A kaleidoscopic swirl of stars gave way to realspace as the heavy freighter Hotspur decelerated from lightspeed, and the view was something special. A blue gas giant dominated the space, half-bathed in the light of a distant sun. Its atmosphere rippled with the movement of massive anticyclonic storms as large as planets, creating a massive, silver-azure mosaic across its gaseous surface. Silhouetted against the mottled, sunward face of the gas giant was a host of asteroids, representing but a fraction of the great belt of Audo, fifth planet of the Caymar System.

Nearer to the heavy freighter than the asteroids and similarly silhouetted against the azure giant was a broken vessel, cruiser sized at least, and from the look of it the vultures had already arrived. Smaller craft, no doubt helmed by salvaging crews of dubious legitimacy, clustered around the durasteel carcass. The sustained burns of laser cutters were visible even at this distance as the spacers dissected the wreck, hopefully only after checking for survivors. Accidents happened, of course, and on the fringes of the galaxy they happened more frequently than usual. That could be chalked up to a lack of government oversight and poor observation of safety protocols, but there was no shortage of scrapper captains who were very aware that accidents were cheaper than rescue operations. The long arm of the law was limited in its reach out there, and the profit margins were tight.

Not that the freighter’s captain could judge his fellow spacers; he was something of a vulture himself, after all.

The freighter captain sat on the bridge of the Balleen-class, situated comfortably in a seat specially modified to accommodate his small frame. Less than a meter and a half in height, he’d had the captain’s chair redone when he’d purchased the freighter all those years ago. It had been cheaper to put in a chair tailored to his small, reptilian frame than it was to renovate the entire bridge and get it done custom. That said, his feet did not touch the ground, and he didn’t like that. Never had.

That aside, it was comfortable enough otherwise, and the best seat in the house, for that matter. The bridge’s transparisteel viewport, near ten meters across, gave him a commanding view of the space beyond the ship’s prow. He kept an eye on the distant salvage craft as he set the freighter’s course and brought the ship to a nice, fuel-efficient burn of about forty-five percent of engine capacity. He plotted it such that he gave the scrappers a wide berth, but sure enough, the comms array notified him with a gentle ring that his ship was being hailed. Jealously guarding their ill-gotten gains, he expected.

The Nosaurian kicked his dangling feet as he swiveled in the chair, angling for the comms. He engaged the comm channel with the push of a button. A screen to his left flickered to life, and he looked over to find a human face considering him. Not that the captain had much of a sense of it – humans were so fleshy and soft-looking, it almost made his stomach turn no matter what they looked like – but this was not an attractive human, as far as he could tell. The man on the other end of the comms had a crooked nose, lopsided jaw, and some strange pattern tattooed in red and black running across his face

For a moment, they simply stared at each other, and the captain got the sense that he was going to have to kick the conversation off.

“This is Zatticus Blackbark, Captain of the Hotspur,” the captain said. The human nodded but didn’t say anything in response. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Zatticus prompted after a brief wait.

“Captain Blackbark, I am Ghosu Daan, captain of the independent salvager Udene,” the man introduced himself in turn. He spoke with a thick accent Zatticus couldn’t place, and with forceful bravado. “You would be wise to be keeping your distance,” Daan advised him. No doubt this man was, at best, little better than a pirate.

“Don’t you worry, Udene, I’m burning for Audo Station. I’ll be sure to give you space,” Zatticus answered, raising his hands and showing the viewscreen his open palms. The feed cut out without further conversation, and Zatticus adjusted course to give the Udene a little more room. Better to be safe than sorry, and it didn’t add much time to the slow haul to Audo Station.

Audo Station was less of a trade hub and more of a dying boom town. When the Caymar System had been first charted some ninety years ago, explorers had found it to be resource rich and ripe for exploitation. Caymar itself, a cold but habitable alpine world, was nothing special. It had all the basic resources necessary to support a colony but lacked anything in demand across the greater galaxy. Audo, on the other hand, was a different story.

In addition to the gases that could be extracted from the planet itself, Audo’s planetary belt was particularly valuable. The asteroids contained vast deposits of lommite ore, one of the key materials involved in the production of transparisteel. Before long, Audo had become a prosperous center of industry in the Daalang Sector, and the mines, refineries and shipping lines of the then newly constructed station were working around the clock to extract, refine and ship lommite. Unfortunately, initial estimates of the size of the lommite deposits were overly generous. The ore ran dry sooner than expected, the credits stopped flowing and the refineries shut down.

These days, Audo Station was nothing more than a pitstop for the occasional refuel. It was included on only a handful of starcharts, and those residents still remaining were either poor, independent miners eking out a living scrounging amid the long-mined out asteroids or working gas harvesting operations on the planet itself. The ore refineries of Audo Station had either been shut down or repurposed to serve as gas refineries, extracting what quantities of marketable tibanna, kesium and deuterium could be refined from the low-quality raw product brought up from the gaseous world.

This was obviously not the most profitable trade route this side of Daalang, but the Caymar System and Audo Station had another thing going for it – it was a safe haven for outlaws. With the Hutt Civil Wars drawing to a quiet close, there was a sudden overabundance of weaponry across Hutt Space for which there was no shortage of buyers elsewhere in the galaxy. Mid Rim pirate operations like the Jareer Syndicate, Zatticus’s buyer at Audo Station, had a constant demand for arms and armament that was difficult to fill through legal channels. So, in addition to the basic supplies to be sold at Audo Station to legitimate customers, one of the modular cargo containers aboard the Hotspur, supplied by Zatticus’s contacts on Nar Shaddaa and carefully omitted from the ship’s manifest, was stocked top to bottom with blasters, power cells, and ion warheads. That was where the real money was made.

The door slid open behind him, and the sound of whirring robotic joints met Zatticus’s ears.

“Your caf, captain,” came a synthetic voice, and the Nosaurian swiveled around. Even sitting upright in his elevated chair, the thin, humanoid droid towered over him, and it held the cup of caf just short of the captain’s face.

“Thank you, Tobi,” Zatticus said, reaching up and taking it from the droid’s outstretched arm. The droid’s fingers gripped the cup for a half-second longer than a sentient would, but aside from that it was a seamless transfer of caf from one hand to another. Zatticus wasn’t a droid tech by any stretch, but he’d done a decent job refurbishing the old droid, and it had taken a bit of complex circuitry work to make it function again. He was proud it was functioning anywhere near a hundred percent.

Zatticus had picked up T0-B1, or Tobi, back on Bracca some six standard months. The droid was a Clone Wars era model, a hundred twenty years old at least, and had a hole through his chest where a blaster bolt had pierced him in some battle long ago. There was still some Confederate pride among the Nosaurian people, and even a washed-up smuggler like Zatticus felt it now and again. He purchased the fallen soldier of the Confederacy for less than a hundred credits, and spent about four times that amount patching him back up. It hadn’t been easy, but it was nice having company aboard the Hotspur. Even though the heavy freighter was designed to be operable by a single crewman despite its size, it helped to have an extra pair of hands around.

“Tobi,” Zatticus said as the droid took the copilot’s seat, “could you run a scan on that wreck?” It paid to be careful, in Zatticus's experience, and there was no sense leaving questions up in the air. Tobi, without further prompting, began diligently tapping at the controls, and considered the viewscreen before him. Zatticus took a sip of caf as the droid considered its findings.

“Scanners indicate this to be the hull of a Carida-class light cruiser,” Tobi announced. That perked Zatticus up a bit. That was a New Republic warship being torn apart by salvagers. “Relative to the local sun , the largest hull fragments are traveling at an average velocity of–”

“Can you tell what happened to it?” Zatticus asked, cutting the droid off mid-sentence.

“I am afraid that analysis is beyond our current software capabilities,” came Tobi’s answer, but Zatticus waved him off.

“Broaden our scopes. Run a full spectrum scan of the area and prep a holo,” the captain said. “Give me full data on relative velocities and trajectories of the wreckage.”

“Roger, roger,” the B1 said cheerily.

Twenty minutes later, Zatticus and Tobi stood in the what had been advertised upon his purchase of the vessel as the ship’s conference room. It was the largest room on the ship other than those intended for cargo, and boasted a large, round table ringed by a dozen chairs. The idea was that the ship’s captain would have a more corporate environment in which conduct business. It was stately, if rarely used, in Zatticus’s experience. Most real traders did their work from the bridge, himself included.

That said, the holoprojector in here was enormous, and it allowed the pair to project the holographic rendering of the space in question at a much larger scale than they would be able to up in the bridge. This was helpful, because they had a lot of space to look at. And so, standing with Tobi before a holographic rendering of ten thousand kilometer stretch of space, Zatticus assessed the situation.

One of the most useful rules of physics for a star captain to keep in mind while traversing the galaxy was that, in space, once an object started moving in a direction it would keep moving that way until it bumped into something. The Carida-class wreckage, like any piece of matter in space, and been drifting through space, and the other fragments of destroyed ship were scattered across the three-dimensional rendering of the scanning range. Zatticus had seen the aftermath of ships that had experienced core meltdowns and critical engine failures – he’d expected something like that, a large cloud of debris expanding rapidly outwards in all directions. He was surprised to find that this was not the case here.

Rather, the other fragments of the cruiser the Hotspur’s sensors managed to pick up were scattered and inconsistent, traveling at variable speeds and angles away from the main wreckage. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that most of the debris was traveling inward toward Audo. Then it clicked.

“This ship was attacked,” he said aloud. Did he hear a note of shock in his own voice? He pointed at the fragments, which Tobi had helpfully marked with vector lines to denote speed and direction. “Look at the angles on the debris – the ship fell apart while it was moving, different pieces coming off at different times. And most of it’s heading toward the planet, which would make sense if someone was over there,” he said, moving his finger to the left of the Carida-class to point, “shooting at the thing while it was moving.”

Tobi didn’t respond, and Zatticus looked up at him. “Am I making sense?” the Nosaurian asked.

“I agree with your assessment,” Tobi answered.

“Thank you,” Zatticus said, and then his eyes fell on the asteroid field. The field was dense – too dense for a broad spectrum scan to get a good rendering of the area. What kind of ship could tangle with a New Republic and leave it a burning wreck in the black? The kind that could lie in wait in the shadows of an asteroid belt, maybe?

He grit his teeth. A bad habit, probably. You only get one set of teeth, his mother had always said. “To hell with fuel efficiency,” Zatticus growled. “Tobi, bring us up to a seventy percent burn for Audo and start running a scan on that belt. I’ll be back in a minute.”