January 17th 2013
Thunder crashed over the roar of heavy engines. The stench of diesel and scorched earth saturated the atmosphere. The driller’s break was just about over. He savored a last drag on his Stim. He could’ve sworn he just lit the damn thing. As he ground it out on the loose black scree, his body had already started fiending for another one. He ignored it and joined the rest of his shift on the long descent into the site. He passed a fleet of HaulerVats. The massive spherical vehicles floated on a bed of AG as their vacuum tubes collected the shattered lava for processing. Further ahead, there were the Scrapers. Their blades whined like banshees as they sawed into the rock.
Reaching his own Scraper, he banged on the window. Eventually, the driver powered down and climbed out. The driller didn’t know this new guy. He wasn’t going to bother trying, not at the rate the Corp burned through employees. The driller climbed in and got to work.
Over the next hour, the driller carved another thirty feet of lava. He could barely hear his music over the screaming blades and chugging engine. There was definitely going to be another trip to the ear doctor in his future. He needed to finish his certification and get out of the pits before his ears went for good.
Suddenly, the wall ahead collapsed. The computer flashed a warning and the driller quickly cut the blades. He must have hit a pocket of what passed for air on this planet, or some other gas. He waited and hoped the tunnel’s ceiling would hold. The drizzle of pebbles eventually stopped. He grabbed his air-sensor and climbed out. Company protocol strictly stipulated that pockets had to be tested for flammable gases before the machine could resume work.
The driller moved past the Scraper’s blades, still steaming in the cold air, and started scanning in front of the machine. Seemed all clear. Not hazardous, at least. He moved forward, trying to see what could have caused the collapse.
That’s when he saw it. The sensor clattered to the ground.
* * * * *
The junkworld of Spider in Cathcart System was allegedly a neutral zone for pirates, fugitives, and others of ill repute. It was anything but safe at the moment as Tonya Oriel, rogue scientist and explorer, sprinted through the narrow warped halls. This was getting to become a habit.
The payoff from the Kherium score on Hades was even bigger than she’d hoped. Most of it immediately disappeared in the maw of creditors and loan-sharks that were banging on her proverbial door. Another chunk enabled her to trade up to a sweeter ship but the remainder was going toward a treat: a Tevarin Codex, the original text for their warrior-religion. Only a couple dozen still existed after the Purge of the Second Tevarin War. Various museums and collectors had snatched all of the known volumes up, but somehow this fixer got one. Only after Tonya showed up and paid, did he suddenly realize its value and tripled his price.
So Tonya grabbed it and ran. A laserblast zipped past her and seared the wall. Tonya glanced back. It was Nagia, the plunderer, loping after her with his bad leg, a gun, and a foul expression.
“You got nowhere to run, girl!” He screamed and snapped off another shot.
“We had a deal, Nagia!” She yelled back without slowing down.
“Deals change!” Nagia fired again as punctuation.
“That doesn’t make any sense!” Tonya burst past an arriving crew and cut down toward the hangars. They quickly obliged the lunatic with a gun.
Nagia feverishly yelled for his crew over his comm. Fortunately, they were far too intoxicated to notice. Nagia puffed away as his feet thundered on the metal floors. His head started to feel light. He hadn’t run like this for some time.
He wheeled around the corner to the hangar as engines flared to life, blasting him back through the door.
Tonya powered up the Beacon II remotely, one of her ship’s new fancy tricks. She raced up the boarding ramp. As she slid into the pilot’s seat, Nagia swung back inside the hangar and fired at the cockpit. The shields barely flashed as they absorbed his shots. It was like throwing pebbles at a Dreadnaught.
Nagia ran over to flag down the deck-guards, the ones manning the turrets. Tonya didn’t wait around to see if he got their attention. Nagia watched the flare of her engines disappear into the distance. He was going to get her; he just had to figure out how …
After a few moments, he gave up and returned to the bar.
With Spider firmly in the distance, Tonya set her course. She knew a meal of real food, a glass of wine, and her new Codex were all she needed to forget the unpleasantness of her business with Nagia.
A message popped on her screen.
She assumed it was a job. The details were written in evasive legalese but there was a payout just to hear the offer. Three days away if she left now.
It looked like real food was going to have to wait.
* * * *
The Beacon II dropped through the atmosphere into a massive electrical storm. Tonya passed over vast trenches of land excised and chopped up before landing at Shubin Interstellar’s on-site Corporate headquarters.
A pair of security escorted her to a small white room. A tall, gaunt lawyer smiled pleasantly before going over dozens of confidentiality agreements and other legal fine print. She scanned text until her eyes ached. After an hour, she interrupted him.
“Could you at least tell me what the job is?”
“I’m sorry, miss,” the lawyer said with a yellowed grin. “I am bound not to disclose any pertinent details until you have properly filled out the —“
“Fine. Fine. I get it.” She slumped against the table. The lawyer continued. She gave verbal consents, a handful of fingerprints, even signed. Finally, the lawyer seemed satisfied. She peered up at him expectantly. “No blood? Urine?”
The lawyer looked at her, puzzled.
“No miss. I don’t believe that will be necessary.”
“So what now?”
“The introductory fee is currently being transferred to your account.” The lawyer stood and led her out. They walked through pristine white halls. He stopped outside another door and placed his thumb against the lock. It slid open, revealing a larger conference room. A thick rectangular window looked out over the dig-site.
Tonya stepped inside and looked at the people inside. She recognized most of them; Deke Johnson, Squig Bentley, Arthur Morrow, these were other explorers in the loosest sense of the word. They were graverobbers, plunderers, drunks, and junkies who dabbled in history. If these were Tonya’s competition, she was mildly offended to be on a list with these degenerates.
“Well, well, well,” a voice said behind her. Tonya froze, recognizing it instantly. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Tonya turned around. Senzen Turov flashed that megawatt smile of his.
“Good to see you, Tonya.” He stepped in for a hug. Tonya stopped him with a hand to his chest and pushed him back. He feigned offense. “What gives?”
“I just showered.”
“Come on, Tonya. You aren’t still sore about …”
“About you robbing me blind?” Tonya looked out the window. “I think I’m over it.”
“I hope so, you stole my ship and sold it to pirates.”
“With those Xi’An relics, you could buy two more.”
“Three actually.” Senzen stretched and leaned against the wall beside her. He scanned the room, visibly bored. “Any idea what this is all about?”
“Maybe we should team-up. Like the old days?”
“I’d rather run with Squig.” Tonya said. At that perfect moment, Squig belched and farted at the same time. He seemed quite pleased with himself.
“Yeah, well, the Tonya I knew needed a man who was her equal, someone to challenge her.” Senzen leaned a little closer. Tonya looked at him. Their eyes locked.
“Is that what you think you are?”
The door slid open. Gavin Arlington, CEO of Shubin, strode into the room. He almost didn’t look real. Every hair, wrinkle, and crease in his suit seemed as if it had a purpose, as if he demanded the same efficiency from his body that he did from his workers. An army of stoic assistants and the site foreman flanked him. His emerald eyes quickly assessed the riff-raff in the room.
“Come with me.”
Arlington led them outside. All of the mining operations within earshot had been shut down. There was only the howling wind, the now-distant thunder, and the crunch of gravel under their feet as they moved towards the pits.
Forty-five minutes of silent march passed. Senzen glanced at Tonya, genuinely baffled. She shrugged and shook her head. This was really bizarre. They were approaching a new cutting, shrouded in darkness as the sun set ahead of them. Arlington stopped at the edge of the shadow, beside one of the Scrapers. Deke Johnson stumbled and nearly fell. Arlington turned back to the group.
“No doubt you’re wondering why I called you here.” Arlington said with a dismissive glance toward Deke. He then nodded to the foreman.
The newly cut gash flared up with light. It took everyone a second to adjust. Tonya squinted and focussed on a bright irregularity in the middle of the black mass ahead. Embedded in the wall of lava there was a smooth metallic facing, but this wasn’t ore or a mineral vein. It was molded, constructed plate. Tonya’s first instinct was that it was wreckage of some kind. That wasn’t the startling thing …
There was one faded word stenciled across its surface.