Over the last dozen or so standards year cycles, there had been the odd occasion when Keilor '88 had enjoyed the thrill of crawling around in the dirt with a blaster at the ready and the prospect of having something to cream with it. This, however, was not one of them. This, was a tedious waste of time only made worth the effort by the E-credit payoff at the end of it all and even then, his part in it was barely necessary.
But, unfortunately, guard duty in the endless night of AEG-X95; a disused refuel outpost on a barren and windswept moon somewhere in the far reaches of the Outer Rim Territories, was his beef for now.
It didn't help that his wrist mounted proximity register was on the blink either. The damn thing was picking up just about every piece of debris that was out there getting tossed around in the tail end of the dust storm below the mountain side.
Every gust of wind that roared past the opening to the failed ventilation shaft where he'd taken lookout brought with it a standard proximity alert, five repeated staccato squeezes vibrating against the underside of his arm, or a brief response and a blip on the screen from the short range directional radio frequency scanner. Then nothing.
It was a far cry from '88's bread and butter. He was, after all, a top of the line, combat ready, killing machine, only a decade or so out of date and defective only where he'd had his personality programming upgraded to make him more agreeable and human.
But Keilor '88 had turned his back on all that a long time ago. Now he was just a scrapper with a bad attitude who got by with a little help from his friends scavenging and on-selling abandoned hardware ripped out of shit holes like this. And like everyone else scraping by on the margins of space he did his job and was grateful for another day's grace if that was all that came from it. His original intended purpose as a semi-mechanised infantry shock trooper was nothing more than a distant memory.
Still, he could feel the urge to shoot something flare every time that damn proximity register twitched. It reminded him that danger lurked around every corner in these far flung parts, and that the particular set of skills that he had carried since his date of delivery had a purpose in this context as much as they had in his past life. He had to maintain vigilance. The safety of the rag-tag outfit he rolled with depended partly on his unnatural propensity to violence.
The communication suite inside '88's helmet barked static at him, an incoming transmission from his immediate partner in crime, Slim.
'Hey '88. You copy?'
Keilor gave his helmet a swift tap on the side. His mechanised body armour felt stiff as he moved. It was clogged with sand, no doubt. Probably take him a week to scrub the stuff out.
'Yeah. I read you loud and clear, Slim. Listen, I'd love to give you the all clear from up here but to tell you the truth I can't see a thing,'
Slim was a little further into the mountain working out of the receiver bays of an old mechanics workshop. The slippery old rat was loading their all terrain anti gravity transport with it's autonomous cargo pods. The one's Keilor and him had just spent the last seventy odd hours packing and sealing.
The other crew member on base, Carter, the technician, had patched them into the stations communications array before she'd left to go splice her way into the mainframe and poke around. It was standard practise for her to spend hours scrolling through system manifests trying to dig up something worth salvaging. And while she was doing that, it as always Keilor and Slim doing the heavy lifting.
It had been Carter who'd found was they were looking for and directed Slim and '88 down the ventilation shafts and into the bowels of the mountain to retrieve it. A nine series station life support system. Worth big money. All operational and in near mint condition. A real catch.
Now it was just a case of getting off this rock in one piece without attracting any unwanted attention from the local populace.
But Slim was back on the line momentarily.
'Copy that. Say, the last pods making it's way up now. Why don't you head back and I'll get a hold of Carter on the horn and tell her to get ready for that uplink,'
'Copy. Give me a moment,'
'88 threw a last glance out there into the nothingness and turned to head down the shaft. There was a slight downward incline for a hundred metres or so, before an access hatch that he and Slim had had to cut off to get inside. From there he could leave the shaft and make his way to the receiver bay down a few flights of stairs.
Back in the day, a refuel outpost like this would have been a hive of activity but now everything was cold and dead. It was a haunted place. A vessel in the grip of permanent darkness and inhabited by the bitter ghosts of a lost dream of free and prosperous living at the edges of existence.
But, hey, if you were smart about it, there was still a nice little E-credit balance that could be had gutting and scrapping the innards of a station like AEG-X95. A cute little profit for adventure if you had the character for it.
So long as you were prepared to take the pain if you got bit in the harsh environs outside of 'ordered' space.
Standing atop the cargo carrier bay of his all terrain anti gravity transport in the glare of two opposed work lights, Slim did a manual check of the A-TAG's stock one final time before wiping the grime from his pilot's goggles with a gloved hand and referencing the onboard manifest readout.
Inventory full. Every one of the autonomous pods had found it's way back to the transport. They'd done their job without complaint yet again. Time to seal them tight.
Slim tapped out the command on the readout screen and there was a sharp upward whine as the servos kicked in for the magnetic locking system. All good now, nothing to worry about.
He might be working with outdated gear but you could just about nurse this system through anything. They sure didn't make them like that anymore.
Robust and simple to operate. The A-TAG and it's cargo pods were designed to be the backbone of logistical operations in the more underdeveloped regions of the rim and they were just that, a workhorse that never stopped giving. It was just a pity that out here that those damn pods had had to be loaded manually.
Anyway. This particular A-TAG had had a few mods when it had come time to repurpose it from warehouse use. Slim had made them himself. Upgraded thrusters, longer range fuel cells and the like. Yeah. She was a jack of all trades now the old beast. The damn thing was so tough she'd probably outlive him by a couple of generations. But, then again, Slim was getting on.
It had taken this last gig to remind him of that. He and '88 had had to repel at least four levels down those ventilation shafts to reach that damn life support system. Not to mention it had taken some serious elbow grease to dismantle her with nothing but a few hand tools and some regular know how.
Slim was tired. Dog tired. This scavenger business was beginning to lose it's charms in a way. That was for sure.
Punching the release on the side of the cockpit, Slim stuck his head inside to take note of the front field of view display. He had had a start up diagnostic running in the background while he finished up on deck. For an old hunk off scrap the A-TAG was well maintained and in top mechanical shape, but then again, that was the way Slim kept her. Nice and clean. He never missed a service and he always did his startups. No matter the rush.
The readout was clear. Just a little dust in the cooling system filter but that could wait. Besides, so long as he didn't have to gun the engine for an extended period of time on the way back to the ship the beast wouldn't overheat. If there was a problem at all it was maybe a crack in the seals that usually kept the dust out. That would be his first job once they all got safely back to Edge Seven, going over those seals.
It could spell trouble In the long run. Get stuck in one of those dust storms for too long with dodgy seals and the beast might fail them. But today Slim knew he could stick to the valley below where the weather was clearer and no doubt Carter would keep an eye on the forecast for him.
Which reminded him, he had to get a hold of Carter about that uplink.
He grabbed up the horn receiver and sent out the query.
'Carter. Do you copy? We're just about ready to get off this rock. What's your situation? Over,'
There was a brief pause while static hissed through the horn.
Then Carter answered.
'Copy, that, Slim. Give me a few minutes to shut up shop and I'll uplink to Edge Seven. Patching my pickup coordinates through now.'
'No worries, Carter. Out.'
Slim wasn't waiting long for '88 either.
The other appeared out of the blackness momentarily, his mechanised boots clattering on the astro-grade concrete and his breathing laboured in the cold.
'How'd did you do, Slim? Are we all stowed away?'
'I just put the last one aboard. I'm ready to bolt if you are,'
'Sounds good to me,'
'88 lumbered up the ramp and into the personnel carrier bay at the rear. There was just enough room in the doorway for him to get his oversized suit onboard. Then, with a groan, he planted his arse down on a bench as Slim secured himself behind the pilot controls.
'What did Carter say about our cargo the other day? About the nine series being more advanced than those Seback Systems the Allied Militia use on their staging bases?'
'Yeah. Looks like Edge Seven is getting those now power coupling after all, hey,' Slim said. He was running through the last few sequences of the A-TAG's power up schedule, briskly flicking through the overhead switches in the correct order as the system checks flashed on the display before him.
'So long as there's a bit left over when it comes to the five way split, that's all I'm saying. My suit needs an oil bath and I need a god damn drink,'
Slim chuckled. 'I hear you. Just between you and me, I used to keep a bottle of aged single malt whiskey I pilfered out of the officers lounge on some swanky resort style starliner for occasions like this. So, I think Carter has outdone herself on this one.'
'I hope you're right. If you are maybe we could share that bottle of yours, hey,'
'Oh. I don't have it anymore. Like I said, I used to have a bottle, but I don't now. You get smarter as you get older, '88,'
'Yeah? What happened to it?'
'I got bored! That's what happened to it. I got bored in deep space and I drank the damn thing.'
Slim tapped the last startup command into the pilot console and sealed the transport up tight. The beast began to rise slowly from it's rest position as the anti gravity thrusters powered up, ready to rock.
The old man turned to '88.
'Lets go get the new girl.'
The A-TAG lurched out the receiver bay door opening and into the loading lane running up the side of the mountain. A lightbar immediately above the cockpit illuminated a beam of swirling dust as Slim steered the transport along using the radio scanner.
That was the heavy lifting done. All he had to do now was pickup Carter and guide the beast onto Edge Seven at the landing sight and they were home free.