Hey INNers, here is the first fiction piece written by our new INN staff writer, Marksman. I hope you’ll welcome him warmly and enjoy his first entry to our fiction offerings. Keep your eyes open for future postings by Marksman himself.
“Debris out.” Tank’s voice, just a whisper on the comm, was clear in the still, frigid air.
My breath fogged in the dark cabin as I watched pieces of wreckage drift away from the ship. I made out the silhouette of a turbofan engine, a burned-out APU, a cryogenic tank; those just a handful of the couple dozen hunks of scrap that Tank shoved out of the airlock.
The trick was hardly original. Wiley submarine captains back in World War II would eject anything that floats — oil, cushions, even dead bodies — out through torpedo tubes in an effort to appear dead in the water.
There’s no water out here in deep space, but the Caliban Ring was long on wreckage; more than anyone could scan all at once. It was the biggest hide-n-seek field in the galaxy. Until you knew what might be lurking in the shadows, it was better to look like just another gutted hulk drifting through the black.
Doing so meant freezing your ass off in damn-near full shut down; engines, lights all off, even life support at bare minimum. By design, tiny random signatures emanated from some of the scrap we set adrift; things like intermittent arcs and radio static that added to the haze of electromagnetic white noise permeating deep space. From solar winds to distant broadcasts and gravitic anomalies, there is more sensor-blurring shit than you might imagine in the middle of nothing.
For the last ninety minutes Goliath had tumbled a crawling, end-over-end course that I hoped would look happenstance when it was anything but. Pulling off a dead-stick drift to a precise point in space — especially through a lot of floating wreckage — took skill, planning and a bucket full of balls. As beefy as Goliath was, getting crunched between a couple of stadium-sized hulls could kill you just as dead as enemy lasers.
Stretching almost a hundred-sixty meters from nose to stern, this Aegis Reclaimer was every bit the behemoth her name implied, an industrial-grade beast that towered over a normal collection of vessels. But the ships that formed the Caliban Ring were anything but normal. The war that raged here back in ’71 was a slugfest that left an armada of dead capitol ships in a sea of lesser vessels; corvettes, frigates and fighters. A tangled web of human and Vanduul bodies and technology. Out here, Goliath could well be just another overstuffed coffin that long ago cooled to ambient temperature. That was the plan anyway.
Salvagers, people like me, had been coming out to the Ring for years, picking at the bones of these dead leviathans. Yeah, you could argue we serve an important role, cleaning up messes and recycling materials to make shiny new stuff. But the harsh truth is that we’re really a bunch of adrenaline-fueled gambling addicts, treasure hunters looking to find the next Holy Grail floating out here in the black. The next run, we tell ourselves, is gonna be the Big One. That dream is our crack cocaine.
Polite society, people not like me, frown on pillaging the Ring. Most of them view the endless stretch of corpse-littered wrecks as some sort of giant graveyard, sanctified by the thousands of lives snuffed out in that horrific dance of laser beams and missile trails. That’s a noble thought, the kind of tear-inducing sentiment you find on a Hallmark card. Sadly, it’s a bunch of baloney. Not one of the crusty corpse-sicles floating wide-eyed in the cold can do a damn thing with the wealth of metal around them. The ghosts of this place won’t rest any easier if I turn around and go home, and they sure as hell wouldn’t pay my bills when I got there. A good reactor core on the other hand…
That was the real trick of making money in this business. ‘Struct’ is your basic scrap, structural hull beams rich with stuff like chromium and titanium alloys. That’s what ships are made of and it can be harvested in abundance out here. Decent value-to-weight ratio, but it takes hard work and puts a helluva lot of expensive wear and tear on the grinders in Goliath’s belly that chew 40-mil I-beams into storable scrap.
If you were willing to spend some EVA time with a plasma torch in hand you could scour the war-hammered wrecks and cherry-pick things like undamaged graphene armor plates. Specialty items like weapons and armor, especially ones you can’t buy on the civilian market, pull big bucks from mechanics who service the ‘merc and pirate communities.
For the really stout-hearted salvors, digging deeper into a wreck might produce all sorts of treasure. A crate of Latinum bars maybe, or an undamaged arc reactor. You might tumble to a memory core that still holds information long thought lost; we’re talking scrap of an altogether different nature but it could prove invaluable to the right customer. Or to that customer’s biggest competitor. Admittedly, it could also get you killed, but every job has its downsides.
For a lot of salvors, the payoff for a cargo-hold jammed full of ‘struct didn’t balance up against the risks of farming the Ring. Things prowled these wrecks, things that came from human and Vanduul space alike. Anywhere you find sailors you will find old stories, gloomy tales that hang like cigar smoke in dank, dockyard bars. Tales of crews that slid into madness and cannibalism, of ghost ships or modern-day sea serpents. Terrible fanged things that hunted salvagers, explorers and historians alike. Millennia after man feared sailing off the edge of a flat world, sailors still love to tremble at things that go bump in the night.
I’ve seen some weird shit in my day and trust me, I don’t laugh no matter how crazy the story. That’s bad luck. But the biggest hazard I figure I’m likely to run into is the law, or someone just like me looking to break it. Those guys run the gamut from pirates or vigilantes to zealot fanatics standing holy watch over the honored dead. Whatever their motive, most of the things you were likely to encounter out here had a vested interest in leaving no witnesses.
That last point was no small matter. In normal space, in normal times, it was still considered ‘good form’ to rescue a stranded sailor be he friend or foe, partner or rival, captain and crew alike. If you find somebody floating in one of those damn insulated coffins of an escape pod, you drag ‘em in, patch their hurt and haul ‘em somewhere safe, even if just to dump their ass on some back-water station where they could cool their heels for weeks, maybe months, to catch a ride home. But you don’t abandon someone to slowly die all alone in the dark.
It was an unspoken code, an honor thing, a professional courtesy if you will, that underneath it all recognized a simple fact of life. Space is a big empty place and the guy you save today might tomorrow be looking out his windshield at your escape pod. Word gets around and a positive balance in the Bank of Karma wasn’t a bad thing to have.
The Ring had more bad karma than it had wrecks. Out here were guys who would blow an escape pod out of the sky for laughs, or haul it onboard just to look the occupant in the eye as they put a bullet through his melon. Some would do a whole lot worse.
“Jesse?” My question didn’t need the comm; my co-pilot sat in the seat next to mine. I couldn’t see her eyes, hidden behind the sleek VR headset that allowed here to watch a low-power screen with no visible light leaking into the cabin.
“Waypoint in six hundred thirty meters. Closing at 4 per sec.” Jesse was all business when the game was on, her normally fiery humor muted to the essentials. At the moment she was the only person onboard who had big eyes on the area around us, although limited to data gathered from passive sensors dotted along Goliath’s hull. But if something out there had a signature, be it EM or thermal, she should be abe to see it. ‘Should’ being the pivotal word.
Sensing my question, as she usually did, she added “Looks quiet.”
It always does, I groused inwardly, right up to the point it gets loud. Prosthetic fingers stroked my chin, the silicone skin of my left hand rubbing the scar that ran the line of my jaw. This wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew just how fast an ‘easy money’ run could go all to shit.
But Welker knew better than to fuck me, I told myself for the hundredth time. He damn well knows I’d kill him if he did. That meant only one of two things; either his info was legit or Welker was certain that whatever was out here would kill me first. Either way, he ends up with a clean slate and me off his list of creditors.
A cynical mix of common sense and experience told me which answer was probably the right one, but damn, if there was even a slim chance…
“Four hundred meters.”
Only a few more seconds to make the call. We could play it safe, float by and spend the next hour or two drifting away as quietly as we arrived. Maybe unseen, maybe not. Or we tap the brakes, come to a stop and fire up the lights. If the Reaper was really there we’d see it, just like anything within a few thousand kilometers would know we were here as well.
My mind crunched the numbers. Seconds to target: twenty. Probability that a two-bit skel like Welker would get his hands on good digits about the location of a wrecked Reaper: damn near zero. Value of a Reaper’s engine, weapon control panel, shield box, hell just about any intact system… A sigh slipped from my lips. That is a big-ass number.
“Waypoint in five, four…” Jesse’s voice ticked the countdown like a machine.
My eyes swept the darkness. Nothing outside but twisted hulls drifting against the black of night.
No guts, no glory. I leaned forward in my chair and said “All stop.”
Half a dozen thrusters around Goliath’s hull flared to life. Our lazy tumble shuddered to a halt and the jets just as quickly shut off. Maybe two seconds at the most, so quick you might miss it if you blinked. But things hiding in the dark didn’t blink.
If it’s out there, I thought, we just sent up a flare. No point in being cagey now.
“Light ‘er up.”
Rows of external floodlights blazed to life, along with our engines and internal systems. At this point we needed to be operational as quickly as possible. Air, stale but comparatively warm, belched out of the overhead vents. The screens in front of me flickered, pixels resolving into data and imagery that scrolled at a feverish pace. My gaze fell on one display where a blue incremented ring labeled SHIELD built one glowing brick at a time.
Some two thousand meters off our nose the white light splashed across the side of a gutted Bengal. My right hand, the one made of meat and bone instead of carbon fiber and flexinol, swung a gimballed spotlight from left to right. The carrier’s outer hull was pock-marked with countless holes burned into armor plate. One of her hangar bays gaped like an open clamshell, onion-layers of I-beam and metal skin peeled back by a massive internal explosion. In the darkness within I could see the chewed-up remains of Avengers plastered along the hangar walls.
A slow whistle slid across my lips; the old girl had taken one hell of a beating before giving up the ghost.
It was what I didn’t see that worried me; the ass-end of a Reaper. According to Welker’s story, some drug cartel mule running a Hull-C full of Hex had to play duck-and-cover when another vessel passed within sensor range. The mule hunkered up against the belly of a dead Bengal they said, a Bengal at this location. That’s when they saw the wing; angular sawtooth profile, forty, maybe fifty meters in length. Definitely Vanduul, but way too big to be a Scythe. The alien ship looked to have pancaked into the Bengal’s hull, fucked it’s nose all to hell in the process, but the ass end — the engine end — was unbroken.
Like most drug-dealing scum who stumble into more dumb luck than they deserve, the mule made it back unscathed, its crew drawn like moths to whatever skel bar they called home. There one guy tells another guy until the story falls into the lap of a crudball like Welker, who owes me… owes me big. He figures a lead like this might square his tab.
A grimace tugged at my face. There was thirty ways the story reeked of bullshit. But what if…?
I took another glance at the screen; our shield was pushing up across forty percent. Safety said wait but time was short and ticking fast. I needed to put eyes on the Bengal’s belly.
Thrusters along the top of our hull blazed and Goliath sank, spotlights wheeling up to smear white ovals across the massive carrier’s ruptured gut. My eyes scoured the expanse of grey steel, trying to pick out anything, even the hint of anything, that looked remotely Vanduul. But there was no wing, no angular fuselage. I knew Welker had fucked us even before I saw the Cutlass.
The grey-black ship spun up fast, racks of ambush capacitors flushing life-giving power into her systems in the blink of an eye. She wouldn’t have shields for a few moments; there’s a limit to what can be done to shove those power-hogs any faster. Tiny by comparison, she’d certainly be up-armored and over-gunned; something kinetic that didn’t need a lot of juice to fire. True to stereotype she came out blazing. No monologue, no demands. These guys were pros.
Their gunner was as accurate as he was decisive. The heavy twin-turret perched on the Cutlass’ spine belched a jagged line of shells across the face of our ship. Raufoss rounds by the flash of impact; armor-piercing incendiary. Mil-spec. Rounds like that can chew through the hull of frigate, but Goliath wasn’t some factory-grade Reclaimer. I shoved the stick to one side, slewing our nose off the Cutlass’ line of fire. We were tough, but we weren’t invulnerable.
The Cutlass slid to hold its point of aim and a white starburst splayed across the front window. Sonofabitch was aiming at us, personally, not looking to kill an engine or powerplant so we could have a polite conversation. A quick glance told me our shield spin-up had reached eighty-seven percent. I barked, “Jesse?”
Despite the cannon-fire blazing outside the window, her eyes were glued to the display, fingers dancing madly. She shouted over the din of one-sided battle. “Two-forty starboard, three hundred gets us overlap.”
I keyed the docking thrusters to full and stomped the auxiliaries. Goliath abruptly rolled right, the ball-peen hammering outside the flight deck smearing down our port side, meandering from our nose to the angular belly framed by our engine nacelles.
If you’ve never seen a Reclaimer take off, it’s a helluva sight. Those engines vomit an F5 tornado of flame that can deadlift half a million tons of ship and cargo. As Goliath rolled onto her right shoulder, those engines swung up. The Cutlass got a facefull of nozzle as we opened the barn doors to hell.
Scumbag or not, I had to give their pilot points for reaction speed. The Cutlass lurched to her port, bursting from our thrust column in a howling powerslide of flame and blistered reflec. Her starboard forewing was burned away, edges of the severed stump glowing incandescent orange. Further aft, her entire starboard engine was charred and misshapen. Whispy tendrils of fire stretched out from her innards, writhing into the vacuum of space.
The evasion carried the Cutlass the better part of three hundred meters to our starboard. Maybe more, maybe less. Good enough. A last glance confirmed our shield ring burned full. Both fists gripped my chair as I growled through clenched teeth, “Hit it.”
Jesse’s finger stabbed down on the panel and a coded signal pulsed out, tripping passive sensors in each of twenty-some-odd pieces of debris we had scattered through the area. The warheads buried inside them had been cannibalized from the kind of ordinance you find out here, Marksmen, Stalkers, an old Mark IV torpedo. Nothing sexy, just backyard engineering really, but the Cutlass was within the frag radius of three. One of them floated less than a hundred meters above her top-turret. They all detonated.
There’s no shockwave in space, no atmo to carry the hull-bursting force of compression that ages ago broke the spine of sea-going vessels. Our shields soaked up what few bits of white-hot frag sizzled in our direction.
The Cutlass wasn’t so lucky. When the flash cleared the pirate slid into a slow yaw, venting high-pressure gas from half a dozen holes punched through her hull. Whatever breathable air she contained was hemorrhaging rapidly out into space. The heavy turret was shredded, the gunner reduced to bits of organic splatter.
I looked through our scarred window and zoomed in on the pilot, his cockpit thick with smoke. He yanked frantically at a blaze yellow seat-handle that refused to budge. Judging from the blood spray inside the canopy, whatever punched through the ejector must have caught a piece of him as well.
Goliath edged forward, coming almost nose-to-nose as spider-web fractures fanned across the pirate’s canopy. With a busted ejector, the man inside didn’t have much time. To the whine of hydraulics, Goliath reached out with her huge metal arm.
The pilot and I stared at each other across the airless gap, both of us knowing that I could grab his entire ship and bring it safely into our hold. That’s what civilized people did. But we both knew that was never going to happen. Karma cuts both ways.
Goliath’s massive fist closed and his cockpit burst in a cloud of vapor and shattered plexi.