The Saga Of Hallorhan Doon

This is a story set in the universe of Starsector, a game by Fractal Softworks.
Story by K. Dain Little. Illustrations by Amelia Pendleton.

Chapter One: Shipbreaking

Salvage Operation

In the Arcadia system, on the sunny side of planet Agreus, at the south end of the North Bowl between Residential Block 21 and the Sandy Shores Commercial Center, hidden amongst the rust, the dust and the disintegrating concrete slabs, there sits an unassuming little bar.

Happy's Bar was the sort of hole in the wall that was the inevitable result of a lot of big prefabbed buildings being awkwardly crammed into an old impact crater. You get all these wedge-shaped voids, and something's gotta go there. So you get some scrap from the 'yards and hammer together a workshop or a flophouse or, in this case, my favorite fine drinking establishment.

That's just kinda how life goes in a place like this. Either you live life in the little square shapes they make for you, or you find a spot between the lines and make it your own. Personally, I like the latter approach.

The odd triangular shape of the place was crammed with a mismatched collection of tables and booths and far too many chairs, turning the whole floor into a navigation hazard for foot traffic. A dirty gray threadbare couch shared a corner with a pair of recliners, currently occupied by a loud gaggle of hoary old cutters telling improbable stories, drinking a few too many fizzy sodas with double shots of whiskey.

I was sat alone in a corner booth with my recently-emptied beer when Joseph Fitzpatrick "Fitz" Malloy sauntered in twenty minutes late, as usual. He shook off the misty drizzle from outside, scuffed his boots on the muddy patch of carpet in front of the door, and put his substantial belly to the bar. There, he bought a bottle of highly-questionable moonshine from Happy the barman, and then shimmied between the tables to sit down opposite me at my booth.

Something was different today. The man had a spring in his step. He was excited about something. Never a good sign with Fitz. The man had all the luck and good sense of a comic relief character in a horror vid.

Before he'd let me say anything, he cracked open the bottle and poured two stiff shots. One of the shot glasses had a picture of a broken, battered starship with the slogan, "A Smooth Voyage Never Made A Skilled Spaceman."

Fitz fixed me with a tawny eye and said, "I got a job, Hal."

I sighed, "you already have a job, Fitz. You're a cutter, like me and everyone else on this miserable rock."

Fitz pulled a face. "Not a 'job,' Hal, a job."

I cocked a skeptical eyebrow at him.

Fitz held up his hands, "Arright. Alright. I'll start from the beginning." He slugged back his liquor, and I did the same.

Whoof. Paint-peeling stuff. I didn't cough, though. Not even a little. You can't prove otherwise.

Fitz cleared the acid booze out of his throat. "Got a buddy in Processing, he's been getting some odd salvage that didn't look like anything in the yards. Usually don't matter, right? You tag it, rack it, pay out the Kobucks and call it a day. But Gifford figured something out."

Another round of shots was poured as he spoke. Fitz downed his in a thirsty gulp. I sipped at mine, thoughtfully regarding the picture of the troubled starship on the glass. I let Fitz put his brain back together for a second without interrupting.

He gasped a bit, then found his voice; "someone found something new out in the Ruins, a cavern or a tunnel system nobody's explored yet, and…" he flourished his fingers like a magician summoning a rabbit from a hat, "I got the nav data off one of their rovers!"

"Nice trick," I admitted.

He preened at that. "So far all they've found is some old electronics and hyperwave gear, but this is our gold rush, Hal! There could be some serious artifacts in there."

The Ruins. I shuddered a bit. Bad mojo out there. Agreus had been a thriving colony of many millions until the Collapse, almost two hundred years ago. The Ruins were extensive, and they were a real mess. A patchy, dense jungle of long-abandoned cities from a time when Agreus had been habitable.

I had no intention of going treasure-hunting out there. Let the ghosts rot in their radioactive tomb. I wanted nothing of theirs.

"Artifacts," I repeated flatly. "Fitz, the Combine's been all over, the Hedgies been all over, ain't anything worth the trouble been found in the Ruins in fifty years."

Fitz waggled his bottle at me. "And when we do find something, you're gonna feel real silly for saying that, Hal. I'm saying somebody found someplace new."

I contemplated my half-a-shot of cheap moonshine, and thought about smooth voyages and lazy spacemen. "Fitz. Ain't this someone else's claim you're proposing to horn in on?"

Fitz started to take a pull directly from the bottle, as though to avoid my question. With a sudden motion I grabbed the heel of the bottle, and set it firmly back down on the copper-clad table.

"Come on, Fitz." I growled. "You're talking about crossing someone, here. Who are we crossing?"

He grinned lopsidedly. "Well see, legally-speaking, we're not horning in on anything. They haven't actually submitted a salvage claim. It's open season out there, Hal. The site is completely unregistered, and we know exactly where it is."

Well. That made things interesting. It meant that the salvage operation was illegal, and was being done in secret. And that Fitz and his friend knew a secret that some pirates would gladly kill them for knowing.

"You're not selling me on this, Fitz. That only means we won't be the only criminals crawling over that site."

Fitz's manic grin spread wider on his face. He spoke emphatically, "See, that's where we got 'em, Hal. They're driving rovers. Take 'em days to get there, days to get back. Gifford's got a loader, we can fly to the site, grab something juicy, and fly back to Central before anybody's the wiser."

I grunted. "Gifford's a pilot?"

Fitz shook his head. "Naw, he's a hobbyist. Likes restoring shuttles and whatnot, he's a good mechanic. No, we need a real pilot –"

Suddenly I understood where he was going with this. "No, Fitz."

Fitz spluttered, "She's the best there is, Hal, and you know she'd be into it!"

"Uh-huh, and it's dangerous, dangerous as hell, and I'm not gonna recruit her to go plunder tombs if I think it's gonna get her killed."

Fitz gave me a dark frown. "If she knew you were trying to protect her like she was some kid, she'd skin you alive for your white knight complex." He jerked the bottle out of my grip and took a long pull from it. Only a little got into his wiry blonde beard.

Loaders were basically utility shuttles with big engines and a few tools built in to help with moving heavy stuff around. The ones we used were tooled for salvage operations. Hooks and winches, grappling arms, an outboard cutting beam and a substantial shield array to deal with flying debris and other hazards. Originally designed to load heavy ordinance into warships, loaders were dangerous, finicky, over-gassed little tugboats that did not suffer fools or bad pilots, and had killed many of both.

Nobody was a better loader pilot than Maggie Murphy and she damn well knew it. And sometimes she wouldn't damn well shut up about it.

I scowled at Fitz. "What, are you gonna go behind my back, direct to Mag, and tell her you've got some big score she can get in on? Some dangerous mission I won't tell her about? You'd do that?"

Fitz waved the bottle vaguely, noncommittally. "Maybe. Maybe she deserves to know."

"You absolute, stinking, manipulative rat." I tried to sound righteous, but I couldn't quite put the force of conviction behind it. I knew he was right. Mag would hate being left out of anything like this, dangerous as it might be. She loved a challenge, and a sketchy salvage mission was exactly her kind of hook.

So maybe I care about her. So maybe I didn't want her mixed up in a pirate-infested illegal artifact hunt. Maybe I am a white knight, like one of those Luddic lunatics with the armor and the stick up their collective ass.

I'd screwed things up with her enough times, she wasn't going to forgive me for treating her like a porcelain doll again, keeping secrets from her again. She and I had enough scars from those old fights.

So yeah. I could take a week or three of leave, hare off on a treasure-hunting expedition, probably find nothing and at least be satisfied that I did right by my friends. I could pitch myself, Mag and Fitz into the fire for a little adventure. Break the monotony. As long as I was there to keep everyone on-task and looking out for trouble, we’d probably come out just fine.

Fitz's increasingly-drunken tawny gaze was skewering me over the table. He knew he had me, the bastard.

"Gimme a day to think about it," I said.

His grin returned, and threatened to split his bearded face in half. "I knew it, Hal. I knew I could count on you, you salty old cutter!"

My scowl deepened. “I said I’ll think about it!”

I stepped out of Happy’s bar a little drunker and a little more tense than when I went in. I didn’t exactly have a plan for how I was going to talk to Mag about the job in the Ruins. Maybe I could talk her out of it before she really got a bone in her teeth about it. My feet moved me automatically toward my apartment while my brain did what it always did best – worry itself into a shriveled little raisin.

I was still wearing my spacer-style leather overcoat – a giant duster meant to fit over an exosuit, and thus far too bulky to fit an ordinarily-clothed human. Inside it had an adjustable elastic harness and a dozen or more pockets hidden all over. Sometimes I felt like a wizard, conjuring random tools and things from my coat.

I turned up the tall collar against the constant drizzle. The weather never worked right inside the North Bowl dome. It was supposed to rain intermittently, on some sort of random pattern, but instead we got a constant soggy drizzle for weeks on end before the weather flipped and we got a few solid weeks of blazing sunshine. I swear the atmosphere techs are laughing at us.

My feet brought me around the corner to the entrance of Residential Block 17, which was just that – a block. A big ‘ol prefab brick of neat little cubic apartment units.

I nodded at Benny, the security guy. He gave a lazy wave from his booth, and kept watching his show. It was a “Court of Fikenhild” ‘cast, some poor merchant was having his crimes spelled out in front of the court of the King of Westernesse, the public about to vote on whether the man was guilty.

Always fun to watch the King pass judgement. I shuffled on toward my apartment so I could pick up the ‘cast from my set.

Six floors up, and my windowless apartment sat somewhere near the exact center of the Residential Block. I slipped a key in the slot, heard a satisfying and familiar clunk as the heavy lock disengaged, and slipped into my Sanctum Sanctorum.

And was immediately tackled by my tiny teacup dog.

When I say “tackled,” I mean he gamely wrestled with my ankle for a moment before biting a corner of my duster and hauling on it with all his eighteen-ounce might.

My dog is a Chicomoztoc Spacer Dog, a hairless rat-catching breed that is a favorite among interstellar merchants. The fewer rats aboard ship the better, after all.

He looks like a wrinkled little bean with legs, and his name is Testicles.

Not like testicles the body part, no – you pronounce it like the name of a Greek hero. Testi-kleez. Because my dog is a hero, and you can’t tell me otherwise.

I greeted him, “hey, nutsack,” and picked him up.

As usual, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to lick me to death or use me as a chew toy. So he sorta did both while I tried to pet him. He vibrated happily in my hands, whipping his tiny brush of a tail back and forth.

I deftly avoided tripping over a pile of laundry of indeterminate cleanliness as I shuffled into the kitchen corner of my perfectly square little apartment.

The Ko Combine had built out this entire settlement on Agreus, and you could really tell. They like their regular shapes. They like fitting people into those regular shapes.

I don’t know why I hate that so much.

I cracked open a tiny can of wet food for the Bean and let him slorp that up on the counter while I sank gratefully into the bean bag chair at the center of my universe. I had to wiggle a bit to achieve maximum lazy, boneless comfort, but as well-practiced as I am, I managed it in good time.

With a sanguine wave of my hand, a holo display lit up and showed me a quick rotating selection of channels. I pointed a finger at the Fikenhild trials, and watched the King of Westernesse pass judgement on criminals in comical style, jowls jiggling in overblown outrage as he read out lengthy lists of increasingly-ridiculous crimes and accusations.

God damn but do those Fikenhild royals know how to entertain. I forgot about Mag and Fitz for the moment, and watched as a noble in silken robes was pronounced guilty of being a public nuisance, and then was doused in several gallons of green ooze that clung to him and turned his perfect hair into a dark, matted mess. He was dragged away by guards as he shook his fist at the King, shouting broadcast-friendly insults and slinging long stringers of green slime all over the courtroom.

Testicles jumped from the counter into the pile of clothes, then to the beanbag chair in a well-practiced set of leaps, then rolled himself into a comfortable ball in the crook of my elbow. On the show, the next "contestant" was brought on. This one was a bounty hunter turned pirate, captured by a Westernesse system patrol. The man looked miserable. He walked with a limp, with an armed guard at his elbow. The stage makeup didn't quite hide the substantial bruising on his face, or the clear signs of vacuum exposure in the bloodshot whites of his eyes. Those eyes looked haunted as a devastating list of charges was read out.

I reminded myself never to commit any crimes in Westernesse.

As if I might go there someday.

The next day found Maggie and I back on the daily grind. Another day, another Kobuck. Presently, I found myself dangling from Maggie's loader as we flew over the corpse of what had been a rather handsome Hegemonic man-of-war. A long truncated wedge shape of a cruiser, many times scarred by battle and many times patched and repaired by a crew that had utterly depended on her for their survival.

Now she was belly-flopped on the face of an airless planet, never to lift her eyes to the stars again, being stripped for parts and left to bake in the yellow light of the star Arcadia.

Poor old girl.

The star cast harsh shadows, leaving the lines between blazing brightness and utter dark sharp and well-defined. Except for the circle of orange-white light cast by the loader's engines, the shadows were absolute.

I was in my salvor rig. It was a modified combat exosuit with several tool mounts built on, and a few extra attachment rings for a crane or a winch to grab onto me. Without the armor plating, it was mostly good for power-assisted movement.

Maggie's overbuilt engines gimballed and flared above me as we settled into position above The Hole.

It had taken me three days to cut an oblong section out of the layers of armored hull, and then another day and a half to remove several decks' worth of superstructure to get at my prize; an egg-shaped steel chamber containing a fully intact pulse fusion generator.

The Hole gaped below my dangling feet, and with the light of the engines I could just see through the jagged plasma-cut edges of deck after deck, down to the "egg" that I was finally going to lift out of there today.

Payday, baby.

I keyed my radio, "alright, I want to be positioned over the north edge of the Hole, close enough that I can push off it with a foot – can you do that, Mag?"

Her radio squawked, "oh gee, Hal, let's see if I can do that…"

I swung a bit at the end of her winch as she hesitatingly, haltingly brought the bird around, waggling her wings, swinging me a little too close to the jagged edge of the cut in the outer armor, and then… positioned me perfectly over the Hole, exactly where I wanted to be. She even canceled the momentum of my swing so I was at a dead stop.

I hit my radio again, "I swear, Mag. Only you can fly a loader sarcastically.

"You know it, baby." She sounded so smug.

I thumbed the switch on the winch control at my belt and lowered myself down.

Once out of the blazing light of the sun, the shadows deepened into impenetrability. My helmet lights at least cut a bright circle through it, but I wanted more awareness of the structure around me. I asked Mag to turn on her searchlights, which were almost too bright for this, but allowed me to see my surroundings

The Egg was, like I said, an oblong steel shell around one of the ship’s pulse fusion generators. They were a safe, reliable way to pump a constant flow of energy into the ship’s grid and keep her capacitors charged. It was really hard to get one of them to explode or misbehave, but they weren’t easy to scale up. They pretty much only came in one size, which meant that larger ships just had to have more of them.

One of these generators would easily power several residential blocks like the one I lived in. Could probably power most of the North Bowl neighborhood. This ship had nineteen of them, if you didn’t include the one that had been mangled by a lucky railgun strike.

And every damn one was a week-long project to dig out of the hull.

It's why I earn the big bucks.

This one was still held in place by eight large bolts. Had been twelve, but I sheared off four of them yesterday to expose and get a look at the rest of them. The Egg sat in a rectangular space, with voids at the corners that led into a utility shaft beneath it, through which lots of ducts, conduits, pipes and wiring ran. Major utility shafts like that ran the length and breadth of the ship, and generally terminated at mission-critical systems like this generator. There was probably a hatch on the bottom of the Egg that led into the generator itself, so technicians could service it.

Once I’d gotten the decking, walls and various bric-a-brac clear yesterday, I’d called it a day. I had wanted to be well-rested and put fresh eyes on this thing before I attempted to remove it. Mag had protested, but I’d overruled her on the basis of seniority and sheer cussedness.

Now that I was looking at it, I realized I’d been right to hesitate.

If I started going from right to left and just started lopping off the supports, eventually its weight would overcome the integrity of the deck structure and it would shift. Maybe fall. Maybe crush me, if I managed to fall into the utility shaft below. There were lots of wrong ways to do this job.

My boots came down on the smooth rounded steel skin of the generator, and I felt as much as heard the magnets engage. I disconnected myself from the loader winch, and sent it back up to Maggie.

“I’m gonna need the welding kit, and four of those U-brackets.”

“You got it, boss.”

I grinned a little. Hey, maybe I like it when she calls me 'boss,' sue me.

I watched from below as Maggie appeared in the side door, attached a heavy bucket to the winch, and sent it back down to me. She looked tiny in her flight suit, framed by the loader door. I could barely fit through that door in my salvor rig.

The tool bucket came down with a thunk that I felt in my boots, and I dug into it.

First, the handheld welder. Fully charged, lots of gas and wire. Fantastic.

She’d given me a half-dozen brackets, because I always drop one. Smart Maggie.

There was also a spare gas bottle and battery. I stuffed the battery into one of the pockets of my duster.

I clankity-clomped my way around the Egg, welding four attach points onto the skin of the thing at strategic points. This was going to be a touch-and-go operation, and I damn sure wasn’t going to lose the salvage that was going to pay my rent this month.

And yes, I did drop one of the brackets. It went clattering down into the bowels of the ship, farther than I could see.

Maggie kept quiet on the radio. I appreciated that. I trusted my boots and my balance, but if one or both failed me, I could easily fall far enough to kill me outright. I needed to be able to focus.

The welding done, I tossed the gear back into the bucket, and sent it back up to the loader. Maggie took the bucket and sent the hook back down with a four-way sling attached.

She’d had it rigged up in less than a minute. I’m not sure how tiny Maggie can handle heavy chain slings and buckets of welding gear, but she doesnever complains.

With the chains attached to the Egg, it was time to do the sketchy part.

“Okay, Mag. I need you to put some tension on this line, and be ready to take the weight of the Egg if it decides to break loose on me.”

“Got it, boss. Try to give me some warning if it looks like it’s starting to shift.”

I shook my head. “Oh, don’t you worry, you’ll hear me scream in terror if it does.”

“Getting nervous down there? Wanna trade places?”

“Hah. Sure. You offering?”

That shut her up.

The winch pulled the chains tight, and I could feel the metal structure around me groaning as some of the weight was taken by the loader’s engines. I wondered briefly if the loader could just rip the thing out as it was. I was pretty confident that something else would break before the chains or my welds did.

Well, I wasn’t about to risk it. Nothing for it but to get to cutting.

Six of the support brackets with their bolts were easy to get to. Which meant that they should be the last to go.

The other two were each out of sight, underneath the Egg, more or less inaccessible. Unless you’re me, and you happen to have a sixteen-foot loop-ended strap and a will.

I had two cutting tools at my disposal: a handheld plasma lance that cut through most steel like soft cheese, and a laser cutter that could work from several meters away, but was slow and unreliable and frankly wasn’t worth the spit I used to polish it. The plasma lance’s beam was just too short for this, so I was going to have to use the laser.

Ah, well. Nobody said this job would be fun.

I anchored one end of my strap to the ring at the top of the chain harness, clipped the other to my chest, and slipped down the side of the Egg's surface, lowering myself down into the utility shaft so I could get eyes on the underside of the situation.

Sure enough, there was a ladder leading up to a hatch which led right into the generator. And sure enough, there were two supports on either side of the ladder, bracing the Egg and keeping it from falling into the shaft.

I started cutting. My helmet helpfully filtering out the reflected laser light, and showing me an augmented-reality display of what I was doing.

I figured that, between the tension on the winch and the other six supports up top, I could cut these bottom brackets out without any problem.

The crushing results of my own bad decisions decided to come down right on top of me, right then.

Something big gave way above me. A whole section of the ship’s deck structure tore itself apart, and allowed one end of the Egg to slump partway into the utility shaft.

I started scrambling back up toward the top surface of the Egg, but the damn thing slumped, shuddered, rolled slightly to one side, and trapped my leg under its weight. It was pinning me against the side of the shaft.

I heard over the radio, “Hoshitwhatwasthat”. I could hear the sounds of the loader’s engines flaring and firing over the radio. It sounded like Maggie was struggling to keep from being pulled into the pit.

I tried to tell her I was okay, but I was too busy screaming in terror. After I’d drawn a breath I keyed my radio and tried to tell her that I was okay. Something like “Aaaghack” was what I actually said.

I think she got the message?

“Oh, good, oh my God, you’re still alive down there,” she said. “What happened? Are you okay?”

I huffed a few breaths and tried to assess. “Uhh. W-well. I’m pinned. One leg is stuck. I think I’m okay?”

I felt, heard, something groaning and straining above me. Something else was going to give soon.

I fought down the terror and claustrophobia, and realized that if this Egg fell down the shaft with a lot of extra weight on it, it would drag the loader right down into the hole. We'd both be killed. “This thing is about to go, Mag. There’s a lot of extra weight on top of this thing, I think you need to cut the winch loose.”

A simple “no” would have done, but she said something venomous and unprintable instead.

“Huff. Okay, well look, I don’t think we have the time –” as if on cue, something crunched above me. Another section of decking came loose? I couldn’t see much, but it looked like it had blocked out more of the light from Maggie’s searchlights.

“Hal, hang on, I’m gonna try to keep this thing steady – can you cut yourself loose?”

I was still holding my laser cutter. Could I get to the plasma torch? I fumbled at my belt, and found that the torch was pinned painfully against my hip. There was no way.

“Uh. It’s gonna be slow, but I’ve got the laser.”

“Shit”, she said.

“Yeah. Okay, look – I’m going to try to get loose, but the moment this thing starts to go, I’m going to give you the order to cut the winch loose. Okay?”

“Hal there’s no fucking way”

Such a damn hero complex in that woman. “Damn it Maggie, you will cut that winch loose when I say.”

The radio was silent for a long, long second-and-a-half. “Okay,” she finally said.


Now, how do I not die in this situation?

The Egg had me pressed up against the wall of the utility shaft. My leg was a little too far into the space where the curve of the Egg met the hard, flat wall of the shaft. At least I wasn’t taking the full weight of the thing. That would have crushed me like a grape, combat hardsuit be damned. If I was going to get free, something needed to give.

I strained to see above me, the chains attaching the Egg to the loader’s line. I could barely make out the main ring of the four-way sling.


I set the laser cutter against the curve of the egg and managed to sight in on what I thought was the ring of the chain furthest from me. I pulled the switch –

And nothing happened.

The hell? I checked over the tool – the battery had slipped out of its slot at some point, probably when I was slammed against the wall of the shaft. Damn it.

A thought struck me. The spare welder battery. Thank fuck for standardization.

I shoved a gloved hand into my leather duster, checking about three different pockets before I found the squarish shape of the battery pack.


I had to kinda shake my hand out of the pocket while trying to keep a grip on the battery – which is of course when it slipped out of my hand.

I fumbled with the precious battery pack for an eternal few seconds as a sharp zap of terror crawled its way up my chest, and finally managed to pin the damned thing against the wall of the shaft – with my elbow.

“Oh my God son of all the bitches what the fuck.” I breathed.

I couldn’t move my arm or the thing would fall into the black void and be gone forever. I couldn’t reach over with my other hand because it was holding the laser.

I took a long minute to curse my life, and wish vengeance upon all the gods of trickery and irony, and then started to kinda shimmy the battery up into the crook of my elbow.

It took a minute. Something groaned and crashed above me. It was tense.

Finally, I had the damned battery. I hugged it against my chest for a grateful few breaths, then clicked it into the laser tool.

My leg was going numb from the pressure. I had no idea if it was broken. My hip hurt from where my tool harness was pressed against it.

“Okay, Maggie. This egg is going to start swinging again in a second. Get ready to cut it loose if it starts dragging you down.”

"Careful, Hal."

That made me laugh. "Oh, now you say 'careful'"

I heard her radio click on for a second as though she was going to say something, then it went silent.

Well. Either this would kill me or it wouldn't. I sighted the laser cutter on the ring, and hit the trigger.

The beam from the cutter was a lance of ruby fire. It wobbled a bit, sending reflected beams all over the shaft at crazy angles. I steadied It as best I could, getting the beam to settle on one of the steel rings at the top of the chain sling. It started heating the little metal ring, slowly going from red to orange to orange-white. After another seeming eternity, the ring parted, and then chain snapped away like a whip.

And the Egg, and a whole months’ rent, and my drinking money for the next several weeks, and all my hopes and dreams, and probably a few other important things slumped its way deeper into the utility shaft, and lodged itself firmly against the wall opposite me, freeing me and spilling me into my safety strap.

I dangled from my strap against the Egg's surface, feeling blood rush back into my leg as I hung there, and watched several tons of deck plating and whatnot slide off the Egg’s surface and fall, inches from me, down into the tunnel.

And then something slammed into my chest plate, and severed my safety strap.

I fell. I don’t know how far exactly. And then the whole world burst into stars and everything went black.

I was in bed with Maggie.

I liked our apartment. It was one of those places that had been built early in the development of East Downs, when most housing was being dug into the sides of the caldera. It had a window overlooking the domed cityscape, and rain pattered against it in a steady drumbeat.

Maggie propped herself up on an elbow next to me. She looked just like I remember – a tiny round face framed by a wild mop of wavy, ring-y auburn hair. She smiled at me and said “hey, Hal.”

“Yeah?” I mumbled back at her.

“Hal.” she said, more insistent. “Hey, HAL.”

I opened my eyes. Maggie’s helmet was pressed against mine. She was screaming, and I heard her simultaneously through the radio and through the conduction of our helmets.


“Shit, wha–” I said, intelligently. A sparkling conversationalist, I am.

She held her helmet against mine. “Hal! I need you awake, buddy, I need you to help me winch you out of here.”

“Uh. Fuck. What?” I was still disoriented. I caught up after a moment of mental scramble and checked the metal ring on my chest.

It wasn't a ring anymore. One end had been sheared neatly, leaving a twisted bit of metal poking up from my hardsuit. I could see some yellow plastic fibers from what had been my loop-ended safety strap.

I still had an attachment ring on my back that would support my weight. I tried to roll over so Maggie could attach the winch hook, but that movement shot a jolt of pain up my leg and through my hip.

Oh, yeah. That leg was definitely broken. There was a broken-glass sensation where bone should be, and the muscles were jumping and cramping over the pain of it. A deep ache settled in over the whole leg.

Something, some subtle hint, like maybe my balled, shaking fists or my long stream of unprintable cusses gave Maggie the idea that I was in pain. It's nice how women can pick up on little signals like that.

She stood in a sympathetic half-crouch over me. "Your leg?"

"Yeah," I huffed. "My leg, yes. Hurts. Wow."

"Okay, big guy, I gotta roll you over.” She moved around to my other side, and started lifting me from the shoulder. “Work with me, this is gonna hurt."

She actually managed to lift me a few inches, working against the combined weight of me and my heavy exosuit. She's stronger than she looks.

I helped her out, doing my best to keep my leg straight while shifting onto my side. I could tell she was struggling to shift my weight, but there was only so much I could do without twisting the leg. Every little motion gave me another jolt of pain, until I was finally oriented awkwardly on my right side, leaving the broken leg laying straight along the deck.

I tried not to think about the possibility of a bone fragment severing a major artery. This really was a terribly inconvenient time to go bleeding out.

I looked around, trying to distract myself from that possibility. That was when I noticed the odd box crudely welded into the side of the maintenance shaft, several feet away.

"Hey, Mag!” I giggled a little. I think I was going a bit silly from the pain. “I think that's some guy's wall safe!" The weld really was terrible, popcorn all over the place. Definitely some soft-handed officer who didn't want anyone else knowing about his hidden stash.

Mag was winded, breathing hard over the radio. "Oh, cool. Might– huff – might be something in it."

I awkwardly fished my plasma torch out of my tool harness. "Hey, maybe it'll cover my medical bills, huh?"

She took up the torch and quickly cut the oblong box out of the wall, and a healthy section of wall went with it. She poked a hole through a corner of the wall section with the torch – an attachment point for a hook.

Through the hole she'd cut I could see a room with wood paneling and an old, now-dry fish tank set into a wall. Definitely an officer cabin.

"Heh. Maybe you and I should switch jobs." I grunted.

"Yeah, sure, if you could fly worth a damn."

True, I'd never gotten past basic flight training in the Marines. I could technically fly shuttles and dropships, but I didn't have the touch of a really seasoned pilot.

"Alright, well. How are we getting out of here?"

Mag pointed a finger straight up.

I looked up through the Hole – the Egg was simply gone.

"Ohh, shit. What happened to the generator?"

Mag flopped her arms at her sides. "I pulled it out, and then dumped it. I had to cut it loose. It was pretty beat up, I don't think it’s…" she trailed off.

"Yeah, right, good move. All things considered, that was… probably the only way to go."

She looked relieved at that. She thought I'd be mad.

Well, truth was, I was mad as hell. But I wasn't going to let her see that.

She got me hooked up to the winch, used the ruins of my safety strap to tie the wall safe to me, and rode the secondary winch up to the loader, which had been hovering on auto while we monkeys got our shit together.

The suit’s structure helped keep my leg straight while I rode the winch up. It seemed not to get any worse if I just let it hang straight down, so I tried to just keep it that way. When I was back up to the loader, I got a good look at what was left of the Egg.

Maggie had hauled it out all right, but the damage had been done. The metal skin had been flayed open when a heavy steel panel had gone scything into it from above. I could see some of the delicate bits inside, which were absolutely not in working order any longer.

Dead generator. Almost zero salvage value.

We left it to rot, sitting there on the surface of the cruiser’s hull, and we flew back to the processing yards in defeat.

Hospitals on Agreus are pretty good, if you work for the Ko Combine. Skilled workers are inconvenient to replace, so they prefer to replace us a bit at a time. Prosthetic eyes, limbs, organs. There were a few cutters walking around that were more machine than man.

Not me. I’m pretty much entirely organic. And that wasn’t going to change today. They helped peel me out of my salvor rig, set my leg, gave me enough painkillers to put me in hyperspace, and shoved me into a recovery tank.

I imagined I could feel the nanobots knitting the bone back together, but honestly I didn’t really feel anything but high.

It was maybe sixteen sleepy, dreamless hours later that I woke up in a bed, feeling very tender and hard-used, being watched over by a fussy nurse in very clean scrubs. My leg and hip were immobilized in a brace. She got a doctor to come in and tell me the bad news, then handed me a sack of my personal effects. I was able to fish out my handpad to send a quick message to Mag –

> Alive. Leg broken but gonna be ok. Doc says hip is fractured but not too bad. Might have a limp fr a while

Almost instantly she replied,

> comming over stay there

Just where, exactly, did she expect me to go? The new bone cells that had been laid into the fractures needed time to fuse solid. I was going to be real fragile for at least the next several hours, and would have to wear a boot or a cast or something for a few days.

I sent back;

> Its fine i just gotta heal a bit. Meet at Happys?

> No im gonna visit u

Hero complex. You see what I’m talking about? She can’t just let me put my bones back together in peace.

About a half-hour later Maggie was a rush of sudden color in the sterile white-walled room when she swept in between the privacy curtains. She was wearing an oversized banana-yellow poly shell coat, a sky-blue shirt with an obscure band logo on it, and a floppy real-wool knit hat. She had a grin the size of the caldera splitting her heart-shaped face. That grin looked like mischief, mayhem and triumph.

“What, you come here to gloat over my misfortune, you little goblin?”

“Haaah! No, Hal. No. Just look.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper as she leaned over my bed. “Keep your mouth shut, there are other patients behind the curtains, don’t say anything.

I was still a little too drugged-up to argue, so I just smiled benignly up at her.

Then she pulled a handpad out of her bright yellow coat, pulled up its ‘wallet’ app, and showed me the balance.

The handpad had twenty-two actual credits on it. And a mess of fractional credits. A bunch of 512th ‘pennies’, a few quarters, clips and bits that added up to another couple of credits, probably.

My jaw went slack. I just stared, my opiated brain having trouble processing this.

“Wha- th- how – the safe had this?*

Maggie hushed me and leaned closer. “There are more of these, Hal. That safe had seven handpads in it, and they all had credits. A little over a hundred in all.”

“Holy shit, Mag, we could buy out our contracts!”

Credits – real Credits – are something special.

Mag and I (and practically anybody else who lived on this rock) worked for the Ko Combine, one of the major corporations that survived the Collapse a hundred eighty-odd years ago. Like most corporations, they had their own currency that they used to trade within their own colonies. Ko Combine Corporate Credits, KCCC’s or “Kobucks”, were how I got paid. I buy my beer, pay my rent, ride the interdome tram, all with Kobucks.

Credits are another matter altogether. Every capital-’C’ Credit that exists now is an artifact of the pre-Collapse galaxy-spanning civilization called the Domain. Credits are cryptological marvels, unique codes tied to a distributed network of ledgers which are utterly impossible to corrupt or counterfeit.

The Domain Central Mint had been cranking out new Credits on the daily back before the Gates closed. But now? The couple billion credits in the Persean Sector were all that there would ever be. And every time a handpad or a tradecomp was destroyed or lost, so were the Credits on it. An ever-shrinking pool, an utterly finite resource, and the only secure interplanetary medium of exchange.

The exchange rate shifts over time, mostly upward, but right now a single Credit is worth something like eight hundred Kobucks.

One honest-to-Ludd Credit could pay my rent for the month and buy a week’s worth of beer besides.

Twenty of them could buy out my work contract, which would allow me to go anywhere in the sector and do any damn thing I pleased.

A hundred Credits? That kind of money meant freedom, passage anywhere, and a year or two of comfortable living for both of us.

It changed everything.

I grinned a big, mischievous, triumphant grin that mirrored Mag’s and said, “Well. Guess that salvage was worth the leg and all after all.”

She nodded. “I figure that officer was lifting pads off his shipmates, stashing them in his wall safe, right? Maybe he died, or got found out, never got back to his stash…”

“Yeah, you don’t lose a hundred-odd Credits in the couch.”

She shook her head, still grinning. “I stashed the other six pads in the usual place, ok?”

I nodded. Back at our hangar, there were lots of little spaces to stash valuables. Tool batteries, torch heads, 10mm sockets – those always got ‘borrowed’ by other work crews. So I learned to keep those under floor plates and behind wall panels. My good calipers and a couple other treasures are in a very secret hiding spot.

Mag was quiet a moment, then casually said, "I'm glad Fitz knew how to crack the security on these things."

Fitz. Oh, damn it. She'd talked to Fitz. I winced. "So, uh. He tell you about the Ruins thing?"

"Oh, what Ruins thing?" Mag said, all-too-sweetly.

"Ah-hah,” I accused. "He did, that rat! Went behind my back, didn’t he?" I poked a finger at her.

"Well!” she huffed, “I might have asked some questions, and he might have mentioned something about a pirate-infested dig site and a set of stolen coordinates…" Mag's trademark impish look was back. "In fact, he said you'd agreed to go on some sort of expedition.

I scowled at her. "I said I'd think about it!”

She laughed a full-throated belly laugh, and thumped the edge of the bed with a fist. "Hell, Hal, I didn't think you had this kind of adventuring spirit in you!"

I sputtered, "You're a hundred Credits richer and you want to go chasing ghosts and treasure, dodging pirates and ducking the law?"

Mag's impish grin turned positively devilish. "Hal, what the hell do you think I'd do with my life if money wasn't an object?"

I could have said a couple of choice things about that, but instead I simply said, "We are not going on this expedition. Mag, they're pirates, they'll kill us–"

"What's this 'we' shit, Hal? You're not going anywhere, not with your leg like that."

"Oh, nuts to that, Mag, if you do this thing I'm going to be right there with you, keeping us all alive despite whatever stupid stunts Fitz decides to pull! I won't be sidelined just because of this damn leg–"

"Great!" She interrupted. "Glad you agree. Rest up, Hal, we're leaving tomorrow."

I gave her my best death glare. Damn it. Damn Fitz. Damn them both. They had me.

Maggie gloated a bit, while I glowered. Then we made a little idle conversation. She asked about Testicles, I asked her to make sure he was fed, gave her my key, and then I was alone again, waiting for those new bone cells to harden up enough to get out of bed.

Damn it all. I tried not to think about the expedition too much. I'd have to go to the hangar and grab a few things as soon as I was mobile. A few tools. And I'd relocate those Credits, probably give them to Happy for safekeeping. Happy was good and reliable that way, and I didn't mind tossing him a couple of real Credits for the trouble. A good barman is a pillar of his community, and Happy sure was one.

This damn treasure hunt might kill us all, and I wasn't happy to be doing it. But despite all my pessimism a warm contented glow crept into my thoughts; life was going to get a hell of a lot easier with all those Credits on hand.

Life stubbornly refused to get any easier while I struggled my way out onto the street in my cast. The doctors, damn them all to Ludd’s own Hell, had insisted on a hard boot and a hip brace for at least a couple of days. I gimped my way home on one crutch, and resisted the urge to call a ground car.

Damn taxis are a racket, don’t care how rich I am, I’m not calling one. I headed toward the tram that would take me from East Downs up to the North Dome.

Mother of Mercy sat at one end of Memorial Park, an incongruously green space full of grass, ferns and trees tended by a small group of Luddic monks. On a good leg it’s a short walk to the other end of the park where the tram station sits. With the boot and brace it was a bit of a trek. As I struggled along, I had time to watch a brown-robed monk plant a score of saplings along a hillside. I envied him as he strode, trowel in hand, completely un-limping and without injury from one sapling to the next, bending over to set them each in turn into the soil.

Yeah, rub it in, damn monk.

On the tram I got a good look through the windows at the star-blasted and lifeless, airless gray-brown regolith of Agreus passing by. A kind woman offered her bench, but I refused. The leg would either stick out awkwardly into the aisle or take up three seats, so I just stood there and thought stoic thoughts and tried to make out some of the graffiti on the bigger rocks along the tram route.

I don’t quite know who the hell goes out in an airless environment to spray graffiti on rocks, but every rock face along all the tram routes is decorated like that. Even the actual billboards get tagged before long.

Back at the North Bowl. I cripple-shuffled my way back to my block, enduring the constant misty drizzle with a deep scowl. I was glad to still have my duster, which did an okay job of keeping most of the rain off, but my hair was soaked to my scalp by the time I stumped into the entryway of Block 17 and up to the security desk.

"Hey, Benny," I grunted.

Benny looked up from his show. This time it was a gameshow from Eochu Bres featuring a big colorful wheel, contestants placing bets for a chance to win various prizes like luxury shuttles, washing machines and precision mag-rail rifles. "Hal! Fuck happened to you? Look like shit."

"Yeah, yeah. Mag leave the key?"

"That cute little thang? Yeah, she did. You dawg!"

I winced a little. "It's not like that, man."

"Eh, sure, whatever. Here's the key." Benny slid the little card past the mesh barrier. "Good luck with that leg. Doc give you some of the good shit?"

"No, Benny, and I ain't selling anyhow."

"Aw, it ain't like that!"

"Sure, yeah, whatever."

"It ain't!" he protested, as I thumped into the elevator.

Testicles was bouncing with happiness to see me, as usual. A nice constant bright spot in my life, was that dog. I fed him, kicked my laundry pile into a more contained, coherent lump, and considered my next move.

I needed to move those credits somewhere safe. To my apartment? Hidey-holes are well and good, but a rez block with armed security was a safer bet. Or I’d leave them with Happy, who spent most of his tips and profits growing his illicit gun collection and expanding his security camera network.

Single-handedly reduced muggings on his block by half, that man. Reduced a couple of muggers by half, too. Pillar of the community, like I said.

I was also going to have to check up on my exosuit, which should have been delivered to the hangar by now.

I had a tickle at the back of my neck. All that money, it kinda gave me a hunted feeling. One of those gut feels I’d learned to listen to over my lifetime of misadventure. So I dug into my sock drawer and pulled out my ace in the hole.

It was a plasma torch, but it was all out of whack. Plasma cutters emitted a tight eight-inch beam that could cut through armor plate. This one didn't have the focus to cut armor, but it would extend the beam into a meter-long blade of star-hot fuck you.

I slipped a thermal gauntlet over my right hand, and hung a pair of welding goggles around my neck. It wouldn’t be obvious to a casual observer that I was armed, and I wouldn’t burn myself to hell trying to use my pocket death beam.

A plasma sword is a dumb self-defense weapon, but on a planet that frowns on firearms you aren’t left with a lot of good options.

It made me feel a little better.

I grabbed a bag, stuffed it with cans of dog food, and scooped the pup up. He fit neatly in one of my duster's breast pockets, where he vibrated happily and pawed at the fabric. I considered for a moment, then slipped his favorite bone in there with him. He wrapped himself around the thing and started gnawing on one corner of it.

What a dog. His bone is more than half his own size and weight but he manages to carry it all around the apartment everywhere he goes. I'm telling you, Testicles is a hero.

I hit Happy’s Bar next, which was packed to the gills with cutters, pilots and process workers all celebrating some old fart's retirement. Happy and his cocktail waitress were being run ragged trying to keep drinks in everyone's hands and sling sandwiches out to hungry cutters.

I got Happy's attention by stealing a tall chair from one of the taller tables, and plopping myself down on it at the end of the bar. With my boot-encased leg sticking out awkwardly, I looked ridiculous enough to be hard to ignore. The pair of young and clean-shaven process workers next to me ignored me entirely, but Happy saw me. He poured a half-dozen beers in quick succession, then took a moment to sidle down the bar in my direction.

Gregory “Happy” Habsburg was a bald, bearded giant of a man. He was nearly two meters tall, his thick neck sat on wide shoulders, and but for a bit of softness ‘round the middle, he was a powerfully-built man. He also sported an impressive collection of scars; a particularly nasty one ran from above his left eye socket down to the corner of his mouth, where it pulled his expression into a permanent scowl. His left eye was a small black prosthetic that looked like an eyepatch. His left hand, too, was prosthetic.

Between the scar-scowl and his generally brusque demeanor, Happy’s ironic and iconic nickname had stuck firm. He’d been running this bar since he took it over five years ago. I was one of his first regular customers, having landed on Agreus around the same time he did.

“Whatcha need, champ?” Happy said in a voice like growling thunder. He could effortlessly cut through all the noise and bustle of a busy bar with that voice, and he did, and I’m sure he enjoyed doing it.

I mean, I’m a tall guy, too. And I’ve got a pretty good voice. But I was no Happy Habsburg. “Hey, Hap. I’m gonna be out of town for a couple days, was wondering if you’d take care of the Bean for me, and hold on to some stuff.” I scooped Testicles out of my pocket, he and his bone being inseparable, the bone came with him. He wrestled with it on the bartop, the workers in the next couple of seats stopping their conversation to watch the tiny Chico rat dog.

Happy nodded, and said, “Sure, I can take him, but not now. Bit busy. Bring him back in a few hours, ‘round closing time?”

Aw, crap. I’d be carrying him all over town, then. “Yeah, Hap, sure. I’ll have something else for you to look after. You’ve got a good safe somewhere?”

“A few of ‘em,”, he rumbled. I’m sure Happy had a whole Goddamn bank vault somewhere. I didn’t know for sure, but I was pretty sure that Happy was a man of serious personal wealth. I think the bar was like a side gig or a hobby for him.

Two beers later I was back on the drizzly street and crippling my way to the tram to Central Processing.

Agreus Colony is divided between five main “neighborhoods,” each its own complex with its own purpose. First are the two residential domes; East Downs being built into the caldera of a large inactive volcano, and the North Bowl in an asteroid impact crater. The Downs is the newer, nicer neighborhood with a weather system that works right, nice open green spaces, and architecture that isn’t all prefab blocks. The North Bowl is cheaper and has my favorite bar, so it’s perfect for me.

The biggest complex is, of course, the Spaceport. Huge concrete pads, tugs and support structures for anything too big to deal with Agreus gravity, and equipment for servicing every imaginable kind of ship, including the ones that land on their tails instead of sitting on landing gear on the belly side of the ship. You need taller cranes and ladders for those. And of course the Spaceport is where all the spacefaring folk are kept away from the daily lives of Agreus colonists like me. Space rifraff are chaotic folk, and it’s best to contain them, give them plenty of booze, and let them sort out their problems amongst themselves.

Next-biggest is Central Processing, a mess of warehouses, furnaces, pressure tanks and welding shops all built to handle the constant flow of parts and materials coming in from the salvage yards.

From Central there’s a series of rail lines that lead to the Yards; a sprawling complex of hangars and support infrastructure to handle the actual work of shipbreaking. Dozens of crews, like me and Mag, all work on the high-value salvage that can be pulled from derelict ships. Pulling engines, reactors, generators, capacitor banks and computers out until the hulks are stripped down to bare metal and composite.

Once you’ve really stripped a ship down, it’s ready to be tossed into the Grinding Yard, where hundreds of workers quickly cut it into manageable chunks and send it down to Processing in pieces. Every piece of every ship consigned to the Yards gets cut there, processed at Central, and sold off as parts and scrap through the Spaceport.

We like to use the whole buffalo here.

My tram ride took me from North Bowl to Central, and from Central to the Yards, and I finally crutched my way to the hangar complex.

A long rust-brown L-shaped corridor, wide enough for lifts, carts and trucks to drive through, connected the hangars. Each hangar was a nearly identical prefab cube. Ours was Hangar 27. I took a cargo lifter out of the warehouse, I needed a break from walking on that damn boot. Muscles I’d never heard of were screaming at me to stop, so I managed to run the throttle and brake with my left foot while my boot rode on the dashboard. It wasn’t exactly comfortable – my hip brace dug into my side, and I had to hold myself upright by keeping a grip on one of the handles welded to the roll cage.

At this hour the usual bustle of pilots, cutters and maintainers was just a trickle of men doing odd tasks here and there. I had to dodge a flatbed carrying what looked like a point-defense cannon from a warship, but otherwise I mostly had the corridor to myself.

The big bay door into Hangar 27 was shut tight. I swung myself out of the cab and took a careful look around before fishing the keycard out of my pocket to get the door open. That tickle at the back of my neck was back.

I trundled the lifter into the Hangar and stuck the forks under a big plastic crate near the doorway.

The Hangar was much as I’d left it; the loader sat neatly in the center, hooked up to fuel and power lines via a long umbilical that snaked across the deck. Tool chests and workbenches lined the wall to the left, crates of gear were stacked in the corner to the right, and a five-ton hoist hung nearly to the floor at the far end of the room. Everything was painted rust-brown where it wasn’t bare metal or actual rust. The whole place smelled like metal, grease and tetanus.

I slid out of the cab and worked my way around the slightly yellowed white plastic crate, snapping off the latches. With a bit of effort (and being careful not to crush Testicles, who was sleeping in my pocket) I slid the lid off and got a look inside.

Yup. My salvor suit. It was all in pieces, the exoskeleton had been disassembled at the joints and pulled off of me at the hospital. They’d cut the undersuit open to get it off of me, despite my protests. I only have a couple of those, and they’re expensive.

The suit is basically a stripped-down combat exosuit with some tools and such attached. Most of the composite armor plates had been taken off of it. I wonder if I’d have done better with a fully armored suit. Maybe my leg would have been spared.

Ah, well. A few days with a boot and a crutch wasn’t so bad. Without the burden of all that armor, the powered exoskeleton lets me apply a lot of force. I couldn’t hide in armor all the time, I had to get work done.

I took a look at the leg joint on the right side. It looked okay, no obvious damage. Bit of warping in the brace that loops around the thigh on that side, but I could correct that with a hammer.

I figure that’s probably why my thigh is all bruised on that side. That pinch from the Egg was brutal.

I heaved a sigh and started moving around the shop, grabbing tools here and there and tossing them into the crate. I wasn’t sure what I’d need on a treasure-hunting expedition, so I figured I’d grab one of everything.

The scuff of boots on tread plating and a rough cough was my warning that someone else was there. I turned around, and found a trio of cutters from the Yard.

My hackles went up immediately. These guys looked like they wanted something, and they wouldn’t come all this way without purpose.

It was a big hairy ugly fellow in the lead. Short hair, patchy beard, and a nose that looked like it had been broken a few times. A dark-skinned thug stood to his left, wearing a sleeveless shirt that showed off his prosthetic right arm. Everything from the shoulder down was shiny chromed metal, and it looked like would hurt like hell to take a punch from him. On big-hairy’s right was a lanky beanpole of a kid, limbs all too long, looking nervous.

“Gentlemen!” I hoped I sounded confident. “Can I help you?” Should have shut the bay door behind me.

“Yeah,” said the lead man. “You’re Hallor-han Doon, right?”

I winced. He butchered my name. It’s Hallorhan, the second “h” is silent. HAL-or-in. “My friends call me Hal,” I said.

“Oh, we’re gonna be friends, Hal.” An ugly grin crawled across his ugly face. “Heard you found something.”


Shit shit shit. How? Since we were still being civil I asked him, “where’d you hear that?”

Big-ugly pulled his handpad out of his pocket and tapped at it for a second, before it started playing:

"Hey, Mag! Hahaha, I think that's some guy's wall safe!"

"Oh, cool. Might– huff – might be something in it."

"Hey, maybe it'll cover my medical bills, huh?"

He thumbed the recording off. “Got a buddy at Control. Didn’t you know that all your radio chatter gets recorded?”

I gripped the rim of my equipment crate with white knuckles. No, I did not know that.

He saw the hunted look on my face and grinned wider. He looked around the shop with exaggerated interest. “Gee, I wonder where that safe might be? Wonder what’s in it?” Metal-arm next to him laughed.

Man, this was a really bad time to get into a fight. I jerked a thumb toward a workbench and said, “Safe’s over there. Wasn’t anything in it, sorry.”

Big Ugly nodded at Metal Arm, who went over to the bench where the safe sat leaning against it. It had been expertly cut open with a torch, and the door was standing open. He looked inside, then looked back at Big Ugly and shrugged.

Ugly nodded, and drew a pistol from a shoulder holster inside his jacket.

How in all of Ludd’s Hell does a small-time lowdown criminal get a piece like that? It was a Lassiter. An absolutely beautiful hand-made magnum plasma bolter. Not something to fuck around with, that thing would put a fist-sized hole right through me, armor or no.

Well, shit. At least I’d die quick.

Ugly advanced on me with the pistol until I could smell him. He smelled about like he looked – greasy and two days overdue for a shower. “Hey, kid, check the usual spots.”

The beanpole kid jumped a little, like Ugly had spooked him, then got to work.

My heart sank in my chest as he moved through the hangar, efficiently prying up loose floor grates and checking behind every access panel.

Of course. Every hangar was prefab, if one of ‘em had a hidey-spot, every other one had the same. These assholes had memorized them all, and when they got word of something juicy, they shook down the crew. Or hacked the door to get in.

Fitz had fixed up my hangar door with better security, so whatever software they were using to crack doors open didn't work here. Otherwise they'd have just broken in and taken what they wanted. No, instead they had to wait for me to show up.

And here I was.

The kid worked his way along the right-hand wall. He pulled open an access panel, and withdrew a tool bag. "Buncha batteries," he called out.

Ugly nodded. "Keep lookin'." He kept that Lassiter on me, pointed at the middle of my chest.

I felt Testicles move inside my duster pocket. Was he waking up?

Finally the kid made it to the hydraulics panel at the corner of the room, and reached inside to open another access hatch to an electronic switch housing behind that. My heart sank. He pulled a long plastic case out – my calipers – and set it aside. Then he pulled out a tin box, and found the handpads inside. Damn it.

“Holy hell, Max,” the kid said, “these have got Credits on ‘em!”

Max the Ugly barked at the kid, “DON’T use my real name, kid, we’ve been over this!”

At that sharp word, Testicles the tiny teacup Chico dog dropped out of my pocket, landed on the deck, and started attacking Max’s boot.

“The fuck?” He was startled. He shook his boot, but Testicles held on, growling and spitting through his teeth. The Lassiter swung off me a bit, but Ugly kept it pointed more or less in my direction, even as he tried to process what was going on with this tiny dog.

He didn’t notice that my hand had gone to my duster pocket, where it gripped my ace in the hole.

Ugly finally shook his boot loose from Testicles’ grip, and booted the dog a couple of meters away from himself. Testicles didn’t even yelp, he just skittered back to his feet and started barking angrily, like the kick merely offended him. Ugly swung the Lassiter to aim at him, “fuckin’ little rat,” he said, as he started to take aim at the pup.”

My only thought was, no.

I lit the torch, and four feet of star-hot plasma lit the room instantly. It was damned bright, and the blazing heat and light made both of us flinch a bit. I felt like my eyebrows were being burned off in the glare. Ugly tried to get the gun back on me, but I lurched forward and swept the beam up through him. The cut started at the armpit of his gun-hand, and went up through his neck on the opposite side of his body.

I say it was a “cut,” but plasma torches don’t cut flesh cleanly. I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but I think it vaporized the water in his body so quickly that it sort-of exploded a path through his body. The instant I finished the cut I shut the thing off, and tried to blink away the bright purple-green traces in my vision. I didn’t quite have the itchy-eye you get from looking directly at a weld arc, but I could hardly see past the after-image.

The kid, still holding the handpads, let out a breathy “holy shit.” Metal-Arm gave a throaty ”fuck”, and looked stunned.

I was overbalanced, wobbling on the edge of falling over. I’d had to lean way forward to hit Max with that plasma beam. I hit the tread-patterned metal deck painfully on my left shoulder.

Max’s dead arm was still attached to his head, and his hand was still holding the Lassiter, just a couple of feet from me.

I dropped the torch, and started trying to pry the gun out of Max’s grip. Metal-Arm Man started running toward me, Max’s sweaty hands wouldn’t damn well let go.

I yanked the Lassiter away by the barrel, and got my hand around the beautifully carved red hardwood grip.

My first shot missed the big man entirely. He flinched a little, but kept moving toward me. Second shot took the prosthetic at the elbow. I’m not sure he noticed, his expression didn’t change. Third shot missed by his left ear. He was just a couple steps away.

I took half a second to take more careful aim, and as he started to dive toward me, I severed the man’s spine through his sternum.

Metal-Arm dropped. His head bounced off the deck inches from me. His good arm, which landed across my legs, twitched a little. I heard the barest little gasp for breath, and then he was gone.

I looked at the kid. A too-tall teenager who hadn’t grown into his frame yet. His face was slack with shock. Testicles barked at him, and something connected in his brain. He sprinted for the door.

I kept the sights of the Lassiter on him as he moved. I could have dropped him, but…

He was just a kid. I couldn’t kill a kid.

I heard his footfalls slap down the hall as he retreated, and I just lay there, trying to come down out of the adrenaline rush.

I’d traded eighty-odd credits for two dead men and a pistol. I suppose more money had bought worse, somewhere.

I struggled to my feet. Testicles tried to help by tugging on my duster. I couldn’t bend much at the waist because of the damned hip brace.

Hell with it. I tore off the hip brace and tossed it into the equipment crate. Then I tossed the crutch in with it. Without the brace, it was significantly easier to walk on the boot. If my hip fracture gets worse, so be it.

I stumped over to the door to the corridor and hit the switch, causing it to close.

Shutting the door on a couple years’ worth of money. Oh, that stung. The reality of the loss was setting in.

Okay. Well. What the hell next?

There wasn’t much blood. Plasma weapons just burn their way through things, mostly. Especially a Lassiter. I dragged both bodies over to the exterior hatch. That big slab of steel was all that separated my atmosphere from the airless wastes outside, and it was how the loader could fly in and out of the place.

I hesitated a moment, then picked both of their pockets for their handpads. Hell with it, maybe I could make rent.

I also took Ugly’s shoulder holster. A nice bit of leatherwork. Too bad the straps got toasted by the torch. Wonder who he stole it from. I stuffed the Lassiter into the holster, and the holster into my deepest pocket. Then I scooped up Testicles, who had been following me around the shop as I worked.

”whoooza liddle hero-dog, YES YOU ARE” He vibrated with victorious glee, and I dropped him back in his pocket with his bone. His face poked out, and I petted it.

Dumb little dog deserves a medal.

Alright. What else? My hands were shaking. I was still breathing fast and shallow, heart hammering in my chest. Like some kind of delayed panic response.

I focused on my breathing for a moment. It took a minute, but my heart rate came back down. I felt tired.

Undersuit. I need an undersuit for the salvor rig. I got to the lockers and pulled one off the rack. This one didn’t fit quite as well as the one the hospital had cut off of me, but it would work. I threw it into the crate.

I couldn’t think of anything else I needed. I probably had enough to work with now. I called Fitz.

From the background chatter, it sounded like he was at Happy’s place. “Heyyyy, you old cutter! You ready for tomorrow?”

I gritted my teeth. “I told you I’d think about it!”

“Hahah, right, right. Mag’s here, by the way. Said you’d–”

“Fitz, damn it, I’ve got a problem.”

He sobered up a little. “Alright, what’s the issue, Hal?”

I heaved a sigh. “I need to get rid of something fast, Fitz. And we need to leave.”

He was quiet for a moment. I think I'd surprised him. I used that moment to go pick up Metal-Arm’s metal arm, and tossed it at the two bodies. Didn’t want to forget that bit of evidence.

“Hal, you sure we gotta leave right now, ‘cuz I’ve had a few–”

“You’ve always had a few, Fitz. Get your shit together. We go tonight.”

“Tonight!? Hal–”

”Tonight! Call Gifford. We’ll meet at his shop. We’re going to the Ruins.”

END of Chapter One: Shipbreaking