Eline Reisora knew an opportunity when she saw one. That’s how she’d gotten out of a grimy orphanage on Absalom Station and adopted by a rich family; it was why she’d busted her ass to graduate at the top of her class, and it was why she’d rejected a cushy position at her father’s bank for an EJ Corp middle-management gig. But after all her hard work and careful planning, here she was on Sovall’s Folly, a good-for-next-to-nothing jungle planet in the Vast. Officially her assignment was supervising medical research into the weird flora and fauna that made up this world’s biosphere; EJ Corp hoped to find a promising cure or medicinal that would rationalize the high cost of investing in this planet in the first place. Unofficially, she babysat scientists and occasionally accompanied a patrol, just to stretch her legs. And that’s how she’d gotten into her current situation.
A dart as long as her forearm hissed out of the jungle, burying itself in the tree Eline was hiding behind. One of her escorts was already a corpse flat on the ground, a similar dart rising from his neck like a flagpole. Another member of her security team had fled when the ambush occurred. The last of Eline’s employees fired wildly into the brush, filling the leaves and the darkness with laser bursts. Eline gripped her arc pistol with both hands but didn’t waste a shot. She waited for an opportunity.
There. As her man paused to reload, Eline saw a glimpse of orange through the trees. It was one of the locals, the indigenous population of Sovall’s Folly. They called themselves blicanders, but EJ Corp personnel just called them bleeks. As the bleek rose up from a crouch to spit a three-foot needle, Eline spun around the tree and took the shot. Both projectiles hit their mark: lightning struck the bleek in the center of its body and it collapsed, limbs convulsing, and Eline’s employee staggered backward, the long dart having pierced both his armor and his heart. But Eline was alive, and that’s what mattered.
Slowly she stepped towards the bleek corpse. It was huge, with a long proboscis, a quiver of darts slung over its hulking body, and a simple amulet around its neck. Its skin was decorated with symbols drawn in a golden dye. They didn’t usually travel alone. This one must have heard Eline and her soldiers coming and seized the chance to spring a trap. She wanted a memento, a trophy. Crouching down, she lifted the amulet from around the bleek’s neck and slid it off the creature’s long, flexible head.
Noise. More of them. Drawn by weapons fire, probably. Quickly, she dropped the amulet over her head and started to run. Bleeks moved fast, they had good hearing, and they knew the jungle. She didn’t like her chances. Sure enough, she soon heard them in the brush behind her. Faster, girl, faster. But as she opened up her stride to sprint, her right foot caught a root and she fell, tumbling into a ravine. Pain lanced through her leg as she tried to catch herself, but it was a long slide. Out of the darkness she saw the ravine floor, a bright gray stone. She was going to hit. This was it. Time to die on a good-for-next-to-nothing jungle world in the Vast.
But she didn’t. She didn’t die. She didn’t even hit the stone. One instant she was falling toward the ravine floor, then there was a freezing cold blackness, and an instant later she plunged into cool water. Her panic changed from fear of having her skull crushed to fear of drowning, but with a kick she found air. Everything was dark. Where was she? What had happened? Why wasn’t she dead?
There was a metallic taste on her lips. Blood? No, it was in the water. Her personal comm was still at her waist; finding it, she turned on the light and looked around.
She floated in a subterranean lake. Above her was a silvery dome—the floor of the ravine. Somehow she had slipped through it, fallen twelve feet, and landed in the lake.
“That,” she muttered to herself, “makes no sense at all.”
Eline glided to the edge of the lake and found her footing. In the light from her comm she could see the same gray stone everywhere. But there were also markings: pictographs and the images of animals native to this planet, drawn with the same golden dye Eline had seen on the dead bleek.
This must be a religious site for them, she realized. Sensing opportunity, she took a closer look. As she knelt down before a large stone, the amulet around her neck clinked against it and she realized it wasn’t stone at all. That silvery appearance wasn’t just moisture and a trick of the light. It was metal. The amulet, too. Eline had a chemalyzer; the scientists were always asking her to take samples when she left the compound, in case she found something that might be useful. For an instant she was afraid it might have been damaged in the fall but no, there it was, on her belt. Still working. It took only a moment for the device to return its verdict.
Inubrix. Ghost iron. A starmetal used in everything from miniaturization to null-space chambers. And the entire cavern was made of the stuff. From the top of the dome to the bottom of the lake.
She checked the amulet. Yes, that was inubrix too.
That must have been how she got in. The bleeks must use the amulets to pass through the walls of the cavern, she thought. And who knew how far the vein went? It could stretch for miles.
Eline sensed opportunity.
EJ Corp had bought the rights to exploit Sovall’s Folly for a pittance. They’d dumped a ton of credits into biomedical research, hoping for a lucky find. But inubrix wasn’t a gamble. The company knew how to mine it, refine it, market and sell it. At scale. And if she did it right, she’d get a percentage.
As Eline stood, scanning her light around the inside of the cavern, she looked again at the markings blicanders had left behind. In golden paint they had drawn their villages, their families, their way of life. Children gathered in a circle around singing elders. Hunters clad in sacred garb herded animals or stalked huge carnivores. They explored, they traded, they made art; they lived their lives, the same as anyone in the galaxy. And there, on one wall, was the arrival of Evgeniya-Jaimisson Corporation, aka EJ Corp, aka the Company, with its Negotiator warships and its fortress-sized research factories.
Blicandrines weren’t savages in the way of progress. They weren’t bleeks. They were people Eline just didn’t understand. And this cavern—and maybe many more just like it—was important to them, to their way of life. EJ Corp would strip mine it into a pit a mile deep. That wouldn’t just be wrong, it would be evil.
But it was opportunity. As Eline looked around, she saw through the art left behind on the walls, seeing only the inubrix lying beneath. “I mean,” she whispered, “just look at all this money.”
She made the call.
A few days later, from her stateroom aboard a Company Negotiator, Eline heard the first of the explosions as mining charges blew open the nearest inubrix cavern. EJ Corp engineers had already arrived, along with the soldiers necessary to protect everyone from blicandrine guerrillas. Eline knew their way of life was over. That was on her.
But her promotion to Vice President had arrived. She was being asked—not instructed, but asked—to return to corporate headquarters in the Veskarium, where she’d select a new project to manage. And her percentage was locked in. Every ton of inubrix carried off Sovall’s Folly would put credits in her account.
There was another far-off explosion as the Negotiator lifted off. She closed her eyes and acknowledged regret. Instead of preserving the culture of another species, she was destroying it, exploiting it.
But this, she’d decided, was the cost of opportunity.
About the Author
Jason Tondro develops Starfinder Adventure Paths. A former college professor, he taught literature, writing, film, and comics & graphic novels before joining Paizo as an editor in March 2018. He is the author of the Arthur Lives! RPG; look for him on Twitter @doctorcomics. He lives in Seattle with his two dogs.
About Fly Free or Die
In the Fly Free or Die Adventure Path, a crew of scoundrels, rogues, and misfits finds it hard to survive in a galaxy where everyone has a price. Targeted by a crime boss and his army of enforcers, preyed upon by faceless mega-corporations, and hounded by rivals, the crew of the Free Trader Oliphaunt line up the big score that will at last make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. But when their many enemies join forces and the crew loses it all, they find out there's two things in the galaxy that can't be bought: freedom... and revenge. The Fly Free or Die Adventure Path launches next month in Starfinder Adventure Path #34: We’re No Heroes!