Chapter 1

The Middle of Nowhere

Finn leapt through the closing blast door mere seconds before it sealed shut behind him. His limbs already ached from exertion, but he had no time to rest. Gritting his teeth and pushing through the ache that was spreading rapidly through his body, he continued sprinting forward through the cold metal hallways. He wasn't alone; crystalline bipedal creatures tore themselves from the walls as he passed. They were crudely humanoid, like something a child might draw; this was an advantage, as they couldn't move quickly enough to catch him, though some were able to fire shards of themselves at him as he passed. Several sliced through the hard carapace of his armor, but none came close enough to cause injury, or indeed even slow him down.

He blasted through one of the creatures that had the misfortune of attempting to rise from the ground in front of him. His trusty Adams G-12 shotgun tore through the crystal with ease, leaving little more than the stumps of the creature's legs. He took a few more shots at the other golems as he passed, but his focus was on the hallway ahead. The injured creatures made no sound as the explosive rounds tore through their bodies. Had he time to wonder, Finn would no doubt question whether or not they were truly alive or just another creation of his mad captor. As it was, he only shot at those who came too close as he continued running.

The next door began to rise from the floor. Finn leapt over it easily, only to find himself in a dead end. Grunting, he turned around to backtrack only to see the door slide shut behind him. He ran around the room, his eyes darting to every nook and cranny for some sign of an exit to no avail, only to stop dead in his tracks at the sound of evil laughter.

"Running, running, always running, yet where did it get you? Trapped like a ratty-rat in a cage! Come now, Finn, Did you think you'd truly be able to escape me?"

Defiant, Finn shouted up at the intercom, "Face me like a man, you coward!"

Laughter rang through the chamber again. "And why would I want to do that? You're physically much stronger than I, and faster too. In the crude matter of physical conflict, I admit you're my better."

The tiles on the floor began to rise and join together until they formed a massive polygonal golem. With a loud buzzing sound, massive omni-claws formed around the golem's arms.

"In the realm of the mind, however, I am the master. Wilhelm; deal with the hero."

His body growing tense as a brilliant burst of light fired from the golem's single eye, Finn wondered if the last sound he would ever hear would be the shrill whine of the alarm ringing in his ears.

Finn sat up abruptly in the makeshift bunk that was his bed. The book he had been reading before falling asleep fell off his chest and hit the floor with a thud, the title "The Crusade of Sir Tirager Vespere, Knight of Justice" just visible on the worn and faded cover. He stared around through bleary eyes for a few moments before his mind identified the shrill ring as his alarm. With a grunt, he brought his fist down on the top of the clock, silencing the alarm with a slight crunch of the plastic casing.

Finn fell back into his bunk and stared up at the patchwork of circuitry, vent tubing, and wires that served as his ceiling. For a time, he considered going back to sleep. Sure, he had things to do, but it wasn't like they were going anywhere.

Finn was just drifting back to sleep when something landed on his stomach, effectively knocking the breath out of him.

"C'mon, Finn! Get up already! We got stuff to do!"

Groaning, Finn buried his face in his pillow only for a metal claw to grab it and tear it from his grasp.

"Wakey-wakey!" A circular display showing the face of a smiling cartoon dog appeared directly in his field of view. "C'mon, man! Darsan's already got the list going. Can't fix things while you're in bed."

"If only I had some sort of robot to help out." Finn muttered sarcastically. "Get off, Jake!"

Jake leapt off Finn's chest and landed on all fours a short distance away from the bed, his stubby metal tail-end shaking excitedly.

Annoyance fading, Finn rubbed the top of Jake's monitor for a moment before rising from his bed. After throwing on some clothes, he made his way over to his workbench to begin the day's work.

Jake hopped up on a nearby stool and raised himself over the edge of the workbench. After surveying the parts for a moment, he asked, "Ah, the long range sensors are still giving you trouble?"

"What's left of them." Finn poked around at the parts on his bench for a moment before letting out a sigh. "This station's just too old. Without a fresh supply of parts, or at least access to an unguarded junkyard, I don't see this place lasting more than a year."

"You always say that, Finn." Jake said, pausing a moment to work a bit of grit from his leg joint. "Still, you always keep us floating out here."

"Hmm. Well, maybe Darsan'll manage to get some backing from the hanar rep. Their government should be paying us, seeing as we fuel half their damn traffic into the Shrike Abyssal."

"Yeah. You just know they're up to something."

Finn gave up on the shattered sensory array, at least for the moment. "I'm gonna go get some coffee. You want something, Jake?"

"Nah, I'm good."

Finn climbed a set of steel rungs to the main deck of Outpost J-27. Outpost J-27 was the galactic equivalent of a ratty little gas station in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, it was the only refueling station between the Silean Nebula and the Shrike Abyssal; you either dumped your core there or you slowly roasted for the next thousand light-years. The planetoid that Outpost J-27 orbited was, in all respects, a hunk of worthless rock that barely managed to have enough gravity for the station to have a proper orbit. The heavy concentrations of sulfur and ammonia made it deadly to all but the volus, and the extreme heat kept any of them from staking a claim. There was no point anyway; the planetoid had long since been mined of anything useful.

The main deck of the station wasn't very large: a hundred meters square at most, and in desperate need of assistance from an army of maids armed with sterilizing wands. The bar was little more than a makeshift desk in front of an odd collection of liquors. The shop was a complete junk heap that smelled strongly of must, old tobacco, and polishing cream. The only area that looked half-way clean was the eating area, a collection of old tables and mismatched chairs.

Two drell were sitting at one of the tables. Finn hadn't seen many drell in his time; they looked mostly human, albeit on the scaly side. It was the eyes that made him uneasy; the drells' solid black eyes that made it impossible to see where they were looking. Up close, Finn could tell that they were, in fact, looking everywhere.

The hanar referred to them as its associates, but Finn knew a bodyguard when he saw one. Right now, he saw two, meditating silently at their tables. He made a friendly wave, more out of habit than any sense of politeness. They returned the gesture but said nothing.

Finn considered making some breakfast, but decided against it; the café was set on a time-table, and some nutter had locked the early morning menu to something it referred to as 'Traditional English Breakfast'. He had tried it once out of curiosity. It was … not good.

The coffee maker's basket had a thick layer of tar that had long rendered the machine unable to produce anything any sane sapient would consider actual coffee. Still, it hit your brain like an electrically charged boot, and the taste wasn't that bad if you didn't let it linger in your mouth.

As Finn poured himself a cup of dark brown liquid, he became aware of a heated argument. There was no shouting; elcor didn't shout, and neither did the hanar. The whispering of the hanar, however, was not an easy thing to ignore, and Darsan's normal booming monotone was somehow louder than shouting.

"Annoyed. Our terms are more than fair."

"This one … does not know. This one feels that it is being taken advantage of, just as it has been taken advantage of before."

"Condescending; you are a fool, Opylius. This deal is fair and equitable; don't get greedy."

"This one is not asking for more than its fair share! Darsan is taking advantage of being the only base-"

"Impatient; the only base not monitored by the Citadel Fleet or patrolled by pirates or slavers. Sarcastic; if my station isn't good enough for you, feel free to take your business back to Omega."

"Perhaps this one will!"

The door to Darsan's cabin slid open. The hanar floated quickly from the door, its long tendrils recoiling from touching the floor. Finn still had a hard time not comparing the sapient beings to jellyfish.

Darsan followed the hanar out of the room that served Darsan as both office and bedroom. In many respects, he was a typical elcor; large frame, massive forearms, and the strange expressionless face marked only with a few vertical slits where most species had a mouth.

That, however, was where Darsan's similarities with his people ended. Where most elcor made do with the traditional garments (typically, pants, arm-warmers, and the elcor equivalent of a shirt (essentially just a square of cloth worn over their back), Darsan wore a pair of khaki slacks cut to fit his frame with black leather jacket, the back of which was embroidered with the phrase, 'J-27 or Bust'.

Still, that wasn't too unusual. The thing that never ceased to bring a smirk to Finn's face was the large wide-brim purple hat with a zebra-pattern stripe around the base. No one knew where Darsan got it; he simply left his cabin one day wearing it with the elcor equivalent of a grin.

"Jeering." The elcor said in his deep monotone, "Give Aria my best wishes."

The hanar quivered slightly before rushing toward the airlock to his ship. The drell rose from their table and followed their 'associate', but not before giving both Finn and Darsan polite nods.

As the airlock closed, Finn said, "Don't worry; I took the liberty of pulling the credits from his account for the fuel and services provided."

"Pleased; good thinking, Finn. Certain; he will return soon enough. That jellyfish won't risk a deal with Aria. She does not care for its kind."

"She's none too fond of the elcor either." Finn said pointedly.

Darsan shrugged his massive shoulders. "Indifferently; as long as she is at Omega and not here, there is no problem."

There was a brief shudder as the hanar's ship disconnected from the station. Finn used the pause to take a sip of what could only loosely be called 'coffee'. Grimacing from the taste, he said, "Hey, I'm gonna make a run to Krieger's today, see if I can't find something to get our long-range sensors back up and running again."

"Worried; is it beyond repair?"

"I ain't gonna lie." Finn told him. "It's in pretty rough shape. That, and the fact that model hasn't been in production for over a century make it a tough fix. Still, Krieger was going on about finding some serious salvage last time he was in; maybe he's found something with an intact unit."

"Relieved but cautious; what will it cost?"

"I dunno. Depends what I can find, and how much I can talk people down." Finn glanced at the pod door that led to the sensor array. "Sure be nice if the Alliance would chip in a little."

Darsan glanced at the pod door and slowly shook his head. "Fretful; the Alliance's presence offers us some protection. I would not want to 'push out luck', as your people say."

"Push our luck." Finn corrected as he washed out his coffee cup in the sink at the bar. "Well, we'll see how it goes. Just remember; if we don't get it up and running, we won't know what's out there beyond this system."

"Concerned; it is not a pleasant thought."

Wiping his hands on a clean towel, Finn said, "I'll let you know what I find, and we'll figure it out from there, okay?"

"Accepting; sounds like a plan. Be careful out there, Finn."

Finn climbed back down to his workshop and activated his main console. Jake reactivated and ambled over to him. "Whatcha doin', buddy?"

"Warming up the Gradisian." Finn glanced down at his little friend. "You up for a trip?"

"You bet!"

A round hatch slid open along the far wall, knocking over several stacks of parts in the process.

"Oops." Finn muttered as Jake leapt through the hatch. Just as he started to climb through after him, however, he was stopped by the sound of someone hurriedly trying to climb down the ladder into his workshop.

"Wait a minute!" A thin woman in a loose-fitting alliance uniform landed unsteadily beside the ladder and quickly turned to Finn.

Private Sherle Mannon was a relatively new fixture to the station, having only arrived a scarce two years ago. Barely out of training, the only reason she was there was to satisfy some obscure Alliance treaty that no one remembered anymore. Technically, she was supposed to be keeping an eye out for trouble, but as it was, she controlled the station's communications array. Finn really didn't mind; in addition to being human and more than passing fair, she was almost as good at patching up the floating heap of junk as he was. She seemed nice enough, if a bit tightly-wound; she insisted on wearing her uniform even though they hadn't serviced an Alliance vessel since her shuttle dropped her off. It seemed silly to Finn, but he ultimately respected her choice.

"What's up?" Finn asked her as she straightened her uniform.

"You're going to Krieger's right? To look for long-range scanner parts?"

"Among other things."

"Could you pick me up an energy converter? Mark five in the least, doesn't matter what brand."

Finn raised an eyebrow at this. "You sure about that? The new Elkoss Combine Mark 5's melt down in a matter of months."

"Doesn't matter; I'm stripping it for parts. I think I found a way to boost our transmission range."

"Uh-huh. Like last time?"

Sherle's face went red. "T-that was an accident. Anybody could've made the same mistake."

Finn held up his hands. "All right, all right! I'm just messin' with you. I'll see what I can find."

Finn started to go through the hatch again when a thought occurred to him. Stepping back out, he said, "What kind of extra range you talkin' about?"

"Nothing as major as another system. A few thousand light years at best."

"Why bother? There's nothing out there."

An unusually pensive look settled on Sherle's face. "Maybe, maybe not."

He sighed, but he couldn't get mad at her; she reminded him too much of his sister, Alea; the same small frame, the same perpetually unkempt hair, and the same stubborn insistence on wearing glasses which only served to make her eyes look unnaturally large.

Shaking his head, Finn said, "Well, I'll keep my eyes open."

"Thanks, Finn." Private Mannon said, bobbing her head nervously. "A-and be careful, okay?"

"I always am."

As Finn climbed down into the cockpit of the Gradisian, he felt a pair of metal paws touch his shoulders. "What was the hold up, man?"

"Mannon wants us to pick up some an energy converter. You know how it is." Finn said, already working on starting up the ship, "You tell people you're going shopping, suddenly everybody needs you to pick up something."

"Heh. Yeah." Jake settled in the copilot's seat and wagged his tail end happily. "You should ask her out."

Finn sighed. "Give it a rest, Jake."

"C'mon, man! It's not like you've got a lot of options, and you told me you like her."

"Even if my feelings were more intimate, she's ... well, Private Mannon. Alliance career woman all the way. She's never given me the smallest sign that she thinks me anything more than a coworker. Hell, she only just stopped calling me 'Mister Cresste'." Finn secured his safety harness straps before adding, "Besides, where the heck am I gonna take her? It would take at least a day to reach anywhere interesting."

"Well, you could always ..."

"No." Finn said firmly.

Jake looked hurt. "Well, you could. I'm just saying."

The Gradisian was a refitted quarian fighter, originally built four-hundred years ago during the Reaper War. The fact that it was still in prime condition was a testament to the quarian's technical prowess; even when something did break, fixing it was never a problem. The weapons were very underpowered for the time, but the drive was still fully functional, if a few centuries newer than the ship it powered.

As the cockpit slid shut, Finn patted Jake on the head and asked, "You ready?"

"Always, man! Let's go!"

With a nod, Finn pulled the release lever. The Gradisian separated from the station and slowly drifted forward from the idling engine output.

"Energy distribution normal." Finn muttered as he ran a quick diagnostic over the Gradisian's systems. "Life support fully powered, shield generators are charged."

The station was visible through a tiny window in the rear of the cockpit. As Finn reached for the throttle, he couldn't help but stare at it; it honestly didn't look much better from the outside: A collection of battered parts haphazardly welded into a livable space.

Still, it was still home.

"Sensors online!" Jake said cheerily, breaking Finn from his reverie. "We're clear!"

Shaking his head, he said, "Engaging drive." As he pushed forward on the throttle, the universe in front of him became a blur.