The Limitless Dark: Chapter One

1. Sly as foxtrot


In the limitless darkness of space there is no sound. The sleek spacecraft painted in shades of grey and black made no noise at all as its main engine sent a plume of pale blue exhaust trailing out into the endless night behind it. Nor did the humming of electronic systems or the shifting of expansion joints send a ripple of sound out through the vacuum. Dead quiet.

In that cold silence shone a million pinpricks of light. Distant galaxies and hazy swirling clouds of plasma added color to an otherwise endless, bleak, and empty void. The stars sparkled in a multitude of  shades of cool blue, yellow, and orange. And then, in a corner of the horizon that quickened into darkness without warning, two new lights appeared. If you could have seen them, they would have looked like bright orange-red halos, accelerating towards the silent craft. They looked like rings of fire, and that's precisely what they were. The scorching red of rocket propellant driving high-explosive AGM-7T missiles directly towards the observer. In space, you don't often see death coming, but when you see those rings getting closer, brighter and bigger... it's usually time to say your prayers.

Within the hard metal body of the unwitting craft slept a man. No ordinary soul this, he was out in this gods-forsaken corner of the universe for a reason. Maybe the best reason, if you asked him: money, and lots of it. Enough that someone might come looking for him. Way out here in the middle of nowhere. And that someone might be inclined to fire off a missile or two, and try to take that precious cargo for themselves.

The man's slumber is interrupted by a cacophony of sound and motion, sickening to the stomach as he blinks his eyes into the red emergency light. The jumble of noise and movement coalesces into a primal sort of fear. Of waking to a danger as yet unseen and unknown. This must be how ancient mariners felt when a sudden storm caught them unawares in the darkness of night, and they struggled against the merciless force of the ocean, pushing and heaving their tiny craft like a leaf in a swirling river.

           Only there was no water here, just the vast emptiness of space - or what should have been empty vastness. And there were no waves to buffet the ship, only thrusters pushing the craft beyond the limits of gravimetric control as it took action to move out of the path of an impending explosion. There too was no lashing of wind and rain against the sails, but splinters of hot sharp metal hitting the hull with a staccato rhythm as the warning klaxon wailed and red emergency lights blinked on and off. And there were no screams of frightened sailors, but there was plenty of noise all the same from sensors and sub-modules and self-preservation subroutines. Above it all, the shipboard computer was droning on and on. Quite annoyingly actually. A litany of potential actions, status updates and what might pass for genuine concern, had it not been coming from an artificial intelligence. Besides, as far as he had known, he was all alone out there. Up until now, anyways.

           He reacted as quickly as experience allowed, and he willed that it would be enough. There wasn't time for second guessing. As he struggled to his feet, the floor angled now at twenty degrees and getting steeper, he yelled out to the shipboard computer:

           'Arc! Pattern Delta, accelerate, alarm state quiet! Status, priority!'

           The A.I. began executing Pattern Delta immediately and he was ready for it, grabbing hold of a handrail and trying to worm his way into the pilot's seat as the craft banked sharply left and up, sending his stomach somewhere into the rear cargo hold. The deafening alarm was silenced, but a sea of red and amber illuminating the heads up display was beginning to tell him plenty about the current situation. None of it was very good. Meanwhile, the artificial intelligence that controlled the ship and was his constant companion began her status report in what he felt was an unnecessarily calm voice.

'Unidentified hostile contact. Remora Class Cruiser. Incoming long-range missiles, hostile is attempting to close distance into energy weapon range. Evade and escape sixty point nine seven percent likely. Return contact, not advised. Suggest Mike Foxtrot Echo - Full Full' The female A.I. voice said as another explosion was peppering the hull with what he hoped weren't lethal crackling noises.

So much for an uneventful smuggling run' 'Mike Foxtrot Echo - Full Full acknowledged, just get us out of here!' he cried hoarsely.

A number of things happened simultaneously. He was immediately pushed back into his seat as the ship accelerated at full thrust away from the pursuing craft. The onboard computer shot out three decoys, whose own thrusters would take them on different paths away from his unknown pursuers, providing tempting targets for the missiles. The electronic countermeasures aboard both the ship along with the decoys attempted to confuse the targeting systems of the Remora Cruiser and the volley of missiles that it persisted in continuing to fire in the general direction of the ship. His pursuers made a classic mistake though, and started firing their weapons from maximum range. Maximum range is the least lethal... but being unable to sneak up, in such a large and clumsy craft, tends to limit one's options. So most probably not pirates. Pirates are smarter than that, and pirates might have already disabled his ship and jettisoned him out into space. Maybe.

As it was, there were few craft more nimble, more adept at escaping danger, and faster than his sleek grey Kestrel. Should he try to double back? Send a shot or two up their tailpipe and see how they liked it? Find out who they were? What they wanted?

Not much point he figured. He had enemies and competitors enough, and outer space was a decidedly unfriendly place. Too few resources, and it's always easier to take what you need by force than earn it. There were times when Fox had to borrow things himself. Sure, he would pay a fair price when a fair price was offered, but those other times he would just have to help himself. Morality was different out here, you had to get by with what you had and sometimes a little bit extra on the side. He tried to keep things above-board as much as possible but a lot of his contracts had involved criminal elements and other unsavory types. He didn't feel any remorse about helping himself to things they didn't need anymore either.

As the Kestrel powered ahead, the red missile warnings faded to orange, and with luck would eventually wink out entirely. For the moment they were still menacing enough.  He couldn't exactly bail out if the going got too rough. He was in deep space, meaning there wasn't anyone around to help him out. And even if they were, you couldn't assume they were friendly.

'Let's put a little extra into the engines if we can.' he murmured, eyeing a warning symbol here, and turning off a redundant sub-system there, all to get a little more power to the engines.

'Acknowledged.' replied Arc.

The Remora couldn't hope to keep up and would lose missile lock soon. Already they were beyond effective range. Arc would have detected the original target-lock immediately, and she would have done five hundred different things all in just a few milliseconds to make sure he wasn't roasted alive. To save her own bacon as well? Do A.I.s have bacon? He was still asleep in those crucial milliseconds when she first took life saving action. It didn't matter now, but because of Arc's quick thinking, he was already well on the road to survival by the time the ship was turning and blaring out alarms. The control of the ship was almost exclusively automatic, though the man was an excellent pilot in those rare times when he had to go 'manual'. The truth was that by the time he would have executed all of the complicated manoeuvres and started deploying drones and countermeasures he would probably have already been vaporized or worse. It had been a moderately dangerous situation, even though Arc sailed through it, and a lesser craft, or a large cargo vessel would have been destroyed or boarded by now. He was glad to have her help.

'Status and damage report please.' He said, as his adrenaline levels started to ebb.

'Hostile out of effective engagement range. Remains in pursuit but is currently losing ground at three hundred and twenty three meters per second and rising. Current range, twenty-two point four kilometers. Engaging stealth drive and moving to new vector at twenty-five k, mark. Kinetic shielding at sixty four percent, stable. One hour, twenty - recover. Superficial hull damage from multiple small impacts. Cargo bay three has suffered a small breach, but was already unpressurized. Bulkheads secure. Recommend repairs at Steeple Station. Life support and critical systems remain stable. Ship systems are functional. You're welcome Fox.'

'I was saving the praise for later.' he drawled. Steeple Station. That's where they were headed.  What a joke. He wished she would call it the Heap, like everybody else. The lights dimmed and a soft hum reverberated through the ship as it began a gentle turn to the new vector and the cloaking system engaged.

'New vector zero-twenty-nine by one-eighty-two by five. All quiet' she piped up.

'All right, thanks Arc. It's time to change my shorts' that was one hell of a wake-up call. Send the ship's systems my regards for their quick thinking.' he said with a smirk as he got up and moved towards the ladder that led down to the crew quarters.

Some ships have lots of space, mountains of it. In space you generally build big when you can, especially if you're hauling cargo or don't need to go atmospheric. The Kestrel was small by many standards, but packed a lot of sophisticated tech, and had three small cargo holds. There was a smaller, fourth cargo hold, but that didn't appear on any schematics. The passages between compartments were tight, but not uncomfortably so. Dingy and a bit beat up here and there, but not terribly. And the ship was fast, and finicky, and it was his. Sometimes that's all that really matters. It was also his home. An octagonal iris hatch led down off an alcove from the central corridor. He climbed down the ladder to the lower level and a nearly identical but much shorter corridor. The galley was forward, medical bay aft, ships stores to either side of the ladder alcove and crew cabin across.

'Hostile contact still searching, but in the wrong sector now. Everything is five by five.' Arc said sweetly as he crossed the corridor.

He walked into the cabin, unzipping his black jacket and flinging it across a chair that was still where he left it despite all the action with the Remora. If you want things to stay put in space, generally you put magnets on the bottom of them, or something similarly sticky. Otherwise the room is left in total disarray, and the artificial gravity is real enough to throw all your possessions around when things go pear shaped. It wasn't too neat in there to begin with.

He took a quick left and through an automatic door into the WC. Looking at himself in the mirror, he tried to recall how many scrapes, scuffles and outright battles had led to his present condition. The face that looked back at him was a bit haggard he thought, but handsome. Mostly free of scars and blemishes. He shaved only once a week and he had a thick stubble that he rubbed absentmindedly as he looked at his reflection. His eyes were amber, golden, beneath a thick mop of medium long brown hair that touched his shoulders and looked almost red in some kinds of light. A crooked smile. A faint scar angled across his forehead, covered by his hair usually, except when he swept it back as he did now, and bared his relatively straight teeth.

'Very ferocious and handsome.' Arc. She had some sense of humour when she wasn't in battle mode.

'That's right Arc, soak it all in.' he replied.

'Don't tempt me, handsome.'

He was built solidly, but on the lean side, like an animal that lives by its wits. As he lived. His body was not free from scars - it was smattered here and there by the occasional jagged line, pock mark from a puncture wound, above his hip a little rippled where once he was burned badly. He was fit, for a spacer, and probably for a 'sider as well. Planetsiders usually had better access to food, and the stable gravity down there tended to bulk them up a bit. Even so, he was on the lean side of muscular. Not a lot of body fat. His diet consisted mainly of protein bars and military style rations. They were convenient and he didn't usually have much inclination to cook a fancy meal. When they docked in spaceports or visited planets, he would sample the local cuisine from time to time, but overall it was best avoided. Nobody ever got a parasite from a protein bar. Not the good ones at any rate.

At present he felt a bit stretched, like an elastic band that had been re-used one too many times. He was still groggy from sleep now that the adrenaline had begun to wear off. As he stepped into the shower cubicle he mulled over the possible identity of his mysterious attacker. There were plenty enough to choose from.

He doubted it was one of the corporations. They would have shown up with a dozen ships and twice as many bureaucrats and commanding officers. They would have hailed him for sure. Told him to stand down and prepare for boarding, and all that nonsense. Your typical space-corporation didn't do anything in a hurry. The egg-heads back at the home office would have to make any number of calculations before they determined the 'right' course of action. Usually any requests would travel through a hundred different arcane departments before getting financial sign-off and the go-ahead. The corporate types had it easy, sitting in cushioned chairs behind their bleak and soulless desks.

Same went for the Governance, only they would have a greater ratio of commanders to ships than the corporations. They would as likely have talked him to death as shot at him. The Governance was made up of a conglomerate of planetary politicians, apparatchiks, corporate interests and lobbyists. They would never be around when you needed them and only got in your way when you didn't. They always made sure to collect all the appropriate duties and taxes as soon as your landing pads touched down almost anywhere. Fox could feel the credits draining from his account already. It was always best to do things under the table if you could, there were enough scoundrels around trying to take their cut anyway.

Pirates were equally unlikely; they would have also travelled in packs. A pirate would have tried closing rapidly to killing range and sent some warning shots before they made ready to disable his engines and jump drive. Arc would have picked them up just as easily as the galactic authorities. Generally speaking they weren't much for finesse. He had dealt with pirates before. Besides, he wasn't on a major shipping route and had taken great care to avoid any of the more commonly travelled subspace lanes.

Mercenaries? They too usually travelled with more ships, a fast attack fighter craft or two would have been thrown into the mix and it would have been much harder for him to escape. Mercenaries came in all shapes and sizes; from smaller outfits all the way up to full armies that commanded their own private fleets. It was a big business all in itself. There were plenty of conflicts going on across the galaxy at any one time. Insurgencies, coups, you name it. As long as you didn't stray too far outside the bounds of legality you could hire ten mercs for a penny. Sometimes it didn't even matter if it was legal. The Governance and the corporations were their main customers along with the occasional despot and has-been monarch.

That didn't leave too many options. Was the attack a warning of some kind? A novice privateer, just getting into the game, who saw him as easy pickings? Bounty hunters? Bounty hunters were a possibility. Usually they were lone wolves that would have jumped at the chance to make a quick buck by bagging a Fox. He had enemies enough and surely there were bound to be some small bounties on his head. There had been some in the past. One-on-one, he could deal with a bounty hunter, as he had many times before. Like the pirates, bounty hunters had a darwinian selection process. There was little they could achieve through legal or strictly peaceful means so they tended to be more creative with their approach to things.

He had to write this off as an amateur or opportunist until he knew more. If there even was a bounty. If it was high enough... He might be in real trouble. Among all of the outlaws and hunters and cold-blooded killers there was a group of bounty hunters that were universally feared and despised. The Five. He was glad it wasn't them.

There wasn't a more ruthless bunch in any arm of the known galaxy. They hunted for the Governance, the corporations, and free interests alike. Charging extraordinary amounts of credits, they always got their prey in the end. Nobody who had ever crossed them had lived to tell the tale. There were plenty of tales all the same, and none of them would warm your heart, of that I can assure you. He had never met the Five and he hoped that he never would. Five hunters, five unique ships with which they relentlessly pursued their quarry anywhere they dared to hide. Every attack computer worth its salt had their basic signatures in its targeting and sensor array. You would always know who was coming and that you were about to be captured or, more likely, killed. Details of their ship's specific configurations were few and far between. There was plenty of speculation and local legend though. Enough that you might decide to turn yourself in if you felt that they were coming for you. But it wasn't them. Not this time.

So that left few options. A lone wolf or opportunist were the most likely explanations. No matter, they wouldn't be able to follow his complicated navigation course that was designed to leave a misleading jump signature. Let them try to come after him. There's nobody quite as sly as a Fox.