Black Marisse

In the right light, even the ugliest place can look beautiful.
In the right light, even the ugliest place can look beautiful.

18 July 3301

It began in Belevnis.

You don’t know where Belevnis is, and that’s okay. It’s one of those inner frontier kind of worlds: far enough from the well-travelled space lanes that it’s hard to find a meal that didn’t come out of an AutoChef, but close enough that the only unpopulated systems tend to be the ones without planets.

You know the kind: empty enough to have minimal Authority presence, but busy enough to attract pirates.

That, in fact, was what brought me out here.

Don't be fooled; Sol is about 400 light years away.
Don’t be fooled; Sol is about 400 light years away.

Chasing the boom

I’m a journalist by trade, though my credit balance informs me I am not a very good one. Searching for the next big story, the one that would finally make my reputation, I read about the problems faced by frontier asteroid miners.

This is a trade with no winning strategies. The inner systems have either been cleaned out or are mass-mined by interstellar corporate giants – there’s no entry point for one miner and her ship. Unknown space is rich with resources, but when your battered old ship is the only real asset you have, these systems are hopelessly out of reach.

The only possibility for most of them lies in between, around those stars on the civilised fringe: minimal corporate interference, but reachable even by the most battered old Hauler with a third-hand frame shift drive.

Three ships in 24 hours. Not exactly a bustling hub.
Three ships in 24 hours. Not exactly a bustling hub.

Periodically, an unusually rich and accessible resource site will be found by a random surveyor craft, and the rush will be on. These miners aren’t racing other miners, though: they’re trying to beat the pirates. Mining asteroids and gas giant rings is slow, precise work, so many figure they can simply wait for others to break the rocks up and pack their on-board refineries full, and then they’ll just steal it.

This is the pattern that repeats and repeats, in countless systems dotted all over the vast galactic fringe. Local authorities do their best with aging Eagles and Vipers, but too many miners are robbed and, in a shocking number of cases, killed.

This, then, would be the story that would finally launch my career. I talked a newscast editor of my acquaintance into paying for my fare, squeezed into the back of an asteroid miner’s rattly old Adder – no cruise liners heading out this direction, I’m sad to say – and before I knew it I was disembarking onto Szameit Landing.

To call it
To call it “the middle of nowhere” would falsely suggest it’s in the middle of something.

How not to drink in zero gravity

Szameit is an ugly orbital platform with a nice view. It’s too small to rotate, so I spent the entirety of my visit floating. It’s a strange experience for somebody who has spent his entire life in the embrace of either gravity or a sturdy safety harness.

The locals were used to it, of course, and they flitted about like overall-clad dirigibles, swooping down narrow, grimy corridors with only a single finger sliding along the safety rail. They were oddly elegant, perfectly timing their turns and stops; they reminded me of the months I lived on the Gidzenko Ring, and used to eat my lunch while watching the ponderously large agricultural transports slipping through the narrow dock entrance and hovering quietly to their assigned hangars.

In comparison, I was a wayward chunk of debris. I attracted many laughs, and a few less-politely worded versions of “get out of my way”, as I doggedly pulled myself hand-over-hand along the handrails.

That was how I met her.

I was edging my way down a narrow metal tube, which I had been assured was the route to the corporate headquarters of Crimson Major Limited, Szameit’s governing authority. I had met an obstacle: a woman was asleep in the corridor, one arm locked around the safety handrail in what I assumed was a well-practised anchoring technique.

An empty liquor box rotated slowly near her knees like a tiny satellite, giving some context to both her current state and the fact that she was snoring.

A glance at the back of her head told me she was a lifetime spacer. There are signs you can spot with enough experience: hair clipped almost to the scalp for easy helmet connection, a slender but wiry build from too much high protein synthetic food, a certain hunch to the neck and shoulders caused by days at a time strapped into a pilot seat, and of course the fact that she could sleep while free-floating in zero gravity when greenhorns like me can barely get to sleep strapped into a SlumberPod.

With significant difficulty, I crossed to the other side of the corridor and grabbed a light fitting, then grasped a ventilation grille with the other. I carefully aimed through the small gap she had left beside her, and kicked off. As I glided past, I saw the name tag on her charcoal-grey flight suit: “Black Marisse”.

A moment later my head connected with the next light fitting along, and I shouted a word that would have made my mother blush and my grandmother give me a slap. Behind me, I heard a grunt, then a cough, then renewed snoring.

I regained a grip on the handrail and continued on my way. Sure enough, the corridor ended at a hatch stencilled with the words CRIMSON MAJOR LTD. In the middle of the second M was stuck a small hand-written sign that read “closed sat and sun come back mon”.

The same word escaped my lips again, and 200 light years away I’m sure my mother’s face was burning for no reason she could explain.

“They’re closed,” said a deep, sandpapery voice behind me. Had I not been floating, I would have jumped. Instead I just kind of spasmed.

I turned, and there she was, wide awake and apparently no worse for wear. I tried to think when the snoring had stopped, and I was certain it had continued until the precise moment she had spoken. Had she been pretending to be asleep? If so, had she been blocking the corridor on purpose? Wait, had she been faking snoring?

Later, I would learn that Black Marisse had a knack for throwing me entirely off guard.

Her eyes, like her skin, were a dark brown, very close to black. In the core systems we get used to everyone being a homogenous shade of milky-tea tan, but further out you see clumps of genetic diversity. I passed through one system populated solely by gas refinery workers and their family, and nearly every one of them was ghostly pale, with brick-red hair and greyish blue eyes.

Marisse came from the opposite end of the gene pool, darker than perhaps anyone else I had ever met. Suddenly the nametag made sense.

Five minutes later we were in the bar. If you haven’t gotten drunk in a zero-g bar, I recommend you try it once, and then never ever do it again. If I can offer you one piece of advice, it is this: use your safety clamp. If, like me, you’re not used to zero-g and, like me, you’re not much of a drinker anyway, then if you don’t clamp yourself in place you will, like me, end up with an enormous bruise on your forehead.

Perhaps it was the bump on the head, or perhaps it was the liquor (Marisse called it “ethanol and food colouring”) but four hours later I was strapped into the co-pilot seat of Marisse’s ship, and we were going on a pirate hunt.

Coco the Cobra. I'd make fun of her, except I'm a bit in love.
Coco the Cobra. I’d make fun of her name, except I’m a bit in love with her.

Marisse and Coco

After my first impression of Marisse, I wasn’t sure what to expect from her ship. Whatever my expectations might have been, they were not what I saw in landing bay 2 of Szameit Station.

In a word, it was beautiful. It was a gleaming Cobra, painted a deep, rich purple, and emblems painted in its hull demonstrated that Marisse was a multi-talented woman with official recognition from the pilots’, explorers’, and traders’ guilds.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said as we magbooted our way across the hangar. (I’ve never gotten the hang of magboots, but they’re certainly preferable to free-floating.)

“She,” Marisse said. “Not it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I stuttered.

“She has a name, you know.”

“Oh,” I said again, feeling like an idiot. For a supposed professional wordsmith, I was not making a good impression. “What’s her name?”

“Coco,” she said, and I saw a smile touch her lips.

I blinked. “Seriously?”

Her smile became a frown. “What?”

“Nothing. I… nothing.” Wordsmith, my arse.

The grand ballroom staircase, more or less.
The grand ballroom staircase, more or less.

As we strapped in and Marisse ran through her preflight with practised ease, she explained where we were going. Surveyors had stumbled across a wealth of precious metals in the outer ring of Belevnis 6, and every miner within ten jumps had converged to blast out a fortune. It was what was known as a “high intensity extraction site”.

“I call it a boom site,” Marisse said, smirking like she’d made a joke.

“Why?”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Man, you’re slow. Look, the miners dig, and the pirates steal. Me, I swoop in and pick off the pirates. I have contracts from both of the stations in this system, plus two from the next system over where they run refineries to process the ore. On top of that, they’re almost always wanted by the Feds or the Empire or whoever else. I run their ship ID through my k-scan, and-”

“Wait, k-scan?”

“Kill warrant scanner. I get a fix on their ships’ ID chips and the k-scan runs it through all the Authority databases I can get access to. Some of these guys are wanted for piracy and murder a hundred light years away, and the k-scan tells me where.”

She shrugged. “I’m owed bounties in places I’ve never even been to. The Empire alone owes me a couple hundred grand, and their nearest system is… honestly, I don’t even know where it is.”

The docking platform started forward with a lurch, and I suddenly realised the sheer idiocy of what I was about to do. “Oh, what am I doing?” I croaked.

Above us, the docking hatch slid open, and I could see stars. Marisse threw me a grin and a wink as the platform pushed us out into the void. “Don’t worry about it, kid. I’ve done this before.”

Supercruise. It really is an insane way to travel.
Supercruise. It really is an insane way to travel.

Interdiction

Coco pulled away from the station, as as soon as we were out of mass lock range Marisse punched the frame shift drive up to supercruise. I dislike faster than light travel at the best of times, when strapped comfortably in a passenger compartment, but seeing it directly through the cockpit canopy damned near popped my skull right open.

There’s just too much happening at once, and far too quickly. One moment we were cruising away from the dock at a few hundred metres per second, and then BAM, the deep blue gas giant in the distance was suddenly sliding away behind us. The complete lack of inertia also bothers some primitive part of my brain. I should be a pancake right now, says that reptilian lobe in the base of my skull. This is impossible.

Marisse, of course, was in her element. To her, this was no more mentally taxing than breathing. “Belevnis 6 is a bit of a hike, about two thousand secs.” I was about to interrupt and ask, but realised she must mean light-seconds. “Technically, it’s only a minute or two away, but if you factor in acceleration and braking, it-”

She was interrupted by the comms crackling to life. “So, my information was good,” drawled a deceptively mild voice, given a gritty, metallic edge by the trans-supercruise audio transmission.

Marisse glanced up at the comms panel, then over at me. Her eyes were unreadable. Concern, perhaps? Anticipation? Maybe even a touch of triumph? I followed her eyes to the panel; the speaker was someone called Solyn. Marisse tapped some keys and an orange model of his ship appeared, hovering over the control bank. It was a Viper, a favourite vessel among pirates.

“The news is all over Szameit, Marisse,” he continued. “I’m so glad I found you first.”

Marisse didn’t reply, but turned to me. “Seal your helmet, and hang on tight.” As she said it, she touched the environment seal button on her own helmet, and the clear visor snapped into place.

“Hang on? Why?” I asked as I obediently sealed my helmet. “And what did he mean when he said-”

Suddenly, everything was wrong. The smooth, inertia-free feeling of supercruise was replaced by a thudding, shaking nightmare. Through the canopy the stars whirled madly, and I could see the distinct blue halo of a frame shift drop.

“He’s interdicting us,” Marisse shouted. Before I could ask, she added, “Pulling us out of supercruise, back into normal space.”

“Can you stop it?” I shouted back.

“Stop it?” she said with a puzzled tone in her voice, turning to look at me. With a shock I saw the expression on her face: she was pleased. Holding my eye contact, she reached out her left hand and pulled the throttle back to zero. I felt that familiar pop in my guts as the warp bubble around us dissolved.

It was at this moment that I became convinced I had stepped into the ship of a mad woman, and that she was about to get us both killed.

The sudden silence was startling, but lasted only a moment. Marisse slammed the throttle into reverse and thumbed a large red button on her steering yoke. I felt a slight vibration as sliding hatches opened in the hull in front of the canopy and a pair of enormous guns emerged.

“Are you ready?” Marisse asked, with a grin. I had no idea how to respond.

There was a blip from the scanner, and there it was, a contact behind us and gaining fast, and here again was Solyn’s voice, smooth and silky now without the distortion.

“I want what’s in your hold,” he said. “You can dump it into space right now, or I can pick it out of your wreckage. Your choice.”

Marisse had stopped grinning. I could see a sliver of her face through the helmet, and it was calm. This is what she lives for, I thought to myself, and again I was sure I was about to die. Then the universe flipped over.

We had rotated sharply, and my presumably insane captain had slammed the throttle forward. There in front of us, growing quickly, was the Viper. Coco’s targeting system superimposed a marker over it, and I could see the guns rotate on their powered gimbals to track it. Marisse smiled, and pulled the trigger on her stick.

Nothing happened. I was sure for a moment that something was wrong, that the guns had failed –youregoingtodieyouregoingtodie – but then I saw the progress bar projected onto the canopy, superimposing the Viper. Text flashed beside it: “Kill warrant scanner engaged”.

“Are you fucking insane?” I shouted, and far away my mother almost certainly fainted. “Shoot him! Why aren’t you shooting him?”

“Gotta get paid, kid,” Marisse said.

In the next moment, the Viper’s guns were firing. Coco’s shield flared bright blue as lasers and kinetic rounds were deflected. I watched the shield strength indicator drop from full, to three quarters, to almost half. Meanwhile, the k-scan was two thirds complete.

“Come on, just shoot him! Let’s go!” The shield dropped below half, and I felt the entire ship shudder.

“Aaaaalmost there,” she said, the infuriating calm in her voice making her sound like a woman who had almost finished eating her breakfast. The console let out a soft ding and Marisse smiled. “Gotcha,” she said softly. “Okay, this is where the fun starts.”

My first dogfight was not enjoyable, but thankfully it was brief. I could never begin to describe precisely what happened – there was laser fire, the hellish roar of Coco’s guns, and that constant whirl of stars – now flying up, now down, now spinning in circles. The inertial forces couldn’t decide if they wanted to cram my head into my ribcage or my legs into my pelvis, so they energetically tried to do both.

“Gotta knock out his FSD,” Marisse shouted over the din. “As soon as punks like this realise what Coco can do, they nearly always turn and run. If I can get some shots into his FSD, it’ll be knocked offline for a few seconds, and he won’t be able to-”

Frame shift charge detected,” said Coco.

“Shit!” Marisse shouted, losing her calm for the first time since I had met her. “No, no, no! Don’t you dare…”

And then the Viper was gone, with only twin streaks of frame shift exhaust vapour marking where he had jumped out.

Marisse sighed. “Bastard,” she muttered. “Oh well. Belevnis 6, then, I suppose.”

“Are you okay?”

“Fine, fine. Just frustrating. His hull was cracking, and I smacked a few shots into his FSD, so I have no idea how he got it charged. Lucky little bastard. Two more seconds and he’d have been gone.”

“Hang on, isn’t this good, though? I mean, he interdicted us, but we’re fine. Didn’t we, I don’t know, win?”

She turned and gave me a withering frown, then slapped her visor release button. “We don’t win unless we get paid. He got away. No bounty for us.”

“But you weren’t even hunting for him! It was just a random… wait.” Machinery was turning in my head. “What was the cargo that he wanted?”

The frown vanished, and Marisse graced me with a genuine smile. “You’re learning,” she said, and she seemed to be impressed with me. She turned her attention to the console and punched us back up into supercruise, then turned back to me.

“Before we left Szameit I picked up a quick delivery order. Nothing too lucrative, but it’s in the direction I wanted to head anyway, so I figured what the hell.”

“What is it?”

She gestured beside me to the ship information interface. “See for yourself.”

The holographic display hung by my elbow, glowing a warm, comforting amber. I reached out and touched the tab marked “cargo”. I blinked.

Hint: pirates don't much care for marine equipment.
Hint: pirates don’t much care for marine equipment.

“YOU’RE CARRYING TWO TONNES OF GOLD?” I bellowed. “In a system full of pirates! You’re… you’re carrying gold? Two tonnes of it? I… I…” Wordsmith that I am, my power of speech broke down entirely, and I simply threw up my hands and formed my face into what I hoped was a stern and disbelieving expression, but which probably just made me look constipated.

“Bait,” she said, simply and calmly. “Sure, I can go hunt for pirates, but it’s so much easier if they come to me.”

“But what about the mining? The extraction site, thing? Whatever?” I sputtered.

“Oh, we’ll get there, don’t worry. It’s only about a minute away now, so-”

The universe lurched and the stars danced. We were being interdicted again.

“See,” said Marisse with a laugh, as she re-sealed her helmet. “Bait.”

We slammed back into normal space, and I frantically watched the contact scanner. Two blips appeared.

“Oh,” Marisse said. “That’s not good.”

Once again, the comms came to life, and I could see that the speaker was a woman called Paine. I briefly wondered if it was her real name, or if she just couldn’t spell.

“Hello Marisse,” Paine growled. “Don’t bother dumping the gold. I’m just going to salvage it when you’re dead. This won’t take long.”

Laser fire pummeled our shield from behind. Marisse deftly closed her visor with one hand and redirected power to the shields with the other. The targeting scope showed us Paine’s Eagle, an ex-Federation military vessel often bought second hand by pirates, then flicked over to the other contact. My eyes widened: it was Solyn.

“Looks like he went to fetch a friend,” Marisse muttered, and wheeled around. Coco’s multicannons roared and flashed, and the next moment Solyn’s Viper was tumbling in space. “Stupid bastard. His thrusters were nearly gone, and I knocked out his shield generator.” She thumbed the comms button. “You’re an idiot Solyn. You should have run.”

The ensuing fight was quicker and easier than the previous one; an Eagle is nowhere near the standard of a Viper, and Paine wasn’t half the pilot Solyn was. Marisse even took a moment, in the midst of the fight, to target her with the k-scan. Seconds later, there was a flash, and the Eagle was gone.

I stared. I had seen recordings of dogfights, of course, and warfare. I’d seen famous footage, like the destruction of the Addington May. In a way, I suppose I’d seen hundreds of people die, maybe thousands, but never like that. Never right there, in front of me. The woman named Paine, whoever she had been, was now gone forever.

With the dogfight over, Marisse wheeled Coco around gently and eased onto the thrusters, bringing us closer to where Solyn was rolling, out of control. The k-scan beeped to life, and I saw the bar appear on the lifeless Viper. “It doesn’t stick between jumps,” she said.

“Wait, what are you doing? He’s helpless! You’re not going to shoot him are you?”

Marisse opened her visor and stared at me incredulously. “Of course I’m going to fucking shoot him,” she snapped. “Look, kid, this is my job. This is what I do. It’s not pretty. I know that. End of the day, I have to face the fact that, yeah, I get paid to kill folks. Does that make me a bad guy? I don’t know. You ask the next miner who pulls into port with a full cargo hold and no fucking holes in his ship if he thinks I’m the bad guy.”

I held up a placating hand. “I’m sorry. Please, I just… This is very new to me.” I turned unhappily to look out of the canopy at the tumbling fighter craft. “Can’t we just, I don’t know, leave him here?”

“No,” Marisse said. “We can’t. We do that, here’s what’ll happen: he’ll sit there until his power plant gives out, then he’ll suffocate. Or his power plant will be fine and he’ll starve.” She tilted her head. “Or, third option, he gets his thrusters rebooted, he limps back to a friendly port for repairs, and then in a few days he’s out there again, killing innocent miners.”

She crossed her arms. “So you tell me, kid. What do you think I should do?”

“I… I’m sorry.” I closed my eyes and placed a gloved hand over my face. As the guns fired, I wondered who I was saying sorry to.

The work is dangerous, but you can't beat the view.
The work is dangerous, but you can’t beat the view.

High Intensity

The rest of the trip continued without incident. Belevnis 6 slowly grew in front of us: first a blue fleck, just another star among billions, then a string of bright beads as its moons became visible, and finally as a perfectly smooth azure orb. An immense silvery ring encircled it, glittering in the now-faint light from distant Belevnis.

Marisse slowed Coco and aimed her nose toward the inner edge of the ring, and glowing text appeared on the screen: “High intensity extraction site”. We hadn’t spoken since jumping back into supercruise, but Marisse finally broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Don’t want to alarm you, but this is one of the most dangerous things you will ever do.”

I blinked. “What? What do you mean?”

“Decelerating from supercruise can be a delicate process, but most of the time it’s fine if you mess it up; you can just swing around and have another go at it.” She pointed in front of us. “Problem is, there’s a dirty great planet in our way. We have to get this right first time.”

The outer edge of the ring sliced past above my head. I looked up, and I was surprised to see the ring was gauzy and transparent. The golden bar of the galactic hub was clearly visible through the fine speckles of ice and rock. I was struck by its beauty, and despite Marisse’s warning I felt no fear.

I claim that rock over there. No, not that one. THAT one.
I claim that rock over there. No, not that one. THAT one.

We dropped into normal space, and there it was: a limitless flat plain of tumbling rocks. Marisse guided us closer, and I started to realise how enormous some of these rocks were. The biggest of them were several times larger than the space station we had been docked at only half an hour earlier. Peering at one, I saw a tiny flash.

“Hey, someone’s firing a laser over there!”

“Yeah, it’s how they mine,” Marisse explained. “Specialty mining laser. They shoot off bite-sized chunks, grab them with the cargo scoop, put them through an on-board refinery.”

Now that I knew what to look for, I realised there was a lot of activity amid the serene chaos of the slowly-turning stone. I squinted and could see ships I recognised: a couple of Haulers, an Adder, and even a Cobra like Coco. Having seen her in action, it seemed weird that someone would have one of her sisters hauling rocks.

“Okay, time to hunt pirates,” Marisse said. “Come on, k-scanner, let’s see who wants to play.” She ran through targeting system through all of the contacts, and I could see the screen reporting “clean” for each of them. Despite her claim that this would be a war zone, it was defiantly peaceful. There was a soft beep, and Marisse said, “A-ha!”

The shape of a Sidewinder appeared, the hologram glowing orange above the console. “Oooh, a small cheap fighter craft in a mining area,” Marisse said in a sing-song tone. “I wonder what you could be up to. Let’s see, mister… PyroSatanic? Seriously, that’s his callsign? Wow, some pirates are just… oh.”

The word “clean” had appeared under the image of the tiny ship. Now that we were closer, we could see that it was firing a laser at a large asteroid. Marisse frowned. “Who the hell goes mining in a Sidey?” she asked. “They have the smallest cargo hold of any-”

A sudden sound from the comms interrupted her musings. “Please, I’m just trying to mine,” said a woman’s voice. Even over the comms, I could tell she was afraid. Marisse’s hands flurried across the controls as she located the miner’s ship and redirected power to engines and shields.

“Hold on,” she told me. “This could get bumpy.” Coco weaved between immense rocks, streaking toward the embattled miner. We couldn’t see her yet, but a razor-thin streak of light strobed against the dark background.

“That wasn’t a mining laser, was it?” I asked.

“Nope.” She had acquired a target, another Viper, callsign Beowulf. Someone doesn’t know his classics, I thought, remembering how that Scandinavian hero ended up. The k-scan whirred, but Beowulf didn’t even react; he was too busy shooting at a poor defenceless miner in a battered-looking Hauler.

With the scan complete, Marisse switched to weapons, and it was over in seconds. Between the lasers and the kinetic rounds, Beowulf found himself in the midst of his own viking funeral before he even knew what was happening.

Like a dam breaking, everything the happened at once. Beowulf’s friends appeared – three of them, in an Eagle and two Sidewinders – and Marisse expertly tagged each with Coco’s lasers. “Knock out their shields,” she told me benignly, like a teacher telling schoolchildren multiplication tables. “They run while they recharge, and that’s when you deal with their friends.”

Shields gone. It'll all be over soon, MacFly.
Shields gone. It’ll all be over soon, MacFly.

Somehow she managed to drop the shields of each of them in turn, then scan each of them for kill warrants before they could get their shields back online. In quick succession, each became a bright flower of fire and shrapnel, blooming in the dark.

Suddenly, everything Marisse had said about the mining site was true. Someone had rung the dinner bell, and the pirates were turning up, mouths slavering. The Adder that first caught our attention managed to jump out, but I saw a Sidewinder – PyroSatanic, the poor misnamed miner – explode under a hail of kinetic rounds.

Another Sidewinder streaked towards us, lasers flashing. Coco’s own lasers ripped its shield down, and then we slammed together. I stupidly threw my arms over my face, a worthless self-preservation instinct, but our own shield held. I peeked from behind my arm and saw the Sidewinder spinning out of control; it slammed into an asteroid and, in a flash, was gone.

There was a staccato series of beeps, and my stomach dropped as I saw a clump of half a dozen contacts appear together on the scanner. I was about to shout a warning when the Eagle that Marisse had targeted was suddenly ripped apart by a volley of laser fire. “Cavalry’s here,” she said.

She was right. The new scanner contacts were local authority ships, and they were here to help. Now, every time Marisse targeted a new pirate, it already had its shields disabled or was suffering hull damage. She placed her sights on one Viper that the scanner said had only four per cent hull integrity. In a moment it was gone. “Money for nothing,” Marisse muttered.

Then it was over. I had lost count of the number of pirate vessels Marisse had destroyed, but it must have been more than ten. While some parts of my brain felt like the battle had been raging for hours, the more rational parts recognised that it was probably only two or three minutes.

“We need to duck out while it’s quiet,” Marisse said. “The shield generator isn’t looking so great.”

I glanced at the ship information panel, which was still telling me about the two tonnes of gold in Coco’s cargo hold. I pressed the “modules” tab, and scanned the list. Marisse was right: the shield generator was at 61%. If we lost it, we’d be defenceless. The frame shift drive powered up and we were gone.

61% is better than 0%, but still about 39% less than I'm comfortable with.
61% is better than 0%, but still about 39% less than I’m comfortable with.

Discovery

Marisse eased the Cobra on course, then dropped her visor and turned to look at me. I was surprised to see concern in her eyes.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Things got pretty hairy back there.”

“I’m okay, I think.” I thought for a moment. “That was pretty intense.”

“Well, I have something to show you that might make you feel better.”

I frowned. “We’re not going back for repairs?”

“We are, but not just yet. My discovery scanner picked up something interesting on the way over here, and I want to check it out.”

My stomach dropped. “We’re really not in good shape for a fight…” I began, but Marisse waved a hand gently.

“Not a fight. I promise.” She tapped a few buttons on the navigation panel, and gently wheeled Coco around, pointing us away from Belevnis and further out in the system. “Look what I found.”

I looked where she was gesturing, and saw a small brown circle on the screen: a navigation marker. “There’s another planet out there?”

“Look closer,” she said, and smiled.

I peered more closely, and saw it. The text beside the marker was so strange that I had at first failed to grasp what it meant. “Unexplored?” I shook my head. “Wait, totally unexplored? It’s a new planet?”

She nodded. “Weird, isn’t it? They’ve built two stations in this system and mined the hell out of a few spots, but somehow nobody ever surveyed out this far.” She shrugged. “Not that I know of, anyway. All I know is, it’s totally unknown in my navigation data.”

A blue spot slowly grew before us, another ammonia-rich gas giant like Belevnis 6. Like bright beads on an invisible string, several points of light were lined up beside it. “Moons?” I asked.

“Yeah, a bunch of them. Also…” She cocked her head in thought, then shook it. “Nah, I’m not going to spoil the surprise.”

Coco’s planetary scanner came to life; it would seem we had drawn within survey scanner range. Information about this cold and distant new world appeared on the navigation panel. As I watched, I saw something strange.

“Whoa, is that… Wait. Does that moon have a moon?”

“Aww, you spoiled the surprise!” Marisse said with mock disappointment. She faked a frown, but I saw something totally new in her eyes: joy.

“Marisse,” I said, then paused awkwardly.

“What?”

“Do you… Do you like killing pirates?”

She sighed and faced forwards, toward the approaching gas giant. “It’s a job. It’s what I do.” She shrugged. “It gives me some satisfaction, I suppose. I’m helping people, plus I’m making a lot of money. That little skirmish back there? Two hundred grand, easy.”

I nodded. “Okay, so the money’s good, and it’s exciting, but is it what you love?”

A grin lit up her face. “You’re good,” she said. “No, you’re right.” She gestured through the screen, to the enormous blue orb hanging before us. “This is what I love. Discovery.” A pause, then; I sensed she was slightly embarrassed. “I have a dream. All those stars and planets out there? I want to get my name on one.”

She laughed and looked at the floor. It seemed talking about things that were truly important to her robbed her of her usual confidence.

“Universal Cartographics is the one central repository for all this stuff. You can make a good living just surveying stars and planets. Head out past the fringe into unknown space and just scan everything you see, then head back and cash it in. Hold on a minute.”

With delicate motions of the control stick and throttle, she lined us up with the tiny moonlet and the moon it orbited. Behind them hung the deep blue gas giant that held them in its gravity. Marisse gazed at the view for a minute, and then continued.

You always remember your first planetary survey.
You always remember your first planetary survey.

“I’ve done a bit of surveying in my time, in between the bounty hunting and trading, but I’ve never found anything new. Everything I’ve surveyed, someone beat me to it. I still got paid, but… I want one of my own, you know? I want to come back to civilisation, head in to the UC office and be told, congratulations, you found a brand new star. I want settlers and miners to check their charts and see my name there on it.” Marisse paused and frowned. “Is that weird?”

“No, it’s probably the first non-weird thing you’ve ever said to me.”

She barked a hoarse laugh, then became serious again. “Wanna come with me?”

I blinked stupidly. “What, seriously?”

“Sure. What’s the point of views like this if I can’t share them with someone?”

My brow crinkled in a thoughtful frown. “Is it dangerous?”

“Of course it is!” She gave the console an affectionate pat. “But Coco will look after you.”

I considered my big story, my would-be career, and my dreams of fame and riches, then I looked again at the icy, desolate beauty hanging outside the ship.

“Fuck it,” I muttered. “It’s only the second craziest decision I’ve made today. Let’s do it.”

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