"On a night like this—if you're lucky—you can catch a glimpse of the Fifth Orion Fleet as it tears by on its perpetual hunt." Rigel Ward lay gazing up at the sky from the roof of his Sleipnir-class ship.
"That's great, Rigel," said a voice, distant and far off. Rigel adjusted his in-ear monitor. "Just wonderful. Now, I know you didn't call me from half way across the system just to tell me about what you might be able to see in the stars if you're lucky. What do you want?"
Ward sat upright, rolling his shoulders and stretching his arms.
"Got a good line on some good salvage," he said, voice full of indifference. "Thought you might want in."
"You said 'good' too much. What's the catch?"
Rigel clicked his tongue, once more casting his gaze to the sky.
"It might be..." He chewed the air. "Just a little hot."
"How much is a little?" asked the voice in his ear, less than impressed. Rigel winced.
"Alliance Navy..." he answered. "Rumour has it, the Concord took out a Navy cruiser near the Elgis Tri-Moons. Apparently it went down on one of the moons, but the Concord had to flee the system before the Fifth caught their scent. Lucky for us, my line knows exactly where it's sitting." A few moments of silence passed, and Rigel checked his holowatch to make sure his conversational partner hadn't hung up there and then. "Del, you there?" he asked.
"So this line you've got," Del spoke up. "Trustworthy?"
"The best." Rigel cringed as the words left his mouth. "We're looking at cut and dry mil-spec hardware ripe for the taking. No risk. Easy money."
A deep sigh passed over the airwaves. "I'll meet you at the Vorago station. Wave me when you get there."
Grinning, Rigel killed the call and removed his earpiece. He glanced upwards just in time to see the beautiful trail of lights left by the engines of the Fifth Fleet as they sped past his little planet. As humanity expanded ever deeper into the stars, the Central Systems Alliance found that not everybody was happy with the way things were being run. When the Altered Concord rose up, the Fifth Fleet was sent to patrol the Betelgeuse system in case of any incursion. Rigel had been just a boy of four back then.
Now a man of twenty-three, he still couldn't help but watch in awe as the great dreadnought engines left a glistening trail in the sky. The Fifth was an older fleet, and the relatively crude impulse engines left a twinkling residue in their wake. Though the ships were moving fast enough to be gone within minutes, the patterns they left amongst the stars remained for up to a standard hour, becoming more spread out and less defined before they dissipated completely.
Taking a last look at the uncovered sky above, Rigel keyed the unlock code of his ship into his holowatch and dropped into the cockpit as it slid open with a hiss. The consoles blinked into life as he ran his fingers over switches and dials, completing the rudimentary checks he'd performed hundreds of times before. As he buckled his harness, the voice of the ship's computer filled the cabin.
"Pre-launch checks complete. Ship status: optimal," said the voice, synthesised and digital.
"Kryten, take me to the Vorago station." Ward raised his eyebrows as he waited for a response to his command.
"Destination: Vorago III Space Station. Is this correct?" Kryten asked, after a few heavy moments of silence.
Damn, I wish this thing wasn't so dumb and slow."Yes," Rigel answered, taking care to pronounce it carefully and clearly. He sighed at the lengthy gap that followed as Kryten analyzed his request.
Finally. Rigel took in a breath as he threw the ignition switch. With a stutter, his craft's in-atmosphere engines growled into life. A last minute double check of the ship's systems, Rigel's own personal ritual, was all that stood in the way of takeoff. With green lights across the board, he was satisfied that his journey could commence. Engaging the mass reduction field, he pushed forward gently on the thrust control lever until he felt the landing struts of his ship clearing the ground.
Guiding his runner into the air was a task Rigel was used to by now. When he got a job in the iridium mines at the age of sixteen, he'd saved as much money as he could every standard month out of his paycheck. By the time he was twenty, he had enough money to purchase a second-hand runner, and when he laid eyes on the Sleipnir, he knew he had to have it. Th elegant curves and shimmering royal blue colour of the equus-class ship had captured his heart. After some brief haggling, the ship was his.
Four years spent living on the cheapest of cheap foodstuffs, affording himself no luxury had led up to him buying his first spacecraft, and it had all been worth it in his mind. The next day, he went into the foreman's office and resigned. From then on, he would be free.
Now, as he escaped the clutches of his home planet Zyra, Rigel's mind was turning over the mess he'd gotten himself into. When his freelance courier service began to fail he looked for aid to keep him afloat, but none of the major corporations wanted to touch him, forcing him to turn to the loan sharks of Zyra's seedy underbelly. The Xiao Long triad answered his pleas, loaning him a substantial amount of credits.
The courier business ultimately failed, and in order to pay off his debt to the triad, Rigel had taken to illegal salvaging and blockade running. Now work was running dry, Ward was behind on his payments, and the Xiao Longs were on his trail like a pack of snarling bloodhounds.
Pushing thoughts of possible kidnap and torture out of his mind, Rigel focused on the job at hand. His source indicated that there was enough military hardware on this ship to pay off his debts and more, even after it was split three ways, and though he wasn't exactly a reliable lead, the offer was just too good to pass up.
As he broke atmosphere and escaped his cradle, Rigel amped up the power flowing to the mass reduction field and switched to his ion engines. The drastically reduced mass of his craft allowed his small ion engines to push him far faster than would normally be allowed. If not for the inertia nullifier, the resulting G's would be too much for any human to handle. Sensing a vast increase in speed, the ship's computer assumed piloting duties, using pre-existing data and long range sensor technology to react far faster than any human could.
In a little over an hour, Ward neared the Vorago space station. Kryten reduced the ship's speed as the gap closed, and Rigel flicked the manual override switch, taking command of his ship once more for the final approach. At five-hundred kilometres from the station, Kryten piped up, voice full of synthetic politeness.
"Incoming wave from: Vorago Security. Would you like me to patch it through?"
"Yes," Rigel answered, again taking care to pronounce the word slowly.
An unenthused drone filled the cockpit. "Please transfer your Central Systems Alliance certified ident info for verification."
Great, Rigel thought. Haistwell's on security. He rolled his eyes and tapped at the keys on his central console, transmitting his CSA ident to the station so they could be sure he wasn't some pirate or Concord terrorist.
"Rigel Ward!" Haistwell exclaimed, voice booming around the cabin. "Back so soon? How's the courier business?" he laughed. An obnoxious grating sound that gnawed Rigel's patience.
"Peachy," Ward deadpanned. Haistwell let out another disgustingly entitled laugh.
"Cleared to dock in hangar sixty-three," said a new voice, replacing Haistwell who'd become incapacitated by laughter.
Rigel found his teeth grinding involuntarily. Haistwell and he had gone through schooling together on Zyra, and he'd hated him then too. Bastard's always had a superiority complex... Asshat. With a frown, Ward worked the controls of his ship. Slight and nimble adjustments to the thrust vector controls allowed him to manoeuvre the equus-class vessel to the docking bay. He paused a moment while Kryten interfaced wirelessly with the station's hangar door. Larger ships would simply use the extending airlock, but one man machines like Rigel's needed to be landed in a small hangar to allow for safe disembarkation.
The door slid open and Ward edged the ship forwards. Kryten sealed them in, and Rigel heard the familiar hissing sound of the hangar filling with oxygen. As he waited, he checked the parking tariff in case it had changed since his last visit. Up to one hour free. At least there's some good in this universe. A few moments later the cockpit opened, and Rigel shut down his engines. He left the power on, keeping Kryten active. Best not to have to wait for him to boot up again, he thought as he stepped onto the station.
Wobbling slightly, he wrinkled his nose. The artificial gravity on this station always felt a little off to him, and every time he set foot on the ground here he found himself struggling to compensate for it. As he stepped into the corridors of the station proper, Rigel brought up his holowatch interface. Shoving in his earpiece, he called Del to let him know he'd arrived. Arranging to meet on the market level, he ambled into the nearest elevator and rode it down into the heart of the station.
As his elevator descended, the transparent walls allowed Rigel to cast his gaze over the whole market deck. While it wasn't too exuberant in its aesthetics, the deck's high ceiling had an open airy feel to it, though it wasn't a patch on some of the markets to be found on the bigger stations nearer the core systems. The whole deck had dimmed lights to simulate twilight, and each shop had some tacky neon holosign flickering outside of it, inviting or deterring customers as the design style dictated. The roof emulated a terrestrial dusk sky. Rigel looked up at the orange palette. He'd seen it a hundred times or more, and even from the start, it had never convinced him he was standing on a real planet.
Standing as a centrepiece in the deck was a modest stone fountain depicting an angel with wings spread wide and head arched back. Outstretched, his right arm bore a great sword, while the left held aloft a mighty staff from which icy blue water cascaded into the basin below. After leaving the elevator, Rigel made a beeline straight for the water feature. Del was stood waiting, arms folded as he leant his weight on the metal fence surrounding the water feature.
Even relaxing by a fountain, Del cut a strong figure. Tall and broad, he hailed from Xeres, the closest planet in the system to the sun. Due to some errant forced evolutionary effects caused by the terraforming of the planet, it's entire population bore jet black skin and eyes so white it was difficult to make out any pupil at all. Despite their frightful appearance, the people of Xeres were renowned diplomats.
"Delphi, looking good!" Rigel extended his hand.
"You know I hate it when you lie, Ward," chuckled Delphi, grinning as the pair exchanged a firm handshake. "So how's the..." Del gestured to Rigel's left arm as he looked for the right words to say.
Delphi nodded. "So what are we doing in the markets? Why not head straight for the Tri-Moons?"
"There's some last minute shopping I need to do. Come on, let's walk."
The pair took off, meandering through the walkways in silence. Passing shops ranging from boutiques to hydroponic vegetable stores, they approached the more adult end of the markets. Delphi craned his neck to try and see through the half open door of a sex shop that passed by on their left.
"Mind telling me why we're in Vorago's red light district?" asked Del, bewildered. Rigel didn't say anything in response, and just pointed towards a shabby grey prefabricated building sitting in the very corner of the market deck. "Guns?! Really? What do you want a gun for?"
Rigel's face dropped. He turned to his companion and sneered at him as if he were a simpleton.
"Did you forget what happened last time we went on a salvaging run together?"
Del swallowed the air.
"Well... no. But-"
"But what?!" Rigel shouted. A few heads turned at the sudden outburst, and he paused for a moment to recompose himself. "I came away one arm and one eye shorter!"
"You got replacements-"
"That's not the point! It's not the same." Rigel looked down at his left arm and wiggled his fingers with a frown. Delphi didn't respond, and the pair walked into the dingy store without exchanging another word.
The store owner sat behind his counter with his feet on a stool, reading a magazine that looked like it had been purchased from one of the shops over the road. When the metal detector sounded as Rigel stepped over the threshold, he crinkled up his adult literature and rose to his feet.
"Stand still," he commanded, drawing a gauss rifle from under the counter. "Detector beeps, I gotta' scan ya'."
"It's my arm..." Rigel began. "Cybernetic."
The clerk nodded as he thumbed a button on the wall behind, his horseshoe moustache wiggling as he chewed something that stained his teeth black. A beam of light began to run back and forth over the pair in the doorway, scanning for any concealed weapons. When the search revealed nothing offensive, the store owner lowered his weapon and beckoned the pair in.
"Now, what can I do fer' you fine gentlemen?" he asked, brushing through his thin mousy combover with his fingers.
"I'm in the market for something cheap and reliable. Small too, preferably, nothing like that," Rigel gestured at the gauss rifle that still sat on the counter before him. "For use in vacuum," he hastily added. The owner nodded once more, before spitting out some foul coloured viscous mass into a pot by his side. Rigel wrinkled his nose.
"Yeah, reckon I might have just what ya' need." He flicked another switch on the wall behind, and a panel slid away exposing a collection of weaponry previously concealed. His hand went straight to a sleek looking pistol that resembled some kind of ancient gunpowder revolver.
"Throwback S'n'W, one of Emmerson's finest laser pistols," the owner said proudly. "Based on an ancient design from planet Earth, but loaded with yer' standard issue focussing array. In vacuum or in atmo, doesn't much matter. This'll do the job." He slid the pistol over the counter for Rigel to have a good feel of it.
"Three hundred. Three-fifty if you want a spare power cell."
Rigel nodded. He didn't really have money to spare, what with the Xiao Longs on his back. But the thought of being attacked by pirates again while defenceless was just too much to bear.
"I'll take it, and the extra cell too," he said.
"CSA ident, if ya' please." The clerk brought up a holoscreen from his counter and began to ring up the sale. Rigel transmitted his CSA ident using his holowatch and waited while the clerk verified the information. He nodded. "All in order, and now the funds."
Ward transferred three hundred and fifty credits and the sale was done. The clerk produced two standard energy cells from a safe below the counter and handed them over to Rigel with a smile.
"You take care now," he said, as he watched the pair leave. When they neared the door he concealed his rifle and took up his magazine once more, sitting down and placing his feet on the stool across from him.
"You really have three hundred and fifty credits to drop?" Delphi asked, incredulous. The pair made their way back to the fountain.
"No. But it beats losing another arm." Rigel shot a glance at Del. The big man shied away. "Anyway, we've wasted enough time. Let's get spaceborne and head over to those moons."
"Sounds like a plan, I'll meet you outside."
The pair split up and used separate elevators to reach their ships. They'd docked at opposite ends of the station. Military salvage often took the form of large pieces of equipment, which needed specialist tools and big cargo holds to take. That was where Delphi and his ship came in. Rigel headed back up to the hangar connecting corridors and down towards hangar sixty-three.
Kryten greeted him as he climbed into the cockpit of his runner, and gave him a status updated in its polite synthetic tone.
"While you were gone, you received one new message from: Zyra Interplanetary Bank. Subject line: recent transactions. Would you like to read this message?"
Rigel's eyes narrowed. He checked the time on his holowatch.
"No," he answered finally, spitting out the word concisely and accurately so as not to confuse his outdated computer.
Just as he'd done many times before, he fired up the ship's main systems and began the pre-flight checks. When all was satisfied, Kryten cycled the air out of the hanger and opened the door. Rigel guided his craft out of the dock, acutely aware of a niggling sense of worry growing in the back of his mind. Here goes nothing, he thought, as he drew up near Delphi's ship and set a course for the Elgis Tri-Moons.