Incineration

This view was his favorite thing in the entire universe. Greg sat in the cockpit of his small ship. It was a GK-200. There were only two like it in the known galaxy. He owned one. The other belonged to his younger brother, Keel. It could easily fit a crew of five, but at the moment Greg was the only one aboard.

He tried to take it in, enjoy the view he’d normally go out of his way to see, but this time he couldn’t. Somewhere in the slow rotation of stars and planets before him his brother was in trouble. The console beeped letting Greg know the sensors had finally picked up on the faint signal unique to Keel’s ship. It was coming from a region on the outskirts of Vanguard IX. Greg quickly prepped then made the jump. His console said it would take three hours, which wasn’t enough time to sleep–not that his nerves would let him–so he went to make a cup of coffee.

“Bring up Vanguard IX, section 236, sub-section 19,” Greg called to the on-board computer. He sat on the small couch that took up half of the small cabin and sipped his coffee. On the wall in front of him, the computer displayed the small section of the galactic map. Parts of the map were black, unfinished. Spots like this were rare. Over 99% of the galactic map had been pieced together when the seven empires called a treaty several centuries ago. The only reason Keel would be out in a “blank spot” meant he’d picked up a job that either paid enough to buy a planet, or someone played his heartstrings like an authentic horse-hair violin. Greg hoped it was the former.

“Zoom,” he calmly called, and area enlarged to include three small planets. One, named Ajax Minor, was a few seconds jump from the black, uncharted area. “Ding Keel’s beacon.” At the command a blue dot pinged onto the map and soft ripples scattered from the location. It was inside the “blank spot” a few seconds jump. Equidistant as the planet from the line that divided the known and unknown.

Greg took another sip of coffee. “Pull up all jobs listed across Ajax Minor.” A short list popped up next to the map. Normally a world like this, on the outer rim, would be crawling with jobs for mercenaries, craftsman, even farm hands. The list on the screen listed three jobs. One was a haul job. Transporting two hundred livestock off-world to a planet even further out. Great pay for the work. Greg would have taken it if he had a freighter big enough and he didn’t have to worry about his little brother. The second listed was a bounty. A few renegades ditched the local militia and took off into the “blank.” Greg doubted that was enough to entice Keel, until he saw the third job.

The third job was pretty much the same as the second except it wasn’t issued by the local government. It was, however, issued by a local magistrate.

⊇600,000 For the return of Christa, daughter of Magistrate Kalus. Kidnapped by two deserters of the Zilan Guard. For further details, contact the Magistrate’s estate.

Greg nearly coughed his hot coffee into his nose but was able to swallow it after some effort. 600,000 credits! Not enough to buy a planet, but not far off either. This was it. There was no way Keel would turn this down. He could hear his brother selling it to him.

“Greg, it’s two jobs in one. We go out, rescue the girl, grab the guys, and bring them all back. One trip, 650,000 creds. It’s almost too good to be true.”

Keel was charismatic and could make anything sound more fun than dangerous. Greg knew better. In this scenario, Keel would be more focused on the girl than the money. Which meant Greg would have to cover the actual details of the job while Keel fantasized about marrying a rich magistrate’s daughter who he would get bored of in a few months.

The real problem in this situation was that Keel hadn’t called Greg until he was already on whichever planet he tracked the deserters to. The signal had been weak, garbled, only enough to let Greg know that Keel needed help.

As soon he finished the jump, Greg contacted the magistrate’s estate to get the details. They were pompous enough to tell him that another “bounty hunter” had taken the job a few days ago, and they would only provide the funds to whoever brought back Mistress Christa. Greg fake smiled his way through the communication until he got what he needed. Then he made the jump toward Keel’s signal. He made the calculations manually so he would stop well outside the signal’s location. Jumping into a “blank” was never the best idea. He double checked the distances. Then punched it.

Maybe twenty seconds passed before Greg was spit out into the empty space before a planet the color of half-digested junk-rat kebabs. Hoping the color indicated a mostly desert-like surface, Greg set the scanners to work looking for life-forms while he pinged Keel’s ship. The ship was straight ahead. He gunned it. At normal speed, it would take a few minutes to make it to atmosphere. He checked the scanner. The entire planet was covered in red. There were no areas without a signature. He flicked the screen, but the readout remained the same.

“Damn thing must be picking up plant life again,” he said, and was convinced when he was a few thousand feet above the surface. He could see dark and light brown areas that consisted of large plants. Tall and broad with leaves that hid the surface from above. He circled, pinging Keel’s signal, until he found his brothers ship. The tip of the nose was all he could see in the bright light of the nearby star. The rest was covered in some kind of vine, like arms pulling it into the planet itself.

Greg hovered. He tried to signal his brother but didn’t receive a reply. He began his descent, increasing his engines output so it would incinerate the plant-life and make a clearing for landing. His brother had taken the job only a few days ago. The state of his ship suggested that whatever these plants were, they grew fast and could prevent them from taking off in a hurry if needed.

His landing gear transferred the weight of the ship to the planet’s surface. Ash drifted up into his view and slowly fell. He checked his readout. The display showed a compatible atmosphere, but he pulled on an exosuit anyway. Something wasn’t right.

He hopped out of the airlock. The ground underneath was soft. He made his way toward Keel’s ship. The vines were thick and taught. His suspicion was right. The spacecraft was effectively tethered to the surface. He found the airlock. The door was open and covered with moss. Smaller vines had entered the ship, covering the airlock walls. Greg climbed in. Almost every surface was covered by the aggressive plant-life. He made his way toward the cockpit but came to a halt when he entered the cabin. The layout was the same as his ship. A couch took up most of the cabin and a display board covered the wall opposite.

The difference was that this cabin was layered in the brown vines. They covered everything. The floors, the walls, the display, the couch. They outlined a body sitting on the couch. Greg carefully stepped toward it and pried the layers off until he confirmed what he already knew. A wave washed over him and tears welled in his eyes. He braced himself against the vine-covered wall then lowered himself onto the extra-padded couch. He felt himself begin to cry and he almost let the tears fall, but he remained steadfast. He was in danger.

He stared at what had been his brother. Keel was smart. He would have left something behind knowing his older brother would come for him. Greg looked around the cabin but couldn’t see anything but vines.

“Play last transmission,” he called. Beneath the vines, the ship buzzed and a voice began talking through muffled speakers.

“…sorry. I should have waited. Do not come for me. I repeat…”

The transmission cut out. It was the same one Greg had received roughly sixty hours earlier, but he could understand what little had played. A thought sparked through Greg’s mind. Keel must have known his warning would fall on deaf ears.

“Play last recording,” Greg called. The muffled speakers once again broke the silence, but this time it came from the display board. Greg began pulling vines away until he could see the screen. Keel’s face was there, looking sickly, as he spoke.

“…brother. I mean it. I always appreciated you even if I never said so, but it seems this time you won’t be able to save me. Even if you showed up this second. It’s too late. This planet. These vines. They cover everything and grow too fast. I know you will find this. If you are watching, leave now. I can only hope there is still daylight for you. Once night comes, these things will cover your ship like they did mine, and they won’t let go. They are tougher than you can imagine…”

Greg looked through the cockpit window to see the sunlight fading. He quickly tapped the display, sending the recording to his own ships computer. He paused to look at his brother’s remains one more time before exiting the ship and running toward his own. He reached the airlock door before noticing small vines reaching out like little fingers from the ash at his feet. He climbed inside and signaled an emergency extraction. His ship kicked to life, automatically ascending until it would exit the atmosphere and settle into an orbit around the planet. Greg sat huddled in the airlock, inside his exosuit, while his ship flew him to safety.

He stripped out of his exosuit and climbed out of the airlock and into the ships prep room. He headed straight for the cabin and played his brother’s recording.

“…I know the soldiers landed here. Their ship is on a few hundred meters from here. I found them. What was left of them anyway. The girl wasn’t with them. The magistrate must have assumed they took her. If she were here, then she’s dead. None of that really matters now. I’ll be dead by nightfall. It seemed like such an easy job. You always said those were too good to be true. And here I am to prove you right once again. One last time.

Greg, you were always there for me. Maybe I took that for granted a few too many times. I just want you to know that I always wished I could return the favor. I tried, but I always seemed to screw it up. I’m sorry. I love you brother.”

The recording stopped. Keel stayed frozen on the display. There was a sad smile on his face. Greg sat there. Once again, he felt the wave come over him. This time he let himself succumb to it, and for the first time that he could remember, he cried. He fell into the couch in his small ship, hovering over his little brother’s grave, and began sobbing. Tears wracked his body. Through those tears he made his decision. He would build a funeral pyre. He would burn an entire planet. He didn’t know how, but he knew it was possible. He would find the means. The incineration at a global scale. He couldn’t wait to see it.

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