They say the world is round, maybe the universe as well. For every life cut short in battle, there is a vulture waiting hungrily to pick the meat from the bones.
THE VULTURES ARE CIRCLING
Idris-M Frigate SS James Archer
Scanlon watched the battle live-stream on SecNet. As things came unglued and ships started plummeting into stars, he was reminded why it was he liked being posted as a glorified bouncer watching the outside door. For what it lacked in high-speed, low-drag decorations on a dress uniform, it more than made up with job security. Follow the rules and things work out with very few surprises.
“Sir, we’re being hailed. Commercial vessel at 4800 klicks.”
Scanlon’s head snapped around. Well that’s a surprise.
He looked at the HUD splayed across the front of the bridge. Archer was patrolling the Orange Zone, the void between the inner Red Zone where the battle was being fought, and the outermost Blue Zone where the Davenport was supposed to vector off any wayward civilians.
Scanlon looked at Colter, “ID?”
Colter was quick with the answer. “Reclaimer sir, flagged out of Idris sector. Regs are current and—“
“Brogan.” Scanlon face-palmed, waving Colter to silence with the other hand. ”What the hell does he want?”
Colter looked up from his console, confusion etched on his face. “He’s declaring an SOS Captain, but, isn’t that a ship full of mechanics?”
“SOS my ass.” Scanlon grumbled. “If he’s broken down I’ll eat my hat. What’s his status?”
“Engines off, lights on, doors unlocked sir.” Colter said with a shrug. “Aside from being inside a secure perimeter, I’d give it a Two.”
Scanlon nodded. A Two was the functional bottom of the scale; there was no such thing as a One. If you didn’t find anything at all, you weren’t looking. There’s always something.
Given his ‘druthers right now Scanlon would send Brogan on his way with a verbal boot up his ass. Still, the ship would likely be showing up on fleet scans, most certainly once it started hailing on an open channel. If Scanlon jumped on it quickly enough, the only career-shitstain that was likely to stick would be on Isky in the Davenport. That was reason enough.
Scanlon pointed at the blip on the HUD. “Let’s go pay him a visit.”
The airlock door groaned open and Scanlon walked aboard the Goliath. Jake Brogan and his crew all sat in plain view. No weapons, no surprises.
Scanlon grunted. At least somebody out here still remembers the rules.
Scanlon walked up to Brogan as the Illicit Traffic Search Team began a cursory sweep. Lefkowitz, senior Sergeant on the ITST, glanced at Jake who none-too-discreetly held up a hand with three fingers.
“What the hell are you doing out here Brogan?” Scanlon interrupted. He really wasn’t pissed, if anything the interdiction was a break from listening to a fight go all to shit.
Jake motioned Scanlon to walk with him, strolling aft while the search moved forward. Jake rolled into a story that Scanlon hoped would not be long.
“So I’m working a dead Orion that looks like a rock blew up in its face. We’re just peeling the skinplates when Isky rolls in on the Davenport and gives me the boot.” Jake grimaced. “When did that schmuck get promoted to Captain anyway?”
Scanlon gave him a sideways glance. “You don’t wanna hear about it.”
“Yeah, well I’m guessing it involved knee pads,” Jake grumbled. “Whatever. So dickhead send me packing one way, sorta urgent like, which tells me something interesting is going on in the other direction.”
“So you figure you come and take a look.”
Jake held up his hands. “C’mon, he just chased me off from paying work that took me a week to find. You can’t blame a guy for wanting to recover. Look at this shit.” He opened a heavy steel door that led to a shallow balcony overlooking the compactor chamber. A huge set of grinders hung from the ceiling, shredder-blades decorated with streamers of metal and wire.
Far below, compressed cubes of scrap metal barely filled the lower third of the monstrous hold. A stench rolled up the metal cavern; a mix of petrochems, caustics, reactor coolant and bilge systems. Just about every sort of liquid that pumps through the veins of a vessel mixed into ‘starship soup.’
Nose wrinkled, Jake waved at the smell while Scanlon gagged out, “Augh jeeze, close the fucking door already.”
The door banged shut with a slam and Jake picked up without skipping a beat. “So I figure, if you guys are stomping the crap outta somebody, maybe that somebody pushes a Nine and you need a ship chewed up.” Jake glanced to either side before adding, “I’ll cut you in, straight-up share, all cash.”
Scanlon suppressed a derisive laugh. “I wish.” He offered nothing more.
Jake continued to probe. “C’mon, no… drug dealers? Slavers? Scumbag arms merchants who—“
“Stow it Jake,” Scanlon was sharp, maybe more than he needed to be. But there was a lot of brass in this part of space right now and he didn’t need some junk-jockey trying to wheel and deal inside a secure perimeter. “Look, this is above your pay grade so I want you to ass-end this thing and get out of here. Pronto.”
Jake held his gaze for a long second, hanging onto a thread of hope. Scanlon wasn’t budging.
Jake sighed. “All right.”
As they turned back Jake tossed a thumb back at the compactor door. “You’re not in the market for some scrap are ya? Go 22-8 a key and they’re yours right now.”
Scanlon was growing weary of the wrangling and gave Jake what his crew referred to as ‘the hairy eyeball.’ Jake’s shoulders slumped in final defeat. The two men plodded back to the airlock in silence.
The Search Team was standing idle by the airlock door, Lefkowitz more interested in Jesse’s ass than watching out for his boss. When Corporal Pearson stiffened up with a muffled cough, Lefkowitz spun-to and pointed at the crate on the deck.
“Sir,” he sputtered before collecting himself. “No VBT sir, but uh, on a thorough examination of the ship we discovered a small crate of contraband stashed away in… “
Jake, arms folded across his chest, wiggled three fingers over his bicep.
Lefkowitz rolled his eyes. “…in section 3. It appears to be Elysian Bourbon. No big deal but it doesn’t have transit stamps.”
Like a bad actor on opening night, Jake offered a mockery of excuse. “I have no idea how that got there.”
Scanlon snorted. “Then I suppose we’ll have to confiscate it,” he announced dryly. “I presume we can let him off with a warning, Sergeant?”
Lefkowitz nodded. “Yessir.” Then he hefted the crate and followed the team into the airlock.
Jake turned to Scanlon and tossed a nod towards the crate. “Its not much, things are tight.” The scrapper offered a tired smile. “But you gotta find something if the Big Brass out here is breathing down your neck. There’s no such thing as a One, right?.”
Scanlon smiled in spite of himself. Though he’d never admit it publicly, life would be a lot easier with a few more Jake Brogan’s around. To be sure, Scanlon had no false illusions that Jake was some sort of Boy Scout, far from it. Odds were he was as crooked as anybody scraping an existence off the rocks out here. But he didn’t go out of his way to be a dick, to make things difficult. He understood the rules.
“Where you headed?”
Jake shrugged. “Don’t much care, hate to go home on an empty belly but things are looking pretty slim and its clear we outstayed our welcome.” He exhaled wearily. “I doubt that load’ll cover the fuel.”
Scanlon rolled his eyes, “Oh please, you’re breaking my heart.”
Scanlon tapped his Mobi and brought up a transit map. A Reclaimer-sized jump corridor extended from Banshee to Garron, then from Garron to Idris. Scanlon tagged a rapid set of commands, followed with his authorization code. The graphic overlay faded and he refocused his eyes on Jake. “You’re security cleared to Idris, two gate jumps will save you the gas.” Then he added with a dour smile, “Don’t say I never gave you nothin.”
Scanlon walked into the airlock, one eye on the crate. He was happy as hell to get out of that stinking ship and whatever toxic waste sloshed around in the bottom of its oversized trash compactor. If his luck held out, he was ten minutes away from a hot shower and a stiff drink.