(*Goal, 2000 words*)


Naria stretched from where she had been lying down on a sliding tray, grabbing the old red and gold stained flexible piping and securing the new one in the minireactor, as she closed up the panel. She listened for a second, pressing her elfin ears against the panel. She smiled with satisfaction as the old sounds also disappeared as the flow started back up.

She wheeled herself out and then began reconnecting the wiring and power network connections. Punching commands into the system, she watched with satisfaction as the power distribution system checks showed the backup systems at full power, before turning them back off. She had been spending most of her trip in altspace getting her repair list done. Owning your own ship was a constant list of maintenance, especially if you were a hauler that relied on speed like her. In this case, she was upgrading her power distribution network in anticipating of installing upgraded thrusters, and she had discussed partial upgrades to the altspace drive and the few weapons systems she had at her destination, as well as adding a new c-fractional rail gun, just now becoming available to civilian pilots. That was where a good chunk of her profits went – ensuring she could keep pace with the newer freighters.

The *Brilliant Flower* had started life as a packet freighter, and she had extensively upgraded it when she bought it. She had some proper rooms if she had some sentients who wanted to catch a ride with her cargo, properly secured cargo, but most critically, she had upgraded the armor and moved the bridge to a secured region of the ship. She had an emergency bridge hidden under the floor of the viewing room, but with the advanced holopanels, she could just set her bridge to show her around her with the sensors and computers displaying information. It was strictly inferior to having an actual crew, but Naria preferred, like most dark-elves, to work alone. She occasionally explored, and sold exploration data, as it was. The ship boasted several particle guns, and some missiles, although she didn’t want to use them unless she had to. She could regenerate fuel, but missiles required purchasing from a station.

That all being said, she was debating hiring someone at the upcoming station. She had her eye on a trip – to a mythical planet – a great necropolis that was blessed and left as a memorial, and a warning. It was a somewhat dangerous trip, and while Naria had been preparing for it for years, it was also a trip that even the most advanced ship and crew had gotten lost on. So, maybe one or two other people – someone to man weapons, especially as she was adding some, and an engineer. On the other hand, Naria had also applied some stealth covering and reangled her ship to make it less visible to shields, and was planning on doing other steps there. It would wipe out her savings, and she would almost certainly need a new job. She was torn.

It was still on her mind when the ship emerged from altspace a good distance off – her ship was unusually fuel efficient, and she could refuel over almost any star so she often emerged at a distance to get an idea of what was going on. And she was glad she did it, as there was a few ships crowding the normal arrival point, and glancing at their emissions, they were weapons hot. Peculiar. She was too far off to get any communications, but she rigged for silent running, and made her way in-system. They were likely to get her scent sooner or later, but wanted to get more information.

About two hours later, she didn’t know whether to laugh or sob. They had been waiting for her, and were on the orders of station staff. She had responded by a slow bank towards out-system, since she needed to leave. It was very vexing and she wasn’t even sure why they were interested in her ship. She wasn’t even carrying cargo, as the destination was a planet *en-route* to the station. She hadn’t picked up any new cargo there, having some doubts about the planet, to the point where she did a complete scan and manual investigation of her ship in altspace.

Nothing, no changes. She had spent the two hours airgapping systems – the convenience was great, but she was about to move to full speed outbound, because she’d need to drop silent running to ping the station’s repeaters. There wasn’t enough information about why they were targeting her, and she was nowhere near any major multi-system power. This was vexing, and not in a good way. This would be fairly tricky – she needed to go active-emissions, but in-system, the repeaters operated at FTL. They’d be aware of her the second she started, so.. right now she was just waiting for the perfect moment to query and reach the astropause, so she could escape to the alt-space, although she was going to have to do some fancy flying to escape them. It wasn’t difficult to follow vectors, after all.

Naria took a deep breath, and then moved to full-active, increasing thrust to maximum and pinging the repeater. She had carefully reconfigured it to hide her ID and such, but there were always the rumours of remote control from stations. Like most – she could name very few who didn’t – she downloaded the news to a separate computer that was checked over and then updated her systems from them. The sensors she had were also FTL, which meant she spotted their aspect change immediately. They had no chance to intercept before she crossed the astropause and she jumped to FTL. She had to do some dropping out and re-entering, scattering her trail, before she could see if there was any clue as to why the station had attempted an interdiction.

So, it was a full four hours before she could dig into the data. She scrolled through it, and frowned. So far, nothing more than noticed – there were some ongoing brush wars, but the Imperium of Tashelm and the Confederation of the Free Tribes were making sure it *stayed* a brush war. And that was on the other side of the Horsefire Nebula. It took a bit longer, and she found out why. The planet she had stopped at – *Tsachi’s Peace*, had gone silent after the merchant caravan behind her left and the next ship to investigate had found nothing – empty structures, fields and structures. Although, she rather suspected they had left the planet. It was a very marginal planet, to begin with, and it couldn’t support a moderate sized city, as it was becoming, and the former trade route through the sector was defunct with the collapse of Zhalingford.

However, even that didn’t explain it. She wasn’t the last ship.

There was an notice, and she looked at it. And then stared at it. She was being chased because of a report stating that her ship was the cause of the planetary collapse. The issuer was the person who gave her the cargo – which she had doublechecked, since carrying cargo without checks was a recipe for getting yourself destroyed, impounded if people were feeling merciful. She was being used as a patsy.

Lovely. Well. Naria set a course again, for Honor’s Refuge. It looked like she’d need to plead her case. That was something like fifty-hops, so she could get fuel, and while she could path in the desolated zone for a bit of it. She had wanted to do this more prepared, but she had no choice. She would need to de airgap her systems, and get ready. The desolation zone often had pirate bases, and other nasties waiting for the unwary ship – and often, the wary.

Despite all that, most of the trip was boring. She expected the last bits to be the challenging – Honor’s Refuge was well known for it’s courts and trial-by-combat arenas, and so particularly sneaky and clever people would lurk around to catch would be challengers. And the system had been selected to be *just* outside of a single-jump range. Well. Mostly, but she wouldn’t be able to do it. There were some who had done it, and their ships were very deliberately set up for it.

When she emerged into C-19-a-892, the last jump, she did it by energizing her hull panels. This would give more resistance, and lengthen the time of the ablative armor. This proved to be wise, because even this far out, there were three ships waiting for her. They immediately opened fire and she wrenched the ship to the side, and enabled the auto targeting. The particle beams fired out, followed by two of the missiles. Naria was too busy dodging to even wince at that expense. It appeared, even though they had been waiting for her, they weren’t expecting an immediate reaction, with one of the enemy ships’ fire power immediately cut. Still, she could see that they were quick on the uptake, and maneuvering to force her closer in-system, rather than the cut across she was trying to make. Their path left open one slice, and she instinctively maneuvered to try and go on the other path directly opposite it. It was about this moment the last of the ablative armor was blasted off the hull, and she had to cut the power to the hull panels – without the armor, it wasn’t doing anything useful, and she could divert it to the thrusters.

She just simply could not trust the obvious path. She was lucky in that with the last of her missiles, she took out two of the ships, and was able to force the third back. It was a rather stern chase, and even with doing some repairs to several systems, she couldn’t quite just leave the other ships – including some reinforcements from the ambush- in the dust – having to wiggle the path a bit to prevent long range shots . Still, she was able to make the next jump without issue. This would be the tricky bit.

Honor’s Refuge didn’t permit challengers to come with armed ships. She had expended her missiles, so she had already closed the launcher ports over, bringing the launchers into the internal weapon bays. While you can do some alterations to the ship in altspace, it had to be done delicately so you didn’t alter the altspace bubble. Closing up the particle beam launchers required doing a complex procedure, and normally she’d lurk in close orbit of a star to refuel at the same time. It was doable, but tricky in altspace, and she had to rely on the computer for navigation. Not that there was a lot of navigational issues in altspace, but the principle of the thing remained.

She got it done just in time, having sealed up all of the weapon ports, and returned to the bridge, diverting even more power to her engines. There were occasional rumours floating in the various pubs and catinas about autofiring ships. It didn’t help that unlike most systems, Honor’s Refuge only allowed you to emerge in one spot.
She tripped the jump back to normalspeed, and redlined the engine. This proved to be prescient, as autofire filled the emergence sphere, and she looked in dismay at the amount of debris here. That was a lot of ships.. and she was rather wondering why her sensors were showing several fleets in orbit of the main planet. They weren’t firing.. but that was worrying. The clans in charge of this planet preferred not to have this many fleets in orbit.

It took some time as she approached warily, and only got a single communication.

“You made it through all of the gauntlets. Join us, pentient, for a legendary journey, to recover your name.”

Naria could only think this was not how she wanted to do this journey.
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