“I swear, if this ship is not ready to leave in the next two hours, there will be hell to pay,” the captain mumbled to himself. The corridor to Cargo Bay Eight was surprisingly clean and well lit for a cargo ship, although the faint smell of hydraulic oil hung in the air, indicating a potential leak somewhere in the system. “I’ll have to mention it to Michaels. Last thing we need is to blow a hydraulic line at the jump point,” he thought. The captain prided himself on running a tight ship, even if it was just a cargo tramp. A man should always take pride in his work, no matter how simple it may be, or at least that’s what he told his crew.
While he maintained the ship in a clean and presentable manner, the same could not be said for his person. Standing a little over six feet tall, Captain James Lawrence cut an impressive, well-built figure. It was obvious that he had been quite a physical specimen in his youth, though age and a hard life had taken their tolls. His unkempt mess of black hair was now streaked with grey, but his beard managed to hold its color for the most part. He normally dressed in simple work pants, boots and an over shirt, but at the moment he was wearing a pair of coveralls that had seen better days. When they were new, they had probably been blue, though now it was nearly impossible to tell through the oil and dirt that was layered on them. Not that it mattered much. Once the cargo load was done and the ship safely in hyperspace, he could shower and put on some fresh clothes. Of course, none of that would happen if Michaels were running behind schedule.
Finally, he reached the end of the passageway and tapped the access control panel to gain entry into the cargo hold. Cargo Bay Eight was the second largest hold on the ship, just behind number six. For this particular trip it wasn’t loaded up with anything special—mostly spare parts for an agricultural colony out on the fringe of civilized space. The most interesting bits of cargo they had taken on this time around were a couple of large pieces of farm equipment that sat in the far corner. Runs like this weren’t all that exciting, but they paid the bills, and that mattered a whole lot more than excitement. The access hatch had led him out onto a small platform well above the deck of the cargo bay. A narrow ladder connected the platform to the deck below and the captain began to make his way down, taking care not to lose his footing. It was a long way to fall.
Upon reaching the bottom the captain scanned the cargo hold for his chief engineer. Michaels was by no means a tall man, standing almost a head shorter than the captain, but among the cargo crates, he should have been readily visible. After about thirty seconds of glancing around, the captain decided to speed up the process. “Michaels,” he called. No response. “Michaels.” Still silence. “MICHAELS! Where the hell are you?!” This time there was an immediate response. A loud clang echoed through the cargo bay, making it impossible to tell where it came from, followed in quick succession by a muffled thud and a voice, “I’m here, Captain”.
“Michaels, where the hell are you?’
“Don’t you worry about it, sir. I’ll come to you in just a sec.” Michaels continued to talk, though it was more to himself than to anyone in particular, and only ever in half a thought. Another couple of banging sounds emanated from somewhere deep in the hold, sounding like someone taking a small sledge hammer to a stubborn piece of equipment. Captain assumed that the cargo loader was acting up again, but he’d remember to ask Michaels just to be certain. If something were wrong on his ship, he was going to know about it.
“I’m losing my patience, Michaels. Are we going to finish this load out in time to make the next jump window or not? I’ve got a lot of money tied up in this shipment—not to mention my word that it’ll make it in time—but if we don’t make the jump window, we’re going to have to push those engines of yours well past their design limits if we expect to make our deadline. And I do intend to make that deadline. So I’ll ask you again, are we going to make the window?”
The captain began to scan the hold impatiently, searching for any signs that might lead him to his engineer. There were several hundred metal containers in the hold along with a large assortment of loose cargo in just about every form imaginable. A dozen or so crates the size of a seaman’s footlocker were directly in front, while off to his left there were a couple of plastic drums holding some type of high quality, imported liquor that he couldn’t name. While he had strict rules about carrying goods of questionable origin, the captain cared very little about what was actually in his holds. As long as he was paid, the cargo would arrive at its destination in the prescribed time with few questions asked.
When Michaels finally appeared, he came crawling over the top of several crates from behind the captain’s right shoulder. He was a couple inches shorter than the captain, about thirty pounds heavier and had a dirty blond hairline that was in full retreat. “There is nothing to worry about, Cap. Everything is just fine,” he said as he began to climb down the stack of crates. “I’m just squaring away a couple of troublesome, little items, nothing to worry about, and Erik and Mykar are finishing up the last of the load in Bay Six. The onload should be finished in the next twenty minutes, unless they run into some kind of problem.” Michaels was breathing heavily by the time he reached the bottom of the stack, both from the physical activity and the conversation.
“Well that’s good news at least,” the captain said, as he quickly turned and headed for the lower access hatch. There was no point in climbing back up to the spinal passageway. He was headed to check on the crew that Michaels had left to finish up the onload. “Oh, what’s this I hear about a loader acting up?”
“It, um… it’s nothing to, uh, worry about sir… honest”
“Just see that it’s handled. I want all of our gear working by the time we’re ready to get rid of this stuff”
The captain made his way through bay seven and arrived in bay six just as the last of the cargo was being locked into place. A quick conversation with Erik and then he headed back to the bridge to check on the status of Hunter’s preflight.
The bridge was like that of most cargo vessels, a trapezoidal room with control consoles taking up three of the sides. The panels sat at a slight angle from horizontal, like a drafter’s table, with each station controlling a different ship system. Each console was made of two clear polymer sheets compressed together with a crystal display sheet sandwiched in the middle. A tactile receiver was laid on top, making the whole assembly about half an inch thick. With the exception of a few, more involved engine functions, the entire ship could be run from this room for several weeks. Even the automatic food processors could be programmed from the bridge, though the captain preferred real cooking whenever time allowed.
Rising up from the control panels and sweeping back overhead in an arc were large plasma glass windows, allowing the pilot almost 240 degrees of horizontal visibility and 110 degrees in the vertical direction. On the aft bulkhead were two hatches, the first leading down the spinal passageway, through the crew quarters, galley and cargo bays and eventually leading to the engineering spaces in the aft of the ship. The second led directly to the captain’s quarters. Being the captain, even of a small cargo freighter, does have its advantages and the accommodations are one of them. Immediately on entering his quarters was small office area with a desk and couch. The desk was a hideous example of function over form. It was made of a dull, unadorned metal and was bolted to the deck. All across the desktop were strewn myriad data tablets containing cargo manifest, docking and undocking requests, transit passes, and job notices. On the bulkhead, near the corner of the desk, a systems display had been crudely rigged. Whatever character the desk lacked, the couch more than made up for. What was once black leather was now in many places worn to an ashen grey. Several small punctures and cuts had been mended, though not very well. Beyond the office was the captain’s sleeping quarters and private head. A second hatch led from the sleeping quarters into the spinal passage.
“Michaels is buttoning up the last of the cargo. How we looking for departure?”
“Not bad. Another five minutes and we’ll be ready to go,” Hunter said without looking up from his console. Hunter was as good as they came, though not much of a conversationalist. Small in stature and fastidiously well groomed, he had dark hair neatly cut and swept to the side and always appeared clean shaven, even after hours at the helm. He preferred simple clothing, usually wearing grey, work pants bloused into old, field boots and a clean, plain shirt.
With a final okay from Michaels that all the cargo was safely and properly secured in the holds, it was time to leave. The captain took a seat at the operations console, just to Hunter’s right and cycled the docking bay’s atmosphere. Once this was complete, Hunter began the undocking cycle with a nearly mindless ease that only comes from years of practice. Soon the ship was quietly gliding out into open space and towards the system’s transit jump point. Trade stations were never much to look at, this particular one being no exception, so the crew was none too sad to see it fade behind them until at last it blended in with the star-scape.
“Estimated time to jump point: three hours, eighteen minutes,” Hunter said in an almost mechanical fashion, still staring straight ahead at his console.
The captain looked at Hunter for a moment before starting to get up. “I’ll be in my quarters, shedding a few layers of grease. Don’t call unless it’s an emergency. None of that notification bull crap, either—an actual damn emergency.”
The captain retired to his quarters and began the process of peeling his coverall off. It wasn’t until the upper half of his arms were uncovered that the full extent of the dirt and grime was clear. The contrast between exposed and unexposed skin was impressive and it was going to take several showers with a stiff scrub brush to clean it all off. Halfway through the slow, undressing process, the comm panel on the opposite wall began to flash red and urgently chirp at him.
“What did I just tell you? This had better be good or I swear to god I’m pushing you out an airlock and finding a new pilot at the first port we pull into.”
“I really think you need to see this one for yourself, sir.” The unexpected trepidation in Hunter’s voice was indication alone that something was definitely wrong. With an irritated sigh, The captain took the sleeves of his coveralls and tied them around his waist.
As soon as he stepped on the bridge, however, everything became clear. The entire plasma window was filled with a massive grey shape that dwarfed the cargo. Looming over them was a Democratic Systems Fleet, Trafalgar-class Dreadnaught. Whatever was going on, it was safe to assume they weren’t making their jump on time.