Ann-Marie couldn’t believe her eyes. The engagement had been huge: more than seven thousand ships, carrying tens of thousands of crew, had fought each other to a bloody stalemate less than thirteen hours ago. It was the biggest engagement in the war so far, and had cost both sides dearly. If it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have concerned herself with the event at all; less experienced dung beetles would have been given the field and she would have taken her cut on their return.
Her ship was known as a caravel, a small, nimble trading craft she’d commissioned herself. It had carried her faithfully for eight years and she’d happily christened it the Sphincter’s Sextant. Other, much larger ships would be combing through the system soon enough, but the Sextant was in-volume for a different prize, and beetles like her had become so accomplished at finding it that the big boys didn’t bother trying to compete anymore.
Ann-Marie was pleased to find she was the first on the scene after the gunships had withdrawn. She prided herself on being among the best, but she’d admit she wasn’t without equal.
The wreckage strewn in front of her was vast; it was perhaps the biggest combat theatre she’d ever seen. The half-shattered hulks of battleships and carriers floated like planets, orbited by dozens of destroyers and hundreds of frigates. And amidst and all around them, the thousands of bombers, defenders and fighters that made up most of the debris spun and drifted across the field as it slowly expanded. So soon after the battle, collisions were still common, ships smashing into one another and careening off in new directions, obeying Newton’s ancient laws.
Shoptalk inevitably dominated when a cluster of dung beetles – the term had been coined by some hot-shot pilot as an insult, and they’d made it their own – gathered before a big harvest. There’d been a dozen of them at the table last night, including the infamous odd couple of Fowings and Ferrster out of the NAA, the always serious SAC-loving Nannan, and the ETF’s very own Russell. The very creme de la creme of the dung beetles. Other pilots, especially those who were expecting to be in-system among them picking over the carcasses, hovered at the edge of their table in the hope of picking up some small share of their glamour. The night was raucous and full of testosterone, not least from Ann-Marie, who had gotten where she was by taking none of their shit when on foot, and being faster, smarter and earlier than them on the wing.
Ann-Marie had boasted that she’d be first in. ‘Sextant has the latest location systems, my very long baseline interferometer can resolve specific elements down to a handful of angstroms, from more than an AU.’ She wasn’t about to give them the actual specs, they were all capable of reverse-engineering her research just from the details of what it could achieve. Even telling them what she’d managed to get her labs to make it work was giving them more than she’d ordinarily have offered, but they all knew that there’d be enough salvage to make most of them rich in the morning. She was happy to leave out the enhancements she’d had made to her Alcubierre drive, which she hoped would get her in the right volume before anyone else.
As usual, as the night wore on, their humour turned blacker. After all, they were here to profit from the spoils that only the deaths of thousands could provide. It was an unpleasant fact, and they coped by making a mockery of the reality. Some dung beetles weren’t careful about who and what they laughed about; Ferrster, for instance, chuckling about a half-naked cook he’d seen floating frozen through space with a toilet half-fused to his arse.
Ann-Marie saw the funny side, but the pilots around them drifted away, more than one muttering with barely disguised anger. It wasn’t uncommon for dung beetles to get banned from bars, and even entire stations, because of the fights they so often started at the end of a long night of drinking. They were not a popular people.
A ping jolted Ann-Marie back to the present. Her navigation computers were back on line and had noticed other signatures coming into the system. She recognised the idents of all but one. They were people she’d scavenged alongside for years, even if they preferred to call the process of reclaiming chewed-up valuables ‘harvesting.’ She wasn’t sure the term was any more palatable, but it was the one the rest of them used, so what she thought didn’t matter.
Ann-Marie pushed the ship out from where she’d been idling, easing it up to full speed at a gentle clip of acceleration. The other ships would take a few moments before they could come on line, and she’d be well on her way to the target by then. The Sapphire Panda was a battleship from the CPE, a massive behemoth which had been destroyed in the latest bid by an independent community – in this case, the Babies with Arms commune – to secure the system. The system was near the site of an ancient supernova, and had trapped more than its fair share of the elements created in that explosion thirty million years ago. The BwA lost the overall battle, but rumours in the surrounding systems were that the CPE was considering reaching an agreement with them that would see both sides allowed to mine the rare earth elements found in abundance there.
Ann-Marie was after the Panda’s black box, the telemetry and proprietary information that would reveal why the ship was destroyed. Most people would have pointed at the way the ship had been scoured down its length and then broken in two towards its folding engine, but that was the damage, not the cause. The CPE, or any one of a score of independent companies, would pay her enough to take it easy for a couple of months if she could deliver that black box.
As she ran along the ship’s length, admiring the way the BwA had focused their fire on the CPE flagship to bring it down, she spotted the ship she hadn’t recognised coming her way. She considered hailing them, but there was little point; they’d be there for the same thing she was.
She threw out a question to the other dung beetles in the system. ‘Ra here, anyone know who the new guy is?’
‘Nope. Looks like they want your prize,’ said Fowings.
‘He’s coming on from the other side of the Sapphire Panda, anyone got a read on his load-out?’
‘Will check,’ said Nannan.
While she was running up her favours owed, she was also setting the scavenger robots to follow the trail of breadcrumbs her nanite explorers would be leaving as they established the safest, quickest route to the black box. This soon after its destruction, wreckage like the Sapphire Panda still unpredictably volatile; it was also breaking up, and as liable to damage her equipment as it was to ruin anything she was attempting to recover. The nanites allowed her to find a safe path and minimised her risk. They were expensive, had to be replaced and needed a license to make, but were worth every penny.
‘It’s a bomber, Ra, CPE Jade Strike Force markings. Get out of there.’ Nannan’s voice was flat, final.
‘Roger, I’m gone.’ Except Ann-Marie wasn’t gone. Her robots were already bringing the black box back to her. She guessed it would be another thirty seconds before she could drop out of the ship’s shadow and make a run for safer space.
‘Ra, I can’t help but note that you’re still there. This guy’s not mucking about, we’ve just seen him launch half a dozen graviton missiles. The Sapphire Panda’s going to be ripped to pieces, and you with it, if you don’t get a move on.’ It was Russell, her closest friend among the beetles.
Another fifteen seconds, thought Ann-Marie. ‘I hear you.’
‘Sure. Good luck.’
We know each other too well. She caught herself smiling.
Her navigation showed the bomber already on its way out of the system. They didn’t even care to check on the results.
Which means they’re confident the payload was powerful enough to get the job done, thought Ann-Marie, suddenly feeling far too close to the battleship.
She punched in a local jump even as the robots were opening the outer shell of the ship. A hundred-thousand-kilometre Penrose jump was her only option; there was no time to simply accelerate away. Dangerous, this close to another ship, but she had no choice. She’d managed to find the missiles on her map, but they were so close now she couldn’t tell them apart from the wreckage they were flying through.
Then the black box was on board and the hatch was closed. She jumped, leaving half her robots behind. Better them than her.
Her display resolved into a new vista, showing the battleship crumpling under the gravity waves, secondary detonations lighting up the hulk’s fuselage. She allowed herself a moment’s relief, and began calculating the cost of replacing the robots and how much she’d get for the black box.