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Bacad dropped at high speed, feet towards the station in parallel to the target zone. As the surface rose swiftly to meet him, he felt the rotating press of acceleration against his frontside as the thrusters on his back squeezed off a tapered burst, rising and falling over the course of a few seconds. The vibrations resonated through the suit like a wave breaking across the horizon, a languid peal of thunder fading off into a deep, subdued crackle. Though blinded by the blast visor, he knew his trajectory was now horizontal and parallel to the surface. The thrusters on the front of his suit fired in the same tapered burst, though this time, they reduced to a stammering hiss, and at last with a quick sputter of adjustment, he came to a relative stop. He had reached the 10-kilometer envelope, where the suit would hold position, awaiting a manual command for the final approach. On cue and with a prolonged, grating buzz, Bacad’s blast visor retracted upward into his helmet, the shrill hum of the servo motors a reveille to a slow unveiling of the drifting mass of a station, curving away from him into darkness on all sides. The black at the station’s edges shimmered like a heat mirage, melding with the soft, iridescent glow that seemed to be evaporating from its surface. It was almost certainly inhuman, and when it came to exoruins, “station” was shorthand for just about any free-floating inhuman object. No station had ever come close to this experience for Bacad. Through the sparse overlay of the suit’s display visor, it appeared more like a star than a construct, although even more so an abstract depiction of a star which no human eye could ever hope to perceive. It was more akin to a stellar process that had been filmed over ten thousand years, the footage processed to remove or nullify the jagged-edge bias of human perception, and played back in high-speed, virtual reality. It spun wildly about a central axis, wobbling in a haphazard stellar equilibrium. Almost detached from this frame of movement, the texture of the surface was a burbling neon stream of eddies and currents, encompassing and discernable, a swirl of furrowed eons of churning fusion filling Bacad’s entire field of view with a bubbling cauldron of spacetime, matter, and all the rest. In the innate place of his soul’s reckoning, it felt like the secrets of energy being laid bare but unable to be grasped, a visual clarion call straight into his brain via eye-socket. An eldritch madness. A mechanical voice whirred in his ear, but for a moment, he could only drift and stare. “Ready for phase two. Initiate manual command sequence.” That gods-damned sensor data, he thought. What a joke. On his shipboard displays, he had prepared using the crude renderings amalgamated from the limited data he had received aside his contract, combined with the Saltine’s own somewhat paltry sensor data gleaned on deep-space approach. If that poor approximation were to be believed, the station was a more or less spherical mass, roughly planetoid in size but nothing too precise beyond that. As the initial closing phase had played out behind his suit’s blast visor, the helmet optics had dutifully collected, rendering to the internal display an abstract idea of what he was approaching. It had narrowed down the overall diameter at around one hundred kilometers, but beyond that, it was not much use. The strengths of these particular optics were more geared toward the utilitarian bent than any faithful reproduction or nuance of aesthetics. The rendering relied upon updated visual approximations based on flavor data fed from the ship, quick and dirty algorithms prioritizing that which helped him interpret incoming sensor data on the fly. The feedback loop could rapidly integrate complex spectra gathered by the suit sensors into the pre-assembled simulacrum fed from the ship, forming a somewhat cohesive rendering that assisted in the control of the suit’s thrusters. It was fairly bespoke kit, primarily useful for detecting and navigating through hazards commonplace in this type of ruinous spelunking, where an errant jet of propulsion could easily slide you through radioactive or thermal fields of bone-boiling intensity. Some of the processing work was the offloaded to the ship’s computers periodically, which in turn improved the rendering bit by bit as the data flowed. However, a certain amount of mutual exclusivity was built in to the system to ensure it remained useful if the ship went out of range or line of sight. In its utilitarian construction, the suit’s optical data stream was not geared toward aesthetic reproduction in the display visor; at least, it was not of the trend of optics designed to conform or reinterpret phenomena to the human visual spectrum band with “enhancements” to vibrancy, emotive impact, and the like. Such frivolity was of little use to Bacad – like many of his tools, this suit system was the product of thrift and necessity, and therefore served a specific set of requirements with no added frill. However, his suit’s data-collection abilities were now of little use. Beyond the rudimentary sensor approximation already gleaned, he had discerned precious little of the floating mass in his approach phase, beyond the fact that it did not seem to respond to his presence. This lack of insight was more unsurprising than unsettling, considering the object had ostensibly defied inquisitions undertaken by some of the more powerful observational devices still freelancing in civilized space – at least, according to the contract. Bacad did know a few things for certain. It was capable of self-propulsion, and it had exotic magnetic and energetic properties that seemed to favor intelligent origin over natural phenomena. With only a few centimeters of composite now separating his eyeballs from it, the reality of the thing was much more imposing than Bacad had truly allowed himself to be prepared for, and he felt a lurch as he took it in from this bird’s eye view. The hull swooped gradually off into a resolute darkness, forming a gradient with the nether of dappled star-scape beyond. Though the orientation of the station was such that the rearward side pointed away from the galactic ecliptic, the backdrop seemed much darker than it ought to have been. The surface radiated a light-swallowing pallor that blanked the smattering of stars for another twenty or thirty degrees above the horizon. This vignette, against the pale blue luminescence of the station, caused it to look as though it were ripping through spacetime itself, a massive behemoth imposing itself upon reality. Much closer to the surface now, he could see that it seemed to shimmer or sparkle, though more like static on a display than anything wondrous or beckoning. He took a deep, weary breath, his hand hovering over the display’s flashing reminder. Last chance to forget this whole, bloody mess. “No, I suppose… not,” he muttered, tapping the display as if to punctuate the sentence. With a tiny jolt of acceleration, the suit burped a burst of propellant. After a second or two, a modest approach speed had been reached and the thrusters cut off. He maneuvered the attitude controls to orient his body toward the targeted surface anomaly, focusing his eyes on where it was keyed in on his visor display. “What was that, B?” Amra purred over the comm. “Oh, just the normal amount of crapping my pants,” Bacad mumbled. “Underway on final approach. Keep an appreciable amount of your attention on the scanners, would you? I’d like to know if anything decides to pop-goes-the-weasel.” “Don’t I always keep a weather eye, Bacad?” they cooed in mock offense. “Besides, not much else to look at in these dusty old stacks anyway.” “Haven’t you ever heard the one about the gift horse, Amra?” “Ah, yes, I am ever so grateful,” Amra said, and then in a sudden voice of theatric indulgence, as if unveiling a magic trick, “to be granted the right of temporary domicile in your ship’s mainframe, while I await the repair of my true home, your… research… drone-uh!” As Amra finished speaking, dragging out the final word and hurling it with emphasis like a gameshow announcer, Bacad’s visor display erupted in a colorful explosion of pixel confetti and fireworks, with a soft, caricaturized rendering of the research drone in the center of the screen. A tinny fanfare played a second or two alongside before mewling out weakly as the animations subsided. “I see your sense of humor escaped intact from Vestal, if not my drone. But now maybe isn’t the time, eh? Report.” Amra snorted derisively. “Approach vector clear. Queue retro. Next phase in sixty. Mine might have, but it seems yours did not.” “I don’t feel great about the circumstances of your, uh…current inhabitation?” he said, in similarly feigned contrition, then with a sardonic whisper, “I’m a man of limited means. When I pulled you out of that damned core, on that shithole of an ass-cracked planet, I made that fairly clear that fact. I aim to do better by you, and this job will go a long way in that direction. So, you’d be best served helping me survive it.”