JOURNEY TO STANTON
Note from the Author: This story is an experiment of writing a short piece of fiction that will be narrated by multiple people, each telling the story from their point of view. Look for the narrated version in Star Citizen NightBus Episode 7. You may want to read Cami’s initial story, Chop Shop, before continuing.
Off to See the Wizard
My eyes do not see, alike reflection gazing back at me. More than just reversed, it twists and turns from circumstance of birth.
Cami was in the captain’s quarters aboard Gray Jaw. The gentle hum of the ship enveloped her, its life force rumbling through her bones. Gray Jaw was parked in its stationary position at the top of the upside down horseshoe alignment of Jimmy’s other Starfarers, each connected to the next by makeshift platforms. Together, they acted as a refueling station and tradepost for the inhabitants and transient workers in Tanga’s asteroid belt.
Cami studied the holographic star map she was using to plan her trip to Stanton. The glowing blue orbs representing Tanga and Stanton were raised above the surrounding star systems. Wispy green lines floated in the air between them, illustrating the available jump points. Gnawing at her lip, she studied her options.
She looked up when she heard the door slide open. It was Jimmy. He was dressed in a utilitarian black jumpsuit, the upper half hanging open around his waist. His black T-Shirt had his company’s logo of a shark devouring a spaceship in the upper right corner.
“How’s it looking?” His voice was deep and raspy belying his youth.
“Pretty good. Several options.”
“I’ve made it through those parts a few times no problem,” he offered. “Question is how fast you need to get there versus taking a longer safer route.”
“Exactly what I’ve been thinking about. No matter what, I have to pass through unpatrolled space.” She used her fingers to illustrate the options. “Once if I take the longer route through Terra. Twice using the shortest route through Pyro.”
Jimmy came up beside her. “I’ve done both safely.” He rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “Do you have fuel for a longer trip?”
“I’ve got my cybernetic eye implant surgery covered but I’d have to postpone fixing the AutoDoc on medbay two.” Unconsciously, she poked a finger under the patch across her right eye and scratched around the empty socket. The phantom itching and pain had subsided over the last year. These days, it only flared up when she was anxious.
Jimmy flopped down in the high-backed chair at his desk. He crossed his legs ankle-to-ankle on the edge of it and leaned back. Like its owner, the room was sparse and neat. The bed inset into the wall was made. The storage cabinets against the far wall closed and secured. No personal items on display. “Nyx is the litmus test and you need to fly through there regardless. If it’s quiet good chance Pyro is too. Those two act like Siamese twins most times.”
“That’s been my experience. I don’t go that way often. Supplies too pricey. But I hear stories.” He stood up and pointed to the locations on the star map. “When you exit from Breman into Nyx don’t move until you’ve done a good sweep. The interference from the Jump Point will mask your ship if you stay within its signature. Do a directional scan toward Castra and then Pyro. Pay particular attention to unlicensed ships and the direction they’re going. Also, run a deep scan for deployable objects like interdiction devices and EMP snares.” He pulled a mobi out of his back pocket. “I’ll send you the common signatures for those. You can upload the info to your scan database. If the path to Pyro is clear immediately quantum there. If not, head to Castra.”
Cami nodded her head. “Like having the option. If there’s trouble, I’ll take the longer route and skip the repair supplies.” She gave Jimmy a warm smile. More confidence in her voice she added, “Thanks for the tips.” She turned off the star map and the holographic image blinked out of existence. “Structurally the ship’s in good shape. I’ve done small repairs here and there when I could. I can’t say as much for the A.I systems and weapons. They’re old as dirt and not something Rasa paid much attention. A simple assisted landing doesn’t work.”
Jimmy chuckled. “He was old school. Flew everything on manual. Plus it’s a salvaged Freelancer he cobbled into a medical ship for the living space. I suspect A.I. systems and whatnot were beyond his reach.”
Cami agreed. “Luckily they’re not systems I need regularly.” She exhaled “Damn – I miss him.”
The statement hung in the air between them. Jimmy sat back down and his eyes were unfocused as he spoke. “Same. He was a good man. I remember the first time he came over to do trading. He was a cheap old git. He’d help anyone he could but he’d haggle you down on a price to the point you were almost paying him to take it.”
They both laughed and the lump in Cami’s throat eased. Rasa had started as the stranger who’d fixed her up after the accident that had claimed her eye, offered her a home, and new life. He ended as a father figure who’d taught her a trade and left her everything he owned. “He went peacefully which is what you want. But…” Her voice trailed off.
“The suddenness of it. Yep. We were all shocked.”
“I – I didn’t get to say goodbye. Be there so he wasn’t alone.” Her voice cracked. “He’s with his family now which was all he really wanted anymore. “
“True, he spoke of them often.” Jimmy blew out a breath that vibrated his lips. “Worlds keep spinning and so must we.”
“True enough.” Shaking free of the memory she said, “I better get going. Heading out after I get some sleep.”
“Anything happens, you call and we’ll be there double-time! Enough around here owe you. Fixing them up even when they can’t pay. Don’t know why you think you need to change yourself. Fine like you are.”
Cami smiled and self-consciously touched her eye patch. “Thanks. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Give me a shout when you’re heading out.”
“Will do.” Cami gave Jimmy a mock salute, turned on her heels and left.
Chaos in Castra
A blue-gray sky framed the horizon. Sherman, the city in the sky, sparkled through a ring of puffy clouds encircling its home, Mount Ulysses. Below, the denizens of Castra buzzed to life, their crescendo reaching deafening levels at the Covalex Shipping Hub.
A battered and aging Hull B was docked at Covalex departure gate E101. Workers with hover-carts scurried beneath it like feeding a queen bee. The pilot, a middle-aged man with a growing paunch and an affable smile, was sitting in the cockpit.
Silas looked out the left side of the cockpit at the departure status for E101 — again. “Hurry the hell up,” he screamed at the display. He gnawed on his fingernails and craned his neck to see how many workers were actively transferring goods to his ship. “This place is insane. Should have known the trade office would be a clusterfuck of queues. Now, this!”
He regretted going to the Trade and Development Division before queuing up to retrieve his contracted load. This was his first trip to Castra and his first time buying goods on the side for resale. He’d greatly underestimated the crowds and lengthy process of purchasing goods on credit. “Shit. Hope I haven’t completely cocked-up.” He wiped his sweaty palms down the front of his shirt. “Had to try something,” he reminded himself. He could barely make the next payment on the ship as it was. His stomach twisted in knots remembering the high alert message he received demanding payment or they’d seize the ship in five standard earth days. This was his livelihood. Without it, the rest of his life would slowly unravel. Resentment bubbled to the surface. “Fuckers,” he spat, “not like I planned on being sick.”
Things had been going well for Silas up until he’d been hospitalized. He wasn’t rolling in credits but he was holding his own. That ended abruptly when he suffered acute renal failure. The synthetic replacement surgery and recovery had required a four-week hospital stay. During that time he’d lost a majority of his customers. On top of that, he now had medical bills and overdue payments on his squalid one-room apartment and his ship.
Silas needed this to work! The combination of this new contract to deliver goods for MicroTech and his scheme to sell goods on the side would give him a sliver of breathing room. But it was all contingent on getting the top payment from every delivery. Which meant his delivery of OptiGlas to MicroTech had to be on time. If not, they’d reduce his fee and all of this will have been for nothing. He started chewing his fingernails again. The repossession clock was ticking.
Silas checked the cockpit dashboard for the hundredth time, monitoring how many of the ship’s cargo spindles had been filled and secured. Three of the four cargo rods flashed green. “Almost there, baby! The price I got on this surplus is going to put us over the top when we resell it on ArcCorp.”
He pulled up the ship’s route planner and tapped in his new estimated departure time. Silas’ eyebrows arched up to his receding hairline. “Shit, that’s not going to work.” Using his original flight plan of Castra to Hadrian to Terra to Stanton would put him at MicroTech several hours late. Nervously, he tapped in the command to see alternate routes.
The planner displayed four options. The fastest being Castra to Pyro to Stanton which would get him to MicroTech with an hour to spare. “Damn it.” He flipped open the mini mobi he wore on his wrist to check the latest security bulletin for Pyro. He waited as the report scrolled down the screen.
“Hmm, only yellow warnings. Let’s check these out.” He reviewed the details of each warning. “Intermittent outages at a single comm array.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Doesn’t sound too bad.” Decided he said, “Gotta go for it at this point. Let’s do this!”
The ALL SECURED light flashed on the cargo status panel. “Yes! Time to get moving.” He used the external cameras to take a cursory glance around the outside of the ship and engaged the [STAND CLEAR] signal. A siren sounded, warning others that the Hull B was taking off. In a single fluid motion, he applied vertical thrust and raised the landing gear. When he was sufficiently above the station platform he locked in the coordinates for the Pyro jump point and engaged the quantum drive.
Silas relaxed into his seat as the drive roared to life. For a split second the ship seemed to slip backward, collapsing into itself before ricocheting forward, pinning him in place.
The opening of the Pyro to Stanton jump point tunnel was a vortex that gaped wide. Inside, diffused white light streaked its opaque curved and twisted form. The walls undulated and pulsed, lethal as a cobra.
Keokuk slammed the button on the cockpit controls to open comms again. “This is my last offer,” he growled. “Jettison the cargo and be on your way.” He paused before continuing. “Taking out my turret was a lucky shot. Don’t push it. I can still blow you to dust.” The crackling of static was the only reply he received. He pounded his fist on the dash. “Stupid cargo haulers. Dumber than a crate of rocks!”
Keokuk knew he was half bluffing. Blowing up the Hull B he had pinned in the narrowed part of the Pyro to Stanton jump tunnel wouldn’t get him what he needed – the cargo it was hauling. If he backed off now, the whole operation was at a loss since his ship had taken damage. He cursed under his breath again, wondering what kind of fool was risking his life for cargo digitally marked as being owned by MicroTech. Surely, it was insured. The Hull B pilot would lose the payout but it’s not the end of the world.
“C’mon dumb ass. Let’s get this over with,” he shouted into the void. Keokuk rechecked his weapon status. Three of his four Tarantula GT-870s were operational and he had plenty of ammo left. Ammo he didn’t want to use. What he did want, was for this idiot to give up the cargo and go away. He wasn’t sure how long his mates would be able to keep the comm array servicing this end of the tunnel disabled, preventing this prick from calling for help.
A thought suddenly hit him. He wondered if he’d taken out the Hull’s comms preventing the pilot from responding. “That would suck.” From his ship’s position, slightly lower than his target, he couldn’t see into the cockpit even at maximum zoom. For all he knew, the pilot wasn’t even in the cockpit anymore. Perspiration rolled down the sides of his face. The faulty temperature controls on his EVA suit allowing condensation to build up on the faceplate of his helmet.
“Fuck it. Giving this clown one last warning then I’m blowing him to smithereens, cargo or no cargo,” he grumbled. “Screw them and the UEE. I gotta eat too.”
Keokuk seethed with anger remembering how the UEE had actively encouraged families to settle in Lier to establish mining colonies. He and his family had risked everything for the opportunity to start fresh and build up a business of their own. It was hard work and long hours. After three years of back-breaking mind numbing labor, they started turning a small profit. The trouble in Lier began a short time after.
A socialist group called the Outsiders quickly gained popularity. Within a few months, they’d staged a coup and seized control of the local government. It happened so quickly most residents didn’t realize what was occurring until it was too late. Once in power, they started confiscating private property and businesses for the common good. Or so they said. Instead of mounting a defense, the UEE abandoned the system, leaving the citizens who’d settled there at the mercy of the socialist government that was forming.
“Gutless assholes,” he spat. “Me and mine gotta eat and get up enough to get the hell out of there for good.” Keokuk hammered on the dash to open comms again. “Final warning. You got five minutes to drop all the cargo or Imma blow you out of this tunnel.” His voice dripped acid. “Next thing you hear gonna be Tarantulas in your face!”
Joys are his to wear. Mistakes his to bear. Speck of the same creation. Birthed from a shared womb. I owe him. He owes me. We owe you.
Lacking the functionality to fly her ship on auto-pilot, Cami meticulously followed the Pyro-to-Stanton jump tunnel coordinates she’d downloaded from Jimmy’s star map. She was a couple thousand meters away from the most difficult part of traversing the tunnel. She mentally prepared herself for the drastic narrowing of the route while it simultaneously did a vertical dip and slanted to a 45-degree elliptic shape. “Just take your time,” she reminded herself as she reduced speed. Up ahead she could see the undulating tunnel begin to narrow. “You got this.” She rotated the ship to match the skewed oblong shape of the contracting passage ahead. The Freelancer passed through with little room to spare. “Sweet. Stay focused.” Checking her radar she saw two ships ahead. “Nooo – stupid radar.” As she approached, her distance from the ships ahead decreased, as though they were standing still. “Don’t flake out on me now. That can’t be right.” She thumped on the radar panel. As the two ships came into view, an emergency communication request flashed.
“What the?” Spooked by the alert, she tipped the throttle too far to the left, losing her wing alignment within the precarious path. “Shit!” She reduced thrust again and readjusted the ship’s rotation. Cami had no idea who could be trying to contact her or why. She wasn’t even sure how. She’d noticed a few minutes ago that long range comms had died halfway into the tunnel. Has to be a ship inside,” she thought. “I’m a registered medical vessel. Wonder if someone’s hurt?” She took a moment to consider, half hoping whoever it was would stop trying to contact her but they didn’t. “Well hell!” Unnerved, she accepted the incoming request.
The voice coming across the comms was shaky and talking fast. “This is Captain Silas Martin of the Roving Wreck, Hull B class carrier requesting assistance. My ship is disabled 1.5 kilometers ahead of you. I’m under attack by a pirate Freelancer. Requesting immediate assistance! I say again, requesting immediate assistance!”
Cami’s mouth fell open. Was this guy for real? Her forehead started throbbing – instant migraine.
“Mayday! You there?”
“Yes — I don’t see how I can help. This is a medical ship. Give them whatever it is they want.”
“It’s just one guy. Greedy bastard wants the full load or he’s threatening to destroy the ship and the cargo.”
Her voice rising Cami replied, “Are you crazy? Give it to him!”
“He’s bluffing. No money in it for him if he does. I’ll lose everything if I surrender this cargo.”
“Better that than your life. Don’t know what you want from me. I can’t call for help either. Only have short range comms available.”
“We’re in the narrowed part of the tunnel facing each other. He can’t turn around and I destroyed his turret.”
“If you come up behind and open fire at the same time I do…”
“You’re out of your freakin’ mind!” Cami’s blood turned to ice. She could feel her heart hammering. A blinding pain ricocheted in her right eye socket. She swallowed down a mouth full of bile. “Not helping you attack someone! For all I know, you’re the aggressor. Get real! Besides, this is a registered medical vessel. Abiding by UEE conventions I can’t…”
Silas screamed. “This nut is going to kill me. You gonna just wait to pick up my corpse?”
Cami shouted back. “He won’t if you give him what he wants.” Cami worked to calm herself. “You said so yourself. Don’t be a fool. Give him the cargo!”
“This is all I have. He might as well kill me. I’ll lose everything anyway.” Silas bit back.
Remembering how trapped and hopeless she felt during the civil war raging on Charon III, she tried reasoning with him. “Look, I know it feels that way. Like it’s this or nothing but I’m sure that’s not the case. I’ve been…” Before she could finish another comms request flashed. “What now?” Cami had a sinking feeling about who was on the other end of the incoming request. She accepted it. Figuring it was better to be informed than not.
“This is Keokuk of the Endor warning the approaching medical class Freelancer to stay clear. I don’t engage service vessels. Mind your business and you’ve nothing to fear.”
Cami was somewhat relieved but this seemed to corroborate Silas’ story that he was being attacked. That made this Keokuk person a criminal even if he followed the polite conventions of war. Anyway, this wasn’t a war, it was piracy.
“Thank you for that.” She hesitated. “But what you’re doing is a crime. Why not let this guy go and we can all be on our way safely.” Beads of sweat formed on her brow. She clenched her hands in her lap to stop them from shaking. “Comms could come back any second and there’d be two ships calling for help. Stop now. No harm, no foul. Let’s all get out of here in one piece.”
“If that idiot took the time to contact you then he’s not taking me seriously. Think he just signed his own death warrant,” Keokuk replied.
Cami grimaced, fearing she’d said too much. “What? Wait. No! I didn’t say that. I mean, I can see the situation for myself and you contacted me.” Panic rose in her chest like a specter, stealing the air from her lungs. Shit! Had she unwittingly escalated the situation??
A cruel chuckle emitted from the comms speaker. It was loud and the echo reverberated around Cami’s cockpit. “Don’t take me for a fool,” Keokuk spat. “His time’s up anyhow. It’s my cargo or it’s no one’s cargo.” He laughed again. “You gotta nice voice. Probably a nice person. Don’t make me kill you too.” The comm connection closed.
Cami stared at the closed connection status. There was a throbbing pain behind her right eye socket. Her hands were shaking violently as she reached to re-open comms with the Hull B.
“You-You there?” No reply. “Look you better hand over the cargo. He’s not playing.”
The comms speaker crackled. Then a distorted reply. “You spoke to him?” Silas asked.
“He’s dead serious! PLEASE just give him what he wants. It’s not worth…” Before she could finish, Cami heard the roar of weapon fire. Horrified, she froze, her mouth hanging open. The slow and measured boom of ballistic cannons echoed in the narrow tunnel. She quickly set her targeting system to lock onto the Hull B. Its forward shield was quickly depleting and the ship was taking damage. Although it was shooting back, its rapid fire laser cannons pelting the Freelancer’s shields, the Hull B was not going to win this fight. Its midsection was billowing smoking and spitting sparks.
Cami was immediately transported to her childhood of being trapped in the chaos of a civil war. She’d lost both her parents before the age of five. Her life at the orphanage had been grueling and precarious. They had basic services when local repair crews could fix them. They ate when supply ships could make it through. Over the years, fewer tried. She grew up believing that this war was her only future until a kindly old couple offered to smuggle out as many of the teenagers as their ship could carry. They’d declared they were old, tired and things were too dangerous to come back again. As much as they hated to stop including the orphanage on their trade route, they didn’t have a choice. They had their own family to worry about.
The resounding hit of a missile shook Cami out of her reverie. The mid-section of the Hull B was completely engulfed in flames. The Freelancer’s left wing and weapon were gone. She wondered if perhaps, this was all he had in the world. His last stand against the encroaching dark. “Like eight teens being dropped at a space station with bedrolls and two days of rations,” she whispered to herself. Without having intellectually committed to a course of action, her instincts took over.
Cami cycled her target lock to the Freelancer and slowly advanced. She wasn’t wearing an EVA suit and there wasn’t time to put it on. If her hull was breached, she was dead. She had no missiles. She wasn’t even sure her Behring laser cannons would fire. Bound to this course, she inhaled and opened fire.
Space, a vast silence echoed back at him swallowing his soul. His listening ear poised for reclamation, defamation, accusation, examination. Leaked, hacked – kept or sold.
A short distance away, Huyn watched local security route pirates camping the Stanton side of the Pyro jump point entrance. Hornets protecting their nest, security ships buzzed in and around their opponents, exchanging warning shots and occasional direct fire.
Huyn sat in the cramped cockpit of his Drake Herald. Instrumentation, data cores, sensors, transistors and other technical devices lined every available workspace. Color-coded indicators flickered at varying intervals. A light show that only a trained information agent or hacker could decipher. While waiting, he amused himself by eavesdropping on the communication channel used by the Stanton security teams. Having a conversation with himself, the hazard of long periods alone in space, he repeated fragments of what he heard. “Everything under control. Target two and three bugging out. Heading to reenable the comm array.” Hyun saw two of the Hornets fly toward array #126. This was followed by radio silence that coincided with a focused fire exchange between the remaining Hornet and a Buccaneer.
The Buccaneer was moving at top speed trying to circle strafe the Hornet. But the Hornet pilot wasn’t having it. He kept changing speeds and trajectory while returning fire. Suddenly, the Buccaneer’s left wing was on gone. “Oh — shit,” Huyn said to himself. “Time to give up kid.” A second later the Hornet landed a volley of direct hits, blasting the Buccaneer into an expanding ball of orange-blue flame, white smoke and spinning ship parts. Huyn shook his head. “Well, that was stupid. Never understand some folks.”
When things settled down, Hyun was the first of the waiting ships to approach the jump point. The Herald, with its bug-like shape, hovered at the entrance. A ball of dread formed in the pit of his stomach. No matter how many times he went through them, Hyun never became acclimated as some did, to the gut-twisting sensation of entering and exiting a jump point. “Nothing for it. Let’s get this show moving.” The inner coordinates were already stored in his navigation system, allowing him to use auto-pilot. Hyun pressed back into his seat and closed his eyes for what should be a very quick ride through the serpentine tunnel into Pyro.
The ship slowly approached the vortex until it was sucked in and began traversing the light streaked tube of interspace. Huyn was about to relax for the remainder of the ride when sensors blared and his ship A.I. came alive. “Warning front collision. Increasing forward shields.” His eyes popped open. “Emergency brake applied. Warning front collision.”
Huyn braced himself. “What the hell??” His head slammed the back of the pilot’s seat as the Herald came to a full stop. Ahead, in the narrowest turn of the elliptic shape of the tunnel, there was a smoking wreck of ships. A decimated Hull B was between him and the spinning fuselage of a Freelancer. Dozens of metal crates floated around the two ships. Furthest away from him, he spotted another Freelancer. This one had the markings of a medical ship. Its turret and the right wing were on fire. Inside the cockpit, electrical sparks flashed like lightning.
Hyun had never seen a three shipwreck inside a jump tunnel. Of course, he’d heard of wrecks happening. Unskilled pilots traveling through one for the first time could fall victim to the precarious turns and sudden dips. But three ships?? Ship A.I. should have warned the approaching vessels of the wreck or — something!
As he reached to turn on his comms to alert the Stanton-side security agents, he wondered if this was the result of something else. Pirates were known to roam Pyro and would pass through here into Stanton. But who stages an attack inside a jump tunnel?? “Damn, you’d have to be pretty desperate,” he tutted to himself. “That or fucking crazy.”