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 man as: "what remains of yo' boy."
She couldn't remember what else the man had said as he returned to his Cutlass. Perhaps the howling wind of the spacecraft's thrusters or the rushing blood in her ears had overridden the volume of her vox circuit.
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 meant nothing to her. Yet.
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, a notecard and attached official certificate of death, and a single gold trinket - 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 ventillator 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..." she 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 disappearence 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 60 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 embarrasment 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.
"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, 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 'tortoise-like', its wide-set eyes flanked a depression where its nose should have been. 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.