Saturday, November 5, 2011

SPARK of Tyranny Part 1: For the Love of Money... or All Mankind

Deep space salvage was not a job for any respectable member of intergalactic community. Hell, it wasn’t even a job for a disrespectful member of the galaxy. Rather, it was something you did in between jobs to make ends meet. It was grinding out a living in the barest possible way.
Alex did not have to grind like this. He was a Class A Terran, a documented veteran of the Liberation of Kilos. As such, he was offered rights and benefits equal to those of any planet born Kilon, at least in theory. In practice, even for Class A Terrans, the law fell solidly on “separate, but equal”, with the emphasis more on the “separate” than the “equal”. In acceptance of that reality, Alex instead chose to ply a trade on the fringe of galactic society.
Calling it the fringe was probably romanticizing the life Alex led. He and his crew smuggled the odd contraband, ferried the peculiar passenger in desire of staying off the authorities’ radar, and poached the occasional item of value that was not as well protected as it should have been.
When things were slow, Alex ordered his crew to periodically drop from hyperspace and comb over a sector of empty space, hoping for the remains of a derelict cargo ship, or the wreckage of some old battle. It was tedious and dull. His ship, the Bucephalus, was not a top of the line vessel, and its scanners were ill equipped to pick up the faint signatures of debris floating in the middle of nowhere. Nine times out of ten, they would turn up nothing for their time and effort.
But every so often, a faint blip on the screen would lead to a big payday, and that is why Alex tried his luck. This particular area of space fell along old exploration routes. He knew that finding an early remnant of man’s first forays into the darkness of space was a long shot, but they were between jobs, and he wasn’t due to meet his next contact for another few days. He let his crew rest as he dropped the ship into sublight speed, and began to scan the surrounding space, one section at a time.

He was just beginning to nod off when he heard someone coming up the ladder. Spinning his chair around, he saw a smiling face peak into the cockpit.
“Hey Cap, could you use some company?”
“Jade, yeah, sure, better than sleeping on the console.” Alex sat up in his chair, and stretched, suppressing a big yawn as best he could. “Speaking of sleeping, why aren’t you? It’s not often I give you a break from these salvage missions.”
“I can’t sleep when someone else is taking care of my baby.” Jade slid beside him into the pilot’s chair, caressing the console, a smile spreading across her lips. “She knows who her momma is.” She turned to look at Alex, “Besides, in the rare times when we do find something worth flying near, I don’t trust you to get close to it without scratching the paint.”
“You know, I was flying when you were playing with dolls...”
“And that makes you old, with inferior reflexes and eyesight,”
“And this is my ship…”
“That’s why I can’t understand why you would jeopardize your investment by leaving the piloting to someone with diminishing skills, when you have access to someone such as myself.” Jade turned back to the console, its array of screens and indicators lighting her face. “Especially when we all know she prefers my touch.”
“So you are giving up sleep to make sure I don’t mess up my own ship, in the off chance that we might locate something salvageable out here in the middle of nowhere?” Alex cocked an eyebrow.

Jade looked up, but did not meet his gaze. “Now that you mention it, there was something I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You should consider his offer.”
Alex spun back to face the console. “We do fine on our own.”
“Then why are we making salvage stops?”
“Do you need more money? I know a lot of crews who would kill to have a pilot like you. Crews that have already joined Byron’s little fleet.”
“Those crews have pilots. Besides, I love this ship…”
Alex continued, ignoring her for a moment. “Seriously, there are crews back on the Rock that would gladly push their pilots out of their airlocks if they thought they could hire you.”
“Alex, we both know I’m not going anywhere.” She reached over to him, placing her hand on his. “I just want what we do to mean something… more, in the big picture, that’s all.”
“Look.” Alex pulled his hand away, and turned to face her. “We take jobs, we fly something or someone to somewhere, and we get paid. What we do means we live to fly another day, on our own terms. Neither of us came out here to take orders from someone else. And don’t let him fool you, his grand aspirations are nothing more than a recruiting ploy.”
“It would be job security.”
“If you think job security means boarding ships, most of which are pretty well armed Kilon ships, to steal cargo, then yeah, that’s a secure job. Personally I’d prefer to keep my head down, and not attract their attention.”
“We’d be striking a blow against their oppression.”
“Do you feel oppressed? I’m not oppressed.”
“We would just be flying logistics missions.”
Alex was feeling frustrated. “Byron is building a pirate syndicate. He’s making a Human version of Redipsilon Raiders…”
“No, he is boarding them to take cargo and put a crimp in Kilon shipping, not brutally murdering people and destroying their ships. He’s supplying us and hurting those that keep us down. As a vet, I can’t understand why you are against this. If we were a part of Byron’s team, we wouldn’t be getting shorted on backwater dust worlds.”
Alex was ready to respond when something lit up on the console. He turned to look at the scanner. Jade stood up to look over his shoulder, their argument instantly forgotten.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know exactly, but it’s got power.” He unbuckled himself from his chair. “I’m gonna go wake those boys up; you bring us in close enough to get a good read on that. That is why you came up here to begin with, right?” He flashed a smile.
Jade sheepishly smiled back. “Yeah, you’d have already crashed the ship if I wasn’t here.” She climbed back in her console. “What do you think that is, anyway?”

“Payday, Jade, payday,” he said, and disappeared down the ladder.

“Jon, we both know I’m not going anywhere.” Jade reached over to him, placing her hand on his. “I just want to us to be something… more, in the big picture, that’s all.”
Jon turned to face her. She was wearing nothing. Only her long black hair cascading strategically down her body kept her from being completely nude. Where she got the seashell from, Jon wasn’t concerned about that. He couldn’t focus on anything besides her almond colored skin and piercing green eyes. He began to reach for her…
“WAKE UP, boyos! Time to make some money!” Alex landed in the crew compartment with a thud. He could barely fit in the space between a pair of bunk beds. On his left, he could hear a groggy Jon muttering,
“So close…. So close…”
To Alex’s right lay a man who was likely too tall to comfortably work on a space freighter, but he was here anyway. Like Jade, he was also not asleep. Instead, he was propped on one elbow, a small light illuminating a weathered old book. Alex crouched down beside him.
“No sleep for you either, eh, Kwame? Whatcha reading? Proverbs?”
“Ecclesiastes,” he responded, his voice quiet but deep.
“Fascinating. Say, you know we have an entire library on a tablet around here somewhere. Small, doesn’t weigh much, barely takes up any room on a ship with such tight quarters.”
“Yes, I know. But I like the feel of the paper as I read.” He licked his fingers and turned the page. “Makes it seem more… real.”
“We found…” Alex started, but Kwame lifted one finger to stop him. Alex sat there for a moment as Kwame’s eyes moved to the bottom of the page. Behind him, he heard Jon’s feet hit the floor.
“I was having the best dream, I swear.” Jon said, shuffling off to the galley, “Anyone else want coffee?”
“Yes, I would like a cup,” Kwame responded, stowing his bible and shutting off the reading light. “Alex, what did you find?”
“Not sure yet.” Alex stood up, offering a hand to Kwame as he slid off his bunk. “Jade is bringing us in for a closer look. Whatever it is, it has a faint power signature, which could mean something we can sell. Even better, it might have solar panels, and that means it could be old. Only the earliest exploration vehicles used solar power.”
“Aren’t we too far out for something that old?”
“I dropped us into a sector that was near where the Sol System was a few hundred years ago. If this was an off course exploration ship, and it moved far enough beyond the sun’s gravity field, it could have been left behind as the sun moved around the galactic core.”
“Or it is a piece of garbage that still has a working battery,” Kwame said as he zipped up his jump suit.
“Well, I have a good feeling about this.” Alex clapped Kwame on the shoulder. “After Jon gets the coffee going, take him and prep the cargo bay.” He turned to climb out of the crew compartment.
“Alex, the artgrav is running heavy again.”
Alex stopped halfway up the ladder. “I thought you fixed that.”
“I told you my repairs would only be temporary. At best I assumed we would make it back to the Rock, but there was no guarantee.”
Alex sighed. On most ships, the artificial gravity was an afterthought, tied into the same reactor that fueled the engines and powered the ship. There were even ships that used heavier gravity in workout facilities on board. But this was an old ship, and the artgrav had been on the fritz for months. It would work, but consume an enormous amount of fuel. Now, with their anti-matter reactors, most ships could fly infinitely at sublight speeds, even with a drain on fuel economy. But hyperspace travel used far more energy, and a malfunctioning artgrav projector could drop a ship into the no-man’s land between star systems permanently, with a spent fuel supply, where you slowly watched your friends die from asphyxiation or hypothermia, assuming you didn’t die first.
The artgrav generator on the Bucephalus had been acting up for months. It was in dire need of replacement, but repairs kept it functioning at the expense of efficiency. For a time, he tried to run the generator only when the crew was sleeping or eating to keep the effects of Space Adaptation Syndrome at bay. His crew complained endlessly about it, but zero-g did make these space salvage operations easier, seeing as they had no labor bot in the hold. That’s what Alex told himself anyway.
“I’ll have Jade shut down the artgrav after you two finish your coffee. Should make the salvage job easier.” Jon shouted over his should, leaving the crew quarters before he could hear Kwame’s response.
Repairing the gravity was no small matter. This time, though, he felt his luck might be changing. If whatever was out there was a significantly historical piece of salvage, not only would he be able to fix the artgrav, he might be able to get a new ship. Trolling this section of space was a long shot to find anything, much less an actual early human vehicle. That would be like when someone finds an authentic Van Gogh in the attic of a new house. Alex had a feeling that whatever was out there, it would change everything.
Alex climbed back into the cockpit. He could see the glint of starlight on metal just outside the viewport, in between the readouts on the heads up display. “Got a readout on that thing yet?”
“Definitely something, alright,” Jade said, not looking up from her console. Alex climbed into the seat beside her. “I can’t believe we picked up its power signature. See those dark sports on the top of the hull?” Jade looked up and pointed.
“Yeah,” Alex said, squinting.
“Those are the solar panels, like you thought. Partially explains why there is any power at all. But this thing looks to be hundreds of years old.”
“Fantastic. Do you have a measure on it? Will it fit in the cargo bay, or are we going to need to tow it?
“It’ll fit, no problem. Besides, I’m not sure a ship that old could survive hyperspace. Just making the jump would probably rip it to shreds.”
“Ok. Bring us in close, you know what to do.” Alex reached into a compartment to his right and grabbed his helmet. He secured it to the rest of his suit and stood up. “Oh, Jade.”
“Yes, Cap?”
“I need you to cut gravity during the salvage.”
Jade groaned. “I thought Kwame fixed it.”
“Well, if this salvage is what we think it is, then we could be doing the low gravity dance for the last time.”
Jade turned to face him. “It better be. Lots of crews would gladly kill to have me, you know.” She turned back to the console, tightened the straps on her seat, sighed, and hit a button on the console.
There was a shaking from under their feet as the artgrav powered down. The lights flickered for moment. A red indicator started flashing on the console. From further back on the ship, they heard Jon shout, “Ah! My coffee!” followed by Kwame’s deep laughter.
Alex’s feet floated up from the floor. “I know you could fly on better ships, and after we sell this salvage, you will.” With that, he turned and floated down the ladder. 

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