Hey all, Dean here. It has been a little over a year since I started writing the Venturess, and I wanted to say thank you to everyone for reading & voting.
It is an idea I kicked around for a long time, and when I decided to actually do it, I decided, perpetual malcontent that I am, that I would be happy with it no matter what- if a million people read it, or one.
Obviously, neither of those things happened, but there have been increases in readership and votes all year long, so it seems you are enjoying it. I hope you are- I enjoy writing it!
The biggest thing is that the Venturess remain free to read and vote on. But, in the event you want/are able to support me in it, there is a Patreon for that (Tahnk you, Patrons!). There are several rewards for those who chip in there: stickers, crew patches, and now character art. So, if you are able, it is much appreciated- even small amounts really help (not to mention, it’s a pretty damn good motivation to keep writing!).
So, again, thank you all so much for a very fun year, and I hope you stick around and spread the word for another one!
“I’d rather get out of here,” Laurie said. “These little buggers are getting on my nerves.” She worked her way through them, out of their makeshift arena, them still chattering behind her.
“Where should we go, then?” The Bartender broke free of the small, chattering bunch. “It’s getting dark and we have no idea where Scorch is. There’s too much metal and static to be able to perform any kind of scan.”
She sighed, scanning the horizon at the descending sun and fading shadows. She took a few steps, then yelled in frustration, sending a piece of metal flying with a kick.
The ground rumbled, or rather, the rusted metal decking they stood upon did, and something like a low growl came from the distance.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” the Bartender said.
The Scrappers appeared, running in a panic past them, back in the direction of their cave. The Bartender drew his weapon, spinning in a slow circle and looking for the source of the noise. Laurie did the same, tapping a button on her patch, turning the world around to shades of green in the low light.
“You’re going to like the look of it even less,” she said as she found the source of the noise, a giant reptilian figure, crawling over the top of one of the scrap piles on short legs. It raised its head and growled, shaking the metal again, creating small slides on the larger piles. Its massive tongue flicked out, testing the air, and it turned to watch the running Scrappers.
“Maybe if we hold still…” the Bartender said.
“What about them?” She nodded in the direction the Scrappers had gone.
“They live here. I’m guessing they know how to survive.”
She nodded slowly, gaze not leaving the monster, which had began to crawl down the near side of the metal mountain, leaving a wake of sliding metal.
“Maybe we should find some cover?”
“From that thing? Where?”
“The canyon we came through?”
She nodded. “Let’s move cautiously.” She walked sideways, keeping her body facing the lizard. The boxy canyon was visible, if only just, several hundred meters away yet. They covered the ground as swiftly as they dared, working to remain silent and not disturb the garbage and make noise.
The reached the entrance of the canyon even as the lizard came to the bottom of the pile, tongue still gathering scents, tracking potential prey. From the canyon entrance, she could see its head turn to them.
“I think our time is up,” she said apprehensively. The Bartender flicked the safety off his rifle.
“Ready when you are.”
She looked around, trying to find another cave, or place to hide.
“I don’t think they want to eat us,” the Bartender said as he surveyed the little aliens, who continued to chatter excitedly and gesture to the cave.
“Are you kidding? Look around. What else is there for them to eat? We probably look like a nice cut of Becha to them.”
The Bartender chuckled slightly, then whistled shrilly. The chatter stopped, and they all turned their wide eyes to the reptilian.
“Well, go on. Talk to them,” Lauire said, making a sweeping gesture towards the expectant creatures.
“I don’t speak scrapworld chatter,” he replied. He sighed, and attempted to pantomime Scorch’s robotic movements. The scrappers tittered, a high noise that might have been laughter. They turned to one another, talking in hushed tones.
Laurie shrugged at the Bartender, who simply shrugged back.
A more distinct noise emerged from the crowd, something like “Oo-ah”. They turned back to the two offworlders, and repeated it.
“Oo-ah.” They pointed to the distance, between two pile of scrap. “Oo-ah!”
“Might as well follow them,” Laurie said as they scampered off in that direction. The scrappers moved swiftly over piles of constantly-shifting metal, the occasional puddle of ooze and other assorted junk, alternating between simply running and hopping, to nearly crawling, using their over-long arms to steady themselves.
Laurie and the Bartender did their best to keep up, and the creatures would occasionally pause to shout something unintelligible back at them.
They passed through canyons of garbage, paths the little creatures had clearly used often, weaving through hundreds of years of discarded spaceships. It smelled of rust and oil, a scent that seemed to constantly linger in the air. The sky and the broken pieces of ships seemed blend together, one drab color giving way to another, with only the occasional swatch of color where paint had not yet peeled away.
The sun was setting, casting long shadows from wreckage, when they reached their apparent destination. A circular arena of sorts had been made, crude seats made from ship parts. In the center stood a rudimentary statue, about twice as tall as a human, but resembling the scrappers, who all bowed to it, chanting “oo-ah” as they did so.
“Oh, good. You’ve accepted their gospel,” Laurie said to the Bartender.
His thin mouth twisted into and expression she hadn’t seen before and his tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. “Perhaps it can forgive your sins where the Dead Corps could not.”
“Hey, now.” She turned to the devotees of the crude god, trying to explain that their god was not what they were seeking. She held her hand at head height to show Scorch was somewhat shorter than their statue. They looked at her with blank expressions, before turning back to their god.
“Looks like we’re on our own,” she said, turning to leave their theater. They stopped chanting again, and surrounded them, forcing them towards the statue.
“I take it back,” the Bartender said. “I think they do want to eat us.”
“Or maybe they really do want us to repent. I am kicking Scorch’s ass when we find him.”
“Maybe we should just stay here. It’s getting dark, and we are pretty far from the ship. They seem harmless enough so far.”
Laurie rolled her eye- the effect was lessened somewhat with only the one. “I don’t really want to play the part of the damsel in distress, but I could use you around, Bartender.”
“That much seems apparent,’ he replied, his reptilian face split by a thin smile.
“Let’s go find our friend. Lay in the course.”
“In that case, wake me up when we get there.” She leaned back, trying to block out the rancid stench of the Dead Corps ship, and closed her eyes.
* * *
“Welcome to Nuvaria, Captain.” The Bartender shook her awake. She sat up, rubbing futilely at the patch, as she did most days. There was the phantom itch there, and eyeball which did not exit anymore demanding to be scratched.
“Are we on the surface?”
“I’m not sure this planet even has a surface. If it does, it’s under miles of scrap. Scrapyard for the galaxy, this.”
“Been here before?”
“It’s a good place to hide.”
She stood as the Bartender opened the hatch, a thin ramp leading down from the chin of she spacecraft.
“Doesn’t smell much better out here, does it?” She stepped out onto a rusty steel deck. “Are you sure this will hold us?”
He probed forward gingerly with his three-toed foot and glanced over his shoulder at the ship. “Pretty sure.”
“So where the hell is Scorch?” She stepped away from the ship and looked around at the piles and piles of scrap, reaching up like perverse mountains. “I don’t supposed you grabbed his transponder?”
“I was sort of in a hurry.”
She sighed, wondering if it was possible to find him- or if it would be worth it. “Let’s see if we can get some height.” She gestured to one of the hills, and started walking towards it. There were small hills, piles of junk, some coming apart in her hands, rusted with age.
“There’s an opening over here.”
“An opening?” He gave her an incredulous look.
“Yeah, a cave or something.” She walked closer to it, the half-circle opening, trimmed with plates of metal, with a crude path leading up to it. She approached it tentatively, peering into it as best she could.
As she drew close, some chattering echoed from within and suddenly a bunch of small beings came running out. They had over-large heads and thin bodies. They were clad in nothing but loincloths, and encircled her, chattering excitedly. Their skin was a sickly brown color, and they appeared entirely too skinny to be healthy- though it seemed like any semblance of health would be hard on a world like Nuvaria.
“You sure do seem to make friends quickly.”
“You didn’t scan for life forms?”
“It’s a junkyard. I didn’t think there would be any.”
She attempted- vainly- to shoo them away from her. “This is not what we need. I don’t even know what they’re saying.”
He approached, trying to get them to leave off, but to no avail. They tugged on her, trying to lead them into the cave. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
The Bartender paid Laurie’s shouts no heed as he bolted for the ladder. Another of the Dead Corps, some hulking alien- or, it had been- dripping with rotted flesh slid down it. The gas spraying into the middeck hit Laurie, and her head started to swim. Through a haze, rocking as if she was on a boat in a turbulent sea, she saw the Bartender pull a knife from his belt, slashing at the creature’s throat. The head flopped and a gurgling sound emerged, as if it was trying to laugh through its severed throat.
The Bartender grabbed the ladder with one hand and swung himself up so his feet were braced perpendicular to it. He kicked between the runs with his clawed foot, severing the creature’s spine in a shower of gore. The head rolled away from the body, but he ignored it as he aimed up into the cockpit with his rifle, unleashing rounds into the Dead Corps which crowded above.
The blasts echoed through Laurie’s head, where everything seemed dull and slow, thunderclaps that went on for too long. The smell was pronounced, the fatty smell of rotting flesh being burned by laserfire. In the back of her mind was the vague notion that she should stand, that she should help, but everything seemed so far away, like she was just watching it all happen.
The Bartender dropped to the floor, crouching next to the prone alien body, still firing through the hatch to prevent more of the half-living beings from descending. He grabbed a grenade from the body, armed it and tossed it straight up. In a swift motion, he was up the ladder and slammed the hatch shut.
Laurie watched it all through a detached lens, fighting to find the motivation the poison spewing through the middeck was sapping. She struggled to her feet, steadying herself as best she could before slumping forward, unconscious, over their makeshift barricade.
She drifted in and out of consciousness for what felt like an eternity. She caught glimpses of the Bartender’s face as he moved her around. She got the vague impression that he did something with her limbs- changed her clothes, maybe?- but she couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t fathom why, either, from he place in the clouds of her mind, so she deliriously decided to just go along with it.
Her head hit something. It was the first real sensation that broke through the cloud of numbness, a dull ache in the back of her head. Another sensation rocked her, a smell, like raw meat left out in the sun.
She lurched forward, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the deck, meager though it was. She fell next to the puddle, the rust-colored metal cold against the side of her face.
My ship has grey decking.
“Where…” she retched again.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.” The Bartender stood over her. He threaded a scaly arm under her, and helped her to her feet. “You know, Captain, I’m starting to think you need someone to look after you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You keep getting knocked around. This is the second time today I’ve saved your life.”
“At least one of us is keeping track. Didn’t I save yours once?”
“Third if you count keeping the Death Corps from breaking through from the cockpit.”
She leaned against the nearest wall, hands on her knees. She managed to raise her head enough to shoot him a quizzical glance. “How did you do that, by the way?”
He closed his mouth tight, the thin, lipless smile disappearing, and the thin slits of his nostrils did the same. He held that face, featureless for a moment, before they reappeared. “Fuesillia has a lot of toxic geysers. We’ve evolved to survive around them.”
“Well, I’m glad your adaptable. Where are we?”
“You won’t like this-”
“Don’t tell me.”
“We’re on the Dead Corps ship.”
She swore. “Where is my ship?”
“Derelict would be the kind term.”
She took a deep, staggering breath. “Well, we need to find that package, and see what shape Scorch is in.”
“And get you medical attention.”
“You know what, Bartender, I think this time I agree with you. I’m pretty sure Nuvaria doesn’t have any decent medical facilities, and that’s where Scorch is.”
“Perhaps we should split up. You can recover, and I will go after Scorch.”
The pounding coming from the far side of the docking bay grew louder and more insistent.
“Let’s get to higher ground,” Laurie said, moving to her left and keeping an eye on the bulging door opposite where they stood.
“Does that hold for a derelict spaceship?”
“This old girl has a few tricks left up her sleeve, Bartender.” She patted the bulkhead affectionately as she climbed the stairs. The reptilian slung the rifle that rested on the counter next to him over his shoulder and followed, a wary glance into the docking bay as he did so.
“I hope you’re right.”
“When have I ever been wrong?” she replied wryly.
There were two sets of stairs which ascended from the mid-deck, where the medical bay was, one on either side of it. There they met the common deck, a rectangular room, with eating arrangements and seating aft and hallway fore, leading to the six sleeping quarters. A ladder lead up to the cockpit.
“What’s the plan?”
She glanced around the room. “Good of place as any to make a stand. I am going to go up to the cockpit and see what systems are online.”
“Do you really think that will help?”
“I know it will, if they are active. You get some cover set up for us.” She ascended the ladder, wincing at the pain in her side, throbbing through the drugs. She slumped into the pilot’s seat, togging the main power switch, yielding no result. She sighed, sliding out of the chair onto the floor and pulling herself under the console. Pulling a knife from her belt, she exposed the wires, splicing them back together from where it had been cut.
While whoever had boarded the ship had certainly disabled it, they didn’t count on her or the Bartender waking up. If they had, the entire console would be destroyed. As it was, they had cut wires at random and left it at that.
She wound them back together, receiving a sharp shock for her troubles. She swore, and pulled herself back up to the chair, breathing heavily. She flipped a bank of switches, and the main lights came back on.
“We’re in business now,” she said to herself, feeling some measure of confidence for the first time.
A display sprang to life, showing the damage to the ship, a warning flashing that the cargo door was about to be breached.
“Ready down there?” she shouted to the Bartender.
“I suppose I better be,” his raspy voice returned.
She took another painful breath. “Then here we go.” She slid her fingers down the layout of the ship, sealing the two doors down to the cargo bay. The warning alerted her to the breech, and it showed life forms – an ironic term, given the state of the Dead Corps drones – pouring in.
The ship rocked and vibrated as the plated charges exploded from the walls of the cargo bay as she descended back to the common deck. “Think that got them?” the Bartender asked as she crossed to the makeshift barricade he had made.
“Let’s make sure,” she replied, crouching next to him. She held up her hand, the small computer on the inside of her wrist projecting a small hologram of the Venturess. With a gesture, they bay door dropped open, or attempted to, striking the ship attached to it. The rush of air leaving the rest of the ship could be heard through the sealed doors, sucking whatever was in the bay out into space.
“You do have tricks.”
“One or two. But so do they.” She looked to the manway leading to the cockpit, an audible clicking coming from above. There was a screeching, metal being cut by a torch, and the clanging as the coupon fell to the deck.
Laurie slid to the other side of the barricade, raising her pistols and peering over. The Bartender followed, bracing his rifle on the back of the couch they hid behind. She looked over at him, a pleading look in her one good eye.
“I meant what I said.”
“I know you did.”
“Don’t let them take me.”
“They won’t.” He looked back to the cockpit as footfalls could be heard. “Wouldn’t be my first mercy killing,” he said quietly.
A boot came into view on the top rung of the ladder, then another, stepping down slowly. The figure wore a long, black coat. It’s movements were stiff, and unnatural, taking each rung with a sudden jerk. It reached the deck, standing there for a second. Its face was a mangled mess, flesh hanging from the jaw, spots on the face and hands oozed. Laurie watched in terror as it stepped around the ladder, moving closer to her. She crouched, frozen, unable to bring her weapon to bear as it spoke.
“Laurie Mack,” it’s voice was a hollow rasp, as if its vocal cords were sandapaper, “you are guilty of crimes against all living beings. You have been judged, and you shall carry out your sentence.” It was mere feet away now, shambling straight for her. It leaned down, eyes milky white, hollow and glazed. “You will be imprisoned in your mind and your body shall mete out justice to the wicked.”
She could smell the rank decay of flesh, feel the breath, warm and rancid in contrast to the cold and sterile smell of the Venturess. Her jaw trembled in terror and no words could break free. A skeletal hand reached out for her, slimy with half-decayed flesh of the victim of the parasite.
It never reached her. Suddenly, with a sharp barking noise, the head exploded, spraying over the deck to her right. She looked to her left, the Bartender’s rifle smoking above the neck of the corpse as it fell to the ground.
“Took you long enough,” she said as her voice returned to her.
“I thought you had it,” he replied dryly.
“Let’s not talk about that.”
“You’re the captain.”
More footfalls could be heard entering the cockpit above. “Looks like they’re not ready to give up on you,” he said.
A metal cylinder fell through the manway, spraying a gas into the air as it clinked off the decking. Laurie swore and the Bartender charged over the barricade.
“Come back here!” She shouted, but he paid no heed.
Artillery echoed across the low plain, missiles fired from orbit tracing paths as black as the death they carried across the red sky. The batteries behind Laurie pounded a deafening rhythm, boom-boom-boom, pouring fire into enemy defenses.
The smell of burning metal and flesh made its way through the filter in Laruie’s helmet, stinging her nostrils. She knelt behind a piece of rubble, quickly pulling the spent filter out and replacing it, blinking back the water in her eyes as smoke overwhelmed her. New filter in, she slammed the helmet back on, popping her head over the scrap to take stock of her surroundings.
Everything had gone to hell. There was supposed to be minimal resistance. To say that intel was wrong would be as gross an understatement as their estimation of the enemy. The first dropships never stood a chance, decent engines disabled within seconds of breaking atmosphere, plummeting in a freefall until they burned up or impacted the ground. A fast death, with several seconds of pure terror preceding it. All those beings were now vaporized or impossible to pick from the twisted metal that ferried them to the ground, all mixed together in blackened craters.
Her own ship, in what was to be the second wave, had made it though. She called for the orbital bombardment before she hit the ground, rage and hate burning in her chest. She slaughtered everything in her path, now on the outskirts of the capital city.
“What now?” She glanced back at the soldier crouched behind her.
“We push in.” She glanced skyward, the red from the setting sun masking the fire that burned all around. “I want this city taken by nightfall.”
She radioed for the shelling to stop, waiting and counting until the explosions stop. “Now,” she said, standing, “We move in.”
Suddenly, pain burned in her left eye, her helmet shattered and blood pooled in her mouth. She whipped the helmet off and what remained of her eye went with it. She swore violently, trying to look around with her remaining eye. It managed to fix on the child standing there, covered in soot, the rifle it had taken from a soldier clutched in his hands would have been comical in another context. Laurie didn’t laugh, gritting her teeth against the pain and cursing the child.
She reached for the pistol on her belt, drawing it purposefully. To his credit, the young native didn’t react with any fear, instead trying to bring his weapon to bear as her sight covered his face.
She woke, cold sweat covering her as she sat upright in the medical bay. She looked wildly around, expecting to see the dirty face that haunted her dreams. Instead, the Bartender was perched on a stool, reading calmly.
“What the hell are you doing?” She snapped.
“Waiting for you to wake up. You passed out trying to fix the primary converter in the engine. I thought you’d be more comfortable here.”
“Well, why aren’t you trying to fix it?”
“Because it’s beyond any hope of repair. I rigged the cargo bay, as you asked. We’ll be ready for them when they come.” He paused. “If they come.”
She took a deep breath, taking stock of her wounds. “I also took the liberty of patching you up a bit, since you wouldn’t let me do it while you were awake.”
“Thank you.” She did feel better, which was relative at best. At least the pain in her side was only a dull throb. She leaned back on the table, wiping her brow as she did. “Did I… say… anything? While I was asleep?” she asked in a quiet voice.
She swore. “What did I say?”
“Just ‘not again’. Over and over.” He laid his reading material aside and rose, standing over the table. She moved her arm from over her eyes, looking up at his reptilian face, as calm as she had ever seen it. “You know, I recognized you that day in the bar.”
“Would have helped you out to turn me in.”
He shrugged. “There are plenty of people who want both you and I dead. I’ve done things I am not proud of for a cause I believe in.”
“I didn’t believe in their cause. I was just paid to be there, Bartender. And a lot of people are dead because I was.”
He looked down on her, care reflected in his deep black eyes. “I can’t judge you. And neither can the Dead Corps.”
The Venturess creaked, the sound of metal on metal reverberating though the ship. “Won’t stop them from trying,” she said, sliding off the table. The Bartender picked up her gun belt and handed it to her. “Ready for this? They’ll let you go if you don’t help me.”
“I never did take the easy way out, Captain.”
She stopped in the doorway of the medical bay, looking back at him. “You’re really willing to help the Butcher of Vaersadg?”
“I don’t think you’re that person anymore, Captain.”
She looked ahead, to the far side of the cargo bay, where a thumping was emanating as they attempted to breach the hull. “I hope you’re wrong, for the time being.”
“Where do we take them? The bay is rigged to blow.”
“There’s good cover here, but no way out. We can go above, to the common deck.”
“Not great shooting lanes, except for as they come up the ramp.”