Carrion Duty

Sean-Michael Argo

CARRION DUTY

PROLOGUE

It is the Age of The Corporation.

The common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rules of law have long been replaced by the politics of profit.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, upon the battlefields of heart, of mind, and of distant star.

The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity. There is no peace among the stars of mapped space; business is booming.

Impoverished workers drown in debt, laboring for subsistence pay. Mercenaries of every kind wage war, loyal to the banner of any company willing to meet their price. Everyone in existence is locked in a ceaseless struggle for economic dominance and survival. Scavengers and space pirates swoop in to loot what they can from the forgotten and unprotected.

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. PIPELINE T4

Rhett Calibos flexed his right hand for the seventh time since sliding his fingers into the tight mesh interior of the armored glove. He had worn such a glove on countless occasions, nearly every day since he had graduated from the Rubicon cor-sec academy, and that was years ago. It was as if he couldn’t quite get comfortable with it, and no matter how many times he clenched and unclenched his fist the armor just didn’t feel right.

He could sense the eyes of the other troopers in his unit upon him, and Rhett forced himself to stop flexing. Everyone got a case of nerves before a mission at some point in their career, he reassured himself, and there was nothing to be concerned about. He told himself that this was a routine crowd dispersal operation, even if it did come with a forcible relocation mandate.

The cor-sec trooper shook in his seat as the transport rumbled over the broken ground of the unforgiving planet’s surface. Rhett looked up from his hand and let his gaze sweep across the interior of the transport.

There were twenty-nine other troopers with him, all similarly strapped into seats that lined both walls of the squat vehicle. Designed for rapid deployment of its human cargo, it was a tight fit, with only enough space for two troopers to stand shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. He had ridden in such vehicles before, and had deployed from them on numerous occasions. What struck him as odd, was that this transport was a raid model, designed for combat missions not relocation.

Cor-sec forces were responsible for protecting Rubicon assets throughout the Tardis sector, which was close enough to the frontier that space pirates were a legitimate problem. They would attack the raw material shipments while in transit from the various mines and drill sites to the refineries. Rhett had been deployed on counter-raids against pirate incursions several times since graduation, and always it was from vehicles such as this. Crowd dispersal was certainly within the scope of this transport, but with the forced relocation mandate, the mission parameters were out of sync with the vehicle.

Rhett wondered how the troopers were supposed to relocate any of the trespassers without the holding pods that were a feature of the detainment model transports. He hadn’t seen any such vehicles in the convoy that left the cor-sec motor pool half an hour ago. Nor had he seen collection cages or net casters attached to any of the sleek black VTOLs that moved through the sky above them.

The troopers had been given orders to muster and kit up rather suddenly. Only now did Rhett realize that he had been issued only his needle rifle and high yield tesla pistol. Neither of those weapons were fit for riot duty, much less detainment. For that, he and the rest of the unit should have been issued shock mauls and resistance shields, with gas launchers for overwatch. This had all the hallmarks of a combat op, regardless of what the official orders read.

Rhett flexed his fist again involuntarily as he began to wonder what exactly Tardis management had planned.

He knew that the situation on T4 was already on the knife’s edge and if cor-sec came in hot, things might go from bad to worse. Suddenly, the needle rifle slung across his chest felt heavy and cold.

The trooper ran the scenario through his mind over and over as he tried to make sense of the mission, hoping to find some scrap of understanding, to balance the equation before his boots hit the ground.

Tardis contained several small planets that orbited a relatively young star, in geologic terms, and those bodies were rich in raw materials. Rubicon surveyors had discovered much wealth to be had within two of the planets, designated, unimaginatively, as T1 and T2. Rubicon had acted quickly to claim all the rights to the sector. They registered their quiet title with the rest of corporate civilization and planted enough military might in the sector so that no one dared challenge the execution of universal deeds.

There were no fresh worlds in mapped corporate space, and it was a tremendously expensive process to discover, claim, and exploit new planets. The frontier was a raw and wild place, where heavenly bodies were young and difficult to predict, as they were still in the long process of becoming mature, stable planets or stars. New worlds and systems had to first be discovered, then surveyed for analysis, and assuming there was enough future profit to be had the planet had to be claimed, and most difficult of all, held. For most corporate powers, it made more sense to continue to fight over the dwindling resources of mapped space, though on rare occasions sectors like Tardis were indeed claimed and developed.

Without opposition or challenge to their claim, in the boardroom or on the battlefield, Rubicon held the deeds to the entire sector. They were free to exploit the planets as they saw fit.

The problem was the Red List squatters who had been living in the system for decades, perhaps even longer. Unlike sanctioned pioneer communities like Longstride and Brin’s World, the small privately owned properties like the ocean resort world Abzu or the fortified asteroid belt of the Folken mercenaries, the red listers had no recognized claim.

The frontier was popular with red listers, castoffs of the corporate world who lived their lives without the burden or the benefit of any kind of citizenship. Necrospace on the frontier was just as dangerous as it was in the corporate sectors. Instead of abandoned factories and spoiled planets ruled by scavengers, the red listers out here were faced with hostile alien planets and exposed to the predations of pirates. Most red list ships and populations who left corporate sectors and went to the frontier were soon gone, swallowed up by an unforgiving universe. By simply still existing after decades of settlement the red list community on T4, who called themselves the Dunhills, had beaten the odds. At least, Rhett thought, as he flexed his hand again, until Rubicon discovered them.

They lived mostly underground, in natural cave networks that had been heavily modified by digging and using construction equipment they’d brought with them from corporate space.

Rhett didn’t know that much about the Dunhill’s story beyond the basics. They were a red list flotilla that had formed over many years, wandering necrospace and surviving day to day, like most red listers. At some point they made the choice to try life on the frontier, and found what became known as the Tardis sector. They traded in barion, the less stable but more affordable alternative to xaxos, which is what drew them into the cave network and afforded them enough wealth to maintain their supplies and pay the protection money demanded by local pirate bands.

Rubicon surveyors found the Dunhills when planning the refinery complex and starports that would define the struggle for T4. The planet was ideally positioned in the system for transit in and out of the system, depending on where in the universe one was bound. Starports on either pole of the planet allowed the vast quantities of materials pulled from the sector, mostly T1 and T2, to be transported back into corporate space.

Initially, the managers of Tardis were willing to allow the red listers to remain, so long as they paid for the privilege. With the pirates driven away or wiped out by cor-sec troopers such as Rhett himself, the Dunhills just started giving Rubicon the protection money and shipments of barion.

Should have known that wouldn’t last, Rhett thought. The transport shook again as the yellow warning lights switched on. Yellow meant they were two minutes out.

Rhett flexed his fist once more, unable to stop himself.

The massive refinery that was fed by the entire system was on T4, and now that the second starport was finally complete, the pipeline that would connect the refinery and the starport ran right through the Dunhills settlement.

It was a hard universe, but no one had it as tough as the poor souls on the Red List. They might have their freedom, but it was a desperate kind. Without a corporation to call their own they had ...

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