27-31 July 3301

The gift

Deciding to set off on a major voyage across the void can be a far cry from actually beginning the journey. In our case, there always seemed to be something else that needed to be done first.

Marisse was distracted, and spent long hours taking us to countless backwater stations, having incomprehensible meetings with grizzled old spacers who looked like they’d already been old hands at flying when she had first grabbed a flight stick.

Spacers have a way of speaking that is utterly opaque to me. It isn’t a different language, exactly, but so packed with slang, jargon, and acronyms that it was more or less gibberish.

When I could get anything out of Marisse, she explained brusquely that she needed to make preparations, tie up loose ends, and put away a few more credits in savings before any long trip could begin. “I can’t just bail,” she told me. “I’m a circuit in a system here, and I need to make sure it’ll keep running while I’m gone.”

In my boredom, I began leafing through Coco’s owner manual, which I had found stuffed under the copilot seat. I was shocked to see that they had been printed and bound on paper; I checked the contents page, which said it had been printed in 3102. Frankly, as battered as the old book was, I was surprised it was still in one piece at all.

Apparently the long-defunct Lave Cowell & MgRath had built user manuals just as tough as their ships.

A few hours later, I was thrilled when I heard Marisse’s boots clanging up the entryway stairs. I had been digging around in obscure configuration data in Coco’s electronic guts, and I was excited to show Marisse what I had achieved.

“I made you a gift!” I exclaimed when she walked into the cockpit.

She frowned, immediately sceptical. “Made?”

“Yes!” I said, beaming. “Have a look!”

A purple interface for a purple ship.

Coco’s holographic interface, hovering above the control consoles, was bright purple.

Marisse stared.

“Isn’t it awesome?” I gushed. “I found out how to do it in the old owner’s manual, which should be in a museum by the way. I just had to tweak the RGB inputs and outputs, and now she has an interface to match her exterior paint job!”

She turned to look at me, and I saw her expression for the first time: disgust, and confusion, and a touch of anger. My stomach dropped into my knees, and for a moment I was sure she was about the attack me. Instead, she spoke quietly.

“Coco is my ship,” she said. “This is… This is wrong.” She looked back to the console. “You shouldn’t have done this.”

I stammered. “I’m- I’m sorry. I thought you’d like it. I thought… uh…”

Marisse rubbed her eyes. “My fault, I should have laid down ground rules.” She plonked into the pilot seat and rotated it to face me. “Coco and I have been together for along time. What you’ve done, it’s… Look, I know you were excited, thought you were doing something cool, but… A commander and her ship, it’s a very personal relationship. We need each other. We’re symbiotes.”

She turned back to the console. “It’s a nice shade of purple, I’ll grant that. Trouble is, it’ll also get us killed.”

I blinked. “What? How?”

“Watch.” She turned on the scanner and started moving through the list of nearby contacts – the station we were in, craft in other docking bays, moving spots that showed traffic coming and going and the security vessels outside.

She pointed at one of the marks. “What’s this?”

I leaned in and squinted. “Uh, I don’t know. It’s a blip.”

“Look here, on the nav console. It’s Tull Station, where we’re docked. I’ve done them a few favours, so they’re friendly to me. Now look at this.” She selected a different contact.

“No idea.”

“It’s a Type-7 freighter coming in to dock. Don’t know the pilot.” She turned back to me. “Do you see the issue?”

I was about to say no, but then it clicked. “They look the same.”

“Bingo. The scanner is colour-coded to sort allies and hostiles from neutrals. You’ve made everyone the same colour.”

I tried to think of a response, but nothing came, so I just nodded miserably.

“Thanks for trying, though,” she said, with a small smile. “It is a nice shade of purple.” She stood and clapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s change it back.

Every stop offers another gorgeous view.
So, how does this planet make you feel?

Sometimes a space station is just a space station

Marisse was more communicative after that. Either she had realised she was neglecting the journalist she was meant to be showing the real galaxy, or she was worried what I’d get up to if left unsupervised.

She promised that we were nearly done and would be leaving on our journey soon, but the days dragged on, and station after station rolled past in sequence. Finally one of them caught my attention.

“Wait, what is that?” I said, sitting up and pointing at the viewscreen.

Marisse looked confused. “It’s a station. An Orbis. We’re docking there to sell some farming machinery.”

“No, the name!” I said, beginning to laugh.

I received a blank look.

Just engaging in a little space-bound transference...
Just engaging in a little space-bound transference…

“Freud Gateway!”

“Yes. And?”

“Oh come on! It’s not even ‘Freud Station’ or ‘Freud Orbital’, but ‘Freud Gateway‘! This has to be a joke.”

“I don’t follow.”

I blinked. “You… don’t know who Freud was?”

“Should I?”

“Famous psychologist, considered by some to be the founder of the science. Saw genitalia everywhere. Thought all men want to have sex with their mothers.” I pictured my own mother, and shuddered.

Marisse granted me a small, bemused frown. “You’re a fucking nerd. You know that?”

I rolled my eyes. “Never mind. Come on, my captain. Please thrust us forward, push our hard pseudophallus into Freud’s beckoning cavity.”

She shook her head, and muttered, “Freak.”

The galaxy was not done tickling my nerdish sense of humour, however. The very next station we approached, I began chuckling again.

Marisse threw me a sideways look that was a mix of annoyance and amusement. “Oh, what is it now?”

“This has to be a deliberate joke,” I gasped between giggles.


There's a "universal grammar" joke that needs to be made here...
There’s a “universal grammar” joke that needs to be made here…

“If you don’t know who Noam Chomsky was, I don’t think I could even begin to explain.” I wiped tears from my eyes. “Yes, I know. Nerd and freak. Guilty on both counts.”

“At least you’re aware of your issues,” Marisse said with a sardonic grin, and brought us in to dock.

A few hours later I finally got to share a laugh with Marisse. I don’t think anyone could fail to get a childish giggle from “Wang Market”.

“Can I tell you something funny?” Marisse asked. “I’ve been here before, and there’s actually a sign up in the marketplace that says it’s strictly prohibited to ask where you can buy some wang. Seriously!”

If I hadn’t been strapped in, I may have fallen off my seat laughing.

Thanks to the disc formation of star systems, we sometimes get views like this.
Thanks to the disc formation of star systems, we sometimes get views like this.

Local troubles

Despite our mirth, Wang Market was where our troubles began. Marisse met a woman in a bar who said she was looking to buy something special, and knew where Marisse could find them.

“They’re just floating in space over at LHS 301,” she said, delicately eating slices of banana. She had introduced herself as Van – whether that was a first name, last name, nickname, or alias, I had no idea.

“What do mean ‘just floating’?” Marisse replied, sounding doubtful.

“I don’t know the details, but there’s some local trouble over there. Civil war. My contacts tell me a Type-9 carrying dozens, maybe even hundreds of artifacts got dogged halfway across the system by a gang of rebel fighters. Blew a few hatches over multiple interdictions, so the canisters are scattered all over the place.”

“And nobody’s collected them?”

“They might.” The woman shrugged. Her banana finished, she began peeling a mandarin. Its tangy scent tickled my nose. “Doubt it, though. Civil war is still in full swing. Too busy blowing each other up to pick up all that salvage.” She popped a mandarin segment into her mouth and chewed. “Besides, that much cargo spread over such a wide area, it’ll be a job of hours to pick it all up, maybe even days. It’s two jumps from here – you can be there in minutes.”

Marisse looked thoughtful. She picked up a piece of fruit without asking permission and ate it. “Canisters have salvage beacons?”

“Of course.”

“Sounds simple enough. Local authority?”

“Plenty of them, but if you don’t ID as a rebel or a pirate I can guarantee they’ll ignore you.” She finished off the mandarin and raised an eyebrow. “You’re just passing through, right?”

“And you’re paying, what?”

“Triple the current black market rate.”

Marisse’s poker face slipped and she choked for a moment on mandarin juice. “Why-”

“No whys. You know better than that, Marisse. I have a client who needs a few ancient artifacts for their own reasons, and I know you can get them.”

Marisse nodded. “I can. Deal.”

Later, as we were prepping Coco for takeoff, I asked about the job.

“Of course it stinks,” she admitted freely. “I can’t say no to triple market rate, though.” She double-checked our fuel level, then continued. “If she’s right about that cargo, this will be exactly what we need to get some cash built up as a safety buffer. We can make sure Coco’s up to spec and have a pile left over.”

“I don’t know. Picking up illegal salvage in the middle of a civil war sounds…”

“Nuts, I know. She’s right, though; the two factions will be too busy blasting each other into shrapnel to give a shit about us. Besides, she only wants two containers of artifacts. Coco has the capacity to carry 32, if we have the nerve to stick around and scoop them up. We can make a hundred grand selling two to her, and then maybe make that much again at regular black market rates with the leftovers.”

I sighed. “And our nebula?”

“Soon, I promise.” She placed a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know I keep saying that, but it’s true. We’re nearly ready to go.”

A beep from the console broke the moment. Marisse checked the notification, and I heard her grunt in surprise. “It’s Van. She’s outside. I’ll go see what she wants.”

I leaned forward on the console to see, and sure enough the charcoal-suited woman was standing in the docking bay, tapping her foot. I watched Marisse approach, saw them talking. I felt a slight sense of alarm when I saw Marisse turn to look up at the cockpit with a guilty expression, then turn back to Van. She nodded and shook her hand.

A moment later, Marisse re-entered the cockpit.

“Okay, what did you just agree to?”

“Uh, you’re not going to be-”

“Yes, I saw the look on your face. I’m going to be pissed off. Just tell me.”

Marisse looked sheepish and sat down. “Van’s a freelancer, works for a lot of clients. One of them’s a trader with a lot of business in LHS 301. All the chaos has attracted scavengers, so-”

“So, on a trip where we’re meant to be keeping out heads down and avoiding trouble, we’re… what, hunting down pirates?”

Marisse nodded.

“I’m assuming it pays a lot.”

“More than the artifact job.”

I choked. “More?”

“One fifty if I can provide pilot IDs and proof of destruction for at least half a dozen wanted pirates.”

I shook my head and sighed. “And then nebula?”

Marisse nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, then nebula.”

“Fine. Please don’t get me killed.”

To be fair, it's probably hideous at ground level.
To be fair, it’s probably hideous at ground level.

The LHS 301 trip started well. We came out of the jump, and Marisse nudged Coco into a slow spiral, taking in as much territory along the orbital plane as possible. Within seconds a weak signal source registered on our instruments, and Marisse dropped us out of supercruise a few kilometres away.

Van’s information was good. Revolving lazily against the black, I could see two shipping canisters, tiny, bright rectangles from this distance. Coco opened her maw and Marisse scooped them both up.

“Easiest hundred grand I ever made,” she muttered. “Now let’s go find some more.”

We climbed back to supercruise speed and began scanning for another signal; we found one almost immediately, and I heard Marisse hiss a soft “Yes!” beside me. However, as we began to decelerate to a safe engagement speed, a flurry of bright spots darted across our field of view, blurred by speed.

What kind of name is "Buck Dreadnought" anyway?
What kind of name is “Buck Dreadnought” anyway?

“Whoa!” I shouted. “What was that?”

“A big fleet,” Marisse responded. “When we’re travelling via warp, you get some odd visuals effects. I’m not sure how it works, but the warp field makes normally invisible stuff – magnetic fields, gravity wells, that kind of thing – visible to our eyes.”

She pointed at the receding dots. “Those are other ships moving at warp. Our warp bubble makes theirs show up to our eyes as bright points of light with a kind of sparkling wake behind it. Pretty, I think.”

Coco’s scanners had identified one of the distant craft as a pirate, and also a member of one of the two factions involved in the civil war. Marisse snorted. “I know I need to take out a few of them, but picking a fight with a fleet of a dozen ships feels like a bad idea. Let’s wait until-”

Again, we were cut off by a cloud of blindingly bright dots flashing across the screen. “Ahh, there’s the local authority giving chase, I bet.” She targeted one of the receding dots, and sure enough it was identified as the local authority that was struggling to maintain control of the system.

“Should we help them?” I asked.

“Oooh, good idea. There might be a pirate bounty job going at a station here in the system. We could get paid twice for the same pirates. Good thinking!”

I started to protest that she had misunderstood, but she talked over me.

“I’ll just see what this signal is, and then we’ll go dock.”

Some orbital platforms are shinier than others.
White orbital platform, black market.

All told, we found about a dozen canisters of artifacts, plus a few computer fragments from a destroyed ship that had usable data about military operations – very valuable to the right buyer. Marisse found a small orbital platform on the outer fringe of the system with minimal security and a thriving black market and brought us in.

While she offloaded our illicit cargo, I scanned the mercenary job bulletin boards. Sure enough, two different trading companies were offering very lucrative contracts to stamp out the recent surge in piracy. I told them I represented Black Marisse and that she would be happy to accept the jobs, and returned to the docking bay feeling pleased with myself.

All told, we now had three different clients paying us for destroying the same pirates. To my sensibilities it felt like cheating, but Marisse assured me it was just good business – if multiple parties benefit from a job being done, it’s fair to ask each of them to pay.

A few minutes out, I asked what the plan was.

“We wait about ten seconds,” Marisse replied, gesturing at the scanner. A contact was directly behind us and getting closer.

Realising what was coming, I closed my eyes and gripped the straps of my safety harness with both hands. Seconds later, the familiar lurch of an interdiction shook the ship, and as usual Marisse slowed the warp engines and allowed us to be pulled out of warp.

Full disclosure: my eyes were closed when this happened.
Full disclosure: my eyes were closed when this happened.

We shuddered to a halt, and Marisse immediately targeted the ship that had popped out of warp behind us. She barked with laughter.

“Sidewinder. God some of these pirates are arrogant.”

The comms crackled, and a gloating, mean-sounding man’s voice filled the cockpit. “My cargo scanner tells me you have artifacts on board. Jettison them now and I might let you live.”

By the time he had finished his little speech, Marisse was laughing hard. “Terrifying,” she gasped between bouts of laughter. She got herself under control and thumbed the comms switch. “Hey dickhead. Here’s what’s actually going to happen.” I could tell she was still fighting back giggles. “I’m going to turn around. I’m going to scan you for kill warrants. Then I’m going to blast you and your ship into your component atoms. How does that sound?”

The pirate, who I saw went by the melodramatic moniker of Theokritos, did not answer. Instead, Coco spoke. “Under attack,” she said in her smooth, calm tone.

The scanner contact immediately flashed red and Marisse wasted two seconds pointing at it and shouting, “See! Colour-coded!”

“Yes! I know!” I shouted back. “Can you kill this creep now?”

The stars rolled drunkenly as Marisse brought Coco around, and the k-scan whirred to life. Theokritos tried to dodge and roll, but Marisse kept him easily in the scanner’s beam. There was a beep as the scan completed, and seconds later, the pirate was a rapidly expanding cloud of dust.

“Fuckwit,” Marisse muttered, shaking her head. “Waste of fucking bullets.” With rapid touches of multiple controls, she retracted the weapons, redirected power to rebuild our slightly depleted shield, and prepared Coco to jump back to warp.

That was when the comms crackled again, and a deep, sandpapery voice rasped through the speakers. “I don’t see Theokritos here. I’m assuming I have you to thank for that.”

Marisse’s eyes widened with alarm, and she quickly redeployed weapons and checked the targets on the scanner. “Didn’t even see them arrive,” she muttered. “How long have they been there?”

The scanner gave bad news. Three pirate ships had emerged from warp behind us, presumably following the wake left by our frameshift drive when we were interdicted. One was another Sidewinder, but the other two were Cobras, like Coco. We were in serious trouble.

Marisse looked over to me, her dark brown eyes full of concern. “This might be rough, kid. Hang on.”

With a roar, Coco’s thrusters came to life, pressing me deeply back into my seat, then into the floor as we swung around and brought her guns to bear on the intruders. There was no k-scan this time: we were fighting to survive. The powerful beam lasers underneath our nose shredded the Sidewinder’s shields and then, as they dropped, the rapid-fire kinetic multicannons on either side of the canopy ripped into its hull.

Ever instructive, Marisse shouted over the din. “Weakest ship first. Priority is to reduce the number of guns firing at you.” Coco rolled over and my breakfast threatened to make a reappearance. “Seems counterintuitive, but always leave the toughest enemy ’til last.” Our lasers slashed across the black sky, drawing blue sparks off a Cobra’s shield. “Energy weapons for shields, kinetic rounds for hull. Remember that.” The Cobra almost pulled out of our sights, but Marisse applied some vertical thrust to keep it in front. My spine felt like it was being speared into my seat.  “Energy for energy, physical for physical. Never forget that.” As if she’d summoned them by speaking their name, the multicannons whirled and spat fire. Gouts of bright yellow sparks erupted from the enemy ship’s hull. “In the end, though, whatever works.” The lasers lanced out one more time, and I saw the Cobra’s big powerplant explode, followed a split-second later by the entire craft.

The same moment, Coco calmly told us that our shields were critical. While we’d been shooting one Cobra, the other had been shooting us from behind. Marisse let out an animalistic growl, redirecting more power to the shield generator and swinging us around again to face our assailant head on. She slammed the throttle back, pushing us into full reverse thrust so we wouldn’t overshoot, then raked the final Cobra with our lasers.

“Frameshift charge detected” Coco informed us sweetly.

“Oh no you fucking don’t,” Marisse snarled. With a few quick button presses, the lasers and multicannons were firing directly at the pirate’s frameshift drive. He was at full throttle, and pulling away, and I could see his engines begins to flare brightly, a sure sign that he was seconds away from jumping.

There was a blinding light. For a moment I thought he’d escaped, but instead of the twin smoke-trails of a frameshift exhaust trail, there was a cloud of glittering debris.

“Gotcha,” Marisse said with satisfaction.

“What happened?” I asked. “I’m sure his hull was pretty much intact. Did you hit his powerplant?”

“Nope, his warp drive.” Marisse sat back and took a few deep breaths. “You know how a few good hits on an FSD will shut it down for a minute or so, force the system to reboot? Well, if you do that while it’s charging to jump… well, that.” She gestured at the remains of the ship in front of us.

“Bloody hell,” I muttered.

“Yeah. It’s rare – that’s probably only about the tenth time I’ve ever done it. Timing has to be spot on.” She turned to me and grinned. “It was a lucky shot, but you can feel free to tell everyone I’m brilliant.”

Van wasn’t lying; there were artifacts everywhere.

It was all over fairly quickly after that. We stumbled across one more floating batch of artifacts and added them to the few reserved for Van that were already in the cargo hold. We hoped the next signal we investigated would be more salvage, but it turned out to be two more pirate Sidewinders, who were both stardust before they even comprehended what was happening.

We returned to the small orbital platform to cash in the pirate bounties and offload our illicit cargo, and then it was time to return to Van.

“Hey!” I said with sudden realisation.

“What?” Marisse replied.

“It’s time for more Wang!”

Marisse looked disgusted and disapproving even while she laughed. She started the frameshift drive charge sequence and, after a short countdown, we left that troubled star system behind us.