Planet of the Dead
by Steven Mace
There is a planet named Pelion in the Orion star system that is mostly inhabitable but rich in important minerals and fuels, hence the mining colonies which dot its bleak, cratered landscape. Orbiting Pelion there are seven moons, each one even more inhospitable than the planet below. Crags of dry, cold rock form jagged, uneven surfaces that rise up into high ridges and dizzying pinnacles before sloping down into vast, pitiless empty plains that stretch for seemingly endless lunar miles. Orbiting the seventh moon, Ludacris, there is a way station for space travellers, colonists, traders and miners in mid-transit between employment contracts on various mining planets.
The official name for the way station was Xanadu 9247, a dry technical moniker that had been assigned by some naming droid in an administrative office somewhere deep within a neon-lit capital city in the Terran Empire. It was the usual standard naming format of a romantic Terran name or word combined with a random number, so that the original name could be re-used for countless millions of other locations in the known universe. For the beings that often frequented the way station Xanadu 9247, and even those who were merely first-time visitors, the place was known simply as ‘Xan’.
‘Xan’ had plenty to offer the passing inter-galactic traveller: luxurious guest rooms, countless storage bays for space-craft, and of course plenty of entertainments and a wide variety of pastimes. There were virtual reality chambers with a choice to be participant or non-participant and which were notorious for their addictive allure and the potential hazard of becoming…too immersed. Indeed, there were cautionary tales of those who became so obsessed with their artificial existence within the chambers that they could no longer distinguish between reality and fiction, and were left psychologically and emotionally connected to the fantasy worlds that had been created. Such people had to be forcibly removed once they tried to abandon their real lives, and they would duly be required to spend periods in reality-adjustment rehabilitation. Occasionally, certain individuals- permanently maladjusted virtual addicts- were left completely unable to function outside their personal artificial world.
For those that liked their pleasures to be more visceral there were indoor games, nightclubs, bars, card schools, strip clubs and an unprecedented selection of male, female, bi-gender and flux-gender whores from around the universe. They were of all races, species, ancestries and descriptions and catered for any possible preference, taste or fetish their potential clients held.
Johnny Volta was not averse to any of the entertainments that were on offer at Xan with the purpose of killing time for the weary space traveller or miner on leave. Indeed, on the occasions that he found himself upon Xan with the purpose of refuelling or socialising, he had partaken of all of them. On this particular occasion, he was playing the card game Zentil, a popular pastime across numerous worlds. The game was played with cards of frosted blue glass, each inscribed with a symbol, or rune. The players competed to win another type of card: the V-card, which was the standard currency of the Terran Empire. He was playing the game against three other beings: a Hladorean merchant who possessed the sensitive snout, prominent whiskers and smooth tusks of his race; a Lacrean miner- a humanoid male from Lacrea, which was a Terran colony; and a Varsi, a small brown intelligent upright mammal-like creature with four limbs, in humanoid fashion, from the Varsi homeworld.
Johnny was losing, and quite badly- but he was preparing a trick that was quite literally up his sleeve. He kept spare Zentil cards on his person for occasions such as this, which he was prepared to use when he required specific cards to improve his hand.
The Hladorean laid a fantastic card down on the table at which they all sat in one of Xan’s busy social bar areas. It was the Keretan, the Plinth card. Johnny knew that in order to counter it he would need a card that he did not have in his legitimate hand. Otherwise, he was out of the game, and about to make another momentous loss. To counter a Plinth he would need the Titan card. Fortunately he had that card up his sleeve, and right now he was trying to work it down along his arm through the material of his black shirt without his fellow players noticing what he was up to.
“Nicely played, nicely played”, Johnny said to the Hladorean, mainly to distract him and buy more time. “You must be feeling confident. That’s a strong card.”
The Lacrean coughed. “Come on, Johnny. Hurry up and play.”
The Titan was almost at his wrist. Just a few more seconds, and he would have it out of his shirt cuff and be able to surreptitiously switch it with another card in his hand. However, a bitter twist of Fate intervened. The Hladorean, fidgeting from his impatience, knocked his considerable frame against the side of the table. The tables on Xan had been designed with humanoids in mind, rather than the greater mass of the average Hladorean. The table was jolted significantly enough to knock both of Johnny’s wrists, and send all of his cards spilling out on to the table, including –most visibly- the Titan card that he had been secretly and illegally attempting to extract from his shirt cuff.
The Lacrean player had been about to admonish the Hladorean for his clumsiness in revealing Johnny’s hand and spoiling the game, when he noticed that Johnny had an extra card: eight, rather than seven. Even if he had been able to dismiss the sight of a card slipping from Johnny’s sleeve as a trick of the eye, the presence of an extra card spilled upon the table confirmed his suspicion that Johnny had been attempting to cheat, an action revealed unwittingly by the Hladorean’s blunder.
“Hey!” the Lacrean said. “What the…?”
“That’s an extra card”, the Hladorean said, grunting to Johnny Volta in the Terran language. “You had an extra card up your sleeve all along.”
Johnny stood up from the table and put his arms up defensively. “Hey come on, guys. I don’t know how that got there. Let’s call it quits, eh? Take my money, it’s a dead game.”
“Why, you cheating…!” the Lacrean was moving menacingly toward Johnny from the opposite side of the table. His behaviour had caught the attention of one of the helmeted Guards in dark blue uniform and body armour who monitored the Xan recreation spaces for signs of trouble. He was watching them carefully from where he stood near one of the gleaming metallic balconies that overlooked the vast entertainments forecourt.
“Leave him”, the Hladorean growled, placing a furred paw upon the Lacrean’s shoulder. “It will cause a scene and get me banned from Xan. Just take the credits.” The Hladorean swept a generous share of V-cards that had been piled upon the table in its vast grasp before walking away.
“Yeah, you ain’t worth it, pal”, the Lacrean spat bitterly toward Johnny, before piling a tall tower of V-cards into the space between his hands and also walking away, pausing only to aim a poisonous glance over his shoulder at Johnny as he did so. For its part, the Varsi merely made a strange spluttering noise before uttering something in its own squeaking language. It stood up on its hind legs, picked up the remaining V-cards, and also strutted away. Satisfied that there would be no trouble like it had anticipated, the Guard’s gaze lingered upon Johnny for several more seconds before it finally turned away.
Johnny let out a sigh of relief and stepped forward to pluck his white Geth-skin jacket- which he had removed during the game- off the back of his chair. As he did so, he heard a low chuckle behind him.
“Same old Johnny Volta”, a low, amused-sounding voice said. “Same old cheat, same old loser.”
Johnny spun around. Leaning against the metallic frame of the bar as he was served by a Shantrelian waitress was a man that Johnny recognised: the tall, well-built frame of Max Hutchison. Max was a Terran in his mid-thirties with short brown hair and a prominent jaw-line. He possessed a vivid pink scar on his cheek from some fire-fight or common brawl he’d got caught up in, sometime in his distant past. He wore a dark black sleeveless jacket over a white shirt, frayed denim trousers and heavy brown boots made of a strong material, hennen, from a distant Terran colony. Max was a Salvager, just like Johnny Volta was, although they were rivals. Whereas Johnny worked for the Vendaker Bounty & Salvage Agency, Hutchison was freelance. He had used to work for the same Agency as Johnny, but he had fallen out with Johnny’s boss and the owner of the entire operation, Mortius Vendaker. Johnny didn’t know the true cause of the feud despite the many rumours going round (the most oft-repeated was that Max had slept with Mortius’ nubile young wife) but he had heard that after going freelance Max was raking in the V-cards, by all accounts. Johnny had experienced numerous encounters with Max in the past, clashes over salvage and space-treasures, and unfortunately for him Max had come out on top more often than not. That was not the only reason that Johnny cared little for him, but it was the primary one. He also knew that the feeling was mutual.
“What’s it got to do with you?” Johnny replied weakly.
“The extra card up your sleeve”, Max said, grinning at him. “Oldest trick in the book, Johnny! Mind you, you’re not exactly known for your imagination, are you?”
“Screw you, Max”, Johnny replied, shrugging himself into his jacket. He made to stroll away across the platform of the recreation area.
“Better luck next time, Johnny!” Max called after him, raising a glass of blue Luridian juice in a mock toast before guffawing with laughter. “Here’s to better fortune and future prosperity!”
Max Hutchison’s presence in the recreation zone had put Johnny in a bad mood and he no longer felt a strong urge to relax and continue his stay on Xan. After a brief conversation with one of the Transport Monitors on his communicator, he discovered that his Agency-issue space shuttle was fully refuelled and ready for take off whenever he wished. He had planned to spend at least another twenty-four Terran hours on Xan but after his encounter with Hutchison he now decided to accelerate his departure from the way station.
He’d had an urgent alert on his communicator which had come through over an hour earlier during his card game with the aliens, which indicated that his boss Mortius Vendaker wished to urgently speak with him. He had been ignoring it as he’d wanted to make the most of his brief vacation period on Xan, but now he thought that he might as well take the communication from Vendaker.
He waited until he was back in the shuttle and had clearance for launch from Xan flight control, before he switched on his Telecaster screen in the shuttle cockpit. Vendaker’s name was flashing on the incoming call screen, and Johnny deliberately let him wait a little longer before pressing ‘RECEIVE’. Johnny didn’t quite possess the same kind of dislike for Vendaker that he did for Max Hutchison – fat old Mortius was his boss, after all- but it was close.
“Hello boss”, Johnny said. “What’s up?”
The bloated face of Vendaker had appeared on the screen, lined with slight interference and distortion from the many light years between his location and Xan. It was powerful technology, but solar flares and other natural space phenomena were prone to disrupting communications. Vendaker had been looking in a sideways direction from the camera, in the middle of a conversation with someone off-screen. His pointed aquiline nose was prominent in the slightly distorted view, lending him a patrician’s gravitas that his personality did not deserve. Johnny Volta’s sudden acceptance of his transmission had obviously taken him unawares. “One moment, Volta”, Vendaker said to him, giving the young salvager a taste of his own medicine.
The transmission clicked off, and an ‘On Hold’ message appeared on the screen. Johnny quietly cursed Vendaker under his breath. At least it gave him a chance to navigate properly out of Xan’s shuttle bays, giving the process proper care and attention.
He had just exited Xan’s gravity field when his telecaster screen flickered into life again. Mortius Vendaker was framed there, his small beady eyes fixed upon Johnny with perhaps a discernable flicker of wry amusement present in them. “Volta. How good of you to finally respond to my message.” Vendaker’s tone was dripping with sarcasm. “How was your little period of R & R on Xan?”
“Oh you know. Much needed downtime and all that.” Johnny was busy at the controls of his ship as he swept her away from Xan and into general orbit around Ludacris. “Always nice at the start but it gets boring after a while. What do you want, boss?”
“I’ve got a proposal for you, Volta”, Vendaker told him. “It’s a mission for you, and it’s a dangerous one. Pull it off, and you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams, even after splitting the profits with me. You could even retire from the Agency on the back of this.”
“Okay, sounds great”, Johnny replied, unperturbed. The thought of being able to stick it to Vendaker was an enticing one, being rich was even more alluring. However, he was immediately suspicious. Something was not quite right here- he was hardly one of Vendaker’s favourites so he couldn’t quite work out why his boss had contacted him. “If it’s such a great mission, how come you are touting it to me and one of the more experienced salvagers hasn’t snapped it up?”
“Well…” Vendaker paused, obviously wondering how to phrase his reply. “There is a very high element of risk with this one. It is highly dangerous, and there’s a big probability you might not come back from it. A lot of the other guys and gals have turned it down, and to be honest I suspect that you will too. It’s one of those that will either make your career, or end it all prematurely. I’m not sure why I’m even asking you, it’s just out of courtesy really- I don’t think you’re up to it.”
“What exactly is the job?” Johnny asked impatiently.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the Adroxinus dynasty from the Trapidian homeworld…no? Anyway, their Ambassador Fergal Josinian was travelling between Trapidia and Adrea on a Trapidian shuttle, and he was carrying a very precious and important artefact with him, an ancient heirloom of the Adroxinians that is sacred to the people of that planet. It’s also worth an incredible amount on the black market. I’m talking countless piles of V-cards stretching miles upon miles in height, and taller than Neon City apartment blocks. It’s that big, Johnny.”
“You paint a wonderful picture, boss”, Johnny said with a smile. “Go on.”
“Unfortunately our Ambassador met with a nasty little accident”, Vendaker said. “His shuttle in which he was carrying the artefact collided with a Hladorean space-freighter. Josinian’s shuttle took serious damage and they had to crash land. They entered the atmosphere of a nearby planet.”
Vendaker had paused in his explanation, so Johnny spoke up again. “Two questions: what exactly is this valuable artefact? Secondly, what’s the issue with the planet and the shuttle crash? Why is it so dangerous to retrieve the artefact and how does anyone know it is still intact? It could have been burned to dust in the planet’s atmosphere when they crash-landed.”
“The Adroxinians on Trapidia are in mourning”, Vendaker said. “The artefact is a sceptre of some sorts, a symbol of the ruling dynasty’s power and the Emperor’s authority. The Adroxinians have some kind of tracking technology fixed on the device, and they say it’s still intact on the surface of the planet where the Ambassador’s shuttle crashed. They have its exact location, as it is still beaming out a signal. It’s also believed to have…certain attributes. Supernatural powers, it’s been said.”
Johnny laughed. “A magic wand?”
Vendaker grinned. “Precisely! Superstitious nonsense, of course. We’re more interested in the price it will fetch.” Vendaker’s smile disappeared and he took on a grave expression. “As for your second question as to why there’s a problem regarding retrieving the artefact from the surface of the planet…well, it’s a huge problem actually.”
“Poisonous atmosphere?” Johnny interrupted. “I’ve got droids and drones for that.”
“Not quite”, Vendaker said quietly. “The Ambassador’s ship crash-landed on Nekros, of all places.”
Johnny’s blood ran cold. Suddenly he realised why Vendaker had been unable to persuade any of the other salvagers at the Agency to do what appeared to be a simple job. The artefact was on Nekros.
“This is not good”, he said quietly. “Not good at all.”
“I take it you don’t want to take the job?”
Johnny was silent. Going to the surface of Nekros was an act that was fraught with danger. Anyone who attempted it blindly and expected to leave unscathed was a fool. The other salvagers were obviously not fools, and had sensibly turned the job down, despite the incredible rewards on offer. Johnny was more hesitant about turning it down- not because he had a death wish, but because he needed to make a name for himself in this business, and he knew that he badly needed the money. Max Hutchison’s taunts at the bar in Xan were still fresh in his mind, and they had stung him deeply after his bungled attempt to cheat at the card game. If he successfully pulled this one off, then Max would be eating his words for the rest of his days. “Do we have precise co-ordinates for the location of the artefact?” he asked Vendaker. “I know the Adroxinians do, but do we? And what happens when they know the artefact has been removed from the surface of the planet? They’ll know someone’s taken it, won’t they? Even if I get off Nekros safe and sound, that’s another risk.”
“I can transmit the exact co-ordinates of the artefact to your ship’s navigation system”, Vendaker said with a twinkle in his eye. “We have our resources and our methods as you know! Adroxinian communications are quite easy to eavesdrop on. After that, you’re on your own. If you take up the mission, Johnny, you’ll have to find out exactly how the artefact works and turn off that tracking device. You’re absolutely right, once you leave Nekros’ atmosphere you’ll soon have an entire Adroxinian fleet after you. Assuming you get that far, of course. Also assuming that you accept the mission- so am I correct in thinking that you actually want to take it on?”
Johnny hesitated. Once he said yes to Vendaker, there was no going back. He would be in breach of his contract and he would be released from the agency’s employment. It took him a few moments to carefully weigh everything up, before he realised that he had always been a gambler, even when the odds were stacked against him. This was a challenge that, foolish or not, was too great for him to resist. This was the big one where he would prove himself, and do what the more experienced salvagers had not dared to attempt. “I’ll do it”, he said.
Vendaker grinned. “Never knew you had it in you”, he said. “I’m sending you the information we have from the Adroxinians. Is your shuttle fully equipped? You have droids, weapons, and explosives? Excellent. Good luck, Johnny. To be honest you’ll need it, but I really hope for all our sakes we pull this one off.”
“Sure boss”, Johnny said. “Don’t worry, in three Terran solar cycles, I’ll be back in Neon City. I’ll be handing in my notice and retiring to a tropical planet somewhere.”
“Hope you’re right”, Vendaker answered, although Johnny thought that he did not look convinced. He cut the transmission.
When Vendaker had first mentioned Nekros, an icy cold trickle had run down Johnny Volta’s spine and goose pimples had sprung out upon the surface of his skin. Nekros. The name itself was cursed, a notorious place of the damned, a dreaded world. It was the planet of the dead.
Once it had been a pleasant, beautiful planet named Vitalus. The atmosphere was very similar to Terra, and initially it had been easy for the Terrans to colonise during the third phase of expansion from the home-world. The early settlers specialised in environmental science and built environmental bubbles and gardens upon the lush, verdant lands of the planet. Vitalus had deep winding rivers that snaked through its plains and valleys and it also had lakes, seas and oceans, green fields, forests and tropical jungles. Overall, Vitalus had possessed an abundantly rich fertile landscape and thriving natural environment, and scenic countryside that resembled Terra in its youth, before the ecological damage that had been done to that planet by previous selfish generations.
As decades past, some of the colonists on Vitalus began to specialise in science and work on experiments specific to the requirements of the Terran Empire. Laboratories and experimental facilities were built on Vitalus in addition to the living colonies that had sprouted there, these secret facilities were ostensibly for medical research but also for the benefit of developing strange new weapons that would help the Terran Empire in its many wars and conflicts which were taking place throughout the galaxies of the known universe as the Empire expanded outward and encountered new civilisations.
One day, something went wrong.