Chapter 1 - Easy as Falling
“Breaking atmo’ in three.” Tegan called down from the cockpit. “Looks like Badger’s intel was solid Captain. The sensor net is down over the entire northern hemisphere. I shoot us in along the pole and we should be golden for hide and seek from alliance patrols. Dong ma (am i understood)?”
The captain nodded up the hall to the cockpit, “In and out, no one the wiser. Shiny,” he called up as an answer, slipping his mask and ballcap over his swept back hair and then checking his sidearm to ensure the safety was on.
“Why do you wear those masks every time you go out on a job captain?” Val asked from his side. She too was strapping on gear and a breathing mask, but no one else in the crew wore masks similar to their captain. As the new hire, she just wasn’t as familiar with the man as the rest of the crew.
“Maybe some day you will find out. For now, do you remember the drill?”
“Still a little shaky on why you chose me out of all those goons, but I am good to go Captain.”
“I knew you would be. One of the reasons I picked you out of the liu koushui wuhezhizhong (drooling rabble).”
They all called him Bauta, most didn’t even get the reference. Bauta Del Arte, the man of masks. The man’s true name was forgotten by all but his closest friends. Val didn’t know anything about him, other than the wad of cash he had paid her was solid. “Less than above board salvage job,” was the description he had given her. She didn’t much need to know more than that. ‘Find a job, keep flying.’ Her motto was the same as many others trying to get by in the black.
“I chose you for your background. Skill on a rope will get us through this job.”
Val’s eyes narrowed as she considered the captain’s words carefully. “Wait, so because I grew up a circus brat you hired me?”
“An acrobat. To you balance and using ropes comes as easy as breathing.”
“And you wear masks like a clown, am I sensing a theme here? Are you building your own little circus Captain?”
“Perhaps, or perhaps there's more to it than that. Do the job, maybe I will trust you more.”
Bauta’s ship, a modified Kepler shuddered as the atmosphere of Shadow kissed her forward hull. “Looks like we just hit atmo’, Suit up Val, this will be the real test to see if you are worth the cash and worthy of being my ship's second in command.”
“Tell me again why we are visiting a dead rock?”
“Salvage? Salvage what? The purple-bellies blasted this rock to yiwang diyu! (into oblivion/hell)”
“You don’t need to remind me of that girl, I was here.”
“You were here?” Val’s eyes grew wide. “You were on Shadow when they blasted her?”
“Bombarded us from every orbital point their armada could manage, sent our planet back to a molten stage and turned the air to poison and the blue sky to a deadly black and green. A man can’t just forget that, not if he is a real man. But they didn’t destroy everything girl, some of us survived. Some of us lived to fight another day. And…”
“And some of us left some valuables behind.”
“It is a slag heap down there fengkuang de ren! (you crazy man)”
“Not all of it.”
Tegan interrupted over the com’, “She is pretty shaky down there Captain, seismic readings have her jumping all over more than my last date, she becomes very unstable every few minutes. Are you sure the ‘Facility’ will still be intact?”
Bauta moved to the terminal on the wall and hit the call back switch. “She will have held up. She was designed for it.”
“Acknowledged Captain, weather is pretty nasty out there but I should be able to hold the Messenger stable. I will have us over the outcrop in two shakes.”
Messenger, Bauta’s patchwork ship had been modified so many times some might not even realize she was a Kepler at heart. A ship of discovery. A ship of speed. A military ship. Men had once rode the Kepler class in search of answers and bettering humanity. Messenger was still on that mission, only in a different way. The tattered paint on the hull still showed remnants of the Independent flag, yellow and blue shouting out its memory to anyone in the black.
Buckling the last clasps on his brown coat Bauta fingered the tattered rank emblems. Major. The coat was a remnant of what might have been. So was his ship, Messenger, a symbol of a plan for peace. The war might have been lost on paper and in history books, but with a grim smile Bauta clicked the buckle in place and knew that hope could still stand strong despite how bad any purple-belly might beat it down.
Val broke into his train of thought asking, “Will these breathing masks be enough?”
“Atmosphere is toxic sure ‘nuff, but the temp and pressure are as pretty as a ungodly hot day on Bellerophon. Don’t worry, you might get windburn but sunburn isn’t an option. I don’t plan for us being in the air long. If you do your job right that is.”
Thumbing the airlock switch Val grabbed hold of the ladder pulling herself into position. “Ready for a bit of fun Captain?”
“And if we die attempting this foolish job?”
“At least we die pretty.” Bauta half joked entering the airlock with her and sealing shut the door.
“Holding over the outcrop Captain.” Tegan’s voice interrupted the touching words between captain and first mate.
Bauta patted Val’s arm in encouragement and held up a thumbs up signal in front of her thick face mask.
She nodded. Clicked the safety lines on to their harness belts, and returned the thumbs up signal in front of his mask.
Bauta reached out to the control switch, placing his hand right over the button. Slowly he held up first one, then a second, then a third finger… with a bang the airlock door dropped out from under their feet and they fell into a roaring green and black tempest. At their full extension the safety lines caught, and they spun as if orbiting each other at full arms extension in the green wild wind. Not even the hull of safe secure Messenger was visible overhead.
Gripping the Captain’s hands tight, Val had to force herself to breathe as the gale ripped at her clothes and skin. Gods it was hot. She allowed instinct to rule out over fear and pulled a second line from her belt to attach to Bauta’s harness. Forcing her hand before his eyes she gave another thumb’s up signal.
He acknowledged with another pat to her arm, muscles fighting against the roaring thick wind so that she could feel his touch. Holding her breath she watched the two of them spin suspended in what looked like an endless violent nothing. Uncontrolled a smile spread across her face. Now this was flying.
She released her tether to the ship and fell once more into the raging green turbulence, with the control harness on she flipped once, twice, and a third time in a perfect controlled slow fall until she finally caught a glimpse of the solid surface beneath her and brought herself to a stop. As solid as any ship's hull able to resist the black, this hull too was built to last. The Hatch that tilted up in front of her as she brought her spin to a halt. ‘Facility 0218’ stood barely legible but marked into the metal just above a control interface.
“Smooth falling captain, I am in position, and ready to open the door. Lets hope that code works as promised.” Val let her hand fall towards the hatch, not letting the violent wind push her away, she let gravity aid her motions.
“Code will work just fine Val, I used it every day for over a year.” The captain’s voice played in her ear over the com piece she wore to ensure they would be able to speak even in this violent wrath-filled wind.
“Same security code for over a year? No wonder the gorram alliance won.” Val gave a pull at the cover to the entry pad, once, twice, the cover came unstuck with a sudden release that made her spin in place slightly before she corrected the motion. “Keying in the sequence now.” Her fingertips darted gracefully over the keypad, and in a moment the hatch was pushing itself aside just as the captain had promised. “You were right, slid right aside.”
“Told you so, tell me when it is clear to lower you.”
“The airlock seems clear and functional, give me a slow six feet Captain.”
“Six feet coming.”
The hatch rose up to pass Val on either side, seamlessly, the safety line moved so steady she would not have noticed movement if not for that sign. “I am in,” she called, “Locking line to the inner airlock.” She attached the end of her line to a safety catch and stood for the first time in the solid metal hatch on Shadow. “Ready to enter the Facility Captain.”
“Good work Val, be careful now.”
Val silently crossed her chest before reaching out to open the inner hatch. “Oh I plan on it, careful as can be.” Her hand took hold of the latch and tugged, without result. Both hands she pulled again, and then even put her weight into it. The latch did not lift. “Stuck. I will try and get her free.”
“You got this Val, just as we talked about.” The voice of the Captain reassured her.
She reached to the tools, Velcro sealed in their own pouches on her sides and upper legs, pulling out a crowbar a foot and a half long. “If at first I don’t succeed, breaking and entering one-oh-one to the rescue.” She locked the crowbar into the latch and set a foot against the cover for added leverage. With a sharp tug that resulted with the latch deciding that now was the time to continue not budging an inch, she gritted her teeth and threw her whole weight against the crowbar. “Give it up to mama!”
Val chuckled at the door even as her face strained along with every other muscle to get the latch to open. With a sudden crack her small frame fell back inside the airlock and smacked with a resounding hollow thud against the far wall. “Ouch.”
“You good Val?” Bauta’s voice asked, not masking the concern.
“Golden Captain.” She called back after a deep breath, the latch stood open and the inner hatch readily slid aside at her touch. “We are in. Lower the satchels down and I will tie them off here as my working doorway.”
“Gorram’it Tegan, hold us steady!” Was the angry response Val heard from the captain, as suddenly several feet of slack dropped into the hatch with her. Val looked up in concern but the roaring green and black made it impossible to see the Captain dangling in the middle of the maelstrom hundreds of feet above.
“You ok Captain?” She asked, just as Tegan’s voice was also cutting into her ear.
“Sorry Captain, Messenger is bucking like an angry steer in this wind.”
“I am not the acrobat, you just sent me for a spin like I was in a clothes washer. I do not want to be puking in my mask dong ma?”
“Understood Captain, doing my best at flying level against impossible odds, you should be thanking me for doing this well!” Tegan huffed back not afraid of a little back talk when knowing her work at the controls was keeping the whole job going.
Val allowed her attention to fall back to the matter at hand, she gave herself slack to work, and stepped through the inner hatch into the Facility. Un-deployed orbital defense cannons lined the walls, each nearly as large as the Messenger far above. The Cannons themselves were worth a fortune, but it would be an impossibility to get them into orbit now, with the facilities cargo-hangers buried in molten sludge. The targeting control boards, focusing crystals, and the power-storage batteries however, could each easily be removed from the units, and carried back in the duffle-bags she had brought with her.
Salvage. Salvage from a blasted rock, a payday just waiting to happen.
“Looks like we found our payday Captain.” Val confirmed with a smile.
“I told you. Easy as falling.” Bauta responded confidently.
“Easy as falling Captain.” Val agreed.