I awoke in the small hours, station time. This time there was no feeling that someone was outside my door – no raised heartbeat. Instead I just felt dehydrated… That ale again! I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute or so and then wandered over to the chill box and picked out a water carton. It tasted foul but it was probably the best thing for me. My clothes looked like they’d been slept in – which they had. I splashed water on my face and decided to pull on my boots and take a stroll to get some air.
Night is always a strange time on space stations. It’s a time of half-lit truths. As the station orbits around the planet, so the daylight time moves until daytime on the station can be night in relation to the star. But you get no idea of the relative times when you’re in the pilot’s quarters below the docking area – all the light is artificial and adjusted according to the Sol Standard day. The malls and leisure areas are shut down and only security normally venture there. But a station never sleeps. Ships arrive and depart at all hours as privateer traders do their best to cut a profit.
The corridor outside my quarters was very dimly lit although tiny footlights came on as I stepped outside illuminating the walkway. I looked both ways along the length of the corridor but saw no one else in the gloom. At the first junction I looked along the corridors that curved upwards – the station’s cross walkways. Some night maintenance work was underway in the right hand corridor and I could smell the acrid burning as I watched the showers of sparks falling onto the walkway. I turned left and found the entrance to the offices attached to my docking bay just a few yards along.
The lower office was sparsely lit. Normally the flight clearances were handled here along with the pre-departure briefings. “Don’t block the docking bay, don’t block the air-lock, don’t discharge weapons”. In fact there are lots of don’ts but when it comes to money then it’s all do’s. Do pay your fine, docking fee, taxes… you name it – money and the word do go hand in hand whenever you’re dealing with stations and officials! Trade money always moves both ways though and you’d better have judged the prices right or you’ll be selling that nice new ship to cover your losses!
There was normally someone in the briefing room at all hours but it seemed empty – then I heard a low rumble from behind a half closed door. Snoring – the briefing officer was gambling that I wouldn’t be leaving overnight and was booking some Zee’s. He was right – I was going nowhere tonight. I decided to climb the stairs to the control office. Technically it’s out of bounds but most officers welcome a chat with visiting pilots if it’s not too busy shipside.
“You leaving us Pilot?” he said by way of a greeting. He either had eyes in the back of his head or he’d spotted my reflection somewhere. “I couldn’t sleep – needed some air. Too much of your local ale!” He guffawed loudly – “Coffee’s over there.” He waved in the general direction of a shelf that ran the length of the back wall – “Help yourself – it’s on the dock.” A large coffee maker was bubbling and there were some clean mugs beside an auto-wash – I picked one up. A picture of our new Emperor gave me a calculating look from above the words “Bask in Her Glory”. I wasn’t sure how much basking we’d be able to do this far out. But, as a loyal citizen, I acknowledged the reach of the hand Imperial – and then poured in the hot coffee.
Back at the window I admired the view across the landing pads towards the Airlock – taking in the massive cylindrical space within the station. As I watched a large transport thrust its way through the shimmering light of the airlock force field and began to climb towards a pad far above our heads on the opposite side of the station. The air behind was darkly hazy with the exhaust from its engines – too hazy it seemed. “Smoky going into pad 7” muttered the control officer and he keyed a message into the desk pad. “Sending maintenance over to offer an engine overhaul” he said to me; “Keeps the ship good and makes the station some money.”
Looking along the row of pads in front of the office I could see people. It took me a few seconds to realise that one of them holding a conversation with an overalled loader was Border – it had to be; there couldn’t be more than one person that tall on the station. So I wasn’t the only one having trouble sleeping. But then I guessed that Jaxon Border was too much the predator to sleep easy – his nights were probably spent hunting!
A loud scraping sound caught our attention and the controller and I found ourselves staring at the spectacle of a small ship – a Sidewinder – in contact with the station wall just above the airlock. “John – we’ve got a Boomer!” shouted the commander and the office rang to the sound of pounding feet as his assistant hurried through from the back office. We all watched in dread fascination as the pilot struggled to bring the craft under control and move it away from the airlock. I could hear the loudly broadcast station warnings of deadly force. Then the internal guns opened fire on the ship and before our eyes the shields went down in a blue haze and the hull was shredded into small pieces. It was all over in a matter of seconds – just a litter of wreckage and dust floating inside the docking area.
It was a harsh lesson for the pilot on the price of infringing one of the don’ts of stations. His escape pod returned to the pad the ship had recently left. Maintenance droids moved out and started collecting up the shards of metal along with one or two cargo canisters floating aimlessly around the docking area. “Station commander will be pleased… That’s another load of scrap he can sell on.” observed the controller in a warm-hearted obituary for ship and pilot. I knew the pilot would be ok as long as he was insured – He’d have a replacement ship in a few days and a bit more experience under his belt.
I looked to see if Border was still around but he’d disappeared along with most of the dock area staff. I finished the coffee, drank another and, after some small talk, retired to my quarters to sleep the rest of the night away before meeting up with Border the next day.