Discovery

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Planets also like to be dark and mysterious sometimes.

24 July 3301

By the stars

Our first few days travelling together were largely uneventful, apart from my near-constant state of pants-soiling terror.

My new travelling companion spent a day hopping to nearby star systems, upgrading myriad parts of the ship to make it a more effective exploration craft. This involved my first (and second, third, and subsequent) hyperspace jumps in the front seat of a spacecraft.

As I mentioned previously, my brain doesn’t deal well with supercruise, which generally only involves dialling the ship’s speed gradually up to a few multiples of light speed. In the past I’ve been able to hide in a passenger compartment and ignore the gross violations of physics going on outside the window.

However, sitting in the copilot seat of a Cobra, I was forced to stare straight forward into the rushing approach of the blatantly impossible. The broadband stream of visual information rushing into my eyes made me feel like my brain was dangerously over-stuffed.

Hyperspace, then, turned out to be a mixed experience. On the one hand, it was far, far worse, but then again it was mercifully brief.

It's like the universe can't bear to let you see what's going on.
It’s like the universe can’t bear to let you see what’s going on.

Frame shift drives work through a process of timespace warping. In supercruise, the warping is relatively mild – there are some visual distortions, but for the most part everything outside looks more or less like it should.

Everything is different when the drive is charging up for a hyperspace jump. The speeds involved – hundreds of millions of multiples of the speed of light – involve such extreme timespace warping that the light hitting the front of the warp field is essentially a solid object. Physics as we know it simply breaks down under that kind of onslaught.

During that first jump, Marisse sat calmly in the pilot’s seat, crunching on some kind of soy-based snack the AutoChef had extruded. Perhaps she felt me looking at her, incredulous that she could consider this kind of sensory assault to be so pedestrian, because she glanced over and caught my eye.

“I know, it’s rough first time.” She popped another soy crisp into her mouth, then added, “Second too, actually.” Crunch, crunch. “Probably third.” She swallowed. “Don’t worry, it’ll be over in a few seconds.”

She consulted some information on one of her many consoles, then turned back and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, by the way; when we come out, try not to shit in your flightsuit.”

“Why would IIIIYAAARGH!

There is something very important that nobody ever tells you about hyperspace travel until you actually have to sit up front and have your face rubbed in it. The galaxy is made up of a whole lot of different kinds of objects – planets, asteroids, dust, and other stuff so bizarre we still don’t really have names for it – but most of these objects cannot be seen from long distance away.

Like the sailors of millennia ago, we have to navigate by the stars. In heavily trafficked systems, local authorities will construct orbital navigation beacons to give the FSD a stronger signal to lock onto, but for the most part hyperspace jumps use the radiation and gravitational mass of stars to lock in navigation paths.

One result of this arrangement is that ships are pretty much guaranteed to come out of hyperspace on a collision course with a mind-bogglingly massive ball of incandescent plasma. The sailors of long ago may have navigated by the stars, but they were never in any danger of plunging into them.

A stark reminder of just how big stars actually are.
A stark reminder of just how big stars actually are.

Not for the first time that week, I was fairly certain I was about to die, but Marisse’s reasonable voice cut through the panic.

“Sorry. Having you on board is reminding me of how terrifying all of this is for a first-timer.” She leaned forward on the flight stick, and the enormous ball of death slid up and over our heads, then rolled behind us. “Don’t know if this will make you feel better, but the safety interlocks on even the cheapest FDSs make sure you can’t actually, you know, hit a star.”

She gestured toward the central scanner, a holographic representation of the surrounding area in the centre of the main console. “It’s a contextual logarithmic scale, but right now, speed we’re going, that inner ring on the scope is about 200 megs,” she said, then rolled her eyes and added, “Megametres. Thousands of kilometres.”

I was never very good at either mathematics or physics but I tried to adopt a knowledgeable expression and nodded gamely.

“FSDs will kick in with an emergency stop if there’s a collision risk. It’s bad for the hull, definitely something to avoid, but survivable. Drops you very roughly back into normal space.” She leaned back in her seat and scratched her nose absently. “See, the important thing to remember about both hyperspace and supercruise is that the ship is not actually moving, technically speaking. It’s sitting still in a warped envelope of spacetime, and when that envelope degrades the ship comes back out into normal space stationary.” She blinked. “Well, still stationary, but obviously stationary.” Her brow crinkled in a frown. “Well, nothing is ever stationary. I mean, this star is orbiting the galactic hub at some crazy speed, but-”

“You know what?” I interjected. “I’m good.”

Marisse smirked. “The science is important, you know.”

“I’m sure it is, but right now my brain is full, and I think my left leg is going numb.”

She barked a laugh. “Shall we go and dock, then?”

Widdershins

Those couple of days are a blur in retrospect. We must have docked at a dozen small orbital platforms and half a dozen big rotating stations while Marisse sought out the exact parts she needed. Along the way she would habitually browse the local markets, buying low and selling high, skimming a small profit from our travels.

In comparison to a ring station, Coco doesn't cast much of a shadow.
In comparison to a ring station, Coco doesn’t cast much of a shadow.

There is now way I can recall everything we carted from star to star: superconductors, semiconductors, precious metals, rocky ore, animal meat (the real stuff, not synthetic; cut off actual animals), medical supplies, and even tobacco and booze in the systems where such things are legal. It was a weird kaleidoscope of stuff that some people had too much of and others had too little.

Eventually Marisse felt she had everything she needed. Coco had new longer-range scanners, including a new module that would make detailed maps of surface terrain and geological features. She had a marginally better frame shift drive, which Marisse told me had a larger fuel intake, and therefore longer jump range. To feed all of this new gear, she also had an upgraded power plant and power distribution unit.

Those pirates in Belevnis would certainly not have felt any better knowing this, but the bounties Marisse collected on them turned old Coco into an even more capable beast.

The last station we would be seeing for a while.
The last station we would be seeing for a while.

We were ready to begin planning our journey into deep space. The glamorous setting for this strategy session was at a stainless steel table surrounded by plastic chairs, in one of the common areas on Chaviano Terminal.

I was expecting some kind of methodical approach from Marisse, but as usual she shocked me with her casual attitude. “I figure we head out this way,” she said as she gestured vaguely at the galactic map with her free hand. In the other, she was holding a large glass of freshly-squeeze orange juice, a pleasant side effect of beginning our trek in a station both on an agriculture trade route and with artificial gravity.

“Most explorers are predictable,” she said, and swigged some juice. “Most’ll head toward the hub, the galactic centre, but plenty will go the other way, heading out toward the rim.” As she spoke she traced hypothetical paths from the weirdly small bubble of populated space, out into the galaxy. “The rest’ll nearly always head for the nearest nebulae – Coalsack is a favourite, but also Witch’s Head, Barnard’s Arc, anything within five hundred light years or so.”

“Oooh, I’d love to see a nebula close up,” I said.

Her eyes glittered as she grinned. “Oh, me too! I also want to see the galactic hub, and the rim. Imagine looking out and seeing no stars at all in half of the sky, then looking back and seeing the whole Milky Way behind you.” She sighed wistfully, then tilted her head in a half shrug. “We have a job to do right now, but if you’re not sick of me afterwards we’ll talk about where to go next. Okay?”

I smiled and nodded, and she continued.

“Okay, here’s my plan.” Her fingertip described a wide arc. “Up, out, and turnward. See, most people think in really flat terms, so they travel along flat planes. We need to think three-dimensionally, find the star systems they’ve missed.”

“Hang on, you said up…?”

“Galactic north, I mean. It’s a hangover from ancient earth navigation. Earth’s north was close enough to one pole of the entire galaxy that the entire thing now has an official top and bottom.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s stupid and arbitrary, I know, but so are left and right if you think about it.”

She touched the controls for the holographic map projector, and the view tilted and zoomed out. “Looking down from north to south, the galaxy rotates clockwise, which is one of those lucky coincidences that stops interstellar navigation being even more confusing than it needs to be.”

Her finger followed a slow circle. “So from this view, clockwise is the direction of the turn, so most people call it ‘turnwise’, or just ‘turn’. Other direction is mostly called ‘counter-turnwise’ though again, most of us lifelong spacers just call it ‘counter’.” She sipped her juice again. “Actually, I knew an old Imperial navigator once who called it ‘widdershins’. Apparently that’s some ancient term for ‘anticlockwise’. I like it, sounds like the kind of direction Coco should be flying in, but I never use it because, well, nobody but old Imperial navigators would know what I was talking about.”

“Widdershins. Huh.” I said, feeling the shape of the unfamiliar word. “Sounds like the monster that lives under the bed of a five year old with an overactive imagination.”

Marisse continued. “With that context, ‘in’ and ‘out’ should be simple enough to grasp. In toward the centre, and out toward the rim. Some like ‘rimward’ and ‘hubward’, but why use two syllables when one does the job?”

The plan, then was simple: head off on a weird, oblique path that she figured most people wouldn’t follow, setting the navigation route 50 light years at a time, and after each leg assess how it was going and decide if we needed to change course. It seemed incredibly haphazard to me, but Marisse had a talent for making the haphazard work for her.

We climbed into Coco and headed out.

Gas giants playing peek-a-boo.
Gas giants playing peek-a-boo.

Into the deep black

Very little of note happened during those first two days. We would drop out of hyperspace, swerve away from yet another enormous star – I always felt like we missed it by a whisker – and Marisse would dutifully send out a pulse from her discovery scanner. So close to civilisation there was close enough to zero chance of finding even an asteroid cluster that hadn’t been thoroughly surveyed, but it was a good habit to get into.

The biggest star I have ever seen, giving off an eerie pure blue light.
The biggest star I have ever seen, giving off an eerie pure blue light.

We came across some extraordinary systems. One of our exits from hyperspace was unusually nerve-wracking because in steering away from the central star, we found another one directly in our path. I knew about binary systems, of course, but these two were shockingly close to each other, and I wondered how they weren’t tearing each other apart with the gravitational and tidal forces.

“Mind that star. No, not that star. The other star.”

We looked further and discovered that these two were part of a star-dominated system. There were no planets, just three binary pairs of stars – two pairs orbiting each other, and the third pair orbiting them. Even trying to imagine the mathematics of such a complex stellar dance made my head hurt.

I'm resisting the urge to make an
I’m resisting the urge to make an ” all stars” pun, but I guess I just did.

Another system appeared fairly normal at first, until we looked more closely at the large ringed gas giant at the outer limits of the system. It caught our eye because of its unusual vivid purple hue, so we trekked out there to have a look.

We were astonished by what we found: it wasn’t a gas giant at all, but a brown dwarf. Its ring system was enormous, and Coco’s sensors indicated they were full of rich mineral reserves. Given some time for the populated border to expand outward a little more, that ring would no doubt be the site of intense mining and piracy, just like Belevnis.

That's no planet...
That’s no planet…

Of course, that journey wouldn’t have been complete without me having the shit scared out of me at least once.

We were about to engage the FSD and jump to hyperspace when I finally noticed that the fuel gauge was dwindling. It was already down to 30%, and I could see that the next jump would take it down closer to 20%.

Naturally I panicked. Visions crowded my head of being stranded, drifting aimlessly until the last fumes of fuel were exhausted and the chill of deep space crept through the hull and into our lifeless bones. I cannot recall precisely what I said, but I probably just pointed at the depleted gauge and gibbered.

Typically, and infuriatingly, Marisse was bemused but calm. “Oh, I forgot!” she said as the drive began to charge up. “Again, I mean. All this stuff is so new to you. You’ve never scooped before, have you?”

I blinked. “I know all of the words you are using, but the particular order in which you are placing them holds no meaning for me.”

She smirked and rolled her eyes. “You could just say ‘no’.” Her eyes returned to the controls as the countdown finished and we plunged into the weirdness of hyperspace. “Well, you’re in for a bit of a surprise, aren’t you?” She gave me a sidelong glance that contained just a little too much mischief for my liking.

“I hate surprises,” I replied as we plunged back into normal space.

“Oh, you are really going to hate this.”

As usual, we’d emerged from hyperspace pointed directly into a star, a medium-sized red-orange class M, but instead of swerving away from it, Marisse adjusted the throttle and steered us toward it. I’d thought the star was big before; now it encompassed the entire universe, filling the viewscreen with fiery death.

“What are you doing?” I screamed as we streaked into the swirling maelstrom of the star’s corona.

Coco answered on Marisse’s behalf, saying “Fuel scoop engaged” in her pleasantly posh voice. I felt a clunk under my feet, and suddenly every surface in the ship was vibrating. A readout appeared in the centre of the screen, warning of rising heat levels in the ship’s systems, but also informing us that our fuel reserves were increasing.

“All these ships run on a mix of hydrogen isotopes,” Marisse yelled over the cacophony of rattling and groaning. “Fuel scoop lets you gather it from a star’s corona.”

“You were right!” I shouted back. She cocked an eyebrow at me. “I really, really hate this!”

She choked on a laugh, and replied, “Don’t distract me. This is pretty much exactly as dangerous as it looks.”

Fuel scooping: I really cannot recommend it for those of a nervous disposition.
Fuel scooping: I really cannot recommend it for those of a nervous disposition.

A red light was flashing in the cabin, and with a start I noticed that Coco was reporting that her heat level was over 90%. I didn’t know what would happen at 100%, but I was fairly certain it would be bad. With rising alarm, I saw tendrils of smoke creeping out from between the seams on the main console. “We’re almost at Coco’s heat limit!” I screamed.

“Shit, I took too long,” Marisse muttered, and pushed down hard on the stick. Coco plunged away, and the star rolled back behind us. An alarm tone was sounding, red lights were flashing everywhere, and Coco’s perpetually calm voice told us she was taking heat damage. Somewhere underneath the panels of the flight console, I could see the flashes of sparking electricity.

And then we were out. The heat levels dropped, the red lights and sirens were stilled, and Coco politely informed us that the fuel scoop had been disengaged.

Marisse backed off the throttle and had the decency to look sheepish. “I’m sorry, I messed up the timing. I like to get as much fuel in one scoop as I can so I don’t have to go in multiple times, but this time I pushed my luck.” She patted her armrest affectionately and added, “Sorry Coco.”

She turned to me. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” She paused and frowned slightly. “Okay, that’s a lie. I did mean to scare you, but not that much. Could you check the system damage for me?”

I scanned the various modules and saw light damage everywhere, but nothing was reporting less than 96% functionality. “Looks like it was just a flesh wound,” I told Marisse.

She sighed with relief. “Good. After spending so long getting out this far, I’d hate to have to go back for repairs already.” She paused, and bit her lip; I wasn’t sure, but she seemed to be working up to something. “Uh, I hate to do this to you, but…”

“I know.” I gestured toward the fuel gauge. “You only half filled the tank. You need to go in again, right?”

Marisse nodded. “It’s actually a great star to scoop. Relatively cool and small, but with a nice big corona. Besides, there are some we can’t scoop at all, and they’re hard to spot. Young stars that haven’t begun their first big gravitational contraction, so they have hardly any corona, and what they have is way to close to the surface to scoop.”

She tilted her head toward the viewscreen. “Best to refuel while we know we can. Ready to go again?”

Marisse was over-cautious on the second scooping run after her mistake on the first, so she pulled out too early and we ended up having to make a third. Finally, the fuel scoop snapped shut and Coco told us she had finished refuelling, and we were mercifully on our way.

One of the sweetest words in our entire language.
One of the sweetest words in our entire language.

Unexplored

As luck would have it, we found what we were looking for on our very next jump.

Marisse performed her usual discovery scan and found we were in a very simple system of three stars and no planets. Habitually she glanced at the system map, and she froze. “Oh my god,” she breathed softly.

I was immediately concerned with her unusual tone of voice. “Everything okay?”

She turned and stared at me, an odd expression of confusion on her face. “We’ve found one already.”

“What do you mean?” I asked with a frown. “Wait… An unexplored system? Are you serious?”

It turned out to be slightly less exciting than that. The two inner stars in the system had been surveyed, but the third was incredibly distant, almost half a million light seconds. Marisse double-checked the map, and I watched over her shoulder. She was right: the two inner stars had “first discovered by” tags on them, but the outer one had nothing.

“Looks like they surveyed the inner two and decided the third was just too far away to bother with. It’s a long way out,” she said. “Half a million secs is…” She looked up to the ceiling as she performed some mental mathematics. “About five light days.”

“Who cares?” I nearly shouted. “It’s our first undiscovered star! Let’s go!”

She laughed and punched the throttle. “We’re going to get up to some crazy speed,” she said. “Distance like that, accelerating all the while, we’ll probably crack a thousand.”

“A thousand what? Wait, a thousand times the speed of light?”

“Yeah. I’ve only topped one kay cee once in my life. Today might be the second.”

Our first newly discovered star, with a little bit of Coco in the foreground.
Our first newly discovered star, with a little bit of Coco in the foreground.

As nervous as I was about travelling at such a mind-boggling speed, I felt slightly disappointed when our speed topped out at 849 c and slowly began to sink again. “No one kay cee for us today,” Marisse said with a mock pout.

The tiny orange spot had been growing, and my excitement was building. I hadn’t expected that we’d find a new star on the first day. Once again, Commander Black Marisse had surprised me; her weird diagonal route had been dead on.

We approached the bright ball and Coco performed her scan, informing us we’d found a common-as-mud red dwarf. It was the kind of worthless everyday star that Universal Cartographics would only pay loose change for, and we didn’t care. It was ours, and it was beautiful.

Coco’s fuel tank was nearly full, but Marisse fuel-scooped our new star anyway, just so she could say she was the first person to ever do so. She gave me a moment to take some pictures and then, with one last wistful glance back at our first discovery, we jumped to the next system.

Thank goodness for lazy explorers.
Thank goodness for lazy explorers.

Soon afterwards, we found our first unexplored planets. Once again some lazy explorer had scanned the inner part of the system and decided the outer reaches were not worth bothering with, but this time, instead of a lonely little red star, we were left with three distant ice worlds to put our names on.

Marisse pulled us up close to the first of them, and we made a toast with synthetic liquor in sealed zero-g drinking bags. We raised our drinks, toasted each other, and sucked some ethanol and food colouring through a straw. Marisse tilted her drink toward the icy sphere before us and said, “I hereby claim this planet in the name of Commander Black Marisse and… oh fuck.”

She looked at me with what looked like panic in her eyes.

I laughed. “So, you forgot my name then.”

“Did I ever actually know it?” she asked. “If you ever did tell me, it must have been when I was drunk back on Szameit.”

“To be fair, I was both drunk and concussed, so I may have completely neglected to tell you.” I held out a gloved hand. “Joseph.” She shook it and I added, “Or Joe, Joey, Jojo. Whatever makes you happy.”

“Oh, you are totally a Jojo,” Marisse said with an amused snort, then raised her drink again. “Marisse and Jojo!”

“And Coco!” I shouted.

“Yes! Coco! Our faithful steed!”

A worthless hunk of ice, but I loved it.
A worthless hunk of ice, but I loved it.

The detailed surface scan indicated that all of our new planets were essentially worthless – water ice, some trace chemicals like ammonia and methane, and bugger all else. Like the dwarf we’d found previously, UC would pay very little for the data.

Neither of us cared. These were our worlds; nobody had ever visited them or scanned their frozen, crevasse-scored surfaces. Marisse drew Coco in close to the final one and, like proud parents, we gazed lovingly at our new baby.

We were silent for some time. Eventually I looked over to Marisse and saw her rubbing her mouth thoughtfully. It was the first time I could recall her looking unsure of herself. “We have a bit of a dilemma,” she finally said. “We only get the claim on these objects if we get back to the closest station and upload the survey data to UC. Until then, someone could steal them out from under us.” She frowned and stared at a spot on the floor. “For all we know, someone’s already been here and they’re on their way back.”

She shrugged and continued. “Honestly, though, I don’t think it’s likely. There’s been no traffic; we haven’t seen another ship in the last, what, 200 light years? Longer?”

Boring, pointless, and wonderful.
A closer look. Yep, still a boring lump of ice, and still wonderful.

“So what’s the dilemma?”

“Well, we still haven’t found an undiscovered main star, you know, the big central star that is the official navigation marker for the system. Everywhere we’ve been, someone’s claimed the main star and we’ve swept up the scraps on the outer edges.” She paused, and sighed. “I really want to find an entirely fresh system. Is that stupid, do you think?”

I shook my head, sincerely. “Not at all, but do you think it’s likely that we’ll find one?”

“Actually, yeah, I do.” She stared at the floor for a moment longer, then glanced up to me. “It’s just a gut feeling, but I think these sloppy explorers who were here before us are only going to get sloppier. I guarantee in a system or two we’ll find one where only the central star is scanned and the rest is marked undiscovered.”

She breathed in deeply, then nodded, seemingly making up her mind. “I want to keep going. You okay with that?”

“Sure, why not. Your gut’s been right so far.” Apparently her “roll with it” attitude was rubbing off on me.

If not the Holy Grail, then something awfully close.
If not the Holy Grail, then something awfully close.

Wredguia

Her instincts were spot on, of course – it would be some time before I would stop being constantly surprised by this. Only two jumps later we found the snappily named Wredguia WP-L C22-2 (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) which a quick look at the system map told us was completely uncharted.

Marisse scanned her eyes over the map with a look of slight distaste.

“Damn it, I feel like a spoilt child,” she muttered. “I know I should be excited. I know that. We’ve found what we wanted, and it only took us two days…”

I voiced the “but” that was hanging in the air.

“Well, look at this shit. A star, an asteroid ring, and a gas giant.” She sighed deeply. “It’s hardly glamorous, is it? I mean, look at this.” She tapped some buttons in the navigation panel. “Floating gravel. More floating gravel. Even more floating gravel. I’d need a mining limpet to be sure, but the scanners aren’t picking up anything valuable.”

Damn, that's a lot of floating rocks.
Damn, that’s a lot of floating rocks.

She paused and looked over to me. “Don’t get me wrong. This is great. Honestly! I never expected to find an entirely unexplored system so quickly. It’s better than I could possibly have hoped…”

“Uh-huh…”

“…but why couldn’t it have been something good, you know?” She sighed again, and stared out into space. I felt like I should say something.

“So, let’s keep going, then. There might be an amazing system only one or two jumps away and we’d never know. We could-”

“No. No. We need to head back.” She scratched her scalp in irritation. “It’s one thing to risk losing first dibs on a moon or secondary star, but there’s no way I’d let someone steal a whole system out from under me.” She paused and raised an eyebrow. “Even if it is rubbish.”

I nodded agreeably, and forced a smile. “Okay then.”

Marisse let out one more giant sigh, and added, “But first we have to catalogue all of this fucking gravel.”

Our very first gas giant.
Our very first gas giant.

Scanning all of those rocks certainly did take a while. They were so small that Coco had to be almost on top of them before her scanners would be able to perform a survey, but far enough apart that we would build up serious speed between each of them. That was how we spent the next few hours of our lives: set navigation target, accelerate, decelerate, accidentally overshoot, turn around, scan, repeat.

I could tell that Marisse was itching to get moving and hated wasting time surveying asteroids that UC probably would almost certainly pay nothing for, but her pride was at stake: she had spent half the day criticising “sloppy explorers” who didn’t perform thorough surveys of every system, and I knew she’d be damned if she was going to sink to their level.

And so, we scanned a bunch of rocks.

While she worked, I perused the galaxy map, trying to find the nearest station where we could turn in all of our accumulated survey data to UC. I found a tiny orbital platform called Tull Station in an obscure backwater system called Gabri, an extraction and refinery system. It was 400 light years away, over 30 hyperspace jumps. I hadn’t realised we’d travelled so far already.

“Got us a station eventually,” I told Marisse. “We got a long way out, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, once you get into the jump-and-scoop rhythm, you can really hustle along. If we don’t waste any time and scoop efficiently, we can probably be there in an hour.”

For once her instincts were wrong – our journey home was longer, stranger, and more surprising than either of us could have predicted.

Fancy meeting you here...
Fancy meeting you here…

Serendipity

Two jumps later, we found another entirely unexplored system. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that our search was over, that as disappointing as it had been we had technically found what we’d come searching for, and there would be no chance of finding something better closer to home.

As such, Wredguia ZK-L C22-4 caught us completely by surprise. We had a nice, stable K-class star being orbited by almost a dozen planets that, even at a quick glance, we could tell were much better than just hunks of ice.

Marisse simply stared at the map for a long moment, jaw dangling open comically. Eventually she blinked, swallowed, and mumbled, “Well, that was unexpected.”

We moved through the system, scanning each planet in turn; they were even better than we’d hoped. The survey scanner revealed most of them to be rich in metals – the kind of worlds that UC pays a lot of money for. I leaned close to read the scanner results. “What do you think’s down there?”

“Iron is most common, but you never know. Some of these metallics have chunks of platinum or palladium in them the size of continents.”

“Oh wow!” I breathed. “And you’ll get a cut of that?”

“Nope!” she said with a smile and a shrug, “but I do get my name on the survey maps! If I get super-lucky, they might name a mine or an orbital platform after me!” She granted me one more sarcastic smile and then got busy navigating and scanning.

400 light years from civilisation, this is not something you expect to see.
400 light years from civilisation, this is not something you expect to see.

This system had not finished surprising us yet, however.

We were about halfway through our planetary survey when I heard Marisse mutter, “What the hell is that?” I was instantly alert and checking instruments, but it took me a moment to spot what had attracted her attention. A distant planet lay in the centre of the view screen, marked with a yellow “unexplored” label, but beside it was a brown circle, labelled “weak signal source”.

“Whoa,” I gasped. “Um, that’s not supposed to be here, is it?”

“Not even remotely,” Marisse replied. “Can’t be pirates – no traffic, nobody to rob. But what else could it be? This is a totally unexplored system – there shouldn’t be anyone here at all.” She tapped some buttons on the navigation panel. “Better check it out.”

We spent a few tense minutes approaching and decelerating, preparing to drop out of supercruise and into normal space, and the mysterious signal crept closer and closer.  Finally we were within range of our sub-warp thrusters, so Marisse killed the FSD and dropped us back into the real world.

I peered out of the canopy and could see some slowly revolving chunks of debris. It looked like the remains of a craft, but I couldn’t see any recognisable pieces. In the midst of the debris cloud, a cluster of grey markers appeared on the scope. Marisse rotated Coco’s nose toward them, then targeted one with the scanner. After a moment, a label appeared beside it on our screen.

Not at all what we expected.
Not at all what we expected.

I blinked. “Ancient artifact? What’s that?” I looked to Marisse, but she was silent, rubbing her mouth absently with two fingers once again, as she always did when deep in thought. Periodically her eyes would flick toward me, then return to the view screen. I began to worry.

“Joe,” she began, then paused and sighed. She started again. “Look, you’re a journalist, I know that. You’re riding beside me with the aim of writing about all of this, right?”

“I’m already writing about it,” I replied. “Don’t have a publisher, but I’m taking notes. There’s no way I’d remember this stuff otherwise.”

“Okay, that’s fine, and I respect that. It’s just, well…” Her short fingernails tapped nervously on the flight and throttle sticks. “I’m about to do something illegal.”

My eyes widened sharply. “You what?”

“I need to explain. Every cargo container that leaves any port gets a unique tag on it to discourage piracy and theft. In theory, if you get hold of someone’s goods without authorisation, the ownership tag isn’t transferred and the item, whatever it is, is officially stolen, regardless of how you came across it.”

Pictured: a large metal container filled with ethical conundrums.
Pictured: a large metal container filled with ethical conundrums.

She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. “Ethically, this is very fuzzy. Nobody has jurisdiction here, not for hundreds of light years. Technically, floating cargo is supposed to be reported to the local authority and then left alone, but there is no local authority. Problem is, we pick these up, they’re stolen. Doesn’t matter that they’re pretty much as lost as cargo can possibly be. They’re not registered to us, they’re not ours. End of story.”

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, then continued. “I have contacts. If I can get these things into a station, I can sell them.”

I coughed softly. “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘smuggling’.”

Marisse nodded. “That’s the one.” She gestured out of the canopy to the cargo containers floating in space. “I pick those up, I’m a smuggler, and you, kid? You’re an accessory.”

“Hang on a minute. Let’s say I go along with this, just tell me: what are those things? What would we be bringing on board?”

“Nobody knows,” Marisse replied, shaking her head and shrugging. “If they’re what I think they are, then they’re old. They were already old a thousand years ago when we first learned how to fly interstellar, and we’ve been finding them all over the shop. We don’t know who left them, or why. Some of them look like maybe they’re artworks, maybe, or maybe some kind of written records, and others might be some kind of machines. Some are just chunks of unworked metal, but it’s metal we can’t identify with current science.”

“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Does that mean… Are you saying these things are alien?”

She shrugged again. “I told you, we don’t know. There’s this one theory that humans had spaceflight tech once before, but somehow we lost it all, got stranded on ancient earth, banging rocks together. Met one guy who swore they’re messages from human time travellers in the distant future.”

She stared out into space. “And hey, maybe they are alien, but if they are where are the aliens? None of the critters we’ve found are even close to sentient. Most of them are just microscopic blobs. I’ve never seen an amoeba build a frame shift drive.”

“And you want to sell them…?”

“Of course I do. What would I do with them? All the artifacts found in Empire and Fed territory vanish into big research labs. Plenty of private collectors and smaller researchers would love a peek, but they can’t lay hands on the things.” She shrugged with mock guilt. “So, they turn to the black market.”

I sighed and rubbed my eyes. “This trip was meant to be an adventure. I’m not sure committing a felony counts.”

Marisse tapped the cargo scoop button. “Misdemeanour, actually. I’m the felon; as an accessory you’d just be committing a misdemeanour.”

“Oh well, that’s all right then,” I said sarcastically.

Stolen, sure, but only in the strictest possible sense.
Stolen, sure, but only in the strictest possible sense.

Marisse scooped up the floating containers with suspicious ease, like somebody who had done it many times before. When it was done, she closed the cargo scoop and told me to have a look at the cargo manifest while she got us ready to jump back up to supercruise.

Sure enough, it showed one entry: four units of ancient artifacts, stolen. I called back to Marisse. “What’s the penalty for carrying these things, anyway?”

“Depends on who catches you,” she said absent-mindedly, fiddling with the navigation console. “Few thousand fine in most places, bigger in some. A few stations will just shoot you down if they catch-”

“Whoa! Hang on!” I shouted, wheeling around. “They kill people?”

Marisse tried to look reassuring. “Oh, hardly anyone does that, and generally only if you have a record. That station you found? It’s Fed. The Feds love me. Nah, worst we’ll get is a slap on the wrist.” She paused. “Oh, and a massive fine. Don’t worry, though – we probably won’t even get scanned.”

I frowned at the cargo manifest, and said nothing.

A small fraction of our route back to civilised space.
A small fraction of our route back to civilised space.

How to smuggle contraband into a space station (very, very badly)

33 hyperspace jumps later, we arrived at Gabri. We dropped out of our last jump and swung away from the star, then Marisse dropped the throttle down to idle.

“Okay, plan’s changed a little,” she said, bringing up the system map. “Tull’s a Coriolis, and we don’t want to smuggle contraband into one of them.”

I raised a tentative hand. “Uh, why is that?”

In her deep concentration, she gave me a sideways look of confusion, which broke into realisation. “Oh, right, first-time smuggler. All of the rotating stations with internal docking bays have higher security. Coriolis isn’t too bad, but an Orbis or Ocellus could have three or four Fed ships flying laps around the entrance, scanning everyone who goes in.”

She zoomed the map out, checking further afield. “Here we go, outpost platforms. Smaller, external docking so you can get in and out faster, and one Fed ship, max, quite often none at all. So, let’s see…”

Station information appeared on the screen, and Marisse growled. “No black market presence. Not to worry, there’s another one.” Planets and moons skimmed by as she looked at the most distant orbital platform. “Here we go, and… fucking damn it.”

“Could we go to a different system?” I suggested.

“I hate to lose that much time. We have an absolute goldmine of survey data here, and the longer we take, the bigger the risk.” She sat up straight and began tapping decisively on the nav station. “Tull it is. Don’t worry, Coriolis stations usually only have one or two Feds, and we’re way out on the fringe here. This’ll be easy.”

Pictured: More than one Fed.
Pictured: More than one Fed.

“Oh, what the fuck is this shit?” Marisse goaned after we dropped out of supercruise. Around the blocky grey station that was rotating serenely before us, we could make out the thruster exhaust trails of three patrolling fighters.

“What the hell are you people doing!” Marisse shouted at the distant ships. “Don’t you have anything more important to do? This place is the arsehole of the fucking galaxy!” She ran out of words and just grunted in fury.

“So,” I began delicately. “Next system?”

“No. These wankers aren’t beating me.” Her fingers flicked across many control panels. “Hold on.”

“You’re not going to get us kil-”

“I said hold on.” Marisse thumbed a large red button on her steering yoke, and Coco informed us that flight assist was now off. Immediately everything felt strange; instead of being as steady as a rock, Coco now felt light and floaty, and my head started swimming. I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but it was clear Marisse had disabled some of the automatic stabilisation systems that kept our flight smooth and level.

I could feel everything Coco was doing as vibrations through the deck under my feet, and through my seat and armrests. Marisse nudged her into a slow roll, mimicking the rotation of the station in the distance. Gradually we lined up with the narrow entrance way, and Marisse gave the forward thrusters a gentle kick, then let us coast.

Her deft hands swiped a panel to her right, and our thrusters shut down entirely. The silence was eerie. She touched another control, and Coco said, “Silent running activated.” The station was growing before us, and I was disturbed to see the shields had been disabled. We drifted closer still, and I noted with some alarm that our heat levels were rising.

“Marisse,” I said softly. “The heat.”

“I know. Silent running captures our exhaust, lowers our scanner signature. We’re not invisible, but they need to almost crash into us to see us. We just need to get into the entrance cleanly.”

“But with shields down, what happens if-”

“Then we’re fucked. Stop asking stupid questions.” She worked the comms panel and sent a docking request.

“Docking request granted,” Coco said, sounding unusually loud in the quiet cabin. The glowing slot in the face of the station grew bigger and bigger, but it also began to slide upward.

Unless there's a secret entrance you haven't mentioned, I think we're off course.
Unless there’s a secret entrance you haven’t mentioned, I think we’re off course.

“Oh no,” Marisse moaned. With a flurry of motion she powered up thrusters and turned off silent running, and tried to correct our drifting course, but it was too late.

There was a groan, then a thunderous crash, and I was violently thrust forward in my seat, my safety harness straps biting painfully into my shoulders and thighs. I stared in horror as the hull strength reading dropped from 97% to 90%, then 80%, then further.

“Fuuuuuuuck!” Marisse screamed as she tried to get Coco untangled from the docking guide beams. Finally the shaking and noise stopped, and we were drifting slowly backward. I could faintly see tiny glittering particles floating in the space in front of us – tiny pieces of what had until recently been attached to Coco.

Our hull integrity was standing at 43%. Marisse wrenched the flight stick and finessed the throttle, backing us past the safety barriers and slowly back in line with the entrance.

“Scan detected,” Coco said, and my stomach dropped. The same words, SCAN DETECTED, loomed in glowing yellow letters on our view screen. Immediately on its heels came another message, this one reading “Loitering near station entrance detected. Clear the area immediately.”

I babbled in fear. “We don’t have shields! Marisse, we don’t have shields and our hull’s half gone. If they shoot we’re fu-”

“Shut up and let me fly!” she shouted, and boosted us toward the entrance.

“Illegal cargo detected,” said a harsh metallic voice, the speech synthesiser on the Federal craft. “15,500 credit fine issued.”

“Fine for loitering issued,” said a female-sounding synthetic voice. “400 credits.”

“400 credits?” I gasped, disbelieving. In spite of my fear, the absurdity hit me like a slap in the face, and I started giggling.

“Stop laughing, you lunatic!” Marisse shouted. “I’m trying to land this thing in one piece!” I turned to look, however, and she had begun laughing too.

“So, smuggling then…” I began, the paused for effect.

“Shut your fucking face,” she said, and laughed even harder.

Poor Coco. You deserve more competent smugglers.
Poor Coco. You deserve more competent smugglers.

In the end, Marisse almost broke even on the smuggling. The sale of the artifacts earned about 16,000, but the repairs to poor old Coco ran to over 2,000. While we waited for the repairs, we walked to the Universal Cartographics office, my legs slightly wobbly after so long out of artificial gravity.

“I have some data to sell,” Marisse said cheerfully to the man behind the counter, and tapped Coco’s public access code into the small keypad. The secure interface too a few seconds to lock in, and I heard his console beep.

His eyes went wide, and I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down several times. “Uh, puh-please authorise the credit transfer,” he stammered, indicating the keypad. I looked over Marisse’s shoulder; there was a number displayed on the keypad, seven digits long. My head whipped to the side to look at her face, but it was serene, impassive.

“Yes, this appears to be in order,” she said brightly, and tapped the glowing TRANSFER button. There was a series of soft beeps. “Are we done here?”

He blinked and nodded.

“Excellent! Thanks for your time.” She turned on her heel and walked casually out into the corridor. I followed, still in a state of shock.

A million credits?” I whispered at her shoulder.

“One point eight,” she corrected me. “Now shush.”

We walked back to a shiny, freshly-repaired Coco, and climbed the stairs to the cockpit. A message notification was flashing on the screen, which Marisse checked. “Oh, the explorers guild has promoted me. That’s nice.”

“One point eight million credits!” I shouted.

“Yeah, it’s good isn’t it?” Marisse responded with a wide grin.

“Good?” I spluttered. “Why the hell were we fucking about nearly getting killed for sixteen grand when we had a whisker under two million waiting for us?”

“Look, calm down,” she said, spreading her hands in a placating gesture. “I didn’t know we’d earned that much. Even if I did…” She cocked her head and sighed. “Picking up every possible job that comes my way is a hard habit to break, okay?”

She plonked into the pilot’s seat and rotated it to face me. “I’ve spent years out here, Joe. You see me where I am now, with what I have, but you don’t see how hard I hard to fight to get it, and for how long.” She gestured around at Coco’s interior. “Sure, I have a great ship, and I have a stack of credits now, far more than I’ve ever had before, but when you’ve struggled once, fought for scraps, taken any job you could get just to pay for the next refuelling, it’s hard to say no.”

“Check out the panel beside you,” she said gently, gesturing to my right. The familiar ships systems menu hung in the air at my elbow, glowing orange. “Pay attention to the bottom left.”

Insurance excess, just one of the many costs of success.
Insurance excess, just one of the many costs of success.

“Ouch,” I said weakly. Marisse was referring to her rebuy cost, the price demanded by her insurance company to replace Coco in her current condition. It was nearly 300,000 credits.

“It’s a set rate of 5% of the current market value of your ship and all fittings, and it doesn’t include cargo,” she explained. “The better your ship gets, the more you’re risking. There’s an old spacer saying: ‘Never leave port with anything you can’t afford to lose.’ In other words, never launch with less cash on hand than your insurance rebuy, plus a buffer for fuel and ammo.”

I turned back to face her, and she continued. “My point is, no matter how well you’re doing, you can lose it all in seconds. One unexpected interdiction. One careless moment when docking.” I could see her smile a little at that one. “Two million seems like a lot, but it can vanish so easily, any time we fly out.”

I nodded wearily. “Okay, I get it, but why take unnecessary risks?”

“Everything is risk. It’s all just a matter of scale.”

I tried to think of a clever rebuttal, but it was like arguing with a rock. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”

She nodded. “So my ex used to tell me.” She rotated her seat back around to face the front. “Wanna go explore a nebula?”

In spite of my irritation, I laughed. “Yes, I do,” I admitted, “and it looks like the only way I’ll ever get to do that is by hitching a ride with an insane smuggler.”

“Hey! That’s…” she began, then stopped to think. “Actually, that’s pretty accurate.” She tapped the LAUNCH button, and the docking platform began to rotate.

Marisse looked over and grinned. “Let’s go take some risks.”

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