A dark and dusty breeze flits over the gray prairie, jostling the scraggly brush and slipping between massive boulders. It toys with the fringes of her faded sundress, a rusty windmill-vane protests the wind far above.
She stands on the porch of her farmhouse hab, unmoving.
Her cheeks are hot under the glass of her respirator-mask.
She barely registers the buzz of static coming from her helmet's comms.
A beetle scratches in the dust at her feet.
She becomes aware of the tickle of grief that wets her eyes, but the sulphurous atmosphere and the tight seal of the mask ensure she cannot wipe it away. High above the farmyard, reflected in a hundred domes of greenhouse glass, the twin gossamer trails of a climbing spacecraft arc asymptotically into the gloaming sky. Before her squats a minicrate the size of a small beverage cooler.
Its contents had been described by the larger of the two men as: “what remains of yo' boy.”
She couldn't remember what else the man had said before he returned to the bulky Cutlass; its massive twin-VTOL engines burning circles in the cheat-grass.
Perhaps the howling wind of the spacecraft's thrusters or the rushing blood in her ears had overridden the volume of her vox circuit and smothered her voice.
She must have stammered a reply.
Her hands are leaden, her back aches.
A beetle scratches in the dust at her feet.
She stares at the rising moons as the last word the man spoke echoes in her mind.
The word means nothing to her. Yet.
“3...2...1...Hup,” Sarnt barked from their crouch behind a pallet of cargo. The armored helmet of his spacesuit caught the order and relayed it silently.
“Bounding!” Corprull replied as he slipped sideways around the stacked containers. Sarnt peered around the edge after him, his Custodian sub-machine gun sighted and ready to engage any threat to Corprull's advance. A twinge of pride crossed his face as his protege ran hard for the next cover.
“Set,” the young corpsman radioed as he pressed his back against a bulkhead doorway fifteen meters ahead.
Sarnt snapped his weapon up and back and slid 'round the edge. Slightly crouched, he moved with practiced fluidity into the spacious atrium of the space station. As he passed the bulkhead, he began to pivot left into the room, allowing his Custodian to sweep the open space.
A row of 20-meter-tall windows made up the right-hand wall and a quarter of the angled ceiling. Through these great apertures he could see several empty landing pads and the great stabilising ring that rotated around the space-station. The intense, naked light of the star Stanton flooded the atrium at an angle, creating stripes of bright against the dark interior. Display screens and cargo boxes festooned every available surface.
As Corprull fell into step behind Sarnt, his visor strobed compensation for the windowed sunlight. He clicked his mic as a familiar shape caught his eye.
“Sarnt, we got casualties. Two more dead PriSecs at the base of the windows.”
“A-firm. Eyes left.” Sarnt was all business. He was moving toward the first of two hallways branching left from the atrium.
Sarnt held his hand extended vertically above his weapon. A slight flick of this 'knife-hand' gesture told Corprull that the old man was going to leave him here and take the other hallway.
Corprull nodded curtly.
Remembering their briefing, he knew these were the main access points for the abandoned operations center at Security Post Kareah. A dozen meters through these halls, there would be a raised center platform running the length of the room. It would be walled with ballistic panels, and arrayed with monitors and server racks that would make visibility difficult.
There's gonna be lots of hidin' spots for traps up there, Sarnt's voice echoed in his head.
Ringing three-quarters of the large room, ten meters up, would be an open-windowed mezzanine. He knew the mercenary team was supposed to have it cleared, but he and Sarnt would have to cover it anyway to be safe.
It'll be the perfect place for an attacker t'stay hidden with the advantage of elevation, and with a clear shot on us.
They'd have to move into the room under watch of the mezzanine, mount the dias at the same time from twin sets of three stairs on opposite sides, and then turn to address the terminal at which their objective was likely to be sitting.
Three quick tones sounded in his helmet comms.
This was it. Corprull tightened his grip and began moving inwards.
Like greased shadows, Corprull and Sarnt approached either side of the dias. They led with their SMGs, snapping and sweeping as they pied off the mezzanine and the wall of technology down the middle of the large room.
Corprull played his actions in his head as he performed them.
First step up. No visible traps. No plate, line or hook. Look up.
Second step. No visible trap.
Pause at landing, pie left end of dias as Sarnt pies the opposite side. Turn around when this side is clear. Rejoin Sarnt…
Sarnt’s turn led him directly to the terminal where they expected to find their quarry.
“I'LL THANK YOU NOT TO TOUCH THAT.” The station's public-address intercom broke weeks of silence.
Corprull turned to see Sarnt in a relaxed position, weapon pointed idly downwards on its sling. Beyond, the terminal churned, a progress bar inching across the screen.
“Ho, Pee-eff. Ah knew this wasn't gonna be easy.” Sarnt's thick drawl boomed through his external helmet speaker.
“You're like bad Benny's, Sarnt. Always churning up. And you know I hate it so when you call me PF.” The voice on the intercom echoed around the room off myriad hard, angled surfaces. It belonged to a woman, and had a tinge of sarcasm that seasoned every word.
Sarnt spoke slowly while scanning the mezzanine for movement. “Why don' y'all come out an' talk this over, Pee-eff?”
“I know you know I'm smarter than that, Sarnt. I'm perfectly comfy right here in my hideyhole. And don't bother stopping that hack; if you do, you won't leave this station alive. I've got control of all the doors and life support. How much Oxygen do your combat suits have, anyway?”
“What'd y'all do with mah other team, Pee-eff?” he asked calmly, ignoring the question.
“You mean yesterday? You passed a few on your way in, didn't you? I didn't know they were yours, I swear. The others... well, they didn't even make it past the airlocks. You can pick them up on your way out... if you're a good boy.”
Sarnt clicked over to his radio. “Corp, head up to the 'lock on pad three. Let them mercs out.”
“PF, Ah'm sending the Corp up tah let them boys out. Ah'm also stoppin' this hack, an' y'all and me are gonna chat.”
“You're signing your own death certificate, Sarnt!” There was a smidgeon of mirth peeking around the bravado.
Corprull jumped down the steps of the dias and began running for the main stairs.
“WHERE'S HE GOING? NO! STAY THERE!” PF's normal sarcasm was replaced by something that sounded like it was auditioning for fear. As Corprull left, Sarnt thumbed the ABORT button on the terminal, stopping PF's identity-erasing hack. He reached out a hand and broke free the remote interface device through which PF had been accessing files.
“NOOOooooOO! You've ruined my plan! Oh, how could I have let myself be so careless!?” The last sentence came dripping with mock self-pity.
Sarnt froze at the change in her tone. He knew now she was playing with him.
“...Where are you, PF?”
The question hung in the air.
“Yela.” The ensuing cackle reverberated from the intercom so loudly it made his faceplate rattle. “I've got a proposal for you, Sarnt. Get to these coordinates on Yela, and you'll find a bigger bounty than I ever was.” The mobiGlas attached to his wrist vibrated a notification. “Once you see what I've given you you'll want to marry me all over again!”
Sarnt clicked his radio. “She ain't here, Corprull. Git you to th' airlock and meet me outside.”
“Did she say marry you... again!?” Corprull clicked over his radio as he ran up the last flight of stairs to the third floor.
“A-firm. That there is a story for another time,” came Sarnt's curt reply.
“Ah said, Another. Time.” Sarnt didn't like repeating himself.
“I'll hold you to that. I'm at the airlock. It's stuck on Cycling, though I think if I reset the access panel it'll open up.” He popped the face off the hand-sized display in the airlock door and flipped it over. On the back, a small red button was recessed into the casing. One long-press later, the airlock buzzed into emergency-mode and cycled one last time. The door slid open.
“FOR FUCK'S SAKES! took you...”
A large man in PriSec combat gear stood in the doorway, gasping for oxygen between expletives. The stencilled nametag on his armor showed ABRAMS under the Hurston Dynamics Private Security logo.
Three others in similar suits, helmets off, lay propped against the walls in various states of conciousness. Corprull waited for Abrams to catch his breath.
He continued after what seemed ages. “We entered the airlock, but she wouldn't open up. We tried to blast the inside doors open but the damned controller must have been damaged, and the EMP took out our radios. It's been...” he stopped for a massive breath. “cycling ever since. We ran out of suit Ox a few hours ago and the fucking 'lock has been alternating between vacuum and air. What took you so long!?”
“We got stood up. What took you guys so long?” Corprull said as he moved to the controller midway into the airlock. “See, under here's the emergency release - you just flip it towards the door you want to open. Put your helmets back on, please”
He flipped the discreet lever spacewards. Abrams stared incredulously and a look of puzzled rage washed across his face. The airlock cycled and Corprull ran out onto the artificial-gravity plating that made up the decks. “When you all wake up from your naps, head back to Lorville; we'll call you if we need you!” he shouted as the door closed behind him.
Corprull launched from the end of the landing pad into zero-G and immediately fired his suit thrusters to put him flying 'down' the station's long axis. This was his favorite sport; EVA. He manipulated his suit thrusters to strafe and accelerate between the struts of the massive station's solar panels. He deftly swung from a girder, grabbing it as he passed, changing trajectory to slip behind a photovoltaic panel and directly into the open side door of their well-hidden Cutlass Blue.
His momentum carried him almost 8 meters into the bay before the ship's Artificial Gravity brought him to the floor into a perfect kneeling action pose.
Nailed it, he thought.
Back in the operations center, Sarnt was deep in negotiations.
“Look, Pee-eff, Ah know things di'n't end up right 'tween us, and your chosen profession lately ain't real conducive tah mine, but this time's diff'r'nt. Ah've done told you a hunnert times why Ah gotta bring you in to see Mz. Hurston.” His voice shook with exasperation. “Yer not in trouble, Ah just got t'have y'all in there with me.” He was pleading now, begging her a moment of lucidity to understand.
“You just can't handle that I might be happier without you, Sarnt! I know that's the real reason you chase me so!”
Sarcasm. Always with the sarcasm, thought Sarnt. She was so much easier to reason with before the accident that ended her career.
“Look. Ah'll make it simple fer'ya. Some'n's wrong at Hurston, and the mucky-muck family that owns the planet don' trust each other. You know where they buried them bodies and Mz. Hurston just needs to get to the bottom of her sons' squabble. All we need is for you to come talk. Ah'll be there to hold your hand, an' Ah'll walk you right back out again. If Ah'm not the one to bring you in they might send someone who don' know... how you is lately... and shit's gon' be real bad fer'you.”
“I told you, Sarnt — go to Yela and you'll find something better than a bounty. I'm not coming in. Just let me go, sweetie! You can't chase a stray dog — Gods know how hard you try.” The intercom screeched with feedback as she punched the terminal disconnect.
Corprull had already performed a lengthy inspection of the Cutlass, cleaned his removable armor plating, and placed his weapon in storage by the time Sarnt glided through the side door into the cargo bay.
“Ship's ready for underway, Sarnt.”
“A-firm. Tell y'all what, Corp, why'n't y'all drive for a while. Take us to Yela, Ah'll lay in them coords.” Sarnt made a motion with his mobiGlas and the ship's holographic map spun to life. As Sarnt tapped away in the air above his wrist the shimmering display was filled with an icy, mountainous landscape seen from above. “We ain't got recent data for that area, looks like. An' ah don' see any habs on the registry.”
“Maybe we're looking for a ship?” Corprull suggested helpfully.
Sarnt grunted. “Mebbe. We'll see when we get closer I 'spect.”
“Are we really going to let her get away from us that easily, Sarnt?” Corprull thumbed the Quantum-drive toggle and the ship shuddered as it powered for the jump towards the distant planet.
“We ain't really got a choice, now have we, Corp.”
Corprull nodded pensively, his lips pursed in a sly rictus. “So. Married, huh?”
Sarnt cuffed him on the shoulder roughly and stalked away from the helm. “Ah'll be in mah bunk.”
The Cutlass shuddered as it collapsed the skin of its Quantum-bubble and dropped from sub-light travel. The blinding white ball of ice that comprised Crusader's moon, Yela, filled Corprull's field of view beyond the struts of the cockpit.
“We’re here, I’ll take us down 50k out and NOE her the rest of the way in. Going silent.”
The repose of a few hours’ Quantum travel turned to quick taps on the various Multi-function displays that surrounded Corprull’s seat. The Cutlass’ engines whined down to a barely audible hum as Corprull cut power to mask their signatures. The shield generator fell silent, and somewhere electrical relays clicked as the weapon gimbals relaxed. With a slight push forward on his right stick the Cutlass slipped into the crystal-clear atmosphere of Yela.
“So, tell me, Sarnt. How'd you come to be married to that psycho?”
Sarnt stirred in his bunk. “You sure you wanna hear that sappy story, there, Corp?” He stared at the ceiling of his bunk, collecting his thoughts.
“I got time, Sarnt.”
“Ah was just out of boot, Corp. My first taste of adult life. Ah got me a sweet used 85x, a 25% APR, and a girl to ride shotgun.”
Sarnt yawned as he checked the bunk’s ship-system display. He thumbed a button and a tiny fan began to blow across the cabin.
“Y'all know how they say 'Love is Blind', Corp? Well, y'all could see Pee-Ef's smile from orbit, with your eyes closed. Grrah!”
The old soldier sat up slowly, fighting the increase in g-force as Corprull bottomed out the Cutlass' descent into a canyon complex at 200m/s.
“We both get shipped to the same unit, and in a couple years we decide to tie the knot. A couple’a my unit were moonlighting as mercenaries — that’s how Ah got into this line-uh-work, Corp. me ‘n her took a side-job the day after we got married at Terra.”
“Pee-Ef —” Sarnt gave a racking cough. “Petra an' me always did like to mix business and pleasure. Come to think of it, that was when we first met your father, Corp.”
Corprull's curiosity piqued at this revelation. Sarnt had never talked about how he came to be Corprull's legal guardian, nor where or who his parents actually were. It was a subject the old man often dodged when Corprull returned from boarding school while growing up, and a massive sore-spot in their otherwise-professional relationship.
“No shit, my Father?” Corprull slowed the Cutlass in preparation for landing in a valley full of boulders. The coordinates PF had given them lay two kilometers distant. Preoccupied with Sarnt's story, Corprull managed to scrape one of the engines along a boulder. The metal-ripping SCREEE made him wince.
“No shit, Corp. Let’s get hikin’ an’ Ah’ll tell y’ all about it. Watch mah engines next time, trackin'?”
Corprull listened, rapt, to Sarnt's story as they trudged across the frozen face of Yela.
“We was hired to hack a disguised radar facility site that protected a village of Fair-Chance indigenous,” Sarnt was saying, “The group that hired us on called theyselves the 'Indigenous Freedom League.' They told us they were trying to help them savages out with food aide. Hup!”
Sarnt hopped down off a large boulder. “As far as Ah knew, we was doin' the right thing, helping out that there village — but the UEE navy disagreed. They ruled the planet fell under the Fair Chance act, y'know, the one what says no contact to be made with undeveloped worlds, even help.”
Sarnt kicked at a chunk of ice and it rolled down the hill they were climbing, picking up snow and growing as it went.
“Their culture wasn't spacefaring, and though they seemed intelligent, no attempt at contacting them directly was ever allowed. But the IFL was clever, and they established contact with the natives in the form of messengers from their gods so they could help them out surrupsh- sir-up-sish-... quietly.”
“How'd that work?” Corprull piped up.
“Well. For a few generations or so, the UEE was none the wiser.”
Sarnt paused. ”But when Pee-Ef an' me showed up, we found the village destroyed, no survivors. Save one. A baby.”
Corprull stopped dead in his tracks. “A baby? Wait, who destroyed the village? The UEE?”
“Aye, son. Pee-Ef and me decided to bring him back with us, and raise him best we could.”
“You never told me...” Corprull's mind reeled with the implications of being the last alien child of a dead planet of Fair-Chancers.
Sarnt tapped him gently to start marching again. “It doesn't matter where you came from, Corp. Only where you're goin'.”
“I... have a lot of questions, Sarnt...” It was hard for Corprull to keep walking straight. He turned his head over his shoulder to try and look Sarnt in the eye. Sarnt's mask was shaded black, Corp couldn't make out his features.
“They'll be time 'nuff fer that later, b-boy.”
Corprull swore he heard Sarnt's voice break on the last syllable.
Hroldr pulled apart a strip of Qualt jerky as he stared intently at the Meeting Star far above the desert horizon. The star shone bright in the purple skyglow opposite the sunset, brighter than it had in years. He could just make out a smaller point of light slowly departing the larger - its slight red tinge and gentle twinkle betrayed that it was Łichíí, the Messenger Goddess. Hroldr tilted his head back and lowered the jerky into his mouth.
She must be heading off to the Deyaa, he thought to himself; the place of leaving. She should be back in three days time.
He gently kneed his mount, a shaggy Ost of impressive height, and they began picking their way down the dry crater walls. Here and there, twiggy vegetation replete with piercing spines and tiny red leaves made obstacle. Loose, cocoa-colored dirt gave way in tiny avalanches under heavy hooves.
Hroldr aimed his Ost's ears towards the middle of the crater, nearly two kilometers away, and a hundred meters below. In the very center, square tents were arranged in concentric circles. Paths of light-colored earth where surface rocks had been pulled aside lined the circumferences of the tent-lanes. At the focal point stood the Onte-nah; a metal spire reaching twice again the height of the surrounding tents. It rose from a house-sized structure, a skeleton of scaffolding connected to great shading sails of cloth under which Hroldr's mother-tribe gathered for the evening meal.
Soon the Priest-Shaman Dzilke would gather the people for evening prayers, at the base of Onte-nah's spire. This special ritual marked the beginning of the annual Visitation, a period of twelve days during which the people of the valley were forbidden from viewing the Spire. They would begin the four-day walk to the ritual crater in the morning, leaving Onte-nah to the gods.
He wasn't going with them this time. This, his twenty-fourth summer, was the first in which he had tasted the freedom of privilege. Due to his diligence and hard work for Dzilke over the previous three years, he was to be named the shaman's successor. He was to be taught the secrets of the Gods, and to learn the rituals that maintained the sacred Onte-nah.
He alone would stay behind when the village began its trek.
It would be Hroldr's responsibility to welcome the Gods in the morning, but tonight, it was time to party.
Hroldr awoke to silence mid-morning. It was bright and hot and stale in his tent, but the gentle dancing of the Qualt-hide walls promised a breeze outside.
“Why did I drink all that Mocaj-kre?” his deep, slow voice cracked with dryness as he asked no-one in particular. “I have to learn to tell her 'No' sometimes.” Hroldr sat up from the mound of furs strewn about the tent's floor and leaned forward to open the door-flap.
A gruff voice announced itself from outside. “Y'all come out slow, now. No funny stuff 'er Ah'm'a have ta put y'down hard.”
Hroldr, having been taught by Dzilke only the few liturgical phrases he would need to welcome the Gods and begin their training, froze in fear and racked his brain trying to decipher the words.
“Ég er auðmjúkur að bjóða þig velkominn í Onte-nah” he tried in his native tongue.
“Aw hell, Pee-Ef, what language is that he's mutterin'?” The gruff man turned to his female partner.
“I don't know, hon', I only know enough Banu to find the library... and that wasn't Banu.”
Hroldr tried again, this time in the ritual language: “Welcome... Maintainers... back to Onte-nah, I am for to assist you.”
As four generations of Shamans before him, Hroldr stood before the sacred inner door of Onte-nah, having unlocked it for the gods. They were to enter and perform their rites of renewal, maintaining Onte-nah and its function for the village, whatever that was. Dzilke had described the sound that accompanied the magical tools they would use, and the ritual phrases they would utter. He showed Hroldr drawings of their clothing, and the vehicle they would arrive in.
They would show him how to summon their help if something went wrong with Onte-nah between their visits, and they would help him understand his role as protector of the Protector.
They should be doing all of this, thought Hroldr, but they're just ignoring me.
He was confused. They didn't know the sacred responses, they were not dressed as Dzilke had said they would be, and they seem preoccupied with one specific part of Onte-nah's inner workings. They cursed and worked at it for hours, tapping on a flat square of light affixed to the structure.
Hroldr wasn't sure this was the way this was supposed to be going.
But soon enough, the pair of gods finished with what they were doing and hastily collected their things.
“We're all done here, friend. Y'all are gonna want to sleep a little farther away from this thing from now on. We have to go, but we'll be back in six months' time.” said the gruff man.
Hroldr understood less than half of these words, and the subtleties of tense and implication were lost in translation.
“I... sleep... far from Onte-nah? Six month not correct — why not one year like always?”
“Jus' keep y'r people a little farther away from th'antenna, we have to come back early to uh... Fix it. Now wait over there until we've gone. No peekin'!” The woman gave Hroldr a pitiful look.
Hroldr waited patiently in the corner of the outer courtyard for the gods to leave, but he couldn't help taking a peek over the wall as the rush of wind blasted past.
Twin contrails arced into the evening sky, leaving behind two rings of burnt brush.
Once they had gone, and before his people returned from the southern crater-village, Hroldr had reopened Onte-nah's inner chamber. The flat square of light the Maintainers had left attached to the wall flashed red and black. A strange three-lobed symbol was emblazoned across it, and lines and lines of words moved from bottom to top. Hroldr had not been taught the writing system of the Maintainers, only their speech, but he could tell something was wrong with Onte-nah.
It had only been a few hours, but Hroldr turned the key on the device he believed would contact the Maintainers.
Six months had passed, and Dzilke was dead. Hroldr was now the only Shaman for the twin villages, and dreaded the half-year return of the 'gods.'
In the ensuing months after their departure, half the village became sick with an unknown wasting disease. Onte-nah seemed to be emitting some sort of curse in one direction, causing the people who lived in that quarter of the tent-circles to slowly lose their hair, their appetites, and eventually, their lives. Hroldr was powerless to heal them, and contact with their bodies was starting to show signs of being dangerous to the living. Managing both the living and the bodies of the dead at such scale went beyond his training.
Hroldr had tried everything he could, short of destroying Onte-nah, to contact the Maintainers. He had moved the tent-village to the far edge of the crater, away from the direction Onte-nah laid its curse.
Today was the 6-month anniversary of the false Maintainers' arrival.
The Meeting Star, hall of the gods, had been busy all week. Hroldr had been keeping a close eye on the tiny points of light that congregated around it. Łichíí, the Messenger God, had come and gone between the Meeting Star and the Deyaa at least sixteen times in four days. Hroldr had never seen her more than twice in a week.
The morning of Łichíí's sixteenth journey, the Meeting Star exploded.
“So what happened to the planet after that? Were they really all gone?”
Corprull and Sarnt were digging fighting positions into the top of a ridge opposite the target PF had given them, which had turned out to be a set of round modular 'Hab' buildings common throughout the UEE. This settlement was not marked on public maps, though, and did not broadcast navigation beacons. If Sarnt were to guess, considering the cargo staged against the outer walls, the posted security, and the desire for secrecy; he'd think Drug Lab.
“Well, th' planet only had two villages-worth of intelligent life. The village y'all come from was the main population center. The other village was uncontacted. With the amount of destruction done to th' planet, there's no way it survived either.”
Corp's heart rose and fell at the mention of the second village, and of its sure demise.
“Let's set up here for a bit, Corp, and figger out what these boys is doin' out here in the dark.”
Sarnt set up his rifle to utilize the scope, and began counting out the guards' paces.
Corprull stared into to the night sky.
“Corp, wake up.” Sarnt was nudging him awake roughly with his boot.
“What's going on, Sarnt?”
“They just brought in a VIP we can't pass up.”
Corprull rolled over in-place in his fighting position and raised his rifle. Three ships sat in convoy in front of the Habs; two Hoplite dropships flanking a large egg-shaped space-yacht; an Origin 600i.
“Who's that, Sarnt?”
“That, Corp, is trouble. Pee-Ef must have known something we don't, because that there, is a Hurston.”
The name immediately conjured images of the giant golden statues, black marble and luxurious opulence of Lorville's Central Business district in Corprull's head. Hurston Dynamics owned the planet of Hurston, and its capital, Lorville. Hurston Dynamics was their current employer, and Gavin E. Hurston, the CEO, personally signed their checks.
“Is that the boss, there?” Corprull sounded confused.
“I don't 'spect it is, Corp. Gavin wouldn't find himself dead out here in the icy sticks. Much less in a 600i. Too low-brow for his tastes.” Sarnt spat in his helmet in disgust and immediately regretted it.
“No, that there is someone trying to look important in a place where that is not a good idea. Hand me that laser-microphone.”
Corprull popped open a compartment on his leg armor and handed over the listening device. With a twist, Sarnt deployed a tiny tripod from the side and pointed the lens at the distant 600i's chassis. Their helmet comms squelched with the new input as Sarnt fiddled with the settings on the tube and fine-tuned the invisible laser's position.
“...been waiting ten minutes! WHERE IS HE?”
“He's finishing up in the back, he'll be down in a jiff.”
“We have work to do in the lab, if he wants his stuff he should gorram-well not waste our time!”
“Have some patience, it's a big order, it's going to be worth it, trust me.”
Sarnt and Corprull watched and listened as the deal below them played out between lackeys of whoever the 600i belonged to and the lab workers. The deal concluded with a promise of payment via credit transfer, and the 600i powered its engines.
“Waiiit for it...” intoned Sarnt.
“Wait for wh-” Corp was cut off by the sound of automatic gunfire being fed into his helmet comms via the laser-mic.
“I knew it. Hurston took the drugs, and they're icing the lab. This isn't normal, Corp. I don't know what we're watching here but it's not someone scoring a fix.”
The gunfire ceased, and they could only watch soundlessly as two teams of PriSec cleared the lab and returned to their Hoplites. They could hear the peal of the hab's self-destruct timer through the laser-mic.
The Hoplites and Yacht lift off the deck into the night; quiet and darkness return to the frozen plain. The timer counting down in their earpieces, the only sound.
“We'll give it time to blow and see what's left, Corp. We don't know how long they set it for, I'm not walking into a bomb.”
Corprull nodded and lowered his rifle and raised his mobiGlas.
“Shit...” Corprull pulled the wrist-mounted computer down from his eyeline. “We got company. Looks like a little cargo ship, approaching 5k out; the Cutlass is picking it up on passives. Stand by for registration...”
Working for PriSec had its priviledges, including being able to access Hurston Dynamic's security database.
Corprull continued, “It's registered to a farm on Aberdeen. Looks like it's full of Agricultural supplies. Must be something they need for the manufacture in the Lab...”
“Bad timing for him, then” Sarnt opined. “that lab's goin' t'go up any second.”
“Should we warn him?”
“If you can raise him on comms, do it.”
Corprull clicked his mic over to general comms and tried to hail the Avenger.
AVENGER 90-230HF, This is CONCERNED CITIZEN — you are in danger, how copy?
The little ship ignored the hail, closing the distance quickly. It landed in the spot the 600i had vacated moments earlier. Corprull and Sarnt could only watch as the ramp at the back opened.
Their dug-in position was over half a kilometer from the Lab, on an airless moon. The pilot had ignored their hails, and wouldn't hear calls nor warning shots. Anything they could do to get his attention would only drive him into the lab for cover.
“There's noting we can do.” Sarnt noted gravely.
Corprull winced at the scream of feedback from the laser-mic as the lab, the little farm Avenger, and half the valley exploded into clouds of smoke and steam.
“Oh, he's just a kid, Sarnt...” Corprull nudged the macerated body slumped in the airlock. “Can't be more than twenty. And look here, he's got a dogtag. BENJAMIN MARSHALL-EHRM. Huh, he's from Aberdeen, that's a fair clip.”
“Leave that body alone, Corp. He knew what he was getting into.” Sarnt stepped through the broken airlock into the ruins of the lab.
“He's got a note in his pocket, Sarnt.” He unfolded the slip of paper and began reading the fancy cursive script.
Ben, Thanks for doing this favor for my family — take as much Ag Supply as your farmtruck can hold to these coordinates. The people there aren't super welcoming but they will know you're coming, you should be okay. I'm sorry to put you in this position but you're really doing me a solid. See you back at the M&V.
Sarnt had disappeared into the murky depths of the lab as Corprull read the missive. “Sarnt?” Corprull looked around, suddenly feeling very exposed in the blown-open vestibule of the airlock. He thumbed his comms, “Hey, old man! Where'y'at?”
A dark and dusty breeze flits over the gray prairie, jostling the scraggly brush and slipping between massive boulders. It taps at the Cutlass' hull plating with grains of sand and bits of twig; a rusty windmill-vane protests the wind far above.
A thousand greenhouse-domes send weak sunlight into the cargo hold, painting its cavernous interior in a million shards of reflected light.
A woman stands on the porch of her farm-hab in the smoggy grey-green dusk, waiting.
“I can't believe you talked me into bringing that here,” Sarnt chastised Corprull as the younger man bent to pick up the minicrate.
“It's the right thing to do, Sarnt. The guy didn't have anything to do with the drug runners, he was just being used by the Hurstons. Think of how his Ma would feel if he never came home. Never leave a man behind, right?”
“That usually don't apply t' smugglers, Corp.” Sarnt punched the ramp release and the back panel of the Cutlass began to swing down.
The first night she couldn't remember sleeping. The container sat opened on the coffee table in the middle of the spartan living module. Its contents - a plastic bag marked BIOHAZARD, an official certificate of death, and a single gold necklace set with a gem of peach-hued hadanite - lay carefully arranged on coasters.
Deep crimson light pooled from hidden panels along the ceiling, the walls a perfect sea of unfocused color. A large ventilator spun lazy circles into the smoky incensed air. Ansil Marshall sat on the edge of the sofa, her hands folded around a golden coin attached to a length of fine alloyed chain. The links poured through her fingers, across knuckles scarred and stained from a lifetime of hard work.
“The body was exposed to an explosion, ”
the notecard began,
“...and was consequently processed by exposure to vibration during recovery which powdered the remains.”
like so much freeze-dried milk, she thought.
“Promession is a normal process during recovery of bodies in space. Enclosed please find the personal effects and remains of
MARSHALL-EHRM, BENJAMIN.Deliver to next-of-kin at
HDMS-NORGAARD UPON ABERDEEN - MOON OF HURSTON, STANTON SYSTEM.No further information as to circumstance of death is available, but duplicate record of death may be obtained...”
She knew the process by which her son's body had been destroyed was called “Promession,” and while not unusual, it destroyed the body and all evidence with it. Why no autopsy results were included with the package eluded her, as well as the meaning of the cause of death: “Piracy.”
She knew well the conventional meaning of the word, of course. Piracy was the scourge of UEE space, and her own farm had been visited over the years by low-level thieves and extortionists engaging in the pastime. But how did it apply as an official cause of death? Was Ben killed by pirates? Surely there would be an inquest if this was the case, at the very least, more information. Was he himself engaging in piracy?
No, she thought, he wouldn't be involved in that. He was a good man. Kept their farm, worked at a company soup kitchen on Hurston during what Aberdeen called winter, and always kept up with his studies. He wasn't wealthy, but the farm did well selling barley to Terra Mills, and the family was comfortable. As comfortable as you can be, living on a dead moon orbiting an industrial cess-pool in a backwater system like Stanton.
No, this didn't add up.
“Jumptown...” Ansil mumbled into a box of kacho ramen she was half-heartedly forcing herself to eat. She sat in the 2-story common hall inside the L19 residences in Lorville, watching the ships land at the spaceport through a massive peaked window.
It had been four days since she packed a duffel with a change of clothes, her old UEE-issued undersuit and her pristine L86 ballistic service-pistol.
It had been four days since the delivery.
Ship after ship materialized from the cloudless sky above Teasa Spaceport. They came down in pairs, or singly, and disappeared into massive sliding-roofed hangars below her. Every so often she could feel the rumble as an especially large vessel began its ascent back up. Most were marked
HURSTON DYNAMICS but some displayed other colorful liveries.
Ship down, ship up. Like clockwork.
She fished around in the soggy noodles at the bottom of the paper kacho box and came up with the last piece of “meat”. This particular franchisee seemed to be cutting corners and she could recognize the texture of S'Meat anywhere. Still, it was fuel, and she needed to keep her strength up. Ansil shot a dirty look at the ponytailed food-cart vendor and reluctantly popped the morsel into her mouth.
Ship down, ship up. Like clockw...
Before she could finish the thought, a brilliant red streak flashed down from the sky, followed by a trail of smoke and fire.
A surge of adrenaline flooded her system and she lurched forward on the benchseat.
The small vessel with relatively massive twin engine cowls, a long and narrow cockpit and snub wings awakened a long-dormant reflex in her brain. The retired farmwife quickly recognized it as a DRAKE Buccaneer, a light, fast fighter with a dry mass of 40,000kg and an incredible thrust-to-weight ratio. She quickly calculated its current vector, the likely impact point, the approximate speed of descent and the probability of recovering aerodynamic authority.
“BURN RETROGRADE! pull up, drop the thrusters to nadir, engage SCM to full!” As she yelled in the vaulted quiet of the common hallway, the small ship's nose popped up and back, its thrusters snapped downwards and smoke poured from every orifice. A massive cloud engulfed the spaceport and obscured the view from the residential towers. No rumble of impact followed the little craft's disappearance into the hangar.
Her outburst caused two off-duty Hurston Dynamics employees to turn from their billiards game. They shared a bemused glance before silently resuming play. Sheepishly, she settled lower in the seat and dropped the kacho box on a small side-table. She sulked and stared at the dispersing cloud of exhaust and smoke.
“You come here often?” The voice belonged to a 20-something construction worker type who sat at the other end of the bench-seats.
“I'm sorry?...Is that really your pick-up line?”
She peered incredulously at him from under a cocked eyebrow. She had easily fifty years on him and hadn't had that sort of attention in decades.
“Oh, jeeze... I meant, if you were a regular, you'd know that skiff. He's kind of a... reckless driver. Good though.” He paused. “Oh, I didn't mean I was interested... I mean...” As he trailed off, she flushed with embarrassment at thinking he was making an advance. He broke the awkward silence after half a minute.
“He can't hear you, you know.”
She started at the sudden noise. “What?”
“Ephraim, the pilot. The spaceport is a ways away, and that's glass anyway. Say, how'd you know all that about SCMs and retrothingies?”
“Retrograde. It means 'backwards.' I used to fly for the Navy when I was your age.”
“No shit?! Well, thank you for your service!”
Internally she rolled her eyes but she forced a wavering “Thaaanks...”
She took a breath and continued “...but I really just schlepped around Stanton in an M2 Hercules. Space trucking, but with a bigger gun someone else got to use. Nothing exciting.” Downplaying her service helped avoid questions about how she ended up a farmwife for the last twenty-five years. “I flew a lot, and I trained to recognize all sorts of ships. Those DRAKEs are pieces of junk. So are the pilots, in my experience.”
He snorted. “Well, not that one at least. He's a pirate-hunter - the best in Stanton system.” His tone changed to one of reverence. “My friend got to meet him at the M&V down by Leavsden Station once. He told all sorts of war stories and even shook my friend's hand! Lucky bastard! I heard once he killed seven pirate vessels with one missile over by Yela! He even...”
She smiled politely as he continued blathering.
Hroldr couldn't believe his eyes. In the pre-dawn sky, the Meeting Star was replaced by an expanding smudge of color and light, and the space around it was swarming with tiny lights as if someone kicked a celestial hornet's nest. Łichíí, the Messenger God, was making a bee-line for the Deyaa, pursued by no less than ten smaller lights, each with a tail of smoke.
His people were beginning to notice now; exclamations of fright and surprise rose from around the tent-circle.
Hroldr became aware of sounds coming from inside Onte-nah and moved to investigate.
MAYDAY! MAYDAY! This is UEE Navy Transport M2 Lychee, based at UEE Ik'pa Station, We are heading for the jump point at D-1A. We are being pursued by unknown ships who have destroyed the station. Request all possible reinforcement and aide. I repeat, MAYDAY! MAY-
The voice came from deep inside Onte-nah, from beyond the vestibule where Hroldr welcomed the Maintainers.
“Welcome?” Hroldr offered in the ritual language, as he entered the sacred-space of Onte-nah's inner chamber.
...the jump point at D-1A. We are being pursued by unknown ships who have destroyed Ik'pa station
Hroldr stepped closer to the corner from which the disembodied voice emanated.
“Welcome yoreself, there, Chief. You 'member me, right? Name's Sarnt.”
“Seventy-five hundred credits for a PowerBolt!? You've gotta be disconnected on Maze, you're outta your skull!”
A short man, as round as tall, was yelling into his MobiGlas from a cozy booth deep in the M&V bar. His red undersuit was filled out like it was permanently inflated against high G-forces, and his flushed expression completed the effect. His patchy jet-black hair alternated in rows that coincided with ugly, raking scars. An array of technology was scattered across the table, each screen and projector blinking with notifications.
“I can buy that new from Levski for 3500!”
“If you can get it shipped from Nyx system in ten days for free, you could, Ephraim, my friend! But seeing as how noone's flying for nothing, I'm all you've got.” The last syllable was sustained unnaturally, almost like 'gah-wwwwwwt'. Ansil knew before she could see the projection that the voice belonged to a Banu. She leaned forward on her barstool.
The face projected over the table had a tall head, peaked by a central ridge. With a structure and complexion that could be well described as 'tree-bark', its wide-set eyes flanked a flattened nose, the bridge of which extended straight up through its forehead into a fin. It was of course a Banu, the commerce-oriented alien race who were humanity's first allies amongst the stars. Its thin lips were pursed in an expression of glee at the delicious position of leverage it enjoyed.
“Fine, meet me halfway at 5000 then.” Ephraim took a swig from the tumbler of green liquid on the table.
“Oh, Ephraim, just because we are Such. Good. Friends. I'll let you have it for 7000. Bessst I can do.”
Further chapters soon