Farlost Episode 19
In another place, a dull red sun simmered. Around the sun circled millions of miles of conspicuous nothing, followed by a belt of crushed rock outgassing superheated liquid, reflecting the red light of the ball of gas at the center of the solar system. Three ugly, scarred planets-one of them gigantic- circled the dull sun farther out, then came another belt of dense rock. This one glowed white from water vapour, constantly freezing, gassing and freezing again, being just the right distance from the red sun to eternalize the cycle. A few more cold, airless planetoids orbited silently past the second belt. Scattered between every body throughout the dim solar system were ominous, monstrous giants: planetoids covered with jagged, asymmetrical spikes, each thousands of kilometres tall and the same dull mix of sickly yellow and ash grey. The Thorns. And around every Thorn, orbiting silent and solemn, was a graveyard. The tombstones in these graveyards were ships, both tiny and gigantic. Out on the fringe of the system, as close to the furthest Thorn as a ship could safely travel, floated The Betty, a skinny mutt of a ship cobbled together from mismatched, gleaming alloys, organic armor and dragon scales. Red and black streaked with metallic blues and greens. All but one aboard the tiny ship watched the nearest hulk: one even smaller than the Betty, picked clean by time and past scavengers. Still, The Betty's spotlights scanned, still her sensors learned every curve and pit of the nearly-picked-clean skeleton. Still her hungry crew hoped for some small discovery that could change their luck. Captain Travis, alone, cast his gaze down into the Thorn's gravity well, his imagination captured by a distant, gigantic shape. A shape known to the crews of all the ships that eked survival from the flotsam thrown free of the protective grasp of the Thorns. "Get a grip, Sam," he murmured quietly to himself, but still he feasted his eyes. He took in the massive sensor arrays, shattered solar panels and pocked, wing-like surfaces extending to either side of one of the most famous of all the dead ships glittering around the Thorns. Tantalizing, glittering wealth, buried deep and untouched. Some called it the Prize, for obvious reasons. Others called it the Eternal, for that's how long it seemed to have been there: as long as any living race had been in-system, inspiring generations of songs and legend. The untouchable, silver-white ship was a legend simply because it still existed, down deep where nothing should. It persisted, trapped down deep, out of reach but never far from whispers or dreams. Sam sighed. “You're going to have to wait a little longer beautiful," he accepted aloud, finally, reluctantly turning his attention to the shattered ruin growing larger in the holo tank. The Betty coasted close in to the little ship, for a short time again ejected from the gravity and danger of the Thorn. All hands waited while the machines searched for something worth going and getting,and they held their breath, crossed digits of bone and flesh, or buzzed and clicked to control their nerves. This particular wreck had risen, been picked clean and then fallen, reclaimed by the gravity of the Thorn below, dozens of times in recorded history-or at least the fragments of recorded history The Betty could glean from their trades with Ery and Martel. The hulk filled the hologram tank in the center of the bridge. The omnipresent threat of the Thorn was now almost entirely hidden by the hulk they hoped to eke scraps from. Only a few of the mountainous spikes were visible past the top of the dead ship. "Sal, a week of bio-reclamation duty says we fizz," whispered the floating Manta. Its two-pronged tail flicked and its wide, flat wings whipped nervously around the head of the Scarecrow beside it. 'Won't happen,' signed Salix, the skinny bipedal plant talking to the Manta with his hands. "Plop, plop," one of the two Tumblers said in its high voice. It rolled in a tight circle. A flurry of pink and black tentacles pushed its holey exoskeleton, looking for all the world like a tumbleweed from the wild west-with the oversized spider's web at the center hiding what lived beneath. "Fizz, fizz!" the other replied. Its beak poked briefly through the webbing inside the spherical exoskeleton to propel it into the air, and land with a crack. Both Tumblers hissed with sick humor. "Newark, Posk, knock it off," Sam murmured. The Tumblers stopped their rolling, and the volume of their chittering dropped to a third as their Captain leaned over the back of his chair, his hands folded together and squeezing his knuckles painfully. "Daisy, how far to the line?" he called out. "You're kidding, yes?" Doug called out, his booming voice as quiet as he could make it. "We're not close to the line, we're on it." Travis pushed a palm out towards the fifteen foot tall Skanen behind him, and glared. His eyes swivelled to his first officer, then around to indicate the others, spellbound around the holo tank. The meaning was clear: no freaking out in front of 'the kids'. "Douglas is for the most part correct," Daisy's deep, disembodied voice boomed from speakers. A hologram appeared like a thickening cloud in the air beside Travis. "Would you like a more accurate calculation of distance?" The hologram forming between Skanen and Human, showed a thin red line in the air, mere inches beyond the 'Betty' and the hulk it was approaching. "We are now within ninety kilometers of the shatterzone." So. Damn. Close. "You could break it gently, y'know?" Sam joked aloud to hide his nerves. He knocked his right arm -the prosthetic one- against the back of his command chair. Just once. Then he recognized the action for the 'tell' it was and stilled himself. Fine, he admitted to himself. I'm freaking out a little too. He looked into the large, central holo tank. Their haul was covered in ugly cuts and holes. It was ancient, pitted from impacts and bitten all over by scavengers of the past. Travis thought once more about his white whale, but that craft hadn't washed out of the Thorn's gravity well and shatterzone in millenia-he didn't even know what race had come to the system in it. Which was part of the allure, he knew. He shook his head. No, they would have to make do with the smaller craft they'd come for. It would work. They'd find something. They had to. He stared at the scrolling readouts on the holo: so far, the hulk had no secrets to reveal. Come on! he cursed silently. He wished some hidden gem would stand up and whistle, but none did. "Engineer's assessment? Can we pull it free?" he called up into the air. Ben's gruff voice answered back from speakers in the ceiling. "I'll let you know once she's on the scales, Sam, but are we sure that pile is worth our last grapple missile just to weigh her and find out?" Their last grappler? They really were dancing on the razor's edge. There was no margin to fail. No gas in the tank to roll the dice and come up empty. There was also nothing else to save the grappler for, and nowhere else to look for a payday... except turn themselves in to the Guard and surrender The Betty. He snorted. "Do it, Gruber." The engineer's sigh sounded like static through the ceiling speaker. Travis felt the very subtle wobble of the Betty as Gruber fired the missile. The grappler was designed to penetrate the ship's hull, stabilize the ship's position with built-in thrusters, then launch cabling back towards Betty. The crew would anchor the cable lines to their own ship's hull, thus allowing them to take their time poring over the space junk for something of value. "Grappler away. Did I mention I just launched our last one? I did, right?" Travis looked at the ceiling. He knew it wasn't rational to look up when he talked to his engineer, as the old man was holed up at the back of the ship. "Hey, it's a free ship. You all voted for this hail mary." "Don't remind me," Gruber's voice came back, then erupted into ugly, harsh laughter. "'Ah hell, if I had another place I wanted to die, that's where I would be." Sam smiled faintly at that. Was that a compliment? From Gruber? He really must think we're done for. A soft chime came from the ceiling. "Got 'er, Cap." Gruber was good on the stick, but Sam knew his ship well enough to just barely feel the engines reverse. The crew waited silently while Gruber calculated the weight of the hulk. Sam, the least patient of all. "Sorry folks, Betty can't pull that scow clear. But...she can lift her high enough to buy us a couple of days to lift her skirts." Sam nodded. Two days was a good chunk of time. He didn't like sitting still for that long, and they would have to watch over their shoulders the whole time... but they could scour that hulk top to bottom. "That mean you're volunteering to suit up and float on over?" "Hell, no! I'll be hiding down here with the engines." Doug boomed with laughter, mandibles clacking. Several of the crew turned and stared eagerly at their first officer and Captain. The Tumblers' exoskeletons flexed and bowed with excitement. Travis knew Doug saw through Gruber's act as well as he did: Gruber cared, for all his gruff bullshit. He sighed. "Last chance, old man. Any reason I don't send them out?" More hoarse laughter. "Besides the likelihood of everything in these parts dissolving if I burn the clutch and we sink? Nah." Whish farted and floated a foot higher, squawked at that, but Sam knew he was still game: his 'tell' was when his tail rippled. Sal started tapping his heavy booted foot. Whish floated on his side, the eyes on the tops of the Manta's large wings fixed on Travis, his gas sacs trembling. "Douglas?" he asked. His first officer stilled his mandibles and towered up on his back-most legs. “Let us do this." Sam grinned. Good ol' Doug. Always a team player. Travis faced each of crew for a second at a time as he supposedly answered Gruber, though everybody knew the words were meant for them, too. "Daisy and Gruber are keeping the Betty trim at this altitude. I know we trust them to keep us safe, barring other trouble. Thing about trouble is, it happens from time to time. No judgement, people, sing out if you've got a problem. This is family meeting time: who's willing to suit up?" There was a chorus of sounds, chitters and cracking bounces, along with an "Aye-aye" and a "Yessir!" Travis nodded. "Okay then," he called out. “All stop, Ben,” The ground shuddered at the same moment Ben replied “Braking now.” Travis stepped off the raised platform surrounding his chair. "Doug, Whish, mind the store." The group broke away from the holotank and followed him to the elevator--all save the Manta, who flew towards Doug's station. “You know the rules!” the Skanen roared after the crew, trading places with Whish at his station and lumbering to the Captain's chair. "Watch your instruments, and keep your comms live." "Yes, Mom!" Sam called as he made his way to the elevator, lighter and energized now the decision was made. He was committed, like an hard round fired from a railgun. He slapped Sal on the back -surprised as ever by the wire-cable strength in the branches that made up the walking plant's shoulders and arms, and kicked Posk's exoskeleton, playfully tumbling one Tumbler into the other. He was ready to give his all, and bring The Betty's crew back home with a big bag of groceries.