When the job of refitting the ship for the second time in a year fell to Dex, he'd risen to the occasion. During the next period of downtime for repairs, he and Batta took the chance to make a few changes they had discussed off and on in idle moments between engineering work.
The Seraphim was a navy prototype, and Batta was one of the early designers to work on the project. She and her sister ship—still anchored in an orbital boneyard as far as anyone knew—were a class on their own. For a vessel to enter the Cascade without an external, separate gate system, it had to be a certain mass. Seraphim and her sister were not the mostly hollow but large cylindrical behemoths that made up the fleet. Rather than being printed by massive fabricators section by section, they were spun up out of a single molten blob of steel in the vacuum of space.
The interior was carved out, leaving as much mass as any Navy destroyer and a front end armored thickly enough to withstand virtually any impact. Seraphim was meant to be a ram, easily capable of chewing through the brittle hide of more standard vessels.
They'd done it exactly once, and Dex made it clear that the ship should never try it again. That was after all why the prototypes never went into production. The delicate systems inside the ship could be protected from acceleration by the artificial gravity systems, but impacts were entirely different. Add to that the lattices of microfractures and deformations to the skin of the ship and you were left with a ship almost no one would trust to hold in air after a few uses of this feature.
Not having to be a ram meant some of the structural metal could do. They were half again as massive as needed to open a gate into the Cascade. The only thing stopping the crew from remodeling the inside was how difficult the job was. Dex and Batta decided during that last bout of repairs to bring in a milling drone and do it anyway.
The work expanded their main cargo bay significantly. The idea was to use the increased capacity to allow for a greater variety of jobs, including high-end cargo runs. Then they'd been forced into training for months on end.
Now the new hold was full for the first time, and Dex stared at the containers as Sharp let a rare smile cross his face.
“So, what is all this, sir?” Dex asked as the last huge box was set into place.
Sharp handed over a manifest. “You'll need to erase that once you're on the other side. It's evidence the Navy has been working with you. Inside those crates are new tech we've been working on with Blue. He helped design it all. You'll see when you read through that. Make sure everyone in the crew is familiar with the contents.”
Dex shook his head. “You're being unusually coy, sir.”
“Can it with the 'sir' nonsense, son,” Sharp said. “Right now I'm here more as a friend than a superior. Goff wants what's on the other side of this jump, but she's not confident you'll survive the mission. She's hedging her bets. If you make it, it's a huge win for her. If not, she gets rid of her most problematic assets and gains valuable intel through Iona's Ansible to better prepare whoever comes after you.” He pointed to the massive crates. “Those are new survival suits for your whole crew. It's what you'll wear when you make planetfall.”
“That's what you're arming us with? Survival suits?” Dex tried to keep the derision out of his voice. One consequence of becoming a spacefaring civilization was the proliferation of various environment suits. Batta had a mech suit that let him do very heavy lifting and other operations such as welding. It was a beefed up EVA suit with mechanized power assist features. Dex should have had one of his own, but the limited space inside the ship had always been a problem.
There were soft EVA suits, emergency pressure suits, the hardshell combat armor worn by grunts. Regardless of what other purpose they might have, each would allow a user to survive in vacuum.
Survival suits did that and a lot more. They were normally highly customized gear meant to operate in a specific planetary environment. The other kinds might give you a day at most of usability before running out of energy or other resources, but survival suits were built from the threads up to function as a wearable habitat. To get the name, they had to provide life support for no less than seven days. Which was great as far as living on an alien world went. Dex had his doubts about their ability to help him survive what would probably be an entire world full of hostile technology.
“Trust me,” Sharp said. “They'll help. Since you don't have a functional Ravager anymore, we're also giving you a shuttle to attach to the ventral airlock. I even had them coat it with the same stealth camo as your ship. You'll have a matching set.”
Dex had never been close with Sharp the way the Captain was, but the older man had given the crew a great deal of latitude in searching for Dex during his captivity the year before. That bought the Commander a healthy measure of trust. Even so, the question slipped from his lips almost without thought.
“What is it you're not telling us about this trip?”
Sharp sighed, then nodded toward the new cargo. “I'm trying to give you every advantage I can. But I'm under orders to keep those specifics secret. I'm sorry, son. Just try to stay alive.”
Leaving the system was no great production. Once the shuttle was docked and clamped into place, hugging the ventral hull like a child unwilling to let go of its mother, Sharp left in his pod and Iona brought the ship to full readiness.
The bridge crew were surely nestled into their positions in the armored control room, all reporting in and breathless about whatever waited on the other side of this jump. Dex could hardly blame them; most of the people on this ship didn't have the deeply negative experience with unknown destinations he did. He'd seen a therapist when time permitted and worked through much of the anxiety and fear that came along with his unpredictable life aboard ship, but a little still remained. That was fine. He considered it a good survival trait to be wary of danger.
It took effort not to trigger his blessings as they transitioned into the Cascade. The genetic alterations he'd been born with and then had heavily modified during his time as a prisoner were always so close to the surface now. What had once been like pulling a stuff lever was now a hair trigger, though his body didn't suffer consequences as severe as it once had.
He would use them if needed. The passive blessings were always working. His increased senses and intelligence weren't something he could shut off. The triggered ones were another matter. They made him stronger, faster, more agile.
His entire culture had conspired to birth him and children like him, every new life on Threnody an experiment building toward what their society believed to be genetic perfection. As a people they chose to turn him into a child soldier, etching skills and a willingness to kill without hesitation into the surface of his soul.
Dex hated killing before his capture. Now he disliked it but the resistance he'd developed toward the act after escaping his home was gone. Being held on an alien world after believing himself free of Threnody strangled part of him until it was dead and gone to dust.
Death was something he could deal out and deal with. What terrified him was how easy it was to fall in love with the power his blessings gave him. How good it felt to be strong. Only a lifetime of honing his self control gave Dex the ability to withstand the allure of using them without dire need.
“Transition complete,” Iona said over the shipwide comm. “We're—what the shit?”
The strange sensory phenomena that came with Cascade travel vanished suddenly. They'd emerged into real space again, and only a few seconds after entering. That wasn't right. The coordinates were hundreds of light years away. A direct jump should have taken hours at least.
“Dex, get up here,” the Captain ordered over the comm. “Fen, get your people ready for a fight. We've got company out here and they're on a fast approach using a Slip drive.”
His blood ran cold at the words. Outside of the Navy, only the Children used Slip drives—so far. The technology would spread as almost all technology did, but for now the government was managing a tight grip. Seraphim and a few other Ghost Fleet ships had the drives. He desperately hoped whoever was out there was another member of the fleet.
Unlikely but possible. It would have taken a skilled programmer to mess with their navigation computers well enough to avoid Iona's notice.
He pounded up the narrow steps and onto the bridge and briefly wondered if he'd ever get back to his old life. The one before the Children and the Ghost Fleet, when he could just work on the ship and dive into the latest physics research.
The proximity alert that began to blare throughout the ship felt like a pointed answer to the question.
“What kind of ship is that?” Crash asked the room as Dex stepped into it. “Looks alien.”
A glance at the main view screen gave him information to work with. His brain took in the streams of sensor data imposed on the left side of the image as well as the vessel itself. The shape was oddly organic, all rounded curves and scaled at least close to what humans would use. There were no obvious external systems he could see. If it had weapons or communications, the hardware was nestled into the hull so expertly as to leave no sign.
The sensor data spit out rough metallurgical data, analysis of its radiant heat and power output curves, and a dozen other facts his mind grabbed and rearranged until some kind of sense began to emerge less than a second later.
“It's Children tech,” he said. “Something we haven't seen before. A shuttle, maybe?”
“The Children are ships,” Iona said from the pilot's seat, until recently occupied by Bastian Krieger. “They don't need shuttles.”
“Getting a hail on tight beam,” Spencer said.
The Captain waved for her to put it through, and an unfamiliar face popped up on the screen.
“Hello,” said a voice Dex could almost place. “Sorry to take you by surprise, but I had to make sure this meeting was private.”
Something in the diction, the cadence of the speech...
“Blue?” Dex said loudly, then blanched. Radio protocol was for the Captain to speak unless he specifically asked you to. Not that the man himself seemed to mind, merely flicking his gaze toward Dex momentarily with eyebrows raised.
“Yes,” the human figure with Blue's voice said. “This is my avatar. I have several of them on board. I'm coming with you.”
“But...how?” The Captain asked. “Where's your bodyship? You can't operate those things across hundreds of light years.”
“He can if he stole Ansible technology somehow,” Crash said, a shrewd expression crossing her face.
“We can discuss my felonies later,” Blue said. “I assure you it was necessary. You will need my help to survive the trip to the Vault. That's what the Originators called it.”
Dex's eyes widened. “Wait, this is one of their worlds? I thought it was alien.”
“It is,” Blue said. “It is where they discovered the technology we would adapt and make our own. The surface of what they found there has barely been scratched. I discovered much when I decrypted a trove of data six months ago. This is not a dead world defended only by automated systems. There is an entire human population there.”
Dex frowned. “Why would they...oh. Oh, gods. It's where they bred their slaves. The ones that piloted all those ships we destroyed.”
“Yes,” Blue said. “We have quite a lot of work ahead. Even getting there will be a trial. Space around the Vault is twisted. Once we arrive, you will all be faced with several choices. What will you do with the humans you find there? Will you bring the technology back as your superiors wish? It is not a situation that should be solely judged by human beings, I think. A more...detached perspective may be called for.”
Dex didn't know politics, though he was aware enough to understand the proverbial mine field they'd been aimed at. What he did know was logic, and every bit of it within him said that there were no good options for them. This could only end in tears no matter which way they went.
Between the lines of what he was actually saying, Blue was suggesting they might have to murder an entire population of people.