The Yuomaky and Barrow were under way to Zhirnyy point. The Barrow was at max FTL, which was just over half the speed the Yutomaky was capable of. Civilian drives were chosen for efficiency and low-maintenance, unlike the high-end gear used by the military. Weir and his hand-picked bodyguards were onboard the Barrow.
Flight ops weren’t possible at FTL. The flight bay was closed, and the pilots had far more free time. In all that free time the four pilots became part of the furniture in the observation lounge at the aft end of the ship playing cards and other games, getting drunk on synth-ale, and trying to impress crew members with their stories.
The observation lounge had four giant windows that faced aftward. There was a bar on the starboard side with vid screens and large racks of alcohol. There were booths on the port side, with tall and short tables in the rest of the room.
“What about you Iceman?” Kyle Mercury said from his table to the bar. Kyle was one of the pilots. He was young and energetic, almost hyper. Short cut light-brown hair and clean shaven. Most of all he loved flying. Being trapped on the ship during FTL made him seem more jittery and hyper than normal.
Iceman hung out in the same places as the other pilots but still drifted to being alone. That night he was sitting at the bar sipping whisky while watching news vids, which were a few days old due to their distance from any comms relays.
“What am I your father?” Iceman grumbled. “I don’t tell bedtime stories.”
“Aw come on,” Kyle said in a pleading tone, setting his cards down. “You’re what, a quad ace? Quintuple? We’re a crew now, give us something.”
“Maybe you should leave him alone,” Luna Akers said.
“He’s just delaying anteing up,” Elton Benson said before rattling his poker chips impatiently. Elton was from a colony that orbited a very dim star. His skin was pale and his eyes over sensitive to light. As such he always wore full jumpsuit with gloves, and black-tinted goggles. He kept his bright auburn hair at the maximum regulation length and kept a beard also.
“I’m your wingman, man!” Kyle continued. “You can’t freeze me out. We might be in a furball in a couple days. We can at least pretend like we give a shit about each other.”
Iceman emptied his tumbler and smacked it down on the bar, and was silent for a moment. He stood up and dragged a chair over to the table. “Deal me in.”
“Next round,” Elton said.
“This round. Give me cards.”
Elton sighed and tossed a hand to Iceman.
“Are we playing for money or you a bunch of pussies?” Iceman said.
Elton and Luna looked at each other. Kyle laughed. “Buncha pussies at this table, I’m afraid,” Kyle said.
Iceman grunted and made a sneer.
“So,” Kyle continued to nag. “A story?”
“Fine,” Iceman said. He put down a card. “The hell are we playing anyway?”
“Poker,” Elton said as he tossed a fresh card to Iceman.
“New Beijing, high orbit, July 18th, USS Maracaibo,” Iceman said.
“You were at the Battle of Beijing?” Luna asked suddenly very curious.
Iceman just cast a sneer at Luna. “Been pulling CAS sorties for two weeks for the marines. Dipshits couldn’t take a block to save their lives. Me and my wingman are returning, racks empty and bingo. And there it was. The FRS Mao with the whole battle group. Jazz and me have nothing but guns. We dogfight it a bit until we’re out of guns too. The Maracaibo is on fire, the Seattle and Portland are fields of debris. The Brazil is nowhere, off with the admiral chasing its own ass. Anything that’s got engines left is pulling out, and I’m joker.”
“So what did you do?” Kyle asked.
“There was the Mao big as a moon in front of us, and I’m joker. I burned the fumes I had left and lined up for the bay.”
“You surrendered?” Elton said.
“Didn’t bother with landing gear,” Iceman continued. “Belly flopped the deck and skidded into the backside of a parked bomber. Fuel is pouring out of its tanks. I blow the bolts on my canopy, reach for my sidearm, and jump. Brained the two crewman prepping the bomber, shoot the deck until the sparks turn the bomber into a fireball. I make it across the deck to a fighter bay. The torps on the bomber cook off and the crew is too busy with damage con to notice me. I check the instruments. Full tank, full load. I’m in, strapped, canopy secured, and fumbling for the master arm. I never did learn Chinese.”
“This is the biggest load I have ever heard,” Elton said as he upped the ante again.
“I flip switches until the engines are burning and smack buttons while pulling triggers until I hear a thud. I pickled right in the hangar. Five seconds to get my ass out of the bay. I gun the throttle and nearly flip turning for the bay exit. Between the afterburners and the blast I was out of there. I look back and the Mao is burning, split in half, decaying orbit.”
“Did you really do that?” Kyle asked.
“No,” Luna said. “The Mao is still in service.”
“You said you wanted a story,” Iceman grumbled. “Now ante up kid, I want to see those cards.”
Kyle stared at Iceman, then put his cards down. He shook his head. “Fold. You’re going to have to open up some day.”
Iceman made a single sarcastic laugh. “We married?” Iceman glared at Kyle. “I’m here because you let your last wingman die.” The other pilots looked shocked at such a cutting statement. Iceman put his cards on the table. “Call.”
Elton and Luna put their cards down. Luna had a royal flush. She smiled and laughed as she pulled the stack of chips toward her.
Kyle was staring down at the table. Iceman stood up and put a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “Follow my orders and you will always make it home. All my wingman are retired. That’s the only story you need.” Iceman gave a squeeze and went back to the bar to watch the news.
“He’s way too intense,” Elton said. “Glad you’re my wingy, Luna.”
“Aww, thank you!” Luna said with a smile and a bounce.
Kyle looked over his shoulder at Iceman at the bar, then got up and left.
Zhirnyy Point station looked like it was built halfway into a rock and halfway out of a rock and with no real planning. Weir crossed his arms and looked at the view screen on the Barrow’s bridge and slowly sidestepped himself toward the captains console, which was actually a console; Weir hadn’t seen an actual built in console in probably five years. Everything was switching over to just clips and static plates to hold Data Access Sheets in place, but it was fun to go old-school. Weir tapped the solid plastic overlay and activated his ships scanners as they closed in on the rock that was the station.
“It’s like they inserted a docking hatch into a rock and started drilling out the interior instead of actually designing it.” Weir accused. “Look at that shit!”
“Yeah,” Lieutenant Jane Finn said as she took a quick break from chatting with the control operators of Zhirnyy. She turned her head to Weir, “They did just hollow it out. It’s the way they designed it. It’s Unreal… That’s how they design everything out here.”
That small amount of time where she took her attention away from the comms panel was all it took for seven red lights to show up across the board she tapped every one of them and said the same thing over, and over again.
“Not now, we’re under priority control.”
Weir noticed that she was getting multiple messages from other ships as well as traffic control.
“What the hell is going on?” Weir asked.
“The Yutomaky gave us priority control privileges and other ships in the system were asking us if they could be designated second, third, fourth, fifth in line.”
“Why aren’t they asking the Yutomaky?” Weir asked.
“They are… And then they tell them to contact us.”
Weir’s eyes narrowed at Finn and he shook his head.
“Those fuckers…” Weir stopped and then turned to Finn again while leaning over the Captains console. “Who?”
“Who, who?” Finn asked.
“Who’s running comm’s on the Yutomaky?”
“Kenya…” Finn said.
“Well, Kenya tell him to stop that shit?” Weir asked in a slow, polite tone. “I’m trying to pilot a ship into a docking port here.” Weir stated. If he had a Human heart, it’d be beating faster as a Civilian Style Heads Up Display overlayed on the main viewer as the camera’s changed angles and the port thrusters fired to slow the ship down as it tilted inward toward the bay. “Damn… “ Weir watched the drift on the port yaw and wished he could hold his breath, too.
The Barrow began to list to the right past the slowing down point as the gas thrusters stressed at maximum pressure. Weir thought about taking over control but really, there wasn’t much more you could do at that point. The best engines the ship had were the rear and forward thrusters. Weir wasn’t prepared for this kind of mass and there was a fighter pilot at the helm that wasn’t used to large ships. If they fired any of the better thrusters, all it would change was where they would hit the station.
“Keep your target on the port.” Weir said as he pulled up the airlock access controls on his console.
“It’s going to hit hard!” The pilot said.
“Keep — It — On — The — Port…” Weir said as he depressurized the inner hatch and activated the emergency charges for the exterior hatch. The hatch plate went flying like a frisbee and deflected off the side of the docking port just before it impaled the interior hatch, scraping pressure suits, fire extinguishers, and interior control boards off the walls.
Weir reached forward and activated all interior breach doors just in case.
The inner hatch suddenly bulged inward like a soda can that had been shaken by an immature boyfriend who’s significant other asked for a drink. Weir checked the interior pressure and found that there was no inner hull breach.
“Great,” Finn said to the helmsman. “We just got fucked by a rock…”
“Eh, will, I’ docked it didn’ I?” The pilot said. He turned around to look at Weir, “If I’m no longa needed er’, I’ll be mosyin t’ my fighter now…” He abandoned his post graciously and snapped his fingers and winked at Finn while he passed the bridge crew and vanished downstairs, leaving his unattended console flashing red with errors and problems.
“Alright. We’re turning that whole hull section into the airlock now. Get someone with a suit and a torch. I have a feeling we’re going to need to cut a new inner hatch.” Weir said as he got out of the chair. “Let’s check this place out!”
Weir suited EVA and entered a section of hull reserved for Airlock preparations, however, that area was now the airlock thanks to the mistake of the crew. Sean was already busy pulling the torched airlock door back and placing it on the ground. He sprayed a foam around airlock port and the inner lock after pulling away ripped suits, bent fire extinguishers, and destroyed equipment. Once the compartment read green and they could hear sounds outside their suits again, they unsuited and Sean opened the inner lock to the space station, which was now inside the Barrow. Sean glanced at Weir and shook his head but didn’t say anything. Weir was thankful for that. He didn’t want to have to tell one of his best friends he fucked up when he didn’t have to. Sean wasn’t one to tell him he fucked up, either. Weir just hoped nobody would judge him for his shitty captain skills.
“Well,” Weir said while clapping his hands together and looking at the monument to his first command that was the perforated airlock that resembled the tip of someone’s exploding cigar. “Let’s meet and greet.”
Weir stepped through the tube and opened the inner hatch. Weir was met with the stench that reminded him of a gym that nobody maintained. The loading bay looked like a shifty mechanics shop. There were spare parts and open machinery everywhere, caked in dust and grease. The ceilings were bare struts and conduit covered with cobwebb. There was nobody there to greet them and no signs or markings indicating which way to go. It seemed like the station was abandoned, but the truth was only about a dozen people lived and worked there.
Just when Weir was ready to start exploring the station for lifesigns, a flying disc zoomed into the loading bay and nearly smacked Sean in the face. “Follow me. This way please,” it said with an overly synthetic voice and flashing holographic art.
Sean and Weir looked at each other.
“Follow me. This way please.”
“It’s going to be one of those places,” Sean said.
“You’ve been here before?” Weir asked.
“Not this one, but you’ll want to dodge the drunks. The crews of these freighters like to get oiled up while their ships top off and get their windows cleaned.”
“Follow me. This way please.” The floating frisbee seemed to bob impatiently.
Sean waved a hand forward. “After you commander.”
Weir rolled his eyes and stepped forward, following the floating droid. They went from the musty, cluttered loading bay to a slightly less musty corridor with the odd cargo container and pallet of crates left around, and disused robot trucks and other utility vehicles from when the station was an active mine. There was the occasional port hole or skylight that let them look into the dreary, hollowed out grayish-brown interior of the asteroid.
Closer to the central hub was the sound of crews relaxing and enjoying time off their ships, even if it was just to hang around another confined metal can of recycled air. The central promenade was a bar, a strip club, a restaurant, an arcade, and a souvenir shop all run by bare metal droids that were stained from many years of service but otherwise kept in good condition. The strip club used dummy pleasure androids much like the one Weir found in the Barrow’s captain’s quarters.
Accurate to Sean’s warning, as the drone took them past the strip club a heavily modified tracked robot loader chucked a man through the air. Weir just happened to see it in his peripheral vision in time to take a dive. The man bounced off the opposite wall of the promenade. Two of the man’s crewmates tried to hit and kick the robot, but were likewise grabbed and launched into the wall.
“Holy shit,” Weir said as he stood up and dusted off his uniform.
“Follow me. This way please,” the drone said.
“That thing is really annoying me,” Sean said.
“I’d shoot it if I knew where I was going,” Weir said as he looked angrily on a fat grease stain on his uniform. “Damnit.”
“Follow me. This way please.”
“Yes! Okay!” Weir said as he lunged at the drone and started to chase it.
They went up spiral stairs to an upper command deck, through ops and traffic control, finally to an office that served more as a humidor than a commander’s office. There were four out of shape Russian men of varying age in a state of complete relaxation on puffy recliners and couches, smoking cigars, drinking vodka, and having fun with the remote controls of sex droids and robots all around the station, watching the results on security cameras put to a big screen.
“You have arrived. Enjoy your stay,” the drone said before zipping into a vent.
“Ah! Keptin MACK Arthur!” the oldest, fattest Russian yelled. “Welcome to my station!”
Weir could only assume the morbidly obese man was the one for whom the station was named Fatty Point. “It’s, uh, Commander Weir actually.”
“Hah! Doesn’t meter.” The fat old man pointed at the empty couches. “Heff seat! Heff drink! Heff cigar!”
Sean made a polite cough. “I’m going to wait outside,” he said.
Weir gave Sean a wide eyed glance of HELP ME. Sean smiled and turned. Weir sat in the couch farthest away. “I was expecting more people to run this place,” he commented as he tried to find a comfortable position amid all the lumps in the cushion.
“Ah yes,” the mob boss said. “300 year ago we use slave. But now robot cheaper, and less… eh… law trouble. Do better job, too!”
“I see.” Weir thought he found a good sitting position but he was wrong. He just gave up and ignored the discomfort in his butt. “Is that accent for real?”
The other men in the room looked at the boss expecting a bad response. The boss shrugged, smiled, put his cigar out in his tumbler of vodka and slammed it on the coffee table. “Nah. It’s an act. Everyone expects Russian mob bosses to be drunken slobs with bad accents and honestly… it’s a lot of fucking fun when I am kicking some jackass freighter swabbie through the airlock. Speaking of airlocks, you caused some damage to one of mine.”
“Are you sure?” Weir asked. “That airlock looked fucked up before we got to it.”
The boss laughed.
“Eh, you got some balls… Most people are too afraid to joke around me. I like you. So, how many of your crew are coming aboard? I hear the Yutomaky docked better than you did. It’s why you’re the commander? Is the captain on the other ship?” He leaned forward in his recliner, “This other ship you have… Did you know the transponder is not working right on it? It’s transmitting but it’s tampered with — almost like someone tried to turn it off…”
“It’s been reclaimed by the fleet. Maritime states we have claim to it in this situation.”
The fat man shook his head, “Not — what I’ve heard. It still has crew! Unless you — Took care of that situation.” He laughed some more as he took another Cigar out of his pocket, turned it on, and sucked on it, sending waves of cancerous smoke across his face.
“You’re good at changing the subject. I need that airlock fixed.”
“We’ll take care of it.”
“I’m curious how you’ll take care of it? Do you require parts? Or did you bring your own? Surely you don’t just have a docking port collar that fits our exact specifications…” The boss said. “… not unless you had one of those shiny new… What do you call them?” He turned to one of his henchmen that sat in another couch.
“Printers…” The man in the dark corner said.
“Ah yes… I’ve — heard about those things. Do they print well?”
Weir smiled at the man. He was good — real good. McArthur was no doubt going to be mad about the fact that the mere wrecking of the docking port would give away one of Opsfleet’s secrets, or rather, the secret that the Yutomaky can spin twine to gold.
“Eh… Fuck…” Weir muttered under his voice. “No, we actually have a spare docking collar from the last station I attempted to dock with. It was built in the same way.” Weir lied his ass off and hoped to sell it by pretending to be even more incompetent than his actions gave him credit for. “If all else fails, the Barrow does have printers but they take forever.” He lied some more. If anything, it’d take focus off their ship and onto a ship that was new but shitty in comparison.
“So, the Barrow,” the boss went back to it. Weir smiled confidently now that he realized it worked. “It has these printers… And you have the crew?”
“We sent the crew off with another ship,” Weir lied convincingly. Some of the crew left with the other Opsfleet Ships, but, they still had some that wanted to remain with the Barrow. “The Barrow had to be towed here for repairs.” Weir silently suspected that this man already knew about it. Someone has to be a pirate, or in league with them and the last thing they’d want, was to be onboard an Opsfleet ship, heading back to Opsfleet Space, or boarding an Opsfleet station. The boss knew Weir would be lying in this case, but he couldn’t admit it without telling Weir that he had a pirate onboard.
Things were going well.
“I suspect, who was left would want to lay claim?”
“They’re going to have to charter a new crew to keep the ship space worthy, and fix that beacon.” Weir said.
“I’d like to speak with them about these — printers. Out here on the edge, it would be an amazing thing to have.
Weir smiled at him, “Unfortunately, they’re still non-modifiable tech. They stay with the ships.”
Weir walked his fabrication department into another trap but he had an idea. It would be easy to create a prop that looked like a printer. If someone stole it, it could activate an irritant spray the moment it’s carried off the ship. Weir smiled from ear to ear at the thought of it; even if he had to make it himself, he’d do it.
“You look entirely too happy about bringing me bad news, destroying my airlock… Have we not been polite enough?”
Weir shook his head, “My apologies, sir… It’s just great to be in port is all. I’m not smiling about bringing bad news, I’m just happy to be here,” planning the painful surprise for a few thieves… He had to laugh at himself as he stood up and held his hand out. “If there’s anything we can fabricate for you while we are here — within reason of course, we’ll be happy to do so in return for your hospitality.”
“Just invite your crew, stay a while, have some fun, spend money at the bar… Buy our fuel…”
“We intend to,” Weir said with that static grin that remained on his face for most the meeting.
The shady overseers of the station watched as Weir left the room. He flicked the power switch on his cigar to turn it back off and then stuck the stick back into his pocket.
“Keep tabs on their crew… And find Commander Lowe of the Barrow. Ask him — why he failed to tell me about his — printer…”