Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Gold…”
“It’s an honor, Mr. Gold…”
“Please let us show you everything Cobalt Mining Company is doing to ensure your return on investment, Mr. Gold…”
“Please, gentlemen.” Ben held up his hands when the ass kissing finally became too much. “I am here as a representative of the Fleet. We are doing our inspection in accordance with the defense contract we signed years ago. There is no need to go through all of this trouble for me.” Ben could make out the tail end of a cleaning crew every time they rounded a corner.
They were moving ahead of the small group ensuring that most of the grime was stripped away before they reached that section. Ben had been immediately greeted when they docked with the station by the Station Manager, the Assistant Manager of Operations, and the Head of Security.
The manager was a round man who had the pale look of someone who’d spent too long in deep space. If Ben had to guess, the manager had started the mining outpost and stayed on over the last half decade. The assistant manager looked like a ladder climber. He was thin, pristinely dressed, and with a smile you’d see on a corporate receptionist. This was just a stop along the way for him. The head of security was another story.
The manager looked nervous, the assistant manager never stopped smiling, but the security expert was constantly frowning. It was like his face was frozen with negative emotion, and Ben didn’t think it was completely about him. The guy was the head of a squad’s worth of security troopers that had to police several hundred rough miners and their families.
From what Ben heard from the manager, he thought the security leader had his work cut out for him.
“We are constantly rotating the workforce as a cost-saving method, Mr. Gold. Crews are easy to come by, and out here they are eager to find work. We rotate them out before they meet the time requirements for the next paygrade and rehire them in six months.” The fat man looked particularly happy with toeing the legal line of Commonwealth compensation law.
Ben didn’t respond. He didn’t like what was happening, but it wasn’t his job. He was here to make sure they weren’t smuggling anything, breaking safety codes, or doing anything that would threaten the lives of Commonwealth citizens. If they wanted to impress someone, they were talking to the wrong Gold.
“I’ve got nothing, Sir.” One of the deckhands was walking with the group waving a wand over everything and anything they passed.
The meter-long stick was used to sniff out a number of illegal substances, as well as find smuggler’s holds and detect old-fashioned gunpowder or power cells used in newer weapons. It wasn’t perfect, and there were ways to get around it, but as far as tools went the wand was an effective way to sniff out contraband.
“Can we see the engineering sections?” Ben asked politely.
“Of course, Mr. Gold. That will give me a change to explain our patented refining techniques.” The manager looked happy for the suggestion.
“Sir.” SGT O’Neil and the other marine operating as his security detail were flanking the small group in their armor.
He nodded back the way he’d come and Ben saw a few dirty faces looking back at him. None of them looked happy, but there was nothing Ben could do about that. He’d check the payment logs to make sure everything was above board, but what the manager had described to him was technically legal. This was the Rim and life wasn’t easy. Pirates weren’t the only thing people had to worry about.
“I see it. Keep an eye out, and make sure Argo is ready if anything happens.” Ben hadn’t come unprepared. He had a pistol on his hip and a knife in his boot, but that was nothing compared to the armored and armed marines.
They didn’t expect trouble, but those angry faces had the hairs on the back of Ben’s neck standing up. Desperate people sometimes did stupid things.
“Any problems in the last few months?” he asked the head of security.
“Nothing we can’t handle.” The man replied gruffly. “A few bar fights here and there. A few stabbings over who laid claim to what piece of rock. Nothing more than the usual stuff on a station like this.”
Ben had to take the man’s word on that. He hadn’t been on a station like this before. They rounded a corner and the cleaning crew still had several meters to go before they could get out of sight. The manager flushed with embarrassment, and pointed for the assistant manager to take care of it.
“Routine cleaning, Mr. Gold. You’ve got to keep a close eye on these miners’ families. They do a lot of the station cleaning and maintenance, for wages of course, but if you don’t watch them like a hawk they’ll steal the floor boards right out from under you.” He laughed, and Ben just gave a polite smile.
The cleaning had stopped ahead of them as the assistant manager started to argue with the crew leader. The guy was big – really big – probably two meters with a face that looked oddly familiar. The assistant manager started to gesture wildly with his hands and then dropped them and stood there.
“What’s going on now?” The manager puffed up and started to wobble forward. “Damn station Rats…”
He never got to finish. The crew leader grabbed the assistant manager around the torso and turned him around. The immaculate white smart-cloth shirt he’d been sporting was now a deep crimson color as liquid leaked from his neck and stained the fabric. Ben’s eyes were still on the man’s red shirt when SGT O’Neil’s arm came out of nowhere and swept him out of the way.
“Contact front!” He yelled the same instant the cleaner raised a weapon and fired.
The waddling manager went down with a smoldering hole in his chest big enough to fit your fist through before the SGT could return fire. The cleaner backpedaled down the hallway, using the assistant manager as a human shield and rounded the curve before SGT O’Neil and the other marine could get a good fix on him.
“Fucking shit.” The head of security swore as he looked at his two dead bosses. He had a PDW out, and was kneeling on one side of the hallway.
“We need to move. There’s no cover here.” The SGT began to pull Ben back toward him. “Take point. You take rear.” O’Neil ordered the marine and the security professional.
The other marine immediately turned and headed back the way they’d come while the head of security kept the cleaner behind cover with sporadic fire. Ben retrieved his pistol and flipped the safety off. The deckhand didn’t have a weapon, but he carried the large wand like a baseball bat.
“Argo is informed. They’re sending a fire team in to help.” The SGT announced.
Whatever the hell was going on, Ben hoped it was over. The station’s management was dead in the corridor behind them. If the workers were taking out their grievances directly then Argo and her crew should be able to make it out of this just fine.
That was Ben’s hope until they rounded another corner and came under more fire. The lead marine sent a torrent of fire back at their attackers and their rate of fire dropped considerably. Whoever they were, they were either taking casualties or weren’t used to taking on marines.
“They’ve got us blocked in.” SGT O’Neil stated as he leaned around the corner and added his rate of fire to the other marine’s.
“No they don’t.” The head of security backtracked ten meters and pushed on the wall. There was a pop, the hiss of escaping air, and a section of the wall moved outward. “We can use this.”
Ben couldn’t help but give the deckhand an irritated look. They’d just scanned this corridor and missed this secret passageway. He’d have Chief Yates chew the young spacer out when they got back to the ship.
“Let’s go.” The marines held the corner while Ben and the deckhand ran for the exit.
“Hurry up.” The head of security hustled them in. Ben went first, then the deckhand, then the security chief.
The new corridor was cramped and dark. There was just enough light to see as they proceeded to the adjacent corridor. Ben tripped over a few boxes and stumbled.
“Hey watch your…” He looked back just in time to see the deckhand go down with blood spraying from his chest and the head of security shutting the door behind him.
“What are you…?” Ben was already moving his pistol, but it snagged against the wall in the confined space.
Before he could get it leveled at the new threat, the other man tackled him. They went down in a tangle of limbs that banged against the walls. Ben tried to turn so the security chief landed on the bottom, but it didn’t work. Pain lanced through his back as he fell on top of some boxes, but it wasn’t as bad as the man’s fist making contact with his face. The chief had some basic enhancements – enough to make the punches hurt – and the training to do the damage.
Ben covered his head, so the man went to work on his torso. Ben took the punishment as his mind raced to figure out what to do. SGT O’Neil and the other marine were probably being attacked on both sides now. The cleaner was probably just waiting for the head of security to get Ben and the deckhand alone to resume his attack.
The blows let up for a second and Ben lashed out. His kick made contact and there was a loud grunt as the security chief was thrown backwards. Ben might not have the training the other man did, but his hits would do a lot more damage.
With a few moments of freedom, Ben scrambled to his feet. He couldn’t find his pistol which had been knocked out of his hand during the fight, but he did grab his knife from his boot. Then he turned and hauled ass for the exit. He made it halfway there before the security guard tackled him back to the ground. This time he landed on his stomach and the security chief tried to get an arm around his throat.
Ben tucked his chin and rolled. They smashed into the metal wall and the man’s grip loosened. Ben started to crawl forward as the man grabbed for his legs. Ben lashed out again and made contact. The man’s grabbing stopped and Ben scrambled to his feet for what felt like the hundredth time. He made it to the end of the smuggler’s corridors this time, but that just led to another problem.
He had no idea how to open the damn door. He looked for a panel, biometric reader, a handle, or even a seam. He found nothing.
<How do you…!?> Rushing footsteps behind him alerted Ben just in time.
The head of security was barreling toward him with a snarl on his bloody face. The last kick had clearly broke his nose. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the charging man wasn’t stopping. He was going to smash Ben into the wall and do his best to hurt him.
So Ben did the only thing he could think of. He raised the knife and braced himself.
The security chief killed himself with the blind charge. He ran into Ben at full speed, the knife plunged deep into his chest, and they both smashed into the wall behind Ben – which crumbled under the combined weight and force.
They both tumbled into the fully-sized corridor. Only to find themselves surrounded by dirty-faced men armed with an assortment of weapons. Fighting could still be heard close by, but it seemed Ben had stumbled right into their assembly area.
Ben pushed the head of security’s corpse off of him and slowly got to his feet with his hands raised. There were at least a dozen weapons pointed at him that would rip him to shreds.
“Mr. Gold.” A familiar voice greeted him. The group parted and the small man Ben had interrogated stepped forward. “So glad of you to join us.” His eyes went to head of security and didn’t even flinch at the man’s deathly grimace. “More money for you guys.”
The surrounding group hollered in excitement. The small man produced a pistol from the folds of his coat and motioned for Ben to start walking.
“Let’s go, Mr. Gold. You’ve got a date with someone who wants to meet you very badly.”
Ben knew he could take the little guy, but the man was keeping his distance and the pistol looked like it would eat right through Ben if fired. He did what he was told and started walking.
He didn’t even see the small man lob a grenade back at the group of rebellious miners as they rounded the corner. He heard their dying screams just as the leader of the cleaning crew came into view. He gave Ben an unconcerned look.
“We’re good to go.”
“Then let’s get the hell out of here.”
The man Ben thought had been an innocent victim led him away from the fighting at gunpoint. Away from Argo, and away from the marines that were fighting to survive.
“There’s no way you’re getting out of here without my ship blowing you out of space.” Ben told the men holding his hostage.
“We’ll see about that.” Was the only reply he got, just before the cleaner reached around and jabbed a needle into his neck.
Immediately, Ben’s world started to warp and blur. In less than ten seconds he was out cold and being carried by the bigger pirate toward their ship.