Chapter One

Sulfur and Salt


An acidic wind gently blew through Samus' short blond hair. The crumbled hill she sat on was nothing special, just a slight five meter rise that gave way before her into a gradual dusty tumble of dull black rocks and reddish sand. Above her, yellow clouds drifted in the light of a cold red sun. The valley beyond was more of the same, broken rocks and sandy lifeless gullies. It wasn't much of a view, but it was there and it was hers to see. There were mountains in the distance.

The thin layer of ice forming on her eyes began to obscure her vision and she blinked it away again. Her helmet sat upside down between some rocks at her feet but she left it there even though she still wore the rest of her armored power suit. The cold stung a little more these days since the metroid DNA infusion but that couldn't be helped. Every once and a while she needed to feel the wind, even if it was only on her head. It had been almost two years since she'd gotten the chance. And besides, the faint tickle of acidic vapors in her lungs felt a little like home. Distantly, she considered smiling.

The footsteps behind her were getting closer. The spinal interface in her suit fed more precise signals; four bipedal individuals of around the same size, two much heavier with intense energy signatures. So power armor, but just on two of them. It looked like they were being polite. Samus leaned back slightly, her armored exterior plates clinking against a bit of jagged volcanic rock.

Now the newcomers were within five meters of her and they stopped at the base of the little hill. Their boots crunched against the bits of gravel on the basalt ground. One set of boots, not either of the power armors', stepped forward.

"Samus Aran."

The voice came out both though an exterior speaker and over com channels, arriving simultaneously through her ears and from her skull implants. A woman's voice. "We are agents of the Galactic Federation Police. You are under arrest for crimes relating to the destruction of Research Station SR388. We are here to transport you the fleet ship Diomedes for your preliminary hearing."

Samus took one last deep breath and let it out slowly. The white fog of ice crystals gradually turned yellow as it reacted with the sulfurous air. Then she grabbed her helmet in her left hand and stood up. One more blink to clear the ice on her eyes and she turned.

Four humans in varying degrees of armor were waiting at the bottom of her low outcropping, standing in front of Samus's own yellow gunship. Their much larger black and silver GFP transport loomed in the near distance, squatting like a huge bird on uncertain ground. Samus didn't need her visor to know that both those soldiers in power armor were focusing all their targeting on the gun that encased her right forearm. After all, it was currently the most powerful weapon on this planet, and that included the main canons of that ship they flew in on. She would expect nothing less of good soldiers.

"Please deactivate your weapons and come with us." The woman spoke again. Unlike the blank helmets of the power suits, Samus could see her face. She and her unarmored fellow were dressed in thin, heat controlled pressure suits and transparent oxygen hoods, just a fabric-like layer of enhanced polymers between them and the planet's air. That might be why she was trembling as Samus walked down the hill, growing nearer with each step.

Samus stopped beside the woman and looked down at her. The woman glanced up, her lips slightly apart behind her faceplate as she tried to think of how to precisely deal with this very irregular arrest. Samus noticed a few strands of black hair hanging down near the soldier's ear, motionless even as a new gust brushed sulfur through Samus' own hair. In their suits, none of them could feel the wind.

That was a necessary sacrifice. Humans couldn't survive in this atmosphere.

"Er, yes," the woman said, glancing back at her teammate and the other two in power armor. "Thank you for your cooperation. Um..." Here she tapped at the neck of her suit and switched to an encrypted comm channel for her team. "Did she actually deactivate her weapons?"

Samus heard that just as easily, fed straight from the suit systems to her ear nerves. She also heard the slightly nervous response from the righthand armored soldier.

"How should we know? That thing she's wearing is a black box on every scan. The only way I even know she's organic is that she's got her flipping head sticking out. They weren't kidding about her by the way, in this environment? Not baseline indeed."

The woman made a slight flick of her fingers at the soldier before she tapped her neck again and nervously smiled up at Samus. "Ms Aran? I'm Officer Yin. This is Perez and our escorts Park and Nigam. We have a seat ready for you on our transport back to the Federation ship Diomedes." Oddly courteous for an arrest, but then again Samus' status had always been a bit odd within the Federation. Well, 'odd' if that word could fluctuate between 'asset' and 'liability' at a frequency approaching microwaves. She wondered how Yin had been chosen to come retrieve her.

Samus started walking past them. There was a brief flurry of the skritching sounds of boots on gravel as the GF party scrambled to maintain the appearance of custody. Then, as they passed Samus' ship, she stopped again and Yin almost walked into her armored back. Samus turned to the officers and said:

"My ship."

Officer Yin recovered quickly enough from hearing Samus' voice for the first time. "Oh. Yes. Well, if you'll cede navigation controls, our transport's computer can plot an automated guide up to a holding berth on Diomedes. For the duration of your-"

Yin was interrupted by Samus casually banging her arm-gun twice on the nose of her ship and the subsequent roar of igniting thrusters. A wave of dust burst through the party as the yellow hunter-ship began to rise up into the air before reconfiguring to blast off at a steep ascent. It quickly vanished into the cloudy yellow sky.

Samus heard Perez tap his comm controls. "Uh, Diomedes, looks like you've got an impound incoming. It'll be there...whenever it decides to show up, I guess."

One smooth motion of Samus' left arm and her helmet clicked into place over her head. Her vision was instantly once more filled with all the flurry of information she was used to considering part of her. Her senses were back up to fifteen and she wore a slight smirk as she noticed the soldier's weapons twitch up yet again in reaction to even that innocuous gesture. Perez took an unconscious quarter step back and Yin looked like she wanted to. All from putting on a helmet. They couldn't help it; there were enough stories surrounding that image of the Bounty Hunter, fully clad.

Samus didn't have time to deal with that and started walking once more in the direction of the GF transport, slightly faster this time. If they wanted to keep arresting her then they would have to keep up.

It took a second but they did so. The armored soldiers adjusted easily enough though Samus was quietly impressed that Yin and Perez managed to keep pace as well as they did. Over one-and-a-half times terran evolved gravity was nothing to ignore, especially for someone like Yin for whom a glance suggested that her slight frame was from a spacer-adapted gene pool. Without any conscious thought, Samus' suit began scanning them as age, equipment, and past medical procedures began to flash across her eyes.

As they neared the transport ship, Samus noticed that Yin was glancing up at Samus even as she herself was looking down at the officer. Perez was keeping his distance while Park and Nigam were mostly concerned with maintaining firing lines focused on her back. But Yin was looking at her, curious inspection in her eyes and something that might have been...disappointment?

After a moment Yin was forced to respond to Samus' persistent matching stare. Those eyes were the only human part of her visible now, and even they were obscured and tinted green by the helmet's visor. Trying to match that gaze only led to Yin almost tripping flat on her face when she realized that she didn't have an augmatic suit to automatically walk across uneven ground without looking.

Catching herself, Yin said, "Oof. Um, I'm familiar with the files on you, Ms Aran, at least the ones my clearance gives me access too. It's just that..." She trailed off. They were almost at the Federation transport.

Samus was used to that unease. People on most planets often had a visceral reaction to being near unfamiliar power armor, even if their own forces used it too. And there was an inherent threat about Samus' appearance; it was a suit designed at every level of its being not just for combat or defense, but for war. War in any shape, against any foe, lit by any star in the sky. She was prepared for anything.

Yin started again. "It's just that...I thought you had long hair."

Samus actually froze in the middle of a step as she blinked with surprise just prior to touching the GF transport's ramp. She was usually prepared.

Yin seemed to take this reaction as offense and began to stammer, "Not that it looks bad this way! I actually kind of like it, I mean. Do you have some sort of system in your suit that changes the length for you or...?" She quietly trailed off once more as Perez treated her to an incredulous look.

Samus slowly turned back and stared with pure confusion over these priorities. It was honestly hilarious what strange things people focused on.

"Haircuts. It grows." Samus considered laughing but decided that would probably be too much. So she stepped inside their ship and made her way to the seats mounted the middle of the fuselage. There was one which bristled with restraints, locks, and a moderate amount of mid grade explosives. She assumed that one was hers.

Truthfully, this time she'd lost her old mid-back tresses in the combination X-Parasite and metroid biological war-zone the GF's own doctors had turned her suit into during her last ordeal. She'd managed to eventually stabilize things but for a while the suit's organic systems had been running haywire and unguarded protein strands had a way of getting dissolved. It was actually quite interesting from a technological perspective, but at the moment she didn't feel the impulse to explain. At least she had her eyebrows back by now.

As a girl, her parents had loved her hair. Both sets of them had.

The GF soldiers locked into their seats on each side of her. Another encrypted comm line flared to life.

"Transport A-3 to Diomedes. Subject in custody and onboard. Lifting off for rendezvous."

The military ship rumbled as the main engines started up. Everything in its secure computer was instantly available for Samus to peruse whether they wanted her to or not, but nothing of interest presented itself. The other armored soldiers were still watching her and officer Perez glanced at her beam gun and the hull once or twice with an expression that had noticed his own outfit was not rated for vacuum exposure. Clearly there was a measure of uncertainty about precisely how much custody Samus was actually under.

However, something other than hairstyles was still bothering Yin, and after a few minutes of fidgeting slightly in her seat she worked up the nerve to voice it.

"There's something I've got to ask you but...well, I know the charges you're facing. And then you're out here at the edge of space." She looked up slightly before turning back in confusion. "You could have hidden forever. Why did we catch you?"

Samus paused, flicking her eyes over at Yin without moving any other part of her body. The smaller woman shuddered for a brief moment but controlled herself.

"You were getting annoying." Then Samus looked forward again, passing the time by reading the easily decrypted memory banks of this transport.

This pursuit had lasted sixteen months, back and forth across the border of Federation space. She hadn't made it easy for them to track her down, sticking mostly to nonhuman worlds, but then again doing her job even in an unlicensed capacity was hardly low profile. People important enough to be slapped with bounties tended to leave a stir when they went missing. Enough of a trail for dedicated investigators to follow. Then there was that one capital which had built a statue of her. That was embarrassing, but Samus didn't have the number tentacles necessary to communicate her wishes in their language.

Destroying the SR388 orbital station had certainly earned the revocation of her Hunter's license but by now, according to her internal calculations, the repeated diversion of GF forces to wherever a glimmer of Samus Aran showed up on the nets had to have nearly reached a cost comparable to a significant fraction of the original loss's value. The upset scientists might bemoan the incalculable value of scientific discovery but their political superiors were well practiced in exactly that calculation. By stalling the issue this long, Samus figured that the bureaucracy would have rolled along and already mostly forgotten its plans with the research station in favor of shifting the funding to whatever replacement was the pet project of the newest rising cadres. Things moved fast in the universe and even with massive property destruction and a bit of treason Samus's record still looked rosy in comparison to many.

But in the end, it was truthfully Samus' curiosity had led to this surrender. She'd done reparation-by-service before as, like it or not, the Federation valued her far more than most of the individuals they considered their subjects. Samus was willing to take the odds on the charges against her if only buy a freedom from this military pursuit in a few years or decades. It was all the same, more or less. It had long been an accepted fact that she was unlikely to find out what her natural lifespan was these days. Sometimes she wondered if she still had one.

But still there was something tickling the edge of her thought. Some trick from the mind expanding meditation her second family had attempted to teach her. Something was different now. Something added up strangely. And she was going to find out what it was, even if it meant sticking her head in a proverbial noose. She felt herself smile, invisible to all her supposed captors. The risk was familiar as, after all, mortal peril was pretty much her established method of investigation.

They would arrive on the ship Diomedes in twenty minutes. Samus recognized that name. On ancient Earth, it was a warrior who managed to draw blood from a god. It was a good name.

(I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions, and suggestions, even long after this story is completed.)