She had been alone in the belt for an hour before she saw the first of the things. More accurately, she heard its roar before she saw it, a hissing, gurgling sound. It was like something from her darkest, sleep-deprived, Quafe-fuelled nightmares, almost as bad as the time she was really bored and tried to snort Noxcium. Its body was skeletal and covered in green slime, the top half like a moth, the bottom half too covered in the ooze to make out details. The ooze glowed the same green as the asteroids, their bounty of ore so rare that her scanners hadn't heard of it before and were making it glitch, not that she needed her scanners as the glow was visible from outside the belt and the ore was visible from the asteroid's surface, dangerously enticing as a mermaid. The monster – it was the only way she could describe it - clicked its sharp claws and mandibles as they glided through space on bone wings, inexorably heading for her.
“Get the fuck away from my shiny rocks!” she screamed, setting her drones on the nearesFt of the figures. She could see five of them in total. Despite their hideous appearance, they didn't look all that large, and she didn't want to have to leave her precious potential payload unless it was definitely a battle that would kill her before her ore hold was full. It looked like rogue drones – she couldn't think of anything else as weird-looking that definitely existed – and her drones could hold their own against a few small rogue drones.
What kind of asteroid belt has rogue drones in it, anyway? The rumours were right about this system being weird. She hadn't felt right coming into the Rajeen system, especially with her sensors playing up as though she was falling through a wormhole when she was in such high security space that she almost flew straight into a Concord ship on her way through the gate – there was a supermax prison satellite here, or something. She knew her ship was telling her to get out, and that she was a fool for not listening, but it had made the mistake of admitting that the system had rare ore deposits in it.
It swung its claws in an almost lazy movement and sliced the first one almost in two while pulling the guns off the second. Roaring at her again, it turned to regard the other three, which she was already hitting the button to recall. Opening its skull-like mouth wider than should be possible, it sprayed green ooze at them. They began to melt into slag, but they were still moving. They were making those noises she now recognised as the sound actual rogue drones made. One of them began shooting at her.
She tried to warp out but it didn't work. Something was wrong with the computer that controlled the warp drive. Its monitor read out a stream of nonsensical errors, not even the kind that she saw when she was warp-scrambled. They were more like the kind that had started appearing on the screen when she tried to scan the ore sites. All her sensors were jammed, so she had to switch to a visual overhead of what she could see around her in space. Mostly, she could see green. The emerald glow had surrounded her, had gotten into her ship, had gotten into herself.
At least the damn mining laser still works. A morbid grin spread over her face; damn ship understands me too well, being in my head all day and night, knows my priorities in life. Knows I'd rather die here, out in the belt, on my own, where I can at least get some peace and quiet with my own thoughts, away from the Corp yapping at me all day. 'Hey, come here and lose all your money getting all your pretty ships blown up, holding our tiny patch of a tiny system for another five seconds!', 'Hey, stop mining, it looks bad for us when you get ganked!', 'Hey, stop mining, you're boring!', 'Seriously, stop mining, you're boring a huge hole in the station wall!'. Okay, so the last one had been kind of her fault for falling asleep and knocking the laser controls like that...
If they'd come when she asked them, they'd have been able to take these freaks between them, and she wouldn't be about to die right now. But no, they hadn't even answered comms when she asked them. She had even been extra polite. But no, they ignored her. Actually, she wasn't sure if any of them were even awake, this was one of her late night runs that felt best of all.
The glow was spreading. It was singing to her. She couldn't hear the alarms going off one by one as the ship's systems failed in turn, the growling that echoed, distorted, over the comm-link, the claws scraping against the hull. She couldn't see out into space any more.
She could still see six stars, though. They were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
The sudden lurch that was her capsule ejecting usually scared the shit out of her, and usually hurt her mind like hell if it was a particularly favoured ship she had suddenly lost her neural link with, such as her second shiniest Procurer had been, but it was now a remote sensation coming from the cage of meat and bone and steel that the glow told her it was time to transcend, in a metamorphosis that would turn her, too, into a beautiful butterfly, once she had been freed from this cold, hard cocoon.
Five minutes later, the Capsuleer walked out of the clone vats looking decidedly the worse for wear, her complexion unhealthy and her stare so dead-eyed and vacant that the technicians had tried to stop her so she could be checked for clone malfunctions or, worse, a mutation in her gene stock. She had pushed him away and marched down the corridor like a robot.
“The metamorphosis is incomplete,” she hissed in a voice that, with some notable exceptions, made other Capsuleers the technician had met that day sound like paragons of sanity, “The stars aren't right. One of them fell. Must find it.”
She wanted to set off straight away, but some part of herself, something that couldn't quite be taken over, insisted upon a new mining ship before she would go anywhere. A Venture would be fast – she would need to outrun the ones who came looking for her when she tried to go there – and she wouldn't need nearly as much ore hold space just to pick up the one. Besides, they were pretty. She fitted it, climbed into it, then undocked from the station.
Ignoring the Concord ships who had already turned up to investigate the technician's worried claims about an unusually deranged Capsuleer on the loose, she warped towards the prison satellite, then hit the microwarpdrive. She had to be quick. It was only possible once a year.