The sudden jolt of the shuttle leaving hyperspeed rocked Iness forward from the reclined position she had assumed just before the shuttle jumped. The angle of the craft in the gravity-less vacuum of space didn’t feel right, nor did the sudden deceleration brought on by the artificial gravity equipment trying to compensate. She wandered up to chat with the shuttle pilots, something she had done many times, to find out what was going on. The first she saw upon entering the cab of the small shuttle was that they were coming in to dock at the floater, the small space station that was in asynchronous orbit above the city they were supposed to be delivering the forty-odd troops onboard who were returning after some well earned rest. She was delivering a diplomatic pouch she had been talked into carrying by a friend on Senton-6, the simple task only agreed upon for the free ride to and from the planet as a distraction while her own ship was undergoing some minor repair work she didn’t have the equipment to do herself and a service-worthiness inspection. The work was being done by her ex-husband, one of the best starship mechanics across the galaxy. Why she had ever married him was beyond her. In her life the thrill of adventure was enhanced by the uncertainty of the arrival, something the quiet routine of that marriage brought a lifeless end to. It hadn’t taken her long to end that contract.
“What’s happening, Serentine overbook its arrivals again?” She nodded at the small space station they were approaching, rather than the large planet based spaceport. The space station was used only for overflow, rarely anything else.
“Worse than that,” the captain responded, “They’ve an all-out military assault going on and the few words I got from the controller was to stay away at all costs and find someplace else to land. It is he who suggested the station.”
Iness looked at the looming floater and saw something she didn’t like, several landing bays looked dark and one looked like it had the ominous orange glow all who embraced space life feared. The station’s surface above the port was marked with some recent looking black starbursts. “Is the drive ready,” she asked the captain, nodding at the controls for the hyperdrive.
The startled captain glanced over to make sure, “Yes, why?”
Iness’ answer was to lean across, key in some coordinates by memory, and press the large button.
As they broke from the jump the captain was furious, “You’d better have a damn good reason to have done that. It will be at least 20 minutes before we can go back.”
“Perhaps you should have your second call that station and see if they want us back first.”
The last was heard by the sergeant of the military unit who were the only other passengers on the shuttle. A few minutes ago they were laughing and joking in the manner of men fresh from a well-earned shore leave returning to their duty station to dead silence. The more experienced men started checking their gear as if they were getting ready to fight.
“What is wrong Captain?” the sergeant asked.
“I was just asking her that,” he nodded towards the smuggler.
The second, who was the shuttle’s navigator, reported from his station. “I’m not reaching the station. I’m not even getting the ping from the ready beacon. I tried the surface and their beacon responds but there is no answer.”
Iness nodded, she was not surprised although she didn’t expect the station to be so close to blowing. She turned to the sergeant, “Do you have any way of finding out what the status of that station is, Sarge?”
The wizened sergeant shook his head. He’d been in the service coming on 40 years, he’d heard a lot of things and he didn’t like the sounds of what he was hearing now. “No,” he said quietly.
Iness remembered and patted the diplomatic packet tucked securely in the cargo pocket of her jump pants. That fool owed her and he’d better be able to get the answers for her questions. She nodded at the captain then spoke directly to the shuttle’s second, “Sir, could you make contact with the embassy on Ridel-2 and ask to speak to Assistant to the Secretary, Jaxon Kind, tell them to tell him it is an emergency and it is me who is asking. Make it is a secure contact and put it on speaker when you get him. A few minutes later Jaxon’s voice came on.
“Iness, why the secure connection? Has something happened with the packet?”
“The packet is the only thing that isn’t wrong. It is hard to deliver it if everyone on the whole world is trying to kill each other.”
This was the first time Jaxon or the sergeant had heard of this and their simultaneous exclamations, “What???” that were light years apart would have been comic except for the gravity of the situation. Jaxon started to speak, “What do you mean…”
“Jax, just shut up and listen and I pray you can help me. I need to have some type of scan where that floater used to be,” again both men’s exclamations were in unison, this time joined by the captain’s. “You heard me, give me a vid on the station. I know you government types have long-range satellites somewhere that can see there. I also know you have people who wouldn’t even charge – especially if you bet them where it wasn’t. And give me an real sit report of what is happening on the surface. No, not one of those diplomatic official ones, but one that comes from that cute little lieutenant you know who works in the ops section.” Now there was silence. All knew what she wanted and all hoped she would get. “Leave the com open, it’s not like they don’t have hundreds. I’ll wait.”
A few minutes a puffing Jax came back on, “I do not suggest that you go back to that station. Unless that shuttle captain is able to dock against pieces no larger than a scooter. The surface is total anarchy. The rebels have overrun Chatanoogee and are holding all important guests, probably for ransom. No clue what has happened to the rest. My assumption, the ambassador’s assumption, is that they somehow found a way to subdue the hundreds of military personnel at the base there.”
The sergeant and captain both nodded.
“Do you want to come here?” It was Jax again, “We can house the shuttle’s passengers while this thing gets sorted out.”
“Jax, you know darn good and well who is on the passenger manifest, and I’m sure they don’t want to be sitting around at an embassy, even if it is one the size of a small city. I might want to impose upon your hospitality for some other things though. Iness out.” She made a cut-throat sign to the second, who obliged. Iness whirled to face the sergeant, “Sarge. Does everyone carry food? Do they have charges for their weapons? Do they have their camping gear?”
Sarge was ready with the answers before she asked, “Food for two weeks, a pair of cartridges each – some have more. And they all have everything they need to go everywhere. That’s the requirements and they all know them or they would never have gotten leave.”
“And support? Med packs? Armorer supplies? Chargers?”
This time the sergeant frowned. “They were on the other shuttle.”
Iness looked him in the eye, “I hope next time you split the supplies when you split the troops.”
The sergeant nodded, “If we have a next time.”
The Captain interrupted, “Where to captain?”
“To the space garage above Ridel-2. I’m getting my baby then Sarge and 40 of his best buddies and I are going for a ride.” She winked at the sergeant and his mouth opened in a wide grin when he realized that they were not going to be sitting still and waiting for this thing to pass. He winked back. “Sir,” she said looking at the second, “Do you mind telling the maintenance station that we’re coming and that I want ‘Sunshine’ read to go, and go fast, when we arrive.” She figured her ex wouldn’t argue with someone he didn’t know and he might work faster that way. Turning, she went back to share their situation with the troops.
“So,” Iness was wrapping up her sit report to the troops who sat and listened without a sound, “Who wants to go find out what happened to your buddies?” The bay echo’d with the ‘who-rahs’ and cheers of the troops. Those who had not been before preparing their gear where doing it now. Iness smiled. She then spent an hour learning how this heavy platoon was organized, speaking with the squad leaders, and finding out who was gone (all the senior officers – which she wouldn’t mind) The intercom announced that they were coming in to land at the orbiting space garage and gave the bay number. Iness smiled when she recognized the number and lined up first at the door.
The ramp dropped and Iness stepped out onto the deck. There was a sight that had always made her smile, and she figured it would until the end of her life. High upon the engines were the words, ‘Supernova MMXIV’, aka ‘Sunshine’. The troops filed out, packs on their backs and guns in hand and stopped. There in front of them stood a giant ship. Big enough to hold their entire company, had they been there. But she wasn’t a cargo ship, she was one of the biggest smuggling vessels most had seen. Smuggler ships were known to be fast, sometimes suped up to be many times faster than their original engines should be able to move, and armed. The smaller ones where crewed by two, the larger ones could be 20. This was one of the largest but surprisingly no crew met them, only one figure. The captain advanced to and gave a kiss that hinted of past passions.
“What is this? You got tired of bossing me around so you found some more men?”
“It would take a while to explain, but I shall if you want.”
“No need. It’s been all over the news.” He motioned to the soldiers and switched the channel on a large vidscreen. There is was, covert shots from the inside of the city, leaked footage of the debris that was the space station. Men and women both steeled their faces, they were ready.
Iness glanced over at the sergeant. “We got a lot to do before we go back. I gotta call in some chips to get us a charger. Let’s get everyone fed.” She found it interesting that her ex didn’t say a word at the sudden, and probably depleting, assault on his food stores.
Two hours later the men wandered from the improvised mess hall. Some were still munching the remnants of their dinner, a few seemed to be filling their pockets with the nuts and hard candies that someone had also found in the stores. She looked the other way and saw that the shuttle had been shoved over to the side, well clear of the bay doors. She frowned and grumped at loud, “The didn’t need to move the shuttle. I can take this beast easily over the likes of that.” A voice behind her man her jump. She turned to see all three members of the shuttle crew standing behind her with their packs across their shoulders.
“It doesn’t need to be left in the middle of the bay if nobody is going to be piloting it,” the captain said with a grin. “We discussed among us and decided that you can’t crew this behemoth by yourself where we are going. We have enough experience between us,” the captain gestured at the first and second mates, “That we could help keep you from getting lost no matter what. Lerone, my first, was raised just outside the city we are going to and just to walk into the base to play with the children of an officer there.”
“He is still there, as are many of the troops I used to know. They are active or some working as consultants or mercs.”
The petite Mandonian was about to say more when a huge pack slid past them on the floor, followed by some stomping on the landing behind them. The all turned to see a fit, handsome man, the owner of the mechanics shop they would soon be vacating, filling the doorway into the bridge.
“If you are planning to take my baby into a war zone, you’d better have a mechanic on board or she might not come back out.”
“What about your business?” the captain of the shuttle asked with concern.
“What about it? there are over 50 men who work for me, don’t you think there might be one – more than one – who could run it in my stead? The men have already been assigned before you arrived, I’ve been planning for months to apply for a position on a ship I know which is woefully lacking of crew. Now the captain is in a position that she can’t say ‘no’ to me, at least not at this time.”
Iness dropped her head and shook it slowly, more to disguise a smile at the sudden crew. All would be welcome, especially one in particular. The captain covered a smile, he had known the smuggler for years and remembered when she was the happiest. That was the year she spent on this very space station as she recovered from an adventure that nearly got her killed. That was when ‘Sunshine’ was willed to her from the estate of another to replace the one that her father had left her who was destroyed in the same adventure. After refitting and careful care, most by the man standing in the doorway, she was fit for duty and waiting when Iness was declared fit as well.
Looking directly at the man, she smiled and asked, “Is my baby ready to leave?”
“Yes. My field repair station was loaded ten minutes ago, as were all my tools. It looks like we are all ready. Start your walk.”
As per tradition, superstition, and simply a way to clear her mind and plan her flight, Iness descended the crew steps and started to circle. Her ex blocked any else who tried to follow with an arm and a head shake. Fully 45 minutes later she returned, she had even climbed up onto the catwalk that circled and stretched overhead in the bay and got a good look at the top. Few except her ex knew that as she walked and inspected every inch of metal and composite that would keep the lives of herself and others safe in the depths of space. She prayed for every man, woman, breath of air, nut and bolt that would go on the journey.
“One more thing,” she said as she entered the bay from her inspection. She walked past the crew and onto the bridge, pressing a number into the halophone as she got there. Soon a seedy looking hunter appeared.
“What was that about? You ring me and then lift your scramble?”
“Sorry. There has been a lot on my mind lately.”
“Sorry. What are all these people? You know I speak only to you.”
“This is my crew. They know what I know, at all times.”
“It must be something important for you to have a crew. Either that or you are getting too old to fly that thing and perhaps you should step away?”
Iness clenched her fist, the hunter knew that had she been in the same room he would be fighting for his life. And very likely would loose it. “Shut up and listen. Afterwards I hope you will arrange what I need and not charge a year’s dealings.”
The hunter was seen leaning against a counter nearby. “I am listening.”
“You been watching the vid? Have you seen Mandanian Prime? They have quite the uprising.”
The figure in the halo nodded.
“Well, had I gotten planet side a bit earlier I would have been in the middle of that mess without a ship. Sunny was in port getting her face washed and teeth brushed. So I had been on a shuttle with 40 Mandarian troops returning from R & R when we were diverted from the surface. We were about to dock at the floater when I saw something I didn’t think was right. Anyhow, we are now at Chet’s place with 40 troops as mad as hell and wanting to kick some rebel booty.”
“And that has what to do with me?”
“I need a charger and at least 100 cartridges, no questions asked.”
The man laughed, “When there is a war anywhere near?”
“How many people have you told about the time on Tersan that you wrecked that bucket of bolts you own and it took Chet and I a week and many, many shots fired to get enough garbage to make it space worthy so you could go get it repaired. You did get it repaired didn’t you?”
He spoke quietly, “No one knows that a smuggler aligned with the other side helped me. Nobody is going to find out either.”
“Good, glad to hear it. So, about that charger.”
“I might know one, I might even be able to arrange a good price. But not that many cartridges. I’ll know better when you pick it up. It’s new, working, and all that other stuff. The broker is so going to miss the profit he might have made.”
She suspected well who the ‘broker’ was and received encrypted coordinates that only she would put into the nav con. A nod and she broke transmission. She hadn’t asked the price. She knew it would probably be 10 times the original cost of the machine.