The deep thump, amplified a hundred times by the frail superstructure of the vessel, rumbled in the dark and lonely container. That empty echo was, by now, very familiar. They had been on so many ships in the last month, never once as legitimate passengers, that would certainly have defeated their purpose.
The vessel rocked slightly and the incessant hum of the engines that had entered every corner of their consciousness, was silenced. They had stopped. The boy reached out, slid his hand around the unprotected cables in the wall, coated with dust and grease, and pulled himself up. This was quite a feat in itself, he hadn't stood up for days and was finding it difficult to keep his balance, a combination of injury and disorientation. The effect was considerably less for his Sister, she held him, standing up herself, while he tried to stop his head from spinning.
Their arrival meant an end to the harsh rationing of what had been almost non-existent supplies. Luckily there had been a steady source of water, a leaky pipe a little further along the bulkhead, but food was harder to come by. Just one piece of hard and stale bread remained. The boy offered it to his Sister. Anything more appetising would probably have been too much of a temptation, the smallest effort in restraint allowed her to conserve some for him.
For five weeks in all they had struggled to survive in conditions such as these, but severe as they were, they seemed acceptable when balanced with the fate that would have found the boy. Not only were the police interested in 'speaking' to him, but also the very people responsible for the crime that he was now accused of, wanted to find him. He was innocent, of course, his Sister believed that, but it wasn't wise to waste his time trying to prove it.
So, under the circumstances, this dire method of transport was nothing short of fortunate. Besides, there was no alternative. The first ship that they had found had taken them a short distance away, to the Starbase at Triscon. There, the money had been used to bribe a crewman into overlooking their presence on the next freighter, a damp and cold ship with a noisy and badly maintained engine. This took them on to small supply depot at Benom. Here another, much larger, ship was found and in this they were able to hide for some time and travel on to Asmodeus, site of the famous naval dockyards. Narrowly escaping detection on numerous occasions and stealing what food they could on various other transports and supply ships they had at last made it to a place where, hopefully, they would be safe, at least until their problem was sorted out.
The girl could feel the blood returning to her legs again, as though life was being drawn into them for the first time. With it came another sensation, cold. She rubbed her legs hard and wondered how she had persuaded herself into this. Brother or not, there was no way she would have agreed to this. What had been in her mind that day, over a month ago.
She had always hated the idea of space travel, any travel. This acrimony was all down to her parents, she had decided. Her Father knew well what space flight meant and had invested a great deal of time in trying to tell his children how exciting, as well as dangerous, it could be. The fact that he came home at all was something of a surprise to them. He loved his work as a scientist on board the many stations and starships to which he was variously assigned and had always hoped that someday his offspring would follow him with their own careers. They hoped not, space travel sounded dull and more to the point, unhealthy. Humans, they had both concluded, didn't belong in space. It was a philosophy ingrained on their subconscious and tragically proven correct when their Mother had been killed. She had been on a shuttle that had struck an asteroid and lost its atmospheric containment, but the accident had been when they were very small, neither of them really remembered her.
So one of them led his life on the streets, one took a job as a waitress in a starport diner. That was where she had met the handsome Lieutenant. It wasn't uncommon for officers from the orbiting ships to come into the city. Coriollis was a fine planet and you could get a shuttlepod to almost anywhere from Bershawe city. This particular Starfleet officer had wandered into the starport one afternoon and had engaged her in a conversation about the sights of Coriollis II, which she was later persuaded to guide him around the next day. They almost got as far as the Deven Stellar Observations Institute, but were somehow sidetracked.
His view of life on a starship was so different from her Father's. He was far from enthusiastic, but still managed to make it all sound so exciting. She got the impression that he was trying to put her off, but the reverse seemed to happen. She had asked him so many questions, she wanted to know everything. It was as though something within her had been waiting all along. There was a facet of her character that even she had not known of.
Of course, the young man left, as they always did, when his shore leave was over. He didn't even say goodbye. She missed him for a while, but soon got over it. Maybe then she had realised that there really was nothing for her on Coriollis II. She had no career, nor any in prospect and her only relative apart from her Brother and Father, who was never home anyway, was her Stepmother, respectfully hated by both Sister and Brother. The attraction of a world that once seemed homely and secure was vanquished by her curiosity. She gave departure no further thought until her Brother's sudden mischance, he had to leave, she agreed to go with him. Her Brother had been in trouble before. Most of his teenage years, now drawing to a close, had been spent with the some of the most talented con men and outlaws of the city, trouble was simply a risk that came with the occupation, but this was different. This was serious. He had neatly avoided explaining it in anything but the most obscure manner, all that she knew was that it was serious. He didn't particularly want to leave Coriollis, but it was the only thing to do.
She soon realised what a good thing it was that she had gone along 'for the ride'. The deep and painful cut on the boys left arm would have been enough to do the job for which others back home had probably been employed. The injury, like the method and necessity of their departure, had been unavoidable. The ship that they had been on had made one of its less courteous moves, and as such vessels did not expect to carry anything other than inert cargo they did not have the luxury of passenger grade inertial compensators. The flow of blood had stopped for the moment and the impromptu bandage that she had made from the sleeve of her jacket seemed to be enough to keep it that way.
Despite the ease of her decision to abandon her homeworld, she still thought about Coriollis II. If nothing else it served as a comfort to her on the long and deeply anguished journey. She still believed it was the right thing to do, it was the break she needed, it was just so strange to think of home like this. Coriollis had never been a memory to her before, she had taken it for granted. For her, there had been no other places. Not in reality, not in fact. There had been only report and account, now it was real, as real as the door that had been the barrier between them and the outside. In a few moments it would be open, with it all the opportunities promised to her by her Father, the Lieutenant and her imagination. The horizon was exploding before her. Her future, as malleable now as ever it would be, was hers to command.
The past seven days, for example, had seen extensive work being carried out on the upper port side, an event that had disappointed many of the visitors to the station, hoping to see the spectacular views of Regal that it gave. Most of the interior was also in various states of refit and many of the service systems and power couplings had been gradually replaced over the years.
The ships that had to be redirected as a result of all this had also caused problems. The practically antique computer systems were struggling to cope, not only with the volume of ships, but also their size. This was still one of the busiest space traffic zones in the region, Regal's popularity as a trade centre had not diminished over the last century. The station was sagging under the strain of Regal's success.
The shuttles that should have been leaving dock and heading for the planet were still marooned near to the central entrance bay, freighters lumbered uneasily close to the outside edge waiting to be allowed into the interior and an Ambassador class ship and a large Ferengi cargo hauler waited motionless above it all.
There was a definite advantage to be gained if your ship was a small one and the tiny cruiser softly descending into Alpha 7 certainly fitted that category. This was one of the more trivial bays. It would not be noticed at all from the outside unless the ship you were in took a close pass of the upper observation lounges. It looked very much as if the designer had miscalculated when drawing up the plans for the recreation area and had decided to fill in the resulting gap with a handy place to park a shuttlecraft.
The owner of the cruiser, however, was not concerned by the fact that his was probably the smallest ship running the trade routes around Regal. That was what Alborell Fraser hoped to do at least, so far the only lucrative and long term contract he had secured was with the finance company, and that was lucrative only from their point of view.
The Cougar was not a new ship, it had probably been touring the stars before Alborell was born, but with all but the closest scrutiny it looked brand new, the latest in a long line of reconditioned miracles to come from the shipyards of Asmodeus. Few would notice the coatings that covered what had been a sixteen metre gash in the outer hull. Thanks to the authorised, and necessary, deletion of the ship's previous log, there would also be no indication that the hull predated the modern interior. A further walk around this interior, a brisk tour guided expertly, might convince you that you were on one of the cheaper Rubian Steelers or perhaps a Vaenen 700 Starliner. Even the Federation's Bureau of Interstellar Navigation found the changes sufficient to merit a reclassification. Indeed, it was a totally different ship from that upon which so many must have surely died. Alborell didn't look too closely at the history, there really was none to this vessel. It was completely different, not the same at all.
The engines slowly and softly purred into silence and the ramp at the rear of the vessel cranked awkwardly down to ground level, revealing the ship's single cargo deck. Empty, it could been seen in its full glory. It stretched for the entire length of the craft in one single expanse. At odd intervals it was interrupted by supports, keeping the upper deck from becoming the lower, and about halfway along there was a small lift, from which the Captain now appeared.
He couldn't help feeling a little pride, this was his ship, this was his cargo bay. He could fill it with whatever he wanted and go anywhere he pleased. For too long he had followed the orders of others, now it was time to see what he could do for himself.
He walked purposefully onto the large metal ramp and looked out. The other freighters were a struggling to fit into the cramped loading area and their power and refuelling feed lines were considerably entangled. The Cougar needed none of these, so far it hadn't done anything to require such attention. She had handled beautifully on the short voyage here from the ship yards and the brand new engine had performed every bit as well as the salesman had promised. Its battery power was at maximum, the fuel tanks were almost full and she was well stocked with the necessary equipment for almost any task. Fraser moved over to the control panel, neatly set into the bulkhead just beside the bay door, and called up the security program. He hadn't quite got to grips with the vocal input to the computer, a rather serious argument on the journey here had forced him to shut it down, so he keyed in his code by hand. He was mildly concerned as the computer began showing him the library file on Klingon Assault Cruisers from 2268 to 2314, but felt some small satisfaction as he pulled out the Bridge Systems Terminal Link chip from the small panel below the screen and replaced it, resetting the computer. The door began to rise again as he bounded happily out of the back of the ship.
This awkward, if stylish, egress was necessitated by the personnel door that had stubbornly resisted all attempts by Alborell to open it. Clearly it needed fixing, but it would have to wait. Probably until someone with a higher degree of mechanical ability than that of Alborell was employed for the task. At the moment, however, he was broke, but he would soon take care of that.
The solid metal steps at the end of the bay took him up to the gantry level just above the top of the ships in the bay, and out of the large open doorway into an enormous cavern of beams, transparent aluminium and people. It was hard to decide which he should look at first, so instead he looked back. The perspective was frightening. Alborell, his ship, the bay in which it stood, all were tiny when compared to the inside of the Starbase. The plaza that ran around the stations inside edge was some forty or fifty metres wide, but even this disappeared into the distance as it curved away to the opposite side. Fraser walked to the edge and pressed his face against the smooth surface of the screen. Above, where the totally clear wall curved from the vertical to the horizontal, forming the roof of the plaza, he could see the Ambassador class ship that had protested so vehemently to get in. His old ship, the USS Morgan, took up most of the upper bay which opened straight out into the heavens with no doors. He watched it for a while and contemplated, then looked further down.
Around the lower levels were more plazas, like this one, but slightly larger, each interspersed with more docking bays. Most of them had been here when the station was built, back in those days they would have been large enough to cope with most ships, how things change. Fraser could make out freighters, cruisers, shuttles, passenger ships, tankers and a few other odd and miscellaneous types that he didn't recognise. A few had come for the Pageant, an annual occasion when many old and rare ships congregated for a race along the old trade lanes of what used to be the outer Sectors of the Federation. Each year the Pageant took a different route, a route that had skimmed past Starbase 106 for too long. The stations administration had given in to pressure from the organisers and allowed the already busy base to be used as a staging post for the race.
Straining to look still further below him, Fraser saw more, slightly larger and newer, bays, more commercial plazas, entertainment centres, trading offices and restaurants and more people. Right in the centre of all this, the inner space of the station, was a massive area of thin holding posts, stretching in every direction. Here sat the stock of trade, the heart both literally and metaphorically. Huge alloy boxes of various shapes and sizes served as the warehouses and containers for the goods that passed through 106. Hundreds of small tugs ferried these containers to and from the ships at the stations outer edge. Some moved stock towards transporter pads so that the larger vessels could more quickly transfer their cargo, some drifted slowly into almost imperceptible gaps to lock the containers into storage. It was like a vast hive, a multi-dimensional storehouse in a massive sphere without gravity. There were over two-billion separate items of stock held in it and one computer kept track of it all. An increasingly overworked computer that waited for the day when it could quietly breakdown and rest while hundreds of technicians and tug-boat skippers handled the worst system malfunction in history.
Fraser drew back from the edge of the platform and appraised the many vendors that stretched around the plaza in both directions. No matter how many times he visited a Starbase, he still found himself in awe of its immensity. It was like seeing a small planet all at once without the protection of an horizon, the whole population in view all at one time, all of its most intricate workings constantly visible. Alborell was hungry. He started to head off towards a small diner that seemed to have been hastily crammed in between a clothes shop and an information terminal, but before he reached it, he was halted by a familiar voice that he knew instantly should not be here. It was a voice that he had left behind and had never expected to hear again. He looked up and saw the face that went with it, and with that, the girl. Alborell kept smiling, with luck she would kill him relatively painlessly.
"Alborell!" She called a second time. Fraser feigned joy at seeing her. It wasn't that he was disappointed by her mysterious arrival, but he somehow knew that it would not be an enjoyable experience. He could think of only one reason why she would track him down like this. She had come to find out where he had gone and why he had left in such a hurry. She walked towards him, smiling. What perverse torture was on her mind?
"Jannel, this is a surprise," Fraser remarked with indirect honesty. She put her arms weakly around him, Alborell half expecting to feel the cut of a blade in his back, and gave him an affectionate hug. Her body felt frail and loose, but there was a sense of relief in her state.
"It's good to see you again," said Alborell. It was good, he admitted to himself. His departure had not been due to a sudden dislike for her, rather he just couldn't bring himself to say 'goodbye' when the time had come. Jannel stood back and looked at him critically, but refrained from comment after considering her own condition.
"When I saw you from across the way I couldn't believe it, to think that we could meet like this, incredible isn't it?" There was clearly something wrong, she sounded upset, this was no planned encounter, it really was an accident.
"Is something wrong?" Fraser asked, Jannel looked unsure and a little confused. Maybe he had been too direct.
"It's Ricky," she explained. The name of her brother was all the explanation that Alborell needed.
"What's he done this time, robbed the Grand Reserve Bank?" Jannel didn't seem to be in the mood for one of Fraser's lectures. "Where is he now, did he bring you here?" He and Ricky had formed an almost instant dislike for one another.
To Ricky, Alborell represented authority, a body that he vehemently despised. Fraser, on the other hand, saw Ricky as a lowly criminal. Sure, Fraser had pulled a few tricks in his time, like when he tied the ships internal sensors into a tiny display unit at the bottom of his glass in a poker game. The plan was ingenious, but fatally flawed as Fraser soon discovered when he was forced to drink at a vastly more rapid pace than the others at the table in order to see the display more clearly. The large amounts of Aldebaran whiskey that Fraser was thus required to consume caused a marked deterioration in his ability to actually understand the meaning of the cards in his, and his opponents, hand, as well as actually preventing him from drawing the simple conclusion that drinking more of the whiskey was not going to improve his condition at all.
The net result of this exploit was that Fraser simultaneously lost almost a whole months pay to the other four members of the group, gained a reprimand on his already colourful record for misuse of Starfleet equipment and resources and avoided contracting the non-deadly yet most unpleasant strain of Klaviis Flu picked up by the away team of which he was due to be a part, but had to drop out of at the last minute because of a tremendous hangover. Compared to Ricky's exploits, however, this kind of activity was nothing. People like Ricky gave honest con-artists a bad name.
Jannel looked about nervously. She was experiencing something similar to the effect achieved when walking out of a dark room into bright sunlight, except that her arrival at the station had created the effect in all five senses.
"I'm hungry," said Jannel finally.
"I was just going for something to eat myself," Fraser offered. They walked to the brightly coloured cafe with no customers, just across the plaza.
Though quiet, the small diner wasn't totally devoid of activity. The aroma of many different meats frying and many different liquids bubbling filled the air, creating an atmosphere almost thick enough to eat. They looked around for someone in, or at least near to, authority and found him, standing amidst the counter, a confusing sight of various appliances, grills, burners and pots. His uniform went some way towards being a menu in itself. As if to prove that the food here was real, it bore the stains of the foods and beverages from uncounted days of service behind the counter. This man was truly an artist, working with a canvas of rich variety. The skill needed to prepare these simple raw materials had been lost to most people. In a society where the replicator could give you anything except food poisoning, this was eating for people who liked adventure.
The man, whose badge proclaimed him as 'Joe', was not a newcomer to his art. The way he turned over three stakes on the grill, nudged down the temperature on the fourth boiling pot to his right and asked them what they wanted suggested a tour of duty that could be counted in years, by the looks of him he had spent much of that time indulged in consuming his wares. Fraser remembered Jannel once telling him 'never trust a thin cook', and by that maxim this man was extremely trustworthy.
"Two steaks," said Fraser, ordering for the both of them, "and a bottle of Regalian mineral water," a local speciality much enjoyed by Regal's inhabitants visitors alike.
"How would like your steaks cooked?" asked 'Joe'.
"Yes please." Replied Fraser. They sat down at one of the cleaner tables and waited.
There was a silence between them, but somehow it wasn't unpleasant. Jannel was quietly trying to get her bearings while Fraser carefully considered the situation. Neither of them said anything before the water arrived.
"This place reminds me of home," she smiled, as the plates of deep brown meat were placed in front of them.
"Where?" Said Fraser absently.
"Home," Jannel repeated. She looked at the doorway. "I can remember the exact moment that you walked in, I remember your uniform," she reminisced.
"Are you in any kind of trouble?" Fraser asked, not sure where Jannel's conversation was leading him.
"No," she replied defiantly, "why do you keep asking me that?"
"Ricky, he and trouble are old friends." Jannel didn't argue. "If you didn't come here to find me, you must have had another reason." Jannel had noticed Fraser's ship, the USS Morgan as she had arrived, but found it odd that he no longer sported the official dress of which he had once been so proud.
"But you're not in uniform Alborell." The inevitable turn in the conversation, despite Fraser's efforts to steer it off course, caught Fraser off guard. He thought quickly through the various questions that he was now going to be forced to answer, and came up with what he thought was the best thing to say.
"Well, I'm a Captain now." He said, realising that this was the worst point at which to enter the subject. Jannel seemed happy, he had never intended that to happen.
"That's terrific, if a bit sudden," suggested Jannel, "so you have your own ship?" She asked.
"Yes, of course, although it is somewhat smaller than the Morgan." Fraser really didn't like the way this was going. "In fact, I own it," Fraser braced himself as a familiar look of anger crossed over the girls face.
"You mean to say you quit!" Fraser glanced across to see the cafe owner in a state of considerable merriment. Alborell glared at him and continued to do so until the rotund waiter returned to his work.
"Yes I quit, though I don't see what it has to do with you," said Fraser, taking a more assertive stance. He stood up and made for the door, tossing some money onto the table as he did so.
With all of the problems he now faced, the last thing he needed was somebody telling him how much of a mess he was making of his life. Jannel followed closely behind him, back out into the plaza.
"I hope you realise what a mess you're making of your life Fraser," she shouted.
"Why should you care?" He asked calmly, returning to a more audible distance.
"Fraser, you were an officer, wasn't that what you always wanted to be?"
"People change Jannel, why did you leave home?" He echoed.
"My reasons," said Jannel, "and it wasn't just because of Ricky." They stood with both their faces and their minds firmly set. Finally she came to the subject that Fraser had so wanted to avoid, and had now inadvertently stirred up.
"When you left I told myself that it was because you had more important things to do, hell, I even got worried for a time, but now I think I see why you did it, fear." Alborell said nothing. "You just couldn't face me could you?"
"Fear yes, but not fear of doing the right thing. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to say goodbye. I thought it likely that you would want to come with me, to the Morgan. Not an impossible request, but certainly an impossible situation."
"You didn't want me around,"
"I didn't want you to do something that you would regret later. Coriollis was you're home, you belonged there."
"I think that's up to me to decide isn't it Alborell?" Fraser felt the guilt that he had fought so hard to suppress, rising to the surface.
"I just thought, maybe you would get over me eventually. I guess I was wrong."
"No, you were right. I have got over you, I wish I hadn't found you. Now you'll never believe that I left because I wanted to, well don't worry, I came here without expecting any help, I can leave that way." Fraser felt a sudden surge of responsibility.
"No, I can't let you do that." Fraser put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll help you," an uncharacteristic sense of duty entered his voice.
"I knew I shouldn't have come," Jannel said with heavy regret.
The irony of the situation was that if he hadn't been so keen to tell her his tales of adventure and his half invented stories about life aboard a starship, she would probably have stayed on Coriollis for the rest of her life. An uneventful existence perhaps, but one that Fraser could be innocently detached from. She couldn't go back now.
"You're going back home on the next shuttle, I'll pay," he insisted with futile resolution.
"Is that really what you want?" She asked with gathering composure. Alborell wasn't sure, but like any good captain, he answered with solid conviction.
"It's what I want for you." The girl turned and looked at the starship stationed above. Maybe her situation wasn't so different from his.
"It seems to me Alborell, that we are both in the same drum of salt." Alborell stared at her blankly. "Sure, I'll go home on the next shuttle, and I'll do it the moment that you reassign yourself to the USS Morgan." Fraser began to wonder, had Jannel had ever attended the Starfleet Academy Debating Chambers?
One thing above all else had been noted, however. Crime on the station was not as random as it first appeared. Past experience had shown that, with time, criminal activity would become highly organised when confined to the relatively small area of a Starbase. In most cases a single individual would exercise control of this corruption, commonly this manipulative force would remain undetectable, irrespective of the success of the security measures employed.
Ricky Hawkins nervously advanced into the darkened interior rooms of the Regency club. This was not the first time he had entered such a place, and like before he realised that the walls into which he passed enclosed more than just a simple bar. Despite the similarity, this was not home. Home was where he knew the faces of the dangerous people, and home was where he at least received some respect. Here he was no one, there would be no one to revenge him, there was no protection. Anson Jacs did a lot of things, to and for a lot of people, the one constant seemed to be money. If the deal was right he could make anything happen, even if it involved inquisitive police on insignificant colony worlds like Coriollis II. This one hope that he had been given could prove to be a worse fate than the one awaiting him at home, but there was nothing that he could do now.
Venturing past the narrowed entrance, and passing the club's doorman with a single gesture, Ricky scanned the well furnished interior, a singularly impossible task since the whole place was very much designed to be difficult to be found in. The idea of floors as a division of space had apparently been abandoned. Odd platforms stretched out over wide areas of decadent splendour. A fountain trickled away in one corner, old gaming machines cranked heartily above and the latest music player piped into an artful output network, producing precisely the right volume wherever one stood. At first glance the place looked empty, somehow it felt empty, but as Ricky approached the cleverly hidden bar he discovered quiet little groups of two or three people, all of whom stopped talking whenever he passed nearby.
The bar was initially very confusing to the untrained eye, especially after the plain and smooth lines of the station corridors. An indeterminate number of irregular shelves climbed to a reasonable height behind the bar and the bottles of both exotic and unusual liquors made odd shapes in the dimly lit mirror behind.
The barman fitted in perfectly, in the aesthetic sense at least, physically it was hard to imagine him fitting into anything. He was tall, in the extreme, with balding hair, grey skin and an unnerving smile. He had the kind of body that made him a lot of friends, by the looks of him he could take care of himself in a fight, maybe even another dozen people as well. He looked Ricky over but said nothing. Ricky sat down.
"I'm looking for Mr. Jacs," he said as firmly as he dared. The barman turned around to face him, but just kept smiling. "I was told that I'd find him here," Ricky continued. The tall figure obviously saw no reason to overindulge himself in the conversation, he simply produced a glass from under the table and poured a measure of Stone water into it, finishing off what was left himself.
Ricky examined the curious drink without tasting it and looked around. For some reason the only thought that he had any immediate awareness of was the single and unimportant fact that he had never been to the Sir Isaac Newton Observatory on Heirendes IV. Undoubtedly, he was suffering from some kind of stress, though it was difficult to tell. The situation that he found himself in was totally unique, this being the first time that he had entered a bar looking for a ruthless crime lord after spending weeks in a state of partial consciousness aboard a variety of pain inducing transport vessels.
He realised that Jacs was probably watching him. Ricky's streetwise sense was returning. A slight movement of the barman's head alerted Ricky to the presence of someone important. Anson Jacs looked just as Ricky had imagined him. The grey hair and the smooth complexion of the skin had a familiarity, despite the fact that Ricky had never seen Jacs before, but Jacs was something of a legend, even on Coriollis, and his contentment to perpetuate it seemed to suggest that it was a legend of his own creation. There seemed something theatrical about him.
"Mr. Hawkins, I feel I must congratulate you," Jacs said in his pure and polished tone. His words had a delicate precision, and yet a simplicity that filled the immediate space with an uneasy atmosphere. The barman picked up the few discarded glasses on the bar, drank their contents and then put them into the replicator unit behind the counter. "I was somewhat surprised when I heard of your departure from Coriollis. It was indeed a brave undertaking." Jacs turned and began to walk towards his favourite table. Ricky followed.
As with the rest of the club's meticulously planned interior, the placement of Mr. Jacs' table was not an accident. From here, one could see almost every table in the room, as well as the main entrance. A quick glance up to the gallery assured Ricky that their conversation would not proceed unnoticed. Three shadow-like figures moved above, disappearing occasionally behind indistinguishable arches and doorways.
"Sit down," lulled Anson Jacs. "It was fortunate that you brought someone with you," Jacs mused.
"I didn't expect anyone to notice," said Ricky.
"Oh, I've taken an interest in your activities for some time Mr. Hawkins. Herrolin, Klio Corp., Westvalen, the Optimetrix Alliance," Ricky inwardly reeled at the list that served as his curriculum vitae. This wasn't the kind of information readily available to the general populous, otherwise it would have been a pretty short career. "You are quite an expert in your field."
"What else do you know about me?"
"Mr. Hawkins, you haven't touched your drink." Ricky lifted the unknown liquid to his lips, remembering that he still hadn't eaten. "I think you would agree that your 'service record' warrants a promotion of some form," Ricky was intrigued to know where all this was leading.
"They said you could clear my record, I assume you know about my position," Ricky tried not to make it sound as though he was begging for help. Jacs smiled mysteriously.
"I can do many things Mr. Hawkins, but you must understand that everything has its price." Ricky thought about it and could see no way to avoid what would surely be the inevitable consequences of getting involved with Anson Jacs.
"What do you want from me?"
"Nothing more than what you have already." The band on the jukebox kicked into another song. "I'm shipping some weapons, you shall be looking after my cargo."
"Looking after?" Ricky somehow knew that Jacs wanted more than that.
"Matter/Anti-matter grenades can be a little temperamental." Ricky froze. Jacs didn't look like the type who made jokes.
"MA grenades, that's impossible!"
"Do you doubt my word Mr. Hawkins?" Jacs' demeanour momentarily dropped and Ricky got a glimpse of the man who he was really dealing with.
"No, of course not, but Starfleet halted their development project on MA grenades because they were too dangerous." Ricky was piecing the facts together as he spoke. "There's no way anyone could have gotten even a working prototype ready." Ricky saw from Jacs' expression that someone had.
What had this technology cost and who was going to buy it? Ricky dare not ask, he had already pushed his precious luck too hard.
"Your job, Mr. Hawkins, is one of simplicity and one that I am sure you will do your very best to accomplish," said Jacs, "make sure my delivery reaches its destination without incident." The word 'incident' seemed a little tame when Ricky thought of what would happen if one of these things were to go off. The theory behind them was fairly simple and worked on the same principle as a standard photon torpedo, with one important difference. The size of the grenade meant that only a very minimal field could be maintained to separate the matter and anti-matter and prevent them from being introduced before the party started. Many of the failures had resulted from unreliable fields. He thought it best not to ask how the problem had been overcome, in truth it probably hadn't.
Despite his doubts, Ricky realised how unlikely it was that Jacs would want to put him on a ship that was almost certain to blow up, he had far simpler ways of killing people and besides, a big investigation was the last thing that Jacs needed. Anson Jacs' skill at covering his actions was great, but he still feared the day when a simple mistake would lead to the discovery of his extensive corruption. Somewhere, no doubt, there was a great list of Anson Jacs' crimes, with no evidence to support it and no witness to confirm it, just waiting for a lapse his otherwise perfect cover to make the crucial link. Clearly Anson Jacs had faith in Ricky's ability. It was true to say that Ricky was a leader in his field, although it was unlikely that he would ever receive a qualification, but in Ricky, Jacs had recruited the best. Ricky picked up the tall glass and drained it in one go.
"You know, Mr. Jacs, I get the feeling that there's more to this than you're telling me. How is it that you're so sure I'll agree to this." Ricky just had to ask, he was now convinced that Jacs had planned for every contingency. Unfortunately, inquisitiveness was not a trait that Jacs found appealing.
"I'm sure Mr. Hawkins, but just in case you're having second thoughts," he reached into the inside pocket of his immaculate jacket and brought out a small PADD. He showed it to Ricky, who now had some idea of what people meant when they talked about Jacs' power. The picture was not of the highest quality, but the subject did look a little familiar. Jacs touched a couple of points at the top of the frame and the face of the person in the middle was enlarged. Now Ricky could see who it was perfectly.
"It's me, so?" Jacs smiled.
"It's you, standing at the side entrance to the Gallahan." This was definitely not good news. This was the place that had started it all. This, so to speak, was the scene of the crime, though whose crime it was Ricky didn't know. Certainly, anyone looking at these pictures might draw their own conclusions. Jacs put his finger on the top of the picture again and another image flicked on.
"This is you walking away from the door and into the side alley." Jacs flicked another picture at him, then another, then another, until he'd almost convinced Ricky himself of his guilt.
"I'm sure I don't need to tell you what these pictures mean." Jacs slid the PADD back to his side of the table. "These pictures alone don't really show us anything of course, but suppose a number of people came forward, witnesses! Do you see what I'm getting at Mr. Hawkins." It suddenly occurred to Ricky that this had been the plan all along.
"So, it's blackmail." Ricky resigned.
"No no, not at all Mr. Hawkins, you misunderstand me. This is merely insurance. The job I wish you to undertake is, as you pointed out, very dangerous, for all involved. Not only because of the nature of your cargo but also because of its value." Ricky was starting to feel the effects of the drink. "There are a number of people interested in obtaining my little investment for themselves and I'm sure Starfleet would be interested in getting their hands on the people who took their designs." Ricky got the idea.
"When do I leave?" He said in obvious defeat.
"We have yet to complete our arrangements, but be prepared to leave within the next two days," Jacs explained. He reached into another pocket and produced some money. It rattled cheerfully on to table. Ricky, assuming correctly that it was now his, took it. Anson pushed himself out of his seat and looked at something wrapped around his wrist. Ricky stood up in response and wobbled slightly. "Come here tomorrow," ordered Jacs, disappearing into the obscurity of the curtains at the side of the bar. Ricky had decided, he would spend his money first, new clothes, food and medical attention, then he would tell his Sister about his new job.
With some effort though, Fraser soon had himself a list of several specialist companies. Most were pretty small, their manifests were a poor collection of miscellaneous rubbish. He could take his pick from the list, none of it would make him much money. Sure, he hadn't expected to get rich overnight, but this was almost hard work, he hadn't left a promising career with Starfleet to do hard work.
His despair was relieved by the voice of the ship's computer, often a good source of despair in itself. The vocal pattern of the computer was designed to be relaxed and calm, supplying information clearly and smoothly, but unfortunately it failed this simple task with great regularity. Fraser had spent some time reconfiguring the output program to no avail. For some reason, most of the voice patterns seemed to be based on Klingon, and while it was possible to swing the output into that of a homely Earth female, the underlying 'attitude' of what was surely the most aggressive of races was still apparent. It had taken Alborell a full day to stop the computer from calling him Captain Wiesman. Quite who Captain Wiesman had been and why he had left his computer to Alborell Fraser remained a mystery, Fraser didn't much care, but he had paid to have the main core wiped. The technicians had done a sloppy job and charged him the full rate.
"Intruders Entering Main Cargo Bay, Defence Systems Inoperative," said the computer. Fraser noted the arrival of Jannel and Ricky and thought that perhaps, in Ricky's case, the recently removed defence systems may not have been such a bad idea. The pair walked into the vacant hold. It took only seconds for Alborell to get into the small lift behind the bridge and meet them. Ricky had a disappointingly broad smile.
"Nice ship Al," he remarked, well aware of how much 'Al' hated having his name shortened.
"Yes, I hear your quite an expert on cargo bay interiors," Fraser retorted. Things between them hadn't changed much.
Jannel gave them a familiar look of disapproval and Ricky paced up to the other end of the bay.
"I like the suit Jannel, Briner's," remarked Fraser, with questionable motive, "must have cost a few credits?"
"Ricky paid for it," said Jannel. Alborell could tell that something of a completely new problematic potential had been introduced to her already troubled mind.
"Is everything all right?" Fraser said, softly. Jannel gave him a reassuring smile.
"You know how it is with Ricky, we got what we came for," was all she could say.
"So, have you got a cargo lined up?" Ricky Called from the far end of the bay. Oddly, his interest seemed genuine.
"Why do you ask?" Said Captain Fraser, walking nearer. Ricky out of earshot was acceptable, even desirable, but out of sight was not.
"Because I might be able to help you," Ricky announced, reappearing from behind a structural support beam. He spoke with the desperation of a phaser salesman stranded on the planet Vulcan. Fraser, like the conversation, had stopped suddenly. There was something about the use of the word 'help' that troubled Fraser. Ricky never 'helped'.
Jannel had walked away some moments earlier and entered the lift to the upper deck. She couldn't claim that it had been her idea to arrange for Alborell to take on the dubious task of shipping Jacs' freight, but it did make sense, to her at least. Ricky was very much committed to the task, although quite why this was he hadn't said. If her Brother and Alborell went their separate ways Jannel would have three simple choices. Stay with Ricky, stay with Alborell or go her own way.
She didn't yet feel confident enough to pursue the third option so that could be crossed off the list, and as for the other two, there was no choice at all. Ricky had always taken care of himself, but that was on Coriollis II. Knowing his talent for falling into the worst company available Jannel would worry less if she were with him.
Fraser, on the other hand, was perfectly able to survive in this environment, to a degree at least. What he lacked in ability he made up for in wisdom. Despite his protests to the contrary, Jannel knew in her heart that Alborell probably wanted her to stay, but she would have to disappoint him.
The room that Fraser had given to Jannel was not the largest on the ship, but still it was more than she was used to, and a good deal more than she had hoped for. There was a reasonably comfortable bed, fixed firmly to the wall, a view port and a couple of chairs. Everything else, cupboards, wardrobe and table, was integral. Free standing furniture was not one of the luxuries brought over from the old sailing ships that were the ancestors of these star faring vessels. There could be nothing worse than surviving a particularly arduous battle only to discover that several of your crew had been crushed by a dining table. This was a 'waiting room'. Alborell hadn't want to appear too eager, that much was clear, he had made her comfortable, for now, but clearly there was nothing long term about this arrangement, the next move was Jannel's.
It would not have needed the bookcase psychology of Jannel Hawkins to see that Captain Fraser wasn't taken with Ricky's proposal. He stalked woefully onto the bridge alone. This, he had decided, would be his sanctuary on a ship that had been designed for one person. The addition of passenger quarters was actually quite misleading. Whereas one might assume that the Cougar had been constructed as a multipurpose and multimission space vessel, able to accommodate additional specialist personnel or run as a liner, very much in the spirit of Starfleet's current design strategy, the truth was that staterooms filled the gaps caused by a massive lack of equipment more cheaply than anything else. Fraser sat in his chair, looking out onto the docking area.
Ricky's offer would have seemed foolish to anyone with the most basic grasp of their sanity, Fraser being no exception, but Alborell recalled his flagrant ability for losing the capacity for rational thought when sensational amounts of money were being talked of. He had often considered this as the main reason for agreeing to a loan that his great-grandchildren would still be paying off when purchasing one of the sectors largest shuttlecraft whilst under the illusion that it was in fact a merchant ship. The down-payment alone for Ricky's cargo run promised to buy Fraser's great-grandchildren a holiday home on Risa, if not a large stake in the governmental economy of a small planet. Who would pay that kind of money and why? Who cared?
Just as the Captain began to really see some sense in the fiscally initiated confusion that he was enduring, Jannel walked in. She didn't looked as though she was in the mood for a discussion, what she had come to tell Fraser was for telling, not talking about, but like all good diplomats, she would do it with charm.
"It's a fine ship you've got here Fraser," she began.
"I'm thinking of making it a permanent tourist attraction," said Fraser, now thoroughly fed up with the whole affair.
"I would certainly save on fuel," gulped Jannel with a smile that seemed more like an apology.
"I expect you've come to tell me about the virtues of your brother's scheme, a very short conversation I should imagine." Jannel could see that she was preaching to the unconvertible.
"You know, if you think it over you might see that this idea of Ricky's isn't so bad."
"I don't want to think about it," in truth he dare not, "there's no way I'm going for it Jannel." She wanted to tell him that she wasn't staying, maybe that would give him something to think about, but the word's weren't there. She left in silence.
It didn't trouble Alborell for long to know that Jannel probably wouldn't stay, he was basically a solitary creature. After half an hour or so, buried in the trivial dealings of a starship Captain, Fraser had almost forgotten the incident. Thus occupied he even found the mood to indulge himself in a little music, the providing of which was apparently one of the few tasks within the computer's capabilities. Alborell had just decided to investigate as to who was the composer of the restful sounds was, when he happened to notice the screen of the communications board. Someone wanted to speak to him.
Turning towards the panel in the starboard bulkhead, Alborell opened the communication channel with a flick of a tiny red switch. The switch obediently popped out of the panel and bounced off the back wall before coming to rest behind the main flight control centre. Fraser turned again and watched as the face of his caller replaced the view of the docking area. A humanoid male with pale red flesh and a flattened nose began to speak.
"Captain Fraser?" Inquired the man.
"Yes," replied the Captain, the man didn't look as though he was from the authorities, that was a good sign at least.
"I am a representative of a large corporation based near to this station, I notice that you have been unable to secure a contract."
"So it would seem."
"Well, I wonder Captain, would you be interested in some survey work?"
"I might," said Alborell, his curiosity growing beyond tolerance.
"Then please meet me at the 'Pink Jarnista', as soon as possible." Alborell knew the place well. It was a popular hangout of the higher ranked members of the starship crews that visited the base. As a lieutenant he had frequented the bar in the hope of becoming well associated with his Captain. It was often important, a friend had once told him, to have ones name become familiar to the bridge officers, thus making selection for away missions more likely. Fraser had developed his own method for having his name become familiar to the bridge officers however, it usually appeared at the top of a report, besides, the First Officer picked the away teams and he didn't like Fraser. The image faded away and Alborell, now unable to close the channel, turned off the communications board at its master switch.
When Fraser got to the cargo bay Ricky had gone. Alborell wondered which was worse, having Ricky around or not having Ricky around. The Captain looked, but nothing was missing. Jannel too had left, but was encountered by Fraser as he left the docking bay. She looked contemplative, confused and depressed. She needed something to take her mind off things and Fraser knew just the place.
What con-artists and pirates there were behaved with discretion within these walls, and everyone, without exception, was smartly dressed. This basic fact had not occurred to Fraser as he hurried out for his meeting with the unknown caller. Maybe there was an unwritten law that said that captains shouldn't look like they were engineers, if so then Alborell had definitely broken it. He ventured nearer, dragging Jannel with him, and ignored the doorman's distasteful looks.
As he stepped from the plaza of the station into the noise below him, Fraser he met with the thickly carpeted steps that twisted down into the vast and plushly adorned hall. Within it, and visible from his current vantage point, Alborell could see the many and varied kinds of entertainment and service that the 'Jarnista' was famous for. If people liked it and it was legal, it was here.
Captain Fraser beckoned Jannel in, she followed cautiously. This was almost more than she could take, less than forty hours ago she had been sitting in a dark, damp and cold freighter, with as little contact with the rest of civilisation as was possible. It seemed to her as if the whole population of her home town were here, all shouting, singing and laughing as loudly as they could. It was a smartly dressed ocean, twenty metres below her, a heaving mass of people, furniture, food, drink and money, slowly rising and falling with an inherent tide. There was the sound of a thousand conversations, arguments and insults, spoken in almost as many languages, and it washed around the massive room in competition with the loud music and the background bleeping and chirping of gaming machines. Alborell and Jannel stepped into the crowd.
Somewhere, Alborell recalled, there was a bar. However, the fact that it was often moved, along with the other areas of the club, meant that finding it was very much a matter of chance. One method employed by Fraser on past visitations had been to find the highest concentration of people, or, in situations where there seemed to be an equal saturation of bodies, where people were moving around the least. Contemplating how best to tackle the problem of finding a man whose name he did not know and whose motives seemed, at the least, highly questionable, in a place where finding the floor was often difficult, Fraser suddenly noticed Jannel's exited movements designed to denote that she had caught a glimpse of the bar.
This weeks favourite location for this most popular section of the Pink Jarnista was beside the casino pit. Looking across Fraser noticed the familiar line of red, gold and black, the uniforms that he had once obeyed. As expected, the upper command chain of the USS Morgan were lined up at the bar. Fraser pointed them out to Jannel.
"Who?" She replied.
"Captain Normic, you remember, my old Captain. I told you about him didn't I?" Her look suggested that he hadn't, or if he had he had been sufficiently inaccurate so as to have provided Jannel with no information of any use. Captain Normic was, Jannel noted, quite young, for a captain, and he didn't look out of place laughing and drinking with his fellow officers. He looked a kindly man, certainly he must be popular and ideal, Alborell had suddenly decided, for occupying inquisitive young ladies whilst important deals were struck with shady characters sitting at corner tables. The guess at the location of Fraser's would be employer looked good as a rare gap suddenly provided Alborell with a view of the dining area, and urging Jannel on to meet the Captain, Fraser disappeared into the mass of patronage.
Jannel Hawkins walked hesitantly over to Captain Normic and his group, but could see that she had little to be afraid of. The nearer to them that she got the safer she knew she would be. With Fraser gone she suddenly became aware of the large number of dangerous looking characters moving increasingly in her direction.
"Captain Normic, may I?" She asked, shouting as quietly as the volume of the room would allow. The seat next to the Captain was immediately made vacant by Commander Anderson, the Morgan's first officer, of whom she had heard much.
"I think you have the advantage of me," said Captain Normic. Jannel introduced herself.
"I doubt that you've forgotten Alborell Fraser," she added. Captain Normic raised his eyebrows.
"Indeed, I was very surprised to learn of a resignation amongst my crew, they are a rarity."
"Sometimes I think Alborell does things just because they're unusual," said Jannel, with reflection. She saw the barman and quickly ordered a Regalian mineral water. The barman promptly walked past, took several more orders, again appearing to ignore all of them.
"He told me that he'd got himself a ship and that he was going to make his fortune as a trader," Commander Anderson smiled with slight condescension, though not so slight that Jannel didn't notice.
The Captain just smiled in that way that people who knew Alborell often did when he was the subject of their conversation. Jannel told Captain Normic the shortened version of her story, being sure to omit most of the details concerning her Brother. This was, after all, Starfleet.
"It was purely by chance that I met Alborell here."
"Surely it couldn't be simple fate?" The Captain pondered mysteriously.
With a flourish, Jannel's drink arrived, perhaps a little quicker than most and a lot less expensive, free in fact, by virtue of her choice of company. It made good sense to keep the Starfleet officers in the bar for as long as possible. They almost never got drunk, at least not in public, and they had a marvellous talent for shooting troublemakers without killing them. Freno Dee, the clubs owner, had a saying, 'dead troublemakers never pay'. The Captain eyed the drink and took up another subject, "have you been down to Regal yet? We're planning a trip for tomorrow, you're welcome to join us."
"Thank you Captain, but I don't think we'll be here," Jannel said, still completely unaware of Alborell's most basic plans, if indeed, he had any.
"Pity," said the Captain, "you'll miss the Pageant next week, that's partly the reason for our being here at the station." Jannel seemed preoccupied. She was straining her eyes to see across the huge room in an attempt to see the elusive Alborell Fraser.
If he were completely honest, Fraser would have to admit that he really didn't know where he was. If he went further with this uncharacteristic honesty he would also have to admit that didn't really know what he was doing here anyway. He imagined that talking to him would not be excessively dangerous, but he also felt somehow that it was very likely not going to be totally legal, and while he had discovered that this often meant a sizable income might be gained, he had yet to discover that there was often a good reason for this.
After pushing his way up a long, sweeping and plushly carpeted ramp, Fraser barged through a large, heavily serviced group standing around on a small flight of steps. His haphazard method of navigation paid off, for in front of him Fraser suddenly saw a face he recognised. He took a few moments at a safe distance to study him.
The greying hair that still occupied a good proportion of his head, indicated that he was in the third quarter of his life cycle, although it was so hard to tell these days with fashions what they were. The six empty glasses in the centre of the table might have indicated that the man had been here for some time, but there again, he might just drink a lot. The suit that he wore was typically corporate, dull and lifeless with a single corporate emblem to break the otherwise featureless landscape of its creased lines. A sharp contrast with Fraser's own attire.
Though only a few weeks old, Fraser's boots were heavily scuffed and scarred, the legacy of the ship yards at Asmodeus where he had spent a good deal of his time fitting out his ship. The flight suit that he had found in the replicator of the Morgan was similarly scarred and stained, but it fitted him adequately and the worst parts of the dark red suit were obscured by the thick sleeveless jacket with almost too many pockets.
The stranger was looking around, expectantly, but still hadn't noticed Alborell. Fraser took a deep breath to dispel any uncertainties that he may have had and sat down at the table, introducing himself as he did so. The stranger replied and moved to hand Fraser a business card. There was an uncomfortable moment as the man suddenly realised that giving out business cards was not a good idea in this instance. Orrin Davison was the executive manager of Qualtec's survey department, whatever that meant. It seemed that corporations too, had their ranks and positions just like all the best naval forces. Certainly a lot less easily defined but evident all the same. Judging by his appearance, Davison was probably one of the higher ranking members of his organisation.
"Can I get you something to drink Captain?" Asked Davison.
"No thanks," said Alborell, who doubted that it would help. His decision making ability was limited under normal circumstances.
"So, to business." Continued Davison who had now taken on a more serious tone. Alborell just listened. "Have you ever heard of Eros?" Asked Orrin. Fraser thought, he didn't know that this was going to be a quiz.
"I've heard the name before, but I can't tell you anything about it."
"In time you may Mr. Fraser." Alborell didn't like the sound of that for some reason. "It's the place that every good navigator knows as quarantined." Fraser wasn't a good navigator, which was one of the reasons that he had become a bad engineer instead.
"I suppose you're going to tell me that you want me to go there."
"You suppose right." There was a pause.
"Why do you want me to go there Orrin?" Said Fraser with over familiarity.
"Understandably, there is no recent data of the world, and we can't just land and start taking readings of the mineral content, the presence of rare metals or traces of valuable substances."
"Of course," said Alborell with an amount of interest.
"What we need is someone with a small ship,"
"Such as myself,"
"Yes, but with a specialised sensor pallet, which I will provide of course, why you could be in and out in a few hours," Orrin smiled. Alborell didn't like the sound of it. It couldn't be that simple could it?
"Aren't there security measures?" He inquired.
"Well, no." Orrin said it as though it were common knowledge, as if there were some basic fact that Fraser had missed.
"There are virtually no patrols of that system, you know how desperate Starfleet are for ships in this sector," assured Orrin.
"Sure, but what's the good of all this if you can't go down to mine what you've found." Davison smiled again.
"That, with all respect Mr. Fraser, is my business." Alborell pushed his seat back and placed both hands on his knees.
"Then I suggest you keep your business," he bluffed. Fraser had seen enough old films to know how to wind up a fee.
"Well, if you really want to know," enticed Orrin. Fraser wondered to himself just how much of this Davison had done before.
"I'm still listening," said Fraser.
"Eros is, as I said, quarantined, but not for much longer. The planet will have it's restriction lifted in two years." Fraser raised his brow.
"What happens then, a free for all?" He asked. Davison sounded as though he was on home ground.
"Eros was never affiliated to the Federation, it was quarantined long before there were borders this far out, so as a free world it will be sold by auction." The empty glasses on the table seemed to beckon Fraser.
He attracted the attention of a nearby waiter and asked him for something he'd never heard of. "You realise that what you will be undertaking is illegal." Said Davison after a sizable pause. Alborell didn't think that he needed to answer that.
"Which brings me to my next question," said Alborell, "payment?" Davison thought intensely for a minute.
"I am prepared to pay ten thousand Regalian Cisternas, that should cover all you for your trouble." Fraser did some calculations in his head, at the current exchange rate Alborell would be able to cover a year of payments on the Cougar with the money.
"Surely you can do better than that, you'd offer more than that to keep me quiet." Fraser was almost as bad at this as Davison.
"Captain," replied Orrin, with a poor representation of sincerity, "I should remind you that, while you have the option of turning me down I would expect a certain amount of honour in this matter, call it professional courtesy."
"Call it thirty." Fraser could see Orrin attempting to work out his profit margin.
"Out of the question, no one has that kind of money." Orrin's face wrinkled, but Fraser could see that he was still thinking about it, he hadn't reached the last bid yet.
"Can you afford not to pay me," said the Captain with noticeable menace. He tossed the phrase in more out of curiosity than for effect.
"I do hope that is not a threat Mr. Fraser." Alborell said nothing, forcing Orrin into a definite reply. There was an awkward silence. "Twenty-five, and that's my final word on the matter, take it or leave it, yes or no?" Davison sounded as though he had finally reached his limit. The Captain sat up straight and smiled.
The most pleasing find of today though, was undoubtedly the Triple Cycle Relay Chip for which he had so desperately been searching. He could scarcely believe it even now, he had almost given up hope of finding one. He fumbled for it in his tattered pocket, yes, it really was there. He had travelled to the very limits of the city, where most of the structures had been shaken to the ground by earthquakes and tumbled down by storms, and then dug for hours in the rubble, for this simple component. Now he would be able to use his scanner again. He reached into his pocket once more and took out a recently acquired piece of apple. It tasted good. How long the seal on the container had preserved it, he didn't know, but the tree from which it had been grown was probably long dead by now.
Like the stocks of the surrounding area, his options were limited. He could try and make the journey to the west where he knew another large city had once stood. It would probably be in much the same condition as this one. Alternatively, he could move further down, into the tunnels. This labyrinth of maintenance passageways, where the supply and support facilities had been least affected by the many decades of weather and natural disasters, had many advantages over the surface, but living down there for extended periods was tough. Somehow he needed to see the sun, sky and the land to keep sane. He may just as well go to prison as spend the remainder of his days underground. Whatever he decided, he could afford to wait, for a while at least. Besides, another winter was on its way, then he would be forced underground for three months or so by the harsh cold.
He approached the main square where the stump of what was once a statue stood. The broken pieces had long been blown away to dust and the monument served only as a navigational aid now. From here he knew that a sharp turn to the right brought him to the low and relatively undamaged structure neatly placed in between the two taller buildings. They had protected it for all these years, it seemed. Quite what had protected the two taller buildings wasn't clear, sometimes it was best not to get too interested in these matters, being single-minded was the key to survival. On the corner of the smaller building was the entrance to his current abode. Throwing his bag through the narrow gap, he forced his way in. There was something on the floor as he made for the other side of the room and he almost fell before he made it to the light. The illumination came courtesy of an old emergency lamp that he had found in a maintenance crawlway and it revealed the crumpled snare of his bedding in the middle of the room. Now he remembered. He had moved it during last nights rain storm when the floors above had started leaking, and he had left early that morning without replacing it.
He took out the chip and placed it carefully on top of the unit for which it was intended. The rubble that he had found it in looked as though it would provide him with nothing, but the rain and wind often turned up fresh relics of the past civilisation that once occupied this world. He had debated with himself whether he should cover up the remaining equipment that he had seen, to protect it from further damage, but in the end he had just left what was there, untouched. He was well aware of his fragile existence here. They would find his trail eventually, he should make himself hard to find rather than easy.
The plate at the back of the small electronic device slid out roughly and revealed the inner circuitry. This itself was a collection of cannibalised parts and scavenged spares. He counted off the list printed on the back of the plate and then repeated the process on the row of control boards inside the scanner. A swift tug brought the desired component out and he checked it again with the diagram on the panel. The faulty chip was quickly dispensed with and the replacement slotted in. He hastily reassembled the unit and set it up in the corner of the damp room. It checked out okay, the power was good, the readings seemed to be correct. He keyed in the proper sequence and set the controls for subspace/receive. It worked. His gaze was once again on the small screen, as it had been for the last year. For now he was alone.
Mark can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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