Treasure in the Core | Part One: METEOR | Chapter One

Natalia Cordero stood in a dimly-lit room on one side of a steel-grey counter, a large, glowing holopanel dividing it in half. On the other side of the counter sat a grumbling male Heema, a species that grew both tall and wide, skin thick and patterned with scales that covered the hundreds of pounds that made up the usually mighty adult. This particular adult Heema had “opted” for a less exciting lifestyle within the Planetary Courier Srvice, but in the bright and bustling trade city of Yennar, that likely came with major benefits. In his unique position, especially, the perks were even better. Either way, the stale atmosphere was enough to make Cordero uneasy. She knew that she was in for another long, unpleasant visit with Gargan Oitz.

“You’ve got my information already saved in there, Gargan,” she said. “All you need to do is put in the code. This one!” Cordero grabbed the datapad before her and pointed at a single set of numbers at the top of the screen. It was her latest cargo run’s filing code, and every week, she had a new one to fight over with Gargan. The old Heema had at least one hundred years of life experience on Cordero, and yet there he was, being a child about her precious time. The pilot had barely reached her mid-twenties, and every moment made her feel exasperated, as though she was rapidly wasting away. Cordero was certain that staying in the office one more moment would most definitely contribute to her life ending up exactly like Gargan’s.

“That’s just now how things work around here, lady. Plus, you barely completed one delivery this week.” Gargan finally raised all three of his pitch black eyes, his wide mouth twisting into a frown. “Yet you’re here, angry about my typing speed, as if you can’t do anything to fix yourself. How much longer do you think Bana’s gonna let you get away with this?”

Cordero rolled her dusty brown eyes, her thoughts momentarily drifting to the office’s Head of Dispatch Operations. Kess Bana had taken off a week before for a family vacation, and Cordero was hoping to catch a break in their absence. “Bana and I have a deal: I do the bare minimum, I get minimum wage. So,” she set the datapad back down, then held out a gloved hand, opening and closing it impatiently with each word she said. “Give me my minimum wage.” Her blatant arrogance only served to deepen Gargan’s frown and slow his pace even more. He folded one of his two sets of hands, slowly resting them upon his desk, and Cordero threw her arms up in defeat.

“Natalia,” Gargan said quietly. “You’re getting into trouble, even if you don’t want to admit it.” He wasn’t wrong, of course, but Cordero wasn’t in a place to discuss what had happened to her work. “Bana’s been really upset that you’re only doing the standard work. You’re a good pilot, Cordero, but if you don’t start doing direct work for Bana again, they’re gonna run out of patience.”

Cordero shrugged. “Bana hasn’t complained to me.”

Oitz very rarely found himself upset. Though he was technically working for a galaxy-wide weapons smuggling syndicate underneath the facade of a courier service, Gargan was a gentle soul, and few had ever seen his anger. Perhaps this was why, when he suddenly rose and slammed his gigantic fists onto the counter, Cordero felt her heart leap into her throat. “Listen to me, you ungrateful little shyze,” Gargan said through countless rows of gritted teeth. “You’re out of control, and Bana’s only been holding on to you because of their debt to Scarow. But Scarow’s dead, and the longer he’s dead, the less time you have to roll around in your pit of doom and gloom.” Gargan slowly sat back down into his chair, eyes locked onto Cordero’s shaken gaze.

“I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you, Cordero, but you need to take a real money mission. You don’t understand what getting into trouble with Bana is really like, and I’m sparing you the last of my patience to keep you from finding out.” Gargan watched her for a moment, then pulled another datapad from under the counter, powering it on and handing it over to her through an opening at the of the holopanel. “Here. It’s not a huge job, but it’s something to get you started again. I really think you should go for it.”

Cordero was still regaining her sense of composure (and the percentage of her pride that had been chipped away by her frightful response to Gargan’s frustration), but she took the datapad regardless, and began reading.

The mission was simple enough: two tanks of fuel needed to be transported to a city in the north-eastern sector of Kahlin, a gorgeous planet covered in jungles and bright blue oceans. It was one of the few planets within the core quadrants that hadn’t been fully occupied by the Navy or the Sector Guards, and old drunks at the local watering hole often said it was because Kahlin was protected by two vicious, warring gods. Kahlin was a five-hour trip from her location, and while she’d never been, the mission brief kindly provided her with a run-down of terrain and the easiest multi-quadrant route to take. All and told, the mission would take less than a day if she didn’t stop for any reason, which meant she could be home right in time to grab a drink at her favorite local haunt back in Yennar. “Does anybody know that I’ll be out there?” Cordero asked, studying the brief again as familiar gears turned and sparks of nostalgia began to go off in her head.

Gargan’s face slowly shifted into a warm smile. He knew she couldn’t resist, especially when it came to a mission as harmless as this one. “Nope. That path has been fully cleared for this run, and every jump is outside of the usual Navy patrols. The brief’s also got new codes for you to use in case you need clearance. Also…”

The large Heema met her eye and pointed at the data pad. “Look at the pay.”

Cordero shifted through to the pay screen, where a fingerprint scanner waited her confirmation for the mission. Her lips hung open at the total: for a measly fuel transmission, Cordero stood to make 65,000 Ywon. That kind of money was enough to pull her out of the squalor that her recent poor life choices had forced her down into, and then some.

It had been a while since Cordero had run a mission like this one, and while she knew she didn’t have much of a choice but to take it, a part of her felt as though this was supposed to happen. Cordero looked to Gargan, then back to the datapad, before giving him a slow nod and removing the glove from her right hand. She pressed her thumb down onto the datapa to accept the mission, then looked up to Gargan with a half-smile.

“There you go, kid,” he said, tapping at the panel in front of him to transfer the data. “Time to get back out there and break the law a little.”

Cordero snapped the strap of her glove back into place, then leaned her elbows onto the counter, her voice just above a whisper. “I’ll get this done for you, but if I start running these again, I’m gonna need something more substantial. I’ve got an expensive lifestyle to supply for,” she said, adjusting the bulky red leather coat around her form. “Or, well, I will.”

Gargan snorted, leaning back and folding one set of arms over his massive stomach. “We’ll talk about that if you come back, pirate,” he chuckled. “If you don’t screw this up, you might still have a chance at being Bana’s second least-favorite employee.”

Cordero sorted the data pad into the inner breast pocket of her coat, a grin spreading across her full lips. She was all at once excited and terrified. It had only been three years since her escape pod crashed into Haoshun Lake, just ten minutes outside of Yennar’s city limits. Cordero lived on scraps and the company of her A.I. companion, Vai, for months. But on one particular day, she decided to rob the wrong smuggler, and Bana just barely caught her escaping the hangar with a whole crate full of Terrajin weapons. Cordero had planned to resell them and keep a few for herself. Her years of experience as a pirate had hardened her to the point where she was readily capable of pulling one of the massive rayguns from the crates and firing them herself. So, when she began doing just that, Bana’s guards split up and drew her fire as a distraction. Bana tackled her to the ground with their large frame and kicked the gun from Cordero’s grasp, twisting the girl’s arm back until she submitted.

Imprisonment within Bana’s operation wasn’t as bad as Cordero had thought it would be, and after her fierce demonstration of resistance, Bana decided to do a little research on the thief. That was when Bana discovered whose crew the young woman came from, and offered Cordero a job within their smuggling business. Scarow had saved Bana’s life once, and with Scarow dead, they decided to hold up their debt by taking on Cordero. Hungry, alone, and ready for a fight, Cordero accepted, dragging Vai right into the smuggling business with her despite the program’s particularly loud resistance.

She’d started out strong, running missions in record time without detection or gunfire. After two years of running successful smuggling missions, though, Cordero suddenly stopped accepting them without reason, and ran meager delivery missions for the post instead. As ever, her only constant companion was Vai, the smart little program that tested every limit of Cordero’s patience.

 

Speaking of:

“Captain Cordero!” A loud shout erupted from the communicator looped around Cordero’s ear, instantly making her regret adding Vai’s data chip to her headset. “This is reckless,” said Vai. “You haven’t done work like this for years.”

“I know,” replied Cordero. “That’s why I need to get back to it now.” She was walking steadily toward her ship, a wide smile plastered across her face, the bags under her eyes feeling lighter than they had in years.

“This is too dangerous. You don’t know what’s out there. Please, Captain, I urge you to reconsider.” Vai’s voice, programmed to be a steady monotone, seemed rushed and frantic in her ear. Cordero turned down a large hallway that led toward the back of the building, and into a small hangar. Not many folks knew about the place because it was technically supposed to function as an extra storage space for Yennar’s city-wide postal service. Bana used it as a meeting spot, a workshop, and a parking area for their various clients. While it was mostly empty that day, a few unattended cargo ships sat around, including her own. Cordero’s eyes fixed upon the small spacecraft that had become hers only a few months before, after the quiet death of its elderly owner.

The Wanderlust was a modest and efficient cargo ship. Built for light-weight speed runs, the ship’s back side was primarily occupied by its jets and a large cargo area. Accounting for all the hardware needed to keep the ship running at it’s best, the pilot only had enough living space for a two-passenger bench and the cockpit. Designated storage areas kept rations heated or cool, but cooking wasn’t an option aboard the little ship, which suited the often neglectful Cordero just fine. The Wanderlust was a light, quick jumper of a vessel that made up for its lack of shields with speed and rapid firepower. It was far from being able to take down a Terrajin tanker, but for getting out of tough situations fast, the ship did its job just fine.

Cordero pulled her communicator from her belt, hitting a button that opened the bottom hatch of the ship before her. “Go ahead and get this thing prepped once I plug you in, Vai. We’ll take off in five.”

“Are you at least going to tell Bana that you took this mission on?”

“What, and give them a reason to worry on vacation? Come on, you’ve got work to do.” Cordero threw her coat onto the pilot’s seat and pulled a wire from her headset. She plugged Vai into the ship’s dashboard and left the earpiece behind on the dash. “Five minutes, Vai. No more questions.”

As Vai prepared the ship for their mission, Cordero waved down two of Bana’s workers in from the hangar, directing them to the cargo hold with the fuel tanks and locking it after they’d exited. Once she was alone again — alone as she could be with Vai’s presence echoing throughout the ship, at least — Cordero made her way back to the cockpit, tying her hair up onto a tight bun with an old strip of fabric that had broken off from her scarf. She couldn’t wait for this mission’s payoff; she looked awful.

“Ready to go?” Cordero asked, sliding down into the pilot’s seat. “Let’s see if we can’t get this thing done within a couple hours. Best to beat the rush if I’m gonna find us a new ship.”

“A new ship?” Vai’s voice was as soft and calculated as ever, but Cordero knew how hard the advanced program struggled with the faithful old model that was the Wanderlust. “That would be greatly beneficial to us, should you choose to continue being a criminal.”

“Ah, yes, Virtuous Vai,” Cordero said with a grin. “Didn’t you wipe all of the memory from Chironii Freinwar’s ship after we stole his little treasure down on Junto?” she tapped the dashboard. “Nobody asked you to do that. You said you just didn’t like that ship’s attitude.”

“We are ready for departure, Captain,” Vai cut in. With a chuckle, Cordero put her hands on the dashboard, kicking the ship’s engines into gear and preparing to steer with her free hand.

As the Wanderlust raised from its station and floated down the long hall that led to the small exit of the hangar, Cordero took in a sharp breath of air, closing her eyes. She watched the wide open expanse of space as it surrounded the Wanderlust, letting the ship move slowly forward and falling silent for just a few moments.

“Captain, we’re prepped for the jump,” Vai said, green lights flaring to life at the top of the ship’s control panel. Cordero’s eyes re-focused, and she chewed on her lip for just a moment, before strapping herself into her seat and pressing two fingers down onto a small, rectangular blue button. She had made her decision.

The ship disappeared without another second to lose, jumping directly out of the quadrant and through a blazing tunnel of black, interspersed with bursts of whirling light. “Passing through the Yorse quadrant,” said Vai. “Four hours and fifty-nine minutes until projected arrival on Kahlin.”

“Good,” Cordero responded, resting her head back onto her seat and watching the wild display of space-time that surrounded her ship. She was determined to do something worth more than the meager life she’d been living. She had almost given up years in the past, before Lana Crusoe had found her. Now, she had to prove that she was worth that effort — worth the lives of the entire crew aboard Hera’s Revenge. Cordero had legacies to protect, and it hit her then (for the first time in years) that she had fallen almost too low to uphold the honor of her old crew.

Cordero focused her eyes forward, her brows hardening into a scowl. She was far from what one might call a pirate by then, but she knew something was waiting for her on this mission, and she wouldn’t rest until she found out what that was.

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