Prior to the Fire
rating: +1+x

May 23, 2071
Low Earth Orbit

"Please pass control of your approach thrusters over to Dockside Command and we'll handle the approach vector." Choppy communications minced and diced the voice and swept it through the receiver. "Place all other astrogation systems on standby. If your spacecraft uses an Artificially Intelligent Conscript, you require the use of standard memetic inoculation. Please use Level-0 public code IOTA-SIGMA-23240011 to receive designated memetic packet 'MORNING STAR'."

Sitara punched a few basic commands into her navigation console and reclined her chair, letting the automated systems do the work. Protocol was protocol, and the Foundies exercised the utmost caution with all matters concerning Earth. Getting there was tricky; space junk aside (they had protocol for that, too), though the protection of Earth was no longer priority, the protection of the Sol system's people from Earth certainly was.

She sighed. "Bessel, you hear the Dockmaster?" She knew he did, but asked anyway.

A tinny, fluttering, mechanical voice purred over the speakers. "Astrogation power diverted. Clamps primed and readied for locking procedure. Cabin air pressure stabilized for one gee. All systems are nominal. Estimated arrival in T-minus twenty-five minutes." He paused, then added, "Memetic packet received. It’s a beautiful flower. Can you believe that these flowers no longer exist anywhere outside the Luna Korea Sovereign Sky Garden?"

"Spare me the tour guide speech."

With a creak along its hull, the Nymphlight spun 180 degrees, firing its engines toward the planet as it decelerated.

"For what purpose are you…” The Dockmaster’s voice raised a semi-tone. "Ah, returning to Earth, MCD Nymphlight?"

Sitara grinned from ear to ear. The Foundation rarely balked at the landscape of the solar system from their grubby perch. So much of it was like sands, slipping through their fingers. Her ship, the Marshall, Carter, and Dark Nymphlight did not belong to the mega-corporation. She’d gotten it in a bid. It had been contracted out for a 5-year salvaging tour on the edge of the Inner Planets, equipped with last generation's Lang Distortion Drive, prototype salvaging nanotech, and onboard hydroponics with rudimentary simul-meat processors.

"Salvaging op. Extrasolar Activities Civilian Operations Dictum 122-Betta, dash seven point oh point one, states that all salvage operations onto and around Category-H Zone Earth are cleared for licensed civilians. Given those civilians are properly inoculated and know their risks and their rights, of course. My crew and I are additionally cleared for Level-2 need-to-know classification of any preternatural risks going on down here during our mission." She sucked in air and clasped her hands to her gut.

Provided 10% of all profits go back into Foundation revenue stream, she thought.

The Dockmaster chuckled. "That's all I need to hear. Contact with Bessel.aic was made 30 seconds ago. Only trying to follow protocol, miz…?"

"Sitara Modhi."

"Docking clamps stabilized, Ms. Modhi.” Sitara exhaled in relief. "You and your crew's civilian Mk. IVs, too. Patching through files for localized Lethe activity, SCP-4887 sightings in the last fortnight, and SCP–" He cut himself off.

"I'm sorry; you broke up, what was that last one?" She cast dark eyes onto her dashboard's various LCD systems. A calming chill flicked through the synapses in her brain, and then she forgot what he had even said in the first place. "Sounds good. We'll review the files when we go ground side. Nymphlight out."

Someone entered the cabin. "What's all this bureaucratic bullshit about, then?"

Sitara turned around. Her deckhand and engineering specialist, known simply as Eris, entered the bridge and gazed into a nearby view screen. Eris was the most augmented member of her crew, and yet, they were seemingly the biggest Luddite, with apprehension toward paratech in all its forms. Their niche was conventional engineering — nanotech and the like. "Even on a dead, barren rock, we're being herded through hoops like early 2000s cattle."

Bessel spoke. "Far from it. Earth-side populations number in the high tens of millions. In fact, our destination here in New Amazonia is among the largest permanent population in all of South America, numbering in the 200,000s." The AIC's words washed over as he force-fed morsels of mind-numbing statistics into their heads.

"Knock it off, will you? Let's see for ourselves." Eris smacked the back of their head thrice. Bessel — not in the slightest affected by the simple, primitive gesture — saw that he was no longer needed on the bridge. He drained from both Eris' Mk-IV implants and the command centre at large. The interior lights brightened to a soft blue.

Sitara's chair straps unlatched automatically and she spoke over the ship's communications network. She smiled with that same toothy grin again –- to nobody in particular. "All crew, you are now free to walk around the cabin. Please proceed to the airlock, and make sure you grab your canes on the way out." She swivelled her chair around and looked to Eris, who was immersing themself in a holopad. Eris's periphery glistened and flowed as schematics surrounded them.

"Hold up, Sitara. Check this out." Eris tapped twice near their left ear and cut a parabolic arc through the air.

An instant later, data packets entered Sitara's Mk. IV Schulman device and she studied the information, biting her lower lip. Tens of red dots winked into place on a holographic projection of their landing zone. "What am I seeing here?"

"Dockside Foundation presence is unbelievable. I'm seeing a hundred ships balled around this place like cobwebs. Most of them are diplomatic types, but I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of paratech warships were part of this flotilla. Y'know, making sure nobody steps out of line." Eris scrutinized their displays. "Out where we're going, though? Fuckin' nothing. They don't care what you do out here, so long it doesn't affect them or their people — or get off the planet."

"That would appear to be the case. However, I will make one small adjustment to your analysis: an ADK-Class Anomalous Destabilization has been progressing in the Amazonian region for the last 13 terrestrial years. There are several Foundation stealth-class vessels of Protection variant about 300 clicks to the north of us. There is too much sensitive data to be compiled here. There are a number of anomalous and natural resources still of use here." Bessel paused for effect, mostly to allow his human counterparts to take in all the information. "We are here, after all, on salvaging contract."

Sitara took in the numbers before her and stood up straight. Her knees shook; she needed to get used to the one gee. She walked off the bridge and toward the maglev lift cabin that would lead her down to the cargo hold. Eris waved their hand a half-rotation around their head, dispersing the holographic figures out of sight, and followed her into the lift.

Sitara and her crew's primary salvage buyer had an elusive contact, a group known only as "The Journeymen." She had never actually met the people whom she submitted her bids to — her primary source of salvaging offload were known vectors, of course, and she knew the few dozen Innie groups she'd traded with over the years. Nevertheless, her primary employees were still a big Marineris Valley-Goose egg.

She had put in a large bid on this particular operation; it was worth it, and she needed the break. Sitara was not born in a hard vacuum or on a space station. Her family were Outer Layer Ganymedian Kingdom colonists and raised her in poverty. It was their decision to send her and her siblings to the Galactic Occult Coalition Center for Paranatural Sciences at the age of 17, in the hopes they could take advantage of the burgeoning wave of new parastudies and help send tithes to the Kingdom. At 20, she dropped out and took to salvaging as her profession of choice. Astronomical units away from her family, she often wondered how they were faring, and communication was brief — about once a terrestrial quarter if she was lucky.

She was always interested in Earth, and her salvaging operations had been raking in decent amounts of profits of late as the Foundation's grip on the solar system slackened. It was time to gamble for something bigger, and New Amazonia was the place.

Sitara stepped onto the cargo deck and took note of the natural one gee putting a dampener on her and her crew. Her legs already ached, but she kept her gaze furtive. There was a mission to complete, here.

Her most seasoned salvager, Brody Sutherland, sat upon a miniature tripod stool, fiddling with equipment at the nearby work rack. Brody was a 6 foot 4, pushing into his late 40s, and had been running salvage ops almost twice as long as she had. She considered Brody her second-in-command and relied on him a lot in the team's early days. The man was loyal and worked with normalcy agencies for over a decade — with the mental acuity to show for it — before he made his exit strategy.

"Long nights, impossible odds," Brody warbled. "Keeping my eye to the keyhole." Brody turned around mid-action and tossed a rucksack to her feet. He paused, glancing at her once, and then continued checking his equipment.

"Hello to you too, Brody. I hope that didn't take too long." She put on a thin smile. "Well, you know the skippers!"

"Indeed I do missie. Make sure you get talking to Bessel about those musculoskeletal stims. You're going to need them."

Her eyes widened with concern, and then she forced a laugh. "Hey, who's complaining about the gravity down here, huh?" She outstretched her arms. "Hell, I'm fine!"

Eris brushed by her and darted toward a nearby tactical suit for enhanced mobility. "Come on, Sitara," they chirped. "Two months in half gravity and you think this is going to be like walking in the park? At least be smart about it." Eris slid on the suit's coveralls, and added, "Like me."

Brody gave a high-pitched hoot and shook his head. Sitara smiled, walked over to a tactical suit, and slid in.

Another person walked onto the cargo deck, ambling their way between equipment lockers and around the projecting bulkheads. Ophelia Akoyo fiddled with her smart glasses, frowning. "24 hours to a cycle, that's a 2-hour loss in overall productivity every single day. Throw me an insta-coffee, Brody."

Brody gave her the side-eye and rolled back his shoulders. "When are you going to switch to stim packs like the rest of us, Fee? No, the girl loves her bitter mud, doesn't she."

"I have it triple-triple. And it's not mud; it's my best friend in the whole wide system!" Lizzie's face lit up in fake amusement. She slumped her hands to her sides and reassumed a neutral expression. Brody reached into one of the nearby rucksacks and threw over a packet. Surprised, she used both hands to catch it, gripping with clumsy fingers.

"You're welcome." His voice was gravel and no-nonsense. Brody turned off his equipment and stowed it into a nearby pack before standing up, towering over the rest of the crew. "Alright. How's it looking out there? Anyone got any ideas? Is it raining Baja Blast? Saw blades? Giant radioactive spiders?"

Eris blew air from their nose. "It's clear. Almost night time, actually, so we'd better hurry it up if we want to get into town before we have to deal with any or all of the above." They clipped their boots into place and stood up, ready before anyone else. "Well? What are you people waiting for? You heard the asshole on the comms. Let's follow the protocol and get out of skipper jurisdiction before they start 'analyzing the situation' or worse."

The rest of the crew didn't voice any opposition and worked their equipment lockers, slipping into their own tactical suits. After a few minutes, Bessel piloted a small drone into the expansive cargo deck and administered musculoskeletal enhancements to each of them. After another few minutes, everyone was ready and trotted toward the vestibule.

Sitara looked around at her crew and smiled. She punched the door controls and put a hand behind her head as the chamber depressurized, hair flowing and cresting. The evening light poured into the deck, and the four of them strode onto the Foundation platform, clutching their rucksacks

Earth was beyond, patiently waiting for their return.

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