Dead Worlds

Sean-Michael Argo

DEAD WORLDS

PROLOGUE

It is the Age of the Corporation; where the common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rule of law has long been replaced by the politics of profit. For many centuries the Covenants of Commerce have ruled mankind, from boardroom to factory floor, from mine deep to fertile field, and upon the battlefields of heart, of mind, and distant star.

The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity, and while there is no peace amongst the stars of mapped space, business is booming.

Impoverished workers drown in debt while they labor for subsistence income, mercenaries of every kind wage war under the banner of any company willing to meet their price, scavengers and space pirates loot what they can, all to the backdrop of a ceaseless struggle for economic dominance.

To be a human being in such times is to be one among countless billions in a civilization spread across a vast universe, all ensnared in the same blood-soaked web of capitalism, most doomed to be ground to dust amidst the gears of progress. There are some people however, those rare few, who rise from the ranks of the faceless masses, to make their mark upon history.

This is one such tale.

1. ON THE FRONTIER

Sura Hyst slowly opened her eyes as the lighting on her faux window unit gradually shifted to day cycle. The artificial sunlight panel was intended to help citizens maintain their health and mental state, though Sura had grown to loathe it. Teague lay next to her, on his side and facing away from the panel, still asleep. Sura remained still and fought to remember the dream, to capture the details of it and run them over and over in her mind as she desperately searched for meaning in it.

Her parents had been believers in dreams, at least the sort one had while sleeping. They had instilled in her very early in life that paying attention to them was important; whether or not they were simply the mind sorting and cataloging the events of the day or perhaps something that came from deeper within.

As an artist, Sura had always found value in her dreams, though all she found in this one was heartbreak and a familiar ache of longing. She knew at this very moment her Samuel was out there in necrospace, scavenging and fighting whatever horrors the universe saw fit to hurl at him. The man had killed, lost friends, and even been injured nearly beyond repair, and yet still he soldiered on for his family. All the while she waged the war at home, a bitter and grinding struggle against loneliness, despair, and the mundane minutiae of raising a child alone in the vastness of Baen 6.

They had a plan, a dream that they shared of a life away from Grotto space. Of forests and open spaces, of natural food and clean water, and the freedom of simplicity. It had been a good dream; one they’d both held burning in their hearts, undaunted by the wars Samuel fought or the carnage he witnessed.

They had been saving aggressively, and they knew that if things continued as they had been then by the time Orion was ten they would be able to leave Grotto space as a family with enough resources to start a homestead on one of the distant worlds of the frontier. They would travel to the frontier and carve out a place for themselves amongst the free stars of unmapped space.

That was before Tetra Prime.

Samuel typically spent only one or two months out of any calendar year at home and they had prepared themselves for that. To achieve their frontier dream it seemed worth it. What was ten years of their lives compared to the lifetime of their children and their children’s children away from the shackles of Grotto’s debt-based society? It was a hard tithe, but one they chose to pay, and it had been a functional arrangement for a few years.

However, when Samuel returned from Tetra Prime he was a changed man. He had witnessed the horrors of war plenty of times before, though to hear him tell it Samuel had seen the inherent atrocity in the business of war itself.

Sleep came hard for him, and he often awoke in the night covered in sweat and calling out for someone named Bianca, other times Ben, or his former squad leader Mag.

Samuel did not like to share war stories, instead preferring to talk salvage and space travel. On one occasion though, he had awoken in the night and needed to talk. It seemed as if he was still half asleep, describing the death of Andrea Baen, how her body looked as it sprouted bright red ice crystals that spun in the lazy arc of zero gravity.

She did her best to let it all go, and sometimes, she could. Samuel was out there risking his life, and she knew that men and women who shared such experiences often formed a kind of bond.

Samuel never mustered the courage to tell her about other women he slept with, though Sura knew her husband well enough to know that Samuel was carrying guilt that wasn’t all war related. She could see it in his eyes when he looked at her, even feel it in his body when they made love; her silent forgiveness of a transgression he never confessed was part of her war, and she fought it as best she could. Sura was a woman with her own needs, and Teague wasn’t the first man she’d brought into her bed since Samuel had shipped out just over five years ago.

Bedding ‘Reaper wives’ was something of a sport among men who lived in some of the less than savory quadrants of the city. Sura herself cared little for what they thought or said. Teague was a good man, and she was confident he didn’t see her as a trophy, but had actually begun to fall in love with her. It was sweet, though that same fact meant that she would have to send him away soon. In truth, Sura knew that once Teague was gone there could be no more after him, regardless of her wants and needs. Orion was beginning to reach an age where Sura knew that he would begin to ask questions, about his father, about his mother’s ‘special friends’, and soon even the physical comfort of a man’s body would be lost to her.

Sura wished she could fall asleep again, to find herself in that dream, though without Samuel there it meant little. He could die at any moment out there, and though his death benefit would be sufficient to wipe out much of their debt, Sura and Orion would still be trapped in the Grotto life, only without Samuel. Sura wept quietly into her hands, doing her best not to wake Teague as she lost her willpower to hold it back any longer.

“This is the job,” she whispered to herself, and clenched Samuel’s spare Reaper tag in her fist as she blinked back her tears and put on a faux smile before getting up to help Orion with his breakfast, “This is the job.”

2. A DAY OLDER AND A DOLLAR DEEPER

“Mister Hyst, the injury to your spine would have left you paralyzed from the neck down, though due to the extensive bone and nerve damage the possibility of your expiration due to complications in the weeks and months post-surgery was exceptionally high.

You were unconscious and deemed unable to give consent to alternative procedures, however, pursuant to Reaper Battle Protocol 16, the Tango Platoon Commander, Wynn Marsters, was on hand to execute those decisions on your behalf. With the executor’s consent an Augur cybernetic spinal unit has been installed in place of your damaged bone and nerve tissues.

It is important that you are aware that neither the unit nor the installation, are covered by the Standard Reaper Health and Wellness Plan provided by Grotto Corporation. As such, please find the attached invoice.

If you are not able to pay the amount in full, a financial administrator has been assigned to your account and is available to negotiate a low interest payment plan that will best suit your financial capacity.”

The typed letter fell from Samuel’s hands and landed on the floor as he groaned and put both of his hands to his head. Samuel was sitting up in the cramped bunk space of the Reaper tug as it plodded through space towards the planet Vorhold. According to the mission clock they were only three hours from being planetside, so the marines were rousing from their bunks and heading to muster.

Samuel had been pouring over his finances, trying for what seemed like the thousandth time to make some kind of sense of his predicament, to guesstimate how many more years of Reaper duty he would have to endure before he and his family could leave Grotto. It had been nearly eighteen standard months since the battle on Tetra Prime, and still he awoke with nightmares about the mech.

Back on Baen 6 his wife Sura continued to work part-time to help Samuel chip away at the mountain of debt their family owed Grotto Corporation. With what remained of their two life-bonds, the usual costs of living, and now Samuel’s monumental medical expenses, the only way they were going to make any progress beyond just paying the interest on what they owed, let alone trying to save for expatriation and a homestead, was for Sura to return to work.

Samuel had found himself actively hoping for combat deployments. The chance to earn the increased hazard wages that accompanied hostile salvage ops would go a long way toward eliminating his debts even if it did increase his chances of being killed on the job.

In the time since his injury the Baen Reaper fleet had been pulling operations in parts of necrospace that had been somewhat picked clean. The scavengers and ...

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