The gas giant loomed large in the viewport, ballooning as the ship coasted toward it, the colorful blue hues of its swirling bands reflecting the glow of the system’s star.
Darren could make out the bright, scarred surface of an ice moon drifting lazily past, framed against the rivers of flowing hydrogen and helium. Silhouetted against the Jupiter-mass object was their destination – Halfpoint Station.
Having come from Earth, which was still a backwater when compared to many of the Imperium’s more developed worlds, the sheer size and grandeur of the structure took his breath away.
It was hard to gauge its true scale in the vacuum of space where there was no atmospheric haze, and there were no landmarks for reference, the unfiltered light creating harsh shadows. As they drew nearer, however, he was able to pick out some of the massive fuel tankers that swarmed its ports like clouds of gnats.
Those vessels put anything created by Humanity to shame – their purpose being to dip into the upper atmosphere of the gas giant, harvesting its resources to fuel the ships that made their berth here.
Calling it enormous was an understatement. It must have been nine miles tall, the main hull of the station forming a long, relatively thin vertical shaft. Surrounding that shaft were half a dozen rotating rings, each one connected to the central column by spokes, the pinpoints of innumerable windows glinting as they slowly turned.
At its apex was a dome of immense proportions, sitting proudly atop the structure, the crystalline material that made up its transparent hull glittering in the starlight. Inside, he could make out glimpses of regal skyscrapers and patches of parkland – an entire city encapsulated in a habitat that had a breathtaking view of the planet.
Darren pursed his lips as he looked down at the device on his wrist, the tiny display showing the familiar text of an article he must have read at least a dozen times by this point.
Halfpoint Station was situated on the outskirts of the Imperium’s sphere of influence, a region of space known only as the Periphery. This put it soundly outside of Purp jurisdiction, but the place still saw a lot of traffic, as the station was right in the middle of a relatively well-traveled shipping route between the three big powers.
While it had started its life as little more than a place to fuel up and get resupplied, being located outside any of the major spheres of influence had its benefits, and the station had garnered a bit of a reputation for its more permissive policies. Now, it was said to be populated by hired guns, smugglers, gamblers, and anyone else who might appreciate discretion.
The Human frowned as he looked out the window once more and tried to reconcile the gleaming edifice before him with the dark reputation the article in his hands presented.
He didn’t have long to dwell on it before the pilot’s crackly voice came through a hidden intercom in the cabin, informing the passengers that they were commencing docking procedures.
The woman spoke in accented Shil. What that accent was, Darren had no clue, but he knew it wasn’t the same one spoken by his professors – linguistic or mechanical.
He glanced around at his fellow travelers, seeing a few species that he didn’t recognize, along with the more familiar Shil’vati. The aliens were easily identifiable by the purple hue of their skin, their sharp tusks, and their seven-foot height.
Several of them returned his gaze, some curious, some covetous.
Males were rare in the Imperium.
Hell, males were rare, period.
By the standards of most races out in the galaxy, Humanity were the strange ones for having an equal number of men and women. Even six years into the occupation, most were still struggling to adapt to the new paradigm brought on by that reality.
Darren was no exception.
Still, he managed to ignore the stares, turning his attention to the smart display on his wrist, bringing up his itinerary. He was headed to Hab-Ring Five, and the only information that he’d been given beyond that were some coordinates to who-knew-where.
He sighed, wishing – not for the first time – that he might have a fellow first timer
to converse with.
Unfortunately, that was a pipe dream.
The lack of other Humans on his ship wasn’t surprising. The Imperium had only recently relaxed enough to begin authorizing travel visas allowing Humans to leave Earth, and his kind were still a rarity on the Galactic stage.
As to why he was out here out in the ass end of space?
He’d been offered a job.
He was an engineer by trade, at least according to his degree, and he specialized in the combination of alien and Human technology. It might seem like an oddly specific skillset, but it was one that was in high demand, as just about every industry on Earth was trying to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Imperium’s literal space-age technology.
It was complicated work, but he was quite good at it, if he said so himself – and his professors seemed to agree. His gift had catapulted him through university and had apparently landed him a very lucrative offer to take up a position on Halfpoint.
How they’d heard of him, he wasn’t too sure. Nor did he truthfully know exactly what the job entailed. Apparently, he was to be briefed on-location.
Regardless, off-world work was a rare opportunity for any Human, let alone one fresh out of school, and visiting an alien space station was a lot more interesting than backpacking around Europe for a year.
Whatever happened, it was going to be an adventure.
The ship matched velocity with one of the rotating rings, the structure at least half a mile tall in its own right, covered in tiny windows that made it look like a whole city block had been condensed down into the shape of a donut.
Now that he was a little closer, Darren could see that the station was actually far from pristine. Its hull was pocked with haphazard repairs, the newer sections shining brighter than their older counterparts, its armored panels pitted with little craters from space debris and micro-meteorite impacts.
The ship lined up with a docking port, and an umbilical walkway began to extrude from the ring, reaching out towards them. It looked like the jib of a crane, covered over with a flexible material that bore a suspicious resemblance to a grey tarp.
Surely it wasn’t actually a tarp? No, it had to be some kind of alien supertech – too advanced for him to recognize at a glance.
His thoughts did little to reassure him as the umbilical connected to the shuttle’s airlock with a tangible thud
Shaking his head, he retrieved his travel bag, then made his way down the aisle to join the queue of passengers who were waiting to disembark. More of them crammed in behind him, and he tried to ignore their uncomfortable proximity.
He hadn’t actually spent a lot of time around aliens during his schooling. One of his professors had been a Shil, but she had been professional to a fault and had always kept a healthy distance from her students.
Of course, she had still managed to be rather intimidating despite that, her head seeming to scrape the ceiling every time she stepped into the classroom. However, Darren was rapidly discovering that being surrounded by women who stood head and shoulders above him was a different experience altogether.
It was nothing to get worked up over, though. He just needed to-
The Shil standing behind him pressed close – uncomfortably close – Darren swearing that there was room enough in the aisle for her to keep her distance. Suddenly, he felt a sharp twinge in his rear.
Had she just...pinched him? No, it had to have been a mistake.
He turned to glance over his shoulder, looking up at the towering Purp. “Sorry, Ma’am, I must have bumped into you.”
Her sly smile faded as she furrowed her brow in confusion. Before she had time to formulate a reply, the intercom above the exit beeped.
“Oh, looks like we’re moving again!” Darren chimed as he began to follow the queue. “Sorry!”
He followed the procession of towering women into the passenger ship’s airlock. Both of the pressurized doors were open, and before him stretched the umbilical. The worryingly thin material that protected them from the deadly vacuum of space was wrapped taut around a metal frame, and the walkway beneath his feet was made up of a simple grate.
After a short walk, they emerged into a cavernous dock area, so large that it was more like standing in some kind of indoor stadium than anything that could be compared to a space station. There were stacks of shipping containers and unidentifiable machinery everywhere he looked.
It was a challenge not to stop and examine the equipment, each new sight piquing his interest, each strange device begging to be investigated. As he followed the other passengers to the far end of the room – his head on a swivel – he almost bumped into one of the containers. To his surprise, it was floating a foot off the ground, suspended on an anti-gravity cushion.
It was funny – no matter how many times he saw it, it never stopped being surreal to see something just…float
As he stooped to look beneath it, an irritated dockworker leaned out from behind it to yell at whoever was in her way. She stopped when she saw him, raising a skeptical eyebrow. She was a Rakiri, if Darren remembered correctly. She resembled a towering werewolf, a pair of cat-like eyes peering out from beneath her black fur, her facial features strangely leonine. She was clad in dirty, yellow coveralls that hung loosely from her broad shoulders, exposing the ragged tank top that she wore beneath it. Tufts of her dark coat poked out around the faded garment, giving her a surprisingly fluffy appearance.
“You lost, boy?” she asked as she shooed him out of her path. “Stay behind the yellow warning markings unless you want to get that cute butt smushed,” she added with a nod toward the deck. She continued to push her heavy container, moving it effortlessly on its gravity cushion.
More dock workers were assembling to stare at him, perhaps having never seen a Human before. Or perhaps it was because he was male? It was hard to tell. Either way, a small crowd of yellow-clad women saw him off, a couple of them hooting at him and waving. Not sure if this was some kind of alien greeting, he shyly waved back, eliciting laughter from them after a moment of surprise.
One started to make her way over to him before a menacing growl from her superior made her freeze in place sheepishly. Darren took that as his cue to move on – he didn’t want to get anyone else in trouble by being in the way.
He arrived at a security gate, and after being asked to show his visa, he was subjected to a very thorough – and in his opinion unnecessary – pat-down. Once he was cleared, he emerged into the station proper. He stepped out of the way of the women behind him, then set his travel bag down on the metal deck, taking in the alien sights and sounds for a moment.
Far from being a sterile, clinical environment, he found himself in a bustling bazaar worthy of any city back on Earth. It scarcely felt like he was standing inside a station at all, what passed for the ceiling so high above his head that he could barely make out the crisscrossing support beams and maintenance catwalks.
It was styled like a cramped street, too small for cars, almost like the city center of some old European town had been reimagined in an industrial style. Civilian quarters that resembled apartment blocks rose up towards the ceiling, connecting to it in some places, likely leading up to higher levels of the station.
In every nook and cranny – anywhere there was room – the denizens of the hab-ring had set up little stalls where they were hawking their wares to the tourists who had just boarded. Colorful awnings fluttered in the artificial breeze from the air recyclers, and insulated cables that had been patched from the station’s systems trailed along walls and floors, powering streetside food stands and colorful neon signs.
Speaking of the denizens, they came in all shapes and sizes. Darren had never seen so many varieties of alien in one place before. He could make out a few Shil and Rakiri, but most were unknown to him, the varied hues of their skin and clothes creating a bustling sea of color.
He checked the device on his wrist again, pulling up the coordinates that his new employer had forwarded to him. This was indeed Hab-Ring Five, and he’d been given what passed for an address in this strange environment. Hefting his bag once more, he made his way into the throng, having to dodge and weave between the towering aliens. Many of them barely seemed to register his presence, probably due to his comparatively small stature, though some seemed to stop and stare in confusion. Well, I suppose Humans are pretty new on the galactic scene
, he thought to himself.
The scents of strange, alien food assailed him as he navigated the cramped streets, a few of the criers singling him out. They had sharp instincts, he’d give them that. It seemed the locals could smell a tourist at thirty paces.
Maybe it was all the staring he was doing?
Eventually, he arrived at his destination, glancing up from his display to see a dingy bar. It was open to the street, built into an overhang at the base of one of the many buildings, little more than a long counter with a few stools. Above it was a blinking neon sign in a script that he couldn’t read. As he made his way inside and struggled up onto one of the tall stools, the small handful of patrons who were sitting off to his left paused their conversation to examine him.
They were Nighkru, their goat-like horns and the bruise-purple hue of their skin giving them away. Their silver eyes were striking, almost seeming to glow in the dim light of the bar, as reflective as those of a cat. Their clothing was all tight leather and straps, their skin strategically exposed in places to show off their stunning bioluminescent tattoos, the swirling patterns trailing down slender limbs and across toned midriffs.
He kept his gaze aimed forward, knowing that their kind didn’t think much of the Imperium to which he now belonged.
…Then again, that was true for pretty much every race that wasn’t a part of the massive interstellar empire. Say what you would about the Purps, but they knew how to make an impression.
The bartender walked over to him, leaning on the counter as she looked him up and down skeptically. It was another Rakiri like the dockworkers, her feline nose twitching as she took in his scent.
“You lost, or do you want something to drink?” she asked.
“No thank you, I’m waiting for someone,” he replied sheepishly as he lowered his eyes to his device again.
He was right on time, but as he looked around, there was no sign of his contact. He was supposed to meet them here, right?
The Rakiri shrugged her furry shoulders, then left him to his own devices, moving over to the small group of Nighkru.
Perhaps one of them was his contact?
He certainly hoped not. While he didn’t have anything against a person enjoying themselves with a good drink after hours, it wasn’t a good way to make a positive first impression on a prospective employee.
Fortunately for him, the surprise on one of the trio’s grey skinned faces when she happened to blearily peer in his direction dashed that possibility. Just a trio of young women out for a drink. Unfortunately
for him, after a few hastily whispered words to her friends, the group made their way over to him.
“Don’t see many males round these parts,” one of them said, her faux leather getup creaking as she planted her hands on the bar to his left. Another leaned on the counter to his right, the third posting up behind him.
“A Human, too,” the woman to his right added with a sly chuckle. “Now, what’s a Human doing all alone out on the Periphery?”
“I didn’t think the Purps were letting their pets off the leash.” the one behind him snickered.
“I don’t know,” the first said with an exaggerated shrug. “Maybe he snuck out in search of a real woman? I think we’ve all heard how Humans can be.”
That set the three of them laughing.
All the while, Darren wasn’t sure where to look, turning his head left and right as he struggled to pick a Nighkru. He settled on the woman to his left, having to lift his head to meet her gaze, those reflective eyes shining like a pair of silver coins.
“I...uh...was actually supposed to be meeting someone here.” he stammered, a little of his anxiety bleeding through.
The Nighkru gave him a warm smile that wasn’t reflected in her eyes, leaning a little closer. He tried to pull away reflexively but found another Nighkru waiting for him, something rather soft pressing against his back.
“Well, I don’t see anyone else in here but me and my friends,” one of them said as she tutted dramatically. “Maybe they stood you up?”
“Poor form, that,” the one behind him whispered into his ear. He lurched in his seat, surprised by her proximity. “Leaving a pretty young thing like you hanging.”
The first one nodded, as if that was a piece of sagely wisdom. “I know – how about my friends and I give you a personal tour of the station to make up for it?” she asked, reaching out to brush a piece of errant fluff from his collar. “We’ll even carry your luggage for you – we’re nice like that.”
She signaled to one of her compatriots with a curt nod, who then plucked his travel bag off the deck.
“Oh, that’s really not-”
He tried to stand, but he was cut off as two of the women placed their hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down into his seat. Their touch was gentle, but firm, letting him know that he wasn't going anywhere.
Darren looked to the Rakiri bartender for help, feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the turn of events, but she was staying out of it. She was feigning disinterest, cleaning a glass with a rag that didn’t look clean enough for the job.
It was clear that he wouldn’t be getting any help from her.
Was this really going to be his first experience on the station – kidnapped by a gang of alien grifters?
Just as he was getting ready to – likely ineffectually – start swinging like his life depended on it, he heard a voice ring out in a language he didn’t recognize.
The Nighkru turned their heads as one, and he followed their gaze, seeing another of their kind step in from the street. Her skin had the same twilight hue, her silvery hair pulled back into a long ponytail that trailed behind her as she strode towards them. She wore a jet-black body suit that left little to the imagination, so tight that it might have been sewn onto her, the garment open at the front to expose a chiseled midriff and the beginnings of her cleavage. Her eyes were mesmerizing, his gaze drawn to the glowing tattoos that served to accentuate them.
Oddly, unlike the trio surrounding him, she had no horns.
The stranger walked with purpose, her heels clicking on the deck, her hair swishing behind her as she came to a stop to stare down the three other women. They were already backing off, the Nighkru who had taken his bag setting it back down gingerly beside his seat. Did they know this person? They seemed so wary of her.
“Maybe we’ll see you around,” one of them whispered, her hand lingering on his shoulder for a moment before she followed her friends out into the street.
Once they were finally out of sight, Darren breathed a sigh of relief and turned to thank the newcomer. Before he could utter so much as a word, she beat him to the punch.
“You shouldn’t wander around Halfpoint alone,” she said, skipping the preamble. Her voice had a melodic tone, one that was almost musical to Darren’s ears. She planted her hands on her hips, scrutinizing him with a skeptical expression. “You’re just asking for trouble.”
“I’m just...waiting for someone,” he replied. “Thank you, by the way. I’m-”
“Do you have a weapon on you?” she asked, cutting him off. “A handgun under that jacket? Defense spray? A pocket knife?”
“What? No,” he replied, his brow furrowing. “Why would I have a gun?”
Even with a few inches of titanium-alloy plating between everyone aboard and a messy death by explosive decompression, using a firearm on the station seemed risky.
She snorted derisively, almost as though she couldn’t believe his reply.
“For your sake, I hope that whoever you’re waiting for is smarter than you are,” she said with a roll of her silver eyes. “This isn’t Earth, boy. There are no Shil Marines around to babysit you. Next time you want to play tourist, go somewhere closer to home.”
With a flick of her long hair, she turned about, vanishing into the crowd once more to leave him sitting at the bar in confusion.
Darren felt another hand on his shoulder and turned to see an Edixi wearing grease-stained overalls standing behind him. The tool belt that hung loosely about her hips let him know that she was a mechanic before she’d even had time to open her mouth.
Her kind were evolved for an aquatic environment, and although they were fully amphibious, they retained many of their ancient features. Their bodies were smooth and streamlined, with lean, lightly-muscled frames that made them look like Olympic swimmers. Her eyes were a striking ocean-green, and her azure skin was patterned with faded tiger stripes, darkening as it neared her extremities.
“You’re the new engineer, right?” she chirped excitedly.
“Darren Fogle, pleased to meet you,” he confirmed as he extended a hand. She took it, shaking it eagerly, and he noted that her fingers were webbed.
He was a little surprised by how smooth her skin was. Given the sharklike appearance of the Edixi – and her vocation – he’d expected it to be rough and scaly. Maybe cold and slimy, too. By contrast, it was warm and soft, her small scales smooth like a snake’s rather than sharp like those of a fish.
“Oh, it is. It very much is. The boss told me to fetch you,” she said before turning back towards the street. “Don’t get lost, you hear? There are some rough types around these parts.”
Yes, she could say that again. He stooped to pick up his bag, then hurried after her, trying not to lose sight of her in the crowd. He also belatedly realized that she hadn’t told him her own name.
Was that an Edixi thing or was she just in a hurry?
The mechanic led him through the streets, which seemed to be arranged in a kind of grid pattern, always flanked by the towering hab-blocks. It was as challenging as ever to navigate when so many of the station’s inhabitants stood a head taller than him. It made him feel like a bug that was trying to avoid being stepped on.
He could only assume he’d get used to it. His guide seemed to have no problem getting around, and she was a few inches shorter than him.
Their destination was some kind of service elevator – a large platform that seemed designed to carry heavy cargo up from the docks, wide enough that a couple of trucks could have parked on it side by side. There were still a few cargo containers stacked off to one side that hadn’t been unloaded yet.
He watched as the woman hit a touch panel beside the double doors, and they began to slide shut, the platform lurching as Darren felt it start to rise. There was no grinding of machinery, no vibrations, only a sensation of getting heavier. It was obviously gravity-manipulation tech. It wasn’t too surprising – the Shil seemed to use it for just about everything, so it wasn’t too strange that the rest of the universe did as well.
Convergent technological development, he could almost imagine his Shil instructor saying as they started to descend. Good tech is good tech.
The hab-ring’s many levels flashed by one by one, until finally, the elevator slid to a smooth stop. Darren followed the happily humming mechanic out into a garage, his eyes lighting up as he took in his new surroundings.
Were those… mecha?
The bay’s walls were lined with bulky harnesses that were obviously designed to hold the machines in place, a few of the berths already occupied by half-disassembled vehicles.
“Real life mecha,” he mumbled.
As a mechanic, he wasn’t ignorant of the genre. After all, what kind of engineer didn’t hold a soft spot for giant stompy robots? Of course, as an engineer, he also held an inherent disdain for anyone that actually thought said machines were even remotely practical outside of the realm of fiction.
The Square Cube Law was a harsh mistress.
The long and short of it was that if you doubled a machine's height while keeping it the same shape, you ended up with four times the muscle power moving eight times the mass. As a result, instead of having the same relative agility as the original, the double-sized machine actually had only half.
That was why ants could lift so much relative to their weight. If you scaled one up, you’d end up with a much less impressive power to weight ration.
And, the problem only got worse the bigger you went. Giant robots would be slow, cumbersome, and they would inevitably suffer from exploding ankles if they tried to move too fast. They’d also sink in just about any terrain that was even slightly porous.
All in all, mecha were a cool concept with absolutely zero real world applications.
Which was why he was so stunned to see some in real life. Sure, the Shil military liked to use exos, but they were really just power armor by any other name with thrusters attached. Besides, the only reason those things could skip around like they did was because they had anti-grav generators…
His thoughts trailed off as an idea occurred to him. He jogged over to the nearest machine, peering up at the twenty-foot humanoid monstrosity. Its legs had been detached, leaving only a bulky torso covered in half-stripped sensory equipment, lenses and scanners visible where their protective covers had been removed. The cockpit was open, revealing the pilot’s seat, along with the surrounding neural interface cables that hung loose like the entrails of some mechanical beast. Its weapon attachments were empty, but it was nonetheless an awe-inspiring sight.
Sure enough, there were two oversized humps on the back. One was clearly for the thing’s fusion engine – and the other must have held the anti-grav generator.
“Darren?” the mechanic asked, having only just realized that he wasn’t behind her. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Y-yeah,” he said, jogging for a few paces to catch up. “That’s a mecha!”
The blue-hued alien nodded slowly. “Yes?”
“A mecha,” he reiterated.
Which prompted another slow nod. “You’ve never seen a gladiator mech before?”
“Didn’t they tell you what job you’d be doing?” the mechanic asked, cocking her head in a rather adorable manner.
“No?” This time it was his turn to cock his head.
Several emotions seemed to fly across the alien’s face. He saw surprise, confusion, and dismay before she finally settled on irritation.
“Typical,” she grunted. “Just… follow me.” AN: https://youtu.be/a3Xp1WhRQ9Q