The Hard Way

Hysz; a gas giant orbiting a blue white star in the Trafala system itself found at the tenuous edge of Claimed Space.  There was a deep layer funnel gas mining station, owned by a Xithix crime lord with a nasty reputation and a short temper.  It was a big station, modular, anchored by an alt-grav suspension web in the upper atmosphere of Hysz, webbed in high above the never-ending raging storm that the gas giant called an atmosphere.  The station had some ties to legitimate business, selling its harvested products to a wide variety of customers including several governments but for many other criminals and outlaws Hysz was a place of refuge, too far out to bother with anyone who could run that far for that long and as such it was a haven for the hunted and the wanted, some with considerable bounties on their lives.  Like an endless performance, crewed and remote-controlled gas skimming craft of all sizes and shapes launched from and returned to the station in a never-ending cycle, creating a traffic control nightmare for those who kept track of all the arrivals and departures.

From its vantage point where it floated in its alt-grav web the gas mining station dipped its countless automated siphons into the crushing middle layers of Hysz, drawing out the profitable rare elements that nature used Hysz as a giant factory to constantly make.  Waste byproducts of the processing functions were vented back out into the atmosphere with little regard or care.  This act alone left a large black stripe of active pollutants which showed starkly against the vivid surface colors of the gas giant, an ugly artificial scar seen easily from space.  The trail of pollution behind the gas mining station reached almost a quarter of the way around the gas giant itself and the one scar on the face of the atmosphere most often used as a reference point for finding the gas mining station when on final approach by orbital traffic.

Hysz wasn’t Ganth’s choice to visit, not by a long shot but that’s where Ganth found himself acting on behalf of a certain concerned family interest that was dangling a lot of hard currency, precious metals and processed jewels in the wish that he would look in on what amounted to a welfare concern now turned rescue.

Apparently, the rather notorious Xithix had hired an Apalan chemical engineer of some considerable renown but the contract had quickly become rather confining and when the Apalan had wanted to leave the employ of the Xithix things had gotten ugly quick.  Now the Xithix was holding the Apalan against its will and had been for some time now.  Representatives for the Apalan’s family, influential and wealthy in their own right, had run out of official resources and since Hysz was located so far out, few political or authority elements had any interest whatsoever in pursuing contract disputes or claims of injustice.  All of that meant that any reconciliation was going to have to come through private means, hired means, the likes of which Ganth represented.  The Apalan family representative had caught up to Ganth in a down port cantina on Olthos and made him an offer that was as ridiculously sweet as it was dangerous to accept and with a reputation for taking jobs others were too smart to accept Ganth had accepted the Apalan job offer.

The plan had been simple; sneak into the system, hide in all the mining traffic around the station, cloak his Ship, land in an older part of the station that hadn’t been used in years, sneak in to the main structure, break out the Apalan, get back to his Ship, do a fast burn off of Hysz, haul ass back to the more civilized parts of the galaxy, deliver the Aplan chemical engineer back to his family, get paid and be on his way.  

It would have been nice if it had worked that way … but it hadn’t.

The plan had all started to go wrong right after he landed because that’s when he’d met organized opposition from Pratani mercenaries, probably hired by the Xithix to guard its capital assets.  Since the Apalan that Ganth was looking for was considered one of the Xithix’s capital assets now, it fell under Pratan hired protection and Pratani had a reputation all their own … you didn’t expect Pratani to be sponsors of the arts but what they did support was conflict and violence and in that they could have been considered artists themselves.  Weapons, armor, spacecraft … everything from the up close and personal to land mass wide and even planetary scale weapons of mass destruction were the Pratani art form.  Without much more to their credit or culture, Pratani hired out cheap not just for revenue but to give their selves an outlet for their only natural talents.  Other races had fought several wars with the Pratani in the past, wars so violent that Pratani were, by edict, prevented from having any standing armies or fleets … the only way that Pratani could leave their home system was individually or in small groups under contract.

Ganth had landed on the station five and a half hours ago and he’d been fighting every step of the way that he took.  Getting in had been relatively easy because neither the Xithix or the Pratani mercenaries had ever expected a single individual to try to rescue the Aplan but that is just what Ganth had done.  Now, with the Apalan in his protective custody and a whole lot of really pissed off Pratani mercenaries out to get him (consisting mostly of the Pratani that he hadn’t killed yet), it looked like they might just make it off the station.

Tired and sweaty despite the environmental control envelope of his armored pressure suit and very much wanting a cold stiff drink, Ganth checked his weapons as his onboard map led the way.  His custom modified Cadan powered armored pressure suit was dented, scorched, pitted even in some places but still the integrity was intact.  Like all the rest of his equipment, it, too, had seen a fair amount of customization over the last few years.  In his line of work, it paid to keep your gear updated … to try to give yourself an edge over the competition.

The transparent observation corridor was long but hardly used by the look of the dusty construction and maintenance supplies scattered throughout its length.  It connected the primary section of the station with the older section closest to where Ganth had berthed his Ship.

Almost there, Ganth thought a half second before a group of Pratani mercenaries stepped out from behind cover on the far end of the observation corridor and opened fire with their repeating blasters.  A hail of crimson blaster bolts screamed down the observation corridor narrowly missing them as Ganth shoved the Apalan into cover behind a heavy pallet stacked with old station hull repair supplies before returning fire with a volley from his heavy blaster rifle.  Ganth and the Aplan were safe enough, the weapons that the Pratani mercenaries were carrying may have been enough to make them keep their heads down but they weren’t heavy enough to penetrate the stacks of hull plate arrayed there on the pallet … or the transparent material of the corridor itself.  Ganth looked to his side, out the transparent material of the walls of the observation corridor and at the orange and yellow clouds which raced at high speed across the upper atmosphere of Hysz.

There had to be easier jobs out there.

There just had to be.

Ganth extended a small sensor pod from the back of his armor and peeked over the top of the pallet of station hull repair supplies.  Five Pratani; moving slowly between cover, never exposing their selves long enough for him to risk exposing himself long enough to draw a bead on one of them and burn them in their place.  They must have found his Ship … that might not be a good thing for the Pratani but regardless, he and the Apalan were cut off from what had seemed like a short sprint to lift off.

More blaster bolts screamed down the observation corridor, pinning them further in their chosen cover.

“Our path to your Ship has been blocked off.” The Apalan said as it crouched there behind the pallet of supplies, no emotion in its voice, a trait of that particular race.

More blaster bolts whined down the observation corridor, dissipating their energy harmlessly into the material of the supply stack that provided Ganth and the Apalan cover.  Ganth withdrew his sensor prod back into his armor.  Both the Apalan and Ganth knew full well that the Pratani mercenaries would kill them both if they got the chance.  If the Xithix couldn’t have the Apalan engineer’s talents then nobody else was going to have the Apalan engineer’s talents.  The Apalan had made sure that Ganth understood that because the Xithix had made sure that the Apalan had understood that.


“Well, we can’t go back.” Ganth said checking the HUD of his armored pressure suit.

And they couldn’t.  

His HUD confirmed that with the group of fifteen red dots that were rapidly approaching from above.  Five levels up and moving towards their level quickly.  More Pratani mercenaries and when they got here they’d catch Ganth and the Apalan in a crossfire that would be as deadly as it was short.

Ganth and the Aplan were lmost within sight of his Ship … so close.

So damn close.

“Jesara?!  Do you copy?” Ganth asked into his com suite, trying to contact his Ship.

“I copy.” Jesara said.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“For right now, yes.  Several Pratani mercenaries entered the bay with the intent to board the Ship.  I took care of them.  Another group of Pratani mercenaries saw what I had done to the first group and wisely decided to wait outside the landing bay.  I guess you’ve met that group, haven’t you?”

“Yeah.  They’ve got us pinned down on the other side of the observation corridor.” Ganth said.

“Listening in on their coms I’ve gathered that those outside the bay have requested for a lot heavier weapons to be brought up so that they can storm the bay.”

“Yeah.  That would be the group coming up behind us.”

“Do you have a plan?” Jesara asked.

“Do you have a plan?” The Apalan asked.

Ganth looked down at his blaster.  The Apalan wasn’t armed and Apalians were not known to be a race capable of violent actions which meant that Ganth was on his own this time out.  The latest pulse from his HUD showed him that the odds were about twenty to one in front of him and about fifteen to one behind him, neither of those tactical assessments were in his favor.  If the tactical data that his HUD was providing on the fifteen Pratani mercenaries that were heading his way as fast as they could was any indication the weapons they carried were far heavier than the weapons that the Pratani mercenaries that were pinning them down were equipped with.  The late comers must have stopped off to get some party favors, he thought to himself … big, loud party favors that would crack his armor without a lot of effort … and the hull of the Ship shortly after that.

“Jesara?  You’ve got our position.  We’re cut off and can’t get to you.  That’s the short of it.”

“Confirm.  I also read a large group of Pratani mercenaries closing in on your position from above you and behind.”

“Yeah, I know.” Ganth said.

Ganth sighed and thought for a second.  There was no going forward and no going back and in a few minutes, he and the Apalan would get squeezed in a vice of Pratani mercenaries, it was a rather amateur way to die, he thought and his future plans didn’t include dying on the Xithix’s gas mining station today, not with the kind of money that the Apalan’s family was offering for its safe return to the Apalan home world.

“Remember that time on Adega?” Ganth said, reaching forward and adjusting the external controls of the Apalan’s environment suit as the Apalan looked on in patient non-understanding.

“I do.”

“Do you think you can do something like that again?”

“I can … but I also remember that time on Adega didn’t work out so well.”

“It’ll work this time.” Ganth said.

“Preparing to lift off.”

“Do it and keep me posted but make it quick, will you, Love?  We’ll be ready to go when you are.”

“Confirm.  We’re lifting off now.”

Ganth felt a vibration carry though the hull material of the station and caught a quick glance around the pallet of supplies just in time to see his Ship lift majestically away from the mining station.  Instantly it was caught in the dense hurricane force winds of the atmosphere and began to be buffeted in flight.  Ganth watched as She stabilized herself, dipped Her nose into the headwind then started to drift back away from the gas mining station at a good clip, her exhaust nozzles glowing brightly.  

Evidently, the Pratani mercenaries were watching Her as well as they had turned their attention from Ganth and the Apalan to watching Ganth’s Ship lift away from the station.  They must have been smiling, if Pratani mercenaries could smile (and he wasn’t sure that they could), at seeing Ganth and the Apalan’s only means of escape seemingly being forced to leave without them.  The Pratani mercenaries might even have been laughing, if Pratani mercenaries could laugh (and he wasn’t sure that they could), but they were all apparently cheering or doing some kind of appreciative gesture involving waving their arms and their weapons defiantly in the direction of the Ship.  

Ganth flexed his grip on his blaster rifle; he was tempted right then to burn down the two nearest Pratani mercenaries which had been foolish enough to step out of their cover to observe the departing Ship but he held his fire … There was no real use in drawing their attention, not when the Pratani mercenaries would all be dead soon enough.  Ganth looked up at the HUD display of his armor … Jesara was keeping him up to date with what she and the Ship were doing.  He turned to the Apalan.

“Almost time to go.” He said.

“Go?  Go where?” the Aplan asked.

“Are you scared of heights?” Ganth asked the Apalan.

“No.” the Apalan said in its curiously sounding voice, again lacking all emotion.

“What about freefall?” Ganth asked the Apalan.

“Freefall?” the Apalan asked and if it could have carried emotion in its voice Ganth thought for sure it would have expressed an emotion of fearful surprise just then or that it seemed as if it might have misunderstood what Ganth had asked it.

“What does freefall have to do with heights?” the Aplan asked, somewhat confused.

“Freefall is what you get when you step off of a great height.” Ganth said dryly.

He looked at the data stream on his suit’s faceplate.  Jesara was charging the main beam batteries of the Ship.  Ganth had enough time to catch another glance at his Ship now holding station about three klicks off the station’s exterior, a tiny white sliver with a bright glowing tail, silhouetted against the colorful atmosphere of Hysz.

“You have done this before?” The Apalan asked.

“Once.” Ganth said, nodding.

“And did it work that time?” the Apalan asked.

“Sort of.” Ganth said.  “At least I walked away from it.  My client didn’t.”

“That’s less than comforting.” The Apalan said but with no emotion it was hard to tell if the Apalan had intended sarcasm … or could even entertain it.

Here we go, he thought, as he sealed his armor tight, switching to full internal life support and checking the integrity links.  Before his own suit could complete the environmental containment process his gloved hands slapped over the external controls of the Apalan’s environment suit, watching as the suit flowed its material around the Apalan’s blue skinned head, sealing the Apalan completely in a life sustaining atmosphere as the suit went from soft to semi-hard under the process.  The environmental suit that Ganth had found for the Apalan was a standard issue mining suit, nothing fancy, just the sort of suit that all the workers on the station used when they had to step outside.  Ganth reached out and hooked a cable lock from his armored pressure suit to a tether ring on the Apalan’s suit then pulled the Apalan close to him, so close that their helmets were touching.

“Hold on, angel.  You’re about to get your wings the hard way.” He said.

If the Apalan said anything Ganth didn’t hear it.

“Jesara!  Are you ready?”

“Standing by.” Jesara said.

“Do it!” Ganth shouted into his com suite.

The Ship’s forward blaster array flashed lurid cyan incandescence through the thick atmosphere of Hysz, the long pulses of high energy slammed into the far end of the observation corridor, dead center of the Pratani’s position and quickly stitched a path of blossoming orange, red and yellow destruction towards where Ganth and the Apalan sought shelter.  The power of the Ship’s forward blasters was enough that solid matter simply ceased to exist at their voracious touch, the observation corridor flashed into brilliant nothingness, the Pratani mercenaries suffering a similar fate a heartbeat later as the cyan blaster bolts gouged into the side of the gas mining station and sawed a glowing hot swath of destruction through a horizontal arc.  As soon as it had started it was over and like that, the cyan stitched line of ethereal fire that had linked the Ship to the gas mining station for all of a half second was gone.

In their sealed suits, the destruction of almost the full length of the observation corridor may not have carried any sound but the shock wave was easily felt.  As for Ganth and the Apalan they were instantly sucked out into the yellow orange turbulent atmosphere of Hysz along with the pallet of hull materials that they had taken cover behind.  The atmosphere of Hysz was little more than a bath of various poison gasses, whipped to a hurricane frenzy and kept slightly above the temperature of freezing.  Their environmental suits would protect them for some time, Ganth armored pressure suit more so than the Apalan’s simpler gas mining issue environmental suit, but not indefinitely.

Buffeted harshly by nightmarish hurricane force winds, Ganth held the Apalan close and tight as they entered free fall.  He looked up and caught glimpses of the gas mining station through the swirling ribbons of atmosphere, the station rapidly growing smaller above them as they fell away from it, their own velocity increasing.  He turned to his side and watched their velocity as measured against the glimpses of the myriad of automated recovery tubes that he saw dropping from the station … the automated gas mining scoops some of which had diameters of nearly a quarter kilometer in size.

At first Ganth thought the noise he was hearing might just be the dense atmosphere rushing past the two of them as they fell but as he listened to the peculiar sound he quickly came to realize that the Apalan either hadn’t been truthful with Ganth when he has asked him about experiencing a fear of freefall or Apalans really could express emotions on a primal level.  Ganth came to this conclusion because the Apalan was letting out some kind of high pitched noise that might have passed for what amounted to a scream … a long, undulating scream, carried not through the com suite but from the helmet to helmet contact itself between his armored pressure suit and the Apalan’s gas mining environmental suit.  The atmosphere buffeted them, threatened to tear them apart as they fell … ribbons and strips of colored gas spun around them, across them, over them in their wild descent.

Jesara pulsed him Her latest updates.  The Apalan had finally stopped screaming or emitting the noise that it had been emitting and Ganth closed his eyes, sighing, enjoying the fall for the simple pleasure that it was.  He even managed to smile though the Apalan couldn’t have seen it through the opaque faceplate of his armored pressure suit.   Right now, behind them and slightly above them, the Ship was screaming through the atmosphere, maneuvering to get under the falling pair and match their intrinsic velocity so that it could catch them then haul them aboard before they reached the crushing levels of frozen atmosphere below … the levels of atmosphere where the Hysz station drew its richest products from.

As Ganth fell he thought to himself; there had to be an easier way to make a living.  There just had to be …