Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Freebooters

by Paul Michael Moreau





"There she is!" Tymon smiled as the ship made drop. "Get me full data and monitor all frequencies."

The large ochre planet loomed on the screens: vast deserts showed the scars of dry riverbeds and immense canyon complexes, twisting and interconnecting to form great gashes in its body. A broad equatorial zone, intensely hot, was probably uninhabitable, with the only significant vegetation towards the poles where rare expanses of water ringed negligible icecaps.

Tymon stretched in his seat, threw a glance at Damos busy with the scans and swiveled to face the third crewmember. "Looks like we're the first to NS-2035c."

"Aridea."

"What's that?"

"It's the name they've given it."

"We're the first to Aridea then."

"Indeed." Cheung studied his console. "I have all shields deployed as a precaution."

"Good man. Our new friends may have orbital capability. Wouldn't do to start on the wrong foot."

The sleek leviathan with its weapons points and cavernous holds required little human input. Tymon preferred flying his corporate flagship personally, chosen men at his side: Damos young, ambitious, by far the best technician he ever employed, and Allen Cheung, Lead Security Officer, tasked with managing conflict with the aliens or any competing operations.

All sported hardened military bodies in conventional configuration. Tymon did not believe exotic forms made suitable business attire and, out beyond the republic, conflict became a serious probability. He and Damos wore facemasks based on their genetic profile, Cheung favoring one of blank inscrutability like some relic of classical Greek theatre on long-abandoned Earth. The ship provided their sustenance.

"There's nothing," said Damos. "No radio signals, no major movement, nothing at all."

"Check for laser communications."

"Already done, result negative."

"Two probes, northern and southern hemispheres." Tymon folded his arms and waited.

He had studied all available data during the short voyage, convinced that not only they would be first but that others lacked the guts to defy the ban on unofficial contact. He will stake his claim and to hell with the consequences. Let scientists come later to study the locals, observe their culture, slice them open to see what makes them tick but leave the Tymon Corporation unhindered to strip the raw materials before moving on to the next world. That was his style, a throwback to the days of first expansion when corporations held sovereign power untrammeled by any constitution. It had made him rich, and, if this time, he could add alien artifacts to the portfolio, then why not?


* * *

The news spread fast--a forest fire borne on a restless wind. It traveled along filaments of communication formed by light beams, express ships, and quantum links. City to city, world to world--each gleaming jewel on the chain--along the spur and all the way back to Centrepolis, heart of the republic's vast star-spanning territory. It jumped the sparse border regions of the Sagittarius Arm and some say, traveled as far as Earth of myth and memory.

The reaction was predictable.

"It can't be true."

"Eccentric bunch of nuts."

Credibility grew with circulation, each new ripple building the narrative until the entire human diaspora, flung out along paths of least resistance--an explosion of star dust billions of years in the making--came online, eager for updates, their sense of wonder renewed. They all waited: Workers in their machine bodies, refuseniks and nostalgic fashionistas of custom flesh and bone, the distant elite adrift in digital domains, the awakened sleepers, all held in rapt fascination.

"What will they look like?"

"How can we have missed this?"

The full story broke: a group of history freaks in the Sador sector playing around with electromagnetic communications picked up a signal almost immediately. Someone or something transmitting a crude sequence in base 12. No one monitored these frequencies anymore; no one persisted in a fruitless search for intelligent life.

The source flashed up in ten thousand minds: NS2035, some three hundred parsecs out. Six planets, one close to its sun, large and rocky with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, just one of millions of such worlds not surveyed in detail let alone visited. Out beyond Sador, lay worlds awaiting admittance to the republic and, beyond them, there was only the frontier, advancing on dictates of the market where fortunes beckoned.

Humanity encountered life many times during expansion, it long ceasing to be newsworthy. It was still rare and, to some, precious but apart from occasional instances of advanced forms analogous to reptiles or mammals of early Earth, it consisted solely of microbes. Varied, adaptive to any extreme, none of the microorganisms encountered so far transmitted radio signals.

Someone suggested a likely reason for base twelve renewing the ripples of excitement. The sector authorities assumed responsibility for the response, consulting all tiers of administration and locally active corporations, utilizing long-abandoned protocols to establish an exclusion zone and prepare for incremental contact. An assembler constructed the transmitter in minutes but, with the message sent, the enterprising, the adventurous, the avaricious had many questions:

"If we don't go then they will."

"Think of the prestige of being first."

"What riches await the bold?"

The essential human imperatives remained--to reach out, to explore and discover along with the urge to turn a profit. The transmission barely made headway across the cosmic gulf before the gleaming warpships readied in secret.


* * *

Damos launched the probes and refreshed the orbital scans revealing an expanse of urban devastation: traces of wide avenues and regularly spaced plazas radiating out from the shattered heart of a city, the main thoroughfares linked by the ruins of lesser streets, every structure flattened bar the twisted metal of reinforcements pointing accusingly at the sky.

"It's been nuked," Tymon murmured. "No doubt about that."

"Primitive weaponry but in-line with a culture reliant on radio communications," Cheung observed. "Something has gone badly awry here during the last thousand sols."

They saw the same everywhere: cities blasted out of existence leaving only shattered ruins, bleak monuments to a fallen civilization, gigantic patches of fused silica marking the desert like a pox.

"Probe feeds online." Damos patched the streams through.

They showed the barren landscape in detail, the only vegetation sparse desert scrub or occasionally stands of stunted and sickly trees. On the northern flight, the ruins of another city soon appeared. Simultaneously in the south, they saw a small white town, largely intact, on the shore of a dead lake, the whole enclosed in a fold of a minor mountain range, silent and forsaken. Small herds of animals grazed here and there and resembled goats but only fleetingly did they see what they scanned for: a column some twenty-strong, humanoid forms passing through the mountains but lost immediately in the gloom of a deep canyon.

"One must appreciate the irony." Cheung's smile was mirthless. "Five-thousand years of speculation, bacteria-rich worlds wherever we look, no intelligent reptile civilizations, no space-crab empires, and what do we find? An apparently warlike race walking upright on two legs with two arms and stereoscopic vision."

"Atmosphere seems OK," Damos reported. "Pretty thin but significant oxygen and no significant radiation."

"We need to get down there," Tymon barked. "The survey work can wait while we take a personal look."

"Does it really need all three of us? I can start the analysis while you enjoy your field trip."

"It'll do you good to get out for once." Tymon disconnected his systems, rising from his seat to face Cheung. "We'd better go armed just in case, nothing too obvious just break out some pistols."

They would all go, Tymon decided. With the speed of travel outpacing communications, all sorts of dark deeds-- the modus operandi of corporate success--became possible. Too easy to leave him stranded and, should he meet with a convenient accident, then Damos and Cheung knew enough to wrest control or simply sell out.

"There may still be dangers." Cheung remained seated. "I recommend uploading to the probes for a close-up view."

"Where's your sense of adventure? Boots on the ground the old-fashioned way. Let's go." Tymon pressed a reserve power pack into a recess on his torso. "We'll give the news to these savages. Greetings from humanity, you're going to have a really bad day."


* * *

The shuttle settled upon a dust-swept plain where the sky cast a ruddy light and patches of sickly scrub struggled for life in the thin red-brown soil. A dead city languished close by. Red mountains curved on the horizon.

Tymon led the way in slow mode after confirming the atmospheric readings. They crossed the gently undulating terrain with the pistols strapped to their thighs, an old-fashioned concession to the ancient traditions of their warrior species. He judged their chances of actually encountering any locals slim and any they ran into would most likely flee at the sight of them but felt better with a weapon to hand.

"This landscape is not natural." Cheung pointed at a shallow mound far away on their left. "As a student of human conflict I'd say that's the remnant of some kind of bunker or gun position and that this uneven ground we cross bears evidence of intense and sustained shellfire."

"I think you are right." Tymon said zooming in on the relic as they topped another shallow ridge. A long and narrow depression cut through the reverse slope, snaking away in zigzags on either side. Similar works encircled the city. "We're in the front line boys."

They passed trenches and dugouts, noting here and there the detritus of war--jagged shards of metal, vicious twists of wire preserved in the dry air, relics of industrialized slaughter.

Damos flicked a control on his forearm panel. "Still nothing on any frequency. I guess they pretty much wiped themselves out."

"Keep checking. We know they are out there. Hey, look!" Tymon pointed at the stark terrain ahead.

They stood on a crest halfway between the shuttle and the ruins. Across the remaining distance the scars of war vanished as if scoured away, leaving the ground level and featureless, a sterilized zone centered on the city.

"This happened hundreds of years ago," Cheung said.

"Let's take a closer look."

"You won't find a profit in there."

"I know," Tymon replied, "but the planet is ours for the taking; we've plenty of time."

They went in silence over the dead earth, each alone with his thoughts. Ahead only the expanse of rubble they imagined as civic buildings, factories, shops, and homes. Those exposed metal rods again, bent away from ground zero to form grotesque sculptures.

Damos stopped suddenly. His voice carried a distracted quality as he tapped his panel. "Message from the ship. Another vessel has entered the system. No ID yet."

"Lek!" Tymon stared at the sky as if expecting to see the intruder.

"How can you know that?" Cheung challenged.

"Who else would dare break the embargo? He has long envied me but he overstretches now. Let's get back to the shuttle."

They returned swiftly, exigency kicking-in to power their bodies. Within seconds, they strapped themselves into their seats ready for take-off. Nothing happened.

"What's wrong with this thing?" Tymon brought his fist down hard as if the sudden shock would bring the shuttle to life.

"We're not drawing any power and comms are out," Damos replied as he ran through the standard check procedure. "I'm in contact with the ship via my personal systems but I can't do anything with this piece of space junk."

"Damn it!" He checked his own controls, methodically eliminating every variable. Turning to his crew, Tymon spoke quietly but firmly, careful to conceal his suspicions of treachery:

"Does the ship have visual contact with our guest yet, Damos?"

"No, too far out but I'd say it's definitely going to make orbit."

"Reinstate the screens." Cheung said curtly.

Tymon sprang from his seat. "Make all the checks again, there's probably a simple explanation."

They worked fast, pulling away panels and reaching into increasingly inaccessible areas, Tymon all the time keeping a wary eye on Damos and Cheung as the search became futile and time ebbed away. They had a reserve shuttle to call down assuming they could override the ship but if that malfunctioned too, all they had were emergency power packs and, once these ran out, would go dormant, facing final shutdown without hope.

"We have visual." Damos streamed immediately and Tymon remained dispassionate as he studied the image forming in his mind, determined to assert his leadership. It was wholly black, a long rapier like craft, its sharp lines broken only by the gentle swell of the shallow holds running from midpoint to stern.

"It's Lek, just as I said. That's the Stella Nero, his latest executive toy."

"We are not particularly well-placed in our current situation. We should call down the other shuttle now," Cheung said.

"Make it quick, Damos."

"Already on it."

Tymon and Cheung waited outside. The sky changed tawny to rose pink in the setting of Aridea's sun. A despairing Damos crackled in their heads:

"Something is attacking all our systems. I can't launch the reserve shuttle, the ship is not responding."

"What about those screens?"

"I can't tell."

"Keep trying and give it your best shot. Go help him, Allen." Tymon watched the last light turn high wisps of cloud a light blue. For a fleeting instant, white brilliance flared in the sky far brighter than the red orb on the horizon.

"She's gone offline completely now."

"I know Damos, I just saw it." Tymon stood in the cabin doorway eyes blazing. "We're not beaten yet, oh no siree. We have to take his ship, it's our only hope."

"How do you propose doing that?" Cheung remained impassive behind his mask but a new vibrancy marked his speech. "I'm waiting to be impressed."

"Lek's pride and joy is wide open. The yard boss works for me from time to time. For the right price he can be incredibly careless with security codes and protocols."

"How very sweet."

Tymon called up the data forwarding it to Damos. "This is where you earn your pay whiz kid. Take control of Lek's ship, just the main drives and weaponry for now."

"What happens after that?"

"We settle it the old way Allen, man to man, survival of the fittest."

Damos clapped his hands in satisfaction. "That was easy."

"Always pays to have something in reserve." Tymon's hand found the grip of his pistol. "All we have to do now is wait. He is stuck up there and we're stuck down here. He will have to leave his ship in orbit to face us."

They applied fresh power packs as a precaution and stepped into the cool desert evening. The first stars showed as the faint lights of the Stella Nero slowly traced an arc across the sky.


* * *

They watched the fiery descent of Lek's lander until it disappeared somewhere over the city center. Then they began walking.

The darkness presented no problem. With vision enhanced to near daylight quality, they scanned the ruins. Sensor data proved negative--their opponents had shielding in place. They move cautiously as an orange moon rose, expecting visual at any instant.

Tymon spotted them when halfway along a devastated street: five men in extended line, advancing stealthily, cover to cover. He waited in the middle of the road, Cheung to his left and a little behind, Damos on the right.

"Are you certain this is wise?" Cheung drew his pistol and Damos followed suit.

"He can't do anything without the read key to those codes. He has to talk."

They came on, Lek in front flanked by men brandishing pistols, a rifleman to each side where sidewalks once ran. Tymon's great rival took the entrepreneurial buccaneer image to extremes, sporting a taller than standard body completely black, even the facemask, the exaggerated shoulders and the forearms covered with large silver studs each bearing a black star. His crew wore a motley collection of drab and ill-matched parts except for gaudy panels on their upper arms crude designs, decoration favored by the lowlife of any third-rate spaceport.

They stopped at twenty paces, Lek's low tone a perfect match for his dark body:

"You have hacked my ship."

"You destroyed mine."

"I cannot deny that." Lek opened his mouth in a parody of a grin to reveal serried rows of chromium teeth. "But neither can I deny having the foresight to bring a second vessel. It will be here before day."

"You're bluffing."

"Have it your way but, if you want terms, best be quick, for we have company." Lek pointed towards the desert.

Tymon turned, Cheung and Damos following his gaze. A column snaked out from a pass in the foothills--dark-skinned humanoids, half again as tall as any man, some fifty-strong. Most walked but a few rode creatures vaguely analogous to the horse of antiquity. A pair of crude motor vehicles running on balloon tires brought up the rear.

Too late, he realized his mistake, spinning round as a shot sent Damos flying, instinctively returning fire on the rifleman on the right. A bolt nicked his shoulder, another screamed over his head as Cheung roared and ran forward firing rapidly. Two more of Lek's men were down before their leader blasted a gaping hole through Cheung's chest. Tymon reeled as a shot tore away his lower left leg, taking out Lek's last man as he fell. He saw the dark form advancing and fired once more before collapsing face down.

In the silence, Tymon raised himself using his left arm and good knee to find himself the only survivor. Cheung sprawled in the street ahead close by the bodies of two of Lek's crew whilst Damos lay headless behind, sparks arcing across the severed fibers of his nervous system. Lek's body rested on its back just three meters away. Smoke rose from the holes in his torso.

Tymon weighed the options, conscious of the approaching aliens. He felt no pain as his systems repaired the shoulder wound but the damage to his leg was too severe, requiring shipboard facilities. All he need do is drag himself into cover and from there to the lander. He looked around for anything that might serve as a crutch and saw Lek move in his peripheral vision, lifting his body with some last reserve of energy.

Both fired in the same instant.


* * *

The headman led the patrol into the city cautiously, working their way to the scene where his command recoiled in horror. Were these machines or living creatures? They all witnessed the bright descent of the craft against the night sky and now their near panic became palpable. He looked up at the stars with sad yellow eyes before raising his six-digit hand and giving the order:

"Burn the bodies."

They dug a shallow pit, pouring in fuel from the trucks, standing in silence as acrid smoke rose from the mass of melting material leaving only exposed wiring and other metal components. Scouts found the lander and the shuttle and the headman insisted on vows of silence until he informed their elders.

He led them back to the hills as dawn approached; watching the new light moving in the still dark sky, wondering what fate awaited his people.


THE END


2016 Paul Michael Moreau

Bio: Mr. Moreau is a former I.T. professional living on the south coast of the United Kingdom and writing in various speculative fiction genres. Recent stories have appeared in Morpheus Tales, Sanitarium Magazine, Unsung Stories, and Perihelion.

E-mail: Paul Michael Moreau

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