Message Received

Continued from…

Jenckque appeared in Dayzee’s bar the following afternoon. He stood there in the doorway looking around the room in a shifty way like he was a criminal expecting the ISS to be hiding in an alcove.    I couldn’t believe the change since I’d last seen him – his hair was lank and he had grown a beard that straggled its way down to his chest. Gone was the sharp dressed man with a gaggle of ladies at every station!  He was in overalls that were a couple of sizes too big… I guessed that he’d come in on a freighter working as a Loadmaster. He also looked as tired as he was dishevelled. He spotted me and made his way over to my table by the bar – eyes checking every person on the way.   I waved a hand to Daisy but I needn’t have bothered because she was there almost before Jenckque sat down to take our order. I knew Daisy was probably ears for Jaxon Border but I didn’t have any problems with that. With drinks served, I turned my attention to Jenckque – “What’s going on?”

Jenckque’s story began with some light transport and courier work near Sol. The jobs had taken him towards Empire space. In the systems along the ill-defined boundary between Empire and Federation, escorting minor Senators and business leaders became a regular job. Pay was good and the risks small – Politicians often have an inflated sense of threat to their person. Normally he’d have expanded into tales of dogfighting with pirates but he pressed on – the urgency of his tale evident in his hushed voice.   Regular work arrived in protection escort duties for Senator Marcus and Jenckque travelled for a long time in his retinue. The Senator was a lover of business and political functions at which he played the extravagant host, seeking to boost the standing of the Empire and his own Imperial standing at the same time. Military tales were a favourite with him and he invited his escort pilots to a lot of the functions. At one of these around a year ago, Jenckque had been introduced to Heron.

“Heron?” I exclaimed… “The singer?” “Sssh!” – Jenckque blinked nervously around the room before continuing his tale. “Yes, the singer. I couldn’t believe it when she showed up at one of his shabby political events.” A few days later Jenckque had been offered the opportunity to join the singer’s escort team. “I couldn’t refuse that!” he said “Chance of a lifetime with good credits to boot.”   Heron was a Galactic star and very popular. She was a great singer always performing with some of the best musicians, doing a mix of styles from old Sol music of a type that I believe was known as Jazz back a long time past, to modern Galaxart. Her popularity was all the greater because she was always happy to perform even at the small mining stations. She was quite a looker by all accounts with a slender elegant neck from which she gained her stage name. I’d never seen her myself.

After a couple of months on the road Jenckque found himself called to her quarters after a show on a quiet planet. Not sure what to expect, he wondered if he was about to be released from his escort role. Instead he was given a small package and asked to deliver it discretely. It was the first of many – each one accompanied by a cash remuneration for himself. Initially, it seemed that he was delivering gifts to well-wishers and fans but slowly he became suspicious of the contents. When the opportunity arose he got a package scanned – drugs, cash and some unidentified electronics. And that was where it all went west…

Returning to take up escort he was interdicted in LHS 1599 by a squad of Vipers with another larger ship that he didn’t have time to identify. Caught unawares and on his own there was only one outcome – they shredded his ship. They sifted the wreckage too… “They were out to kill me!” “You’re here” I responded – “how?” “I camouflaged the escape pod to appear like wreckage and turned life support off… Got close to dying – God! I thought they would never leave!” The rest of Jenckque’s story was as I had already surmised – He left the LHS 1599 system on a transport initially as a ‘slave’ consignment. Reaching Tlapana the freighter captain dropped him in an escape pod programed for Melchiodi Base.  Hooking up with Solly King, a mutual friend, he sent the message to me from King Port. After receiving my reply, he picked up a role as a loadmaster on a transporter that was coming this way – the captain was good enough to divert to complete the drop off at Axon Station.

“They’re here waiting for you – you know?” “Shit… I thought I’d slip them doing the freight route.” “They must’ve intercepted your message to me… Who are they?” “I don’t know… Shit they’re everywhere!” “We need to move” I said – “My ship is ready to go but I need a couple of things from my cabin.” We hurried out of Dayzee’s. There was no sign of the watchers as we left the bar and no sign of security either. I hoped we were in the clear as we headed for the nether regions of the station.

We turned into the corridor outside my quarters and were almost at the door when the two pilots who had been watching me turned in from the other end. They immediately drew weapons and I leapt forward to the door. Punching in the door code happened in slow motion and with a blaze of light from their pistols. We were cowering against the bulkhead as the door started to slide back with the screams of the laser pistols tearing our ears. Then Jenckque gasped and leaned heavily against me pinning me to the door. My arm with my pistol was trapped between us – I couldn’t shoot back and I could hear them running towards us.

Then the door opened. We fell inwards and I found myself on the floor with Jenckque across my legs and my laser pistol sliding away from me as I dropped it. I was scrabbling to reach it as I heard their footsteps approaching but I couldn’t get there. Then I heard a loud flat crack – grenades… “They’re using grenades!” I thought through the fog of it all… I heard a second crack and a scream of pain… and then a shadow appeared in the doorway. Then Jenckque was being lifted off my legs and I was being sat up.

It took what seemed like an age for me to realise that Border was holding me… “Jaxon… What the?” He holstered his projectile weapon. “I’m sorry Anson – I was a little too late… Your friend is dead.” He indicated Jenckque’s body on the floor. I could see a large hole in his right side.  Moving towards him, I crouched down but there was no longer any breath – I’d missed his passing. Then I felt sudden pain in my right shoulder – as I clasped it Border put his hand over mine – “It’s a minor laser burn – you’ll be fine – ISS are coming – they’ll be here in a minute or so!”

Continued here…


Continued from Night Station…

I woke late, my mouth dry though thankfully from the coffee in the early hours rather than the ale. I slung my clothes in the valet and pulled on clean. It was too late for breakfast in the crew room so I sat and watched Galnet broadcasts while I waited for restaurants to open. Some prominent scientist had gone missing. There were local wars in systems throughout the Galaxy but none very close. There was no news of Jenckque but I didn’t expect any. I decided to pop along to the Security Office to see if they had any information. “No one of that name inbound.” said the officer behind the desk. There were a number of ships coming in – the station was busy as usual – but no Jenckque. I made my way up to the shopping malls and headed towards Dayzie’s.

Border had beaten me to it and he motioned me to join him. I slipped into the chair opposite as Daisy miracled a coffee in front of me. She must have known I needed it! Staring at me from beneath his eyebrows Jaxon came abruptly to the point – “Your friend never left Tlapana.  In fact he never got there – his ship was destroyed a few days before you arrived here, in LHS1599. It’s clearly registered in the system records.” He turned his hand pad towards me to read. “There is no record of his escape pod reaching any station or base there either.” He sipped his drink while I took in the import of his information. “Your friend appears to be dead… But…” He continued “An escape pod arrived at Melchiodi Base in Tlapana a while after the ship was lost – the name of the owner was Anson22.” He looked curiously at me before continuing – I may have registered surprise but I don’t remember now.

“I did briefly wonder who you really were” he said “but I know you’re Anson – the exploring records don’t lie – so why the subterfuge in Tlapana?” I thought for a few moments and then understood! “Jenckque’s alive – it’s a message to me to tell me he’s alive!” “But he can’t know you’d get that message?” said Border. “No – but he’s sent in it hope and in case I’m still waiting. But where is he?” I wondered. “He’s not registered as a pilot on any vessel leaving Tlapana or from any station between there and here.” Border flipped through the pages on his pad to show the records “So I’d guess he’s travelling as a guard on a freighter. Can’t be on a liner – he’d need a ticket and that would be registered. It would explain why he’s taking a long time to get here.” I sipped my coffee and pondered Jenckque’s whereabouts.

“There’s more” said Border “Your two ‘friends’ for want of a more descriptive word… They are really very strange. I’ve seen all types of pilot over my time bounty hunting. I check you and I find criminal records… Nothing major and all bounties paid or deferred. I check these two and there’s nothing – they’re archangels of godly pure behaviour! There’s no such thing in my experience as a clean pilot! They don’t ring true.” “Someone shot at me when I arrived here!” I said. “I agree” Border responded “But the record seems to be missing the details of the attackers! – Someone has wiped it. Do you understand what that means?” He asked. “I’m not sure?”

“This is Citraxx” He said, indicating the screen of his tablet – “The only people who can change records in this system are ISS themselves or approved bounty hunters like me… And we can only update records to show prosecutions or terminations. No records are deleted – only amended! For records to disappear, someone has to have influence in at the core of ISS… Someone very powerful… Just what did your friend get himself involved in?” Border slumped back in his seat and I stared into my coffee. “I wish I knew…” was the best I could offer. “Well, he’s still coming otherwise they wouldn’t still be here… I guess you wait!” Said Border and then he scraped his chair back and wandered out of the restaurant.

Continued here…


Night Station

Continued from Waiting…

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.

Continued here…