The Pebble Plains, Bifrost
NeoEx Date: 83.Q2.299NX
Bifrost Date: Sync.314.85
In the warm breeze, 189 metres above the desert floor, the planet seemed peaceful. Sand blew up in spurts from the tops of dunes and rocks, the movement mirrored in slow motion by the flecks of cloud blowing overhead. The desert seemed to swallow the horizon. This was one of the few vantage points on the continent from which no other wrecks were visible.
The Erin Fleece had come to rest in one of the least hospitable places on the planet – right on the edge of the Pebble Plains where the Gelland foothills began to reach up for the sky. The geography eventually topped out where the city of Gelle stood, shunning the outside world, yet fostering violence and blood sport behind its walls. For whatever reason, no other ships had taken the same path to the surface as the Erin Fleece, and the lack of scattered, weathered wreckage almost gave the illusion of normality. The openness of the plains made it almost possible to believe this wretched planet had once represented the hopes and dreams of her entire corporation.
The Witch sat down on the sand-swept hull and leaned her head back against the warm alloy of a gravTuner strut. The three remaining gravTuners on this ship were each the size of her old apartment in Carpen, gigantic spheres of alloy with patterns and shapes that seemed to suggest the alloy had been melted down and allowed to flow within the boundaries of some huge spherical mould. The tuners perched, somewhat unnervingly in this gravity, atop thick, reinforced struts and each was surrounded by control spikes which, though they appeared thin and sharp by comparison, were each as thick as a medium-sized tree trunk. Looking at them up-close, she realised that the gravTuners were also probably cleaner than her old apartment in Carpen. She ran her hand along the smooth, mol-hardened surface of the strut beside her. Sandstorms had stripped the hull back to bare alloy, but hardly scratched the alloy itself. She dusted the build-up of sand from her gauntlet. On reflection, perhaps the ship actually was a touch dirtier than her apartment.
It would almost be a pity to demolish what remained of the Erin Fleece and collapse this half-buried tower of tranquillity. Still, it wasn’t tranquillity she was after – it was revenge. She noted the now pointless NeoEx date on her armour HUD. Five years…it would be five years in less than a syncCycle. She sniffed that it was Sync today. She hadn’t even thought about it.
Drawing in a final breath of peaceful air, she picked herself up and scratched at her sandy scalp beneath the unchecked, sun-bleached hair. The explosion of once-black tangles atop her head was a good part of the reason her moniker had stuck. For nearly three of those five years since the invasion, she had been known only as the Witch. She rather liked it.
She pulled open the service hatch between the three gravTuners and the harmonics control array and calmly dropped inside the ship. Breathing in the hot air of the service tunnel, she pulled the hatch shut behind her. No need to encourage more wildlife to enter the condemned wreck – there were enough blanket spiders in it already. The black-light overlay on her multiFace kicked in automatically as the light from outside was shut out. The overlay provided perfect vision until she either moved too quickly or put her face too close to something for the visDaemon to remain at optimal distance from her retinas. She shimmied down the vertical service tunnel and dropped into a narrow corridor linking the two rear service hatches to the rest of the ship. This corridor was the last easy, horizontal surface she would see until she was close to what was now the bottom of the ship – the crushed mass of what used to be the front.
Climbing carefully, she wound her way down the hull structure to the main corridor hatch which was now located in the floor, just above the primary engine cage. The main corridor would take her to the centre of the ship, the main part that had buckled during the impact, enfolding many of the ship’s unfortunate occupants in a deadly alloy embrace. Dark, bloody stains were still visible; appearing to run from the many rends and cracks in the ruined centre section. She scanned again the nooks and weak points around which she had placed the demolition charges. It had not taken long to acquire all of the charges she needed to execute her plan, though it had only been a quarter ago when she had finally stumbled on the perfect wreck.
As she dropped her helmet through the last buckled hatch on its bungie before the floor began to slope more than drop, she considered putting it on. Not counting the time she had spent actually living in the wreck to avoid an enraged grinder crew she had snaked on a salvage find, she had climbed the Erin Fleece top to bottom at least forty times. Whenever she had worn the helmet, its stylised case would always catch on something and more than once it had almost caused her to tumble to her death.
This time you can stay off, you annoying rupter.
She easily jumped across the tops of the metal waves created by a combination of speed and heat as an eighty thousand ton spacecraft collided with a planet. She didn’t have to take this detour, but she felt it would be wrong not to say goodbye to the single greatest find in her career as a scavenger. Even if she was going to blow it up.
The Erin Fleece had been an Astraut military department ship, assigned to Bifrost to keep order among the hundreds of ships from unInc Space and rival corporations present to witness the arrival of the Franz Entity. Based on her contents, she had been deployed with a small compliment of space-capable fighters, atmosphere-capable fighters, land-based combat vehicles and an absurdly large array of what appeared to be mining equipment. The Witch had no idea what it was intended to be used for, but something close to half of the cargo bays were stocked with mobile industrial drills and replacement power cells for them. Most of the equipment was either destroyed or too large to get out of the mangled mess the ship had become. Too large for her by herself at least.
The gorge into which the Erin Fleece had crashed had somehow gathered her up and wrapped her into its own sand and rock embrace such that no one could see her except for blanket spiders and half-starving scavengers willing to ride as far as necessary without adequate supplies to evade the grinders hunting them.
In her scavenging the Witch had ventured as far south as Rock Belly and as far north as the Halian territory border, though she had never ventured this far south-east. When she nearly ran into the hull of the Erin Fleece very late one night, she had stowed Dave in the entry caves and begun looking through the wreck using a low-light overlay so she didn’t attract attention through the gaps in the hull. When she finally realised the value of what she had found, she was almost glad the Overseers crew had cashed her for nearly two hundred kilometres. It ended up being the second most valuable find she’d ever had. It would have been the most valuable if she hadn’t needed so much of the loot intact to entice the Beedies into coming to see it.
In her day, the Erin Fleece was an advanced rapid-deployment ship, equipped to take on a central role in the short-term defence of a corporate planet, but those days had been behind her even before she was sent on what became her final mission to Bifrost.
The Witch stopped to check again the cargo section, piled high with military vehicles, weapons, armour, mining equipment and a few more bodies, all remarkably untouched for nearly five years. She caught sight of a blanket spider crawling amongst the mess, its sand-covered blanket of web dangling grotesquely from its back. An involuntary shiver ran down her spine.
Blankets did love wrecks.
Though they were not usually deadly, blankets were disturbingly large spiders – around the size of a dinner plate – and tended to be aggressive when threatened. Though a blanket spider had no chance of penetrating her NeoEx-grade carapace, their fangs had been known to penetrate some types of low-grade flex armour and the effects of the venom were quick and unpleasant. Generally it involved a slowing of the body’s functions – muscles; thought; digestion and the most excruciating non-fatal headache imaginable. This was usually followed by around nine hours of vomiting. The Witch had first-hand experience with a blanket spider bite and she had no intention of returning for seconds. She moved on quickly toward the cargo hold from which a hole torn in the hull had been half-buried in the canyon wall and formed the only entry and exit point.
Below the cargo hold there was little of the Erin Fleece left and certainly nothing easily accessible. She had still not determined whether the entry cave was actually a cave or a part of the ship which had been bent out from the hull during impact. The Witch clambered down to the last hatch and dropped her helmet through on its bungie. This time, for the first time in ages, the bungie snapped.
‘Rupt,’ she cursed as her helmet clattered to the dirt floor below.
She shook her head and swung her legs through the hatch, dropping easily to the dirt.
It was only then she saw the grinders. And their weapons. As they turned and aimed in her direction.
‘What’s with the noise?’ she heard an all too familiar voice yell.
‘Hello, boys,’ she said, forcing a smile. ‘Happy Sync.’
There were three of them she could see and each had her cold – rifles levelled and, quite unlike herself, helmets on. There was at least one more, but was that all? She needed to know exact numbers before she started making plans.
‘Don’t even try it, Witch,’ barked one of the three in front of her, his helmet speaker distorting at the high volume he’d set.
The Witch raised her hands, having just finished engaging her combat overlays. She had nearly engaged her softCombat suite, but every grinder knew what dancing fingers meant and these guys were not the “second chance” sort for grinders. These were Overseers. The same grinder crew who had been chasing her when she originally found the Erin Fleece wreck three months ago. Two of the Overseers in front of her she didn’t recognise, though she knew one of them: Bander. And she knew the insignia each of them bore, an evil eye stencilled on their armour over the flat spots where the corporate logo had been ground off.
‘Of course it had to be you,’ said the familiar voice, sounding very pleased.
An Overseer in heavy armour stepped from behind a wonky stack of shipping crates.
‘Strangely exactly what I was thinking, Tark,’ she threw back.
More so even than the average grinder crew, these Overseers had let their weapons and equipment go to eff. The standard-issue Military Department HAD-A16 armour was so well designed that there was an entire fetish dedicated to the sexual worship of people wearing it. Troops from rival corporations derisively referred to Astraut Corporation’s troops as “models” because of their armours’ stylised sensuality. And yet, armour which had once been the pride of the Astraut Corporation had been left to rot where it now hung – literally in places – off these prideless bullies. Most of them had half-coverage with their armour at best, one shoulder plate and a full sleeve with nothing on the other side or two shoulder plates and gauntlets with nothing else in between and all of it held together by torn, rotting fibres of what had once been synFlex.
Tark moved across to cover the only avenue she still had to run for cover. He may have been scum, but Tark was no idiot.
‘But you know – this is actually good luck.’ Tark commented to the air.
‘Yeah? How?’ asked the Witch.
‘Well if it’d been Mullen or Aisie I might have had to split this haul.’
The Witch just laughed. It was total effLeak – Tark would’ve killed anyone he found in here. Tark joined in with the Witch’s laughter for a moment, then abruptly stopped. She could sense the smile slithering across his face despite the helmet and persAt mask which hid his mouth. His eyes said everything.
‘Oh I’m not going to kill you.’ He breathed. ‘Not yet.’
Of course you’re not.
The Witch knew exactly the kind of human being Tark was. She saw the other Overseers relax their postures, taking their fingers off their triggers just enough. She dropped to a crouch, then jumped for the hatch in the ceiling, several metres above, but misjudged it and had to slap the ceiling to prevent having her head splattered across it. Plasma shapes tore into the shipping containers behind where she had been standing and she landed just a metre or so from where she had first dropped. Sprinting immediately, she aimed for the Overseer between herself and what she knew was a mess of supply containers and person-sized gaps. She lunged and snapped a fist into the Overseer’s chest either breaking several ribs or killing him, then threw herself behind a stack of crates as the plasma fire continued in a panic. How she loved what synFlex armour muscles allowed her to do.
She could hear pained cry from the open area and she took a moment to engage her combat overlays before skirting the cargo section hull and crouching into a shadowed nook beside a support girder. It occurred to her then that with the possible exception of Tark, the Overseers could not see nearly as well as she could – combat overlays such as the one she used were rare, very expensive and required a decent kit of armour-based sensors.
The Overseers had started yelling over each other trying to make a plan.
‘It’s just the Witch,’ roared Tark at close-to full amplification, causing her ears to ring for several seconds.
She flicked her helmet bungie to put on her helmet, but the bungie was empty.
Of course it was empty. A helmet would make taking on four angry grinders too easy!
From her overlay she could see Tark stooped over the Overseer she’d hit.
‘He’ll live,’ the Overseer commander grunted. ‘Now light this place up and kill that rupting bitch.’
Two lumDaemons were lit and thrown by the Overseers, bathing the twisted cave with light, yet also casting deep shadows. The Witch was crouched conveniently in a heavily shadowed corner. Her black-light overlay had switched to a combo-low-light automatically. Her own armour was HAD-A16 – the same model most of the Overseers were wearing, but she had always spent the time maintaining her armour, so aside from a faulting persAt, hers was in pristine condition. Given the time and energy spent maintaining it, to be exposed without a helmet facing a half-armoured rabble like these nuffies was galling. She unstrapped her rifle and lay it gently in the dirt, then brushed her fingers past her three pistols out of habit, just to make sure they were there. One standard-issue Astraut HAD-P9 on her left hip and one P9 under her left breastplate and a Ryusei Corp Phoenix Alpha on her right hip. All reported ammo full.
A rifle would be useless in these cramped conditions. Her Phoenix was something of a comfort item these days given the hours she had spent converting it to fire Astraut plasma shapes. It was also the only one of her pistols capable of penetrating any part of a suit of heavy armour. She drew the Phoenix and her left hip P9.
The Witch picked up a few softCombat attempts to breach her multiFace security and her armour’s remote layers. She watched as the threats were neutralised by her softCombat suite.
The Overseers would have to try harder than that.
Of course waiting in the corner for the Overseers to find her would be suicide – there was no room to move between the crates and without a helmet, one shot could be the end of her. She stepped lightly toward the edge of the crates allowing her combat routines to scan simultaneously for movement, heat, heartbeats, tech signatures and condensation. The overlay told her there were two more Overseers in addition of the ones she had already seen. She could see two shaky, patchwork silhouettes moving to flank her from the right, and two more to the left. One was guarding the exit. None of them had a shot. For a moment she was back in the WarSports arena, alone facing a team of six opponents in the Derelict event. The Derelict had always been her pet event. She mouthed her pre-event mantra silently to herself.
The pieces are perfectly placed. I see them. They see defeat. I have two shots for each and one for luck.
Just as she had done in every combat since her first WarSports training session, the Witch calmed herself with structured breathing. Then she smiled. This was the first time in a long while she had felt totally at home in a combat situation. Out on the Pebble Plains, in the maze of back-alleys in Gelle or in the wide coastal streets of Hanniver, she had always felt exposed, out of place, but here in this constricted cage, she felt right at home.
The two Overseers flanking from the right were well spaced which made it difficult to attack them without being shot, but the two to the left were too far apart. Either untrained or just stupid. She could take the team to her left one at a time.
She bolted from cover, keeping her armoured feet as light as possible and delivering a swift kick to the faceplate of the Overseer who still sat in the open space between the crates. She made sure he would not get up this time. Breaking right and increasing her speed, she tucked in her arm and drove her shoulder into the pile of crates which currently split the two well-spaced Overseers. The sharp cacophony of spilling alloy boxes broke the silence in the storage hold, and echoed from the walls. Amidst the clatter she heard someone give a pained grunt. She smiled. A grunt were usually more severe than swearing. Glancing up to ensure no crates were headed her way, she sensed something behind her and she spun and raised her Phoenix. She immediately spotted an Overseer lifting his rifle from between crates on the other side of the hold. She dropped to her knee as shapes sizzled over her unprotected head and she squeezed both pistol’s triggers. Her first shot tore into his shoulder, but he died with a shape to the neck. Two shots, her Master had taught her – two shots every time.
The open was no place for her now, so she swung and slipped as quietly as she could between the piled crates, scanning for the remaining Overseers. She found one unconscious amidst the mess of bent crates, blood dripping steadily from his un-armoured head. The other Overseer which had been flanking her from the right had scanned as unarmoured, but she noted the tech signature of his weapons was masked. Now there was no silhouette at all. This was bad. It was then she noticed the softCombat alert in her feed. Someone had overcome her softCombat suite.
Ducking into some light cover, she opened her suite of counterMeasures apps. She needed something quickly or her armour would stop responding. Every counterMeasure had its up-side and down-side. She opened up one of her many illegal apps and configured it to seek and destroy mode. The app was designed to latch onto any process launched from an external source, trace back to the originating system and begin consuming resources until the remote system ground to a halt. The app was amusingly called Hungry Asshole.
Once she was satisfied that any softCombat attackers would be dealt with, the Witch checked her rear again and saw a huge suit of heavy armour charging toward her. She had received no warning from her sensors – this one’s armour probably had some sort of counter-scanning. She ducked a clumsy punch at her head which would certainly have killed her if it had connected, then she rolled away and drew her pistols again, firing both as she came up facing her attacker. Her aim was shaken by the surprise attack and her shots just bounced off the Overseer’s thick armour plates. Then she recognised the heavy armour sprayed with a mottle of green, grey and black.
It was Tark.
Tark’s armour may have been filthy and poorly-maintained, but it was complete and heavy, designed to take hits from portable heavy weapons. Her two pistols suddenly felt like children’s toys in her hands. The Witch held her triggers steady, her P9 was useless, but the Phoenix used a narrow Q-Tunnel for improved armour piercing, so there was a chance she could take him down with it….if she hit him in the neck where she could see ageing synFlex exposed.
Tark narrowed his eyes. She could tell he was smiling again.
‘You don’t want to shoot old Tark, do you?’ he posed.
On her 360° render he saw two more Overseers behind her, moving into a firing position. She dived to the side as their shapes hit the crates beside where she had been and some of them spacked into Tark himself. She pulled the trigger on her Phoenix as she hit the floor, then scrambled to her feet and ran for a gap in the stacked crates.
There were at least three Overseers still standing not including Tark. One was still guarding the exit and one seemed to be panicked, moving up and back the same row of crates. Tark had disappeared from her overlay again. She engaged combat audio analytics on her overlay despite their limited usefulness in a high-echo area. As she chanced a glance into the open area near the hatch in the ceiling, she noticed her helmet laying undisturbed. She calmed herself with breathing and tried to think like the enemy. They would expect her to go for her helmet. The shadowy form of an audio render made her turn to look to her right, only to see nothing but shipping crates. She jumped and clambered up the steep slope of one of the many fallen crate piles, trying to get as close to the ceiling as possible. With the ceiling at her back, she could comfortably ignore her rear and plan her escape. If only there were a stack high enough closer to the hatch. For a moment she felt a pang of regret for being lazy when she had re-stacked the mess of crates she had found in the cave. There was only one way out of the Erin Fleece which didn’t involve a 180-metre fall and that was through the split in the hull which lay on the other side of the Overseers. Even if she made it to the cave on the other side of the split, she was not likely to get away clean and there was no hope of rescue. She had friends and trading partners, but no allies that she could truly count on. She had to take all of the Overseers down herself.
‘You know you’ll have to kill us all,’ Tark announced, reinforcing her own thoughts.
Whatever overlays they were using, they still couldn’t see her. The masking routines on her armour were obviously working a treat. The panicked Overseer had calmed down and was now standing at the edge of the open area, likely having been ordered to wait for her to take her helmet. Ghosts of Tark’s armour flashed around the place sporadically.
Time to move.
Sliding down the crates, she hit the ground running and slipped behind the Overseer who was looking at her helmet. He spun as he heard her and lined her up, but she stepped beside his rifle as he fired. Her P9 did its job quick.
Two to go.
She ran toward the exit, anticipating the sentry would be getting bored and sloppy. She rounded the corner, pistols levelled, ready to take down the sentry when she ran full into something with her face and suddenly she saw the ceiling above her. Rolling quickly, she felt a sharp pain across her left cheek and she began to inexplicably lose focus in her left eye. Something was in her eye. She tried to stand, but the ground was rotating.
Why was the ground rotating?
‘Just stay seated, little Witch,’ patronised a distant voice. ‘This is about as comfortable as it’s gonna get from here on.’
As some level of cognition began to return she realised she was staring right at Tark’s heavy-armoured boot. The Overseer boss kicked her in the side as a thick, oily laugh boomed from his speakers.
‘Nah, leave him and come and get her weapons,’ she heard Tark tell the others. ‘Think we’ll stay the night here seeing as how we’ve got such fine company. Figure we need to start repayments on that find she stole.’
As Tark laughed, the Witch slapped the floor in anger as much as to get a grip on where it actually was, the cave still spinning around her. She was not going to be a grinder play toy. She dragged her knees under her and started sucking in steady, long breaths trying to concentrate on Tark’s boots.
‘I didn’t steal anything,’ she croaked. She had so wanted her voice to be strong and loud, but it was breaking badly. ‘Your crew mates pushed in on my find. I found it first.’
‘That’s not how we see it. And now we’re gonna take all of your gear and all of your food.’
‘I don’t have any food. Maybe one ration pack.’
She saw Tark’s shadow loom larger as he leaned down as far as his armour would allow him.
‘Oh I don’t think you quite grasp how hungry folks get out in the Plains. There’s plenty o’ meat inside that armour of yours.’
The Overseers started talking and joking amongst themselves when the Witch noticed something large crawling on Tark’s right boot. The Witch scrambled her hands around and picked up a rock, hurling it at the blanket spider to try to make it angry. She missed.
Tark laughed again, harder this time, while he stomped his feet with glee.
‘Oh it’s a BLANKET! You’re thinking it’s gonna get me is it? Not through this armour, bitch.’
He reached down with the slow purpose of heavy armour and crushed blanket spider in his armoured fist. The Witch scrambled to her feet and charged at the still-laughing Overseer, trying to run to her left a little to compensate for the way the ground was rocking. She hit him and nearly glanced off, but grappled with him as he tried to straighten up. Tark snorted and surged to a standing position, throwing her easily over his back. She spun through the air into a pile of scattered crates.
‘Never give up, do you, Witch?’
‘Nope,’ she said with a bloody spit.
Then a lockBuster charge exploded on the Overseer’s back.
Tark was thrown forward and he toppled awkwardly to the floor. A smoking hole the size of a football in the back of his armour began to spill blood down his alloy sides toward the dirt. The Witch stepped with a single purpose toward the exit, Phoenix levelled at the sentry’s face. The Overseer froze, then threw down his rifle.
It took nearly thirty minutes to gather the cables to tie up the surviving Overseers due to her left eye being swollen shut and the constant presence – and yammering – of her new best friend, the young Overseer sentry.
‘You know my name’s Nils,’ he kept repeating. ‘If I die, please tell my wife.’
‘Look,’ she told him finally. ‘Quite aside from the fact that you were standing guard while your boss was threatening to carve me up and eat me, if I kill you it will be because you keep saying that.’
‘No! I’d never eat anyone.’
He also kept saying that.
‘But you’d let Tark do it without an issue, right?’
‘No, I just…he would have…’
Somehow for the first six times, he paused to think and she’d grit her teeth and try not to shoot him. At least this time he said “no” immediately. Perhaps this one was capable of learning eventually.
But she had no time for eventually, so she gagged him. She tied Nils and his two surviving crewmates to three separate hull supports using some of the heavy-duty alloy cable she usually used to truss together larger crates she was transporting by truck. Finally she retrieved her canteen from outside in the tunnel, sat down and gulped some of the most delicious water she’s ever tasted. It still didn’t compare to joos, but it was good. Very, very good. What was not good were her plans which were now buried deep in the eff.
She recovered her helmet finally put it on. With the Overseers secure, she could move outside, find their vehicles, sabotage them and strip them for the two or three useful parts they would have. She composed a hasty, excited note and patched it onto the fringeNet, less than subtly detailing where the Erin Fleece was and what was in it. She used a crypt she knew the Overseers used to use before the Beedies had decrypted it. The first Beedie scout to move within a few clicks would pick up the note and there would be a salvage crew on the way to the Erin Fleece within less than a day. She hoped. Because after this little encounter, her years of planning were about to come to a huge pile of nothing.
She spent forty minutes outside the Erin Fleece, until well after sunset, giving the bound and gagged Overseers plenty of time to free themselves. It had also given her plenty of time to deal with her concussion. She had thrown up four times since Tark had king-hit her and smashed her cheekbone with the butt of his rifle. Fortunately she had restocked her dwindling supplies from the Erin Fleece’s medical units and the anaesthetic packs stuck to her forehead and her left cheek made her feel much better. When she quietly stepped back into the cargo hold she found three very tired and very frustrated prisoners. It was exactly what she had hoped to find and made the decision to leave easy.
She removed the desert scrub with which she had concealed Dave, her long-suffering HAV, and packed away the parts she had stolen from the Overseers in his rather empty stowage compartments. Sitting astride Dave always made her feel at home, despite the fact that she had cut the ruined top shell off him when she had first found him. She started him up.
She had a long ride and a sleepless night ahead.