Last night I headed to my local dive bar, The Pink Lettuce for one last drink before my journey. I wasn't looking for a contract, heck, I barely made it back after my last cargo run. It's getting so honest cargo haulers such as myself can't make a living no more out in the Black, what with all these trigger happy youngsters out there pirating. Nobody wants to earn their living anymore, everybody wants things "Now. Now. Now". Anyway, I digress. So I was sitting there at the Pink Lettuce, sipping that Leestian Evil Juice, and this fella comes up to me.
He says to me in a strange accent, "Are you Commander Baba Ghannoush? The one who outran three Pirate Commanders the other night, left them spitting out dust from his High Wake?"
I said "That'll be me. Bunch of amateurs. What's it to you?"
He says, "Sir, let me buy you a drink" and he did. We get talking, and he asks me if I'm looking to earn some money, some good money, retrieving lost cargo, "It's just a little job" he says. I says maybe, so he says there's this rock out there with an alien ship crashed on it. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not one of them Halsey fans with stars in their eyes, but I've heard reports, and some of them guys and gals were sensible, had a good head on their shoulders. So I figure there's something to these stories, that and what happened to me a few months ago, but I don't like to talk about that.
So I figure that something he's looking for is trouble. No sir, I tell him. No alien ships for me, I says. I tell him, "It's like I was telling my last wife, I said "Honey, I never fly faster than I can see. Besides that, it's all in the reflexes". The guy looks at me with a puzzled expression, guess he never studied the classics back at school, otherwise he'd have nodded at that quote.
He shows me a credit figure. Then he pays me one heck of a sum just to hear him out, just to show he's serious. So I heard him out. Next thing I know, I'm getting the Palmyra ready for the trip. She's not much to look at, but this Type-9 outran three Pirate Commanders in the Leesti system the other night, left them spitting space dust from my High Wake. I get a beep, it's an update for my request for crew. Two guys show up, their backgrounds check out OK, so I let them aboard. Good fellas, seemed solid. I could tell by the way he talked that one of them had been around, he'd done a fair bit of exploring in one of them Diamond Back Explorers, the other was a rookie out of Eravate, said this was the first time he was going as far as we was going. But he was a sharp kid and he had good credentials, so I figure he'd be useful in a scrap. Why not?
We started out OK, twenty one jumps to HIP 17406 from Leesti. I won't deny it, having a crew on board sure breaks the monotony of travel. Made me wish I'd had crew with me when I took my first trip out to Sagitarrius A*. That was a trip and a half. So we're on our way and we get to the point where we need to fuel scoop. The next star was a T class one, no good. I filter out non-scoopable stars from the Gal map and there it is, an M-class and she's only a few light years away. We line the Palmyra up and she makes the jump good. The drop was standard, and I figure we're already way out so nobody would bother us. As we were fuel scooping, all hell broke loose. There's something about commanders everywhere. They hear about interdictions, they might have experienced them, but until it starts, you never figure it'll happen to you till it does. Some of them bottle it, and those are the ones that aren't so lucky. But not today, no sir.
"When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the bar room wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the cheque is in the mail.""
I got that line from back when I was a little whipper snapper, back when old Miss Mendacion forced us to study the movie classics. You get a bit of polish when you quote from the classics, she used to say. I think she was full of hot air, but I still quote them anyway 'coz I like them. "This is it, boys!" I yell to the crew, but they're already on the case. The rookie, he was in the fighter and out the launching bay like a bat out of hell. Other fella's Holo-Me jumped on the guns and gave me a thumbs up. Good guys, like I told you. We start evasive action, and I divert power to shields, then check to see who interdicted us. If it's another commander in a Corvette then this was going to be a real short trip, I'll tell you. Luckily it was some pirate in an Asp Scout. I don't think he realised he just interdicted the Commander who gave three Pirate Commanders the slip in Leesti. No, sir.
The Asp Scout started laying fire down on my shields, but with my engineered shield boosters, it was like August rain pattering harmlessly on a tin roof. I move the Palmyra around and get the Scout in my sites, meanwhile the rookie's hammering at its shields. Within seconds he's down to sixty percent hull, fifty, thirty, five. The pirate ship evaporated. It didn't take us long to carry on fuel scooping and be on our way. Within a few jumps we got to the Aries Dark region. It's the first time I've been back here since the Thing pulled me out of Hyperspace. I never told nobody about this, not even after other commanders came forward with their stories. I felt my heart rate rise.
"This where the aliens are?" asks the rookie. His buddy looks to him and shakes his head. You don't mention these things when you're out in the Black, you don't say the "T" word. Back in the Bubble it's easy to laugh all these things away as a fairy tale, but here, in the Black, reality don't follow the rules. There are strange things out here, and too many ships and their crew have vanished without a trace.
"I've never been hyperdicted" he says, ignoring his friend.
"Pray you never will" I think to myself, but I don't say nothing.
We get to HIP 17406 and supercruise our way to the coordinates my contact at the Pink Lettuce gave me. Come to think of it, the money doesn't seem to make me feel as good now as it did when I had a few drinks in me. We arrive to the planet, it's a rock, no indiginous life here. One of the crew takes the fighter out to recce his way ahead.
"I got something, Commander" he radios in. And there it was, at the base of a small mountain in the middle of a huge crater, we find - something. I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, it took out two Type-9's and two Anacondas. There, in the middle of all that carnage, was the same Thing that had hyperdicted me months ago. In spite of my Remlock suit's temperature control I could feel my palms sweating. The rookie was pressed up against the glass, "You see that, chief? Oh boy! You see that? That's a Thargoid ship!" he says.
"Quiet, kid. Keep an eye on those sensors" I says.
"You want me to head back in, Chief?" says the veteran. I tell him yes, and we dock the fighter. We bring the Palmyra down, nice and easy. I breathe a sigh of relief and lean back in my chair, staring at this alien horror that's lying broken in front of me. Something that no man could ever have built. And now I was going to have to drive up to it and do what the man at the Pink Lettuce asked me. I hoped against all hope that the object he'd described wasn't there, that it'd all be for nothing and we'd come back empty handed. But he was right about everything so far, and here was the ship, just where he said it would be. What he hadn't mentioned was that other people had tried to get here, tried to get the Thing. But something had gone wrong, very wrong. The SRV dropped down gently onto the surface, it was only .33Gs here so I had to drive carefully. Funny how things seem a lot bigger when you're outside your ship. It's like you ain't invincible no more without your ship.
I looked back once at the Palmyra, forlorn and lonely against the desolate landscape and the open, empty blackness of space, then I drove on to the alien wreckage.