The Salvager’s Tale: Part I

betelgeuse

Lamprey floated silently in the inky void of space. She was almost entirely without power, all of her non-essential and most of her essential systems shut down to decrease her electronic signature. Dom had killed the circuits to everything except for emergency life support and his long-range passive scanners, making him effectively invisible to everything except the naked eye. There was no one within five clicks of his position, but Dom preferred being careful to being in jail. Or dead.

The only light in the cockpit came from the soft green of a single display screen, the diffuse light from the distant stars outside, and the occasional burst of an explosion several kilometers away. Dom hovered lazily and watched the battle play out on his screen, his body loosely strapped to his chair to keep him from floating off into the back of the ship. The UPC and the ICA had been duking it out in the Aldrin system off and on for the past several months, each trying to establish supply routes to various fronts in the now decades-long civil war. Aldrin was, as far as resources went, completely empty of anything useful, its lone occupant an enormous red supergiant that was constantly threatening to go supernova. What made the system valuable was the confluence of no less than five jump points to various other systems in the immediate galactic area.

The big question on everyone’s mind, as far as Aldrin was concerned, was just how much longer that red supergiant was going to last. According to various reports Dom had read to pass the time in situations such as this, scientists estimated that the star was only somewhere around 17 million years old, its significant mass causing it to speed through the various phases of its stellar evolution. The articles he’d perused had pointed out that stars can exist as red supergiants for anywhere from 10 to 100 million years before dying their ultra-violent deaths, but given Aldrin’s relatively quick growth, the consensus was that it could blow at any time.

And when it did, the jump points would likely go with it, completely cutting off access to the resource-rich Soyuz system, which was currently only accessible via the single jump point here in Aldrin. Hundreds of corporations had set up their various mining operations in Soyuz, racing against the clock to extract as much as they could from the three planets and two asteroid belts before the time bomb that was Aldrin put an end to it all. Survey companies had spent astronomic sums of money searching the Soyuz system for another jump point, but in the end all they had was an extremely well-mapped system with one point of entry.  When that door closed, so did the access to those resources, and a lot of people were going to lose a lot of money. Oh, and millions of others would be isolated forever, but that didn’t affect the bottom line so that aspect rarely made the news.

A bright series of flashes in the distance brought Dom’s attention back to the events at hand. Based on the scans he was getting, it looked like the ICA had managed to take out a UPC cruiser. Dom smiled to himself at the potential payday that lay ahead. Their squadron flagship in pieces, the UPC forces were starting to retreat back toward the jump point to the Ceres system, which meant that it was almost time for Dom to go to work. He didn’t particularly care whether the United Planetary Confederacy or the Independent Colonial Alliance eventually came out on top in this war. He didn’t have enough credits to his name to purchase the right to vote under either government, and he doubted that anyone running for office represented his interests anyway. As far as he was concerned, the rich could have their power struggles and their land grabs. Dom’s home was space, and there was no shortage of that to go around.

No, the closest Dom paid attention to politics was just enough to make sure that there was still a war on. War meant fighting, fighting meant destruction, and destruction meant salvage. With the right kind of ship, you could make a pretty hefty profit if you kept your wits about you. Salvage could occasionally result in some large payouts, more than many people made in years of more legitimate work, but it made up for it in being a particularly dangerous (and sometimes legally dubious) occupation. Not only did you have to watch out for the ICA and UPC, neither of whom were too keen on letting others make off with their military-grade equipment, but many had met their demise at the hands of everything from their fellow scroungers to faulty equipment to something as uninteresting as a piece of fast moving debris.

Dom watched as the dots representing the UPC ships winked off his screen, having either made the jump back to Ceres or been blown up in the process. The jump points in Aldrin aligned along the edge of what a very inebriated person might be convinced was a spherical shape, and the remaining ICA ships were forming up in the center. Dom noticed that a few smaller signatures parked themselves near the Ceres jump point and then disappeared, having set up a physical watch at the jump for any ships that came through dark. While not one hundred percent safe, it was common practice for scouts to launch themselves through the wormholes on minimal power. Dom had even done it himself once in order to sneak through one of the more savage systems on the outer edge of colonized space.

Once he was satisfied that he had the ICA’s locations mapped, he brought minimal power back online to the engines. With Aldrin itself directly at his back, Dom figured he could probably run at full power for some time before being detected through the star’s radiation, but given the potential payday from that cruiser, he decided to play it safe. With minimal power restored to his engines, Dom aimed his ship on a trajectory that would take him a few hundred meters from the cruiser’s expanding debris field and initiated a five second burn. The burn complete, he killed power to the engines once more and settled in for the three hour flight.


Time passed slowly, and Dom occupied himself by alternating between studying his scanner results and reading the latest news off the waves that he’d downloaded to his ship before leaving Charlemagne Station several days ago. At one point, a wing of ICA fighters had broken off from the main group and looked to be heading in his general direction, but after a few moments, it became obvious that they were flying in circles, running a standard patrol around the remaining fleet. Aside from that momentary spike in blood pressure, the remainder of the trip to what remained of the UPC cruiser was uneventful.

Once he was within visible range of the metal corpse, he pulled out a pair of digital binoculars and began scanning its shattered bones. He sighed in disappointment as he ran his eyes over the fragments. Very few large segments of the ship remained, leading Dom to conclude that the ship’s munitions cache had not been jettisoned before the reactor blew. So much for easy money, Dom thought. Sometimes ships would jettison their ammo before being destroyed  in order to leave it to support the remaining ships in their fleet, but since this was the flagship of the small UPC flight group, Dom wasn’t the least surprised that they decided to take the ammunition with them, getting in one last “fuck you” to the ICA before going out in a blaze of glory.

Now certain that there weren’t going to be any easy pickings, Dom renewed his search with more care. He decided to stay away from the two largest sections, certain that if he went after anything in those areas, he would be spotted by either an ICA patrol or another scrounger. Dom hadn’t seen anyone else on his way in, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that he was the only one who was waiting out on the fringes of that fight looking to come up with a big score. In general, there was a code of honor among scroungers like himself of “first come, first served,” but there existed a not insignificant number of his cohorts who would just as soon ice you and take the spoils for themselves.

So instead of checking out the obvious places, he focused on the more medium sized portions, hoping to come up with an auxiliary generator or an unused escape pod. He scanned slowly back and forth for several minutes. Finally, something caught his attention just before leaving his field of vision, and Dom snapped his eyes back to the left, toward a particular piece of spinning metal. Was that what I think it was? He kept his eyes trained on the detritus, waiting for the far face to rotate back into his field of view.

Dom let out a loud whoop of delight as the far side slowly spun back around to fill his vision. “Paydirt!” he cried. Nestled right in the center of a piece of hull plating and looking to be, at this distance, in pristine condition was an eight barreled rail gun. “Oh yeah, I want you to keep an eye on that one, sweetheart,” he remarked to Lamprey as he tagged the hunk of metal in his targeting computer. Once the weapon’s location was locked into his tracking system, he began monitoring the scanner and looking out the windows for any other activity in his area.

When he was satisfied that he was the only one in the immediate vicinity, he brought minimal power back on to all systems and slowly brought his ship around toward his prize. He made a quick short range scan of his immediate area and tagged the positions and trajectories of the remaining debris. A few seconds later, the computer had calculated the optimum path to the gun to avoid being hit by any of the other scraps on the way. He checked once more on the location of the ICA forces. They either hadn’t seen him or didn’t care.

He set Lamprey on autopilot, unbuckled his straps, and pushed himself toward the back of the ship. He landed softly in the rear gunner’s chair with the accuracy of someone who’d done it for practically all of his adult life. He slipped his arms quickly through the chair straps and set to work. Lamprey didn’t have rear guns. At least, she didn’t have them anymore. Many years ago, Dom had sold them and had a custom salvage arm attached to the hull in their place. He pulled the coordinates of the rail gun from the targeting computer, entered them into the salvage arm’s control computer, and waited.

“Come on, baby, line it up,” he whispered. He watched as Lamprey slowly brought herself up alongside the rail gun and matched its rotation. The rail gun appeared to have stopped moving from the vantage point of the camera on the end of the salvage arm, and Dom began the slow process of extending the claw out toward the weapon. Once the claw was within a few feet of its destination, he stopped to open its jaws. Only when they’d reached their widest point did he once more resume the arm’s journey to the rail gun.

Now within inches, he stopped the arm once more and began to slowly close the claw’s jaws around a section of hull off to the side of his reward, being extremely careful to avoid damaging the hardware any further. When he saw the frame buckle slightly, he knew he had it. He whooped again, and set the computer to pull the gun into his cargo hold. “We got it, girl!” He said, and patted the ceiling above his head. “Oh, we’re going to be able to get you some fancy upgrades with this!”

He slipped his arms out of the straps and launched himself back up to the cockpit, laughing with glee. Settling back into the pilot’s chair, he rubbed his hands together and began making preparations to leave as soon as his cargo had been safely stowed. He brought up a fresh scan of the system and checked to see which jump point he would most easily be able to utilize. Ceres was obviously out, since the ICA had set up the physical checkpoint, so he started looking at the others. Soyuz seemed like a good bet, since it was closest to his current position and was also technically neutral in the war. He had a few contacts there who would be more than happy to…

There was a flash of light out of the corner of Dom’s eye.  He spun his head in the direction of the source and frowned. Squinting his eyes, Dom looked in what he thought was the approximate area of the twinkle but the only things in his vision were the various pieces of debris and the dim stars in the distance. Another flash. What the hell? It had come from one of the larger sections of debris spinning a hundred yards or so off his starboard side. He grabbed his binoculars and brought them to his eyes.

A section of hull, its edges blackened and scarred, spun lazily like a leaf falling from a tree. Dom became aware of his heartbeat in his ears and took a few deep breaths. The far end of the hull spiraled toward him once more, and the flash of light hit him directly in the eyes . It would have ruined his night vision if not for the auto-dimming feature on the binoculars, and he was suddenly glad he had sprung for the more expensive model.

Dom’s jaw fell open. He shook his head vigorously, as if dismissing a mirage, but the picture in his binoculars remained unchanged. “Are you seeing this?” he asked his ship, but Lamprey only continued to hum softly. Dom was holding the binoculars so tightly to his face that it began to hurt. Through the displays, he could see that the flash was the result of light from the red supergiant being reflected in his direction from a small mirror. That small mirror was being held by a person in an EVA suit waving frantically with their other arm.

Holy shit.


To be continued…

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