“Aitken, don’t pretend you didn’t hear me.”
Oh I had heard her alright and as I stalled by staring out the window I watched an elderly man shuffle along the boulevard. There was nothing startling about him, just an ordinary human male. He looked to be over one hundred, again nothing unusual with the medical advances in the past few hundred years.
“Depends.” It was the best I could come up with.
“On what? Me?” She did not look happy with my answer. No not at all happy.
“You?” I did sound surprised, even to myself. “Oh no. Nothing depends on you, this is all me. I would stay here just for you, sure but it depends on employment opportunities. We both know that if I don’t find work here I’ll drive you and myself nuts.”
The sound of a giggle reached my ears as the old man entered a cross walkway and vanished from sight.
“If that’s your only worry I think you’ll do fine here. As well as the mission board, I know the transport department supervisor and they are always looking for new pilots.”
She was a little surprise when she saw the Type-6 and not the Python I had used in Quivira but once I explained I was keeping a low profile she understood. I then had to explain why I was keeping a low profile which didn’t make her happy.
“They don’t sound like the nicest of people.” She quipped as she entered Horse.
“Fraid to say that sounds pretty par for the course when you do what I do.” I gave a shrug as she looked over her shoulder at me.
“Maybe you should consider a different line of work. One not so fraught with danger.” I know she was only trying to be helpful but I had a hard time keeping the laugh internal, but I managed.
“Thank you for your concern,” I paused so she knew I meant it. “But even if there was such a line of work that wasn’t as dangerous in space, I don’t know it. Sho please don’t take this the wrong way but every time a ship exits the mail slot and passes the toast rack it could be heading for destruction. It’s a little dangerous out there.”
“Most people call me Shoshana or Shana but not you, why do you always have to be different?” There was no malice or anger in her voice so I gave a small smile.
“Ahh, you won’t have me any other way.” Again I heard the giggle and a “Don’t flatter yourself.” there was a brief flash of concern in her eyes but I knew that the conversation was over. At least for the moment.
We finished the inspection of the Type-6 and were just leaving the hangar when I thought I saw the old shuffling man again. “Come on” I mentally said to myself, “out of the tens of thousands that live in/on this station you think an old man is following you.” and dismissed it from my mind.
After lunch I was introduced to the transport supervisor and was guaranteed that I would indeed find plenty of work. That did prove to be the case. Horse had a couple of the ringed planet logos slapped on it’s sides and for the next week or so we flew beer to the local systems. If and when I had room I would check the mission board and slip in a cargo delivery or a data mission if there was one for any of my delivery stops.
I saw Shoshana if and when I was back at Perez Ring and she wasn’t working, if we didn’t meet up I just spent my spare time in the Type-6 or wondering the station. Slowly a small number of the population started to recognise me, even when I wasn’t with Shoshana. A nod, a smile or a wave were aimed in my direction and I have to admit it felt good.
I was having lunch with Sho sometime in the second week since I had arrived, when a tall, rakish fellow with dirty blond hair approached our table.
“Excuse me but it’s Cmdr. Aitken, isn’t it?”
“That all depends on who’s asking?” I answered cautiously. Old habits die hard or in this instant, not at all.
“My apologises. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Associate Val Hahn and I represent the LHS 2637 Ring.” He stopped to see if that produced any reaction from me. It didn’t but I did notice that it caused Shoshana to look uncomfortable. When he saw that there faction name meant little to me he continued. “We have need for a pilot who has the ability to transport certain goods that would be deemed less than legal by the authorities at both ends of the journey.”
Shoshana stood up, excused herself and headed for the restroom.
“Please carry on Mr. Hahn.” I instructed once we were alone.
“We have ten units of personal weapons that we need delivered with in the next 24 hours.” He slipped a PADD onto the table showing the destination and payment.
“If you can have them loaded into the Type-6 Transporter in hangar 45, I’ll deliver them sooner than that.” I replied and slid the PADD back to him. He gave a nod and told me they would be loaded within the next few hours, just before he left he asked me one more question.
“We may have larger consignments in the future. If you have access to a more spacious ship would you be interested?”
“Just you tell me the amount you want transported and leave the ship arrangements to me. Whatever you want moved, I have access to a ship that will move it for you.” I gave a small tight smile.
“Excellent. A pleasure doing business with you Commander.” A smile, a curt nod of the head and he strode out of the diner.
I was sipping at a cup of coffee when Shoshana returned. Reviewing the merchandise I was about to move and discovering that it was a legal commodity in Perez Ring.
“I have no problem with you doing what you do but try not to do it in front of me Aitken. I am a member of this stations controlling faction and by that I am in fact the Authority you are trying to smuggle past.” Once again no anger, just the facts.
“Don’t get you involved?” I asked as I raised the cup for another sip.
“Precisely. What I don’t know, I can’t report.” She replied as she fidgeted with a napkin.
“Gotcha. I think I love you.” I said impishly. Her only reply was a snort of air from her nose and a napkin aimed at my head.
Piece of cake. A milk run. A walk in the park and any other phrase you can think of that would describe a smuggling run with next to no problems. Sure I was nearly scanned on the delivery end, the cop in the Eagle must have had implants to improve his vision but a quick boost and a drop out of his line of sight solved that minor problem.
Mr. Hahn paid up when I returned to Perez Ring and told me he’d be in touch.
Five minutes later I heard a more delightful and a more welcome voice.
“Have you been back long?” Shoshana asked as she boarded Horse.
“Nope, I landed about 15 minutes ago.” I was sitting in the pilots seat so I spun it around to see her walking through the ship toward the cockpit. “Coffee’s on do you want anything to eat?”
“You mean this thing has a galley?” Disbelieve oozed out with her surprised tone.
“Yes. I could use this thing for deep space exploration, it has a bunk too.” I could not help myself and gave her a mischievous wink. It produced the giggle I was hoping to hear and brought a smile to both of our faces.
“So I get to stay at ‘your place’ after dinner do I?” She asked with a wicked gleam in her eye.
“You are always welcome to stay in any ship I fly, as long as you do the dishes after dinner.”
Dinner was a quick and simple to reheat lasagne. We talked, laughed and drank coffee over the meal. The dishes were even easier as everything went into the recycler. That left one thing left to check out, the bunk.
“C’mon, we’ll get you some coffee to start the morning off.” Shoshana remarked taking my hand in hers as we left Horse next morning. To most people I wasn’t the nicest person they were likely to meet any morning. That was only exaggerated by the lack of coffee in my system. Shoshana was showing her compassionate side by saving those I had not spoken to yet by her actions.
There was a small stall with a few tables and chairs around it close to the hangar area and so we stopped there. Sitting down to enjoy the life saving first cup of the day I noticed a familiar face.
“You see that old man over there by the cloths store?” She gave me a nod. “Do you recognise him?”
“No. Should I?” The standard response.
“Not sure but I keep seeing him. Sometimes more than once a day too.” I must admit I was puzzled by his continued appearance every time I was in Perez Ring.
“Always in this and the surrounding area?” Shoshana asked as I looked away from my would be shadow. I nodded and gave her a “Sure” as a reply.
“He probably lives close to here. You just happen to spot him whenever you land.” I looked his way again, our eyes locked for a moment before he gave me a nod and went into the store.
“You could be right. My imagination must be working overtime.” I gave her a smile and changed the subject by asking her about her work.
She was explaining something about balance and transfer when I asked if she would like a second cup. I received a no and ended up only getting a second for myself. As I sat down Shoshana was looking over my shoulder and as I took my first sip she seemed to give a nod. Once I had placed the cup on the table she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll catch up with you later, ok.” She smiled her dazzling smile as she stood and as I said. “Bet on it.” Another look over my head now as she indicated to the now vacant chair, she winked at me and was walking away before I could say anything.
“Well Aitken, it didn’t take you long to hook up with the less than reputable inhabitants of the station. Well done.”
Taking Shoshana’s place in the vacant sitting spot was a tall, grey hair man. He was dressed in what appeared to be a brown business suit with a black sweater under it. At first glance I supposed it was to retain a friendly but business like image. It didn’t work for me.
“Hello Rodger. I’m surprised it took you this long to show your displeasure at me being on this station.” I took another sip of as Rodger Clay unbuttoned his jacket and made himself more comfortable.
“Displeasure? No Aitken it is always good to see another that survived the struggle trying to keep Quivira free. I admit I don’t like you, well what you do for a living but it does have it’s uses and it is those skills I am in need of at the moment.”
I placed the cup back on the table and indicated that he should continue.
“We have a messenger that is overdue, last we heard of him he was in the Mizar system. I would like you to go to that system and locate 4 trade data cannisters and return them to this station. You will be suitably rewarded for these actions.”
“When you say ‘overdue’ you mean attacked and killed I take it?” Rodger gave a small nod and then continued.
“Having looked through your history since Quivira I see that this is not the first time you have done such a mission but if you feel it is too dangerous I can find someone else.” He replied tersely.
“No. I’ll do it alright, just making sure I have the full background.” I said in a much lighter tone.
“Good. The data will be sent to your ship shortly and if that’s everything I’ll be on my way.” Rodger stood up and buttoned his jacket before I could interrupt his departure.
“As you said I have done this type of mission before and usually the data cannisters are scanned as illegal. I take it you want me to smuggle them in for you?” Rodger watch as I took another sip from my cup and then leaning down he place his hands on the table. For anyone looking it would appear that he was giving me a piece of friendly advice, well in a way he was.
“That’s up to you Aitken. If you do manage to get past security while bringing them into Perez Ring, I get the data. If you manage to get scanned and caught coming into Perez, well as a high ranking member of the controlling faction, security will allow me to have access to the data. Does that help you with your decision?” He rose to his full height once more and gazed down at me.
“Sure does.” I said with a faint tone of mock enthusiasm. “Thanks Rodg.”
“Yes. Well.” His posture stiffened a little as my jibe had the desired effect. “I’ll see you when you return.”
With that he turned and headed down the walkway. As he past by a shop front an old man watched him pass. The old man’s eyes and mine met once more before he nodded to me again. Then he too turned and headed down the walkway.
I had been standing looking at the Lakon Type-6 Transporter for what seemed like a day but was only really ten or fifteen minutes. I still found it hard to believe that I was actually considering what I was considering. In the end though it made some sense for this mission and for the first time in over a year I was going to run a ship without a fuel limpet controller. I did replaced it with it’s collection counterpart however. It felt a little strange to have limpets on board and know that I would not be firing them toward a stranded ship but at cannisters containing trade data.
Exiting the station I lined Horse up with the escape vector and listened to Bettys usual litany as the blue white haze appeared on the edge of my vision. A swirling mass of cloud and light made a tunnel hurling us toward our destination system. A pinprick of light slowly shone and grew to pinhead size, shining brightly. BOOM, a blazing ball of burning gases leapt toward us as if it was trying to enter the canopy. I rolled the Type-6 adding a little bank and yaw to pull it out of the gravity well and heard the familiar sound of the fuel scoop drinking down hydrogen.
A quick check of the navigation panel had me targeting the systems nav beacon and moments later we dropped from supercruise. Once again I targeted the beacon and waited as the two computers talked to each other in their own digital language. As the onboard computer downloaded the traffic report from the beacon I watched the scanner as other, more dangerous ships showed up, lined up with their next target and leapt out. Those weren’t the ones I worried about, the ones that jumped in and then prowled around looking for ‘tasty cargo’ were. Download complete I pushed open the throttle as one of the prowlers started to scan me. Even though limpets would not interest him I still wanted to avoid a full scan and succeed as Horse hopped back up into supercruise.
Mizar was a strange system. It contained four stars of which the two the furthest away from the entry point had anything orbiting them. So it was that as I checked the beacon data I found that I had to head for Mizar C2, 163,000ls from my current position. I gave a shrug and settled down for a long haul.
I ignored the first couple of Unidentified Signal Sources that whizzed past me. I had travelled 20k ls when I thought about scanning the third but didn’t. I did scan the fourth but upon reading the return on the scan display screen I continued, something with convoy in it. The next few I scanned were Degraded Emissions. These did peak my interest but I decided that dropping out of supercruise and picking anything up was just wasting time and so forged on. When I came across an Encoded Emission, well I sat there thinking about it for a good 30 seconds or so and then dropped out to explore it. Call it inquisitiveness but I actually thought I might find something I could use or at least something I could sell. That part I guess would just be called greed.
Bursting out into normal space I saw a scene that I had become familiar with. Large and small pieces of spaceship wreckage shone and reflected the light from the distant stars. Checking the scanner I was happy to see the white blips show up. Alright let’s see what we got here. A look to the left panel and a quick navigation to the Contacts tab brought up what I was looking at. I looked up and targeted the Private Data Source and as it downloaded to my computer I once again browsed over the other debris. I had just turned my head to the right to check the Inventory tab in the right panel when something caught my eye. My first reaction to the red and white fuselage was ‘Wow, someone got a Fer De Lance and this is some of the aftermath.’ Then it registered in my mind what I had actually seen. It wasn’t spinning or moving in anyway and come to think about it, it hadn’t been there when I had dropped in.
“Well since you didn’t listen the first time perhaps this will get your attention.” The female voice announced. Wait, ‘first time’ I hadn’t heard a word. I could have been distracted by the salvage, I know I had the comm on as I heard her fine this time or maybe she was just toying with a beat up Type-6. Mind you she had been half way through her statement when I had pushed the throttle to the wall. At the same time I was hitting the boost button and firing up the FSD. I wish I could say I had a system targeted so I could high wake out but I didn’t, so staying in system it was.
I saw the shot from the plasma accelerator go flashing past on my starboard side as I jinked to port. I wasn’t so lucky with the laser fire as the shields on Horse lit up bright blue, quick check, yup four pips in systems and once more boooost.
Beatty started her count down as the shields dropped to a ring. Ok I had them reinforced which helped. As did the visit to Prof. Palin for the thrusters, also having the distributor work so I could get a third boost from the thrusters, probably all added up to my escape, a sweat inducing, adrenaline surging escape. But it was an escape. The shields had failed just as we leapt into supercruise but the damage was minimal, just 7% of the hull shaved off.
I ignored all the other USS for the rest of the journey to Mizar C2 and entered a very loose orbit as I searched for the last messenger. Once located I dropped out and used four of the eight limpets I had to retrieve the trade data cannisters. As I had thought all four popped up illegal in my inventory screen. Even better there was not a sign of another ship.
I got Back to LHS 2637 and Perez Ring with no further incident. Getting past the security patrol was easy enough with silent running and speed. I landed lightly as I had not given the shields time to regenerate. I then quickly entered the hangar just in case any security ship still had line of sight on me.
As I exited Horse Rodger and a crew of four came into the hangar. He pointed to the cargo hatch of the Type-6 and as the four dockers headed to unload the cannisters he came toward me.
“Everything go well?” He asked looking over the yellow, black and white hull.
“No problems.” I lied.
“I’ve authorised the transfer of the funds to your account. Ah, excuse me I want to check the serial numbers on the cannisters.” With that he strode over to where the dockers had the cargo as I checked my account balance.
“Everything in order?” He asked as he returned to where I stood. I nodded. “Good. You got the correct merchandise. It’s going to be handy having you around Aitken. I’ll be seeing you soon.”