The following is a short story by Tyler McGoffin of Offworld Games, taking place in the time just after the discovery of the Proxima Centauri star system.
Citizen 6798124, known to his friends as Jao, hated going to the High Council citadel. Sure, it was the center of human civilization, adorned with all of humanity’s latest innovations and technologies, but it was also the center of politics, a breeding ground of deception and intrigue.
Jao was comfortable enough with these ideas – deception and intrigue are a requirement in his line of work as a smuggler – but the stakes are far too high in politics for his taste. Whenever Jao faked his paperwork or hid cargo from a customs agent, no one got hurt. Quite unlike the politicians at the High Council, whose intrigue affected the millions of people just getting started with their new lives in Proxima Centauri. That intrigue often got people hurt, and that was something Jao couldn’t stand.
This is why the Centaurians left us, he thought bitterly as he received clearance to dock, guiding his ship, a modified ZH-1 Dark Raider, into the massive structure. The dock entrance was big enough for two of humanity’s lifeboats, the massive ships that brought the survivors of Earth to Proxima Centauri, to fly through abreast. Most of the lifeboats had been repurposed into new KF-series Battle Carriers, transporting people to their new homes scattered throughout the star system.
One of these Battle Carriers was exiting the station as Jao guided his ship into the docking clamps. He wondered where these new colonists were headed, and if they would be safe. Apparently, the Centaurians had recently turned hostile, and destroyed humanity’s last colonization attempt. Jao noted the escort of Dark Raiders flying out with the population transport, dwarfed by the carrier.
Jao cycled the airlock and entered the High Council citadel proper. For a moment he felt dizzy as the artificial gravity of the station took over. That was a Centaurian technology the human scientists still hadn’t puzzled out.
There was no one there to greet him, nor anyone in the corridor. He supposed that made sense, given the size of the citadel. Only a tiny fraction of humankind managed to escape Earth, and only a fraction of those survived to make it here. Jao was certain that one day, these hallways would be packed with people, but for now, the sparsity just made his job easier.
His contact had told him where to meet, a commissary near the station’s central hub, and he wasted no time getting there. The sheer size of the station made it impossible to walk, so he hailed one of the station’s transport pods and sped off to his destination.
Commissary D-12 was unremarkable. The food was terrible, and the lighting harsh, but it was the same food he had eaten for his first 22 years of life on a lifeboat. He’d be happy when he could return home and eat some of the fresh crops his community had managed to scrape together since settling there.
He’d finished his meal, and was sipping a hot cup of what passed for tea on the station when a flustered woman in a labcoat collapsed in the seat across from him. Jao raised an eyebrow at her as she made a scene of it, drawing the attention of nearly everyone in the commissary, but he otherwise ignored her and sipped his tea.
“Are you Citizen 6747924?” she asked without preamble.
This woman was an amatuer, thank the stars he had given her one of his aliases. “I am,” he responded, “my friends call me Chip.”
The woman looked scandalized, “Well I am not your friend, 924,” she snapped. “I have your instructions.”
She was nervous, Jao could tell that much, but also haughty. Shouldn’t have been a surprise, as she lived on the High Council citadel, but Jao found himself taken aback nonetheless. He could walk away, but the promised pay had been too good, and she had given him more money up-front than most of his clients paid for an entire haul. He opted to respond with a grunt, rather than goad the woman.
She reached inside her lab coat and withdrew a small data drive. Jao tensed instinctively when she reached into her coat, and visibly relaxed as she put the data drive on the table. The woman eyed him cautiously – she had no doubt noticed.
“Your instructions are on there,” she said, more wary than haughty this time. “I must go.”
Without another word, she got up with the same flustered frenzy as she sat, and stalked out of the commissary.
Jao looked to the nearest group of patrons, who were staring openly, “I’m married,” he said, holding up a ringed hand, “and I think she’s used to getting what she wants.”
The group erupted in laughter. Jao smirked, and finished his tea.
Just over a week later, Jao found himself in orbit above an uncolonized planet with a strange purple hue. He’d never seen a purple planet before, and wondered what the reason was for it. Perhaps that scientist from the High Council citadel could tell him, probably something to do with gasses in the atmosphere or something.
His instructions on the data disk had been vague. They had said he’d find the cargo here, after making contact with another ship. He had been in the business long enough to read between the lines, and despite his boredom, Jao was alert. His contact wasn’t likely to be friendly, and any lesser man in Jao’s position would likely try to remove Jao, the middle man, from the transaction.
He had redirected all auxiliary power to his scanners, and his navigation computer was tracking objects as far out as the planet’s most distant moon. He would see his contact coming before he got within 2 million kilometers.
In the meantime, Jao thought of home. It had only been a few years since he had been placed with a colonization party on the dusty red planet they had come to call Charun. The Centaurians had terraformed it centuries before, but the crops they had brought from Earth needed some genetic modifications before they could take to the iron-rich soil. It hadn’t taken the biologists long, and the fledgling community had harvested their first crops within a year.
The corn was orange, and the wheat more brown than yellow, but Jao wouldn’t have known how they were supposed to look had no one told him. He’d never seen, nor eaten, anything but lab grown proteins and fungal derivatives before, and his first bite into a fresh ear of corn had been orgasmic. He had no idea why they were called ears, they looked nothing like an ear. Some of Earth’s legacy had been quite strange to him.
Jao was yanked from his revery to the sound of klaxons blazing; a proximity alert. Impossible, he thought. The computer should have warned him of anything coming his way long before the alert sounded.
He jumped to the controls and glanced at his sensors. Two fast moving red blips were headed his way. He was surprised there was no other available information. He had some of the best sensor equipment available, and his ship should be displaying droves of information about the approaching objects, from life signs to drive plumes. Whatever they were, they weren’t friendly.
He had reacted just in time, as two searing laser bolts streaked across his vision. They had missed him, just barely, and Jao began to fly by instinct. He pulled hard to port, and banked down. Thankfully the approaching ships, that must be what they were, were going too fast to follow and streaked overhead.
He got a brief glance at them as they flew by. They were both angular in design, propelled by strange, circular engines seemingly unconnected to the ships at their sterns. Centaurians. Jao, smashed on the throttle and sped off in pursuit.
He streaked after his quarry as they attempted to lose him on the other side of the planet. His sensors were still giving him vague readings, but he hit the override and had his weapons lock on to them anyway. He fired his own lasers, tracking the rearmost ship. The Centaurians split in an instant, reacting to his fire with inhuman speed.
He peeled off, after the closest of the two ships, dialing in a vector to cut the distance between him and the alien threat. Undoubtedly, the second ship would circle back to try to flank him, so he had to eliminate this first threat fast.
He punched in some commands to his system, and fired two volleys, in quick succession. The Centaurian reacted in the same way from his attack as the first, and flew right into the path of his second volley. There was a flare of green light upon contact, before the ship ignited in an explosion muted by the vacuum of space.
Jao let out a whoop at his success, and turned his attention to his radar to assess the second threat. The ship was nowhere to be seen. Remembering how close the ships had come before detection last time, Jao wasn’t taking any chances. He circled the planet for hours, tensed to react should the Centaurian return. When he was finally convinced the alien had fled, he returned to the wreckage of the other ship.
He began scanning for salvage. His sensors were once again operating properly, showing the details of the debris on his screen.
Must have been some sort of cloaking technology, he thought to himself as he collected the few salvageable pieces floating in the darkness. The High Council needs to hear of this.
He grimaced. Looks like he was headed back to the citadel.