The Condemned

The complex hung in space, slowly spinning on its ten thousand year orbit. To a casual observer it was derelict, a forgotten relic of better days. The hull sported numerous impact craters, some small, some large enough to have shattered entire sections of the superstructure. The impact debris that had not been thrown clear floated serenely next to its source, locked in a silent ballet with fragments of the celestial objects that had severed them. Power had not brightened the halls of this place in centuries, perhaps longer. The only light to be had was the feeble illumination of a bloated, ageing star over 160 AU distant. Poor light indeed, but well suited to the fallen grandeur of the location.

A determined explorer would find the place with little difficulty, as long as they were looking in the right place. The newest generation of scan probes would pick up a structure of this size with ease, though searching for a location this far out from the outermost planet of the solar system was unlikely. The conventional understanding was that the rendezvous points and old outposts would be set closer to the planets and moons, using the gravity wells both for anchors and for protection from the very types of stellar debris that had caused so much damage here. Very few pilots would ever send their probes this far out from anything interesting, and this place had remained undiscovered largely due only to that.

A careful examination, however, would quickly show that this place was not, in fact, deserted. They were still there, maintaining their assigned positions. They were safeguarding the treasures they had been constructed to defend, protecting inviolate the strongholds, the temples, the bastions of their Makers. They were faithful.

***

The frigate came out of warp abruptly, decelerating from impossible speed to a near standstill. It hung, slightly listing in space, until the sub-light engines fully spooled up and maneuvering became possible again. The pilot gazed out through integrated cameras, trying to get a good look at what it was he had found. He impatiently increased the camera aperture, trying to collect more of the dim light in order to see the structure before him. He could not gather enough from the optics, and so switched on the forward floodlights.

The light stabbed out from his bow and glittered off the ancient hull, still kilometers distant. He gaped at what he saw. Despite the ravages of time and space, the section of the massive edifice that his floodlight illuminated was almost pristine, alien markings still etched into the surface. He panned the light across the hull and marveled at the script, each symbol taller than his entire ship. He glanced down at the sensor readout. This place was bigger than he could have possibly imagined. No station he had ever encountered had even come close. He briefly entertained the thought of coming back with a larger vessel, then sighed. It would be easier to obtain funding for a full-scale operation if he had some funds.

Dam’Natorum was broke. There was no use kidding himself, out here in the dark. He had squandered most of the money that he had gotten from selling his fathers business on some risky ventures. “Might as well call those by their proper name,” he thought. “Drug deals gone sour.” He had had some old associates of his father approach him right after the sale, full of promises and assurances. A few loads of frentix and mindflood later, when the money looked like it would never end, he had splurged on this ship, fully fit, thinking that the good times would keep on coming. Then the Caldari police service had intercepted a shipment, and his ‘friends’ had sold him down the river in a plea-bargain. In an instant he was ‘shoot-on-sight’ in Caldari space, and it was a good thing his little ship was fueled and fast.

He had run, and run for a long time, from a lot of people. Eventually he had made his way to Minmatar territory, where the wrong kind of people could be dodged for a while, and some mostly honest work found, as long as that work involved livestock, guns, or both. As much as he hated honest work, it had paid for his new scan probe launcher, and a number of new probes. As soon at the probe launcher was installed, he had immediately quit his honest job and turned his attention to trying to get rich quick. He scanned blindly at first, then over time managed to come up with a system of using 4 probes to pinpoint each unknown contact. He had had visions of getting filthy rich in an instant, but the only things he found for weeks were uncharted asteroid fields and old, already looted wrecks.

Then he had scanned down a wormhole. He had heard of them, of course, but never had he dreamt of the instant, wrenching… ‘tumble’ through one that wound up giving him an entirely deserted solar system to explore. Foolishly, he had warped to some of the planets without recording the position of the wormhole exit. He had been frantically scanning, trying to find his exit back to normal space, when he had thrown his probes out wide and found this.

This hulking derelict looked like it had the potential to solve all his problems, as long as there was still something still left on the inside. He looked at the sensor readout again. There did not appear to be any navigation beacons, no transponders or tracers of any kind. The passive sensors didn’t register any heat fluctuations of more than a half-degree across the entire range it could handle. “Perhaps this place really hasn’t been plundered already,” he thought, hardly believing his luck. “Better find out what’s inside.” He powered up the thrusters and brought the targeting scanners online to do a deep scan of the structure.

The small craft launched forward, quickly covering the distance to the outer walls, then pulled up and used the maneuvering thrusters to skim sideways toward an array of what looked like communications antennas. Dam’Natorum held his breath and charged his energy transfer array. If this equipment was still in working order, it would be worth thousands of times what the scrap would be. He would be ready to transfer some energy and try to interface with the system as soon as his computer locked onto it. He hit the switch.

***

They had seen the ship. They had waited for the call of The Makers, the serene song that would signal Their return, that all was RIGHT. Instead, they had gotten a discordant blast from the puny little thing, an arrogant shout that signified that the invader was no friend of The Makers. It was time to do The Makers will. None such shall defile these walls.

***

The warning klaxon exploded in his ears, and Dam’Natorum instinctively hit the shield booster before looking at what had set off the alarm. He wasn’t going to be caught defenseless  and that little booster had been the difference between life and death more than once in the last few months. He couldn’t run it for long, but so far it had run for long enough to get him through whatever scrape he found himself in, until he could either run away or salvage the wreck of his opponent. “Good money in that,” he chuckled at the thought.

The sight of the tactical readout drove everything else from his mind. Highlighted in red on the screen was a full fleet of hostiles; dozens of ships that had not been there a few seconds ago, and that didn’t match anything in the frigates admittedly limited database. Unknown vessels of every size, including a couple that were pushing capitol ship proportions. He glanced at the range indicator, and breathed a sigh of relief. The nearest of the hostiles was almost 150 km away, arranged around the distant side of the complex. He ran some quick calculations. Even at the fastest speed he had ever seen a ship travel, that would still take them about 20 seconds to close to effective firing distance, about 22 seconds to get within range to warp scramble him. He could quickly excise some of the ancient circuitry and still get to warp before the hostiles could hope to stop him.

He fired up the salvage laser and set it to extract and load as much of the antenna array as he could get in 10 seconds. He’d worry about whether or not the circuitry still worked later. At the same moment that the salvage laser started burning through the mounting brackets, he heard the warning chirp indicating that one of the hostiles had gotten a target lock on him, and had fired. “Under two seconds?” He marveled  They must have some interceptors to get a lock that quickly. He spun to the tactical display just in time to see a beam of energy lance toward his ship, striking a glancing blow to the port shields. The hit was not substantial, but the fact that the pirates had the range and precision to land shots at well over 100 km made him more than a little nervous. He glanced back to the salvager, wondering if he should just run.

Another shot to the shields, and he decided to stick it out. His little shield booster was keeping up with the damage so far, and there was the payoff at stake. He needed the money, he decided, and this was his best shot at getting rich quick.

Another hostile had gotten a lock, and there was an incoming missile warning. He looked at the tactical display again, and saw that it was not one more ship that had locked him, but about ten, all charging weapons. These were larger, roughly cruiser sized, and likely packed quite a bit more punch. He decided to take what evasive maneuvers that he could, even though it would mean a less than optimal salvage. He brought the engines online and punched the command to orbit the array.

Not a second too soon, as the beam weapons shredded the area of space he had just vacated, taking a large percentage of his shields. The booster would replenish them, but it would take some time, time that he was quickly realizing that he didn’t have.

The salvager beeped at him. He had strayed too far from the target and it had aborted its cycle. He cursed under his breath, and turned the frigate toward the distant sun. He would be forced to run away empty handed. “Who are these guys?” He wondered. He’d never heard of weapons with the range and hitting power like these had. Another volley tore through his remaining shield and thundered against the armor plating. “Wonder about that later,” he said out loud as he punched the warp button.

Nothing. A dozen warning lights blinked across the console, telling the tale of a warp core instability, loss of capacitor power, propulsion system failures. All the signs of close-quarters electronic warfare, but the closest enemy was still over 60 kilometers away. “Impossible!” He roared, hammering on the controls, desperately punching the warp button again and again. Not even the best capsuleer ships could project E-War at that distance.

The tactical readout chirped another target lock and Dam’Natorum turned to look. “That’s not possible…” he whispered.

Milliseconds later, the big guns fired.

***

The electromagnetic interference they had leveled at the intruder slowly dissipated. They dispatched a collection drone to convert the slag and smoldering wreckage into repair parts for the damaged structure, then returned to their assigned positions and scanned the area one more time before powering down and switching to passive sensors. They would sleep until The Makers called. They were faithful.