The GiftJohn Harper / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction
SHALLOW SPACE: THE GIFT
Copyright 2014 by John Harper
Marlon Kurtz exhaled ice, forming fractals against his helmet’s visor. He glanced at the deactivated controls of his custom starship’s cockpit then checked his survival suit’s controls. Five degrees, as programmed. A week of cryogenic conditions had sounded more comfortable in planning, but he was still 278 degrees above absolute zero, and thus a target for anyone looking hard in his direction. He grunted and tucked his gloved fingers back inside his armpits.
Beyond the viewport the star Helios shone with brilliant white fury, making him squint despite the auto shading.
He continued his routine of toe and finger stretches, though he couldn't shake that dull ache in his joints of impending frostbite. Drinking from his helmet's suck burned his desiccated lips. At the agreed time he reactivated the passive sensors.
A risk. Small, but a risk nonetheless and there was nowhere to hide in the freakishly empty stellar system. He squinted at the star again. There, a small black disk before the burning whiteness, the only planet in orbit. ‘The Gift’, according to the Imperial Systems almanac, or ‘The Prize’ in pirate circles.
The scanner bleeped. A single low powered pulse from The Gift, barely registering, but it was enough. He breathed in deep, numb fingers shaking toward the worn-smooth ‘go’ button, an uncharacteristic tremor in his heart.
His gaze tracked to the rear view. This would be his biggest job yet. And the boldest. He didn’t have to proceed. He could turn and flee. He didn’t need the Fortez Clan's money, nor did he fear their wrath for breaking a contract-
He depressed the button.
-but he had a reputation. He wouldn't break it now.
Blinding lights filled the cockpit. Consoles beeped with initializing software. He pulled off his helmet and heat burned through his frigid body. His nerves screamed in ecstasy and pain at the sudden warmth and Marlon closed his eyes, basking in the simple act of feeling.
He gave himself five selfish seconds of warming then pointed the ship toward The Gift and engaged the prime mover.
The Armadillo patrol craft pinged him half way to The Gift. Marlon ignored the hails and threats and maintained his beeline. The Gift grew beyond the viewport, the albedo of the sharp crystalline landscape lending it a blocky shape.
His scanner detected a second ping – a second Armadillo trying to cut him off. He re-checked his mole's coordinates dirt-side and adjusted his trajectory.
Shapes became distinct on the surface: towering cuboids of zirconia, cloudy pyramids of spinel, rows of diamond picket fences. Marlon swooped downward, a pudgy Armadillo behind, another trying to cut across his vector.
Marlon's missile alarm warbled. Stomach tightening, he shaved a klick off his altitude. He raced toward the terminator, the ship's hull scraping above shimmering obelisks.
The land fell away to a glittering red ocean glowing under Helios' assault. His engine's thermostat flashed red. The engines coughed, shaking the ship, but he didn't slow. The thermostat kept rising, the missile alarm warbled again, the engines hiccupped, losing him another klick, and then darkness. The ship's vibrations became a purr, and he climbed to a safe altitude and checked his coordinates.
There, five hundred kilometers ahead, another clearing between rows of inverted stalagmites. He glanced at the scanner. Eighty seconds back to the closest Armadillo. Good enough. He re-fastened his helmet, rapped his knuckles against the cockpit frame and nodded to himself. He dumped the fuel tank, aimed at the middle of the clearing, leant backward, clenched his chest-
-and pulled the ejection cord.
A triple punch of sensation: the decompression of the viewport flying off, the wind crushing him back into his chair and the compressed air slamming up his arse.
The head up display disappeared below him, then the ship flashed past, darkness, square crystal shapes, darkness again. Buffeting wind tore at his limbs; blurred colours made him want to vomit.
The suit's jetpack engaged and his body came to nil velocity instantly, his eyes a few seconds later. Warmth fired over his dangling feet as he hovered a hundred metres above the surface.
The perfect place to watch the crash.
His little ship that had carried him so far overshot the clearing and exploded into a breccia prism. Fiery fragments rained down to the red sea below and Marlon clenched his teeth at his poor aim.
Still, it was a success. He activated the tracer on his wrist and manoeuvred down to the ejection seat. He checked his chrono. Sixty seconds since ejection. He could hear the whine of the approaching Armadillo's engines. He unpacked the fuel and organic matter from their seat pouches. He emptied both over the seat and used the single flare he'd kept to ignite it.
The fire burnt brightly and Kurtz jetted to the shore, the jetpack dying as he landed. He didn't need it now anyway. Too obvious.
In the distance, lights flashed on, highlighting the wreckage of Marlon's ship.
He turned away, consulted his compass and started walking.