Erikson squinted under the glare of the B-type star designated HD 51502 despite the protection offered by the ship’s viewport light filter. With more than thirty five years experience in space flight, the sheer brilliance of these cosmic furnaces still filled him with an exhilarating mixture of dread and awe. The breathtaking grandeur of these celestial balls of plasma rendered them a tangible reminder of the insignificance of human endeavour on the universal stage and brought home a sobering realisation that the only thing protecting him – and the eight other people on board – from instant combustion was essentially nothing more than a self propelled tin can. At a mere twenty or so light seconds from the enormous star, Erikson brought the ship to a halt and engaged the fuel scoop. At this range, starlight filled his view completely, painting the cockpit interior in a pale, ethereal glow while the scoop began to work collecting and filtering the space borne gases flung out violently from the star’s corona.
He’d performed refuelling procedures countless times in the past but it paid to be mindful. Sudden and unexpected solar activity could prove fatal to even the most experienced pilots and there was never room for complacency when carrying out operations in close proximity to one of the galaxy’s most dangerous phenomena. It wasn’t necessary to refuel being so close to his destination but it was free and it suprised him how quickly the Delicate Heart’s scoop performed. The Delicate Heart was a strange choice of ship for a merc but Furieux swore by Saud Kruger shipyards and favoured the Orca class vessels over all others. Erikson found them tacky and ostentatious and only good for one thing; target practice.
The Delicate Heart, he mused, keeping a watchful eye on the temperature gauge. What a ridiculous name for a ship. Ridiculous, and typically Furieux.
Hailing from the Zeta Tucanae system, Erikson had first encountered commander Deuil Furieux during an interstellar political expansion campaign for the Raven’s Scouts of Cai. As members of the newly established Corax Vindex – a small mercenary task force formed under the leadership of Raven top brass, Arkan Ginova – the two had become regular wing-mates in what turned out to be a year long operation involving countless orbital battles, several planet side installation takeovers and many under the radar recon jaunts with not-quite-legal parameters. Out of the field, Erikson found Furieux to be an arrogant and self absorbed man, possessed of an over-the-top and pretentious character which others found either fascinating or intolerable. He’d cultivated a reputation for being something of a bon vivant and few took him seriously – a preconception he would quickly take advantage of – underestimating an ability to inspire and motivate others when the mood took him, albeit largely towards his own selfish ends. Still, as much as the Zeta Tucan could be stubborn, evasive and often impossible, Erikson enjoyed Furieux’s company; at the very least enough to agree to join him on the current contract. Of course, the substantial amount of credits he’d been offered for his share of piloting duties was also a major factor.
After the completion of Ginova’s Project: Black Horizon, he and Furieux had parted ways; the latter returning to the ranks of a semi-notorious mercenary group he claimed to have founded. Erikson packed up and sold his own ship, the Hammer; a hugely modified Anaconda class vessel inspired by the heavily armoured schematics of one owned by a legendary war hero of the same name.
The Hammer had served him well throughout his career as a combat merc and though it pained him to part with her, the five and a half billion credits he’d secured from the sale of the ship allowed him to finally realise a life goal – to live a quiet existence on some backwater planet far from the social vitriol that clung like napalm to men and women like himself. Mercenaries had little friends, understandably, since their chosen vocation usually involved acts of theft, assault and murder, and those who were particularly adept at their jobs often became social pariahs, distrusted by their employers, hated by their targets and shunned by their envious peers.
But Erikson had little concern for the opinions of others, and even less need to impress anyone, unlike his more showboating counterpart. His skill as a combat pilot was legendary. An immaculate contract history secured his role and he rarely found himself short of work. He had no qualms accepting the terms of any contract providing the money was right.
The Black Horizon project was intended to be his last act as a soldier of fortune but the chaotic nature of a galaxy powered human greed and corruption meant that he wasn’t at all surprised when things refused to go to plan.
Swapping the clank and steam of the Hammer for the delicate birdsong and gentle breezes of an Xyile dawn, Erikson had bought a sizeable estate on the lush green surface of Cai’s third planet. There, with the help of a few locals and a couple of semi-autonomous machines he lived modestly, tending to a smallholding that he’d hoped would sustain him for the rest of his life. Dirt-side living had been anything but easy, but initially rewarding. Settling into a slow paced daily routine on the outskirts of a colonial surface town after spending so many years on board dirty and claustrophobic starships had taken some getting used to, but he was happy for a time among the tall trees and loving grasses of that warm, inviting land. The people were friendly, the fauna mostly domesticated and Erikson feasted on the bounties of his toil month in and month out.
His happiness didn’t last. Within the measure of a standard year, the system of Cai was once again visited by the ravages of war.
Vastly undermanned now that the remaining members of the now decommissioned Corax Vindex had long departed from the system they had helped liberate, the small empire built by the Ravens Scouts began to unravel. Arkan Ginova had passed away – peacefully in his sleep, if the local news feeds were to be believed – and the system reached operational levels of war. The capital starport of Raven’s Landing was the first station to be lost to the Federal regime, a harsh and demoralising blow to the independents and left political and military control of the entire Cai system under enemy jurisdiction once again. Taxes were raised almost instantly and fighting broke out on the ground.
—Fuel scooping complete—
The ship computer’s almost sensual voice brought Erikson back to the present and he tucked the events of the last year away somewhere in the back of his mind. He disengaged the scoop and pointed the nose of the Delicate Heart away, gradually increasing velocity to move her further into the system. The contract to offer passage to a small science crew to the edge of the galaxy required the use of the Gnosis; an extremely large and jump capable research vessel built and operated by the highly influential Canonn Research Group. For reasons unknown, the Cone sector of space had recently been made off-limits to independent pilots but the CRG somehow managed to secure a permit. The idea was to dock and piggyback their way in, avoiding the need to go around the permit locked zone. The short trip to the mega-ship wouldn’t take long but Erikson decided to leave the docking procedures to Furieux. It was about time the lazy bastard began pulling his weight.
Since their departure from the populated bubble of human controlled space, Erikson was well aware he’d been doing the majority of the piloting while Furieux had been spending most of his time among the guests – particularly when his so called ‘passenger satisfaction surveys’ meant spending a considerable amount of that time on the viewing decks. Of course, it was no accident that a small, yet functional and well stocked bar happened to be present there either. If anything, Furieux was predictable where alcohol was concerned.
Erikson opened a comm on his dataslate for a third time but Furieux still didn’t respond.
As if on cue, the rear cockpit door chimed and hissed open.
“About time you showed up,” Erikson grunted. He didn’t even bother turning around, Furieux’s movements were instantly recognisable. The artificial gravity prevalent on space stations couldn’t be reproduced on regular ships and most required the use of magnetic boots in order to remain grounded while in flight. Magboots were anything but graceful, but over the years Furieux had somehow managed to translate the layman’s clunky stomp into a swagger.
“We’ve arrived at HD 51502,” Erikson said. “I’ve been trying to hail your dataslate for the last ten minutes. Why didn’t you respond?”
“Really?” Furieux replied, innocently scratching his crotch through his flight suit. “I must have gone and accidentally powered it down again. I’ve been engaged in a bit of passenger PR up on the viewing decks, you see.” He sat down and began a diagnostic routine before strapping himself in. “The ladies from Velidhu Surveying are quite a handful, eh? I lost track of time.”
Erikson rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I bet you did. And I’m sure hanging out in the bar with three young and pretty professionals was a real hardship for you. ”
Furieux smirked. “It kinda was, as it happens. They talk incessantly about scientific jazz. I had to ply them with drink to lighten the conversation.”
“Well they are scientists after all. How many free drinks did you manage to give away this time?”
“Free? They’re not free. They’re complimentary.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is they compliment our credit balance. Charged to each client’s company account.”
“You’re charging for complimentary drinks? What happens when we return to ZT and hit their finance departments with an invoice that would make your bar tab look like small change?”
“The large print giveth and the small print taketh away,” Furieux chuckled. And trust me, mon ami, the money we make from this charter wouldn’t even cover a third of my Star & Garter bar tab.”
“You know,” snorted Erikson. “That would actually be funny if it wasn’t true. Why do they want to take a trip to the ass end of the galaxy anyway?”
“Well, from what I’ve picked up, they’ve discovered something big out beyond NGC 2467. Something important. But they need more data. The original expeditionary team have set up base of operations but no one on the crew knew what to do with the find.”
Erikson frowned. “Something alien?”
Furieux absently shook his head and fiddled with a few switches and buttons. “Nah, not like Thargoid alien if that’s what you mean. Some previously undiscovered super-element or something. I don’t know the details, because I wasn’t really listening.”
“A super-element, eh?” scoffed Erikson. “Bravo Deu, that really clears it up. Your talents are wasted. You should have been an astrophysicist yourself with that description. Well, whatever it is, it’d better not be dangerous. We’re completely unarmed remember. You should have outfitted this piece of crap with some turrets at least.”
“I told you, we don’t need weapons. The extra weight will hold us back and is totally… wait… piece of crap? The DH is an apex smuggler! The fastest ship in my stable! She can outrun almost anything of the same class. Have some respect, she’ll hear you!”
“I’d rather it had a bit of punch than some fancy drives. It is pretty nippy, I’ll grant you that, but I’m not one for running away from my enemies.”
“And that’s why you have so many of them, you bloodthirsty maniac. Come on, have I ever given you reason to doubt me before?”
“Yes. Yes you have.”
Furieux chuckled and shot him a grin that was far too wide for his face. “Well we’re not dead yet, are we?”
“No, Deu, but the emphasis is certainly on the yet. You can’t deny we’ve come close a few times,” Erikson answered, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “So yeah. You’re right. Apart from the dozen or so occasions where your recklessness has nearly got us killed in as many horrible ways, I guess I don’t have any reason to doubt you whatsoever.”
“There you go then,” grinned Furieux. “Have a little faith in a brother.”
“I’d have more faith if you’d waited until we had docked on the Gnosis before hitting the sauce. I can smell that Centauri pisswater on your breath from here.”
“I fly better after a couple of drinks. You know this. Now why don’t you take that positively charged demeanour of yours to the lounge and inform our guests we’re almost ready to disembark. Exit procedures in twenty. ”
“Fine. Just try not to annoy the Canonn security patrol ships by singing over the comms again, okay?”
Furieux rolled his eyes. “One time! It was one time! Is it my fault they have no sense of humour in Sol anymore? The galaxy’s gone mad. I Fought the Law is a timeless classic by the way.”
“Context Furieux, context.”
“Pffff,” said Furieux with a dismissive wave of his hand but Erikson had already left.