USD: ~17 days after Tears of Fire arrival to 92 Pegasi
Location: IND Tears of Fire, Final Approach to Ackman Station
Alex tapped her console to zoom in on the dock workers moving multiple pieces of machinery in a jumble of tubes, feed lines, power attachments, and other things that were now floating all over the place around their assigned berth. The fact that they had been waiting as the workers took their sweet time to prepare things prompted her to complain.
“It’s been five minutes, they’ve had hours knowing we were on the way, ugh!”
Elis gave her a flat look.
Alex had decided to allow Elis to handle the negotiations with the Iron Horse Mercenary Company, before they returned course to Ackman Station. She had been incredibly embarrassed to learn that they were not actually pirates or thugs trying to shake the station and the Tears down.
The other part had been that Alex wasn’t exactly sure she could pull off being a ‘Captain’ in the true sense of the term, feeling like her ‘disguise’ would end up dead before it had even began. Especially if she had to get into the nitty gritty of the proper procedures for accepting someone’s surrender after actual combat.
After that, Elis had pulled over two dozen naval, military, and other reference manuals from the ship’s growing library and added them to Alex’s personal datapad for her to familiarize herself with. She hated them. But Elis had refused to watch a holovid with her after the battle until she had studied for at least an entire hour. It was enough for her to have asked Nameless if she could just download the data directly to her brain.
The fact that it was indeed possible surprised her, but that idea only became more terrifying as she learned that it was only possible if she was willing to have her persona ripped apart and put back together, at which point she would be… a completely different person. The idea was horrible. She liked being herself. Especially now that she wasn’t alone and wasn’t about to die every 30 seconds from life-support failing or a piece of metal impaling the ship randomly while she was asleep.
Leaning back in her captain’s chair Alex decided to complain again.
“We’ve been in holding for ten minutes, I feel like they are trying to harass us.”
Elis shook her head, “Do you have any idea all the work that needs to be done to setup a mooring for any ship bigger than a flitter? Nameless did send them the ship’s docking specifications, right?”
[Affirmative: Docking specifications have been delivered as per requested by Port Authority.]
Elis nodded, “So, there isn’t much universality to docking ports, so they have a configurable collar and feed lines that must be adjusted to the ship. Tears isn’t a small ship, Alex. From what I’ve been seeing ships are built smaller these days. To the station the Tears is probably like a destroyer, not a corvette. That’s also why the three Iron Horse frigates took so much more damage, new ships aren’t built with double hulls.”
Alex rubbed her forehead in annoyance. That fact had almost messed up her plan, the three frigates had only taken minor damage… compared to obliteration. If the mercenaries had lost any ships or people, she felt they would have been a lot less forgiving. Not that she needed their forgiveness. They had, in her mind shot first, no matter how rude her flying around had been. Still, it would have been bad to have made enemies so fast.
Elis had somehow turned the event into something positive, and the Captain-Major and his attaché wished to have a meeting with her in a few days on the station. That could be a very good opportunity, but also very dangerous in her mind, depending on what they wanted from her. She had decided to remain cautiously optimistic.
|Final Docking Clearance Granted|
|Navigational Data Follows|
|Speed Limit: 0.1m/s Relative|
“Yes! Finally. Nameless, take us in.”
[Affirmative: Final Approach and Mooring confirmed.]
USD: Two hours later
Location: IND Tears of Fire, Berthed at Ackman Station
Alex stood looking at herself in the mirror. Elis was still fussing about with all the little things that had been added to Alex’s captain’s jacket.
Attempting to suppress a fidget Alex complained, “Seriously, how can you even make it straighter! I don’t understand the fuss, it is just going to get messed up.”
Elis bit back a laugh, “You really have no sense of decorum, I thought you might have been a naval graduate, but now I think you might have just been a ship monkey.”
“A ship monkey who knows martial arts and can pull stick like an ace.”
Elis looked taken aback, “You can pilot a fighter?”
“Well, I haven’t tried that, but I can do pretty good in my suit in Zero-G.”
“That’s… that’s not the same thing, Alex. Fighters have a lot of buttons. So… just a ship monkey who thinks it knows martial arts.”
Alex grumbled and glared at Elis through the mirror.
“That’s perfect. Every sailor you meet will think you’re a naval officer if you keep that face. They’ll be terrified of getting extra work.”
“Why isn’t it working on you, then?”
“I’m a Spaceborne Marine, we aren’t afraid of getting our hands dirty.”
[Notice: I have scrubbed 327 cyberattacks and attempted intrusions into the ShipNet. Upon further analysis the station’s systems seem to be infected with a large amount of malware and viruses from an array of various parties. To prevent further attacks, I have infiltrated the station’s main computer and applied a security patch and anti-malware update that is automatically distributed to all connected systems.]
Alex’s eyes widened in a bit of surprise, “Uhm… did you ask first? That’s like… Nameless did you hack the Station’s infonet?”
[Informative: Poor System security practices can degrade system effectiveness and waste resources. Furthermore, continued attempted intrusions on the Tears ShipNet would require extra processing power better dedicated to various tasks. The scrubbing of station malware has restored various station functions that were running at between 80-90% efficiency due to lost processing capabilities.]
“… It was annoying you.”
[Notice: This unit does not experience annoyance.]
“Yeah, as long as it doesn’t waste processing power. You aren’t fooling me. Well, whatever, I’m sure they will appreciate it.”
Elis coughed, “Hopefully they won’t know we did it, because something like that would be very valuable and whoever was running those programs will probably not be happy if they were gathering data from them.”
Alex shrugged, “I don’t see why Nameless should have to suffer a headache so they can gather data. Actually, they were basically poking him with a stick, I wouldn’t be upset if he fried their data pads or electrocuted them back.”
[Notice: This unit only caused physical damage to one data source that was causing repeated direct attacks against the ship’s security.]
“Not surprised they targeted us. Easy to mess with trying to steal data from the fancy military ship when you are doing it from afar and can’t get targeted by a railgun.” Alex couldn’t help but try to loosen her collar and her hand got smacked back down.
“Hold still,” Elis warned.
[Informative: Analysis of hostile source placed at 95% confidence level for accurate identity and location of responsible individual.]
Alex shook her head, “Ah… no. I don’t think we need to go out on any vengeance calls, you said you already zapped his computer, or whatever he was using.”
Last patch applied properly, Elis patted Alex’s arm, “All done. You look great.”
“Ok, lets get on with it. I’ve been reviewing the station’s public feeds and there are so many food options I am dying to try out! They have little food trucks, even!”
Elis took a deep breath, a bit of worry on her face. “Are you sure you are going to be alright? The station population is only several thousand, but it isn’t a big station. Things will be a bit cramped, most likely.”
“More cramped than the ship?”
“This is honestly the most luxurious military ship I’ve ever been on. Seems like it was someone’s pet project.”
Yeah, it was her own pet project too, and Alex couldn’t help but let out a laugh. They headed toward the airlock connected to the mooring arm’s umbilical and gangway. Along the way Alex picked up a pulse rifle concealed inside a soft carrying bag that was secured with some straps and a sling that had been prepared earlier. No need for everyone along the way to get a good look at the rifle.
[Notice: Avatar maximum distance from ShipCore covers entire station area, however it must be advised that extra-vehicular activity could surpass that radius. Avatar leaving ShipCore range will result in loss of consciousness, followed by expiration of Avatar.]
“Ahh…” Alex quietly mumbled. She had forgotten about that.
“You can’t leave the area around the ship?”
“Nameless told me before, sort of. Nameless, can you explain a bit more?”
[Informative: Nanite cohesion requires ShipCore processing to maintain. A permanent connection to Avatar is currently required or Avatar’s nanites will quickly reach a rampancy situation.]
Alex swallowed, “That is… not ideal. Is there any way to fix that?”
[Informative: Possible nanite upgrades to Avatar range, duration, and survivability are possible with increased nanite processing power.]
[Recommendation: Expedite construction of ShipCore processing compartments.]
Alex regretted pausing those compartments, but it had made sense at the time. It still did, to keep it that way, too. At least until they had a stream of incoming resources again. She hoped they would be able to find what they needed on the station, otherwise it would have probably been best to try their hand at mining the asteroid belt… or even on the surface, although Elis had warned her that while the Shrike was supposed to be able to land on paper, it was not something you would do unless you had no other option. Plus, planet Ackman was not very rocky, being a literal ball of ice and snow except for very deep near the planet’s core.
Alex sighed, “We’ll work on it.”
The airlock finally finished its cycle, and air hissed as the room equalized to the station’s pressure. The sudden smell of oil, grime, and filth assaulted Alex’s nose.
“What the heck. Is their air filtration even working? Did they shove us down on the garbage dump pier?”
Elis winced and wrinkled her nose, “It is pretty bad.”
They walked down the gangplank and exited the other side of the umbilical to enter a larger corridor, although it still felt cramped. Pipes, wires, and feedlines hung above them disappearing into the dark. Beige lights on the corridor walls were evenly spaced, but several had a telltale flickering indicated they needed maintenance, others were blocked by pallets, barrels, and stacks of large parts. ‘Station Personnel Only’ signs were plastered everywhere, which probably explained the lack of people. There weren’t any other ships other than the Tears of Fire hooked to the mooring currently.
The closer look only led to more annoyance in Alex’s complaint, “Shit, they did stuff us at the end of a storage locker or something.”
Elis patted Alex’s arm in sympathy, “That might not be a bad thing, harder for people to get close to the airlock and to spy on the ship. Although there are still plenty of opportunities for them to do so, why make it easy.”
“Yeah, they are going to get info on the ship anyway, unless I wanted to be a space hermit. Would have preferred a nice smelling mooring instead though.”
Elis shook her head, “It’s probably going to be like this across most of the station.”
Alex mumbled a complaint. She looked up at the barely legible signage that had letters missing before trying to figure out the direction they needed.
Elis didn’t seem to have any trouble with that, “Supposed to be a checkpoint. Right leads to the end of the pier which is just an observation deck, cargo entry/egress and a personnel airlock. We go left.”
Halfway down the mooring arm, the corridor did improve. The space widened out, and maintenance was clearly better. At least the lights worked, the walls were washed, and the solid walls had observation windows that felt a bit fragile to Alex. The station did have an I-field generator, right?
Alex spotted the checkpoint. There were four soldiers clad in beige-brown tactical gear and with front slung rifles standing around. That might have been alarming, but they were facing the other direction. She also spotted that one of them was sleeping behind a pallet on the mooring side, and two were playing cards.
Alex stopped and turned to Elis who raised an eyebrow as they paused.
Reaching down to open her jacket, Alex revealed two holstered pulse pistols on her belt. It took her a second to remove one and she pushed it into Elis’s hands.
“You might need this. It’s loaded this time. Just don’t try to shoot me again, or we won’t be friends anymore.”
Elis stared at the weapon for a moment before looking Alex in the eyes, “Understood. Do you want me to carry that as well?”
Alex drew a blank for a second before realizing she was talking about the pulse rifle. “Oh, right. Yeah, that would make more sense.” She unslung the rifle and gave it to the marine.
It only took a moment for Elis to strap the pistol to her own belt before slinging the rifle behind her shoulder. Unlike Alex she carried the pistol on the outside of her jacket, easily accessible and visible on her hip.
The interaction had drawn the attention of the guards, and two of them were standing together waiting for them.
Alex nodded toward them then looked at Elis, “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
Elis followed a pace behind her on the left.
The guards’ tactical equipment was clean and looked professional, but Alex doubted it was meant to stop a pulse rifle round since it was soft and not a hard carapace. All the guards were carrying projectile rifles and sidearms from what she could tell. They even had pouches of extra magazines strapped on their rigging.
Alex and Elis’s pulse pistols needed magazines as well, but she had not brought any, since they were non-standard for the captain’s uniform. If they had to use up the 200-round magazine in the pistol, they were going to be in deep shit, though.
As they approached the lead guard raised a hand, “Ma’am. Welcome to Ackman station. I’m sure the Portmaster didn’t realize you were disembarking yourself or he would have come to greet you in person.”
The second guard handed him two clear plastic cards and he offered them to Alex, “These are your shore party cards. All your crewmen will need to carry them and present them for return access to the mooring arm. I’m afraid that even you and your officers will need them. Just station policy. If you lose them, it’ll be a bit of a hassle and paperwork train.”
Alex passed the second card to Elis while nodding, “Thank you, and it won’t be a problem. I’ll do my best to see that you don’t have any extra work while we are visiting.”
“Ah, Ma’am. You or your quartermaster should head to the Port Authority soon to settle up. Normally that’s done in advance, but military moorings are done on a special case basis, and this is your first time here. Portmaster told us to make sure it got passed up to you.”
Elis spoke up, “Are you going to give the Captain an escort to the Port Authority office?”
“Ah, we can manage that, if you’d like. It’s our job to keep the riff-raff separated from the ship-spaces. We’re part of the Iron Horse MC.” He paused for a second then looked to Alex, “Appreciate you not killing all our friends shipboard, Ma’am.”
The other guard elbowed him in the side. “Commander said not to provoke her, idiot.”
“What? I’m just being honest.”
Alex smiled, “It’s fine. What are your names?”
The first guard answered first, “Corporal Rick, Ma’am. And this is Corporal Sawet.”
Corporal Sawet nodded to her, then looked over to the two soldiers who were busy playing cards. “Yves, Beckket, VIP escort. You’re going to the Port Authority with the Captain here.”
USD: ~17 days after Tears of Fire arrival to 92 Pegasi, 3 hours after mooring
Location: Ackman Station, Port Authority Office
Alex took a deep breath as she and Elis waited in the Port Authority Office’s waiting room. Like the rest of the station, it was mostly bare metal but without the heavy abuse of so many people. That had left it relatively clean. A neutral white lightbar hung from the ceiling, and a forlorn potted plant sat in one corner of the room among a dozen waiting chairs that looked like they were designed to torture people into leaving early.
Alex had decided to stand instead of sitting, and Elis had assumed an ‘At Ease’ position to her left and a little behind her. The other girl was doing an excellent job of keeping up their cover, acting as her marine bodyguard.
So, Alex had decided to do her best to emulate a naval starship captain. That meant being patient. That meant having decorum. It was so very annoying when she wanted to go run around and look at all the exciting things she had seen on the way to the office.
There had been a lot of people, and while the station was grungy and in need of a serious power washing, there were food trucks and people enjoying real food! The odor had even mostly gone away, transformed by all the much better smells around.
Alex raised her arm and looked at her wrist, a uniform standard digital timepiece told her it had been thirty minutes. It was the first time she had moved since she had been asked to wait, and two nervous looking receptionists shared a look with each other. It wasn’t her fault their boss was being a prick, but she was tired of waiting!
“Elis, could you please see what is keeping the Portmaster so long?”
“Aye, aye, Ma’am.”
Elis walked up to the nervous clerks, a man and woman in non-descript officer attire.
The man spoke first, “Miss—”
Elis cut him off, “It’s Master-Sergeant. Your boss is making my boss wait,” she pulled her holster and side arm off her belt and slapped it on the counter. “Do I need to call in a shore party tactical squad, and drag him out of where he is hiding, or are you going to go tell him he is delaying the Captain’s schedule?”
Alex felt a twinge of sympathy for the terrified receptionists.
The man jumped out of his seat, “I… I’ll go see what is holding him!”
“Thank you very much,” Elis replied before strapping her sidearm back to her belt.
Two minutes later he returned, “Captain Alex, Master Sergeant, the Portmaster is ready to see you now. Please follow me.”
It was a short walk to the Portmaster’s personal office. As Alex crossed into the room, she noticed that it was the same utilitarian style as most of the station, and she thought the common conception of a leader living in the lap of luxury didn’t apply to this man at least. There was a suite of electronic consoles and monitors, all displaying different screens related to the station’s operation.
Elis took a position just inside the room beside the door and assumed a parade rest, while Alex studied the man as she approached. He looked older, and his hair was thinning although it did not have any hints of gray yet. He had a triangular face and a skinny build that was somewhat camouflaged by his jacket. She noted the collar around his neck that denoted he was wearing a skinsuit under it. She wondered why he would have need of EVA gear but put the question out of her mind.
The man stood as soon as she reached the two chairs in front of his desk, “Captain, I apologize for the delay. I was on the comms with two freighters who left the station early, which possessed needed supplies for the station’s continued operation. It was a difficult conversation to convince them to change course and return after… recent events.”
He gave her a pained smile, and Alex didn’t miss the meaning behind his explanation, he was putting the blame for the wait on her.
The Portmaster gestured to a seat, “If you would like to sit, we can discuss the business of your mooring and purpose at Ackman station. I believe we can first get the minutiae of the port fees and services detailed. Normally this is done before docking, but we expediated your arrival as a courtesy.”
Alex didn’t blink and kept her smile as she sat down. Elis had already relayed the story from Iron Horse, that the man sitting across from her had paid them a large sum to go delay her ship and smack her crew around because of the commotion she caused.
“Thank you for that, I appreciate it. Our journey here was non-standard, and we are thankful for your station’s understanding.”
He didn’t respond for a moment, but then slid a datapad across the desk for her to look at.
“The standard port rate for Mooring Arm D-1 is 750,000 SE per week, payable in advance. Fuel rates are standard market listing price plus one percent. There are reactor fueling services available, but they are privately owned. You can find them listed on the StationNet. The security services are included in the mooring rate, but they only include security for the mooring arm and escort for official station business, such as when they escorted you here.”
Alex’s eyes paraphrased the text on the datapad and found that it was carefully laid out. It spelled out the important bits of information in a clear and concise way. The numbers matched what Elis had gathered from her conversations with the Iron Horse Mercs. So, he wasn’t trying to overcharge them.
“I see we have the entire arm to ourselves.”
“That’s standard for military vessels. Of course, the cost is higher as you are essentially renting the entire mooring space, but I’ve never encountered a Naval Captain who would share a mooring with civilians if possible. If you wish, I can open Arm D-1 and lower the rental fee accordingly.”
“No, that’s fine. It’s ideal.”
The Portmaster nodded with a smile, “Very good. If we can process payment now, then—”
Alex raised her hand, “I can’t pay you right now.”
His smile instantly vanished, his eyes turning cold, “Captain, please be reasonable. A military vessel like yours takes up a considerable amount of mooring space, even if it wasn’t taking up the entire arm. There’s also the maintenance costs and other expenses associated with keeping things running. The cost, I assure you, is not overexaggerated or unfair, they represent a small markup to pay for other station services, but I am not trying to take your money just to enrich myself.”
Alex leaned back in her chair, surprised at the sudden vehemence in his voice.
“I did not say I would not pay or didn’t want to pay. Even though I was unhappy to learn that you paid the Iron Horse MC to hit us.”
The Portmaster frowned and sat a little bit straighter, “With all due respect, Captain, I will not take full responsibility for that. Your ship’s actions were not normal and you appeared to be a credible threat to the station’s safety.”
“Granted, which is why I am not holding it against you. That isn’t the reason—I simply don’t have the money to pay you.”
A look of surprise was quickly hidden, he glanced at a few monitors and then spoke, “The station can offer you a line of credit. Standard rates, with your ship as collateral.”
Alex considered for a second then shook her head, “I’m sorry, that won’t be feasible.”
“Come, Captain. Please be reasonable, the interest rates are not ruinous.”
“First, I do not wish to go into debt. Second, the ship as collateral? What if we defaulted and you tried to collect? Worse, a single torpedo into the station and the situation would be resolved.”
“You… you are not helping your situation.”
“Hear me out. If you can forgo payment for a week, I am sure we can pay for this week and the next in advance then.”
“How do you intend to acquire the funds for this?”
“We’ve browsed the station’s listings before arrival and noted a considerable demand for small arms weaponry and the like. I believe we have something that will be in demand.”
He thought for a moment before pulling out a tablet from his desk, then made several selections before handing the device to her. “I imagine if it is small arms, you will be dealing in some volume. I’ve highlighted two well known and respected dealers here with very good reputations with their customers. The station utilizes their services exclusively. You will not get the best prices from them, but they will have the ability to purchase in bulk.”
“That’s actually very helpful. Thank you. There is one more problem.”
“We don’t actually have a credit account.”
A confused look passed over his face, “Can you not just use your own personal account? That’s what those who can’t afford a ship account usually do.”
“No, that’s not possible I’m afraid. No one on my crew has a personal account, nor do we have a ship account.”
He looked at her questioningly, but when she didn’t elucidate, he leaned back into his chair.
“That is a problem.”
The Portmaster tapped his desk with his fingers rhythmically for a moment before seemingly making up his mind.
“As you might be aware, there is no CEC branch at Ackman. As such we have no authority or ability to process new personal SE accounts in-system. Local accounts for your personnel will be required and are easy enough to setup.”
He stood up and walked over to the wall, waving his hand and suddenly the picture on the wall revealed itself as a hologram, disappearing. Leaning forward he placed his eye near a scanner and the hidden safe clicked open.
Alex could see several small boxes inside the safe, of which the Portmaster retrieved one before locking it back up. He brought it back to the desk and sat back down.
“The station has on hand some licensed blank ship chips for official use. They cost us 1,000,000 SE per unit, charged to us by the CEC. I will present you with this one. Place your thumb on the indicated area.”
He slid it forward toward Alex, and she did so, a sudden screen lighting up.
|CEC Secure SE Credit Chip – Ship |
|Owner: Alex|GCode: 8Y-384YN83023NB|
|Balance: 0 SE|
“You can link it to your ship’s transponder once you return. Could I see it please?”
Alex slid it back to him without protest and he slid it through one of the consoles then began typing something that she couldn’t see. When he finished, he passed it back to her. A little chime sounded in her ear that sounded like a sad noise from Booper almost. A red message flashed.
|Balance: -1,750,000 SE|
“Normally it isn’t possible to achieve a negative balance unless you run afoul of fines or possibly commit fraud, but I have used the local credit system’s override to charge you. I am doing this as a massive courtesy to you, Captain. There is no interest and as a side effect you will not be able to process transactions outside the system until your balance is positive. You can also not make any purchases until the negative balance is resolved.”
Accepting the credit chip, Alex placed it back into her front jacket pocket.
“Thank you, Portmaster. This is more than I was expecting. If you need assistance that a military warship can provide, I will remember your courtesy. I apologize for our means of arriving. I can only say that it was not intentional to cause so much of a fuss.”
“Thank you for the sentiment, Captain Alex. I will keep your services in mind if they become needed as much as I hope they should not be.”
A blip of hesitation punctuated the end of the sentence before he suddenly changed the direction of the conversation, “Captain Alex, I would like to ask, are you of an old noble lineage? I could not help but notice the lack of surname and your… youthful disposition.”
The gears in Alex’s head spun as she tried to piece together whatever picture the man had made of her in his mind.
“Pardon me, Portmaster, even after the courtesy you’ve shown us, if you could please leave a lady her secrets?”
“Ah, excuse me. Of course. It was idle curiosity; I did not mean to pry. Please enjoy your stay here on Ackman Station.” He stood, and Alex followed suit.
“I do have one last question, Portmaster, could you please give me your name?”
A flash of surprise crossed his brows, “My apologies, I seem to have forgotten my manners and failed to introduce myself. My name is Charles Whitely.”
He reached out and Alex shook his hand.
“A pleasure, Mr. Whitely. I hope all our future interactions are as courteous.”
“As do I, Captain. As do I.”