The plasma cutter blazing in her gloved hands was the closest Jaime Forward got to a birthday candle as she turned 33.
She hung upside down from the belly of a wrecked Consortium freighter – one of tens of thousands of ruined vessels strewn along the storied Line of Pain that formed one border of the Nall-dominated Parallax.
“Eleven more minutes, Cap,” said her pilot, Dell Scarfino. He was aboard Jaime’s ship, the Andalusia, monitoring her vitals and watching the sensors for any Parallax patrol ships. So far, they hadn’t had any noteworthy company save for a handful of similarly interested scavengers focused on other derelicts.
According to scans, the hull of this vessel – a media-owned starhopper identified as the Transom – had been breached repeatedly. She wouldn’t need to worry about her cutter making contact with pressurized atmosphere beyond the bulkheads, which would result in a (probably fatal) explosive blast. Records showed that the Transom’s crew had been out here during the skirmishes of 2596 and ended up in crossfire between the Vanguard battleship Azimuth and six Nall destroyers. The Azimuth was the shattered gray hulk about fifteen ships coreward along the Line from the Transom. The Nall almost always took first dibs on whatever could be salvaged from the wrecks along their border. But ships like the Azimuth and the Transom still sometimes held valuable resources – titanium, components, even precious cargo. And scavs like Jaime Forward made a passable living plucking the best bits for clients throughout the Orion Arm.
Just a few horizontal and vertical cuts later, she hooked her tether to an interior strut, deactivated the magboots, and then drifted into the gap behind the engineering compartment’s bulkhead.
Dell chimed in again: “Ten minutes.” He knew the helmet HUD gave her all the information she needed. Mostly, these reports reminded her that *he* and the Andalusia remained safe and sound.
“I’m inside and off the tether,” she replied over comms. Her gloved fingers tapped a button. The boots thumped back into magnetized mode, affixing themselves to the deck so she could make the next cuts.
“Oh, damn,” muttered the pilot.
She watched her heart rate climb in the HUD. “Dell?”
“Sorry, Cap,” he said. “Borringer over on the Nixon must’ve put a noob on the Narwhal.”
“Pressure breach?” she guessed.
“Maybe he lived,” Dell mused, but he didn’t sound convinced.
Jake Borringer, captain of the Nixon, recently joined the Smugglers Guild – part of Lord Fagin’s sprawling black market organization headquartered on Tomin Kora. She guessed low man in the guild didn’t get the most seasoned recruits.
Her sense of superiority faded a little as it occurred to her that she did that same work herself, rather than leaving it to minions. But, then, she enjoyed the work. Some people wrapped themselves in the cloak of command, sat in the big chair, gave orders, and let everyone else take the risks.
She didn’t want any more lives in her hands than necessary. So she kept her crew small and the shares healthy. Besides Dell, she had a Castori engineer named Uvinsi (she always called him “Teddy,” though, which annoyed him no end) and a Zangali medic named Aruth Salaban who had to wear comically huge nanite gloves to avoid clawing his patients to death during routine exams. And, of course, there was the Hiver. No one knew its real name, just the assigned moniker of Chaplin. The transdimensional keeper and militant operator of the ship’s OtherSpace Drive.
Jaime enjoyed the soothing predictability of salvage work, the routine geometry, the –
“Damn! Cap, abort! Abort! Abort!”
She wanted to ask why as her vitals spiked again, but knew better than to waste time or ox on something she’d know in seconds. Jaime shut off the cutter, deactivated the boots, drifted back to the starry gap and found her tether. The triple prongs of a Nall warship – one of the Lebal-class destroyers – cruised overhead as she hustled as best she could in zero-g to the waiting airlock of the Andalusia.
Not the kind of present she wanted for her birthday.
The plasma weapon batteries aboard the destroyer unloaded in the direction of the Narwhal and poor Jake Borringer’s doomed freighter. The Nixon never had time to raise shields, erupting in a short-lived burst of burning oxygen and reactor fuel.
“Tried to warn him,” Dell said.
“Worry about *us* now,” Jaime huffed, closing herself into the airlock. “Plot a course for Tomin Kora.”
Once he knew she was safely aboard, the pilot raised shields, arced away from the Transom, and accelerated toward OtherSpace velocity. The ship’s pale blue-white interior “day shift” lights shifted to blood red warning colors as the alarm klaxon wailed.
“They’ve got a lock,” Dell said.
Jaime closed herself into an EVA suit tube to avoid bouncing around the airlock when the Andalusia inevitably came under fire. She hooked into the ship’s oxygen supply and shifted the suit tanks to reserve mode – just in case. Now that she was aboard again, her HUD dropped her vitals to a secondary window and gave precedence to the ship’s instead.
It wasn’t their first encounter with a Nall warship during salvage runs to the Line of Pain, but Jaime felt certain this was the closest they’d ever come during contact. Hundreds of thousands of kilometers to patrol, and this beast showed up almost exactly where and when the Andalusia and Nixon happened to be working today. She might not be the most experienced scav on the float, but she’d seen enough in her days to be skeptical of anything this coincidental.
If she lived, she’d find out what really happened here.
The Andalusia shuddered, taking two grazing blasts thanks to Dell’s innate knack for bobbing and weaving with Jaime Forward’s favorite – and only – freighter.
She opened a comm channel to engineering: “Chaplin?”
Jaime didn’t like talking to the Il’ri’kamm Hive Mind tendril. She didn’t have much choice, of course: No Hiver, no Drive. If she could settle for life at sublight, dwelling in Sol System for all her days, then she could jettison the bristling black orb in the engineering chamber and bid farewell to Chaplin. But Jaime knew before she turned eighteen that she couldn’t – wouldn’t – settle for a parochial Earther life. So, she suffered the Hiver. The spectral blue mist inside a black rubber sleeve communicated with a vocalizer that sounded like a dozen sopranos hissing in unison. Fortunately, the Hiver kept mostly to itself and seemed as uninterested in conversation as the captain. “I am here,” it replied.
“Activate the drive as soon as…”
The alien interrupted: “Drive activated.”
“We’re clear,” Dell confirmed. “Shields held. No major damage or injuries to report.”
Jaime breathed a sigh of relief. Then, bemused, she realized that the awkward alien overlord she could barely stand just gave her one of the best birthday presents she might ever want. She chuckled and smiled. “Thanks, Chaplin. Good work.”
The Hiver didn’t respond.