Episode 1: Happy Birthday, Orna Sokol

Ever wondered how Orna met the crew of the Capricious for the very first time? What were the fighting pits she spoke about on the dusty world of Clarkesfall, and how did the rescue operation really happen?

This story is really, actually free, but of course, I have an ulterior motive.

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Episode 1

Captain Cordell Lamarr’s eyes remained fixed on the clock at his bedside. Two bells thirty-seven blazed in the darkness like tiny gas flames, and despite having donned his pajamas, sleep was a distant speck on the horizon.

She was late. Maybe this was the year she’d stop doing it.
His room comm chimed, and Boots said, “Uh, Captain… I’m picking up a strange signal. Looks like a distress call.”

There she is.

Sitting upright, he hacked up a wad of phlegm and croaked, “You wouldn’t be much of a watch officer if you’d missed it.”

“Excuse me?”

How could he explain the situation? He negotiated his way out of bed, lungs raw from too much smoking and dry ship air, and coughed a few more times to dislodge any more crud. Then, he lit a cigarette, savoring the rope of hot smoke curling down his throat to replace what was lost.

“It’s fine, Bootsie,” he mumbled around the papery end. “I’ll take care of it.”

“So… I shouldn’t wake the others over a mysterious distress call?”

His eyes traveled to his captain’s jacket, hanging above pressed trousers and polished boots. It’d be such a pain to get dressed, but he couldn’t go walking around the ship in his satin bedclothes—stylish though they were. Cordell shook his head, letting out a snaking cloud.

“No, I’ve got it. Boss out.”

He stretched his legs, and his knees popped loudly. He’d messed one up with a bad step while fleeing the Masquerade. The other knee was just an asshole sometimes.

He pulled on his trousers and sucked in his gut–long enough to button the waist. They were almost painfully-small; he’d have to ask Malik to help him slim up. There were fewer and fewer places to find authentic Arcan military surplus, and he’d lost several pair in the years since they’d uncovered the Harrow.
It didn’t help his ego when, after the pants, he had to hold his breath to lace up his boots.

Cordell finished dressing and stepped out into the dim halls of the night cycle, adjusting his cuffs. Then, he cursed, ducked back into his quarters for a forgotten parcel, and re-emerged with it in-hand. He poked his head into the bridge to find Boots on watch, reading some ancient text with her back to him. He always hoped to catch her sleeping–she was fun to lecture—but she never did.

“Not going to tell me what’s going on, Captain?” she asked without looking up.

He grimaced, thinking he’d been sneakier than that. “I said I’ve got it, so I’ve got it.”

A heavyfoot trip down the elevator brought him to the crew decks. He kept still in the shadows, his ears pricked for telltale beeps, but he heard none. Of course she wouldn’t do it in her quarters this year. Not with a roommate. He continued his descent, and when he got to the bottom deck, a little chirp caught his attention.

He strode to cargo bay door and strained to hear, but that’d be too obvious. She’d never hide in there.

Another chirp from the direction of the elevator turned his head, and he chuckled. “Clever girl.”

Cordell went to the panel, disabled the safety overrides and sent the car up to the top, revealing a large room underneath. He’d used the space a few dozen times to hide everything from drugs to Yearlinger piglets, and he’d lined it with a full centimeter of opthanaton foil to confuse scanners. The upgrade had cost him a ton at the time, but given his current largess in the wake of the Harrow and the Masquerade, it was a drop in the bucket.

Instead of contraband, it contained Orna Sokol, a banged-up distress beacon in one hand and a smile on her face. The light at the top pulsed obnoxiously, blinding Cordell, and she switched it off.

“You came,” she said. “I was wondering if you would.”

“Wonder no more.”

Her eyes fell to the beacon’s housing, which had been scratched all to hell. The duraplast around the light was smoked from some bygone explosion, and the webbing straps were so frayed that they were more fluffy than flat.

The beacon creaked as her grip tightened around it. “Maybe we should stop this. Now that I’m older, and Armin is gone…”

She let the end of her sentence hang in the air like a ghost. Cordell had thought about it, too. How it’d been such a powerful ritual for them in years past, but present developments had robbed it of comfort. He’d been surprised to see the distress call at all–after what Orna had done to Bill on the Masquerade.


2882 – Twelve years before the return of the Harrow

“You said we were going straight!” said Armin Vandevere, adjusting his collar and squnting against the sandy breeze. The starched white of his shirt offset a pair of gold cufflinks—which were less than sparkly in their current environs of wrecked ships, shattered military buildings and good, old-fashioned human waste.

“No, I said we were dropping off something legal inside this system,” Cordell replied, trying to keep his tone even. The mouthy, gawky datamancer was an expert at judging value—which was why Cordell brought him onto the crew—but he couldn’t seem to refrain from commenting on his orders.

“Of course, it’s legal inside the system,” said Armin, sneering. “There’s no government here!”

The captain rubbed the bridge of his nose. After years of fighting a desperate war, no one in their right mind would’ve spoken to him with such insubordination. If Armin hadn’t been so valuable to the crew, Cordell would’ve throttled him unconscious and abandoned him at the nearest port. He made a mental note never to recruit someone with that amount of sass ever again.

“Remind me. What was your unit in the Famine War?” Cordell asked as they passed by a desperate-looking group of scavengers.

“Offworld analytics and currency destabilization ops,” said Armin, ducking aside as one of the filthy goons nearly touched his clean clothes. He looked as though he might slap the interloper for the transgression. “I’ll thank you to keep your damned hands to yourself! Yes, you!”

The scavengers laughed a deep, belly laugh and kept walking—thankfully.

Cordell yanked Armin aside by his lapel, taking particular relish in his companion’s offended gasp. “So you don’t know what it’s like to scrap with the rest of us.” Armin struggled, and Cordell held him steady, making sure their eyes met. “But if you keep questioning me in front of our customers, I’m going let the first mate do whatever he wants to you. If that doesn’t work, I’m going to break your legs and feed you to Bill Scarrett’s dogs.”

Armin blanched, but surprisingly, he didn’t look away. He had grit for a finance nerd.

“You’re the analyst,” Cordell said, his voice a low rumble. “What does my war record say?”

“It says you’ve never killed a crew member, even for insubordination, and you need my expertise more than you need your honor as a captain.”

“I can see we’re not going to be friends.” He released Armin, who brushed himself off.

“Amicability is not a required component of business.”

Cordell turned back to the Capricious, its bulbous, toad-like hull nestled into the blasted landing strip, and watched the keel slinger imager following him. He had no doubt that back on the ship, Leon Woods, his first mate, was laughing at him.

They’d arrived that morning at the remains of the Haversham ADF base to find a flurry of activity. Cordell had been landing on Arcan subcontinent since the war to pick up salvage, but he’d never seen more than a handful of scavs, eager to hand over a score for a small fee. William Scarrett’s operation was far more militarized, and a little town had sprung up amongst the ruins, complete with enough water purifiers to serve hundreds of people. Everywhere Cordell looked, slinger-toting mercenaries scurried about, busying themselves with some major operation.

“Captain Lamarr!”

He turned to find Sunny Deungjeong, her slender arm extended in greeting, as she emerged from one of the only standing buildings. She was a breath of fresh air in the desert, with a form-fitting black dress stretched across perfect skin. The captain had to blink to make sure he wasn’t seeing things; he’d been under the impression Sunny didn’t actually look like her image on the Link. His image was over a decade old, just the way he liked it.

“Sunny!” he called back, closing the gap with a few long strides and taking her hand. It was softer than he’d imagined, and he glanced around, wondering how she kept her unlikely beauty in a toxic hellscape.

“I’m so glad you could make it, Captain,” she said. “And who is this?”

“Armin Vandevere. Finance and logistics.”

“Finance,” Cordell corrected, since he hadn’t remembered promoting the skinny bastard.

Sunny smiled knowingly, but given the mischievous natural curve of her lips, that was probably every smile. “I see, Mister Vandevere. We’re so excited to have you both on-site for some wonderful developments. Follow me, please.”

As she walked away, Cordell elbowed Armin. “Are you kidding me right now? Logistics? That’s Gary’s department.”

“Without my fuel flow analysis and cargo expediting, you would’ve been sucking vacuum on the last run, Captain,” Armin said with a shrug. “You seem like a man of facts.”

“Fact: You make me want to jam my boot up your ass.”

“Listen to me, and you’ll be rich enough to buy replacement boots after.”

They left the choking winds of a dead world and stepped into the lap of luxury. Cordell had seen Haversham ADFB only a few years before, at the height of the Famine War, and it’d been a bland collection of beige buildings with eggshell interiors—and the sort of furniture a soldier could wash with a hose. There were no shimmering glass walls, no velvet couches, no gilded end tables, and definitely no projector light show.

Cordell failed to control his dropping jaw. “What… the hell?”

“Oh, yes, Captain Lamarr,” said Sunny. “I think you’ll find Mister Scarrett is a very lucrative business partner to have.”

The sweet scent of dream smoke wafted past, conjuring a powerful craving and dark memories of run-down days. If it hadn’t been for his crew pulling him out of the dens of the Murphy Belt, he’d have dosed himself to death a long time ago. Men and women lay scattered about in various states of repose, and he resisted the urge to check their pulses.

“Would you like some of our refreshments, Captain?” asked Sunny, following his gaze.

“No,” he lied.

“This is more like a nightclub,” said Armin.

“Since when is that your beat?” laughed Cordell.

Armin smoothed down his hair and straightened his sport coat. “Since I sold my stake in six of them in Verdance.”

As soon as the datamancer’s back was turned, Cordell pulled a face, mocking Armin’s haughty intonation for Sunny’s benefit. She wasn’t entertained. In truth, Cordell was the one that didn’t quite fit. Armin and Sunny could’ve been a pair of rich offworlders, touring the sinful remains of a deceased country.

“This way, please,” she said, directing them toward a cordoned dais in the corner of the large hall where a few special tables held a variety of VIPs.

A pair of guards flanked the velvet rope entrance, strapped with every kind of slinger Cordell could imagine. Their bare, oiled-up arms protruded from their tactical vests like overstuffed sausages, and he grimaced. These weren’t the losers from outside; These were private security of the highest order, which meant that if Bill wanted someone to disappear, they probably did.

The guards moved aside at Sunny’s approach, holding the velvet rope so that the trio could pass. One of them stopped Cordell with fingers alone, pushing them into his chest.

“Weapons,” said the guard.

“Do I need any?” joked Cordell, resisting the urge to rub his pectoral where he’d been viciously poked.

In a potent display of sleight of hand, the other guard flipped out a tripstick and held it to Cordell’s throat.

“I. Don’t. Have. Them,” Cordell said through gritted teeth.

They checked anyway, a little too overzealously for his liking. He felt as though they’d pull him apart like taffy, and he was pretty sure that one of them had crushed his box of smokes.

“Aw, come on, y’all,” came a booming voice through the thicket of supplicants. “Let them through! Lamarr ain’t stupid enough to shoot me.”

William Scarrett lounged in the wide, circular booth, one shiny black boot on the edge of the table, the other thrown out to one side to show off a golden bull codpiece over tight trousers. It was the kind of pose that made a statement, and the statement was, “Look at my crotch.”

Cordell hadn’t meant to lock eyes with the raging metal bovine resting on Bill’s privates, but the eidolon crystal orbs of the beast seemed to stare into his soul. Bill noted Cordell’s gaze and nodded approvingly.

“It’s solid gold, if you can believe it,” said Bill.

“Oh, I believe it, General,” Cordell replied, and he meant it. General William Scarrett was exactly the kind of man who would armor his balls in precious metals and gems in the absence of uniform regs.

“No need for those formalities, Lamarr!” Bill said, beckoning them to sit beside him. “The war is over. Peace is here to stay.”

Above the waist, Bill’s paunch was covered by a silk shirt, chronically unbuttoned to show off a forest of chest hair. The hard lines of his jaw were only obscured by a carefully-manicured goatee. Blotches of red marred his leathery skin from too much time spent in the open sun of the Heartland Campaign. With all of that money, he could’ve had a sculptor fix him, but Cordell reckoned Bill preferred to look like a hard son of a gun.

As Cordell scooted into one side of the booth, Bill nudged him and whispered, “Could you tell your friend to stop staring at my dingus?”

Cordell looked up to see Armin transfixed by the bull, and opened his mouth to speak when Bill guffawed and slapped him on the back.

“I’m just kidding! I bought the big boy to be admired.” Bill nodded to Armin. “Seriously, though. Sit down, little fellow, before I take offense.”

“Sorry,” said Armin, tapping his pocket terminal. “Was just estimating the value. Looks like one-point-two handspans, and I’m guessing it’s as deep as a palm, which puts the value around twelve thousand argents.”

“Wrong, buster,” said Bill. “It cost me twenty.”

“Did it?” said Armin, trapping Cordell into the booth by sitting next to him. “Eight thousand more? I suppose that’s a good omen.”

Bill tongued the inside of his cheek. “Is it?”

Armin’s wry grin set Cordell on edge. “Yes, because we’re here to sell to you.”

The dais went dead silent, and Cordell didn’t want to kill Armin anymore, because he was pretty sure Bill would do it for him. His guts went cold, and he stared in disbelief.

Laughter exploded from Bill’s lips, and for a brief moment, it looked as though all was fine. Then Bill nodded at Sunny, who backhanded Armin hard enough to send a trail of spit flying into the crowd. Armin blinked as a few strands of hair slipped their bonds of styling to settle onto his forehead. His face went red, and his skin grew clammy, and he touched his cheek with trembling fingers. Cordell wasn’t sure if his finance guy was about to start crying or swinging, but he wasn’t jazzed about either outcome.

Cordell’s hand snaked toward his boot, where he kept a deafening sound charge. If there was a scrap, he was honor-bound to defend his crew member—and probably get killed in the process—but at least he could start out with a good stun.

“When someone insults me,” Bill said through a nasty grin, “I don’t have to come up with a retort. I pay people for that. Like any decent boss, I don’t get in my employees’ way; I tell them to indulge their creativity.”

Sunny reached up to a thick piece of piping that ran along the side of her dress and pulled it, leaving behind a strip of shiny metal. The fabric cord peeled off like a rope of clay, and she snapped it once at her side, where it hardened into a long rod. She idly touched the rod to the gold railing running around the edge of the booth, and both made the cold chime of metal.

“So why don’t you make another cute quip,” said Bill, “and we’ll see what kind of retort Sunny comes up with.”

Come on, Armin. Don’t be stupid.

“I think I’m done, sir,” said Armin, watching Sunny tap out a little beat on the railing.

“‘Sir?’” asked Bill. “Scoot aside, Lamarr. Why’d you call me sir, stringbean?”

Armin kept his eyes down. “Because I can see when respect is owed. I shot my mouth off, and it cost me. I’ll remember the price for next time. I’m a datamancer, after all.”

Bill tapped the side of his nose and pointed to Armin. “You data geeks are quick learners. I like that. You can see that I’m running a pretty serious camp here, and to do that, I need two things from everyone: respect and collaboration. A lack of respect always indicates a lack of collaboration, and when we could either starve to death or be torn up by infighting, I can’t have that.”

Bill raised a leather-gloved palm and turned it over. “On the flip side, I don’t have a lot of people telling me the truth, and something about your statement tells me that yes, I did pay too much for this gorgeous codpiece. I want to reward that kind of honesty, so I don’t get blindspots in my topsight. You demonstrated your particular candor, and in so doing, deserve a reward. Get out of the way, Lamarr. I want to show y’all something.”

Cordell and Armin scooted out of Bill’s way as fast as they could. Bill laughed and gestured at the booth table, which folded aside with a mechanical whir, disassembling so he could stand while it neatly carried away his dishes.

“Now, let’s get to it, gents,” said Bill, chains jangling against his bare chest. “I’ve got a proposal for you.”

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