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Chapter 7[]

State of the Union[]

Part Two - New Dallas
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

Caddo City, New Dallas
Free Worlds League
31 December 3062

Finding New Dallas wasn't particularly a problem - Michael Searcy hadn't even heard of it but Captain Holstein of the Bifrost had the system in his charts. Possibly for smuggling, but if so, Michael wasn't about to enquire. That could be a good way to get invited out of an airlock. However comical the dwarf might look at times, he clearly commanded ferocious loyalty from his crew.

Bifrost's charts even included orbital data on the planet, which Holstein cheerfully admitted was a matter of luck. Otherwise they'd have had to run an astronomical search of the approximate habitable zones of the star system, which could have been time-consuming.

"What a shithole." Mael Colium muttered from the bridge of the Glowworm as the dropship made preparations to land. The captain was strapped into his seat, technically, but he'd loosened the restraints enough to have his feet up on one of the consoles. "Begging your pardon, Emma."

"I've heard the word before." the woman said from her own position. She was trim and squared away - if Michael hadn't seen how she looked at her husband, currently engrossed in plotting the landing, he might have made a pass at the dusky-skinned ship's officer.
"Mm-mmm." Colium continued. "It's hot down there, Morgan. You sure this is the place?"

Ardan Morgan glanced at the orbital imagery. "Yep. North-pointing peninsula from an isthmus, a city with domes. It matches the description we have perfectly."

"When you say hot." Michael asked warily, "Do you mean temperature or radiation? This place got nuked, right?"
"Hard to say from up here on the latter." Colium reached over and flicked the scan over to infrareds. "Local temperature's higher than I'd expect for a world that had cities like that though. Must have been miserable as Texas."

"You've never been to Texas, sir."

"I saved up years for a vacation on Terra and then the Word took over, Emma." he grumbled. "This is apparently as close as I'm ever gonna get. Dallas was in Texas, I looked that up."

Ardan shook his head. "I'm guessing they had some sort of terraforming that cooled the climate and that it's collapsed since then. Caddo City was the original settlement but, most of the population was on the inland sea further south."

"We're locked in." the ship's pilot said from his part of the Mule-class dropship's bridge. Whether he'd ignored the conversation or been genuinely oblivious to it wasn't clear to Michael. Burt Alleyne seemed to be in a world all his own when he took the Glowworm's controls. "Five minute window before I have to replot."

Colium glanced at Ardan, shrugged and then straightened up, tightening his restraints. "Take us down."

The Glowworm rocked lightly as they hit the atmosphere and started to bite into it. Michael could have sworn he felt the heat as a halo of fire engulfed them but when he checked the thermometer, the bridge temperature hadn't budged. Then the rocking intensified.

"Nothing to worry about," Colium called to him. "We're just under-loaded. Burt has it under control."

Michael gulped and nodded. The Glowworm had a notional full load of over eleven thousand tons - more than an Overlord-class military transport, but, right now it had all that volume and a total mass closer to that of a much smaller Union-class dropship.

Gravity took hold and his stomach churned as 'down' became about thirty degrees away from the vertical orientation of the compartment.

"Visual on our landing zone," Burt declared. "Looks fine." One of the screens lit up to display the derelict remains of what had probably been a busy space port. There were runways for aerodyne dropships and shuttles, one blocked by what had once been a passenger liner, and dozens of firmacrete pads for more spherical craft to come down directly. "Can't speak for what it looks like on the ground, but those pads should be solid. You care which one we use."

"Make sure we have plenty of room on all directions." Colium said, cutting across Ardan, who had been about to speak. "I want plenty of room if anything's been undermined from the support structures."

Michael saw Ardan lean back in his chair and force himself not to speak. The younger man's temper was under close rein, which was good. He wasn't sure the redhead really grasped how much he was depending on the willing cooperation of Colium and his crew. The Morgans were obviously part of some noble house and neither seemed to have been out much in the real world, outside the protections of their family.

"Where's Holstein's shuttle?"

Emma adjusted her controls as the Glowworm came closer to proper verticality. "A good safe distance, sir," she answered her captain's question. "I'd guess he'll come down maybe a kilometer south of us."

"Hmm. His risk to take, that little toy doesn't weigh much of anything." Colium still seemed relieved that the fusion torch of the shuttle wasn't anywhere near his dropship. At close range, the drive would have ripped through the light hull of the freighter and done untold damage.

The view of the dropport below was growing but not as quickly as Burt brought more power to the engines, slowing their descent. "Deploy landing gear." he ordered.

His wife activated a control and after most of a minute nodded sharply. "Landing gear locked."

"Slow and steady." Colium warned. "Have us ready to take off if the pad can't take it."

"We'll come down as lightly as a leaf on the wind." the pilot promised.

If so, Michael would have hated to see the leaves where Burt came from, but more than three thousand tons of metal came to rest against the landing pad with far less impact than bringing a Pillager assault 'Mech down on its jump-jets. The man flipped switches. "Maneuvering thrusters off, main thrust..." He glanced back at the captain and got a nod. "Off."

The engines' roar, a sound that Michael had largely come to ignore, cut out sharply and the Glowworm vibrated briefly as it settled against the pad.
"Once again, we have cheated death." Colium leant over his controls. "And the radiation count is... well, worse than a day at the beach but not much. More a matter of the thin atmosphere than residuals from nukes, I'd guess."

"Mech cockpits get pretty warm too." Michael said, unbuckling himself. He felt light on his feet, not unsurprising given New Dallas had a surface gravity only about five-sixths that of Terra.

"It's closer to boiling than freezing out there and the atmosphere's thick with carbon dioxide and methane." Emma clarified. "We can use the lower cargo deck as an airlock but this is going to be pretty miserable for anyone outside. Pressure suits might not be required but I'd recommend them over just going out in a mask."

Ardan shook his head. "We don't have enough for everyone, so masks are going to have to be enough. Besides, in this heat, the suits would have us sweating too much."

Michael glanced at the clock. "Three hours until the New Years." he noted. "I suggest we let the crews get used to the gravity and maybe take a walk around to acclimatize before we start any serious work."

His boss squinted at the screens. "It's close to mid-day local and given the heat, we're probably going to do most of our work in the twilight hours. We can let the pad cool but, I want survey teams out and checking for access to the domes in... call it four hours."

"You're really in that sort of hurry?"

Ardan rubbed his chin. "A few hours might not matter in the grand scheme of things, or it could be all the difference in the world. Besides, the sooner we find the cache the sooner we can be out of here."

"Acclimatization isn't a joke, sir." Michael warned. "We could lose one of our work-mechs if the pilot stumbles."

"I thought you were some sort of hotshot," the other man said lightly. "You can take one out and I'll take the other. I'm not going to take a tumble in a frigging workmech."

Michael sighed. "Fine, you're the boss."

Ardan gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder. Almost knocking him over as he headed out of the bridge.

Behind him, Colium gave him a shrug, loosened his restraints and kicked his feet up again. "He can say what he wants but, my crew have the night off. It's the New Years."

"What drives that man anyway?" asked Emma as her husband, also unstrapped, moved over to wrap his arms around her.

It was a good question, Michael thought as he headed out of the door. Ardan Morgan was almost as much of a puzzle as his sister.

Last time you worked for someone with secrets, you got a lot of trouble out of it, a little voice warned him. Michael blinked it away. Ardan was close mouthed, but he was nothing like the oily Drew Hasek-Davion who'd employed him on Solaris VII.

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