"OK JONES, take her in slowly", said Captain Keighley.
Keighley looked at his first officer in puzzlement.
"What do you reckon, Jess?" he asked her, quietly.
Jessica Vought shook her head, but didn't say a word. The Panther Clipper slowly descended towards a planet that shouldn't be there, and a spaceport that didn't exist. The system didn't have an outdoor world, terraformed or otherwise. But here it was, plus half a dozen starports that the system didn't have only weeks ago. The class M star nearby shone steadily, supplying the mysterious planet with energy. The rest of the star system had appeared correct.
The star was glinting off five other objects. These objects happened to be Cobra Mk.3's and Asps, all horribly beweaponed. They were converging on the Clipper.
The Clipper was now only a few meters from touchdown. The spaceport appeared to be deserted. The deep orange sunlight reflected off the emblem on the side of the Clipper. The large sunburst motif of the Alliance Science Council gleamed in the light.
Captain Keighley sighed. They were returning from a research mission in the northern sectors, and had stopped off for fuel. Normally, he would be excited by a find such as this - there was obviously something very strange going on here, but this was just too creepy. There was nothing alien about the planet - all the constructions appeared to be human. However, the ship's computer could not match the planet to any known populated outdoor world. Also, the place was completely deserted. No ships, no people...just some machines, working away at their daily tasks. It seemed utterly peaceful. However, just before the ship touched down, the attack alarm sounded.
"Battlestations!" yelled Keighley. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion and he felt as if he was moving through treacle.
There was a mad scramble of activity on the bridge, as the three Asps and two Cobras bore down on the Clipper. A research ship, that was armed only to protect itself from minor threats. Suddenly, lasers started pouring forth from the attackers. The Clipper shuddered as the helmsman attempted to put the ship on firm ground, and one of the science officers desperately tried to swing a laser turret on one of the attackers.
It was obvious to Keighley that there was only one thing to do. The ship lurched as a huge explosion shook the structure. Suddenly a massive hole appeared in the bridge, followed by scorching heat. Keighley turned to his first officer to give the order to abandon ship. However, his words were caught in his throat as he turned to face Vought, who no longer had a head. Her body slumped to the floor.
"Abandon ship!" he finally yelled, grabbing helmsman Jones from his seat.
But they had run out of time. There was a gut wrenching thud, a flash of heat, and everything went dark.
The sun slowly climbed higher in the sky, and shone through the sash windows. James Winston looked out through the window at the idyllic scene, then walked over to the antique musical instrument. He carefully lifted the lid of the piano, and removed the felt protecting the keys, and looked at the polished lettering on the inside of the lid. "Fred'k Betzmann & Sons, Landfall, Wolf 360. Built with pride, 2985". He thought for a while, then gently started tickling the keys, playing a random piece of blues that came into his head. The rich tone of the piano filled the room, and Winston felt more at peace than he had for years.
It had all come to a head almost exactly a year ago. He remembered the celebration well - how could you forget a bounty hunter party thrown on for you when you had just reached Elite? He smiled as he thought of the vast quantites of Kurt's Finest Ale, one of Riedquat's better brews. The technicolour yawn he did some hours later wasn't quite so pleasant. Beer never tasted quite as good coming the other way. It all went downhill rather rapidly after that. In the few weeks that passed, he had realised that he was becoming a person he didn't necessarily like. Most people when they got to Elite did this sort of thing - got a bit arrogant and full of themselves - it was a well-documented psychological phenomena. Winston had been determined that this should not happen to him, but after his brother pinned him in a corridor one night and had a serious word about it, he realised he had began to turn. The solution, he had decided later that evening, was to have a good, long break from bounty hunting.
He found a nice planet as far away from the mainstream as possible, and settled on a small island with a population of about 30,000 people. He parked his Asp in long-term storage in a garage near his new house, then got a job on a fishing boat. It was with some satisfaction that he realised that his uniform for the last year or so had been a pair of tough shoes, a grubby pair of shorts, a shirt to match and an odd sort of hat he had been told was called a "baseball cap". Quite why the hat was called this he never worked out - nobody seemed to know what a baseball was and what it had to do with the hat. He was also quite content to be a normal crewmember, serving under a rather eccentric skipper. The mindless but strenuous effort of hauling nets of fish onto the boat he felt was very good for the soul, leaving his mind free to dream about things other than bounty hunting. The price of fresh fish was often a good thing to think about. His new friends on the ship turned out to be good drinking buddies. It wasn't long before Winston was doing something he hadn't done in years - the act of really enjoying life just for the heck of it - with no purpose or goals.
Of course, it couldn't last. He now had a couple of weeks off the boat to relax. He started playing the last 12-bar chorus, but was cut short by a female voice.
"Jim, I have a message for you"
It was Jasmine, his computer calling. He stopped playing. He'd asked Jas to avoid interrupting him while he was playing the piano, so there must have been something unusual.
"OK, Jas, what do you have for me?" he said, mildly annoyed at the interruption.
Winston reluctantly got up out of the chair and straightened his shirt, and sat down in front of the screen with a sigh. What could anyone be wanting from me now, he thought. He didn't know anyone called Rafael Vincent. He read the message. It wasn't very long, and he couldn't quite see why it was confidential.
Extreme disadvantage? That was usually guarded speak for "we'll kill you if you don't". What did anyone want with him now? He'd been out of space for a year, didn't have a co-pilot for his ship, and now someone he didn't know wanted to see him at Hope, in the Gateway system. Nobody had tried to kill him for years, if you exclude the pirates he met as a matter of course whilst bounty hunting.
"Well, Jim, what do you want me to do?" asked Jas.
Serious proposition, indeed. Winston's suspicious mind suspected it was more likely to be some sort of blackmail. Or maybe it was a genuine assignment that needed an Elite pilot.
"OK, Jas, get a bulletin board entry out. I need a crewmember. Tell them
they can apply in person at my house"
Jas was almost human in its - her - reactions. In fact, there was no doubting that the machine was sentient. Winston had normally avoided getting intelligent computers into his life, instead preferring the type that just got on and did the calculations. However, he decided he needed someone to confide in. He felt much more comfortable talking to a machine for some reason. He'd never been really that good at human relationships. He was now 31 standard years old, and still resolutely single.
The next day dawned brightly, as the sun rose above the horizon. The bright blue star struggled up, looking slightly cold and damp in the morning mist. Winston reluctantly struggled out of bed, went to the kitchen and fished around in the freezer. He never liked replicated food that much, and decided on a real breakfast.
"Kippers", he said to himself, as he pulled out a couple of frozen fish.
He put them in the autochef, and went about getting ready for the day ahead. He sat in front of one of Jas's screens.
"Anybody reply yet, Jas?" he asked. He didn't really expect anyone to have
replied yet. It had only been 30 hours since the ad went out.
Jas displayed a brief rundown of the four's curriculum vitae. A young man, 17 years old, no experience, bored of planet life (let's forget him), a 30-year old woman, experience as a weapons officer with a Frontier trader (interesting), a 21 year old man, plenty of sim combat, won some competitions, and a 35 year-old space taxi operator who had got bored of paying the note on the taxi and wanted to do something else.
He pulled up the woman's full CV. There was a picture included, and Winston raised his eyebrows slightly. She was pretty attractive.
"Hey, Jim, I know what you're thinking, and I don't recommend it. It'll
end in tears," said Jas, registering Winston's interest in the woman.
Winston sighed heavily. He did have to admit that although Pam and himself never had anything more than a platonic relationship, they were rather fond, and had continued to keep in touch, years after they went their separate ways. Maybe it was for the best if he at least checked out this guy's CV. He brought it up. It was in fact quite impressive. His name was Chuck Albright, and he had become sim-combat champion of the Alliance League. He'd also completed his flight training with a very good grade.
"Aren't you forgetting your breakfast?" said Jas.
Winston slowly ate the kippers. The autochef really did a great job. He'd miss this life he'd just started getting used to - no replicated food, fresh fish, beautiful sunrises, and being able to actually get to grips with playing his old piano. The fishing boat job had proved to be highly theraputic too. But the crewmember...well, Jas was right, he thought to himself. It had sometimes gotten rather ...interesting... with Pam, and with luck this would hopefully be just a short mission anyway. In fact he still emailed Pam much more often than his own brother. The problem with Jas, he thought, is that he made the mistake of making a rather good personal profile when he bought the computer. This made Jas a very good match for him, but at the same time, Jas just knew too much. But he had to admit that the computer had been extremely valuable this last year. He looked over Albright's CV once more.
"OK Jas," he said finally, "send Albright a note requesting that he comes
here this afternoon."
Winston went to the door, pausing to pick up his leather jacket. He really wasn't looking forward to this mission. He opened the door, revealing a lanky young man with the remnants of a serious acne attack standing before him. The man had the typical look of the bounty hunter wannabe. Gone out and got the kit (leather jacket a must), hair cut about 3 millimeters long (obviously fresh), and a sense of misplaced confidence.
"Ah, you must be...ummm", Winston began.
"Yes. I've come about the co-pilot job", Albright replied, disappointed at Winston's apparent forgetfulness.
That's funny, thought Winston. Not many people have an accent like that around here. Albright didn't sound that foreign, but it was obvious that he wasn't from around here. He sounded like he was from one of the Federation systems he used to frequent. Eta Cassiopeia, maybe?
"OK, well let's take my shuttle, and we'll check out my ship then", replied Winston, slinging his jacket over his shoulder. He paused to pick up one of Jas's remote terminals, and discreetly slid it into his pocket.
Winston walked quickly to the parking space where his shuttle sat. Albright was taken a little by surprise and had to walk rather fast to keep up. He didn't know yet what to make of his first meeting with his potential new commander. It certainly wasn't what he had expected.
Winston opened the shuttle, and climbed in. It was a small craft, capable of carrying four people. It could even make orbit on a good day. However, they only had to travel a few k's across the planet's surface today. Albright finally got himself settled into the seat, and Winston sealed the doors, and set the autopilot for his garage. The shuttle started to slowly lift off from the parking space. Winston thought it was about time he at least asked Albright some questions about his experience just to fill in the few minutes before they got to the ship.
"Ummm...can I ask you a question?" asked Albright, slightly nervously.
Albright began fishing around in his pocket. This made Winston nervous, he should have checked for concealed weapons before starting. However, all Albright pulled out was a 3263 edition of W&G Guide To The Edge. He held up the small data cartridge.
"I mean the James Winston who wrote this, you look just like him", he said,
waving the guide around.
Albright was now grinning inanely. Winston sighed deeply. This was all he needed. He had hoped everyone had forgotten about the Templar. He'd had his fifteen minutes of fame, and quite frankly, it was enough. Muffled chortling came from his pocket.
"Jas", said Winston in a hoarse whisper, gritting his teeth. The snickering stopped.
"Please forgive Jas, she's got a sense of humour", Winston told Albright.
The shuttle finally alighted at Winston's garage. They went towards the door, and Winston started to talk about the ship. He could feel an old flame ignite inside him...the flame of adventure, the promise of space. Something was reawakening in him...and maybe this mission wouldn't be so bad after all. Even if he was stuck with an insufferable youth for a copilot. A good run for my money in Sim Combat, indeed! Of course, the outcome would depend on what Rafael Vincent wanted, but it had to be special to drag an Elite combateer out of hibernation. It could lead to an interesting adventure.
That is, of course, assuming that Vincent didn't turn out to be a muderous assasin.
The door slid open, and a couple of rats ran out into the daylight, startled by the unexpected intrusion. Inside lurked the dark form of the Asp.
"Lights", said Winston.
The lighting came on, illuminating the interior of the large structure, and the dusty form of the Asp. Winston hadn't been back to the ship since the day he arrived. He began leading his new recruit around the garage's catwalks, showing him the exterior of the ship, pointing out a few laser burns here and there, the odd bit of slightly dented metal which bore witness to a close encounter of the worst kind, and telling a few tall tales about the exploits he'd had in the ship. Winston's spacefaring adventure was truly reawakened. But he had wished he'd at least washed the ship before bringing Albright here, especially as now they could see the ship's top.
"What are those white specks all over the ship?" asked Albright, expecting
some new tale of adventure.
As if to confirm Winston's statement, a creature that was shaped suspiciously like a large pigeon added another white splat to join the thousands of others. Winston glared at the bird, who looked back from its safe perch amongst the girders of the hangar. Winston found himself sighing for the umpteenth time that day. Once again, a muffled chortling noise came from Jas's remote terminal burrowed deep in his jacket pocket.
Well at least they could go inside the ship. That part should be clean with a bit of luck. Albright followed Winston as he climbed down the ladder, back to ground level, then across the hangar floor to the entrance ramp. A handprint later, and the ship opened up. At least the batteries appeared to have held charge. As they went around the interior, Winston checked various systems. At least they all worked. The ship would need servicing before they launched though...ships don't like to sit.
Eventually, the tour finished. They both sat down in the cramped living area, and Winston began the bit he always hated. Doing the interview. Albright seemed enthusiastic enough, and he certainly appeared to have 'what it took' to be a good bounty hunter. What it took was a lack of understanding of the risk, a touch of recklessness, a bit of cunning and quick reactions, and...nothing else. Albright seemed to have all this in ample quantities.
"Might as well give him the job", was his thought as the interview concluded.
© 2000 Dylan Smith.