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Salvage Rat – Excerpt

by Larry N. Martin

Chapter One

 

Gunshots went with the territory, no matter how much Wyatt intended to avoid trouble. But here and now? This was not part of the plan.

Space salvage was not for the timid or those with a tender conscience. Wyatt was neither. When the first shot sizzled past his shoulder, he had nearly pried out the last of the electronic panels he had come for, panels that were worth more for the rare metals in their components than for their long-outdated tech.

He dove for cover at the next junction in the corridor and wondered how anyone knew he was on the old, abandoned mining colony. No one else was supposed to be there, let alone be shooting at him. He had scanned the place thoroughly. They must have come in after he’d already entered the mining base.

Then he realized that for once, the shooters weren’t after him.

They were shooting at a woman who appeared to be running for her life. She tore past him without a glance, and he noticed her civilian jumpsuit and lack of weapons.

In that split-second, Wyatt’s battle instincts kicked in, just as a pack of six security men in gray uniforms raced down the corridor with guns drawn. Part of him knew he should stay out of it, that it wasn’t his fight, let alone a fair fight. He knew it, but he leaned around the corner, aimed, and shot anyhow.

“Dammit! She’s got back-up!” one of the Grays swore as Wyatt’s shots clipped three of them before they got a bead on where he was. Outside, those would have been kill shots, since “winging” someone in a pressure suit was as good as putting a bullet through their head. But he had coaxed the old mine’s main gravity and air recycler to working again. With only emergency lighting operational, the corridors had deep shadows.

“Requesting more men,” the Gray spoke into his link as the others opened fire from where they’d taken positions at the next cross-corridor. One of the shots barely missed Wyatt’s ear.

“Screw that,” Wyatt muttered, getting in a couple more shots to pin down the Grays and then running like hell as he followed the path the woman had taken. He took the next right and headed down a long hallway with doors on both sides. Probably the offices for the old mining colony, he thought. Wyatt picked a door and dove into the darkness seconds before he heard the Grays clear the corner. The security guards thundered past, and he leaned back against the wall and let out a deep breath.

Definitely not one of my smarter moves. Damn.

“Who the hell are you?” It was a woman’s voice.

Wyatt blinked in the dim glow of the emergency low-level lighting. He wondered briefly if he should feel grateful or cursed that fates had him choose the same hiding spot as the woman. He took a moment to check out his surroundings. The room looked as if the mining bosses had just walked out and left everything behind—furniture, files, even the pictures on the wall. Very likely since it would have cost more than the stuff was worth to ship it home again, Wyatt thought. Which was what brought him to the mine in the first place.

Most of the time, salvage meant boarding derelict ships and recovering anything useful or saleable. But when space stations and colonies started being built, occupied for a short time, and then abandoned and left to rot, the laws were expanded. Even a hundred years out of date, usable stuff in good condition brought good money piecemeal, especially with the homesteaders out on the hardscrabble moons and the Fringe. Enough to keep Wyatt in fuel and supplies for a while.

Vandals and thieves had been picking at the place for a while, though it was off the main trading routes. Wyatt had a map and blueprints he’d picked up from a trader on Gascon—the great-grandson of someone who had worked in the mine’s construction crew. This job was supposed to be an easy in-and-out. Not anymore.

“You’re welcome,” Wyatt said to the figure in the deep shadows. “For shooting at those Grays back there.”

She snorted. “They’ll think we’re together. So instead of just shooting me, they’ll shoot both of us.”

Wyatt could only make out her silhouette, but it looked as if she had a weapon trained on him. He pondered for a moment as he clearly remembered her hands were empty when he saw her pass.

“You didn’t come in with us, and no one else is supposed to be here,” she whispered. “So what are you doing here?”

“Freelance salvage,” Wyatt replied. “This site just crossed into ‘fair use’ status. It’s been abandoned for a century, so I’ve got a right to be here.” Take that. I know my salvage laws, even if I bend them now and again.

“Kalok Enterprises,” she said. “We founded this colony. And you’re wrong. It’s ours for another three months. The clock starts from the Stellar Commission’s license date, not the Interplanetary Mining Guild acquisition date.”

“Details, details,” Wyatt replied. She came here with the people trying to shoot her? So maybe I’ve got what she needs—a way off this rock. Wyatt slowly stepped closer. He kept his left hand away from the gun on his hip and kept the gun in his right hand pointed at the floor.

“That’s close enough. Who are you?”

“Wyatt William McCoy, salvage reclamation specialist. And you are?”

“None of your business.”

“Remember, I have a ship, and you don’t,” Wyatt said. “Want to reconsider?”

She was silent for a moment; her weapon still pointed at his chest. “Oh, what the hell. I’m in deep shit now anyway,” she said finally. “Elizabeth Parker—Beth. I’m with the Space Archeology Department at the University of Ceritan Four, doing a special project for Kalok. Or at least I was,” she added. “Since they’re shooting at me, it probably means I’ve lost the job.”

Wyatt held back the laugh and inched farther to the right while they talked, and whether Beth was aware of it, she mirrored his movement. That meant the emergency light was no longer behind her, and Wyatt could see her better. Short, petite, attractive, with dark hair cut chin-length, perfect for a helmet, late twenties or early thirties, he guessed. Wyatt also got a better look at the “weapon” in her hand.

“If you promise not to shoot me with that statue, I promise not to shoot you with my gun.”

Beth rolled her eyes and lowered her arm. “It worked all right in the dark,” she muttered.

“We need to get out of here. They’ll be back. So—why are they shooting at you? Make it quick.” He moved back to the door and put his ear close to listen. He considered calling Nellie to get some recon, but that might alert the Grays to her presence, which was something he definitely wanted to avoid.

Beth glared at him. “How’s this? I found out Kalok engineered the explosion that killed the miners, then let the clean-up crew die rather than pay for transport out of here. Cheaper for the company that way. Not just here, but on lots of mines and colonies. People died. Kalok covered up. They found out that I found out, and now I think they mean to kill me to keep me from talking.”

Damn. Wyatt thought, turning back to look at her. Given his own experiences and what he knew about the mine, Beth’s story had a good chance of being true. The Comstock mining colony had run out of platitite ore a hundred years ago. The Yellow Jacket mine was the real motherlode in its time but ran its course, and the Yellow Jacket’s end wasn’t a good one. Right about the time the ore veins were running dry, there was a big accident—no one seemed to agree on exactly what happened—and all the miners died. The corporation shut the place down and flew away.

I’ve heard plenty of speculation and rumors about Kalok out in the Rim, but no one ever had proof, Wyatt thought. If she’s telling the truth—if she’s got the goods—this could be huge. We’d just have to live long enough to tell the tale.

“How do you expect to get out of here?” he asked.

“I didn’t think the Kalok people would figure out I was onto them this soon,” she said. “But there’s an old ship near the mag-rail. If it was closed down properly, it might still fly.”

Wyatt raised an eyebrow. “That’s at least two klicks north. If the ship still works and if you could fly it. The odds are not in your favor.”

“My dad was a pilot. He taught me. I can fly it,” Beth replied.

“My ship’s closer and it hasn’t been left to rot for a hundred years. Let’s go.”

“When did this become your business?”

“When they started shooting at me. Besides, you’ve got an important story to tell—and you don’t have a gun.” Wyatt knew from the look on Beth’s face that she disliked the situation, but there wasn’t much room to argue. He also wondered again if he should trust fate because this was either an incredible coincidence or a trap.

“Go where?”

“For now, anywhere besides here,” Wyatt replied, checking the charge on his weapon and the readings on his armored pressure suit, which was deactivated for the moment. “Your boss doesn’t have a way to deactivate your atmo suit, does he? Company property and all that?”

Beth shook her head. “Give me a break. I thought ahead enough to hack the IOT connection, so it isn’t recording, and I removed the tracker and beacon, so it isn’t telling tales.”

He gripped her arm as she moved toward the door and turned her, so she was facing him. “Be clear on this. Kalok is playing for keeps. You’re a threat. So they’ll shoot to kill—and so will I. If you can’t handle that say so now and I’ll leave you on your own.” Wyatt paused. “And if you’re good with it, once we’re out of here, I want the whole story.”

Something hard glittered in Beth’s eyes. “Just keep the corpses to a minimum. Let’s go.”

I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Wyatt thought as eased out of the door, looking in both directions. It was clear, so he signaled for Beth to follow. He had already disabled the mine complex’s internal surveillance cameras along the route back to his ship, just in case.

They’d only made it a short distance when they came to a “T” in the hall. He did a quick check; the Grays were waiting at the next corridor.

Wyatt shot first. The Grays returned fire. One of the blasts almost hit Wyatt in the shoulder. Wyatt’s shot didn’t miss. He may have been a pilot first, but years in combat had ingrained his training, so it was second nature. Wyatt picked off a second Gray, so focused on his target that he didn’t notice the big hole in the wall from the shot that just missed his head. He knew the sound of gunfire would bring more guards, even if they hadn’t already called for backup, but for the moment, the way was clear.

“Come on,” he said in a low voice. Wyatt grabbed the dead Grays’ guns and shoved one into Beth’s hands, then checking charges, slung the other over his shoulder. He glanced at Beth, surprised to see she held the blaster like she knew how to use it.

They ducked down a side corridor, around a couple of corners, and through two large rooms that opened between hallways. “How do you know this place so well?” Beth whispered, just barely audible.

“Old construction blueprints,” Wyatt returned. He found the stairs—no chance of taking a lift where they could be trapped—and he hoped the colony hadn’t renovated. The dark, utilitarian stairs weren’t really meant for regular use once the station was put into operation. He listened at the exit door and then carefully opened it, checking the corridor. “Clear.”

Wyatt led through several more corridors, and stopped at what appeared to be a dead end and stared at the blank wall. “There’s supposed to be a door here.”

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?”

Wyatt had downloaded his scan of the old map. He pulled up the hologram which glowed brightly in the dim lighting, he held out his forearm, aligning his position and checked again. “Yeah. We’re in the right place.”

“Maybe someone remodeled,” she replied.

He tapped on the wall. Once upon a time, this section housed offices for the brass, so it looked nicer than some of the other sections. That meant the “walls” weren’t the real outer skin; they had a thin plasti-sheet over them for looks. “Maybe you’re right,” Wyatt murmured.

“Close up your suit, the air may not be good in the maintenance tunnels,” he said and activated his portable helmet. It wouldn’t work in all conditions, but this was supposed to be a simple salvage. The helmet telescoped out of his collar and locked into place. He double checked the seals and transferred the holo to the internal screen. Wyatt pulled a plasma torch out of his bag, one with enough power to cut through thick metal, and sliced easily through the thin, plasti-skin wall covering to find the door behind.

“Come on,” Wyatt muttered as he wrestled with the lock. The metal door was mechanical, not computerized because the computers weren’t online when the place was built. The only concession was the control lock added later, and he just happened to have an old passkey that had come with the map. To Wyatt’s relief, the door wasn’t locked, and he didn’t need it. The heavy metal door stuck from years of disuse, but when he and Beth both put their shoulders into the effort, it opened with a shriek of protest.

Wyatt entered first with his weapon drawn, checking the corridor in both directions before moving forward. There was no emergency lighting here, so he had to use the lamp on his armor suit. Wyatt hated using the suit’s L.E.D.s; he always thought it made him too easy a target.

His assessment of the corridor was instinctive: No cobwebs or rats to worry about, no dripping water or mold. A fine covering of dust meant no one had come this way for quite a while. These tunnels should have been pressurized and had breathable air, but he wasn’t about to trust that was still the case. Beth had suited up, and her light added to his. Wyatt gave a momentary scowl as he realized that her civilian-issue suit had no armor, and minimal protection. The helmet was no more than a force field bubble. He shook his head. Worthless piece of crap.

“What about the door?” Beth asked with a jerk of her head. Wyatt pulled out the passkey and hoped it fit the lock. It did. There was a faint click.

“There. If the Grays find it, it’ll be locked, and they’ll probably figure we gave up and went elsewhere,” Wyatt said.

“Or they’ll blow the lock off and come after us.”

“Then let’s be far away from here by the time they do.”

“Where are we going?” Beth stuck right behind Wyatt as they wound their way through the service tubes. The tunnel was pressurized, but his suit readouts confirmed that the air was bad. He kept his gun out. The legend and info he found on the data stream held that construction workers saw some strange things building the Comstock complex, and Wyatt wasn’t taking any chances.

“My ship,” Wyatt said. “Parked it near one of the old equipment depots. No one’s used that area since they finished construction.”

That’s when he realized Beth had stopped still a few paces behind him. “We’re not alone down here,” she said.

Wyatt leveled his gun at the darkness ahead. He wasn’t picking up readings, hadn’t heard anything, hadn’t seen anything… “Grays?”

“No. Ghosts.”

Wyatt turned an “are-you-crazy” look at Beth, who glared right back. Even through the distortion of her atmo helmet, he could see her expression. “I found a piece of alien tech from an abandoned trading colony on Ribus Nine,” she said. “And when it activated, I got more than I bargained for. It picks up out-of-phase energies trapped in time and space. What most people call ‘ghosts.’ That’s part of how I figured out that Kalok was lying.”

A prickly tingle went down Wyatt’s spine. “And?”

Beth tilted her head as if she were listening to a transmission on a glitchy headset. Maybe she was, in a way. “I’m getting jumbled images. Kind of like watching a holofilm with bits and pieces missing. There’s something big, scary, and dangerous down here. People disappeared.”

“What is it?” Wyatt asked, wondering first if his new companion was batshit crazy, then wondering whether a monster from way back when could still be active. Hell of a long time between meals. Then again, we don’t know squat about most of the planets we build on. Just enough to slide the plans past the right approval boards along with the bribes. So it wouldn’t be the first time that an “uninhabited” planet really wasn’t.

“I can’t get a good look at it,” she replied. “But from what I see, looks like it killed a bunch of maintenance workers and a few hard-lucks.” She meant stragglers, people with nowhere else to go. Mines were a last-resort employer for people who were already down on their luck, so if something pushed them over the edge, they gravitated toward places like the tunnels.

“We sure as hell can’t go back,” Wyatt said. “So we’re going to have to go forward.”

Wyatt watched the map, and Beth watched the ghosts. The Comstock was a big place, and its underside was just as big. Its builders dug tunnels under the mining colony to run wiring and conduits, and to bring in supplies from the landing pads. From what showed on the old map, Comstock took up almost as much room underneath the ground as it did above, not counting the mine itself.

Old piles of tattered clothing, blankets, and rucksacks littered the tunnel. Whoever had sought refuge down here was dead and gone a century ago, along with the doomed miners and shut-down crew.

Something rattled against Wyatt’s boot. He looked down and saw a crushed bone. “More of them up here,” Beth said. The tunnel floor was littered with old bones, human bones. Some of the smaller bones were intact, but the big ones had all been snapped, sometimes more than once.

“Whatever did this; it’s coming our way!” She grabbed hold of Wyatt’s arm, and as soon as she touched him, he could see the images as if someone had turned on a holograph projector in his brain. Glowing images overlaid reality. Ghosts surrounded them. Old men with hard-bitten features watched the corridor balefully. A few younger men stared glassy-eyed. Ragged women glanced fearfully down the dark tunnel and then ran right through Beth and Wyatt.

A muffled thud from behind them told Wyatt that the Grays had blown open the door. Ghosts and monsters ahead, men with guns behind, and still some distance to cover to get to the ship.

Ahead, a shadow moved, close to the floor, just at the edge of their lights. Thick around as a man’s torso, but long, undulating and graceful, the shadow was fast and nearly silent. “Can it hurt us?” Wyatt asked as he tried to figure out if it was real or part of the shared vision.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “And you’ve got to be touching me to see what I see. The tech has a very limited range.”

“Let’s run for it,” Wyatt said. “Worst case, we die. If we break contact, just make sure to tell me where to go—or not go.” Wyatt and Beth ran toward the shadow beast. Its black body coiled and stretched, long enough that its tail was lost in the shadows, thick enough that it could have certainly preyed on humans. Maybe it was native, or maybe one of the miners or vagabonds had smuggled it in long ago. For a time, it could have fed on the hard-lucks. Odds were that when they all died, it died, too. The image flickered for Wyatt as they separated and he tried to stay close enough to Beth to keep contact.

“Keep all the way to the right,” Beth called as she sprinted, trying to pull Wyatt along with her.

The shadow beast’s toothy mouth opened wide, its jaw unhinging, blocking the corridor. It looked like a cross between a snake and a centipede, and its huge mouth was full of teeth. Beth led them right toward the maw of the monster before they stepped to the right. For an instant, bone-chilling cold passed through Wyatt, through his skin and the marrow of his bones. And then they were clear, on the other side.

“Think the Grays will be able to see it?” he asked as they kept on running.

“Don’t know,” Beth answered. “I’m new at this ghost stuff. Could you see it when we weren’t touching?”

“No, but I could feel it.”

Wyatt’s leg brushed against something, and he leveled his gun to shoot until he realized what he was looking at—the perfectly-preserved mummy of the biggest snake-monster he had ever seen, the beast whose ghost they had run through. He shivered in spite of himself, glad he had only seen the creature after it was dead.

The tunnel led upward toward ground level. Wyatt and Beth climbed over piles of bones and debris to get through the rest of the tunnel and reach the maintenance exit. Wyatt found the manual wheel to open the airlock just as shouts echoed behind them. With a lurch, the airlock wheel gave under Wyatt’s efforts, and the first door opened. They ran inside and secured the door behind them. Wyatt swore under his breath as he put his full weight into tugging the wheel on the second door free. Beth turned to face the first airlock door, gun raised.

“Here we go, hold on,” Wyatt said, as the balky wheel turned. The door opened, and Wyatt blinked in the blinding daylight as the pressurized air behind them rushed toward the opening like a brief gale-force wind.

They sprinted the short distance to Wyatt’s ship, which was right where he left it, hidden by old metal shipping crates and storage buildings that were almost as large as it was. “There she is, the Nellie B,” Wyatt said with a note of pride. “And she’s all mine.” To anyone who’d served, they’d immediately see the Star Force gunship she used to be. Even with the modifications, odd repair patches, and additions Wyatt had made, there was no missing the menacing profile or the signature anti-reflective black finish.

Wyatt opened his com-link. “Open her up for me, Nellie.”

“Please confirm,” the female voice echoed in his ear.

“It’s me baby, Wyatt William McCoy. Oh, and I’m bringing on a passenger.”

The ship looked out of place near all the scrap and ruins. While not the sleekest or prettiest, she was imposing. A bright white light illuminated around the ramp seam in the otherwise mat-black surface. It slowly extended to the ground before a louder woosh sounded with the opening of the outer airlock. Wyatt quickly made his way to the ramp and indicated for Beth to proceed him. He kept his gun drawn and watched the mine facility exit until Beth was up the ramp and he could follow. Wyatt backed up the ramp and once inside the outer lock, put his hand to the panel and closed the hatch. The ship’s outer hatch slid into place with a loud metallic thud and Wyatt could hear the locks engaging.

“Nellie, begin startup procedures. Engage anti-personnel guns and shields.”

Beth turned to him with a questioning look.

Wyatt shrugged as jets of air and a disinfectant spray filled the airlock. The light over the inner door illuminated green and the heavily armored hatch slid open. Wyatt hit the release for his helmet and took a deep breath as it slid back into his suit.

“Make yourself at home Ms. Parker. Watch your step. I didn’t really worry about passengers when I made additions. Nellie, pull in the ramp and prepare for take-off. Oh, and Nellie. This is Beth Parker; she’ll be traveling with us for a bit. Be nice to her. Beth, meet Nellie.”

“Thanks for hosting me, Nellie,” Beth said to the open air,

Wyatt made his way to the bridge, stepping over and around equipment haphazardly bolted to the dark gray supports and low-hanging wiring conduits a few times before passing through the heavy hatchway to the bridge. Wyatt dropped into the pilot’s seat as Beth looked around at the plethora of displays and controls at the bridge’s workstations. He pulled the harness into position, hit the release, and let the seat and harness conform to his body. Images from the external cameras popped up on his screens. He saw the mine door blow open and then Grays in pressure suits stormed out of the utility tunnels and opened fire. The shots sounded like small pings inside the ship.

“Can they damage the hull?” Beth asked.

“They don’t have anything Nellie’s shields can’t handle.” Wyatt grinned as he heard Nellie’s responding fire and he angled the thrusters.

“Nellie, engage and assume a low orbit while we plot a destination.”

“Unable to comply. Ms. Parker is not secure.”

“Where?” Beth asked as she looked around the bridge.

“Pick a seat, any seat, and buckle up. We need to get out of here.”

Beth sat in the co-pilot’s chair and pulled on the harness. It quickly tightened around her, and she gave Wyatt an apologetic shrug. “Got distracted.”

“Engaging now,” Nellie responded. Wyatt watched the monitors as the engines kicked a cloud of dust in the guards’ faces, throwing them back toward the airlock.

“Where to?” Beth asked as she looked again at the various consoles.

“I’m thinking Rum Row,” Wyatt replied. His hands flew across the input panels, bringing up star charts and streams of information. “Yeah, that should work,” he muttered. “Nellie, I’ve entered the destination. Plot and set course.” Rum Row was the ring of appropriated old space stations, hijacked satellites, questionable space liners, and disreputable docking platforms just outside government-patrolled space. It was also a jumping-off point to most of the settled planets. “I need more fuel. And you’ll be able to find a ship to anywhere you want to go.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Beth asked, stretching out her long legs. “There’s nowhere I can run that Kalok and its partners can’t find me—nowhere legitimate. I can’t go back to the university; it’s the first place Kalok will look. I still have a copy of my data. But if I show up on any colony Interplan controls, I’ll disappear before I can do anything with the information.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“The way I figure it, I can be an asset to you,” Beth said, giving him a pleading look as excitement glittered in her eyes. “I’m an archeologist with more knowledge of languages and native cultures than you’ve even heard of. I know all about old colonies and ruins. You’re a salvage rat. You loot those places.”

“Please,” Wyatt protested with exaggerated pain. “The term is ‘reclaim.’” Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. He glanced down at the display and quickly confirmed Nellie’s course and calculations. “Now would be a good time to explain more about these ‘ghosts’ of yours—and why we just left an abandoned mine with people shooting at us.”

Beth sighed and took a long pause before speaking. “Space archeology is all about going to abandoned colonies, outposts, space stations, mines, and other places that provided stepping stones to the colonization of the quadrant. They’re part of quadrant history, but in their day, no one thinks they’re important—until later, when it’s up to people like me to reconstruct the sequence of events and save it for the archives.”

“And since Kalok and the Interplanetary Mining Guild—Interplan—bankroll a lot of those settlements, the history of the settlements is also the history of the company and the guild,” Wyatt supplied.

Beth nodded. “Exactly. Kalok has a big anniversary coming up, and they hired me to write their story. It was supposed to be prestigious for both of us as well as the guild. I’m pretty well known in academic and space archeology circles, which legitimized them, and Kalok was an opportunity for me to get some visibility and earn some good credit. And then it all went wrong.”

Wyatt nodded, then turned as an alarm sounded.

“A ship is taking off and appears to be in pursuit,” Nellie stated.

“Evasive maneuvers. Course is set. Jump when we’re clear,” Wyatt said before turning back to Beth. “Might want to brace yourself. It’s a short jump, and we don’t have time for jump packs. Sorry.”

They both waited, steeling themselves for the jump reaction. Nellie gave a countdown, and Wyatt closed his eyes. He kept his breathing steady as the wave of nausea and disorientation hit him hard. He counted, using the calming techniques he’d been taught at the academy. He hoped Beth could handle it. Most humans didn’t do jumps without help from drugs or hiding themselves in a cryo stasis tube for the duration. He opened his eyes, knowing his senses wouldn’t work quite right in the dark, the in-between of the wormhole. The few minutes seemed like an eternity, but the feeling gradually receded, and Wyatt glanced over at his passenger who was now coming into focus again. Beth wasn’t looking so good.

“Damn, I hate jumps,” Beth muttered.

“The drugs help, but then you’re out of it for several minutes or longer. That’s real bad if you’ve got hostiles waiting for you on the other side of the tube. I try not to use jump packs unless I have to.”

“You’re either crazy, or you have an impressive constitution. Just give me a minute.”

“You’ve got time. We’re still a ways out; it‘s not safe to jump in closer to Rum Row. Too much space junk and way too much traffic. And out here on the frontier, we don’t have all those helpful navigation satellites and beacons to set our course.”

Wyatt occupied himself with checking Nellie’s reports. The company ship hadn’t cleared the compound before they jumped—a small bit of comfort. A few more minutes passed before he heard Beth take a deep breath.

“Don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”

“You do up to a point, but it takes a good many jumps, and it still isn’t fun. Even the most seasoned jumpers heave their guts more often than not. You ready to finish?”

“Yeah… Did you ever hear about the ‘shadows’ the old nuclear bombs cast when they exploded?” she asked.

Wyatt frowned, surprised at the change in topic and not sure where she was going. “You mean the permanent shadows of people caught in the blast because the light of the explosion is so bright?”

“Yeah,” Beth replied. “Well, the piece of alien tech I found homes in on something like those shadows, only it’s seeing left-behind energy, not silhouettes. Not really ‘ghosts.’ That word suggests sentience. These are more like stone tape recordings, emotional and physical energy so intense it made a molecular imprint on the space around it. A few people, ‘sensitives,’ have always picked up on that energy. The alien tech I found can translate that imprint into sound and light; the moving, audible versions of those nuclear blast shadows.” She rolled up her sleeve and held out her arm turning it palm up.

“Impressive.” Wyatt had seen tech implants before, but not like hers. He had a sub-dermal bio communicator, they were standard issue in Space Corps, but he’d had his replaced and upgraded. He’d also seen a number of weapons interfaces implanted, the military’s solution to not losing valuable equipment. But the geometric, metallic tattoo embedded in Beth’s forearm looked alien.

“Kalok found several pieces of alien tech in our search, and they asked me to translate the markings. Wanted me to determine if they were valuable or should go into their exhibit. Most were just native jewelry, or worthless, then I started on what I thought was a fancy gauntlet,” Beth said, and rolled her eyes. “But I got careless. I took it out of the clamps and slid my arm under it to brace it as I cleaned some of the markings. I ran my fingers over it, and yes, I was wearing gloves. Didn’t matter—the symbols lit up, and it attached to me. I searched for a catch, some way to open it and get it off my arm. The entire gauntlet began to glow, and within an hour it had embedded itself under my skin. Then the visions started,” she said as she pulled down her sleeve, covering the strange markings.

“They didn’t say anything, examine you?”

“I was alone when it happened—and I’m not stupid,” Beth glared at him. “I kept it to myself as much as I could and planned on getting someone I could trust to check it out when I returned. One of the assistants was with me the first time it activated. That’s how I knew the range. But I haven’t been back to Ceritan Four, and now,” she said with a shrug, “here we are.”

“You think the assistant ratted you out?”

“No. Because if he had, they’d be trying to capture me, not kill me. And he didn’t see the tech, just shared the vision. Probably thinks I’m some kind of mutant or psychic.”

“Those visions are how you figured out that the official histories were fake?” Wyatt asked as the enormity of the situation began to sink in. He eyed Beth with curiosity and maybe a little more respect. He wouldn’t have pegged her for an academic by appearance. She had fire in her green eyes and carried herself like she was ready to challenge anyone who got in her way. He liked that fire, and the way her silky, dark brown hair framed and softened her face. Damn, this might have been a mistake.

“Yeah,” Beth said. She sounded bone-weary. “Like what happened a month ago, out on the old Corrigon mine site, I was along to gather mine records and some of the personal items miners left behind for our museum. You ever heard of Corrigon?”

Wyatt had salvaged it two months ago but saw no need to tell Beth that. “Un-huh,” he replied. “I’ve heard of it. Rare metals, stuff they use in spaceship electronics. The place has been shut down for a long while.”

She nodded. “Except all the people didn’t leave, the way the official record says they did. This tech,” she held up her arm, “picked up images of miners, office workers, even some of the camp followers.”

Mining colonies were lonely places. Space had its vagabonds, people who went from place to place, making that loneliness a little more bearable. Sex workers, bootleggers, shady merchants, even traveling performers made the “circuit,” staying at remote colonies and homestead planets for a few months at a time. Plenty of people just passing through, people no one considered important.

“And?”

“The official records said everyone had been lifted off, and the documents I’d seen listed lower casualties than usual during the mine’s run,” Beth replied. “But with the alien tech, I picked up something completely different. I saw people dying when the last of the oxygen and atmosphere finally gave out.”

Wyatt felt a prickle on the back of his neck. He had heard rumors about Kalok and Interplanetary Mining Guild leaving people behind, covering up mining disasters, eliminating witnesses. Plenty of scuttlebutt, never any proof.

“How sure are you the alien tech is right?”

“Because when I knew what to look for, I found enough things that didn’t make sense, places the records were changed or missing, numbers that didn’t add up,” Beth replied. “The mine had a lot of more deaths than Kalok admitted. As soon as I started digging around, I saw there were two sets of records. What the alien tech showed me was right. I found the files to prove it.”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “It was the same at Comstock. Higher than usual deaths, faked records, proof they were skimming the maintenance budget. And an explosion that looks more like Kalok sabotaged their own mine. But the other thing that I found, because the ghost images led me to it, was a problem with the life support systems. Someone fudged the maintenance records on that, too. And it was pretty clear, when I put it all together, that the mine foremen didn’t fix things, although they billed for the repairs, and they never sent a ship back for the shut-down crew.” She paused. “Given how much trouble our guys had getting some of the systems to work when we landed, I can believe it. How did you manage to get the life-support systems up and running? I heard the guys talking; they fully expected them to be off-line. They said they hadn’t just been turned off way back when—they had failed.”

Wyatt turned around to stare at her. “You mean they left the shut-down crew to die? Well…damn. I guess I was just lucky.”

Beth met his gaze. “Yeah. You were and probably means the system was likely to go down again at any time. I’m betting someone pocketed the money that would have been spent on the last run. Or figured it was cheaper to settle a lawsuit or two than pay to get them out.”

Kalok Enterprises was one of the major players. It controlled half of the mining colonies and a lot of the interstellar cargo shipping. So if murder was business as usual, the possibilities were mind-boggling. Especially if people up the chain knew and looked the other way. Wyatt also knew from personal experience that Kalok had many governments and Space Corps in their back pocket.

Holy Mother of Space, what a big honkin’ mess. And I’ve stepped right into it.

“I documented, photographed, and downloaded all the evidence, encrypted it, and transmitted everything via a private channel to my personal research cloud until I could figure out what to do about it.” Beth sighed. “The same kind of thing happened on the last three runs. Too many ghosts, faked records, and all of it with sign-off, payoff, or ‘plausible deniability’ right to the top.”

Damn. The top of Kalok Enterprises went pretty far up, with treaties and contracts with the major planetary governments. Had to be a hero, huh? He mocked himself. Had to come to the rescue. This is why heroes aren’t always the brightest stars in the galaxy.

“Let me guess,” Wyatt said. “You started poking around, pulling old documents, and asking questions. So they hacked your data cloud?”

Beth made a face. “Apparently,” she replied wryly. “I suspected but didn’t know for sure until now. Kalok said they were coming out here to the Comstock to clear out their intellectual property before they razed the site for a new trade outpost.” She snorted. “As if any IP that old would be worth stealing. And there are no plans filed anywhere for an outpost here.”

“A set-up?” Wyatt asked, taking her measure a little more carefully. Anyone willing to consider going up against an outfit like Kalok deserved some outlaw respect.

Beth shrugged. “I’m guessing they really did want to take a look for files or old prototypes that shouldn’t fall into competitors’ hands. Maybe they’re here to cover up or destroy what I stumbled into. Getting to me was just a bonus, I imagine.”

“They tried before the shooting started?” I asked.

She nodded. “There was a guy on the ship who was trying to look like one of the crew, but he reeked of HQ. Too chatty. I didn’t give him anything, but that’s when I started watching my back. Took precautions.”

Smart lady. Quicker on the uptake than a lot of people, especially if no one had made a big move.

“I’m pretty sure someone went through my flight bag,” Beth continued. “One of my data crystals was missing. But I’d already copied everything to a secure account on RimNet. There wasn’t anything notable on the one they took.”

That she’d already dealt with the black market to get a RimNet account said she wasn’t too stuck on the letter of the law. That boded well for them working together. “If what you say is true, they’ve probably put a bounty on your head,” Wyatt said, watching Beth for a reaction.

“Probably,” she replied. “But with my background in archeology, plus what the alien tech ‘ghosts’ can show us, we can make a lot more money working together.” She gave Wyatt a level look. “And somehow, I have the feeling you’re not a big admirer of Interplan—or Kalok.”

“Do you understand what’s at stake?” Wyatt was aghast as he thought through the ramifications. “Kalok’s not going to stop looking for you. I’m not sure there’s anywhere to run that they can’t find us. The data you found could bring down Kalok—and make things really uncomfortable for Interplan…turn the Rim economy inside-out…give the Fringe worlds the excuse they want for a war to get rid of the corporate colonies.”

Beth nodded soberly. “Yes. And probably other stuff we haven’t even thought of.” The corner of her mouth quirked upward. “So do we have a deal?”

“We?”

“Partners,” she said, extending a hand. “Fifty-fifty.”

“Sixty-forty,” Wyatt bartered. “I’ve got the ship.”

“Fifty-fifty,” Beth countered, a note of steel coming into her voice. “And I’ll split the money with you when I sell my Kalok data to the highest bidder.”

“Deal.” Wyatt hoped this wasn’t the biggest mistake of his life.

Beth grinned. “Deal,” she repeated. “Guess we’ve got business to do out on Rum Row.”

“Yup, you ready for the grand tour? You get your own cabin. It’s small but private; we’ve got a great gym to keep in shape and the latest replicator in our galley.”

“Sort of…um…big for one guy to handle.” Beth said.

“Yeah, that’s why I’ve got Nellie,” Wyatt said with a smile.