Black Night

24th March 2158
Return to Mars

We arrived at Mariner Downport without incident, after the usual tedious journey down the elevator. I contacted Hiro who informed me that he had made good progress with the Maas negotiations, though he did not envisage that handover of the access codes or final documentation would occur for a matter of weeks as yet.

This left us with the problem of the two prisoners, and the whole issue surrounding reporting the pirates. He did say that there was a reward posted for them, but the amount (50K) paled into significance in comparison to the recovery potential of their ship. In the end we decided that it might be best to lose them-one of LFC’s other ships was in Highport shortly to depart for Luna. If we did a ‘cargo transfer’ while also avoiding Mars customs, we could sidestep the whole issue and dump them quietly there. Meanwhile LFC would progress the salvage issue after they had ownership of the rig-they might still end up giving Maas a cut to smooth things along, but our share would be greater.

Vincent needed to stick around Downport for a while as he was meeting a client regarding some old contract. The rest of us headed for hotels, and we arranged to meet Hiro at the LFC offices the next day.

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6th March 2158
A Job Well Done?

Finally, we’ve finished. At supper yesterday evening we opened some wine, and even Derik swayed slightly.

As we decided, we will spend a couple more days here while Derik compiles his report, and then we encrypt it and transmit to Hiro, before we hit transit.

In summary, we think Hiro will be able to negotiate the price down.

The drills and rigs were removed, and will need to be replaced. On top of this the whole drilling cycle will need to be tested and recalibrated.

The drives, power plant and fuel stores all need a major overhaul before they can be used safely, and there is a deal of routine refurbishment which needs to be done to basic facilities. All of this with recording data and photographs. Derik can translate it all into engineer and trade speak. He reckons it will be approaching a year before LFC are ready to move the rig from the Majhestic Cluster (Maas exploitation rights) to the Chlaer Radical-the area in this Mining Territory of the Belt (M-0106 to give it it’s snappy offical designation) operated by the Free Companies and Independents, where Maas are forbidden to mine without falling foul of UWC monopoly laws.

I’m looking at a deadline of three more days before we depart, bringing us back to Mars around 2158-82. It will be good to stand dirt side again for a few days, though no doubt Hiro has something else lined up for us.

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2nd March 2158
Old Mysteries

We are really making progress now, and are about halfway through the crew deck. The ore processing facilities are in a very poor state, which should bring the price down somewhat.

There are a lot of staterooms on this level and today Vincent found a memory stick, which he has been playing with on his comp.

It seemed to be a Diary. The author of the diaries was someone calling himself Yuri– a Russian, perhaps. The diaries are, largely, a hum-drum account of life aboard the mining platform recording mundane activities, personal observations, moans about conditions, disparaging remarks about certain officers and other crew members. However, some of the entries seemed a little more disturbing.

Yuri described how the regime at the platform became increasingly draconian. Recreation time was reduced, watches lengthened and rations cut-back. Quotas, it appears, were not being made and the whole crew felt the strain. He noted that the crew responsible for the starboard refinery were particularly stressed and forced to effect repairs to equipment that should have been replaced. The inevitable result was a severe malfunction that cost the life of two crew members, named as Helmut and Kells. Yuri said that the senior officers ordered an inquiry and found six members of the starboard team to be guilty of negligence.

‘But,’ Yuri remarked, ‘the poor bastards, like Helmut and Kells, were just victims of Rogan’s ego. If anyone should have been jailed, it was Rogan.’

“Hang on”, interjected Derik, “I’ve heard about this. I used to work for those bastards at Maas, and I still have a few contacts. This was a big discussion point a couple of years ago. I knew Kells, and it was recorded that he died during an industrial accident. Their bodies were returned to their families- I went to his funeral on Mars.”

“The families received a full year’s bonus as compensation. I’ve heard of this Rogan too-though he was after my time. He was the CEO for the platform, and a bit of a hardliner apparently. He’d made his name on independent remote mining operations. There was some rumour that he suffered from some form of mental illness and had, early in his career, suffered a full mental breakdown. He was a bit of a martinet allegedly, and very much the Company’s man.”

Wheels within wheels. It seems that this Platform was not a happy place when it was in operation.

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24th February 2158
The One they Left Behind

We had a nasty shock today. We have finished the two hanger levels and were working on the Command Deck. Vincent and Maria are checking the command centre and research labs, while we made a start on the numerous habitation areas on this level.

I was checking over the wiring in the kitchen areas with Dmitri and opened the door to one of the large freezer units to check inside. Leaning against the door-and it made me jump backwards a few feet I can tell you- was a dead body which toppled out slightly before hanging eerily in mid air, blocking the entrance inside. The corpse was frozen solid and wasn’t wearing a vacc suit. There was a bad wound to the head, which was covered in frozen blood with the face contorted into a gruesome rictus.

I called Sylvie to Suit up and she joined us an hour or so later. Her opinion was that the wound was obviously the cause of death, but in its frozen state she couldn’t determine whether it was some sort of blunt trauma or a gunshot wound-there was no apparent point of exit.

I don’t want this thing on the ship-LFC can clean it up later.

Who is this poor soul? Someone who got into a nasty argument before the base was abandoned, or something more sinister? There is no way of telling and, frankly, it’s not our problem.

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21st February 2158
Honest Work

After dismounting the Pirate (for so it was) ship weaponry and the sensor suites yesterday, today we swopped them round, and transferred the barbettes and ammo to our hold. We couldn’t really fit them here, and would have to wait for our return to Mars.

We also reviewed the logs and ships computer of the captured vessel (‘The Black Pig’). It had been in a fire fight some two weeks previously, and the cargo we found in the hold had been transferred immediately after that; there were a series of similar incidents going back over a two year period-these people were not too thorough in keeping their records tidy.

This was evidence, but of course it also gave provenance to the 4 tons of very valuable electronic parts we had transferred to our hold. Laura offered a solution, by applying what looked like a high tech pistol in front of the computer and pressing the trigger, with no obvious effect.

“EMP Pulse”, said Vincent. “ Fancy bit of spy tech- that will totally have trashed the ships log and computer records”. We would just claim that it was like that and the Pirates must have done it themselves.

So that’s that. Finally we can get on with this survey-if we can stop Vincent playing with that damn Drone.

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19th February 2158
A Light in the Dark

As soon as I woke I sent Hiro a message explaining what had happened; the message was encrypted thanks to a magic black box Derik had produced and fitted to the comms unit-some sort of trade security precaution I suppose.

In the meanwhile we needed to look to our own security. I decided to remove the two airlock cams and reposition them in the hanger to cover the four doors entering from the Docking Control area: Dmitri and Derik got to it, running them from the Forward Hab Units power supply.

Maria was resting up, and so I took Laura, Dmitri and Vincent to do a bit of scouting. We had decided on the previous evening that we needed to take a look in the other hanger-if only to ensure that we could secure this level of the Rig.

I opened the access door with Dmitri and Vincent –apparently now the Wild Bill Hickok of the Asteroid Belt, covering. Laura stood to the side and chanced a look in. Nothing-it was just pitch black.

“There’s a ship in there” said Vincent, “I can see it with my View Visor, there are assorted heat signatures coming from it.”

I moved up and took a look with the viewer on my rifle-I recognised the design. A 400 tonner of the obsolete Guardian A2 class-probably more than 30 years old. These were similar to the C1’s used by Customs vessals, though with less modern systems obviously. Laura sneaked in for a closer peek, and returned 10 minutes later.

“It’s an A2 all right. Two rail gun barbettes fitted, and it looks like its taken battle damage. There are stacks of metal plate and scavenged fittings around the hanger-my guess is they’re fixing it.”

This had been Vincent’s earlier theory and I imagined, rather than saw him, smiling smugly.
We decided to enter; the ship was a threat, especially as we knew it had weapons fitted. Probably the only reason it hadn’t flown out and blasted us was that a number of its systems were down.

Vincent unscrewed the keypad and spent 10 minutes fiddling with the circuitry: the airlock opened. We bundled in, closed the door and cycled it: we needed to get in fast before they noticed-fortunately we hadn’t set any alarms off as yet. Inside the ship there was a normal atmosphere.

We came up the ramp to a circular access corridor: Laura and I went left, and Vincent and Dmitri went right. Laura and I entered what appeared to be a galley area, with some evidence of recent activity.

We headed toward the corridor that led to the front of the ship.

“Lars. Dmitri and I are heading back to you. There are some kind of drones active in the central cargo area, and frankly I don’t want to disturb them. I don’t think they’ve noticed us.”. Vincent.

Laura flitted across to the other side of the corridor and signalled that someone was up there. She popped out and missed. I was luckier and caught him full on with a burst of autofire. We could hear shouting.

I stayed and at the end of the corridor, shooting up towards the bridge: another man appeared and started taking potshots at us. Laura fired a few times but the range wasn’t good for her pistol, and she started flitting between doorways in an attempt to move closer.

Meanwhile Vincent started yelling “Those drones-they’ re moving up!” Then we started to hear firing from behind us.

Another bad guy moved across and took position in a doorway, and we all blazed away without hitting anybody until I finally got lucky and my smg hit No.2 in the head, removing most of it. The guy in the doorway threw his pistol out “Ok! Ok! We surrender.”

“The Drones- deactivate them!” yelled Laura. He shouted at an unseen ally, and presently a smaller man in a technician’s overalls came out, hands above his head.

“It wasn’t us-the Captain made us attack you-it was all his fault!” He pointed at the man that used to have a head.

“Yeah, we were a passing Church Choir he captured. Shut the Fuck up Patterson.” This from the the one that first thrown his gun down. “So what now?”

I looked them up and down. I couldn’t really trust them.

“Suit up, and we’ll get you back to our ship”. Seemingly they were the only two crew left alive.

We took stock. Dmitri and Vincent had destroyed one of the Drones, but the other was undamaged and we found its control unit near the bridge.

The ship’s T Drive was inoperative, and it’s M Drive was in very poor shape (and currently offline). It did however, have salvageable weaponry and a working military grade sensor suite-that would all do nicely to upgrade the Bleriot. I suggested that we might get a fair bit of salvage from this. There were 4 tons of cargo too.

“Niet” said Dmitri, “Laws not work so. Owner of rig has right to claim salvage-Mucho Maas. They would put in claim, and owner of ship gets one year to reclaim it, in which case Maas could claim a recovery fee off them. If no-one claims-it belong to Maas. You need to claim as War Prize-say our lives all in danger unless we fight these men.”

When we got back to the ship we discussed it-after Sylvie had put the two crew in grav couch suspension. Derik suggested we inform Hiro-the LFC staff were in a better position to work out the legal wrangles.

A few hours later Hiro beamed back. “Dmitri is right about the salvage laws. If you claim it as a war prize then of course Maas will contest it, but to avoid an endless debate it should be possible to eventually reach a settlement with them. LFC would claim too-as of course you’re technically an LFC contractor at the moment, but I’d be happy to argue a 3 way split. “

“There might be another option however” he continued. “ My suggestion is you continue with the survey, and before you reactivate the T Drive transmit it to me. I will get right on it and try to fast- track the sale while you’re in transit. If it works out, it might be possible for us to complete the transfer deal and THEN you put in a report when you get back. That would put us in a much stronger position in arguing a settlement. Either way it’s probably going to be the best part of a year before we see the money from this, but if you swop the sensors and take their weapons I’ll underwrite that and we can deduct it from your portion of the claim. What do you think?”

I liked his devious mind: I knew he was a man to watch.

“ And what about the two crew?” I asked.

“Oh well; we can think about that later. Might be easier all round if we allow them to cut and run-say you killed all the crew. I’m sure life and liberty is an attractive proposition for them. Avoids official entanglements too-they can be very…distracting.” I could see he had thought this out in some detail. Wily devil. Still, potentially a good deal for us- and we got something out of it immediately.

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18th February 2158
A Warm Welcome

We split up into three teams: Vincent, Laura and myself would comprise one surveying team, and Derik, Maria and Dmitri the other. Sylvie and Marsha would remain in the ship as a base team, and Marsha would cycle in and replace other team members as required. I ordered that the ramp should remain up and Sylvie and Marsha were to retain their side arms on duty in the ship.

The logical first step was to make sure our own base area was secured, and so my team started stripping panels and checking feeds in the lower part of the hanger, while Maria’s team floated above us checking the upper hanger area. The whole proceeded without incident and by the end of the third watch we were satisfied with the result, and took a short meal break inside the ship.

We determined that for the next shift my team would survey the mining drone stable, while Maria’s team checked out the warehouse area, both on our current Hanger Deck 4. We separated and started to make our way through the opposite ends of the Docking Control area to our respective destinations when Maria called over the radio.

“Lars. The hatch to the Command Deck level is open. I’m pretty sure it was closed when we came here the other day.”

I checked on the radio and no-one had opened it.

“Ok. Cover the hatch. We’ll just do a quick check of the Drone stable then we’ll join you. Sylvie: pull up the ramp and lockdown.”

We spent 10 minutes checking the Drone area but it had been emptied and was fairly straightforward to check. Maria’s team did a quick sweep of the warehouse area over on their side of the rig.

Fifteen minutes later we were together outside the open hatch. I went down first and found myself in a hatch alcove leading onto a corridor which separated the Research lab and Accommodation areas of the command deck. On my right was a closed door; on my left the corridor led across the width of the rig. My helmet lights couldn’t see more than a few metres along, but when Maria climbed down she pointed to a snack packet which was floating in the middle of the dark, icy corridor: it was slowly spinning round in mid air, plotting a slow spiral motion towards one of the bulkheads. Something must have caused it to move. I hate Doritos.

Dmitri joined me and we both moved along the corridor towards the floating packet. Maria and Laura joined us, and being a fairly stealthy pair they passed us and moved onwards towards the intersection about halfway along the corridor.

At that moment the radio burst into life.

“Shit. SHIIIIT!” Vincent’s voice; he was still upstairs.

As I started to turn round I caught a double flash ahead of me in the corridor, and saw Maria do a spin and get flattened against the bulkhead.

“Get back! BACK!” I yelled, not having a clear shot with Maria and Laura ahead of me. I didn’t know how badly Maria was hit but her suit would be ruptured. Laura started to pull back, and Maria disappeared into a hatch alcove just ahead of her, which led down to the Crew deck. Hopefully the ambushers couldn’t get a line-of-sight on her there. I exchanged a few shots with the two shapes ahead of us, but their cover and the darkness made it tricky. Dmitri was trying unsuccessfully to get a clear shot past Laura.

Suddenly Maria popped out ahead of us and poured a burst of auto fire into the shooter on the opposite side of the corridor to her. She was still alive then, and after firing she popped back into her alcove. Vincent was still screaming over the comms as Laura finally pushed past, giving a Dmitri a clear shot with his 12mm Anvil-the one I have noticed him talking to on occasion. The shot blasted the remaining attacker backwards into the corridor he was shooting from.

“Back upstairs Now!” I yelled, “Maria can you make it?” She replied in the affirmative.

When we emerged back on the hanger Deck, Derik and Vincent were covering the doorway which led through to the warehouse area. Vincent was giggling and talking to himself over the comms. I talked to him and he turned to face me his Bandit 9mm still in his hand. I palmed the pistol away and took it off him-he was babbling away.

Dmitri looked through into the warehouse. “3 of them. Dead I think, floating”. How on earth Vincent had managed it I don’t know.

“Alright. Grab their pistols. All hands back to the ship now. Sylvie-1 casualty. Get ready.”

She lowered the ramp and we bundled back into the ship. Maria was staggering a bit and we got her in the elevator upstairs, where with Sylvie’s help we stripped off the Vacc Suit; Maria had been able to slap an emergency patch on this, obviously. The slug had taken her in the right shoulder, which is why I had seen spin her round.

Sylvie sucked her teeth. “This will hurt” she said, and jabbed a painkiller into Maria’s shoulder. We then pinned her on the dining table, and Sylvie washed her arm down and sprayed on medical disinfectant and a local anaesthetic. I looked away but kept Maria pinned down as she jerked. Dmitri held her down on the other side.

“There . 9mm bullet. Very clean wound. She will be ok I think.” I heard it tinkle as she dropped it into a tray, and then started to bind up the wound.

The rest of the day was a Wash, but at least we knew we were not alone on the rig. And whoever they were, they weren’t friendly.

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17th February 2158
Welcome to The Factory

Today was a straightforward but tiring day. Our first task was to set up the two large hab modules we had brought. These we would erect against the rear wall of the Hanger, and would supply a forward base for the LFC work teams which would follow over the succeeding months. In the meantime they would supply a lot of extra living space for us, as the combo is designed to house 12 people.

Attaching booster rigs and manoeuvring them out, settling them into place and plumbing up took the best part of the day, with all hands assisting. There was nearly one serious incident when Laura caught her vacc suit on a minor projection and suffered a breach-a reminder of how dangerous our work here is. Fortunately her suit seal flooded the hole with gel, and Sylvie was nearby and managed to slap a sticky patch on the outside of it. Laura was sent back to the ship and checked over, while Dmitri repaired the suit later in the evening.

After supper I reminded everyone of the ordinary hazards we would likely encounter. We would be operating in pitch darkness for the most part, with only our suit and flashlights for illumination. As the base was stripped and abandoned there would likely be all sorts of debris cluttering the corridors-ends of cables, useless junk and so on. Any one of these could cause a suit hazard.

Frost would also cover most of the surfaces, making moving about and handling a fairly treacherous affair . Take things Slow was the best advice I could give, especially if you were not experienced in zero-G.

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16th February 2158
Platform AMG0125

The first thing I saw was Sylvie leaning over me. Her hair had been immaculately arranged and she was wearing what I suppose were once her old reddish brown MMC space station fatigues. Her name was still sewn over one pocket, though I noticed that the MMC collar tabs had been carefully replaced with matching dark brown material with what looked like embroidered Japanese calligraphy symbols. That’s Sylvie for you: stylish even when she’s dressing down.

I started coughing and made the usual nice mess. Sylvie disengaged the various feeds and sensors, and I stumbled into the shower pod, while she began to cycle the rest of the crew.

First order of the day was checking the Nav computer- we were some distance short of the exit point, which would mean several hours coasting at 1G- I didn’t want to overdo it on the fuel.

While we did that we discussed tactics: we would start with an external survey just using ships sensors and visuals, and then dock in Hanger Bay 1 which the report indicated had been left open. Tomorrow we would set up the Hab Units in the Hanger area, and the day after that we would commence the actual survey-a process taking maybe 2-3 weeks.

I managed to get in some fairly close flying, and miraculously Maria’s hack job on our sub-standard sensor suite held up.

The exterior of the rig seemed to be structurally sound, with only a little incidental damage from wear and tear on various parts of the superstructure. As expected the main docking bay for the platform was open. We also noticed that the big mining drills had been obviously removed when Maas left, but the mounting rigs, which should have been present, according to the schematics Maas provided, had also been taken.

There was one very unusual feature-and as events turned out we were very lucky that Maria managed to pick it up. Some form of power source seemed to be active in the rig itself: very low level, but as the platform should have been completely powered down it was a little worrying. Trace sensor readings for area picked-up the kind of ionisation patterns normally associated with a Manoeuvre drive. As far as we knew no-one had visited the base since Maas abandoned it 18 months ago, which indicated that the visitors, whoever they were, were unexpected and probably unwanted. I faced the rest of the crew.

“Look, Maria’s sensors indicate some sort of activity in the area, and the only explanation I can think of is Pirates-this base would make a good hideout. That also means the possibility of a ship in the area- and we are unarmed. We need to take some standard precautions.”

I opened the ships locker and allowed everyone to arm themselves with their own weapons, or any others they wished to use. Marsha looked a bit hesitant put I insisted and handed her a Ruger 10mm Thunderbolt from the Locker.

I also ordered that no-one was to wander off, and that we were to operate in minimum teams of two: standard buddy procedure for Vacc Suit drill in any case.

I steered the Bleriot into the darkness of Hanger Bay 1-the area was very large-big enough to accommodate two 400-tonners. It was of course pitch black, illuminated only by the external lights of the Spacecraft. I set her down to one side and lowered the ramp.

Dmitri went over to the hanger arrays and activated the Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) on the wall arrays, and then Maria and I made our way to the Docking Control Area which separates the two hangers, and located the control for the doors. The UPS at least allowed us to operate these and the docking clamps, and a little bay emergency lighting, but nothing else. Overall the base was completely powered down and we would be relying on our own life support. Closing the hanger doors at least gave us the illusion that we were safer, if nothing else.

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31st January 2158
Farewell to Mars

We left early, nobody looking forward to the long elevator journey. There had been tearful farewells between Sylvie and her family, and there were tears on her cheeks as she sat looking out of the view port.

The three pieces of the wooden statue were stashed safely amidst our luggage. We had separately retreived our pieces from the station deposit lockers earlier.

We had been lucky over the last couple of days, as Hiro and Derek had arranged the loading of the Bleriot with the Hab Modules and tools we would be taking with us. We would also be taking another passenger-one Marsha Olsen.- a very attractive LFC Mineralogist in her thirties I would guess. Maria took an instant dislike to her.

There were still a few hours loading to do, and we settled into the ship and our quarters. The crew and Vincent would be living here in the couple of weeks it took to do the Platform Survey; Derik and Marsha would be living in the Hab Modules once we had assembled them.

Eventually we set off.I sat in the Pilot’s Couch-I was Captain of my own Ship! We headed out of orbit and did our system checks.

We all sat down in the crew area and had the customary last meal. The old space hands were happy enough, but Sylvie and Marsha were both pretty quiet. Sylvie I knew had not travelled away from Mars before, and I suspected that Marsha had travelled only a little. Entering a grav couch can be an ordeal for the uninitiated.

It is usual for the Ship’s medic to be the last to sleep and the first to wake from the couches. Given the circumstances I offered to wait till last this time, in order to help her this first time. She smiled a little nervously and I knew that she understood.

One by one the passengers and crew changed into their cheap disposable overalls, and were settled into their couches. Sylvie monitored their life signs as the gel fluid filled the couches (“coffins” I thought, and then shoved the phrase out of my mind), and then their lungs. As their breathing stabilised she moved on to the next module.

And finally it was her turn. She smiled gamely as she lay in the couch, and I attached the mask and other accoutrements. And then the lid came down and the pod started to fill. I could see her eyes widen as she fealt the touch of the gel fluid, and I knew that she would be fighting the urge to panic and break out-who wants to drown themselves in a liquid jelly?: escape is a perfectly natural human response. I have endured it many times, but the first time was the worst.

Sylvie fought the panic, and eventually her breathing settled and the anaesthetic took effect. I was alone now.

Now the ship is already powering down, and I can detect a slight drop in temperature. It’s time for me to get in ,and flood my lungs with gel. Then I will briefly watch the darkness through the transparent lid until all thought and conciousness fades away. And then it will be down to the ship.

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