Surface Missions are Hardly Skin Deep

This was never going to work. There are many ways to die in space, natural or otherwise, and what I was about to do took some of the most effective methods and bunched them up. Impersonate another commander? Check. Pretend to be a combat pilot and carry out a job for a powerful corporation? Check. Fly a combat ship on a surface assault on a fortified base in order to knock out a turret so said corporation members can do other dangerous stuff inside? Deep breath. Check, check, check and check.

There were insects with longer life spans than me under my current circumstances. My instincts were hard wired to run from laser fire, not towards it. And yet there I was, studying the combat ship before me. Core Dynamics had designed the Vulture for one purpose only, and it was not a nice purpose. It carried two hardpoints for weapons that were clearly meant for ships twice its size. And just to make sure that no one would ever mistake it for something other than a flying murdermachine, they had gone through great lengths to make sure it appeared as vicious as possible. I had no doubt someone was overcompensating for something. It was not a friendly looking boat.

And I wanted it so bad. I needed it, really. All my life I had been running. This was my chance to be in the offensive. For once be the aggressor, not the, what’s the word for it? I wouldn’t say victim, just, I don’t know, the one getting shot at without shooting back. Your everyday smuggler or trader, I guess.

So what if I had to lie to a corporation and risk my life? I was never going to afford one any other way.

Was it worth dying for? Probably not. But everybody dies, and most don’t do it for anything worthwhile. I once saw a spacer drink a cocktail made out of Centauri Mega Gin, live Hecate sea worms, and hyperdrive coolant. Wasn’t even on a bet or a dare, just thought it might make for an interesting new drink. Killed him on the spot, and a new tradition was born on Hutton Orbital Station.

I took one last look at my datapad, scanning the information Eggen had forwarded to me, before climbing aboard the ship. He affectionately referred to his Vulture as ‘Miranda’. There was no way I was calling it that. Ship names were important, too important for me to keep the previous owners one. If I managed to live long enough to keep it, anyway.

The information was scarce but straightforward. Travel to the Wonneriti system, a short 9.5 light years away. Head to Westerfeld Hub and destroy the generator attached to the turret. That would give the Elysium Corp operatives enough time to do whatever it was that they were supposed to do inside the Hub. I doubted it would be delivering a nice gift basket. Not that it was any of my concern. I had a timeframe, and a ship built to ruin someone’s day. By the end of the day, she would be mine.

Miranda could move. Small and agile, I felt a surge of confidence run through me. Or maybe it was the Altarian Tequila shot I had downed right before take-off. Either way, I blasted out of the station, banking harder and more dramatically than called for, and aligned the ship trajectory to Wonneriti. 9.5 light years to pay day.

The base, Westerfeld Hub, was a small outpost in the moon orbiting a ringed planet. It was a dump. A heavily defended dump, but a dump nevertheless. The flying rock the base was built on was dusty, and barren, atmosphere free and not a restroom in sight. And then I spotted the turrets. Four of them surrounding the outpost.

Fear came back, and brought along friends. But it was too late now. I was committed. I was invested. And I was on friendly terms with panic and anxiety, who had come along for the ride. No turning back now.

Trespass alerts blared before I had even deployed my weapon hardpoints. At least they were polite enough to let you know they were about to shoot you. Most people lacked those basic manners. It didn’t make my job any easier, though.

All I had to do was take out one turret generator. Just one. Miranda’s weapons were gimballed, I did not even have to aim properly. Which makes it sound much easier than it actually is. As soon as I got close, every turret in range turned menacingly to me, and seeing as their dissuasion method had failed, turned more persuasive with kinetic projectiles.

Gimballed weapons or not, every shot I fired went wide. If anything, I may have landed one or two on a turret I wasn’t aiming for, purely by accident. It’s hard to line up a shot when flying erratically. My instincts as a smuggler were to avoid being shot, which conflicted with the requirements to be the one doing the shooting. I throttled up and away, trying to get a bit more distance and line up another run.

This time I would not miss, I told myself. This time I would do it calmly and with deadly precision. I placed the turret generator dead center, my fingers on the trigger, and accelerated. The turrets guns had longer range than mine. They opened fire before I could squeeze off a round. I gritted my teeth and banked hard and away as my shields took a pummelling. Clearly I was doing something wrong.

Then again, I should have been dead by that point. But I wasn’t. Then it occurred to me. I wasn’t in my smuggling ship. I was in a Vulture. This thing was built for dealing and receiving damage. Fear and friends could take a backseat on this one. In a burst of reckless valour, I distributed half the power to shields, and the other half to weapons. I was going to make it work even if it killed me. Which it probably would, I thought.

Turret fire peppered my shields as I made another pass, the Vulture shaking violently, but I managed to suffocate the panic inside me long enough to start shooting. A combination of laser fire and kinetic projectiles erupted from my ship, hitting my intended target. A wave of elation washed over me as I manoeuvred for another pass. I took my time to align myself just right, make the best out of the run, and swooped down unleashing all of Miranda’s rage.

The moment I squeezed the trigger, the whole turret, generator and all, rose up in a pillar of fire and debris. The shockwave loosened my teeth as my mind tried to piece together what had just happened. I had expected an explosion, it was a power generator attached to a turret after all, but nothing nearly as dramatic.

It was then that I realized I was not alone. A large ship, twice the size of Miranda, and shaped like an arrowhead pointed straight down at the Hub. It stood, or rather floated, unnaturally, as if suspended in the air. Motionless. While I had been frantically swooping all over the place like some annoying insect, the Python had blasted the turret from kilometres high, using plasma accelerators to break down the turret into its basic elements.

I quickly turned to my ships panels, and saw the mission objective updated. My job was done. I was alive, and that was it for me. I wasted no time getting out of there. In this kind of business, it does not pay to stick around.

My mind was blank all the way back to the station, my feelings numb. I cruised as if on autopilot, only snapping back to reality as the Vulture, my Vulture now, touched down on the landing pad. I powered down the ship, and made my way unsteadily out, the adrenaline crash threatening to overwhelm me.

A woman stood on the corridor just outside the hanger, casually leaning against the wall. She was dressed in impeccable business attire, and a slight smile was drawn across her face.

“So you’re the one Eggen got to do his job?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement. “I hope he didn’t promise you too much. He is not in a position to offer much in terms of, let’s say, remuneration.”

I tried forming words, but failed miserably. Hand gestures were not much better, but she seemed more amused than perplexed at my inferior communication skills.

“The ship? Oh, don’t tell me he promised you the ship. And you believed him?” She chuckled. “That ship is not his to give.”

It felt as if the whole station lurched, and I was the only one who had noticed.

The woman pushed away from the wall and stood up straight. She was considerably tall. Probably lived in space all her life. It certainly added to her imposing demeanour. “Why, commander, if I didn’t know better, it appears you stole a ship and used it to attack a scientific outpost in another system. Looks like you have graduated from smuggling to something more aggressive. That does not look good, now, does it.”

I had still not regained use of my verbal abilities, but my expression must have communicated the turmoil going through my head.

“Now, now, commander,” She said, her friendly disposition never leaving her “The local authorities might not look favourably at your activities, but you have done Elysium Corp a favour. And we are always grateful to those who help us out. Plus, we can always use pilots with your, if not skills, then at least flexible morals.”

I should have felt offended, but for some reason, it sounded more like a compliment. “The ship?” I managed to mutter, pointing at the Vulture in the hangar behind me.

She chuckled and answered “Like I said, the ship was not Eggens to give. And, if we are being honest, it is not much use to you. Hardly your style, now, is it? But,” she continued before I could get a word in, “we can help you fix up Granuja’s Eidolon. Oh yes, we know about your ship. Make her the best smuggling ship you can dream of. But first, there are a couple of things we would like you to do for us.”

This kind of negotiation, and negotiator, were familiar to me. Their offers always included both the carrot and the stick. Eggen had played me. “Do I have a choice?” I asked. I didn’t really need for her to reply. I knew what the answer was.

It appeared to me I had a job in store for me, whether I wanted it or not.

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