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 The rule of law has long been replaced by the politics of profit.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 among 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. SCRAP WAGON
The void battle had taken place in high orbit above Planet UK6712, approximately thirteen standard months after official trade war had been declared between the corporations of Helion and Grotto. UK6712 was well within the edges of surveyed necrospace, beyond the Ellisian Line, and had been claimed by a Helion exploratory force. The explorers, however, discovered that they did not have the military strength to occupy the sizeable dead city or defeat the robotic guardians that awaited them on the planet’s surface, so they had waited for support elements to join them. By the time a Helion battle fleet arrived, so had an equivalent force from Grotto Corporation.
It had been a swift and brutal affair, as frigates and combat craft from both sides engaged in a furious firefight at close range. The command elements of both fleets were eager to seize a victory for their Bottom Line. After seventeen minutes of conflict the Helion forces retreated, leaving UK6712 to be plundered by Grotto.
In those seventeen minutes thousands of naval crew, support staff, and troopers lost their lives on both sides of the conflict as the fleets tore into each other. Now, merely twenty minutes after the last shot was fired and the Helion forces had made a hard burn out of the system, the Baen Reaper tug entered the conflict zone to loot the wreckage.
“Tango Leader, Reaper Actual, you are clear to launch,” crackled the voice over the intercom system of the cramped navigation deck, “Good hunting.”
Boss Samuel Hyst nodded and leaned back in his chair so that he could fasten his safety harness, an action mimicked by Boss Ulanti and Boss Marsters as the three squad leaders prepared themselves for flight. Samuel’s bulky combat armor, like the rest of them, had been modified with void seals, which while protecting his fragile body from the frozen vacuum of space, made fluid movement difficult. When he and the rest of the Reapers had fought a boarding action years ago on a space hulk, Samuel had found the void seals distracting and cumbersome, now, after so many months of brutal trade war, he had become quite accustomed to the seals.
The rest of the marines of Tango Platoon were below on the staff deck, strapped into rows of seats that lined the broadsides of the ship. The ship’s call sign was RRV59, Resource Recovery Vessel 59, but the support crews and marines called all such ships ‘scrap wagons’. It was a fitting description in Samuel’s mind, the primary function of the vessels was to enter void battle sites post-conflict and hastily remove anything of value from the wreckage.
No two scrap wagons were alike. Until the outbreak of this mega-conflict there had been no need for such a specialized vessel. Samuel and the Reapers had conducted countless void salvage operations through the years. Typically they based out of the main Reaper tug and used handheld personal transport units to move around, collecting their salvage on a simple mag-sled that would carry the haul back to the tug.
The scrap wagons were all retro-fitted ships, some from Grotto’s own stock and others captured vessels from Helion or the Red List. The support teams, with help from the marines, had grafted massive patchwork armor plating to the fronts of the ships so that they could move through debris fields at higher speeds instead of carefully threading their way through the swirling chaos of the site. There was so much material in motion in the aftermath of a void battle that it was like sending a ship into a tempest of metal and frozen chemicals.
Using the traditional method of void salvage it would take months, perhaps even years of waiting for the debris storms to settle out as bits and pieces came together and began to form gravitational fields. Grotto did not have that kind of time, nor did Helion, or the pirates, and that meant that neither did the Reapers.
The engines of the scrap wagon fired up as the launch bay doors slid open. Samuel was pressed back against his seat as the ship reached full throttle and screamed out of the hangar. The scrap wagon hurtled into the void and immediately the pilot toggled the ship’s trajectory to aim it towards the center of the debris field. Samuel knew that it would only be a few minutes before the first pieces of the wreckage would begin impacting the ship. This was dangerous work, but it had to be done fast in order to beat whatever other scavengers were lurking in the darkness of space waiting to pounce.
Samuel had never truly appreciated the nuances of space travel until this desperate phase of the war, and though it had been a grueling year of non-stop campaigning, the marine took a moment to let the beauty of what he saw to wash over him.
Samuel, like most other marines, endured his space travel while in the belly of ships such as the Reaper tug or the assault craft. This particular scrap wagon had once been a light cargo hauler and the navigation chamber, while small, had several transparent viewports from which Samuel could actually see the debris field with his own eyes. To see video images or data readouts was one thing, but to witness the vastness of the destruction backlit by the light reflected off of the greenish white clouds of the planet’s atmosphere and the impossibly grand physics at work in the debris storm deeply moved Samuel.
The marine watched in silence as the wagon careened towards the debris. As they drew near, Samuel could see the emerging outlines of at least one sizeable starship among the corpses of several smaller vessels. Most of them were dead and drifting, their hulls having been ripped asunder by enemy fire and their crews either killed in the battle or sucked out into hard vacuum. As the first chunks of debris bounced off of the armored hull of the wagon, Samuel could see several different ships near the core of the debris field.
“Boss, you seeing this?” asked Samuel as his eyes landed upon the wreckage of a large and menacing ship at the apex of the tempest.
“Helion Gun Frigate,” answered Boss Ulanti as she followed Samuel’s gaze. “Hard to tell in all that soup, but it looks like an Alpha Class to me.”
“That would explain why Helion backed off so quickly,” nodded Boss Marsters as he sat with his eyes closed and slowly breathed in and out, giving Samuel the impression that the thought of once again slamming into a debris field at speed was perhaps undermining Wynn’s patented cold calm. “Standard battle fleets only ride with one or two ships sporting weapon batteries that heavy. From the pattern of the debris my guess would be that the frigate pushed too deep into the Grotto line, got cut off from the main group.”
“Helion does seem to breed their people with a flair for overconfidence,” said Boss Ulanti. She sat back and began opening and closing her fists as the craft shook with the impacts of larger sized debris, “In the boardroom and on the battlefield.”
“Boss, I gotta say that sounds like Grotto propaganda talking,” said Samuel, keeping his tone light to lessen the sting of his words, “All due respect.”
“It is and it isn’t, Hyst,” answered Boss Ulanti. “Grotto and Helion are the two biggest mega-corps in mapped space, and they couldn’t be more different.
Propaganda is like the molded protein blocks they serve at mess, inert until you decide what flavor to infuse it with. They are force-fed just as much of it as we are. In their minds Helion is sleek, high speed, and focused on expansion through technological progress while Grotto is a lumbering juggernaught that consumes or recycles everything in its path. They underestimate us, Prybar, because to them, we are low tech brutes.
I’ve fought Helion half a dozen times in my life, and every time is the same. They think they’re better than us, and that makes them arrogant and sloppy.”
“At the end of the day they still buy their bullets from the same place we do,” chuckled Samuel with a gallows smile as the wagon shuddered from a sizeable impact. Whatever they had hit was sufficient to knock the ship off course and it took several moments of trick flying for the pilot to realign with the target.
“Welcome to the war machine,” laughed Boss Ulanti, and in that moment Samuel realized he’d never heard her do ...