Three weeks ago....
Morse Right. It was her first trip out of Union Space, fifty quadrants away from the nearest unionized planet of Erthria. The jump was a breeze. And then ten hours spent wiggling around the tight confines of the old freighter that had half of one deck converted to resemble a passenger cruiser. The conversion was done in the utmost price-conscious manner, meaning dirt cheap, so Jammie could not enjoy one of those fancy simulators, fine dining, or nature-duplicating settings that most of the deep space cruisers were famous for.
But the ticket price was reasonable, so cared little about anything other than reading, she did.
Then the much-anticipated docking at the Morse Right Trading Post, an orbital station and the gateway to Cetrix’s Seven System, home to twenty plus thousand people, her included.
Right out of the gate, and it hit her. Suddenly, she was surrounded by strangers, none who knew her, none who cared to return her half-smiles or stares, did not care to say ‘hi’ or answer any of her questions, not even out of curiosity or courtesy.
And all the different species around! So many she did not even know all their names. A small furry thing rubbed against her feet, and it looked so cute and lost that she was just ready to pet him when he snapped at her in perfect English. "Keep your hands to yourself! I'm not a dog to be patted, you tall human freak!"
Yeah, that would shake up anyone who never saw an angry Ronnian.
Far away from the warmth and the comfortable uniformity of the small community she rew up in, Jammie’s cultural shock was one very ice-cold shower. And ready to get way worse any second.
Luckily, the comm she carried with her did all the answering and guiding, or else she would have set someplace and cried.
But that’s nothing compared to what she run into on the first day of her new job. For the rare time in her life, she felt like she was way over her head, facing problems she was not so sure what to do about. And that’s a lot to say about a kid that graduated from Litways Advanced Engineering Studies at the age of seventeen.
“Hey, kid,” Mr. Lockman, her supervisor, called her out loud. Yes, she was just a kid, not only because she was born twenty years ago, but because she disguised herself very well, sinking herself in an over-sized military jacket and dark green loose pants that she stuck in cheap military boots. With her long dark hair curled up and placed under the round black hat, only half of her face was visible, half that made her look even younger, certainly not interesting enough to draw any attention from the wrong people. Back home she was considered good-looking, but she did not come here to be judged based on her looks.
“Yes, Mr. Lockman?” she asked as he kept staring at the instruments, not paying her any attention at all.
“We’ve got a problem here,” he finally said.
“Anything I can do?” Jammie offered readily.
“Sure, can. Old Betzy is acting up again. Didn’t you feel how heavy we got?”
“Yes, I did, but I thought that was just me, that it was only on the account of me just arriving yesterday, not yet getting adjusted-”
“Don’t be silly,” Mr. Lockman interrupted her as he waved his cigar-holding hand and stared at the instruments that seemed to belong in some museum, certainly not the type of those Jammie was accustomed to.
They looked so old that the lettering stating their purpose seemed to have been erased by time long before she was even born. “Old Betzy is running at over ho’ ten percent and I can’t bring it down. That means it might soon blow.”
Jammie got closer and looked over Mr. Lockman’s shoulders, exposing herself to the overpowering stench of unkempt man and old work clothes that could very well have come with the machine and have never been washed since.
After noting one gauge and a thin black needle that was pinned at a red-colored mark Mr. Lockman was squinting at, she took a step back, welcoming the smoke of the cigar to clean her nostrils and lungs.
“We need new fibs but I doubt Samron at the Storage would have it, so you will probably have to run to Zakries and get it there.”
What the hell were fibs and where was the Storage and who the hell was Zakries and why would their artificial gravity generator blow up? She was supposed to be an engineer, an expert, and have an answer to anything. But her prestigious diploma seemed not worth the space it occupied on her id tag.
At least she knew who Old Betzy was referred to, being previously introduced to the wall-to-ceiling and ten feet wide machine.
It happened when Mr. Braxton, the station’s Head of Resources who hired her, brought her down from the Maintenance Docs to meet Mr. Lockman. That was yesterday, not more than a few hours since she came to the station.
‘It’s very good to have you here,’ is what Mr. Brexton told her when she showed up at his office, not knowing where else she should go. A warmth of recognition, finally, meaning that she did not become a space spirit after all. That warmth felt really good, a hope that things might work out just fine after all, but it melted away really fast when he took her to a maintenance floor to introduce her to her new boss, Mr. Lockman.
Yeah, Mr. Lockman. She knew she should respect the man, hardly could say one or two things about him, but he seemed completely uninterested in meeting Jammie, as distant as anyone else she ran into, and rather uninterested to do and say anything but to nod his hand and even ignore Jammie’s extended hand.
‘You get yourself stationed in one of the rooms in Paradise Quarters,’ Mr. Brexton said in his upbeat, vibrant voice, either not noticing Mr. Lockman’s attitude or ignoring it completely.. ‘Just tell Marry you are working for the Maintenance now and that I said to pick a nice room and give it to you. And then tomorrow, oh, what do you say, Lucky, about 8 ST time, you come and start your new job.’
That was followed with a smile and a pat on her shoulder. But a little good that did since Jammie could not help but notice Mr. Lockman frowning. Obviously, she didn’t need a tech diploma to see she was not welcomed inside Maintenance. Maybe Mr. Lockman felt threatened and thought she was after his job.
Maybe Mr. Lockman was a screw-up and a proper engineer would make him look silly. Maybe Mr. Lockman hated foreigners or thought that maybe he could give the job to his cousin or… No, it was impossible to know for sure. Only time will tell. But for now, she was happy to know that she was entitled to the free food and board just like it said in a job description when she applied three weeks ago. That meant she could send all the money she would earn to her parents back home. At least, she could still count on that.
“I’m telling you, you better hurry because Old Betzy might just blow up,” his boss interrupted her from her thoughts. How could she blow up? This was V25 class space station. It certainly had to have a number of safety backups even if it was this far from the Union. It was still an enlisted member of the league - she assured herself of that before she even applied - and certainly had to have some standards.
Maybe Mr. Lockman was just playing around with her, trying to scare her off. But the tension in his voice and anxiety in his nervous eyes said otherwise.
“You know what happened on Oazzy, don’t you?” Mr. Lockman added, still staring at the gauges, knocking his finger against one as if that would make the machine work better, still not casting a single glance in her direction.
“It blew up.”
“You right about that. Together with over twenty-five hundred souls on it. The biggest space station in Quadrant Ten Five Hundred.” Jammie clearly remembered that, studied it in school when she was twelve.
“And they were lucky,” continued Mr. Lockman as his extended finger of the cigar holding hand suddenly was trying to tell something to Old Betzy. “Because no big ships were docked there at a time. Imagine what would have happened if one of those big cruisers were there?”
Yes, Jammie could imagine it rather easily. Oazzy was a V2 station. Morse Right was ten times bigger, and Jammie saw quite a few of its fifty docks occupied by space freighters and ships of all kinds. There was even a shiny U10 Cruiser here.
Mr. Lockman was quick to point that out, almost as if he was capable of reading her mind. “We even have one of Union's Military vessels here, Class Ten Cruiser to say the least,” his voice started to pitch up.
“Where do I go? Where do I need to go? What dock is it?” Jammie suddenly wanted to know.
But Mr. Lockman would have none of it yet. “Yeah, imagine that! Imagine what the Union might say or do if one of their shiny military spacecraft gets blown up.”
Jammie could imagine it easily. Unions started wars with feeble independent planets for less reason than that. Except it was never called wars, more like ‘policing of outlawed outposts’ or something along those lines.
“So unless you want us to face a battleship or two outside our docks, you better hurry!”
“Go, go, go. You better hurry.”
Jammie was going to say something else, but then Mr. Lockman took out a handheld scanner and cursed loudly. “Damn it! It’s already at one zero five and three quarters. Go, kid. And bring me fibs fast.”
Fibs… what the hell are fibs?? But if he knows I don’t know, what will that imply about my abilities and everything I’ve learned. I’ll just say I need fibs, and they’ll probably know what it is all about.
“But where is the Storage?” she yelled after Mr. Lockman who had already walked away to another set of instruments and gauges on the other side of the room.
“Where it has always been,” Mr. Lockman grunted back at her.
She was going to ask another question, but then thought better of it and just took her communicator out and as she ran out of the maintenance place, she called on the map to locate where the Storage was always located. To her own surprise, the map indicated the Storage ten floors up and twenty gates down, not more than four minutes of estimated travel time.
The first elevator that came to pick Jammie looked rather dilapidated with interior sidings that should have been replaced decades ago. The wall monitor that should have been displaying soothing 3D images of nature or broadcasting news bits was not functional, and the creaking noise that it produced as it moved its passengers up was more unnerving than passing through Union’s Customs.
‘I guess I’ll have to get used to that,’ Jamie thought to herself as she tried not to think how difficult it would be to fix up the elevator and make it run smoothly. With the right tools and material, it would not take her more than a few hours tops. But that would be a callosal waste of her time and talents because those jobs even class 2XX robots worth their circuits could do. Unless those machines were not allowed here. That did not make much sense since even the Union that had the most strict Robot Code allowed those low-IQ machines to operate freely.
When the elevator opened, she ran into a bit of a more uplifting atmosphere. It was the first time she walked to the Promenade on Level 20 and for the first time could say that she was almost pleasantly surprised. A boulevard-looking space was lighted with the imitation of the mild morning sun, and green plants and shrubs growing in the middle of it offered some distraction from the total grayness around. Shops and restaurants and space gates lined its sides.
Hundreds of station’s denizens moved around oblivious to him, except for a middle-aged man who passed her by and offered a mischievous smile as he stared at her for two, three seconds too long. Jammie recognized his fancy long, black booths and red antelope jacket as something that was supposed to be a fashion in Union five years ago.
When a well-dressed woman in her late thirties passed her by offering the same mischievous smile, she had to admit that youth was maybe even more in fashion here than it was anywhere in Union and that she would be better off not trying to look so young. She thought she was being smart. Maybe she wasn’t. But if she took her disguise off, she feared her lean figure would draw even more attention - unless she dressed like a baby doll, a fashion so often enjoyed by centennials who suddenly get a rejuve treatment. That would probably be a turnoff, but then, this far out, who could tell for sure?
After she passed Gate 15, her comp led her off the Promenade to a side street and a place that had a big Depo sign blinking in red above a two-sided door.
Inside was a counter and an older gentleman, dressed in a classical government-issued clerical suite.
“I’m looking for…” What the hell was the name of a man she was supposed to talk to? Who was she looking for? Jammie’s mind froze.
“What are you looking for?”
Jammie just stood there with eyes and mouth open.
“What do you need, kid?” the second question only made her mouth open even wider. Her mind, maybe for the first time in her life, was frozen solid.
“If you don’t tell me, I will never know,” said the gentleman in a soft and gentle tone and then even offered a warming smile.
“Well, Mr. Lockman sent me.”
“This is The Space Station storage. And Mr. Lockman from the maintenance has sent me.”
“Oh, you, mean Lucky.”
“Yes, Mr. Lucky, I mean, Mr. Lockman has sent me…”
The pleasant tone and smile of the man seemed to have vanished instantly. “What does that dirty, smelly bag want now?”
“He said we need fibs, and we need them fast because-”
“No, we don’t have fibs here. Did not get new fibs in years. And now with the cuts in the budget, I’m not sure they would even approve of a new shipment. Lucky should know that.”
Jammie heart sank. ‘What? But the station may blow up?’ “Well… he told me to go to… could it be Zarkeries?”
“Oh, yeah, the old goat might have it.”
“And where do I find the old goat?”
“Yeah, you better not call him the old goat.” Suddenly a bright revelation spread across the clerk’s face.
“You must be the new kid they were gonna get,” he said and extended his hand with a smile. “I’m Samronixton the Lananian, Twenty-Fifth to my name, but everyone just calls me Samron.”
“Nice to meet you Mr. Samron. I’m Jammie.”
“Well, Jammie, nice to meet you too. Finally someone civilized from the Union.”
‘I guess not everyone here is cold and unwelcoming,’ Jammie thought as she returned his smile.
“From your accent, I’m assuming you’re from the Larix region.”
“Yes, I’m actually from Summa Nine, that’s a Class Three Planet in the other rim.”
“Oh, I heard about Summa. The daughter of a woman I once dated went there for her Arch Digs.”
“Oh, yes, we are…”
“And she was this…”
Jammie pulled himself back as the depo manager continued to talk. “I really have to go. Mr. Lockmen said this is urgent.”
“Well, you better go then.”
“And… hmm... Where exactly is Zarkeries? Can I find it on the map?”
“It might be there. Look for Zarcerie’s Starlight Antiquities. I think that’s how it was originally called. But if your comp can’t locate it, you can just go to Gate 5. It’s an old, dusty shop with antiques next to Summer’s Bar.”
Jammie turned her back to leave, but then the clerk called her back. “Hey, where are you going?” he asked as he suddenly opened some old plastic book and with a flick of his finger wrote something on a magnetic strip there.
“What?” Jammie asked, unsure of what is going on.
“Well, of course, you’ll need this to certify that we don’t have any fibs in here and that the government will reimburse the cost at the Antiquities,” he said and a second later held a transparent Purchase order with the red-ink seal clearly visible on it. “Without it, I’m afraid that old goat will give you jack shit if you know what I mean.”
Jammie shook her head in disbelief. What kind of a backward dark-age hell is this? She tried to control her disappointment but then just could not help it to ask. “Don’t you have a net to do it through?”
“Oh, yes, we do. But you know, our last net security officer was Mr. Jason and since he retired, there really isn’t anyone reliable to properly maintain it. So, I’m afraid to say it, we resorted to some innovative alternative manner for some accounting tasks. They get the jobs done too.”
The level of incredulity on Jammie’s face must have been so severe that the clerk decided to add. “It actually works just fine, unless you know someone who is reliable at net security…?”
Yeah, like any ten-year-old kid who graduated from my Summa Prime Middle School.
“Because you know, the security here has to be top-notch. We had breakings here from pirates like you would not believe. The other day, they got away with ten million credits, you know. It was just emptied from the bank. So, the old fashion security works just fine.”
Maybe with her level of knowledge, maintaining some old gravity generator was way below what this station could use, circled her mind as she finally said her goodbye. But she better hurry. What if the generator really blows up like Mr. Lucky thought it might? What seems like a distant impossibility bordering science fiction, here on this station might be an everyday unavoidable reality.