The docks are perfectly illuminated. Despite this part of Nyx being on its night cycle, the landing pads are always working. Through the clear viewports of the station, the lights outside in the vacuum are fully on and the workers walking back and forth, loading and unloading cargo from dozens of small craft. Risha’s ship is named The Cat’s Paw after an old story her father used to tell her. She doesn’t remember much about it now, only the sound of his voice as he read it to her. She remembers it was scary.
This Cat’s Paw isn’t so scary to look at, but her skill as a pilot would dispel that notion quickly. Risha prefers not to fight if she can, but it’s not always an option. If she has to shoot, she wants to end it quickly.
“Evenin’,” Dorm says, giving her a wave as she ducks through the loading ramp doors, the circular hatch cycling closed behind her. One of the lead deck hands on Nyx, Dorm is tall and long-boned, like many who grew up in the poor districts that often lacked gravity generators. He has almost always taken care of her needs while the Cat’s Paw was in port and she trusts him more than most. She pays him to be sure of it.
“Evening, Dorm, is everything good?” she says, bringing up her mobiGlas to visually assess her checklist. Fuel is good, engines have been through maintenance, and cargo has been loaded. It is listed as Medical Supplies.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dorm says, grinning with perfect teeth, the red of the dust long gone. His hair is long and wavy, the color of a dark ruby. He is a man who hides the corruption and dust sickness with cleansing tonics and an easy smile, but Risha isn’t fooled. Not anymore.
“Anything I should know?” she closes the ‘Glas and begins to walk down the gangway towards her ship. Dorm steps alongside her, his strides long and languid, his body bobbing slightly with each step as his long legs bent with each foot fall. It reminds her of struts on a spaceship as it comes down to land, the pistons giving way to the weight above and then springing back into place.
Dorm shakes his head. “No, nothing ‘sides the usual. No chatter on the freq and I ain’t seen no kinds of chatter of Advocs. Smooth skies, low bars, neeza?”
She licks her lips and unhooks her helmet from the latch on her belt and begins its boot up sequence before pulling it over her head and sealing it. Through the helmet’s external speakers, her voice is lower, less feminine.
“Stairs to upstairs, bones below, neeza?” she says, adapting to local slang. Dorm’s grin remains as they walk.
“Nah, no gristle beneath the waves. Everything top top.”
No undercover agents around then, she thinks with some relief. The only policing going on was Dock Authority, and she was paid up on their ransoms already. If you were going to do business on Nyx, that was just a matter of survival. Not paying your ransom is a real good way to find your thrusters missing.
“Thanks ne kiyo,” she says and nods in Dorm’s direction.
“’For you, Dorm ensures ascension, neeza? Any brain pats towards more than kiyo kiyo?”
She tries not to sigh. Every time she lands in Nyx, Dorm tries to get her into bed. It had been a mistake the first time, a result of drugs and three months in the black without Amy, without anyone at all. He’d come and assuaged her loneliness for a time, but the drugs came first. His and hers. Eventually the corruption would be all he wants, no matter how much he tries to hide it from her. She purged the stuff but no matter how he tries to hide it, Dorm never would.
“Maybe next time,” she says without looking at him and steps into the airlock. When she turns, he’s standing there, still grinning at her. He keeps staring at her as the airlock seals and cycles. Then he’s out of sight as the air drains, pressure releases, and the opposite hatch opens onto the dock.
The Avenger is old, the white heat tiles burned and stained from countless energy weapon hits and atmospheric re-entries. The CF-227 Badger laser repeaters were freshly cleaned, the energy cores replaced. The T-21 Tigerstreik ballistic gun is topped up on ammunition and the missile racks were just like she wanted them: two Dominator infrared missiles and two cross-section Tempest II missiles. Sometimes it is useful to have different ways to scare a target.
Popping the hold, Risha ducks beneath the Avenger’s big engine and makes her way through the small hold. As promised, the cargo is there, locked down on the floor. She closes the hatch, secures it, and then unlocks the forward-most cargo container. With a grunt, she shoves it off the mag-lock and slips her fingers into a hidden latch. A twist and a pull dislodges it and she looks down into the compartment.
Instead of the Red Fury she expects, there’s a datachip for her mobiGlas. She reaches down and pulls it out, slips it into the device, and boots it up. A set of coordinates flow past her eyes, along with a quick dossier on her contact.
She is going back to Vega. The idea fills her with a sense of apprehension and anxiety. That night in the back alley with Amy comes briefly back to her: the smell of her blood, the sight of her frightened eyes, the sound of her ragged breathing, the feel of her shivering body. Risha closes her eyes, banishes the memory, and replays the message.
“Greetings Miss Gray, I am called Zax,” a voice says, overlaid on top of the flowing information. “I will be your tour guide for your visit on Artemis! Once you touch down in New Corvo, meet me at the Download bar. We’ll have dinner and talk about our arrangement. It’s a brave new world here on Artemis, Miss Gray. I look forward to your visit.”
The recording ends and Risha looks at the cargo containers. With trepidation, she stands and unseals the one she moved just seconds ago. Inside are rows upon rows of medical supplies and stimulants, all military grade. It is a fortune in life-saving materials.
The question is, why was Nexo transporting it to Artemis? He isn’t the type to help out a desperate population in the wake of a Vanduul attack unless there is a lot of money involved. If that’s the case, then who is paying?
“Guess I’ll find out,” she says and secures the cargo once more.
Ten minutes later, she’s free of the landing zone and entering Cruise Mode on her way to the Nyx-Bremen Jump Node. From there it is just one more jump to Vega. Less than 5 LY. Maybe just enough time for a nap. If she can stand it.
An alarm sounds. Darkness interrupted by flashes of light. Air rushes down a corridor, pulled into the vacuum. Screams cut off by the sudden shortage of air. Hands grasping, reaching, fingers slipping. No more sound and all warmth is gone. The cold is everywhere, freezing hands, feet, throats, lungs, eyes. A door shuts and seals so many fates. A hand presses to the door opposite and then is gone.
Risha wakes, gasping for breath. She flails and tries to stand but something has her around the waist and chest, holding her. Her hands reach down, try to pry the things away, but she feels a webbed crash harness, a buckle, a safety restraint. She opens her eyes and sees the swirling storm of the jump node, the warning flash of her console. Arrival at Vega was imminent. It is time to wake up, to rejoin the living and leave the ghosts to their nightmares.
When she reverts to real space, she’s still far away but hundreds of contacts assault her sensors. The Cat’s Paw once was used to find Dust smugglers in the dark regions between Odin and Vega, and while her systems were no longer used for that, their sensitivity remained the same. She sees hundreds of ships, UEE and paramilitary groups vying for space alongside regular trade ships. Artemis looks like images she’d seen of Virgil before the withdrawal.
She touches her communications panel and requests clearance. New Corvo is the only landing zone and she expects her place in line to be sometime in the next Sol Day. Surprisingly, she gets a signal immediately. Good fortune always makes Risha suspicious so she checks the docking location. It isn’t the best location, but it isn’t in the outskirts either, where the Cat’s Paw might be hijacked.
Twenty minutes later she flies over the tall spires of the city reaching up like spindly fingers for the beautiful planetary rings above. Every time she’s been to New Corvo, those rings take her breath away. They were the colors of dreams, gold and cream and azure. Sights like these had drawn her out from Terra to the stars so many years ago, when she was so young and so full of hope.
The landing zone assigned to her is teaming with people. The pads all around her are full. A beat-up cutlass has one engine removed, sparks flying off as repairs are performed. Behind her, she catches sight of a new Constellation Andromeda offloading its cargo. To her other side an old Gladius fighter is having missiles loaded onto its pylons. The markings on the fighter’s wings don’t match any PMC she knows. So many new groups cropping up every day out here.
She pops the rear loading ramp and ducks as she steps down onto the pad. Unlike Nyx, there is no worker immediately there to take her money and time. Instead, her mobiGlas is pinged by the dock authorities. She checks in, stating her cargo is medical supplies, its destination left unannounced. For a few hours, that wouldn’t raise any flags. Not in a station this busy.
A quick search shows her that the Download bar isn’t far off the main dock strip. She can walk there in under an hour or take a cab if she is in a hurry. Her finger hovers over the cab call but hesitates. Something feels off and it is a feeling she never ignores, so instead she closes her ‘Glas and decides to walk.
“Risha? Risha Gray?”
The voice is male and familiar, the tone unsure but curious. When Risha turns, she stares into the face of a man she knows but doesn’t recognize. He was just a boy when she’d last seen him in his UEE uniform and she’d been just a girl.
“Derek Shaleen, Captain, right?” she says, locking her mobiGlas and shutting it down completely. Her AR goes offline too but she doesn’t need it. Not yet.
Derek is a short, compact man, with dark skin and black hair cropped short to his scalp. His eyes are green, which stand out because they’re obviously not artificial. They’re too dull, too real. Earth blood still has colors other than brown by birth without genetic splicing. He grins and hurries up the steps to her platform and over to her, pausing a few feet away.
“Nah, I’m out of the UEE. After you left, so did Rachel and Eric and… well anyway, I did too. I heard you joined the Advocacy? You’re an agent or something?”
“I was. It didn’t work out,” she says and feels suddenly anxious to be off.
“Oh, really? I thought you’d be great at that! You were always sharp. Remember when you figured out how the XO was hiding the best booze in the armory?” He steps closer and lowers his voice, grinning wider. “Remember how we hacked through it?”
His enthusiasm hasn’t changed. Risha smiles, transported back to the day she first arrived on the UEES Kilgore. The Idris-class frigate had been old, the F7A Hornets new, the crew young, and the pilots eager. She and Derek arrived the same day on different transports. Then she remembers the accident. The cold. The hand slipping away from the hatch and she feels the happiness drain away again.
“What are you doing here, Derek?”
“I signed on with First Relief a couple months back. You know me, I was always a better manager than a pilot. Anyway, we’re here trying to help out the victims of the vanduul raid. It’s pretty bad, people are sick, a lot of them are hurt. Not a lot of supplies are getting in.”
Risha blinks, frowning. “What? There’s UEE ships everywhere!”
He shrugs and glances up, his green eyes squinting at something in the sky. “Yeah. Any supplies that come in? They’re filling up the bellies of those ships. ‘The UEE stands with you!’ so the saying goes. It’s all shit, they’re just taking the good stuff. The PMCs are buying up what’s left. What’s worse?”
He takes her arm and draws her away from edge of the platform, towards her ship. Lowering his voice, he takes one look around. “New Corvo is crawling with crime, you know that, but there’s this… group. Calls themselves the Far Horizons Syndicate and they say they’re here to protect the people’s interests. It’s even bigger bullshit than the UEE and PMCs. They have their fingers on all the big suppliers coming in, muscling in on any relief efforts. Any meds come in? Any food? Boom, right into their hands. They sell it for prices that would blow your mind!”
Risha feels her stomach drop away. Without checking her mobiGlas, she knows who her contact works for. Knows how this Far Horizons is doing it. Crime always ruled New Corvo and now it had a name.
“Risha, I know this is a lot to ask, but… I checked the manifest and saw you have meds. First Relief can’t offer much, and I don’t know who you’re selling to but… Risha, we need them. I have the chance, we have the chance, to do some real good here. Honest things.”
She glances back at the Cat’s Paw, remembering the crates full of military grade goods. Goods that could help the people here. She also remembers the seventy-five thousand credit debt. Then she looks back into Derek’s green eyes, hears his words, and remembers the things they’d done. Things that weren’t part of that youthful dream they’d both shared when they came aboard the Kilgore.
She opens her mouth but no words come out.