Our Cast of Players:
- Alexei Makarov (Ian): Human Expert – Technician/Adventurer, level 1.
- Christian (Craig): Human Psychic – Adventurer/Psychic Researcher, level 1.
- Hilton “Hiltie” Jones (Max): Human Expert – Biotech Crew/Pilot, level 1.
- Jonah Priest (Alan): Human Warrior – Security Crew/Ground Forces, level 1.
- Lazarus Morgenstern (Dave): Human Expert – Noble/Adventurer, level 1.
- Munroe (Ricky): Human Warrior – Soldier/Merc, level 1.
Munroe checked the slide on Beth, his trusty MAG pistol. Despite the almost frictionless action, he could feel the heat from the snub-nosed muzzle. Casting a glance at Jonah, he puffed out his cheeks in mock relief even as the incredibly muscular man reloaded his shotgun and pointed it at the ruined chest of the bandit leader, Lu Hao. The siege was over.
Despite the icy surroundings, the interior of the monastery on Chifeng was surprisingly warm. Outside the chill wind howled and the glacier from which the incredible monastery had been carved hummed quietly along on its aquajet engines, floating across the endless frigid waters to stay away from the ravenous Yellowbeaks, source of both life and death on Chifeng.
Turning to address the shaking Abbot Hong in Mandarin, Alexei calms the nervous man and reassures him that the threat is now over, permanently. No more shall the depredations of the bandits disturb the quiet solitude of the monks. Christian and Hiltie busy themselves with the surviving monks, tending to the dead and the dying while the weasel-like Lazarus prompts Alexei, “don’t forget our payment, Alexei”, before turning a beaming smile on the uncomprehending Abbot and nodding politely.
Alexei and the Abbot retreat to the inner sanctum of the monastery, recently the scene of so much carnage. When Alexei emerges, alone, he waves a small furled sheet of plastipaper, “I have in my hand a piece of paper, wealth in our time,” he quips. He explains that the monastery has little in the way of wealth with which to award your recently formed security consultancy, the monks being of simple taste and having been preyed upon by bandits for many years. However, 50 years ago a wealthy benefactor bequeathed the monastery a share in a mining company, Geostellar Mining Industries. The monks had no immediate use for the generous gift and so it has remained in the monastery ever since.
Before Alexei has even finished speaking, Lazarus has grabbed the share certificate and is checking the local net for any details he can find on Geostellar. It seems that their sole venture was a mining outpost called Brightside Station in the nearby Hard Light system. The system itself is incredibly hostile and at its centre burns the red giant Perdurabo. It casts its lethal radiance out from the molten slag-droplets of the inner system to the charred debris that circles at the outer rim. The radioactivity emitted by the star is enough to burn through ship shielding in a matter of hours and the only safety lies in hiding behind the scorched bulk of some blasted asteroid. However, Perdurabo offers wealth as well as death. The star emits tiny particles of novium among its blasting radiation. This rare substance is vital for the maintenance and upkeep of many pretech manufacturing devices and so GMI was able to persuade a consortium of banks to finance Brightside Station some fifty years ago, the materials for its construction brought up from the half-melted planetoid of iron and rock that serves as its shield against Perdurabo.
All seemed well for a couple of years until a routine audit revealed that the Chairman’s son, Gui Tang, had gutted GMI’s accounts in a clumsy attempt at fraud. The banks immediately called in their loans and GMI was left bankrupt. As they knew nothing of mining and were in desperate need of a pay-off to support the loans they’d made, the banks left the existing
station director, Yash Dutta, in place with an exclusive contract to mine the novium.
The share certificate is nigh on fifty years old and is for a share of ownership in Brightside
Station itself. Some quick financial research by Lazarus shows that even though the banks foreclosed on the station, the stock can still be redeemed for a portion of the station’s assessed value, which nowadays amounts to almost 8,000 adjusted credits. The catch is that you would need to personally submit the share to the director of the station.
And so it is that two weeks later you find yourselves strapped into the acceleration couches of a small trading ship, one of the rare few to occasionally venture in the Hard Light system, spike drive thrumming in the background, as it prepares to emerge from the twisted higher dimensions into the blasted outskirts of the Hard Light system. Christian re-reads the system registry for the Hard Light system for the umpteenth time. He is especially intrigued by the following entry:
Visitors may be interested in exploring the recently discovered “sky tombs” embedded in several large asteroids along the outer rim of the system. These alien excavations appear to have served as burial sites for important members of their species, and some contain valuable works of art or ancient xenotech. Buyers are present aboard Brightside Station for quick and profitable disposal of interesting artifacts.
“Strap in tight,” sounds a cheery voice over the PA system, “this is normally a rough one. They don’t call the star here The Beast for nothing.” Jonah’s knuckles whiten, a remarkable feat given his ethnicity, as his fingers dig into the armrests. He is a born ground pounder.
There is the familiar feeling of nausea as the spike drive drills down through the dimensions back into normal space, and then a lurch as the passenger compartment is flooded with intense red light. You are instantly pushed back into your seats as the drives throttle up and there is a dull clang as something hits the hull. The artificial gravity system struggles to compensate as the ship is put through a series of violent manoeuvres and then relative calm returns and the red light is cut off. Peering out of the viewport, Hiltie, a trained pilot himself, nods with approval on seeing that you are now tucked in tight behind an asteroid, shielding you from the intense radiation of this system’s primary.
The pilot comes over the PA again. “Relax, folks, it’ll be a few hours until we reach Brightside. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
On arrival at Brightside Station, a featureless metal ovoid orbiting close to the blasted planetoid, Aegis, your ship is admitted into the pressurised docking bay. Scant minutes later, you leave your home for the last week and more with your scant gear and equipment in tow. A variety of automated cargo handling and refuelling systems are already at work on the small ship. Clearly the pilot does not intend to be here for a second longer than necessary.
Proceeding through the airlock into the station itself, you find yourselves in a large central area with doors leading off in all directions and a set of lifts and a staircase at the rear, on what seems to be the lowest deck. Everything is grubby, grimy, and well used. On the far wall is a prominent digital display with the legend “Time To Next Novium Transport”, and markings for days, hours, minutes, and seconds. It seems to be counting down and has just passed the 50 day mark.
A large desk has been set up in the centre of the lobby, behind which sits a fat man with a wide grin, pasty complexion, and steel-grey eyes. Behind him stands a stocky man with close curly greying hair and a salt and pepper beard, arms crossed behind his back. He is wearing black coveralls and a badge prominently displayed on his chest bears the word “Security”. He has a stun baton and handcuffs hanging from his belt, and a holstered semi-automatic pistol on one thigh.
The man rises from behind the desk and proffers a sweaty hand. In a vaguely Scottish burr he says, “welcome to Brightside Station. My name is Roland Lomax and I’m the Cargo Chief here. What is the nature of your visit?”
Christian explains about the share certificate and the man, although remaining professional, seems highly amused. “You’ll need to take that up with Director Dutta,” he shrugs, a half smirk on his face. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you.”
A few immigration formalities follow. You had been previously warned that possession of weapons and armour is strictly forbidden on the station itself and had considered trying to smuggle some aboard, but the place seems to be non-threatening and efficient, even if grimy, so you decide to avoid trouble by declaring what you have. Munroe hands over his beloved Beth and Kate, charging the guard to “look after them well”. It is carefully sealed in individual lock boxes and you are each given a numbered tag and an itemised chit. Finally there is a frisk by the guard and a search of your cases, before your declared possessions are taken away.
Munroe asks when you will be able to reclaim your weapons and Chief Lomax replies simply, “when you leave”. On being asked what restrictions apply outside the station, he shrugs once again. “What you do outside of the immediate surroundings of Brightside is up to you.”
Chief Lomax gives you a very quick run down of the station layout, bureaucracy, procedures, and facilities. For such a remote and isolated outpost, with little over a hundred permanent residents, the facilities are fairly decent. There is a cafeteria, the Heavenly Hash, where regular meals are served to the mining shifts, a bar, The Midnight Sun, the only establishment on the station permitted to sell alcoholic beverages, a small cinema-cum-theatre, a chapel, and a brothel, The Clouds and Rain. There is even a small park area, an overshoot of the hydroponic gardens that supply much of the station’s oxygen. Obviously a premium is placed on keeping bored miners busy and out of trouble.
He then makes his excuses, pointing you towards the station directory by the lift and staircase. He is keen to supervise the unloading and stowage of the cargo just arrived. The real kicker is the discovery of a 5 credit per person per day air tax. Accommodation, consisting of a bunk in the transients’ quarters, a foot locker, and three meals a day, will run to another 5 credits per person per day. You will struggle with this given the current parlous state of your finances. The rest more or less boils down to staying out of trouble and following instructions given by station officers or security staff.
You decide the best and first course of action is to locate Director Dutta and present your share certificate, although there is strong lobbying from Lazarus to make your first port of call The Clouds and Rain. Checking the station directory, you locate the admin offices on Middeck and take the lift up one deck, bringing your cases and backpacks with you. The atrium is almost identical to that on Lowdeck, including the large digital readout counting down the time until the next transport arrives. There is nobody around to ask for directions but one of the several doors leading off the atrium is clearly marked “Station Offices”, so you make your way over there.
The door opens automatically as you approach and beyond lies a small reception area with a couple of comfy chairs, a potted plant, a water cooler, and a painting of the station under construction on one wall. To one side is a functional desk with a young woman sat behind it tapping away on a computer keyboard. She smiles pleasantly as you enter, happy to see newcomers to the enclosed world of Brightside Station. “Well, that didn’t take too long,” she says. “Are you here looking for work?”
Christian explains the situation and she seems a little unsure but agrees to check if Director Dutta can see you. She picks up a small telephone handset, presses a key, and speaks quietly into it, looking at you and nodding the whole time. She carefully replaces the handset, looking serious, and then the smile returns. “The Director has kindly agreed to see you now. Please follow me.”
She leads you down a short corridor, past two doors on opposite sides, one marked “Livingston Roy – Security Chief” and the other “Mary Tomlinson – Mining Chief”, to a third door at the far end marked “Yash Dutta – Station Director”. She knocks once, opens the door and steps in and to one side beckoning you to enter. As you file in she says, “the new arrivals to see you, Director,” and then asks if you would like some tea or coffee. You gratefully accept and she takes your orders before leaving, closing the door behind her.
The office is about the same size as the reception area, although the desk is a good deal larger than the one there. There are several filing cabinets along one wall and the rear wall is covered with a large calendar chart with timelines drawn on it in various coloured pens and several post-it notes attached. A round table sits to one side with several office type chairs around it. Behind the desk, which is covered in papers, is a tall, dark, flinty-eyed man with close cropped black hair and an unblinking gaze. You would guess that he is of Indian origin and put his age as somewhere past seventy, but he looks strong and vigorous. Above the desk is another of the digital countdowns, counting down the time until the next transport arrives.
He stands in greeting and gestures you to take chairs around the table, before joining you himself. “I’m Yash Dutta, Station Director. I understand you believe you have a claim on the previous owners of this station?”
You produce the share certificate and explain how you came by it. Dutta listens with polite interest, although he is clearly none too pleased at this unexpected turn of events. “It must be fifty years since I’ve seen one of these,” he eventually says, turning the plastipaper sheet over in his hands and examining it closely. “You understand that the banks foreclosed on Geostellar, well, about the time this certificate was issued? I shall have to check the authenticity of this claim, of course, and really this is a matter for the bank auditor to adjudicate.” You can sense the distaste in his words as he utters them. “Either way, that individual will not be here until the next novium transport arrives,” and he gestures over his shoulder with a thumb at the digital readout that is counting down in seconds towards 49 days to go. “On top of that,” and he spreads his palms, “I don’t have that sort of money lying around in ready cash.”
Not wanting to give up on the claim, but realising that the tough and canny Director isn’t going to budge, you enquire about the unexpected costs of staying at Brightside you have just been made aware of. The Director smiles a thin smile. “Well, of course, I’d be happy to use your claim as credit for those costs, but they are essential for the safe and smooth running of the station.” He glances backwards at the readout again. “And it seems to me you don’t really have much choice. Transports are, shall we say, a somewhat rare commodity in these parts.”
A quick whispered discussion breaks out as you mull over racing back to the small freighter you arrived on before it leaves but quickly conclude that the potential prize is worth the inconvenience.
Deciding to make the most of a bad situation, you enquire of the Director if there is any paid work to be had on the station while you wait for the bank auditor to arrive. In the absence of the hard technical skills needed for station operations, he offers you unskilled labouring work in the refinery at a rate of 12 credits a day. It’s hard but routine work, barring the occasional risk of a radiation accident.
None of you are much taken by that option and the Director considers carefully before replying, “well, there is something that may suit people with your skills better. The Beast has been unusually active this past month, and Brightside Station has had to expend a lot of water as reaction mass for its manoeuvre jets just to maintain our position. We need to survey a new ice asteroid ahead of schedule, and get it mined. We’ve identified the best candidate but we need to get a team out there with some seismic survey gear before we start cutting it up. If the asteroid has hollows inside it or other areas of weakness it could blow apart under the pressure change if we start the cutting in the wrong place. Operating the equipment is pretty straightforward but, to be honest, I’d rather you took the risk than any of the crew here.”
Some tough negotiations follow and the Director eventually agrees to pay you 500 credits apiece if your mission is successful and to provide one of the transient’s bunkrooms for your exclusive use until the next novium transport arrives, free of charge. He will also lend you a vacc suit apiece and one of the station’s specially shielded exosuits, “just in case.” He is adamant that the air tax of 5 credits per person per day remains in place though. “It’s only fair to the rest of the station staff,” he says. “I can’t be seen to be showing favouritism.”
Christian, still fascinated by the idea of the Sky Tombs he read about on the way here asks the Director what he knows about them. “Not much,” he answers honestly, “and to be honest I’m not much interested in anything that doesn’t interfere with mining operations.” He tells you what he knows though. Two years ago, a wayward novium transport was arriving under the shelter of the outer rim debris when their scanners picked up an anomalous asteroid. The captain dared to go closer, and an away team discovered that the asteroid had been carved out by ancient aliens. Within the pressurised interior, strange artifacts of glass and mineral fibres. A tablet within the sepulchre gave the astronomic coordinates of a couple more of the well hidden complexes that have since been dubbed “sky tombs”.
Since then, a few explorers and adventurers from nearby systems have occasionally made pilgrimages to Hard Light in order to plunder these ancient tombs. A representative from a major research combine, Stoltmann and Haar, has set up permanent shop on Brightside to buy the takings from these ancient crypts. He is aware that at least one team of explorers has been lost forever in the depths of a sky tomb, and there are persistent tales of pirates and worse lairing in the pressurised safety of looted tombs. A few of the ancient rocks are known to be inhabited by hermits or small, reclusive communities that care little for outsiders, the most prominent of these being an artists’ colony living in a rock that have named “Empty Graves”. They do minimal trade with Brightside Station for the necessities they require and the Director is happy to indulge them as they bring in some much needed cash.
With this, you conclude the dealings and he takes a copy of your share certificate. He tells you that you should arrange transport to the asteroid yourselves, but this should be an easy matter as there is only one shielded shuttle rated for system operations outside the protective shadow of Aegis, and it is owned by Ranse Hardlee. The Director tells you that you should be able to find him through The Midnight Sun cantina and makes clear that the interview is at an end.
You drain your cups and leave with thanks, keen to locate the pilot. The Midnight Sun is located close to the station offices on Middeck and is easily found. You enter from the bright lights of the Middeck atrium and as the sound-proofed door slides open you are assailed by a wall of pounding music and it takes a moment or two for your eyesight to adjust to the relative dimness beyond. The central space in the cantina is is taken up by a circular bar bathed in a pool of blue light. It is surrounded on all sides by plastic tables and chairs, several booths line the walls, each with its own table, and one side features a raised area with several microphones set up. It is littered with empty plastic bottles. On the side furthest from the entrance is a small hatch in the wall where snacks are being served. About two dozen people, men and women, are scattered throughout, some in small groups, others sitting alone with their drinks. Without exception they look grimy and tired, or maybe weary would be a better word. If there is much in the way of conversation going on, it is drowned out by the music.
At the centre of the bar, leaning over and in conversation with one of the patrons, is a lean woman with leathery skin and sharp angular features, somewhere past middle aged and with her grey high tied back into a tight bun. She seems as good as place to start as any and you make your way over, shouting to be heard as you introduce yourselves. You elicit a name from the humourless and cynical proprietor (doubly humourless and cynical when she finds out you are not interested in buying any drinks) of The Midnight Sun, Marion Hardlee. It seems that she is the wife of the person you are looking for, or that “good for nothing” as she puts it, and points you crossly towards a booth from where you can see a pair of safety boots resting on the table protruding. Instantly she loses interest in you and returns to her shouted conversation with the customer at the bar.
Approaching the pair of well-worn boots, you see they are attached to a dozing man, half empty glass in front of him. He starts as you enter the booth and sits up. He is a grizzled old man with a squinty gaze and patches of melanoma all over his face. Putting aside his disconcerting appearance, you quickly establish that he is the owner and pilot of The Leadbelly, the shuttle to which Director Dutta referred.
He is happy to help you and even offers to take you on your first trip for free. “Anything to get me away from that harridan,” he grumbles, “as there are no drone retrieval jobs right now. Mind you,” he adds, “I’m no charity case. For any future trips my rates are 250 credits for a charter of up to seven days. When do you want to leave?”
A quick discussion ensues but you see no reason to delay and he agrees to meet you at the docking bay in two hours. Telling him of Director Dutta’s offer to loan equipment and your own stored belongings, he agrees to make sure they are loaded aboard. “I’ll even throw in a few supplies for the trip,” he smiles.
You meet Ranse at the docking bay the agreed two hours later and find him waiting for you in a battered old flight jacket, oil stained coveralls, and radiation shielded goggles. The impression you get is one of an old time pilot. “Okay, ready to go?” he asks. “You’ll be travelling in the drone retrieval bay. The cockpit is sealed off from the rest of the ship so the next time you see me will be when we get back here. It’ll take us two days to get there and two back. The shielding on The Leadbelly is rated for seven day’s exposure to The Beast but I’m not staying out that long for a freebie. 24 hours is what you’ve got. If you’re not back on board by then I’ll be leaving without you. Clear?”
Having little choice, you agree to the old man’s terms and he opens the airlock doors into the pressure bay and you get your first sight of The Leadbelly. It resembles a large brick more than a shuttle due to the immense quantity of lead shielding attached to the hull. Pretty much the only exterior feature are the jets of the manoeuvre drive. He opens the rear bay doors and you file in with some dismay. The drone retrieval bay is simply a large featureless box with a tiny slit of an observation window, made from several inch thick shielded quartz. Half a dozen uncomfortable looking office chairs have been jury welded to the floor plates. The supplies Ranse promised consist of no more than a couple of bags of snack food, sandwiches, potato crisps, and the like, plus a few waxed paper cartons of water. The whole is rounded off with a small stack of well-thumbed pornographic magazines and a couple of buckets obviously meant for toilet duty.
At least your personal equipment, the six vacc suits Director Dutta promised plus the reassuring bulk of the shielded suit and the seismic survey gear are present. With some resignation you try and make yourselves comfortable as best you can. Within minutes The Leadbelly has undocked and you are on your way, soon leaving the protective bulk of Aegis and flooding the bay with the red light from The Beast.
The biggest challenge is keeping the mind numbing boredom at bay for the two day trip. Munroe obsessively strips, cleans and reassembles Beth and Kate in an attempt to pass the time. Even Lazarus manages to exhaust the re-read value of the magazines provided. Most of time you sit in silence with your thoughts, hoping the trip is going to be worth it.
Not a moment too soon, Ranse, who you have not heard from at all during the two day flight, comes over the speakers. “Ice ball in sight… shit… probably not good news for you guys. Check out the observation panel.”
You crowd round the narrow slit trying to get a glimpse. The bulk of the asteroid looms nearby, dirty ice covered in streaks of dust and coated in debris, pitted and scarred. As it rotates into view while Ranse tries to align with it, you see the unmistakeable sight of an airlock door embedded into the side of the asteroid. Ranse manoeuvres closer, “I think I can attach,” you hear and you can now see that there is a small platform build below the airlock and protruding slightly into space.
The shuttle moves closer and there is a loud clank as it makes contact. The airlock door is covered in a graceful curved design of abstract form and a small light on either side illuminates – there is power within!
To be continued…