Community Event / Creation Shark in the Night

[Some of the fan fic in here inspired me to write a little "moment in time" vignette. :)]

Shark in the Night

It can be an odd feeling to sit alone on the surface of some moon. And by “odd” I don’t mean some sort of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” type of odd. This isn’t about awe. Oh, I am sure that those explorers out in the inky depths of the perpetual night do come across this feeling when setting down on some pristine world never before seen by human eyes. I am not such a soul. I like to putter about the well-traveled or, at least, well surveyed space lanes. Sure, someday I would love to set down on such a world, but that desire is just one of many that can be found on my “red letter days” wishlist that includes such other flights of fancy as “getting out of debt,” “completing every quest in Space Vikings from Pluto,” and “freeing the galaxy from narcissism.” So, no, it was not awe.

It was loneliness.

This is something a lot of dirt pounders and station rats don’t understand. When you are surrounded by large populations on a planet, or even in one of the larger space stations, people are everywhere. You never feel alone. Oh sure, every now and then you might find yourself by your lonesome, such as when the third shift night cycle arrives station-side and the passageways and java joints empty out, but you know deep down that another human being is easily in reach. Not so when you touch down on a largely uninhabited moon. Then, it is just you. For hundreds if not thousands of miles.

This was a realization that occurred to me as I sat in the cockpit of my Asp Scout after touching down on the high metal moon, Suhte B1. I was there to do a quick hack job on a lightly guarded outpost in the middle of the Big Nowhere. I wasn’t really looking for such a job - I wanted to move on from Suhte and its bloody communal politics - but I agreed to take the quick data smash and grab as a favor to an agent who was good to me in the past. It wasn’t a big deal, just a swimming in the rain gig for easy money, so I was happy to help my arch-browed contact at Ballard Survey. Fast scratch is the best scratch for flyboy bindle punks like me.

Off I went. I arrived without incident, and inserted my craft into an orbital glide pattern with little effort. The outpost I was to hit took a bit of scanning to locate - even without an atmosphere to soup things up, the onboard survey gear, a fancy name for a collection of high resolution CCDs and SIGINT antennae, takes time to pinpoint a pinprick outpost on even a small moon like Suhte B1 - but I found it eventually. I carefully, and I like to think surreptitiously, brought my ship down about a kilometer from the isolated base and quickly shut down most systems to minimize my EM profile as an extra precaution. And then I waited.

Waited for what? Well, that’s sort of the point. You never really knew. My smuggler uncle was fond of mumbling “haste is of the devil,” especially when I would get antsy after hours of camping out in some godforsaken asteroid field awaiting a contact. He would look at me, his unshaven face pale from years spent in the black and his breath stinking of cheap EconoStyle Gin that he often rebottled and resold as the good stuff to the slower marks across the galaxy, and say, “You can be fast or you can be smart. Not both.” Then he would take a swig of gin from his ever present zero-G flask, point a finger at me, one with swollen joints from years of gripping a flight stick and throttle, and deliver his favorite line: “Haste is of the devil, boy. Never forget that.” I haven’t.

So I sat there and passed the time by doing some quests in Space Vikings from Pluto while keeping an eye on the station, visible to me in the dim distance thanks to the lack of an atmosphere and my ship being on a slight hill that overlooked the plain on which the station sat. Let me tell you, sitting alone inside a ship on a almost unpopulated moon provides a whole new understanding of the word “quiet.” Suddenly the smallest of sounds have a very real presence of their own: the rumble of a pressure exchanger deep in the hull; assorted chirps and buzzes of various automated systems conversing with each other in some secret machine language; the creak and pop of a hull adjusting to the weight of gravity; and the ever present chill whisper of the environmental system that kept me flush in oxygen and nitrogen. And that is it. It is the type of silence that deafens before long.

At one point I needed to take some footfalls just to reassure myself that I hadn’t gone deaf. I stood from my command chair and made my way back to the small galley behind the command deck bulkhead. When the automated lighting flickered on with miniscule but audible clicks, I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. The galley was always a refuge of sorts to me. I found its small interior comforting, especially the built-in slate blue baguette seating to my left and the countertop, with its tiny population of assorted culinary equipment, along the bulkhead to my right. I particularly enjoyed how the countertop and its equipment was delicately lit from above via some hidden strip lighting that lined the underside of the overhead cabinetry. As I filled a bulb of tea from the automated beverage dispenser, I realized the top-lit galley equipment made a type of ersatz city skyline; an uneven saw tooth profile of a moody city at dawn…or maybe dusk would be more accurate. Even the variously colored LEDs on the equipment furthered the illusion with their lit from within, window-like appearance. I began to wonder who might live there. Probably the same sort of people you found anywhere else. People who rushed to work, to home, to the local pub, but never anywhere important. People who did what they were told, sometimes did what they wanted, and but ultimately did nothing worth remembering. Did they ever glance at “the sky” and wonder about it? Wonder why the heavens were lit? Wonder at the…wonder of it all? Probably not. They just ate, slept, worked, got drunk and occasionally double-crossed each other. Just another bitter little town. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a good probability that at this very moment some poor schlep was making his way home to his apartment, expecting to find his gal there, but finding something else. That discovery would change the city for him, make it unlivable, and force the sap to flee the unrelenting light and seek the solitary darkness of space….

A distant buzzing brought me out of my flight of fancy. I hurried back to the command deck and discovered that my scanner had detected a ship a kilometer or so to the west. I looked in that direction and could see the reflected twinkle of the local dwarf star on its windscreen as it began to move. As I watched, it lifted off in a puff of dust and turned in my general direction. It didn’t take long for the ship, I believed it to be a Sidewinder, to pass overhead. It’s funny: even though the hard vacuum of space prevented it, I thought I could hear the pop-pop-pop of its reaction motors mocking the planet’s weak gravitational pull. Combined with the forward thrust provided by its main engines, the ship was soon a distant winking of running lights in the dark night of space. A moment or two later, the bright flash of frameshift acceleration heralded its faster than light departure for parts unknown.

And I was alone again.

It’s strange how you can get attached to someone you didn’t even know. I had no idea who the fella was. Heck, for all I know he might have shot me on sight if he had detected me. But none of that mattered. All I knew was that for a brief instant I was not isolated on this rock, and that meant something.

All I could do was shrug my shoulders and take another sip of tea. It was during that sip that I noticed it: two skimmer drones were now patrolling the southern edge of the installation. So that was it. That flyboy was probably an itinerant techie sent out here for maintenance on the installation’s security grid. While not guaranteed, this was a darn good sign that the place was largely automated, a not uncommon practice for corps that run multiple small setups, like listening posts and such. Once again, my uncle was right. Waiting paid off as I now knew I only had to worry about two skimmers, and probably not very good ones as they needed maintenance. I drained the last of my tea and entered the hold of my Asp. Ten minutes later I was in my surface reconnaissance vehicle and out on the surface of Suhte B1.

Even in the 34th Century, driving about on an alien moon never feels routine. To be enclosed in that clear plastic cabin that is little more than a portable bubble of air, and to hear the crunch of the alien surface beneath the balloon tires of the vehicle, well, that is something you never get used to. Ever. When you live on a planet that is well-lived, that is, well explored and well surveyed, that conveys a kind of safety that you feel even if you are alone in the middle of a desert. On an alien moon…not so much. Even ones that have major cities on their surfaces, such as Aquinas Landing on Summa 3, are not thoroughly explored in the fashion of the old worlds, such as Sol’s Earth or Alpha Centauri’s 2042 L1. No one has the time or the resources to scour every planetoid even if they decide to build a settlement on it. And if they did commit to doing so, things have a way of changing out here. It’s a big galaxy, one griped by entropy. Unexpected surprises are quite common, and any comprehensive survey would have a short shelf life. Hence, the ever present sense of ancient awe that you might be seeing something no one has ever seen before.

The heebie jeebies are there as well. Even completely alone on a mid-sized ship like my Asp conveys a sense of safety with its reinforced hull, shield banks, and reassuring collection of rumbles, buzzes, and beeps. In a SRV, all you have is a spidery hull, an underpowered defense turret, the ghostly feedback of its limited range surface scanner, and the grating whine of its electric motor. Not much to hold back the terrors of the endless night. It did, however, have a decent heater, something of inestimable value when the outside temperature was 226 K in the sun, that’s -53 degrees F for landlubbers. “Cold” doesn’t quite describe it. I cranked the heater up as I drove across the surface towards the installation. The heated air quickly filled the cabin and wrapped its warm arms around my shoulders. I relaxed a little.



I halted that SRV about half a mile from the installation and deployed my turret. Now came the tricky part, but not too tricky, I soon discovered. My SRV’s basic SIGINT gear scanned the drones and classified the manufacturer as Acme Tech. Bargain bin quality. I should be able to take them if I got my shots off first.

I engaged the SRV’s motor again and slowly crept forward until I found what I was looking for: a low rise that I could use to shield the bulk of my SRV. In the military, they call it a “hull down” position. Out here, we call it “being smart.” I slowly nudged my SRV into position, enjoying the crunch of the moon’s regolith beneath the tires. The bulk of the small rise soon covered the majority of my view from inside the cabin. Perfect. I locked the brake in place and extended the turret mount over the low rise. Then I reached up to remove the SRV’s set of virtual reality goggles from their cradle at the top of the canopy, carefully unfurling their trailing data cable that was plugged into the interface panel above. With one hand I held the goggles over my face while the other hand stretched the securing headgear over and around my head. Once snuggly in place, I hit the activation stud and my vision was quickly filled with what my turret could see. And there they were: two buzzing drones scanning every rock on their perimeter like a bunch of mindless worker bees. Taking a deep breath, I centered the turret’s targeting pip on the nearest drone and slowly squeezed the trigger.

My SRV vibrated with the discharge of the twin cannons, and I saw dual streams of fire lash out and strike one of the drones. Immediately it’s partner reacted to the onslaught and opened fire on me in return. My use of terrain worked as the incoming bolts did little more than raise puffs of dust from the small hill that shielded me. Using muscle memory, my right hand boosted the power to the cannon on the right console and then resumed squeezing the trigger. It only took a few more seconds for the cheap drone to suffer fatal damage and tumble into the regolith. One down.

The second drone had closed the distance to my SRV and boosted itself in altitude so as to fire over the hill and down into me. Hmm, that was a smarter tactic than what I thought its rudimentary AI could handle. My thin SRV shielding began to sizzle and pop as it absorbed the incoming fire. I quickly swung the turret to the second drone and squeezed the trigger again. My bolts impacted on the drone and made it unstable, causing its return fire to miss. Displaying some learning behavior, it began to jink to mess up my aim but it was too little too late. It, too, quickly took the big sleep and tumbled onto the surface after suffering an internal explosion that spilled its electronic guts over the near terrain. Good salvage there.

I exhaled with relief. Remembering my uncle’s maxim, I centered the turret’s camera on the distant outpost and increased the magnification. I waited to see if the combat resulted in any reaction from the outpost. Seconds and then minutes ticked by but the base was quiescent. Just what I thought. Either the outpost was entirely automated, or there was perhaps one or maybe two techs inside who were now probably battening down the hatches and hiding under their desks, desperately hitting a panic button all the while.

I removed the VR goggles and returned them to their cradle. I unlocked the brake and hit the SRV’s thruster stud. A small burst emanated from the twin thrusters set at the middle back of the SRV that briefly lifted me off surface and up and over the hill. When my tires touched ground again I goosed the throttle and took off for the base at a dash.

Before long I was right in the middle of the outpost. The transmission tower with its red painted mast and attached generator could not be missed. While constantly scanning my surroundings looking for signs of trouble, I sidled the SRV up to it. I quickly donned my vacsuit’s helmet and gloves, and depressurized the cabin. Seconds later, I was standing on the sandy surface of Suhte B1 and fighting my vacsuit’s bulky gloves as I tried to attach the interface cord from my dataslate to the transmission tower’s maintenance slot. Using some cracking software I picked up at Vonaburg Collective, I was soon past the off-the-shelf security software and hacking into their comms database. I could hear myself panting inside my vacsuit as the adrenaline hit my bloodstream. Even if nobody was a threat in the base, that didn’t mean a threat wasn’t on the way from someplace else. And no matter how easy this job was, I still was, technically speaking, committing a crime. That sort of realization has a way of messing with your nerves.

The dataslate flashed green. Done! I had the information I needed to fulfil the contract. I quickly yanked the cord from the maintenance panel and loped in the quarter gravity back to my SRV. Barely taking the time to remove my helmet and gloves, I floored the SRV out of the crime scene and headed back to my Scout. Mission accomplished.

***

I made it back to my contact at Ballard Survey with no problems. The hot data was delivered, I wasn’t thrown in stir by the authorities, and I was a few thousands of credits richer. What more could a pilot want? Sadly, the answer to that question still eluded me as I stared into my rye on the rocks. The electro-punk music of the dive I was in did its best to drown out coherent thoughts, but I don’t believe that was the reason for my lack of an answer. Perhaps there was no answer. Perhaps CMDRs like me were like sharks: we needed to keep swimming for no other reason than to stop would be to drown. Keep moving and keep hustling. That was our simple-minded way. Eh, it was a good enough explanation for me. Lone wolves didn’t ever stop to ask why they were lone wolves, they just were.

I felt a tug at my shoulder. I glanced to my right and saw a square-jawed mug impassively looking down at me. He leaned over and said, “The boss has another gig for you.” He jerked his head towards the door, indicating it was time for me to finish my drink. I downed the last of my rye in a single gulp and followed the loogan out of the joint.

Like I said, keep swimming or die. What more reason did I need?
 
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