Marlon Kurtz breathed out ice, forming fractals against his helmet’s visor. He glanced at the un-powered controls of his custom starship’s cockpit then checked his survival suit’s controls, again. Five degrees, as programmed. A week of cryogenic conditions had sounded better in planning, but he was still 278 degrees above absolute zero, and thus a target for anyone looking hard in his direction, so he grunted and tucked his gloved fingers back inside his armpits.
Beyond the viewport the star Helios shone with brilliant white fury. Even with the viewport’s auto shading Marlon was still forced to squint.
He continued his routine of toe and finger stretches, though he couldn't shake that dull ache in his joints of impending frostbite. Drinking from his helmet's suck was agony on his dry and chapped lips. At the agreed time he reactivated the passive sensors.
A risk. Small, but a risk nonetheless and there was nowhere to hide in the freakishly empty stellar system. He squinted at the star again. There, a small black disk before the burning whiteness, the only object in orbit. ‘The Gift’, according to the Imperial Systems almanac. ‘The Prize’ in pirate circles.
The scanner bleeped. A single low powered pulse from The Gift, barely registering, but it was enough. He breathed in deep, numb fingers shaking toward the worn-smooth ‘go’ button, an uncharacteristic tremor in his heart.
This would be his biggest job yet. And the boldest. He didn’t have to proceed. He could keep on drifting, or turn and flee. He didn’t need the Fortez Clan's money, nor did he fear their wrath for breaking a contract-
He depressed the button.
-but Marlon Kurtz had a reputation. He wasn’t going to break it now.
A cascade of blinding lights filled the cockpit. Consoles beeped an orchestra of initializing software. He pulled off his helmet and heat burned through his frigid body. His nerves screamed in ecstasy and pain at the sudden warmth and Marlon closed his eyes, basking in the simple act of feeling.
He gave himself five seconds of selfish warming then turned the ship toward The Gift and engaged the prime mover.
The pudgy-looking Armadillo patrol craft pinged him half way to The Gift. Marlon ignored the hails and threats and maintained his beeline. The Gift grew beyond the viewport, the albedo of the sharp crystalline landscape lending it a blocky shape.
His scanner detected a second ping – a second Armadillo trying to cut him off. He re-checked his position against his man's coordinates dirt-side and adjusted his trajectory.
Shapes became distinct on the surface: towering cuboids of zirconia, cloudy pyramids of spinel, rows of sharp edged diamond picket fences. Marlon swooped in, an Armadillo behind, another trying to cut across his vector.
Marlon's missile alarm warbled. Stomach tightening, he shaved a klick off his altitude. He raced toward the terminator, the ships' hull scraping past the natural obelisks.
He soared over a glittering red ocean glowing under Helios' assault. His engine's thermostat flashed red. The engines coughed, shaking the ship but he didn't slow. The thermostat kept rising, the missile alarm warbled again, the engines hiccupped, dropping him another kilometer, and then there was darkness. The ship's cough became a purr and he climbed to a safe altitude and checked his coordinates.
There, five hundred kilometers ahead, another clearing between rows of inverted stalagmites. He re-fastened his helmet, rapped his knuckles against the cockpit frame and nodded to himself. He dumped the fuel tank, aimed at the middle of the clearing, leant backward, clenched his chest-
-and pulled the ejection cord.
A triple punch of sensation: the decompression of the viewport flying off, pulling at his whole being, the wind crushing him back into his chair and the compressed air slamming him up the arse.
The head up display disappeared below him, then the ship flashed past, darkness, square crystal shapes, darkness again, the buffeting winds tearing at his limbs, the blurring colours making him want to vomit.
The suit's jetpack engaged, wrenching his steady. His body came to nil velocity, his eyes a few seconds later. Warmth fired over his dangling feet as he hovered a hundred metres above the ground.
It was the perfect place to watch the crash.
His little ship that had carried him so far overshot the clearing and exploded into a rounded breccia prism. Marlon clenched his teeth at his poor aim. Fiery fragments rained down to the red sea below.
Still, it was a success. He activated the tracer on his wrist and manoeuvred down to the ejection seat. He checked his chrono then unpacked the fuel and organic matter from their seat pouches. He emptied both over the seat and used the single flare he'd kept to ignite it.
The fire burnt brightly and Kurtz jetted to the shore, the jetpack dying as he landed. He didn't need it now anyway. Too obvious.
In the distance, lights flicked on from one of the system patrol craft, highlighting the wreckage of Marlon's ship.
He turned away, consulted his compass and started walking.
Captain Tom 'Hurl' Gregory's command chair kicked him in the back as the FTL tunnel evaporated. The colour out the viewport coalesced into the painful brightness of Helios, the smallest, shittiest, least useful system in the Imperium.
He stroked his command chair's arm rest. TCN Concordia. A grand name, a grand ship, playing tramp freighter on its retirement tour. It was almost an insult.
Sighing, he unstrapped and walked past the communication pit to the astrogation station. Holographic details flittered across the octagonal view panes ahead, the battle computer running threat analyses on every object in range.
"We'll do this like the last system," Tom said. "Get in, do a dance, smile, and get out as soon as possible." He raised his voice for the punch line but received few smiles. The in-joke was wearing thin, just like the tour. The crew were already prepping for their next assignment. Tom hadn't considered his next step. He had another couple of years, if he wanted them.
He spun back to the pit. "Contact the Defence Platform. I want their sitrep on my chair in five minutes." He strode past a chorus of 'aye-ayes' to his chair.
Instructions bounced from officer to officer, the efficient clicks of mag boots rolling along the deck. If I take another command I'll get one of the new boats with the anti-grav.
The report appeared on his chair's readout. Sporadic and ineffective pirate incursions. One ship made a suicide run on the planet itself, while a few others had tried – and failed – to take on the Armadillos. A slow week by all accounts.
He looked up to the viewport, felt the vibrations of the prime movers through his chair and up his spine, and watched the crystal ball of The Gift grow before him. "Geosynchronous orbit," he said to his XO, who relayed the commands. "Over the main settlement." It was just a research station but even scientists could be wowed and a two thousand metre long battleship hanging directly overhead normally qualified.
His XO barked orders to every crew member on the bridge. They possibly moved faster under her orders than his. That devil woman has a real future, he thought, though he'd be damned if he'd say that to her face.
"Orbit achieved," she said.
"In coming signal from the planet," called a tech from the Pit. "Chief Lorenzo."
"Put him on screen." It amused Tom that the scientists top rank was equivalent to an enlisted crewman.
The view of The Gift dissolved into a sharp edged man with stencilled black hair, black eyes and a big mole on the right side of his chin. He gave a curt nod. "Captain Gregory, welcome to Helios."
"Chief Lorenzo," replied Tom. "Thank you for your hospitality. We have the requested supplies in our hold. Food stuffs from the Messiers system, Laboratory equipment from Pleiades."
"Thank you Captain. The Emperor's tribute is ready for uplifting at your convenience. In addition we studied a recent interloper's ship and have sent the details to Central Dynamics. They would be very interested in studying it.
Tom narrowed his eyes. CD was a core supplier to the navy and if they saw some advantage in a pirate's wreck, fine, but the safety of his ship was paramount. He glanced at his XO. She was checking for updated orders and nodded.
"I'll have nothing brought aboard my ship until I've had my own crew scan it." He thought for a moment. "I'll bring down a shuttle personally."
Marlon spotted the silhouette atop the speckly white diamond butte and froze. Beyond the figure, the fierce lights of the research base lit up the night as if Helios itself was about to rise. There was a faint trace of soot in the air.
He returned his focus to the figure. A poor sentry position, thus likely his guy and not a navy guard, but not guaranteed. Using the inverted stalagmites as cover he snuck around the butte, up a chiselled stairway and tapped him on the shoulder.
The figure leapt a foot high and would have fallen over the edge if Marlon hadn't grabbed him. Definitely just a scientist.
"Doctor Grey I presume?" Marlon said.
"Merciful Diety," hissed Grey, one hand to his chest, the other clutching Marlon's arm. He breathed deep, straightened his black standard issue TCN blazer and looked Marlon over. "How long did you work on that witty line?"
Marlon snorted. Jumpy but level headed. He'd chosen well. "All trip."
Grey withdrew a vacuum packed blazer from a pocket and passed it to Marlon. "Let's go."
Marlon shrugged into the blazer and followed Grey down the zig-zag steps. Hidden within a ring of columns were the roofs of blankicite-fabbed buildings, light towers and a large gabled structure of either glass or clear diamond. Between the buildings was a navy shuttle and beyond, the salvaged debris of Marlon's little ship.
"The man upstairs is inspecting your wreckage," Grey whispered, pointing upward as he weaved through the buildings and his peers.
Marlon looked upward. The battleship seemed to hover directly overhead, so close it looked like a stain upon the cosmos, an aberration at odds with the serenity around it. He swore he could see a few laser blisters even at this distance.
They entered the 'city square'. The navy shuttle sat inert on its landing paws. Blazer-clad workers laughed around a sooty fire that seemed to burn from the ground itself. Marlon felt uncomfortable. Why were so many out after curfew? No, it was a civilian base. He still couldn't shake the military training, even after so many years.
They left the square, between two buildings toward a pair of guards. One raised his rifle, fingers twitching, the other held his palm out. "This area is off limits." His tone left no room for rebuttal. Shrugging, Grey took Marlon back, out of the base and around.
"I call this the savannah," Grey said, waving to both sides. Marlon thought the description apt. Where the other side of the base had had a regular grid square columns, this area was mostly flat, dotted with tortured blobs of different sizes and shapes. They looked like melted golems, frozen mid-death. Not great cover.
Marlon checked for spotters, snipers and drones. Clear. Of course it was all moot if the battleship above had cameras trained on him. The bent low and raced between golems to the edge of the clearing. He pulled Grey down to a squat by a golem that almost reminded him of a tree in hoar frost.
Three men wandered amongst the debris, the clearing lit up by four gas burners. One man wore the ubiquitous blazer and gestured at the intact cockpit frame, his frantic motions suggesting alarm or excitement. Marlon's heart squeezed his chest. Had they figured out his plan? He couldn't help glancing over his shoulder.
The second man waved a scanner past the debris. The third, a navy Captain by his uniform followed a few steps behind. The Captain kept glancing at his wrist and gesturing at the Scanner. Eventually he sighed at the sky – or his ship – and nodded. He turned and left. Scanner in tow, leaving Blazer to smile at himself.
Marlon turned to Grey, smiling, relief filling his chest. "So far so good. Now I just need one more thing ."
Down in the greenhouse's basement, Marlon played his fingers over the closest plastic drum. "You've got two hundred kilograms of ammonium nitrate?" He didn't believe in any deity, but this was some kind of luck.
Grey shrugged. "The modern fertilizers failed so we tried going prehistoric." He shrugged again. "But you saw upstairs. Nothing grows on this shit."
Marlon nodded. The greenhouse's beds of pulverised minerals were bare. "Your experimentation won't be wasted," he assured Grey, resisting the urge to rub his gloved hands together. "How big is the 'tribute'?" The navy cargo lifter was already being loaded.
"One hundred pods. I have two empties in my quarters."
They dragged two 20kg drums up the stairs and outside. The lights in the deserted square were off, refracted light from the lifter and the stars the only illumination. They loaded the drums onto a gurney and pushed it forward. The left front wheel squarked and Marlon's heart nearly leapt out of his mouth. He froze, trying to listen over the roaring of blood in his ears, but no one came out to arrest or shoot them.
"Let's try that again," Marlon whispered to a pale-faced Grey, slowly pushing the gurney forward. They reached Grey's quarters without interruption, brought the drums inside and loaded the empty crystal pods. They loaded the pods onto the gurney and rolled it back through the compound to the Lifter.
Two guards with pointed rifles stopped them on the perimeter. "Tribute," stuttered Grey – acting? – then continued. "Last two pods."
The guards glanced at each other. "The tribute has already been counted."
Marlon exaggerated his glance behind the guards and threw up his hands. "It's nearly finished for Diety's sake," he said, his tone bordering on pleading. "Let us through or we'l get our butts kicked."
The guards shared another glance and their postures softened. Marlon smiled inside. The universal connection between all grunts – getting kicked by the man above. The guards parted. "Just hurry it up will ya?"
Marlon and Grey complied, racing the gurney toward the loader mech. "Woah there," Marlon yelled. "Two more to go."
"Loading operation complete," came the stilted words from its 'mouth'. It turned away and waddled inside.
Shit. The Loader would have sent an inspection request after finishing. They were out of time. He stared dumbstruck at the open cargo hatch for a moment then shrugged and nudged Grey. "Quickly, let's get this one onboard." And hope it's enough.
They lifted it up, staggered inside, past the now inert mech and into the cargo bay.
Magnetically restrained in the corner, beside rows or clamped tribute pods, sat Marlon's little ship. An echo rang through the deck as they dropped their pod by the ship. Grey clamped the pod while Marlon retrieved a remote from his sleeve. Small, black, two buttons. He pressed the first button and the sections of the cockpit frame snapped open like a spring loaded clam. Dust burst outward.
Grey stepped back, breathing hard and wiping his forehead. "What is it?"
"Stacked Aluminium powder, doused in ethylinediamine. Scanners read it as solid when it's under enough pressure." He watched Grey breathing out hot, moist air and fighting the urge to sneeze. Neither were good for the ali powder.
They turned – and stopped dead, the navy captain filling the hatch before them. "You two better have a damn good reason for trespassing on navy property."
Marlon calmed his heart and considered which way to play it. The Captain's eyes were stern and weathered. There was little time for bullshit in those eyes and Marlon's acting wasn't up to the game, so he played it straight. "Your damn mech wouldn't bring this last pod on." He kicked it for good measure, positive it wouldn't explode. Yet.
Grey stepped forward. "I'm not paid enough to break my back like that. We gather the tribute and the navy loads it, that’s the agreement."
The Captain's gaze wandered from Marlon to Grey, unhurried, an eyebrow raised like a school principal eyeing children in detention. Then his gaze snapped past them.
Marlon swallowed, his tongue suddenly two sizes too big for his mouth.
"What the damnation is that?" The Captain snapped.
Marlon glanced at the Captain's side-arm, adrenaline fizzing through his body, then forcing himself to breath, turned back to his ship.
He could taste the metallic bite of the mostly settled dust and the cockpit frame looked completely different. Which had the Captain-"
"My fault sir," Grey said. "Knocked the wreckage with the pod. Crystalline dust from sitting outside. Happens this time of the season. The filters will get it."
The Captain stared at both of them for a second, his eyes dark, large, like microscope lenses and Marlon wasn't sure if he was peering through their souls at their deception – and Grey's clear bull shit - or merely deciding which of them to crush under his boot first.
Marlon's gaze returned to the Captain's sidearm. No, better to break the forearm, bend him down and knock him out. His legs and fingers tensed in anticipation.
"Get off the ship," The Captain said, his tone rushed as if he'd already forgotten them.
Marlon and Grey watched from the butte as the Captain's shuttle lifted off.
"I'm going to be in the stinky river for missing the fanfare down there," Grey said absently.
"You've got the best seat in the house," Marlon assured him as the Lifter rose above the crystal obelisks, its thrusters roaring in the still night. He started counting as the two ships shrunk to pinpricks, closing on the orbiting battleship.
Acceleration, deceleration, orbital radius, landing procedures, together they equated to a time that Marlon hoped was close to the one in his head.
The cargo lifer would queue while the shuttle docked. The lifter would require a docking clamp. He added a safety margin of thirty seconds.
He fingered the remote then pointed it up at the battleship.
He pressed the second button.
Tom Gregory stepped onto his bridge, opened his mouth to say "Lets' get the heck out of Helios", when the Concordia lurched beneath his feet. The lights died and the deck bucked again. He stumbled forward, catching his command chair before his boots engaged. A dozen alarms blared; twice as many voices yelled over each other. Emergency lights flicked on. Red symbols flashed across the viewport faster than Tom could register them. He raced to the edge of the Pit. "Status?" he boomed. Fire, hull breaches, sections isolated, crew missing, death tolls. The reports came to fast to assimilate. His XO scrambled up next to him. "Did something hit us?"
"Sir, Incoming!" yelled an officer. Tom whirled back to the viewport. Green targeting brackets enclosed three dozen distant specks.
"Get us moving!" roared Tom. "Power up the guns."
"Main power down," yelled an officer. "Weapon systems offline."
"Get them online imbecile!" He whirled around. "Tactical? Get me a picture on these clowns."
His XO turned from another officer. "We've lost half the engineering section. We think the explosion came from inside."
Tom turned from his XO to the viewport, eyes widening like the growing specs before him, a black hole forming in his stomach.