I sighed for what must have been the millionth time today. Captain Raynar had dragged me off the ship to apparently meander around the spaceport. I am honestly not trying to complain, but this is Neptune’s Mirage for crying out loud. I stayed onboard the Horizon’s Hope every time we came back here for a reason. I cannot say there is much I like about the place considering I spent pretty much the only eight years I can remember surviving on its streets, and let me tell you, under the veneer of an oceanic planet resort it is a cyberpunk hell scape for anyone trying to live here, particularly those that didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Thankfully having memories of a previous life helped with the survival aspect. I tried to contain a groan of emotional pain as my guard-bot Titan spoke up, interrupting Raynar’s latest tall tale. “Captain, being here is very obviously distressing my creator. Could you respectfully, get to the point of this excursion so we may return to the Horizon’s Hope?” Titan asked in his synthesized voice. Titan was tall, sleek and imposing figure, with hard edges and sharp angles in his metallic body. A mix of black and silver like metals, emitting a faint bluish glow from various pats of his frame. I never could successfully code his vocoder box to reflect any kind of emotional inflection, so Titan often sounded pretty monotone in his speech. Raynar stopped in his tracks and looked at the two of us. “I know what you’re getting at Titan, but young Asher’s suffering will be well worth it in the end. Though I suppose it IS time to get to the point.” He says with a chuckle.
I stifled a bit of a groan. Do not get it wrong, I very much respected Captain Raynar, but sometimes his humor left something to be desired, particularly when I’m on the business end of said humors. “Yes, can we PLEASE get an explanation for this outing? Every hour I’m out here I’m more likely to run into old acquaintances that I’d rather just avoid.” That was still something I was not quite ready nor in the mood to face, not considering what happened the last time I saw those four. Nope, not dealing with THAT today. Raynar just nodded and smirked at my pain, as if it was some private joke he was laughing at. I could feel a certain vein in my head starting to pop. “Well, turns out me and some of the boys had some rather EXCEPTIONAL luck at the casinos yesterday. Winnin’ hand after hand we were. Card tournament you see.” Raynar began as he ran a hand through his mane of red hair. “During the final round, the last guy standing asides from me wanted to try a high stakes hand to win back all his money. The casino and me let the hand go ahead, and safe to say I won.”
I nodded, letting him know to continue as we walked on approaching a hanger. “The last thing to guy had to wager was his ship. Now you know the normal procedure for winning a piece like this would be to sell it and split the profits among the crew, but I took winning this boat as a sign from the universe, and after having a meeting with the boys, we were all in agreement. We are giving the ship to you, Asher.” The Hangar Bay doors opened to reveal a Freedom-Class starship. It stands tall and proud in the hangar, its sleek and angular design catching the light in a dazzling display. The metal exterior gleams in the artificial lighting, showing off its advanced technology and pristine condition. Its size is impressive, yet not too overwhelming for a small crew.
I had to stop myself from jumping for joy immediately. I gave a hard look at my current Captain. “Look, I SUPER respect you Cap. But I SWEAR if you are pulling my leg in one of your jokes.” I let the threat trail off. Raynar just laughed and waved to one of the many ship techs over who had a data slate containing the ship’s specifications and registry information. Raynar motioned for the data slate to be handed to me, and there was the confirmation. My name in the owner’s information slot. At this point my mouth dropped open. THIS was supposed to be MY ship. The Freedom-Class was known to be one of the best small crew privately owned ships on the market. The captain could have sent the entire crew of Horizon’s Hope on a fully paid vacation if he had sold it. “Are you sure?” I asked, my voice almost shaking. Raynar nodded.
“Like I said my boy, I took this win as a sign from the universe, and you ignore those at your own peril. You have a destiny out there among the stars. That’s been my firm belief since taking you under my wing. Besides, we all know you’ve been saving up for your own ship. You have questions you need answers to, and the only place you’ll find them is far beyond the stars we fly to.” Raynar gave me a determined look. He was being absolutely serious. “You’ve done more for me and the rest of the crew than any of us could have asked for, including saving our collective asses from those pirates a month back.” I nodded and looked over the slate some more. I had been saving every credit I could for the last four years or so, all in hopes of leaving this particular rock behind forever. I blew out the breath I had been holding. I could basically customize this ship to my heart’s content with the funds I had. I suppose that was the advantage of getting an entire ship for free. I looked over the ship’s equipment and modules. Whoever owned this previously really did not get the purpose of the ship and had tried turning it into some kind of glorified luxury racer. The best things that were worth keeping was the Reactor Core and the Gravitic Warp Drive. The previous owner also had a thing for the color bronze which just looked horrible on a hull made of Neo Duranium, which was a naturally lustrous silver like color. The ship’s name left something to be desired. It was currently called the Devil’s Razor and that just wasn’t going to work for my ship. Nope. I noted down all the changes I wanted to make to the ship, including stripping that awful paintjob off. The ship’s hull number was CVE-80656. My eyes shot wide, and I smirked. There could only be one name for this ship now. I made the final changes, including the name change and handed the slate back to the tech along with the payment for the work. The technician nodded. “That will take about 48 hours to make all these changes.” He informed us and went to set up a team to work.
With that Raynar clapped a hand on my shoulder to get my attention. “Now that is done, it’s time to head to the guild building.” This got my attention. Going to the guild building only meant one place. The only place found inside the bounds of Neptune’s Mirage that I could tolerate other than the Horizon’s Hope. The building that housed one of the many branches of the Starbound Freeblades. You could think of it like an adventurer’s guild for space explorers vice your normal fantasy fare. “Wait, can I even register as a Captain at my age? I never looked at any minimums because I never thought I’d get my own ship before I turned eighteen.” I asked my mentor. He nodded and replied, “Normally you’d be right in the assumption that you’d need to be a legal adult in the known systems, but you are kind of a special case. I put in to have you considered legally emancipated when you joined my crew just in case anything happened, you’d be fine to be on your own. Not to mention the fact even YOU don’t know your own birthday for sure, so there is a fair bit of legal leeway for you to register as a Captain without any hassle.”
Of course, he did not mention that registering HERE at Neptune’s Mirage would also be a boon regarding “less hassle” from a legal standpoint. Laws were pretty lax in this place normally, so hand waving the age requirement here would be a piece of cake, and neither the Alliance nor Imperial branches could contest it which would give me free reign to go wherever I wished after this.
I sighed, of course this crazy old dog thought that far ahead. If I didn’t know any better, I would say he has a precognition ability. The three of us made our way into the city proper and even though I knew we were in the safer, more patrolled part of the city, since pretty much all official oversight buildings were in the same district, I still couldn’t help but be on constant alert. I still didn’t want to run into “old friends” anytime soon. That was IF those four idiots were out and about.
As we walked down the main roads toward the guild building Captain Raynar assured me that all of my stuff from the Hope would be sent over to my new ship via the spaceport transfer service as soon as the registration was finished. I didn’t have too many worries about that. I didn’t exactly have a lot to call my own anyway. Just whatever I needed on a daily basis or to get whatever job needed to be done. All the rest of my credits had been stashed into my savings, apparently for today.
We entered the guild building. There were many people here since it served not just as an admin building, but an information center, social center, crew hiring grounds and pretty much anything that was conceivably needed by any of the Freeblades members. In spite of the often rowdy and boisterous members of the Freeblades milling about seeking either information or adventure in equal measure, sometimes with a brawl or two breaking out, the guild building interior itself was always immaculate. Our boots and actuator servos in the case of Titan, clacked on the mirror finished tile flooring as we walked up to the central counter. The central counter was one of those round counters that had stations spaced around it and inside it was a pillar that was projecting image screens out and around that showed various bits of information like the number of requests that were currently open, some pilot statistics, member rankings, among other pertinent information.
Captain Raynar approached one of the stations which was currently manned by a rather attractive Elvan female with some rather striking features. She wore the standard guild receptionist uniform that always looked rather form-fitting to me, but when I asked about them before I was informed that they were custom fitted to each receptionist and were therefore quite comfortable to wear and they had imbedded recording devices in case some members decided to overstep the bounds of propriety. The pink hair of the receptionist swayed as she looked up from her terminal at our approach. “Ah, Captain Raynar! Always a pleasure to see you here at the guild branch building! How can we help you today!” She said with a cheerful smile and a light wave. “Alishae, good to see you again! Sorry it’s been a while, but We’ve all been busy over on the Hope these days.” He replied in his usual smooth toned manner. “Busy, are you? We heard about that pirate attack you know. From what the records show your crew has been taking it easy for the past week at the resort facilities.” She verbally barbed Raynar. He had the good sense to wince and rub the back of his head. “Yeah, a well-deserved rest if you ask me. It’s not every day you get out of a Pirate attack as well as we did.” He said to the receptionist. “Actually, I’m here today to deal with some of the fallout from that. I’ll be dismissing a member of my crew.” I narrowed my eyes at my mentor. Did he HAVE to word it like that. The receptionist was rather shocked. “Is that why young Asher is here? Why would you be dismissing him? I highly doubt someone of his character did anything improper enough to get dismissed after such a traumatic event.” Well, at least there was one person on this forsaken planet who believed in me. Raynar just laughed. “No, nothing like that at all. WE are going to register him as a full Captain. We came to acquire a new ship and the crew decided to gift it to Asher for his remarkable bravery and actions that saved all our necks.” He handed over some documents, which I guess was the ship registration information. The receptionist looked it over and brought up the registration program. “You know, I think he’ll be our youngest registered Captain. This will be interesting.” She said as her hands flew across her keyboard. A scanner panel lit up on the countertop. “Asher, if you would place your hand on the scanner, please. We can update your registry and get your new guild card issued.”
I nodded and placed my hand on the lit scanner. As I did a holoscreen popped up that read VERIFYING REGISTRY AND SKILL CERTIFICATIONS. PLEASE WAIT. The receptionist continued to type across the keyboard as she scanned the registration documents. “You are very skilled for someone your age. Once these certification levels are verified, I think you’ll qualify for one of the middle levels and we won’t have to issue you a beginner level card.” Another screen appeared in front of Raynar. “Please give the information a look over and verify everything is accurate.” She told him and then looked at me. “How did you come to have such a varied array of skills?” She asked me. I kind of shrugged.
“I suppose for a lot of the ship related stuff I just had a really good mentor. As for the rest… One needs to be skilled to survive as an orphan in the Free Rim.” I spoke. The eyes of the receptionist softened but she said nothing in response. Raynar spoke up. “I can confirm these skills. Asher trained in many of them while with my crew, others he had before he joined.” He pressed the verification button on the holoscreen, and the screen switched off and updated the receptionist’s terminal. The receptionist nods and types a few more keystrokes on her terminal before words flash up on a holographic screen in front of me.
PLEASE WAIT. BIOMETRIC VERIFICATION IN PREOGRESS.
The holographic screen flickered and then displayed a message that made my heart skip a beat: "Biometric Verification Successful. Congratulations, Asher, you are now a registered Captain of the Freeblades Guild." I couldn't help but let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. It was official—I had finally achieved my dream. The receptionist smiled warmly at me, her pink hair shimmering under the guild's artificial lighting. "Welcome to the ranks, Captain Asher," she said, handing me a new guild card that bore my name and newly assigned rank. I took it with a mix of excitement and disbelief. Captain Raynar clapped me on the back, his eyes shining with pride. "Well done, Asher. You've earned this." His words filled me with a sense of belonging, of finally finding my place in this vast universe. As I stepped away from the counter, clutching my guild card tightly in my hand, my mind raced with possibilities. The screens in the guild hall all changed to display the fact that a new Captain had been registered. All the people present, both Freeblade captains and requesters alike stopped what ever it was they had been doing to pay attention to the announcement.
The receptionist tapped a button to open the announcement channel and held up a microphone to speak. "Attention in the guild hall. A new Captain has just joined our ranks! Please give our youngest Red Ranked Captain a warm welcome!" Clapping and cheers erupted within the hall, but there was also people talking. "Red ranked? At that age? Interesting." I heard one say. There were also voices of dissent, saying there was no way I qualified for Red rank as a newbie.
Raynar grabbed the mic and began to speak. "This is Captain Decker Raynar, Silver Rank. I was Asher's captain before bringing him in today. If you doubt his skills and worthiness, then you doubt my own abilities to judge my crewmen! I will stake my reputation on Asher's ability, so who wants to come up and give the newbie his first job!?" Then the old spacer returned the mic to the receptionist.
The naysayers were silent after that. Not many were willing to challenge the word of one of the highest ranking members of the guild.
I turned around to the sound of clapping and walking up to us was a middle-aged man in diplomat's robes, signifying he was from the Aquilas Empire.
The diplomat's robes were made of a smooth, shimmering fabric, with intricate gold and silver embroidery adorning the edges. The royal blue color contrasted against the warm tones of the guild hall, creating an air of authority. Befitting of an Imperial Envoy. He stands tall, with broad shoulders and a stern expression, with greying hair neatly styled in a side part. A perfect picture of authority.
"Well, after such a ringing endorsement for his old captain, how could I not step up? I'm in need of transport over to the Alliance diplomatic port system. My normal means of getting there is down for repairs and I have a bit of a time sensitive delivery to make to our embassy there." The diplomat explained. "An escort mission then? I don't mind picking it up, but my ship won't be ready for about 48 hours, if that's ok? I also don't have a full crew yet as I'm just starting out, but the ship is a Freedom-Class and my guardian bot Titan should be able to pick up most of the slack for ship operations." I extended my hand to give the diplomat a firm handshake. "48 hours and a small crew? That will be just fine. I'm Imperial Envoy Thalmas Decius. Pleased to meet you Captain." With that, Thalmas filled out the request form and the mission was assigned to me. We agreed to meet up outside the dock for my ship on the morning we are to depart and then the envoy made for his lodgings. I could hardly contain my excitement. I already had my first mission, AND it was taking my away from the Non-Aligned Rim as well. I was absolutely pleased with having both an Imperial contact in the future and the ability to work missions inside United Systems Alliance space.
Then my mood instantly went from joy to sheer terror as a very familiar voice spoke up from behind me. "It really is you Asher. Never thought I'd lay eyes on you again." I turned around to see none other but a certain Elvan female cyber runner, Ruby Ryushin. Tall and lean, with sharp features and a sleek cybernetic arm covered in neon lights. She has striking jet black hair with red highlights that is cut into an asymmetrical bob, and her eyes are a piercing shade of emerald, enhanced with cybernetic lenses. The girl was roughly the same age as me, and the last time I saw her, she was being taken into custody by planetary security along with the other three idiots that made up our former "street gang" if you could call a pack of orphans trying to survive a street gang. "Uh, Hey Ruby. I was NOT expecting to run into you here." Both Titan and Captain Raynar could detect the hint of terror in my voice. My loyal guardian bot took a defensive stance next to me, while Raynar just doubled over laughing. "Where in the verse have you been hiding this little beauty? Didn't know you had friends like that here." I just sighed and hung my head. "Captain Raynar, meet Ruby Ryushin. Myself, her and three other orphans a few years back formed a bit of a team in order to survive out in the slums area. That was until she and the other three idiots did something stupid and got picked up by planetary security. I thought the lot of you would still be locked up, or worse." I replied to both the Captain and Ruby respectively. "Well then. I'm going to head back to the HOPE. You two clearly have some catching up to do." And then he walked off. There went my lifeline! I sighed and looked back to Ruby. "So what do you want?" I asked sternly, taking on a commanding tone I learned from Captain Raynar. "I need your help." She replied simply. The utter gall of this girl.
"Help?" I echoed, my eyebrows shooting up in disbelief. “And why, pray tell, would I help you, Ruby?" Ruby looked taken aback by my cold reaction. "Because..." She started, biting her lower lip. For once, her usual cocky demeanor seemed to falter. "Because we used to be family."
I let out a dry laugh, my hand curling tighter around the guild card that marked my new status. “Family?” My voice came out as a bitter whisper. “You stopped being family when you decided to go rogue and took the others with you.”
"I had no choice Asher," she pleaded. Her bright emerald eyes bore into mine. "We were starving and it was either that or let everyone die.”
"But instead of robbing 'the rich', like your grand plan suggested, you got caught, you got cocky over our meager successes and went off halfcocked, as usual!" I replied acidly.
Her gaze dropped onto the metal floor of the guild hall, a look of regret washing over her. "I know... We messed up."
"Yeah, you did." I said shortly. Then after a moment of silence, I softened slightly. “What do you need help with?” She looked back up at me and took a deep breath. The neon lights of her cybernetic arm flickered momentarily in response to her emotions. "I need to get them out, Asher."
"Naturally," I sighed deeply, the gravity of what she was asking beginning to settle in my mind. Breaking out a group of orphans from one of the most secure prisons in the quadrant wasn’t exactly going to be a walk in the park.
"They don't deserve to be there, none of us did. I ended up cutting a deal with the Warden during one annual review. Pay off our debts with hard credits and we get let go and none of us end up working the pits or worse." She explained. "Oh, so you're NOT suggesting we break them out. You actually develop some sensibility for once?" I said. "Oh shove it Asher if you had been there then none of this.." I didn't let her finish. "Is THAT what your grand plan hinged on? That odd ability you said I have? That I have no memory of? Are you serious Ruby? You put four lives at risk, because of THAT!?" My voice was rising in octaves as I realized what she was talking about. "I know what I saw that night! You think we could of gotten away from those thugs if you hadn't transformed into that armor!?"
I was taken aback, my voice hitching in my throat. “That... that was an accident, Ruby. An anomaly! I didn’t even know what I was doing.” I remembered the incident she was talking about, when we were cornered by a gang in a dark alley and I'd blacked out, only to find myself standing amidst a group of unconscious thugs, clad in some sort of strange armor.
"And accidents don’t happen twice." Her voice had softened down into something resembling a plea. "Asher, hear me out. You’ve been given an amazing gift, and it shouldn’t be wasted."
I shook my head vehemently. “It’s not a gift, Ruby. It could be a damn curse! A ticking bomb that can go off anytime for all we know!”
Rubbing her temples with her glossy cybernetic fingers, she sighed heavily. "And here I thought you'd have gathered yourself up until now."
"I'm not the one who needs to gather myself up." I snapped back at her bitterly.
For a while, we just stood there in silence. Our past memories casting long shadows over us as the neon lights of the guild hall flickered overhead.
"But... if this is the only way..." My words trailed off. Deep down, despite everything, they were still part of me — my makeshift family from the slums.
Ruby looked up at me hopefully. "So... you'll help?"
I let out a long sigh and nodded reluctantly. “But only on one condition.”
"Name it." She said with stern determination.
“I’ll pay their debts and get them out of there legally.” I said sternly. “No more unnecessary risks or dangerous schemes. How much more do you need, and when?" I asked.
"I'm about three hundred thousand credits short, and the deadline is tomorrow." I sighed. "Fine, I have that to spare, but you ARE going to pay me back." I said sternly. "How?" She asked. I looked down at my red guild card. "You are going to work for me, as a member of my crew, at least until you pay off your debt to me." I told her, leaving no room for arguing.
Her eyes widened for a moment, then darkened, as she processed the weight of my words. "Work for you? That's your condition?" She asked, sounding more incredulous than offended. "Yeah," I replied firmly. "You want my help, that's my price."
She regarded me for a long moment, her eyes probing as if trying to find a loophole in this new arrangement. Finally, she let out a long sigh and nodded, her slender shoulders slumping slightly. "Alright," she agreed reluctantly. "I'll work for you."
The neon lights of the guild hall reflected off her glossy cybernetic arm, casting a strange hue on her face as she reached out for a handshake. "You've got yourself a deal, Asher." Her voice was resigned but determined.
I took her hand and gave it a firm shake. The cold metallic feel of her fingers against mine was a stark reminder of the life we had escaped from, the life that some of our friends were still trapped in. "As soon as the debts are paid and the others are freed," I added sternly, "you will become part of my crew on the Enterprise." The thought of having Ruby onboard was going to add a degree of complexity to life on the ship that I wasn't quite sure I was ready for. But there was no turning back now. Ruby pulled her hand back and nodded once more. “And just so we're clear,” she raised an eyebrow at me. “This doesn’t make you my boss or anything.”
I let out a scoffed laugh at that. “Oh sweetheart,” I retorted with a smirk, “I'm your Captain, Crewman Ryushin." I smirked at her clear discomfort, but she'd get used to the idea. "Now, let's get to wherever it is we need to be to pay off the debt of the others. After that, make damn sure you report to Hangar Bay 23 at 0700 sharp in two days. We have an escort mission to carry out." I sent her a copy of the mission details from my Omni-Terminal to hers. "Lead the way Crewman." I said and gestured toward the guild hall doors. "You are enjoying this way too much." She complained. "You're damned right. Get used to it, because this is how we have to act on duty and in front of clients." We walked out of the guild hall and to Planetary Security Headquarters. It was a full district away so the three of us had to hop a train ride to the proper district. Planetary Security Headquarters dominated the district, and it was here that we would meet with the Warden and pay off the debt that was owed to get Onyx, Emerald, and Cylus out of confinement. Once aboard the train, I could see tension had seeped into Ruby's features. She kept glancing out of the window, her gaze flickering anxiously between the towering buildings and bustling streets. I looked over at her, trying to keep my voice steady. “We're doing the right thing, Ruby.” She shot me with a pointed glare. “How can you be so sure?” Clasping my hands together, I sighed softly. "Because this is what we have to do. "Our conversation was cut short as the train pulled up at our station. Stepping off onto the platform, we were greeted by the imposing shadow of the Planetary Security Headquarters. The monolithic structure, characterized by its cold steel façade and countless windows reflecting the city lights, loomed ominously over us. Ruby took a deep breath as we entered the austere lobby, its marble floors echoing every footstep, every whisper. Even with my unflappable nature, I had to admit — this place was intimidating.
We passed through several security checks before finally making it to the Warden's office. A tall man with a stern face and piercing blue eyes sat behind an imposing mahogany desk. He looked up as we entered, his gaze settling on me and then flickering over to Ruby. “Ah,” he said in a voice smooth as ice. “Ruby Ryushin and Asher... I’ve been expecting you. “He gestured for us to take a seat opposite him. As Ruby started talking about our purpose of visit and discussing terms of payment, I couldn't help but feel a pang of unease in my stomach.