Vickers took manual control from Jay and pointed the ship's nose at Horus' side bay door. He didn't have to do this maneuver manually, and Jay was far better at docking the ship, but sometimes he enjoyed the thrill of performing difficult maneuvers. Jay, as the ship's Virtual Intelligence, could see everywhere, feel everything, since the ship was as close to a body as he could possibly have.
But this ship was new. He'd received it as payment for a job done well enough. And Jay had had some issues coming to terms with his new body surrogate. Vickers didn't want to take any risks, so he preferred to do it himself for now.
"Hugo? What was the job exactly?" Jay said.
"I told you, I don't know either. But the credit is good, and from what I've been able to find, the one who's hiring us is good for it as well."
"You know I prefer to know our job parameters in advance, Hugo. Just in case I -- the ship needs to be retrofitted to better suit the task at hand."
"Jay, don't worry about that. This is a new ship, remember? And she's far more suited for a variety of tasks than the previous one was."
Jay wasn't supposed to have too many emotions, but after an encounter with an unexpected computer virus, in combination with some programming flaws, he'd developed a semblance of actual intelligence. Some sentience. Not enough to immediately trigger alarm bells -- since AI was still forbidden by law -- but enough to make him... Odd.
Vickers docked the ship carefully and undid his seat's webbing. He got up and walked towards the airlock. It wasn't a big ship -- none of the ships he'd ever owned had been -- so he basically just took a few steps sideways. Technically he hadn't received this ship as payment. He'd received a different ship as payment, with an experimental drive system in it. But it was too obvious and too big, so he'd sold it on the black market and purchased this modern little scout ship instead. Fast, agile, stealthy and small. Just the way he liked them. And the rest of the credit had been stored securely in the mesh, securely protected with multiple layers of encryption.
He preferred smaller ships with limited crew capacity for that exact reason -- limited crew capacity. There was a single pilot seat in the cockpit, and through the corridor leading in between the two halves of the engine compartment, a small bedroom with a single bunk. There wasn't a lot of decoration, even though it was basically his home. He lived a minimalist life, focusing on work rather than trinkets.
He'd escaped Earth as young as he could, sick of the stench, the overpopulation and the government-supported sloths. No ambition left to be found on Earth, he had thought, and went out to the outskirts of human civilization to find some and fire up his own. And he'd been out there ever since. He had never returned home, never had a reason to. His parents had been on government support and had basically just kept on helping the overpopulation. He was their 16th child, and he hadn't been the last. They never really cared for any of them either. Mostly they watched the video channels and lay about, existing in a fruitless loop of the same day over and over. Slowly dying, but not caring about anything at all.
That's why he never really dealt with Earthers either, if he could help it. There was always some double-dealing going on, some hidden agenda he didn't even want to know about. Earthers that went out and actually did things were odd. They were the outliers, like him. But many still had the feeling of supremacy simply because they were from Earth and not one of Earth's colonies. He had none of that. He was a free agent through-and-through and did not trust any Earther who wasn't.
That being as it was, this job did come from an Earther. Amelie Borisov, heiress of the Borisov Industries conglomerate, an Earth powerhouse in construction and engineering. She had taken over from her father, who had died of natural causes at 160 years of age, and had immediately started making her mark on the company. She had shifted Borisov Industries' focus to incorporate environmentalist features throughout. And in addition to that, had started up new subsidiaries that focused solely on environmental development. And he would admit very freely it was this switch in focus that had convinced him to at least listen to the job offer.
After pressure equalization was done, the intercom came to life.
"Ready to board, Mr. Vickers?"
"I am, who am I speaking to?"
"Ms. Borisov's security chief. My name is Robinson. I'll escort you to meet Ms. Borisov."
"She's actually on board?"
"You can ask her all your questions. I'm just here to make sure nothing funny happens."
Vickers looked to Jay, whose head was hovering over the VI console, and nodded. Jay nodded back and disappeared. The implicit command was to button down the electronic hatches, make sure nothing funny was done to Jay or the ship while Vickers was on board the Horus.
Vickers saw that on the other side, authorization had been provided to open the airlock. He pressed his hand down on the panel next to the airlock and it beeped. The door rotated partly, then slid out of the way. Down a short corridor, another door did the same.
There was a big man in deflective armor, flanked by two others. They were holding laser rifles, but not aimed at him.
"Mr. Vickers, please come this way," the big man said. He was probably Robinson.
"I've got no weapons," Vickers said as he held up his hands. "No need for yours."
"They're just for insurance, sir. They won't be aimed at you unless you do something that warrants it."
"Can you send them away?"
Robinson looked at Vickers for a second, then nodded. The two men took a step back and jogged away down the corridor. Vickers lowered his hands and walked across towards Robinson.
"This way," Robinson said as he turned the opposite direction the men had disappeared to.
Vickers followed quietly. Robinson had already said it, and Vickers figured there wasn't much to be gained by asking any further questions. They walked in silence through one corridor into the next, into the next, until they stood before a double door that, as far as Vickers could tell, was smack down the middle of the Horus.
"You can go in," Robinson said as he held up his hand to the authorization panel. The doors slid open.
It was a luxury apartment. There was no other way to describe it. And going by the size of it and how the walls sloped to a rounded point at the far end, it was the entire width of the ship. Bringing up a mental picture, it was probably about half the ship's length too. This was Amelie Borisov's personal ship, not some random fast personnel transport as he'd originally thought.
In one of the corners a seating area had been set up, comfortable couches and chairs around an actual fireplace. A fireplace on a ship? Not just unnecessary, but unwise in many ways. Not just because it used up precious oxygen. Then he remembered this was a rich Earther's ship, and it kinda made sense to him again.
A woman was standing next to the fireplace, holding a book. An actual, paper book. Another thing he hadn't seen in ages. She was probably in her 40s and looked it. Young, attractive, but somehow also wise. A smart woman, something he had already suspected, not to be messed with. She looked up and smiled.
"Mr. Vickers. It's so nice to meet you."
"Ms. Borisov. Likewise."
She put the book down on the fireplace mantel and held out her hand for Vickers to take a seat. He did so, on the couch, an appropriate distance away from where he expected her to sit. She smiled and sat down in the chair next to her.
"Now, I'm sure you're wondering why I had my people reach out to you specifically, and perhaps also why I showed up personally to give you further details."
Vickers grinned. "Those are both questions I would ask, yes."
"Well, there have been some rumors as to the kind of jobs you do. Solitary jobs, with a high grade of -- let's call it professional silence."
Vickers nodded. This was a fair description of his work ethic.
"As you know, Borisov -- the company, not me -- has diverted some of its research and funding towards environmental purposes. Earth needs it, Mars can benefit from it, and I'm sure some of the smaller colonies can one day benefit from it too."
"If you say so, I'm sure that's true."
"Exactly. But as with every new venture, one can sometimes encounter growing pains. And not every experiment ends up successfully. And sometimes, well, sometimes one needs to clean the slate and start over."
Vickers shifted. This was going in an interesting direction, though not necessarily interesting in the way he liked.
"No need to get uncomfortable. I'm sure someone with your track record won't object to the job at hand. Have you ever heard of Project Eden?"
"I've heard the name. Not very inspired, but it's popped up in articles here and there. Don't know the details, though."
"It's an old colony, basically, that we purchased off the previous owner. And we've been testing some of our new technology there. It's a small planet, it has a low population and it's mostly self-sustaining. The perfect place to experiment without too many risks."
"May I ask what kind of experiments?"
"Should you take the job, I'm sure we can get you that information. Suffice it to say for now that we were improving crop yields and air quality, amongst other things."
Vickers shifted again, but this time not out of discomfort. He was getting annoyed.
"What's the job, exactly?"
"A man of clear communication. I can respect that. One of the experiments we started running a few months back eventually led to... Issues. Communication with the colony was lost. And we need someone to go down and gather intel."
"And why don't you just go in yourself?"
"Oh, I couldn't. It would tip off everyone that something's gone wrong if I show up."
"I meant someone from your company, rather than yourself."
"Ah. Same thing, really. Eden doesn't get a lot of traffic, and if any of our ships are registered by any of the beacons surrounding the planet, it would spark the exact same questions as when I had shown up personally."
Vickers nodded. Fair enough. Free agents such as him were often hired to go into situations that were high on the news list. And he could see Eden's failure to be high on there if it came out.
"Basically, we don't need questions, and you're good at not answering them, are you not?"
"I am, indeed," he said. "How bad is it expected to be?"
"We don't expect survivors, sadly. Scans have shown that there are no signs of life on the surface of the planet, in any of the populated centers. But I'll admit they were long-range scans and might not be accurate."
"Alright. And the pay is what was offered before?"
"Exactly. Half of it wired in now, in case you need to make adjustments to your ship, though I doubt that. She's a real beauty. Very new?"
"She is," Vickers said proudly.
It was now Amelie's turn to shift in her seat.
"May I assume it has a modern communications system?"
"She does, actually, though I haven't had her long enough to really look into the more modern capabilities yet."
This seemed to relax her a little.
"Alright. I'll go take a look," Vickers continued, "Anything in specific that I should be looking out for?"
"There is, actually," she said as she cleared her throat. "There's a science laboratory we deployed after we purchased the colony. It's outside any of the towns, and it contains scientific data that is worth a lot of credit to both us and our investors. Additionally, if there's any evidence of what horrible thing happened there, it's likely to be found there."
"Understood. I'll make sure to check that out first."
She pulled out a small digital tab and held it out to him.
"Please place your hand on here to sign the contract. It includes an NDA for any of the information you find. It's merely to protect us from other companies that want our research."
Vickers nodded and placed his hand where expected. The pad beeped and turned green.
"Splendid," Amelie said, putting the tab away and then clapping her hands together. "I'll have the credits wired over, and the coordinates and further information sent over to your ship. Your VI is up to date?"
"At the very least, yes," Vickers said.
He stood up and nodded.
"I'll be returning to my ship, then."
"I'm looking forward to your report," she said, leaning back in her chair. "But remember, you report only to me. The NDA has severe consequences should you break it."
"Understood. I know what NDAs are like."
He then turned and walked towards the door, where he could see Robinson still standing. When he noticed Vickers, he nodded and pointed towards the way they had originally come. He escorted Vickers back to his ship, while saying nothing at all. No questions, no small-talk. Robinson did not care about anything other than getting Vickers back on his ship and off the Horus.
Vickers said a taunting "Bye" as he stepped into the corridor and got no response other than a blank yet still angry stare. As soon as Vickers had stepped into his ship, the airlock door on the other end of the corridor closed and authorization for docking was revoked. The airlock beeped to warn him that it was closing automatically in 10 seconds. He put his hand on the panel and it shut immediately.
"Nothing odd happened, Vickers. They didn't try anything, but they did send over scans and coordinates."
"Good to know, Jay."
"I think I know what the job is, Vickers."
"You do? Was it in the files they sent?"
"No. It's in the news articles that just came in. Borisov Industries is being sued by some survivors of Project Eden, as well as by some of the families of those who didn't return."
"Survivors? Are they on Earth?"
"Yes, they are. It seems the colony was destroyed and a few of the colonists managed to escape in one of the mining ships. They claim Borisov Industries knowingly destroyed the colony and killed everyone there. And some mention of there being evidence of wrongdoing, though nothing specific about what that would entail."
Vickers rubbed his chin and thought for a second.
"Hugo? Am I close?"
"Yes, Jay, you're close. On the money, even. But you seem to have more information than I do. Amelie Borisov told me the colony was destroyed and it was unclear what had happened. That that they were pretty sure there were no survivors, but if the news has already reached us out here, she certainly knew about that."
"Perhaps she didn't expect us to receive the news already."
"Hm. We got it on the high-speed band?"
"We did. And with this new ship it's the first time we've been able to receive that band, so I wasn't expecting it either."
"Hm, exactly. Let's not say anything about it for now. Let's just undock and go. You do it, you need the practice."
Jay's virtual face nodded. A clunk and a hiss could be heard from the ship detaching from the Horus.
Vickers walked towards his seat and strapped in as the ship drifted away from the Horus on ion thrusters, pulling his webbing tightly around his body. He pulled up his bank account and could see that Borisov had indeed wired over half his payment.
"Jay, this is going to be an interesting job at the very least. Let's go to Eden," he said as he leaned back into his seat, ready for the engine to go full throttle.
The rumble of the engine nearly distracted him from the uneasy feeling he had in his gut.