Renla double-checked and engaged the autopilot settings, then turned around and sighed. “More war stories? Which one do you want this time? When he was nearly shot down over Arthok? Maybe when he saved the day at the Battle of Verxk?”
Borwyn ran his fingers through his hair and hesitated for a moment. Something was clearly bothering him; usually he jumped at any stories from the war. When he finally responded, he sounded simultaneously thoughtful and confused. “He… um… Which side was he on, again?”
Renla chuckled and pulled the 10-year-old into a one-armed hug. “You know this, Bor. Your great grandpa was a freedom fighter. When Ardon II was first invaded, he took he family’s transport ship — this very ship — out, fitted it with weapons, and fought to keep his people free.”
Another pause. “And… he was fighting against… GALTRAUTH…?”
The chuckle died on her lips. She was surprised he’d put that together this early, she thought she’d have another year or two.
“Well, not exactly. He was fighting against the Galactic Defense Force.”
“But everyone on my terminal says that GALDEF just does what GALTRAUTH tells it to. Right?”
“Yeah, mostly it does.”
“Did GALTRAUTH tell GALDEF to invade Ardon II?”
Renla took a moment to decide how to answer. But looking into her son’s eyes, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to lie to him.
“There’s no way I can know for sure. But yes, they probably did.”
“So GALTRAUTH was the bad guy on Ardon. And you tell me how brave great grandpa was for fighting against them. And… now… we work for GALTRAUTH. Would…” His eyes were starting to tear up. “Would he want to fight US if he were still alive?”
Renla’s thoughts were thrown back three decades prior, to another child asking the same question.
“I need to come live with you, Grandpa. If I stay with Mommy and Daddy, they’re going to turn me into a bad person!”
Grandpa Bors turned away from his ship and laughed. “Hold on there, Renny. You can come visit me in the shop anytime you want, but your parents love you and good people. Why would you end up a bad person if you live with them?”
“THEY ARE NOT GOOD PEOPLE. They’re working for GALTRAUTH, and GALTRAUTH killed all those people in the war. YOU’RE a good person, because you fought GALTRAUTH. I need to grow up like you so I can fight, too.”
Grandpa Bors looked her carefully in the eye. “You’ve been around the shop enough. Tell me what I’m working on right now.”
“It looks like you’re taking the hyperspace torpedo off for maintenance.”
He smiled. “Close. I’m taking it off, alright. But it’s coming off for good. The war is over, kiddo. And you know what I’ve realized?”
Renla shook her head.
“GALDEF was never the enemy. And not because there were here for GALTRAUTH. GALTRAUTH wasn’t the enemy either. The real enemy is a lot harder to fight against.”
Renla was paying full attention, this was what she needed to know. “Who’s the real enemy?”
Grandpa Bors made sure he had eye contact, so she would see that he wasn’t making a joke. “It’s us.”
Snapping back to the present, Renla took Borwyn’s face in her hands. “If Grandpa Bors were still alive, he’d be the one flying this ship with us. Do you know why GALTRAUTH invaded Ardon II?”
Borwyn clearly hadn’t thought much about it, so she let him think it through for a bit.
“For our planet?” he finally asked.
“In a way. But more specifically, the energy that our planet produced. See, pretty much every other planet in the Galactic Union uses more energy than the planet can make. So what happens when they run out? They start borrowing from another planet. And what happens when all of the planets are out of energy? They find a planet that’s not. Since Ardon II was invaded, the GALUN has spread to 17 more planets. Each time GALDEF goes in first, then GALTRAUTH starts shipping energy to the rest of GALUN.”
“So, we’re running away from GALUN? That’s why we’re out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Not at all! See, my mom and dad had a theory. They thought that Void Matter could be converted into energy. And after years and years of experiments, they made it work! But Void Matter is incredibly rare; it’s only found in the center of ring systems, which can’t support planetary life. So once they proved that it would work, they needed someone to find a good source of Void Matter. Well, your great grandpa was the best pilot on Ardon II and he trained me, so here we are! We’re not running away, we’re fighting to save every OTHER planet!”
An alert sounded at the ship’s control panel, a sound she’d been waiting for.
“In fact… We just got in range of the first ring system we’re checking. Would you… like to run the scan to see if there’s Void Matter here?”
Borwyn’s eyes had dried while his mother had been speaking, and now the widened in excitement. “Could I?”
“Sure, come sit with me. Now in my control terminal, type: VOID SPECTROMETER RUN ANALYSIS”
He did as instructed, and the screen flashed, “MEASURING VOID MATTER MASS (UNIT: BLACK HOLE EQUIVALENT) NOW”. They waited together for numbers to start scrolling. 1 BHE. 10 BHE. 100 BHE. 1000 BHE. It was Renla’s turn to feel tears in her eyes. This was it. Enough Void Matter to fuel the GALUN for centuries. Maybe a millennium?
She started to write a message back to GALTRAUTH headquarters on Terra 2, then stopped. She turned to Borwyn and said, “My grandfather named this ship Skadi, after an ancient goddess of righteous anger. That was a good name during the war, but it doesn’t seem to fit anymore more anymore. What should we call ourselves?”
He thought for a moment. “Well, we weren’t running away from the fight, we were running towards the void. So maybe we could be called Void Runner?”
Renla smiled. “I like that! But we won’t be the only ones now. We’ll be the first ship of the first fleet to come here.”
“What’s that ancient book you were telling me about. The one that starts with something about giving life to the universe? That’s sort of what we’re doing, right?”
“You’re a genius, Bor. The book is Genesis. We’ll be the Void Runner Genesis Fleet. And since we’re the first one, our call sign will be VRGF-1!”
“That doesn’t sound very pretty…”
“How about we give her a nickname, then? How does Runner One sound?”
“Now THAT’S a cool name, mom.”
Renla finished writing the transmission and sent it off, signing VRGF-1. Once the message arrived, they’d start packing luggers full of materials to build outposts. It would be months before those beasts would make it to the ring system. A long time to wait, with not much to do…
Borwyn was looking at the ship like he’d never seen it before. “Runner One,” he said to himself quietly.
“Hey Bor, you know Runner One has only ever been piloted by our family. Think you’re ready to start your training…?”
Part Two — Galactic Trade Year 9382
Forzen tapped on the controls of his Vette, and as always it responded as if it were reading his mind. The Run One dropped down into subsonic speeds. His ship was one of the fastest in the fleet, modified by his family over generations, so he took advantage of the premiums that came with these long-haul trips. But after a week and a half with no contact with other ships or outposts, he was looking forward to a change of scenery. With a glance back at the Utholian who made up the other half of the crew, he thought to himself, “and a change of company…”
He picked up the broadcast radio terminal and said, “Outpost VRGO-3729, Outpost VRGO-3729, requesting permission to attach at Dock C to unload cargo and pick up a fresh batch. Confirm?”
“Incoming Vette, that’s a negative. Please transmit ID and registered color prior to docking.”
Forzen, who had already started his approach, backed off for a moment and looked over at Jonga. “You have any idea what they’re talking about?” The oversized man shook his head, looking equally confused.
“VRGO-3729, we didn’t copy. We have high value cargo all the way from VRGO-9104, we’re both going to make enough G off this load to retire. Request again immediate docking.”
“Repeat negative. You’ve been out of contact for a bit, if you’re coming from 9104. Recommend reading GALTRAUTH broadcast. End”
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. This is VRGF-1. RUN FRIGGEN ONE. I’d love to catch up on the latest tax forms, or whatever it is that you’re talking about. But I’d really love to do it AT A BAR ON YOUR OUTPOST.”
Jonga had been waving to him, trying to cut off his rant. He should have known better, there was no stopping Forzen once he got riled up. As Forzen hung up the broadcast transmission, he finally got his attention.
“Um… you may actually want to take a look at the broadcast sooner rather than later.”
Forzen punched the command into his terminal, and the most recent message from GALTRAUTH came up on his screen.
GALTRAUTH MESSAGE D84387B10AF
NEW REGULATIONS REGARDING DOCKING ELIGIBILITY
EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, NEW PROCEDURES ARE IN PLACE TO PREVENT OUTPOST OVERCROWDING. ALL SHIPS MUST REPORT TO GALTRAUTH LICENSING STATION TO RECEIVE REGISTERED COLOR DESIGNATION. ONLY AUTHORIZED COLOR WILL BE ALLOWED TO DOCK. PLEASE PRESENT SHIP IDENTIFICATION AND REGISTERED COLOR BEFORE DOCKING. ANY UNAUTHORIZED DOCKING WILL BE SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE CARGO SEIZURE AT THE DISCRETION OF THE DOCKED OUTPOST.
Forzen read the message a few times, but still couldn’t believe what he was reading. He looked again at the other ships that were docked at the outpost, and every one of them had a red exterior. “They want to TELL ME WHERE I CAN DOCK? After my grandfather SAVED FREAKING GALTRAUTH BY FINDING THIS SYSTEM?!?” These outbursts weren’t new to Jonga, so he waited patiently in his chair. “NOBODY IS GOING TO TELL RUN ONE WHERE WE CAN DOCK AND NOBODY IS GOING TO TELL ME WHAT COLOR I PAINT HER!!!”
“Hey Forzen, you remember a couple of runs ago we ran into Thwaix in that bar on 4387? He was talking about experimenting with external ship alloys, right? Didn’t he say something about being able to make a ship look however you wanted in real time?”
Forzen’s rage turned into a conspiratorial grin. “Jonga, this is why I keep you around.”
“Because I’m the brains of the operation?”
“No, because you’re sneaky. And also because you can load a cargo hold like nobody I’ve ever seen before. Mostly that last one, but definitely partly because you’re sneaky.”
Jonga chuckled in response. “That sort of thing sounds pricey, though. You sure you’ll be able to cover what Thwaix is going to charge?”
Forzen’s grin turned into a full smile. “As it happens, I have a full load of cargo all the way from 9104. I think we’ll be able to come to some agreement.”
Forzen’s fingers danced on the controls, and the ship immediately changed course and accelerated to top speed. GALTRAUTH thought they owned him, huh…?
Part Three — Galactic Trade Year 9571
Glarifel heard the Rule Change Claxon sound throughout the ship. “Son of a Caltrinian whore, not now!”
Vorax and Varux both stopped what they were doing and turned towards her to see what she wanted to do. Having both of the twins start at her with their huge Artexyan eyes was unsettling enough to make her glad to have an excuse to look down at the ship’s readouts. “We’re currently flying green and our dock’s now zoned for only blue. Cargo’s at 75%, and this is one of Morpho’s outposts. He’s a greedy bastard on the best of days. Let’s pack up and hit the next one.”
“You got it, boss.” said Vorax.
“Whatever you say, boss.” said Varux.
The twins started preparing for departure while Glarifel looked through the map to find their next outpost. Nothing close enough that the outposts might compare notes… But close enough to turn this cargo quickly… She found a relatively new outpost she hadn’t stopped at before, about a day’s travel away. Perfect.
As soon as the cargo was secured and the hatch doors shut, she hit the throttle and sent the Runone screaming towards her chosen outpost. As soon as they cleared the range of the previous outpost, she keyed in the override for the ship’s adaptive hull. The green demarcations on the Runone faded to the nebular camouflage that she used when traveling between outposts. She’d check the latest rules when she got closer to her destination and mark herself as whatever registered color was currently in favor there. Adaptive hulls weren’t supposed to exist — they’d been outlawed last century and GALTRAUTH had removed all adaptive ships from service. But her family’s ship was unique. The first adaptive hull aimed at evading GALTRAUTH’s rules. On the first ship in the system. The Runone’s hull had never been registered with GALTRAUTH, so it hadn’t been retired. Sitting in the captain’s chair, she felt like she was connected all the way back through 10 generations of captains, back to the beginning of the mining of Void Matter. As lonely as the void could feel, thinking of her ancestors sitting at this very panel always made her feel at home.
Glarifel engaged the autonav and headed to her bunk. Tomorrow would be another busy day of loading. Hopefully. Unless they got hit with another early rule change.