On the tallest peak in the farthest inhabited star system from Earth, a woman stood and looked out over the mountainous landscape in front of her. The Natonus star–a billion and a half miles from the frigid planet Bitanu–glinted off of her suit’s visor. Her name was Gail Sora, and she was the first person to reach the summit.
The second to do so was her travelling companion, an ex-marine named Darla Jedden. “You mind giving me a hand here?” Darla asked in feigned annoyance.
Gail grinned beneath her visor, and helped pull her friend from the narrow path onto the summit. Darla carried the bulk of their equipment in her pack, and as much as she tried to hide it, Gail could tell she was straining under the weight.
Darla sat down on the ledge with a sigh, and Gail quietly pulled their oxygen tent out of Darla’s pack and added it to hers. Then, she joined her companion on the ledge. While Darla kept her legs crossed beneath her, Gail let hers swing in thin air.
Darla whistled. “Hell of a view. Is it everything you ever wanted?”
Gail beamed. “Better,” she said, awestruck. The two of them had spent almost a month working their way up the mountain, and had traveled all the way from the capital world at the heart of the Natonus system to get here.
For Gail, summiting the tallest mountain in Natonus had been a dream for many years, but her crew seemed significantly less enthused. The others had opted out of accompanying her–everyone except for Darla.
“I guess that means you get to name it,” Darla said.
“Sorjen,” Gail said quickly–she had plenty of time to think about it on the path up. “It’s a combination of our names,” she added.
Darla gave her a wry glance. “Dork.”
Normally, Gail would be more than happy to banter back and forth with the other woman, but the weeks of little sleep, frigid cold, and reliance on the tank of oxygen she had strapped to her back made her more than a little weary.
Gail stood up and stretched her arms, basking in the glow of the distant sun. As she enjoyed the view, she slowly became aware of a trail of light, arcing downward from space through Bitanu’s atmosphere.
“Is that a comet?” Gail asked.
Darla had been looking at her feet, but her face shot up in response. “Maybe a meteor?” she said.
The trail of light continued, disappearing beneath the cloud line. Seconds later, a thin stream of smoke rose through the air.
Gail and Darla exchanged glances. “Something’s not right,” Darla said, her brow furrowing. “We should call in the crew.”
“I want to check it out myself, first,” Gail said. She took off her equipment pack and laid it down next to Darla’s.
“You can’t be serious,” Darla groaned.
“The boys were the ones who wanted to stay on the Excavator in the first place,” Gail grinned. “This is gonna be our discovery.”
With a running start, she leapt off the edge of Mount Sorjen, plummeting toward Bitanu’s surface miles below. Then, just as she fell through the cloud line, the miniature thrusters attached to the arms and legs of her suit fired, and she leveled out.
She sailed over the Bitanu landscape, all in pristine shades of white and blue. The planet underwent an almost constant blizzard cycle, and Gail was pelted with snow and sleet as she flew toward the impact site. Supposedly, there were oceans deep beneath the planet’s snowy surface, but a thick glacier line all but obscured them.
Gail glanced over her shoulder, and saw Darla far off in the distance. “You realize we left all our gear back on the summit?” Darla said over Gail’s suit comm system.
“Radio the Excavator to pick up our stuff,” Gail said. “Let’s make ‘em do something useful for a change.”
The two flew past an unending sea of glacial formations until a massive steel object suddenly came into view. Gail swerved to avoid the object, and she spiraled alongside the gargantuan structure.
It was one of the water reservoir tanks the Union had set up. Bitanu was nearly barren of natural resources, but it did have water in droves–the only issue was that most of it was frozen. So the Union built these heating tanks to melt vast quantities of ice for shipping elsewhere around the Natonus System.
The reservoir tank was massive–bigger than any military warship or freight hauler Gail had ever seen. As she flew alongside the tank, she saw a massive, gaping hole in the side. Water had tried to escape, but it froze before it even left the tank. A strange ice formation jutted out from the hole.
Gail landed on the planet’s surface, cutting her suit’s thrusters. Darla joined her seconds later. “That’s a missile impact,” Darla said, surveying the damage to the water tank. “That falling object must’ve been a projectile.”
“Why would anyone want to blow up one of these water tanks? It doesn’t make any sense…”
“Infrastructure this size doesn’t come cheap,” Darla said. “I bet the Union spent a lot of good money getting these reservoirs built up…sounds like a middle finger to me.”
Gail frowned. Even if someone out there wanted to lash out at the reigning government of the system, who had the capabilities to do so? The Union had no rival military powers, and the missile had surely come from off-world.
While Gail was lost in thought, she heard the sound of approaching engines. Overhead, emerging from behind a screen of snowfall, three shuttles flew into view. They circled around the water tank, surveying the damage, and landed a dozen feet from the two women.
Gail instinctively reached for the plasma handgun strapped to her hip, but as the shuttles descended she saw the insignia of the Union emblazoned on the side. She let go of the hilt of her weapon.
Union soldiers filed out of the ships, establishing a perimeter around the area. Afterward, a team of unarmed individuals exited the shuttles, and one of them approached Gail and Darla.
“We didn’t do it,” Gail said with a grin as the woman approached. She had a slight figure, but without an athletic physique. Although Gail couldn’t get a perfect view, she could make out a pale tan face with dark locks of hair clumped up inside the woman’s helmet.
“I know,” the woman said with a slight grin. “I’m Dr. Eliza Wusyn,” she said, stretching out her hand. “Director of the Outer Development Project.”
Gail shook Eliza’s hand hesitantly. She knew very little about the Outer Development Project, other than it was a government initiative to prepare the outer rim planets for colonization. Gail, on the other hand, was a professional explorer–she preferred her landscapes untapped by human life. The ODP was just another step toward system-wide development.
Gail opened her mouth to introduce herself, but Eliza anticipated her. “I know who you two are. Out here, your reputations are almost legendary. We didn’t know you were here on Bitanu, otherwise we would have reached out earlier.”
Gail and Darla exchanged glances, and the latter shrugged. “Someone clearly doesn’t like you being here,” Darla said, indicating the ruined reservoir.
“Oh, we’re well aware of that–and I’m fairly certain I know exactly who did this. If you two would come back to our headquarters with us, I’d love to fill you in.”
Even if Gail wasn’t sure about the ODP, her curiosity won out. “All right,” she said immediately. “Let’s go.”