliable refuge from beasts lurking in rust-colored clouds and the toxic atmospheres that twisted the minds and bodies of her crew.
Cable, a disheartened man with wide shoulders and narrow eyes, stood on the bow. His hand tensed around a five-headed spear—a quident—that didn’t belong to him. On a Rider ship like the Obsidian, one’s spear and color denoted his rank and subclass respectively, and every member of the crew had one according to himself. Quidents, with their five points and silver color, were exclusive to commanders, captains, and admirals.
Cable was none of those things. He was deputy of the Hunters, a specialized combat team. As such, his rightful tool was a red trident.
Cable turned to observe the crew through the corner of his eye. Everyone moved deliberately, their faces set in stone. Mutters of anxiety floated under their breaths. Cable wasn’t ignorant to their morale; it was as obvious as the stolen quident in his grasp.
Cable’s appointed commander, the Outrider deputy named Phase, joined Cable on the bow. Phase’s blue trident hung loosely at his side. “We’re approaching its territory,” Phase reported.
Phase shifted his weight back and forth.
“What?” Cable prompted, glaring sidelong at Phase. Phase set his trident upright on the deck. “Permission to speak freely? Cable, we are about to face an Ulrak. We’ve never even hunted jellyfish without all hands, and now we’re twelve fewer than before.”
“Few, but still strong,” Cable said. “You could have left with the others.”
“You condemned a dozen good men and women to an unknown fate, and now you’re dragging us to the same. How do you know the Ulrak is the means to finding a way home?”
Cable sharply turned to face Phase. “Do you have other suggestions? I gave you all the same choice: take action with me or remain in hopeless stagnation with Interface.” He clasped a firm hand on Phase’s shoulder. “This is the action we will take. You made the right choice.”
“Did I?” Phase moved out of Cable’s grasp. “Did you?”
“I did what I had to, regrettable though it seemed.”
Phase’s eyes narrowed. “You stabbed our captain in the back, and you call that merely regrettable?”
Cable focused a hard stare between Phase’s eyes. Phase lowered his gaze. “Back to your post,” Cable ordered. Phase obeyed.
“Ulrak ho!” called the lookout. A dark red nebula loomed before the ship. Something alive and very large writhed just within, backlit by a mysterious flickering light.
The crew snapped to attention, and Cable barked orders. “Mount your boards and ready your spears! Today we hunt this horrid beast to rid the sector of its terror.”
A Healer named Cheym sulked below deck. Since the Healer deputy had been exiled, Cheym was acting deputy. She glanced at the three other Healers in the medbay, noting their similarly sulky expressions as they prepared to defend the ship and take care of impending injuries. “That fool doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Cheym said to no one in particular.
Aura, another Healer and the youngest crew member, raised her hand. “If beating the Ulrak was our way home all along, why didn’t Interface lead us to hunt it?”
“It’s not the Ulrak, it’s what the Ulrak is guarding,” Cheym explained. She opened her locker and pulled on an insulated flight suit to protect her from the toxic clouds beyond the ship. “The Ulrak has been guarding something very big and very bright in that nebula out there.” She rolled her hand and laid on the sarcasm. “Cable, in his unfathomably infinite and well-informed wisdom, thinks the bright thing is the wormhole that got us here in the first place.”
Aura raised her hand again. “But the wormhole was in a storm.”
“Exactly!” Cheym affirmed with a cynical smile. Her sarcasm was normal, but it had become harsher since the mutiny.
The ship shook. Cheym sighed at the ceiling. “They’re already fighting it. Aura, stay here.” She pointed at the other Healers in the room. “We’ll go up top and try to keep our idiots from getting Hollowed.”
“Okay,” Aura said, her voice sounding braver than she felt as she was left behind. She stretched and looked around the vacated room. She stood at the ready, spear helping her stay upright while the ship shook and tilted. The sounds of combat raged outside. Cheym’s earlier judgment kept affirming the doubts she had. Did Cable really know what he was doing? Was fighting monsters, the only thing Interface had forbidden them from doing, really the answer to getting them home?
Cable was a leader, sure, but not a captain. Not like Interface. Aura loved Interface as captain; he was kind and strong and had that particular presence about him that commanded respect. Cable apparently didn’t share that respect, challenging Interface to single combat and stabbing him in the back after pretending to concede. . . . No wonder the quident wouldn’t accept him as its user. Still, Cable had made a point. They’d been stranded for so long now, and Interface wasn’t getting them anywhere closer to home. Cable at least had a plan they could follow.
Besides, it wasn’t like they had much of a choice. Staying outside the Obsidian, even with a protective suit and their hoverboards, was a sentence to eventual Hollowing. Aura partly wished she was brave enough to go with them.
Maybe they found remains of another ship to shelter in. Maybe Interface survived with Bio taking care of him. Maybe First Mate Cyl was keeping everyone together and alive. Maybe after the Ulrak was taken care of, Cable would be in a better mood, and he’d relinquish command and give Interface the quident back.
Aura remembered how it tried to save Interface from Cable’s attack, reaching around him in efforts to block Cable’s spear. All too late. Interface wasn’t paying attention so neither was his quident.
Since then—since Cable had taken the quident and declared himself captain—it had been dull and motionless. Aura felt bad for it in a way. In Interface’s hands the quident was shiny and changed shape according to what he needed, its heads moving like helpful living ropes. All the Riders had deep attachments to their spears; she couldn’t imagine someone stealing hers.
The ship rocked again. The Ulrak roared loud enough to vibrate Aura’s ribs. She shrank against a nearby table, hands tensing around her spear. She heard voices shouting above deck. Panicked voices. Surely the others were holding their own. The fight had just started. She hugged her spear close. “Forever unbroken,” she whispered, repeating the Rider’s mantra to herself.
Aura’s communicator blipped from her wrist. The Obsidian’s helmsman, a wiry man named Ghost, shouted through the line. “Aura! Get on deck now!”
Aura shouldered her way through the door and sprinted to the deck. Dull orange light showed more than she cared to see. A monster twice the length of the ship snapped at the little Riders swarming around it. It looked like a giant armored snake with frills along its back and way too many teeth.
The Riders’ spears threw bolt after bolt of energy at it, chipping through the tough skin and making it bleed. Aura couldn’t tell who was winning.
Ghost snapped her back to attention with a hand on her shoulder. “Eyes up, young’un.”
“What’s happening?” Aura asked. An Outrider got thrown off his board and somersaulted across the deck. Aura ran to his side as her spear shimmered with green light. He looked at something behind her before grabbing and throwing her aside.
A weak bolt of black energy slammed into the deck where Aura had just been. Hollows? They were here too? Had they been hiding in the Ulrak’s territory?
Aura set her jaw and turned, expecting the violet and orange body of a former crewmate, but instead saw Phase.
The Hollowing hadn’t fully twisted his body yet; she could still recognize him even though his face was leathery and oozing with black pus. His armor and suit had been torn off the larger part of his torso, and his helmet’s visor was broken, allowing the corruption to infect him from the inside out as he breathed. His blue trident was chipped and turning an ugly black and purple.
Phase lunged for Aura. The Outrider behind her intercepted him and held him back.
“Phase?” Aura asked. Her spear’s energy wavered.
Ghost helped the Outrider fend off the Hollowed Phase. Routed, the Hollow took off on its board to seek easier prey.
Ghost got into Aura’s line of sight and made eye contact. “Hey. You still hearing me?”
“P-Phase got . . . he’s . . .”
“Eight of them Hollowed,” said the Outrider. “All but one Hunter gone, holes in the ship, and the Ulrak’s still not dead.”
Ghost glared sidelong at the Outrider. “Ain’t helping my case, mate. Ease up around the kid, won’t ya? Go help the others.”
The Outrider took the hint and left. Ghost refocused on Aura. “We got a few injured. Can you help ’em out on deck?”
Aura looked at the handful of people sitting or lying on the deck. Her spear lit up with determination. “Yes. I can help them. Leave it to me.”
“Good gal.” Ghost patted her on the shoulder. He was almost thrown off his feet as the Ulrak’s tail thrashed against the ship’s hull. Ghost hissed through his teeth. “Easy, now. Hang in there,” he said to both himself and the ship. He rushed for the helm and shouted above the noise into his communicator. “Cable! We’re taking damage! I’m going to move the Obsidian away.”
“You will not,” came the reply.
“But Cable, we’ll end up with a hull breach if that thing hits us again! What and with the new Hollow problem, we gotta fall back!”
“The Obsidian will not move,” Cable said. Then he hung up. Ghost anxiously paced behind the helm. Interface would never have put them in this situation, not with the ship nearly going under and eight more crewmembers getting Hollowed. He would’ve taken on the Ulrak alone if it meant sparing them from whatever absurd hunt Cable had dragged them into.
Ghost laid hands on the wheel and prepared to turn the Obsidian around if she got hit again. He recognized that he wasn’t being much help to those fighting, but it was his job as helmsman to prioritize the ship. She was under his hand, after all. He had to keep her safe so he could keep sailing her. Plus, the Obsidian was their only refuge and their only means home. If they lost her, they were as good as Hollowed.
The Ulrak roared. Energy pulsed. The Hollows let out fearsome shrieks. “Cable, you’d best know what you’re doing,” Ghost said as he tapped his fingers on the wheel, “because at this point, I ain’t got a clue.”
At that moment, the Ulrak let out a death scream and stilled. The Hollows, now outnumbered and the only remaining threat, retreated deeper into the nebula and vanished.
The Riders had won. Everyone regrouped on the deck. Cable brushed past them, a slight limp to his gait and an emptiness in his eyes.
Cheym was brave enough to speak up. “You nearly got us all killed! Eight Hollowed and the Obsidian damaged, for what? A big trophy?”
“Quiet,” Cable ordered. He set his sights and pointed the quident at the pulsing light deeper in the nebula. “Take us in.”
Cheym moved in a beeline for Cable, but an Outrider stopped her. Regardless, she continued shouting at Cable. “We lost people, and you don’t care! Interface would’ve never—”
“Interface is dead,” Cable snapped.
“The quident doesn’t think so,” said Aura.
Cable swiped the quident in an arc. Red energy drunkenly flew from it and struck Aura in the arm. It didn’t injure her, but it knocked her spear out of her hand and pushed her to the deck.
Many glaring eyes turned to Cable. He lifted his hands and took a step back. “I apologize. But what I said then is still true now. Interface would not offer us a way home. He offered no hope and no actions. I offered you that, and you accepted.” He turned his back on the crew and faced the light. “This is the action we take. Trust me to see it through.”
Cheym shrugged out of the Outrider’s grasp. “Will we survive long enough for you to see it through? Or will you just throw us at the problem until you’re the only one left to see the solution?”
Cable didn’t respond. He gestured again, and Ghost turned the ship where he pointed.
The crew resumed their mutterings and stone-set expressions. The Healers hurried from person to person, their green lights stemming blood and setting bones. The Scavengers went around to repair the ship with their ferrokinetic skills. The Outriders kept watch, and the only remaining Hunter would not let go of his trident even though the Healers told him to.
A Scavenger named Mouse stared at the Ulrak corpse fading into the clouds behind them. The more she watched, the more she was sure it was moving. She spoke into her communicator. “Cable, the Ulrak is, um, wriggling.”
“Uh . . .” She squinted, but the nebula had completely obscured her view. “I can’t see it now, but it looked like there was something inside it.”
The line disconnected. Mouse rolled her eyes. Interface had never been so cold. Even when morale had been at its lowest, he’d never been rude or curt to anyone.
The ship kept going. The crew kept working. Mouse kept watching. She rang Ghost. “There’s something behind us.”
“What is it?”
“Not sure, but it’s Ulrak related.”
“You tell Cable?”
“You think he listened?”
Ghost let out a derisive chuckle. “Well, if it gets too close or starts trying to take a nibble, shoot it.”
“Aye, that,” Mouse said.
The clouds in front of them began to thin. The light grew bigger and brighter.
Cheym lifted her spear to let it feel the surroundings. “Radiation,” she declared. She raised her voice. “Radiation! Rising radiation levels!”
“Hazardous?” Cable asked at the railing.
“Not right now, but that light is the source, maybe a white star. This nebula might be the only thing shielding us.”
The clouds before them continued to thin. The clouds behind them hid something moving.
They broke through the nebula to the light at its center. Immediately everyone was struck by a wave of nausea, and their exposed skin began to feel warm. The Healers’ spears lit up with alarm at the sudden flood of radiation.
The Obsidian stood before a binary pulsar orbiting a black hole. The radiation it emitted was immense, too much for even the ship’s energy shields to filter out. It would have been a beautiful sight were it not actively killing its observers.
One thing was abundantly clear: it was not the way home. Cable shouted at Ghost. “About face! Get this ship back into the nebula!”
“Incoming hostiles!” Mouse yelled. The movement behind them had broken through the clouds and revealed itself to be a horde of small Ulraks. They swarmed like piranha, biting at anything in their path. They circled the Obsidian and cut off her escape into the nebula.
Cable stood on the bow, his breaths becoming heavier as he shook the useless quident. “Do something!” he pleaded with it. “If not for me, then for them! Make your shields, your lightning, anything!”
Still, the quident would not heed him. He fell to his knees against the railing, the radiation making him ill. Some of the crew were still standing and firing into the swarm but to little effect. They called Cable’s name and begged orders from him, but he had no reply. He’d doomed them. The fights, the exile, the sacrifices, all for naught.
Then a dull gray light cascaded through the Ulrak swarm and landed on the deck before billowing outward like a canopy. A shield of solid, murky light enveloped the ship, then arcs of lightning spat along its surface and turned most of the swarm into gently sizzling little corpses. The shield offered relief from the radiation, and the crew regained their footing.
“Is that . . .” Aura stared at the shield, its color a lovely light to see.
“There!” Mouse pointed.
A small patchwork shuttle zoomed out of the nebula, Cyl riding atop it. The first mate’s quident was pointed at the Obsidian and keeping her lifesaving shield in place. Bursts of trident energy disassembled the shuttle, and a dozen familiar figures sped toward the ship on their hoverboards, tridents picking off the remaining swarm. Once gone, the exiled crewmates passed through the shield and landed at the edges of the deck, leaving room for a welcome figure to come aboard.
A tall and thin-waisted man with silver hair and a furious glint in his eye smoothly stepped off his board into a swift walk, brandishing a metal staff.
“You!” Cable lifted the quident defensively. “I thought I killed you!”
Interface didn’t break stride. “Would you care to try again?”
Cable bared his teeth and rushed forward. Interface deflected Cable’s thrust with one hand and disarmed him of the quident with the other. The quident came to life the instant its rightful wielder touched it. Piercing white energy ignited, and the heads moved like living metal ropes. They bound Cable hand and foot, pulling his limbs securely behind him. Interface then planted the handle behind Cable’s head and with a firm shove planted his face firmly into the deck.
The exchange took only six seconds. Cyl, still holding up the shield, spoke with a loud voice. “Are there any further objections to your chain of command?”
“No, sir!” Aura offered.
Cyl gave her a soft smile. “This ship is yours, Captain,” he said to Interface.
“Please take us away from here with all speed you can manage.”
Ghost grinned. “Aye aye, sir! Taking us far away from this nightmare, yes sir!”
“Hollows!” shouted Mouse, pointing her trident at the returned group of Riders. At their feet were the unconscious forms of the eight Hollowed crewmates. They’d been wrapped in a few layers of metal on their arms and legs and around their mouths and eyes.
Opal, a Scavenger with close-cropped hair that stuck out in all directions, lifted her arms. “No, no, no, no! They’re fine! I mean not fine, they’re Hollows, but they’re secure! Rounded them all up just around where the Ulrak was.”
Aura peeked around Cheym. “And we’re taking them with us?”
“Per my order,” said Interface.
Cable lifted his head just enough to voice his thoughts regarding Interface’s sanity before his face was turned back toward the deck. “Please, do not speak, Cable,” said Interface. “You have caused enough grief already.”
As the Obsidian passed by the Ulrak’s body, Interface ordered the Scavengers to tow it along behind them. They kept sailing through the nebula and soon reached its edge. Relief washed over the crew when they were out.
By then the captured Hollows had been safely stowed below deck, all injuries had been tended to, and Cable sat against the mast with his hands and feet tied while Interface stood over him.
Interface tapped his quident on the deck for attention. All hands focused on him as he began to speak.
“It was five long days ago I gathered you with a vague promise of news. Then, I was”—he glanced at Cable—“sidetracked. But what I had to say then is still the same, and it is this: I know how we can get home.”
Scattered gasps were heard from the crew.
Interface continued. “I had located the original storm that first brought us here. The same storm that then could take us home. I kept that information to myself, as I didn’t want to give a sense of false hope if we could not survive the storm. I spent some time coming up with a safe and feasible plan which I was to outline to you all.” He turned pointedly to Cable. “And then you, my friend, challenged me to single combat, pretended to concede to prey on my trust, and stabbed me in the back.”
Cable’s jaw shifted, and he resolutely kept eye contact.
Interface sighed. “It was my pride that told me I could convince you, without fighting, to let me speak. I did not think to consider the depth of your grief, and for that I am sorry. But neither did I consider you to let go of your honor. You proved yourself a danger to this ship and her crew, and as their captain, I cannot tolerate it.”
Cable lowered his eyes. Interface sat before Cable with a longsuffering sigh. “And as your captain, Cable, I will not abandon you. It is not wrong for you to question me. Questioning helps me see things more clearly. It was your pride, your direct defiance, that put you here.” Interface let the moment linger before regaining his feet. “Rest assured we will make sure you are brought safely home. Cyl, please take him to the brig.”
Meanwhile, Aura raised her hand.
“Yes?” Interface tilted his head toward her.
“So what’s the plan you had? To get us home?”
Interface laughed. “That, my dear, is quite simple. The storm is quite a distance away, so in the meantime we’ll use the Ulrak’s scales to reinforce the Obsidian to withstand the storm.”
Ghost’s eyes lit up. “My lady gets an upgrade?”
“She does indeed,” said Interface. “Be warned, the storm will be especially violent. But I have every faith this crew can sail through it. At its center will be the wormhole and beyond that, home.”
Ghost bounced on his toes. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”
“For Captain’s orders, dummy,” Cheym said with a grin.
The Riders’ eager and hopeful eyes turned to their captain. Interface smiled and lifted his spear to the sky. “Forever unbroken!” he chanted. The voices of his crew picked up their motto and shouted it to the distant stars of home.