"There are no secrets,
there is no understanding,
Void is all and everything,
it is the dance of the elements."
Stars were reflected in the massive domes of Caelestis, the bands of Jupiter outlining the floating city, it's lights and neon glittering in the night like a jewel sinking into the sea.
The Angelica made it's approach towards the outer domes, the bulky ship tracked by large sensors.
"Hello Caelesti, this is the Angelica, we request immediate docking, we have injured here." The voice over the comms betrayed signs of fatigue but was clear and controlled.
The reply was quick and curt "Angelica, dock at S3 on transit hub 1, we will have personnel ready for you." The comms made the female voice sound artificial and fuzzy as she added "Welcome home John."
The hospital was buzzing with activity, the metal walls were ringing with voices and feet. Jac almost felt like he could see the walls sweat.
So many people, all spinning out here, eating, crying, bleeding – on a ship at least you only share air with a handful of guys. I already miss the silence.
He entered the room the nurse had told him "Mr.Icarus" was in, it looked empty.
He begun sweeping the area with his eyes; bed, chair, horrible light fixtures, unspecified stains on the floor, no John.
But he had been here, his flightsuit was lying in a pile and that eerie domed helmet he wore was propped up on the nightstand jutting from the wall.
The hiss as the door to the regenerate tank opened almost had him reaching for his gun as the buck naked belter walked into the room, John paused and looked at him, his posture already receding back to nonchalance. But before that it had been a fighters pose.
The mood got awkward, John started on getting dressed.
"Red ok?" he mumbled with his back turned.
"Yeah, they say he needs a few hour more, but there is no permanent damage, just more then what you had to fix" Jac tried to avoid looking to closely at the mutated spine and the elongated limbs of his friend, no matter how much he tried, looking at the man always made his instinct scream Other, like John was something else than human … or maybe something … next.
"And what did 'P' say?" John zipped up his suit and grabbed his helmet from the table, they left the room and proceeded down the corridor to the desk.
"He didn't have the Sols on him at Blue Zeus, so we're meeting him at 'Tyrones' later tonight, he'll have our pay then" Jac walked around a patient, the dirty skin and bulging eyes told him it was a miner, probably suffering from some sort of pressure sickness.
"He'd better. " John spat, his stride forced Jac to hustle to keep up.
Funny how nobody is getting in 'The Pale Giants' way, but me they walk straight into.
They met up with Liam at the reception, he'd been chatting up the staff while Jac went to find John.
"How you feel, big guy?" He stopped leaning on the counter and walked toward them.
"I'm fine, best bath I've had in months." The tall belter stretched and flexed his back.
"Right, we have some hours to kill before we go to 'Tyrones', where to?" Jac sniffed his nose at the smell of antisep and iron in the air.
John turned to his two friends and smiled "I've had enough of shitty ration bars and redestilled water, I say we go to Feng's" He wrapped his long arms around each of his friends shoulders and led them into the busy streets of Caelestis.
"You know it's not actually chicken right?" John was pointing at Liams bowl with his chopsticks, his mouth chewing noodles as he spoke.
Around them a sea of people were splitting around the little noodle barge, it's grav-engines flickering through different colors in a lazy pattern.
Feng's had chairs sticking out of it's side bolted to the hull where patrons could sit around the bar that also doubled as a kitchen and drivers seat, a grimy curtain shielded the entrance to a wooden box that had been mounted on top of the repurposed vehicle and served as a pantry, and bedroom John suspected.
The roof had two masts holding up an ancient banner with some barely legible kanji, time had made the symbols completely unreadable. It didn't matter, people just called the place 'Feng's', after the owner, whose accent was so thick not even other asian descended belters could understand more than one word per sentence.
"It tastes like chicken, looks like chicken" Liam answered, scowling at his bowl "what about that? it's impossible to know what's in that 'Special' you're eating."
John smiled over another mouthfull "I like it like that, at least it's not pretending to be something it's not" he drank some hot broth from the bowl "And the special is always the best thing Feng serves, it's a point of pride to him." he reached for the unlabeled beer and took a swig.
This time Periastron was disguised as a raver.
The club was a neon nightmare of futuristic looking curves and dull lights, a gauche attempt at a mood and style that mostly existed in VR-recordings and holoshows. The result was slightly less mindblowing that it's designers had hoped, but the staff was nice enough and with enough drinks you could almost convince yourself that you weren't sharing the station with seven million other souls, but were in fact living in the effortless future the old space operas had envisioned.
Their handler led them to a private room, swaying his hips in a deeply unflattering way as he walked, his clothes looked like the type you sprayed on, and his face had been attacked by some deranged makeup artist that must have had a thing for pandas and glitter.
As they gathered in the cramped booth, Periastron leaned on the table and addressed them "As you may have guessed, the Angelica has some extra modifications, courtesy of myself and my employers, specifically sensors and recording devices." his businesslike demeanor clashed with his party-like appearance, a duality he probably enjoyed John mused. "So while you have been running cargo for us the last months, you've also been gathering intel for us, other ships have been doing the same and what we're picking up on the grapevine from Terra is telling us that something is going on, but first; your logs show that you found something."
"But first, you were going to pay us for the last period , Periastron." John interrupted, his pale face betraying impatience but also humor.
"Of course, John." Their handler removed four credstacks from his clothes, accompanied by the sound of latex against skin, he lay the out on the table. "we've subtracted the usual for your lodgings and etcetera, and also a little for the medical treatments you received today … chest trauma, John? what caused that?" his smile was conspiratorial.
"It's a long story." John thumbed the credstacks' small screen, it lit up with a figure, the light shoved his faint smirk as he read the number.
"I have time" Periastron ventured.
John ignored that "Maybe later, what are the rumors you're talking about?"
"Terra has finished it's new warships, and suddenly decided to send them out towards the belts, specifically our direction. I'm guessing whatever you found they either know about it, or know of it. Either way they are coming."
"They know about the ship already? If we want to salvage anything from it we have to get back out there then, before they swoop in and paint it with red tape!" Red grumbled.
"You found a ship?" Periastrons face was unreadable.
"We might have" Jac answered "Is that worth something to you, or your employers?"
"It might very well be, but we have to tread carefully, I don't want to know more than I need to, less chance for a leak that way." He darted his eyes about conspiratorially before continuing. "How about you tell me what you need from me, and then get back out there while there are still answers to be found."
"We'll need a legit reason to be traveling the area, and we need access to records, preferably old records" Jac said as he pocketed the credstack.
"Done and done" The handler smirked. "Contact Thomas Gijec at 'Records' he owes us and can get you access, Angelica already have updated salvage licenses, so you can operate under that disguise as you get me the proof I need."
Jac looked thoughtful "Does these changes have anything to do with why Caelestis is crawling with FedPol? we noticed a larger presence than before."
"The official reason is a gang war in section 8, but I think it's just a cover, the Federation, or someone with their hand up the ass of the Federation are making a move. " He huffed melodramatically "But what the endgame is, is anybody's guess." lowering his voice he added "My guess is that the Synesis Eleuteria are involved, but don't go naming that group to anybody, it can get you on their radar."
"Who?" Liam asked.
Leaving the meeting with their handler Jac addressed the other three: "Ok, I'll go see this Thomas first thing in the morning, meet up at Angelica after?"
"I'm going to hit up some old army buddies, see if I can get some military hardware instead of civillian." Liam ventured.
"Going to see some friends from home, hear some gossip and see if they'll trade me some gear" Red said.
John nodded "same here"
"Are there any rangers left to find on Caelestis" Jac asked, obviously suprised.
"Can't tell you, then I would have to kill you" John grinned."meet at Angelica tomorrow evening then" Liam said and started walking, Red followed his cue and strode off as well.
Jac was about to do the same when John patted his arm "Got a second Doc?".
"Sure, what's up?" Jac turned back to his large friend.
John scratched his short pale hair and shifted his weight "Not a big thing or anything, just … about Red, you haven't been with us too long so you probably don't understand him that well yet."
Jac crossed his arms and frowned "What do you mean?"
John continued "Look, you and me, we're belters, born and raised for my part, same with you yeah? for us, sitting in a tin can in the big void is not a special thing, it's our normal." He stopped to think of his words a bit.
"And Liam, well in one way he's a dustwalker, he grew up on Terra so there's that, but Liam is also military – he was trained for space."
"The thing is Red, he grew up on mars, and unlike any of us his training was all about that big dustbowl that they're terraforming."
Jac raised his eyebrows and stared at John "What's your point?"
"The point is … " John hesitated "The point is that to Red all of this, every single thing of this, is not normal for him, it's makes him a bit high strung at times." John leaned back.
"I'm just asking you to keep that in mind when he gets the way he gets, to be a bit understanding."
"Look at you" Jac teased "looking out for your friend, making sure morale is good in the group, I didn't know you had it in you, you usually act like you don't give a fuck about any of us." He smiled and shook his head.
"Well … he gave up his planet to save me and Liam, so I owe him." John started walking into the crowd.