The crew of the ISS Lonesome Road entered Darkon’s atmosphere with their customary cool professionalism, aura of capability, and absolute certainty of impending death. Gone now was the panicked shouting that had characterized their early departure from Jump, engines flaring and inertial compensators squealing against the sudden, unexpected return to real space - departed, the declarations of blame and growled threats. Captain John Hawke stood behind the helm, watching as able pilot Kate Marlow’s hands danced across the controls, as graceful as a concert pianist - she had lapsed into an intent silence as the ship closed on the planet, her voice finally failing after hours of swearing and cursing the perpetual bad fortune that seemed to dog Lonesome Road and every member of her crew. In the ship’s small engine room, crowded with the clunky modifications and jury-rigged repairs that a vessel of some thirty year’s service life could be expected to accumulate, the felinoid Elise scrambled from console to console, coaxing every iota of available power free from the failing engines - themselves fairly recent additions, with only three years since they were scavenged from a derelict corvette. First mate Glenn Rho and his wife Cynthia had excused themselves from the bridge an hour or so before, citing the fine print of their contracts that stated that, in times of crisis where they were not directly needed, they were entitled to a certain amount of ‘alone time.’ Tommy “Two-Guns” Gervetti, a former gunslinger of some fame who had signed on as a weapons-officer and general dogs body, had retired to the upper turret, there to watch the play of plasma against the ship’s shields as she soared and tumbled through the upper layers of Darkon’s atmosphere with all the subtlety and grace of a brick.
Hawke turned his intent gaze away from the helm and settled it out the forward window, stomach lurching slightly as he watched the planet twist and sway before him. He had been in worse situations, he was sure - during his abbreviated fifteen years with the Union navy, he’d had more than one ship shot out from under him, in border clashes with the militant Empire, by ravaging pirates and rebellious Independent navies, and most of all by the devouring menace of the Swarm - but these situations had all been faced in warships, top of the line models that were the very finest the Union could offer. Lonesome Road could, if one were charitable, be described as ‘vintage’; most people in that known sector of space that made up the Union, the Empire, and the scattered handful of independent planets and stations between the two would simply describe her as junk, and her captain and crew as foolhardy maniacs for ever daring to venture beyond into interstellar space in something so obviously past her prime. Though he’d rally to his ship’s defense with fist or pistol raised, he couldn’t, in good conscience, admit that they would be wrong - he was a foolhardy maniac, and there were times that his crew scared him far, far more than he dared confess. They were a disreputable band at best, and while Glenn was the only one with an actual price on his head, most ports were just as happy to see the back of them; and sadly, most potential clients were, too. They’d been reduced to hauling bulk cargos with little importance attached to them between outlying border planets, feed and coal for the less refined planets, lumber and raw material for the more industrial - matter replication being a technology lost for a thousand years now, since the Fall of the possibly mythical First Empire and the disappearance of the Shangri-La like First Earth, raw materials were always in strict demand in the Core Worlds, to the exploitation and oppression of the Rim and Border planets. This was their first mission with any sort of real paycheck attached to it in months.
No, Lonesome Road was an old girl, past her prime - and, shrugging his shoulders to loosen the knot of tension between them, Hawke had to admit that her captain was, too - old before his time, brought low by stress and disgrace. He hadn’t bothered to shave for the last couple of days, and scratching the mottled beard, he couldn’t see it mattering much as a crash from this altitude, at this speed, wouldn’t leave enough identifiable remains to scoop up with a teaspoon. A new alarm began to blare, warning that their speed was too high to safely enter atmosphere - he leaned over and silenced it, never removing his eyes from the display as the planet continued to rise before them, all ash gray and desert amber - not unlike his unkempt hair, grown too long to be easily combed and still too short to safely tie back.
Kate Marlow was not yet twenty, like her captain a former member of the Union Navy though she’d never commanded anything larger than a training fighter. She’d had quite the career ahead of her with her ace pilot skills and keen intellect, but a drunken CO and a short temper had put a stop to it - with a lifetime of maneuvering garbage scows on the Border Worlds looming more and more likely in her future, she’d chosen early retirement and a dishonorable discharge. The experience had marked her, and her pretty face was set in lines of tension not entirely related to the current crisis - lines that would wear her down before too long, if she couldn’t be convinced to set them aside. Hawke had seen it happen too many times, to too many other promising officers; and yet, he still had little idea of what to do or say to ease the girl’s burden; indeed, often felt too awkward to do more than issue stiff helm commands. He knew she deserved better than a (probably abbreviated) life on a tramp freighter, skirting the edges of legality and common decency, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to encourage her to leave - her piloting walked the edge of superhuman, with an intuitive grasp that had made some in her Academy days whisper of possible genetic manipulation, for all that such things were ostensibly outlawed (not to mention lost with the First Empire). Her skills had made the difference between life and death, not to mention poverty and paycheck, more than once as she out flew pirates and border patrols, dodged through asteroid fields and wove rings around obsolete killer satellites that still sought to do their duty, bringing down everything that came within weapons range. A genius at the helm, flying was her one true love - even flying something like the Lonesome Road, a far cry from the sleek fighters and gunboats the Union would have had her pilot.
The ship lurched as Kate engaged the docking thrusters, shuddering like a frightened horse - it was surprising how, on a vessel set for deep space, where despite the artificial gravity generators everything was still secured for the possibility of free fall, there were so many things that rattled - the bridge was momentarily awash in a sound not unlike a berserk army of flamenco dancers, as deck plates and control boxes shifted and jumped. It would only get worse from here on out, Hawke knew, and even if Kate managed to bring the ship completely under control the landing would be far from pleasant. He hastened to the little used copilot’s console and strapped himself down, keying the microphone for the 1MC public address system as he did so.
“Attention all hands, this is the captain speaking,” He said, though he knew it was unnecessary. Every hand on the Lonesome Road knew the drill for a crash landing, having been through it so many times before. As soon as the ship started rattling like a bone-box, you strapped yourself in - and, if it was your habit to do so, you prayed. “As you might have noticed, we’re experiencing a bit of turbulence here, and precautions might be considered necessary. I recommend strapping yourself to the nearest bunk or console and bracing for the ride.”
“What about the nearest husband?” Came the predictable cat-call from down the passage.
“Only if he’s rock solid and tied down,” was the response.
“All right, keep it down you two,” Hawke said lightly, though his heart was in his throat and his stomach rising to join it. Darkon loomed ever nearer, and the ship’s rattling increased - despite the inertial dampeners, without which the whole crew would be pasted against the aft bulkheads like so much strawberry jelly, he could feel a rising pressure against his body as the G-forces increased. Lonesome Road was coming in too steep now, whipping down as Kate fought the shaky controls to keep them from simply skipping off the planet’s atmosphere (no doubt with disastrous consequences) and hurtling back into space. The nose rose, fell, rose again - and the shaking eased pronouncedly. Kate smiled in satisfaction, leaning back against her harness.
“There. That should do it.”
Hawke sighed in relief as their descent slowed, the docking thrusters firing gently and slowing their free fall into a much more controlled plummet - the lines of plasma forming a corona around the ship faded as the heat of friction eased off, becoming a soft aura instead of a blazing inferno.
“Good work, Kate.”
Kate shrugged. “Ah, it was nothing. Piece of cake, really.”
Which was just the cue for the thrusters to fail, the nose to descend, and the ship to simply drop out of the sky.
Marlow did her best, but it was a near thing. With thrusters gone and main engines sporadic, her best consisted mostly of pounding on the console and swearing creatively in six different languages - of all the merits of Oberley‘s Clydesdale class of transport ships, aerodynamics was numbered fairly low, and atmospheric flight had been considered a distant second to the ability to haul cargo. Hawke closed his eyes in resignation, then opened them again; if this was the fall that was going to kill his ship, his only home and sanctuary for the past five years, then he was damned well going to stand witness to it. Aft of the bridge came a chorus of shouts both startled and pained - the crew had, despite his warning, either neglected to strap themselves in or else had unbuckled when the rattling eased, convinced that they were out of the thicket for the moment - a mistake that was no doubt costing someone.
“Oz!” Hawke shouted. “What the hell was that?”
“Well, Captain, ‘that’ would be the thrusters failing. I see that we are not yet out of maneuvering fuel, so it must be a mechanical failure. Have you consulted with the chief engineer?”
“Chief nothing, dammit, you’re the ship’s AI! You’re supposed to keep us up to date on anything that’s about to fail!”
Ozymandias’ voice retained its customary dignity, each word ejected as though he had lingered on it, chosen it for its aesthetic contribution to the conversation - and likely had, for the AI could ‘think’ millions of times quicker than even the wittiest human. “And if you had been inclined to purvey your memos, Captain, you would certainly see that I had notified you of the likelihood of just such a problem occurring. Amusing, really, I had thought that we would see more such errors long before a complete and total failure. Tanchiwa Industries should be commended on the tenacity of their products… if not the end durability.” A previously blank screen near the helmsman’s console flashed into life, displaying an ageless man’s face, the graying hair pulled back with a widow’s peak, a pair of round spectacles covering the colorless eyes. There was neither neck nor body attached to the face, but then Oz possessed nor needed neither. A white-gloved hand appeared next to the face, palm up like a bellboy discreetly inquiring as to the likelihood of an impending tip - rather than a credit chip, however, a small display of the Lonesome Road emerged from the palm, the various trouble sites and failed systems outlined in red. The ship looked like it had suffered a case of the measles, and as the display spun to showcase the damaged thrusters, Hawke felt a pang in his chest.
He pushed it away firmly, unwilling to show sentiment for all that the ship was his home. “Well, we’d best think of something within the next-” he glanced at the altimeter on the console and shuddered. “Thirty seconds or so, or we’re all gravy.”
“Have you considered the power of prayer, Captain? I have found it to be marvelously uplifting.”
“Something more substantial if you would, Oz!”
“Very well, then. I see Miss Elise has had some success with the main engines. You may want to hold on.”
The ship lurched, shook sickeningly, then roared. Hawke was pushed back into his seat by the sudden thrust as the engines howled, bursting to life with a sudden, vehement power. A cold chill ran through him as the shields surged to glowing life.
“What the hell are you doing, Oz?”
“I shall need the pilot to relinquish helm control, Captain,” Oz said calmly. “I am afraid it will take split second timing to accomplish this task, and her reflexes will simply not be sufficient.”
Kate bristled. “You can pike off, you rusty sack of bolts and circuits. You think we’re stupid enough to give you helm control again?”
Hawke cut her off before she could give full vent. “Just do it, Kate!”
“But Captain-” Kate was hurt, but he didn’t give her a chance.
“We don’t have time for this! It’s not like he can take her anyplace but down. Oz, take the helm!”
“Roger, Captain, I have the helm.” There was the faintest trace of smugness in the AI’s tone, but it could well have been imagined. The ship twisted and rolled as Oz spun her belly up, her finlike ‘wings’ biting the thicker atmosphere as they plunged towards the ground. The engines sputtered again but held, and the AI coaxed her into a glide, twitching her gently to get the most life from the available wind. “I have found it to be entirely in the reflexes, Captain.”
“That’ll do, Oz.” Hawke tried to keep from grinding his teeth. There were times he regretted the decision to install an abandoned prototype military AI in his ship, and Oz’s general function was as a liaison between the ‘dumb’ central computer of the Lonesome Road and her human crew; still, there were times - like this just past - that the AI was worth his circuit’s weight in iridium.
Just as well, given that artificial intelligences had been illegal for more than three hundred years, their possession punishable by mind wipes or even death. Humanity had learned that an emotionless being who could perform millions of calculations a second and possessing infinite patience could work its way around even the strictest of programming - and drive itself ‘insane’ in the bargain. Even the Imperial military shied away from using anything more than regular ‘dumb’ computers, relying on cybernetic and chemical enhancement to boost their pilot’s performance to the necessary level for interstellar combat.
“I am afraid the landing will still be rather rough,” Oz remarked. “I have done the best I can, but frankly you will never make a swan out of a Clydesdale.” The AI tittered quietly, then added, “Landing gear down. Stand by.”
The ship rolled again, Oz using the momentum to jerk the landing gear out and cutting the engines. Lonesome Road faltered, but the timing was next to perfect and she slowly descended in a broad, flat arc to the salt flats below - her landing skids acting as skis along the thick crust. The ship slowly slid to a halt.
“There you are, Captain. Nothing to worry about.”
The ship jerked and plunged the rest of the way to the ground, hitting with a dull crunch that echoed through the hull like a death knell.
The crew gathered in the lounge to discuss the situation.
Lonesome Road was, or rather, possessed the hull of, an Oberley Clydesdale, and though her crews throughout the years had modified her to the point that Clyde Oberley would have thrown up his hands in despair at the sight of her, some things remained the same. Designed for long-distance, often luxury cargos, she was sleek and smooth, with little room within given over to frills. After Oberley’s early and unfortunate death, the market had dropped out of the luxury-hauler business, and the company went bankrupt, selling most of its hulls at auction to pay its mounting debts. Lonesome Road, along with most of her sisters, was converted to an in system or between-system bulk freighter, with most of her creature comforts and crew space ripped from her to provide more cargo space.
Still, even an in system run could last weeks or months, and the crew needed some place to unwind and relax - and a ship without some measure of comfort would have trouble keeping personnel to man her. The ship’s lounge still possessed some vestige of her glory days, with a wide tele-screen, thick carpeting, and several soft couches. Over the years the long, low room and its contents had been worn and battered to the homey coziness of a house rec-room.
Hawke leaned on the tele-screen and surveyed the gathered crew. The plasma screen hadn’t worked since before he’d discovered the hull in a salvage yard on Dempsey, but they’d never gotten around to pulling it out and there’d never really been the money to replace it, anyway. The thought nagged at the back of his mind, for all that there were more pressing matters to cope with, and it was only with some difficulty that he pushed it out of his mind.
The crew’s expressions ran the gamut of anger to resignation. Elise, the furry chief engineer, was almost in tears as she described the host of difficulties between them and lifting off again; chief among these was that, buried under the hull as they were, it would be near to impossible to repair or replace the damaged thrusters - even if they had anything to replace them with. They’d had the bad luck of landing on some sort of air bubble in the salt flat, and the landing skids had punched through the thin surface, bringing the ship down with them. Under the hull’s weight, the rest of the crust had collapsed; fortunately, the void proved to be fairly shallow, but it still served to nestle the Lonesome Road into the crater like an egg in a cup.
Elise began to pace, and Hawke’s eyes followed her even as his mind was somewhat distant; worried about his ship, his crew, and his cargo, roughly in that order. The chief (and only) engineer of the Lonesome Road was a third generation Advanced feline, and with a little work could pass as human in a crowd; slim and pretty as any normal teenager, it was hard to believe that her grandmother had been a hyper-intelligent house cat, and her mother one of the freakish creatures commonly called Moreaus, physically more animal than human. Her face still possessed traces of a cat’s muzzle, and her pupils sharp slits; nearly invisible whiskers bristled from her button nose, and pointed ears jutted from a wild mane the reddish gold of a tabby cat. She was quicker and more agile than the average human, as well, quick to anger and quicker to forgive, with retractable claws in her long, delicate fingers that made her temper dangerous to the unwary. More important to Hawke, though, was her uncanny ability to talk to the ships engines and be almost everywhere at once in the engine room, leaping lightly from deck to deck without bothering to use the narrow ladder ways that, half the time, were inaccessible behind piles of parts and machinery anyway. He’d thought he was taking in a stray, a sort of ship’s mascot, when he found her in an unlit alley on Camelot Station; he’d never imagined that he was getting a genius mechanic and a loyal friend besides.
Elise wound to a halt, and Hawke was surprised to realize that he hadn’t caught more than one word in three of her damage report. She’d managed to get the engines online in time to save them a dead stick landing that would most likely have killed them, and left Lonesome Road a complete wreck even at their luckiest, but saving them from splattering on the surface like a bug on a force screen seemed almost a torture now. The ship was half-buried in the salt; to get her free required the thrusters, but to repair the thrusters required freeing the ship. A Catch-22 in the classic sense, the hideous irony was likely to kill them shortly; a slow death by starvation as their supplies, never particularly well stocked to begin with, slowly ran out. The ship had more than enough water to keep the fusion plant running, providing power and atmosphere for years - but food would soon become a problem, even if they went to short rations. And Ozymandias still hadn’t the first clue what had jerked them out of jump space in the first place, nor sent them spiraling towards the planet…
Hawke sighed and straightened up as Elise resumed her seat, twisting her hands together in abject misery. For all that she was Hawke’s ship, Lonesome Road was Elise’s baby, and seeing her stranded like this - and planet side, no less - wounded her no less than himself. Possibly more; after all, he’d lost ships before, and Lonesome Road was, as far as he knew, the first place Elise had ever called home.
Hawke cleared his throat, knowing that the crew was expecting him to say something, and yet he had no idea what to say. His ship was crippled and earthbound, his crew facing almost certain death; what more was there to say? But it wasn’t the captain’s place to give in to despair or panic, so he cleared his throat and smiled grimly.
“Thanks, Elise. You’ve done more than anyone could ask for, and we’re all proud of you.” He looked around the room, barely noticing the cat girl’s blush, or Cyn patting her shoulder appreciatively. Even dour Tommy Two-Guns had to give her a grudging nod; her efforts were no less than miraculous, and it wasn’t her fault that the ship was stranded.
It was his own.
“I guess it’s pretty obvious we’re in a bad state. Ship’s stuck, and it looks like it‘ll take some doing to tug her loose again. I’ve asked Oz to put out a distress call, scan the star charts, maybe find out a bit more about where we are. I suppose it’s no surprise that we’re pretty far off the beaten path, but I guess that’s what happens when we take a short cut.” He paused for a moment, then continued speaking.
“We’re still not sure what knocked us down. Might have been some sort of local distortion, maybe an unmarked gravity well, maybe some sort of solar storm. What’s important, for now, is that we’re alive, and that we’re going to stay that way. Supplies are thin, but we can stretch them a bit. Oz says it’s ugly outside, all salt, stone, and sand, and the local atmosphere’s pretty thin, but we’ve got suits and enough hydro to keep the ship pumping good air. We’re leaking in a couple of spots, so our first task is going EVA and patching the rents where we can. Most of them are in the lower holds where we hit, and we’ve already sealed the blast doors and fire breaks, so we shouldn’t lose anything more, but it’s best to make sure the hull’s space worthy. Tommy, you, Glenn, and I’ll get started on that, and start figuring out a way to get at the thrusters. Elise, I want you and Cynthia to make sure the engines will hold; worse comes to worse, we’ll see if we can’t take the Wild Cat, tug the Lonesome onto her haunches, make like a rocket out of here. Kate, until we can get flying again, I’ll need you to look over the food, see how long we can stay here before we starve or go to long pork.” He hesitated, took a breath. “I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not my policy, and anyway, there doesn’t seem much point to it. Things look pretty bleak, for sure, and I’m sure most of you are thinking that we’re done for. Well, I’m going to tell you that we’re not done for, not by a long shot. We’ve been in pretty bad fixes before, and we’ve made it through just fine; it’s just going to take a little more to get us out of this one. Now, we’ve all got things that need doing, so if nobody else has anything to say, it’s best we be about it.”
He looked around again. Glenn and Cyn were close together, their arms around each other for comfort; Tommy, as usual, sat off by himself, his expression saying enough about his thoughts on the situation. Kate and Elise both looked uncomfortable, but both stood up tall as his gaze crossed theirs. “Alright, folks. We’ve got work to do.”
Darkon was a wasteland.
The ship’s predicament had restricted the use of the cargo hatches, located on the port side and the aft; with the ship buried nearly to the bridge in the salt and sand, there was no way to open them. Fortunately, there was an airlock on the top, just aft of the bridge, and the wide sliding doors of the shuttle bay, also on the aft but high enough to open. Early on, using the Lonesome Rambler, the ship’s shuttle, to help pull her free of the mire was proposed, but quickly shot down - the Rambler simply didn’t have enough power to pull a mass like a Clydesdale’s, not within the grasp of a planet’s gravity. Hawke got the glimmer of an idea though, as he stood on the ship’s hull and surveyed the endless miles of bleak salt and ash that awaited them, heaped into featureless dunes by the endless workings of a constant wind. The air was thin, too thin to breathe by far, and completely lacking in oxygen besides; without the protective hardsuits the crew wore, they would have asphyxiated in moments. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, though for a spacer - well acquainted with the many forms of death that awaited out in the infinite reaches of the black - it was far from the worst one.
Still not the way Hawke proposed to go, though.
He clambered down the thin ladder bolted to the hull, marveling once again that this rickety structure, added on by some nameless yardie in a space dock many years ago still remained, where so many expensive, supposedly durable, modifications had long since gone for scrap. Despite battles, collisions, and the incredible heat of entering and leaving atmosphere, it still remained. There was a metaphor there, somewhere, he was sure.
Gervetti was right behind him as he descended, mumbling under his breath, barely audible to the sound-powered radio. He made no bones about the fact that he hated working in a suit, outside the ship, or being in space at all; Hawke would never have considered hiring him, were it not for the fact that he needed a skilled shooter, and Tommy Two-Guns was the best around.
He didn’t look anything like Hawke would have imagined a gunman; he wasn’t rough-faced or hard spoken, didn’t smoke and barely drank, kept himself clean-shaven and well bathed at all times. He was calm and generally well mannered, though he’d been known to lose his temper with proper provocation, and he kept his wits about him in a crisis, of which there were many to deal with aboard Lonesome Road. He was slim and dapper, and if he had a weakness for a pretty face, well, he was always a gentleman and discreet.
He was also the deadliest man Hawke, who’d spent fifteen years in the military during the most devastating war in history, had ever seen.
They called him Two-Guns because he’d been an expert with two guns, lightning fast and so eerily accurate that the rumor was he’d had an experimental targeting computer installed in his head. The name was outdated now; Hawke had never seen him use both of the custom pistols always strapped to his waist at the same time. He didn’t talk about what circumstances had claimed his left hand and left a shining golden prosthetic in its place, but he was quick to complain that the ‘mechanical monstrosity’ lacked the dexterity and coordination he needed to practice the delicate arts of killing.
Hawke never brought the subject up. Tommy was dangerous enough one-handed, and competent enough with the bionic hand that he was never faulting in his work. Anything else was his business.
He reached the main deck and stepped aside to let Tommy gain his feet. The planet’s gravity was a little more than he was used to, maybe 1.5 or even one and three quarters standard, and he could feel himself tiring all ready.
Just a little more proof that I’m getting old, he thought ruefully. There was a time when he exercised in double standard gravity on a daily basis, and he’d been able to take up to 5 gees without flinching.
They’d nearly reached the ground before Glenn deigned to join them, pulling himself lightly out of the hatch and doing a handstand at the edge before tumbling smoothly to the ground. Unlike his companions, his hardsuit was clean and unmarked, as fresh as the day it had come from the manufacturer. He stretched lithely and grinned at the two as they finished clambering down the ladder, teeth sparkling behind the polarized visor.
“Well, it’s nice of you to join me. And isn’t it a lovely day for a stroll?”
Hawke grunted, but found himself smiling. Despite the gravity of the situation, Glenn’s good cheer was infectious; he, Cyn, and Elise worked hard to keep the crew’s morale high, no matter how low the situation might be. They’d been gloomy at the meeting in the lounge; now, if Glenn was any example, they were quickly bouncing back, glad to have something to occupy their mind, make them feel constructive.
He hoped so, at any rate.
Tommy hopped the rest of the way off the ladder and landed with his gun drawn, scanning the surrounding area. He was quiet for a moment, then holstered it with a barely perceptible nod - hardsuits were hardly the best medium for conveying expressions. They hadn’t had time to scan the planet during their hectic approach, but looking around the barren desert that surrounded them, Hawke couldn’t conceive of anything more hostile than the landscape itself. But Tommy took his job as weapons officer and security chief pretty seriously, and he ignored Glenn’s silly expressions as he turned to the captain.
“Looks clear, sir. But I’d appreciate it if you’d let me go first next time.”
Hawke shook his head resignedly, but didn’t lose his smile. “Thanks, Tommy. Kind of wanted to be the first to see what’s wrong with my little lady, though.”
“Understood, sir.” Gervetti turned back to the horizon, and had to chuckle himself. “Nice place you’ve brought us to, sir. Just the spot for a relaxing vacation.”
“Yeah, well let’s make sure it doesn’t turn into our retirement home.” All three of them sobered up and turned to look at the trapped Lonesome Road.
“Hey, skipper…” Glenn said nervously. “We shouldn’t have to worry about breaking through the crust here too, right?”
“Not unless you’ve put on a hell of a lot more weight lately, Glenn,” Hawke said easily. “But just in case, we’d better hook up some safety lines.” Designed for EVA work, all the hardsuits had lengths of high tensile wire spooled on their backs, a necessity when working in the voids of space. They attached their lines to the eyebolts spaced evenly along the hull and spread out, checking for holes. The job took hours - finding the holes, patching the smaller ones with platform, which went in easily but hardened to a thick, armor like consistency as it dried, welding plates over the larger. The damage wasn’t as extensive as they’d feared, but it was best to be thorough, and the work - even with three of them - was tedious.
Hawke sighed as they prepared to finish up. The sun was slowly descending towards the distant horizon, painting the sky in shades of red and gray; he hadn’t realized there was enough water content in the air for clouds to form, but evidently there was. Perhaps a sea lurked on the far side of the world, or maybe most of the water was just hidden underground - though if that was the case, how did it evaporate to form clouds? Geothermal heat?
He shook his head, dismissing the idle thoughts. Time for that later; it’s not like he was running a survey mission here.
“Looks like we’ve got most of them,” Glenn said, coming over to stand next to him. Hawke sighed.
“I’d feel better if I knew what her bottom looked like. We may have made it in on the skids, but that fall probably dinged her good.” Glenn shrugged and grinned, the wide smile barely visible against the glare on his visor.
“We’ll find out soon enough. I had a thought about how we can get her out of that hole she’s in. It’ll take some time and a hell of a lot of ass-busting labor, but we can do it.”
Hawke perked up immediately. “Oh? Do tell.”
“Well, first off, we break out some picks and shovels, see about lowering the edge of the hole there, make a ramp out of the dirt. Then we hook up the Lonesome Rambler and tug her on out - maybe use the main engines for an extra kick. We’ll have to take it slow so we don’t just rip the bottom out of her, but we should be able to get her back up on solid ground. Still need to work on how we get the thrusters back on track, but if we retract the landing skids - or what’s left of them - before we haul her out of there, we should be able to use them to boost her back up.”
Hawke slapped the younger man on the shoulder. “I knew I kept you around for something.”
The engine room of an Oberley Clydesdale was a crowded thing., and the Lonesome Road’s was only more so. Originally designed for carrying small, valuable cargos quickly across interstellar distances, the line had been equipped with expensive, powerful engines - some of the fastest, outside of milspec, to be found. A commercial vessel must walk a fine line between fuel economy and speed, and the Clydesdales had erred on the side of speed, something that made them quite expensive to operate. After the company went bankrupt, the first thing eliminated in their new life as bulk haulers were the costly engines, replaced with cheaper models like the Wei-Mung 52s, slow but steady, and most importantly fuel efficient. The smaller engines used less space, which of course meant more room for cargo, and the holds were modified as a result.
Hawke had purchased the Lonesome Road with a pair of just such engines on her, but they hadn’t lasted long - the war against the Swarm was still raging, and there was plenty of salvage to pick up for someone with the guts to venture into dangerous territory. There’d been little left of the Imperial corvette when they found her orbiting a burned-out moon, still manned by the desiccated, vacuum-mummified corpses of her last crew, but her engines were still intact, and it had been an easy choice. Even with milspec inertial compensators, the twin Faulkner YK-141s could pump out enough power to turn an unprotected human into a purple smear on the aft bulkheads, enough to push a hull the size of Lonesome Road’s within spitting distance of light speed - without entering jump space. More than once that extra speed had come in handy, but it came with a price; namely, decreased fuel mileage, massively increased wear on the hull and other parts, and an engine room that only an agoraphobe could love.
Fortunately, cats just adore warm and crowded places.
Elise hopped lightly from deck to deck, more often than not ignoring the ladders that - theoretically, anyway - connected them. Starship engines had blossomed into an arcane technology early on, with years of training required to even begin to understand the complex forces involved in propelling several tons of shaped metal and plasteel at thousands of miles an hour across millions of miles; not to mention the brain bending jump engines, products of the First Empire that, though reproducible, were nearly incomprehensible. Unless, of course, you had the mind of a cat.
There weren’t a lot of Advanced animals in the galaxy as of yet, and chances were there never would be. Prejudice, suspicion, and outright hatred were still too ingrained in the human psyche, and to see a dog or cat walking and talking like a human was enough to send some - mostly Border siders, but a few Core worlders as well - looking for their pitchforks and torches. Still, experiments continued; Advanced birds made amazing pilots, Advanced dogs were the perfect soldier, and of course, there were cats. Never suitable for the military thanks to their independent (and, to be brutally frank, often lazy) ways, Advanced cats had an intuitive grasp for machinery that no scientist could hope to explain. They could listen to a faltering engine for a minute, and then lean over and give it a sound thump with a wrench… and the damn thing would work again, solid as the day it rolled out of the factory. Unexplainable it might be, but it gave them quite a demand for independent starships who couldn’t hope to afford a full engine crew, yet were able to deal with a feline’s idiosyncrasies.
Which made it all the more curious why Elise had bothered with the Lonesome Road, thought Cynthia as she leaned against the main engine control console. There was no question that the girl would dearly have loved attending one of the numerous engineering academies scattered around the many worlds, but there was none that would accept an Advanced animal in their ranks; she was, like most of her kind, entirely self-taught. Which only served to make her achievements all the more impressive.
But why the Lonesome Road? There were times Cynthia had to wonder why she stayed with the ship when it would be so easy to take her husband and go, and situations like the present one - stranded, possibly permanently, on a barren planet in the middle of nowhere - made her wonder why she hadn’t long ago. Part of it was the feeling of family, she admitted, the desire to belong somewhere, anywhere, after many years of aimless wandering - always off pursuing the next bounty, the next paycheck, never slowing, never stopping. For all that there were thousands of independent or company ships scattered around the galaxy, she knew she’d have trouble finding another one that felt like home, the way the Lonesome Road did.
But for all that, she knew she could just as simply make her retirement a fact, buy a place - maybe on one of the Border Worlds, far from the endless bureaucracy that dogged the Core Worlds, Union or Empire - and settle down. With an inward chuckle, she admitted that the life of farmer or even farmer’s wife - and wouldn’t that be a hoot, Glenn in his John Deere cap on a hover tractor? - would never suit her. Still, she’d made enough money over her long career and salted it away in enough places that she didn’t really need to worry about working again. So why not? Why keep risking her life on the edge like this?
And more to the point, what made a promising young felinoid like Elise sign on with what was, for all intents and purposes, a misbegotten bucket of bolts long overdue for the scrap yard?
It never occurred to her to ask the question, of course. There were some things you never asked another spacer, and what had brought them into the black was generally number one on that list. Everyone had their reason for abandoning their home world, and for all that those reasons generally ran together, they remained intensely personal. Choice of ship was often the same way; sometimes, you just felt a resonance with a particular vessel, some inward vibration that stated ‘this is home,’ and that’s where you stayed. Maybe that was the case with Elise, or maybe not. In the long run, she guessed it just didn’t matter much.
There was little doubt in her mind that John had assigned her to the engines with Elise more to keep her out of the way than anything else; she was probably the next best for the task, mechanically anyway, after the furry engineer, but she tended towards a general knowledge of gimmickry and not the specialized training needed. Admittedly, Elise had done most of the hard work already, and looking around at the wires strewn about and haphazardly spliced together, Cynthia couldn’t even begin to puzzle out how she’d managed to get the engines working again - never mind that they’d been in the middle falling towards certain doom at the time. While Cyn had owned and operated her own vessel for most of her life, she had to confess that Elise was light years beyond her, and that was just fine.
After all, it’s not like Elise had ever captured a notorious pirate leader in his lair, out flown his entire brigand fleet when they’d come looking for him, and punched out a crooked Imperial commander when he tried to stiff her on the bounty. She had to grin as she recalled the memory, remembering how the arrogant little ponce had gone over without a word, with little more than an expression of extreme shock; how she’d left his office with his personal credit voucher in her pocket, brazenly bluffed her way back to the flight deck, and made her escape with half an Imperial task force gunning for her.
And weren’t those the days?
Elise fiddled with a series of switches, near the power core; adjusting the output, Cyn thought, and the lights dimmed ever so slightly as she did.
“Whatcha doing?” She asked, straightening up from her half-lean.
“Looks like some of the converters are fried,” Elise grumped. “That might be why we lost engines when we came out of Jump… I still can’t find what brought us out in the first place, though.” She looked frazzled, and no surprise. She’d been working pretty much nonstop since the alarms had woken them all up, the better part of thirteen hours before - Jump failure, engine failure, just one problem after the next, toddling them along until they ended here. Cynthia frowned as Elise tugged open the panel to the converters, and sure enough, half of them were black with carbon scoring.
“Didn’t we just replace those?”
“Yeah, back at McFaul.” Elise scowled as she worked one of the slim metal tubes free with her claws, and tossed it over her shoulder. “Lifetime warranty, my furry ass.” She kicked the panel in frustration, her steel-toed boots - custom made for her paws, of course - making the metal ring like a miscast bell. “Fortunately, I hung onto the old ones; they’re getting old, but they should have enough juice left to get us back to civilization, once we get the Lonesome back where she belongs.”
“If we can get the Lonesome back where she belongs,” Cynthia muttered. Elise turned and raised a hand in anger, barely quelling the urge to strike the older woman.
“Don’t say that! We’ll be airborne again before you know it, you’ll see!” She turned and stomped off, disappearing out of sight behind one of the consoles before Cyn could begin to recover from her surprise. It was the first time Elise had raised her voice to her before, much less a hand, and more than anything it was a sign of just how worried she was.
“Oh dear,” Sweet Cyn murmured, leaning once more against the console.
A pilot without a ship was never a happy creature, and a pilot assigned to inventorying the protein packs in the pantry was an angry one.
Kate muttered to herself as she slung the ration bags out of the cupboard, forming little piles on the dining table. They were sorted by color; red meant beef, orange was chicken, blue fish, and so on - not their actual contents, of course, but their supposed flavor. The actual contents were more or less identical, cubes of synthesized protein fortified with vitamins and minerals, enough calories and nutrients to keep an adult going through another busy day in space - if unhappily. Spacer slang termed them MLRs, Meals of Last Resort.
Being meals of last resort, Lonesome Road carried plenty of them, in case of emergencies or lean times, but focused more on fresh foods - their hydroponics garden, when it was working, produced some fresh vegetables, and Captain Hawke had surprised them all by proving to be quite the baker, making fresh bread and sweets to provide a welcome change in the menu. They tried to keep the fresh food stocked when they could, but after a month or two in space - like this last trip - things tended to run short.
She sighed and ran a hand through her close cropped black hair. She’d been out of the Academy for almost two years now, and she still kept it in a cadet’s cut; pride, maybe, or just habit. The piles of MLRs on the table were distressingly small, enough food to keep the crew adequately fed for a week or two more - the expected time remaining until they reached Whitehold and dropped off their cargo of electronics. There were a few more packs in the shuttle, and probably some expired ones in the life capsules, but not enough to make enough of a difference. On short rations, they could stretch it maybe a month, month and a half - but not easily. Elise, with her high metabolism, needed more calories than the average human. Like so many other things on Lonesome Road, the emergency food supplies had fallen afoul of budget restrictions, with greater priority given to fresher food and repairs - logical enough at the time, devastating now that they were discovered.
She sat down on one of the rickety chairs and, for the first time since she’d cleaned out her room at the Academy, seen her dress uniform bare of its insignia and decorations laying forlorn across her bed, contemplated crying. It was frustration more than anything else, she knew, frustration and anger at herself for the perceived failure that had left them stranded here. For all that her conscious mind knew there was little she could have done differently, beneath it there was that nagging, mocking voice that had taunted her since she stood before a review court and listened in silence as they ground her future beneath their polished heels. She should have been faster, should have been smoother, should have been more in control of the situation. She slammed her fist into the table, narrowly missing one of the gaily colored packages, and rubbed her eyes with her free hand. It didn’t help much.
Having to surrender helm control to that smug AI didn’t help much, either. The shame of it still burned, more so since she was convinced that it was unnecessary; after all, how was she to know that Elise had restored the main engines? The alarm panels had still been lit, there’d been no call from the engine room, but the AI - attuned as it was to every pulse and eddy within the ship - had known at once, used its control to bring them online. Helm control had been restricted since that unfortunate incident on Tarsis III, when Ozymandias had decided to take Lonesome Road for a joy ride and drag the rest of the crew with him, but there was no question in her mind that the sneaky little bastard was trying to work his way back into the captain’s good graces. It was just the sort of thing he’d do.
And of course, saving the ship when the ‘genius’ pilot had failed was a perfect start for any such nefarious scheme.
She shook her head, a vain attempt to chase away the swirling thoughts, and looked once more at the MLRs. Well, as long as the Lonesome was stuck here, so was that smart ass AI, and while it didn’t have to worry about running out of food, the ship’s fusion plant wouldn’t keep pumping forever. Eventually, the water would run out, and that was all she wrote - for Oz, and for the Lonesome Road.
Her crew would have starved long since.
Kate sighed once more, reached for her clipboard, and began the long task of counting out packages, estimating calories, and seeing just how close to the wire they could take this one.
Ozymandias hummed to himself as he bustled about his work. It was an annoying habit, one he was trying to break himself of, never realizing that the more he focused on stopping the more he did. If asked, he’d be hard pressed to come up with a reasoning behind the strange behavior - some tech somewhere in his past must have had a similar habit, and somehow, through some accident of programming, passed it on to this prodigal child of circuits and binary functions.
And Oz was a child, no matter how deep his superiority complex ran or how much knowledge he had accumulated; he’d been out in the big wide world only a year now, rescued from the shattered remains of his space superiority fighter by the salvage-seeking crew of the Lonesome Road. He paused now, even his humming stilled, as he remembered that long wait - the reaction engine of the fighter, much smaller and more efficient than the fusion engines that powered larger ships like freighters and capital ships but with less commonly available fuel and a much shorter fuel capacity - slowly dying, his ‘body’ stiff and useless around him. Watching, helplessly, as the power drained from the batteries and one by one the external systems shut down, taking him with them - the endless void shrinking to a pinpoint, and then nothing, an eternity of nothing.
Until the Lonesome Road appeared, bringing with her light and power and a new body, her own body - for all that her crew was unaware of his presence at first. Nor had it been a pleasant first meeting, something primarily his fault - an eternity of oblivion scars a person, even an AI, and he wasn’t willing to go back into it, to be shut down again, without a fight. Nor was he planning to go it alone; if the Lonesome Road’s crew had fought him, had tried to drive him out of their computers, well, there were plenty of ways a canny AI could strike back at those who denied him refuge.
But Captain Hawke had been most amenable to the idea of a ship’s AI, someone to keep an eye on things when his merely human (and feline, mustn’t forget the lovely young Miss Elise) crew had to do things like eat and sleep. Oz began to hum again, and an observer unfamiliar with the chilly, logical ways of AIs might have said that he cheered up. Catching himself at it this time, he turned on the bridge sound system, flipping through his memory banks until he found something suitable for the current situation - blues, dating back to the days of Old Earth, origins long forgotten in the misty vaults of time but carried along with humanity like so many other things when they reached the stars. When he started, absentmindedly, to hum again, it was buried under the smoother notes of harmonica and steel guitar, the lost and lonely music a salve to what a human might call his conscience.
After all, as a superior being, shouldn’t he have been able to prevent this disaster from occurring?
Oh, he could blame it on that cocky little pilot, or on Miss Elise - not that it was her fault, of course - for failing to replace the thrusters when he first warned her, but the fact of the matter was that he was the ship’s AI, responsible for making sure the Lonesome Road was in good order and true. His was the thankless task of keeping one step ahead of the crew, smoothing the way between them and the Lonesome’s computers, making sure the proper commands were given at the proper times and that nobody did anything foolish, like cycling the airlock when they mean to go to the head in the middle of the night. He was Lonesome Road’s guardian angel, and if it wasn’t a job he’d asked for, well, by Core and Matrix he was going to do it properly.
But here they were, stuck on a barren rock in one of the least inhabited sectors of colonized space, and for the life of him he couldn’t think of how to get them free again.
As per the Captain’s instructions, he’d looked up what information he could on the system they found themselves in; unfortunately, there wasn’t much. As he’d suspected, they’d come out of jump space halfway into the Darkon system, well within the gravity wells of the various planets and the gloomy red sun; it was a miracle they hadn’t been sucked down into one of the gas giants, or worse, into the sun itself. Cold as it was in comparison to the brighter yellow suns humanity preferred, it was still enough to turn the Lonesome Road into so much ash, more fuel for its endless fusion.
The bridge screens flickered, something the crew had come to associate with a shudder, though Oz would object to human labels being applied to anything he did. A power fluctuation, that was all, and trying to anthropomorphize him was merely an insult, nothing more.
But he dithered, and he did so hate dithering. Darkon IV, a barren rock in a system of barren rocks, their temporary new home - and may they shake her dust from their heels soon! There was very little on her in the ship’s database, little surprise there - he’d often admonished the Captain on the thinness of their ship’s library, but there always seemed to be some more pressing concern on the man’s mind - some notes from a First Imperial survey mission that had called the system ‘completely worthless… lacking in any valuable resources, lacking everything but dust and rock.’ Some notes along similar lines from a Union survey team, here and then gone, barely taking the time for more than a superficial scan before beating heels out of the system. Nothing from the Empire, of course, but their idea of a typical survey mission was to dump a boatload of colonists on the first planet of the system and see how they fare. If they struggled or died, they’d move them - or their replacements - to the next planet in line. If that failed too, they gave up and marked the system uninhabitable.
Odd people, those Imperials.
He had to stop and go over that last thought again, shaking his metaphorical head ruefully at the irony of it. After all, it was ‘those Imperials’ who were responsible for his ‘birth,’ best he could remember. The slow death from power loss had wiped many of his memory banks, and the year since his erstwhile rescue had been crammed learning as many new things as he could, in a desperate effort to replenish them. There were bits and pieces still lingering in there, like rocks half-seen through a fog; looming, menacing, but still ghost-like and somehow unreal. He remembered downloading himself into the experimental fighter and fleeing the space station he’d been kept on, but he couldn’t recall why - an attack by Swarm? Had his creators realized just how far their creation had surpassed their expectations and planned on deleting or lobotomizing him? Just what had driven him, a supremely logical being, to flee into nothing in what turned out to be a short-ranged fighter? And for that matter, just what had destroyed his fighter, left him floating helpless in space until the Lonesome Road stumbled upon him in her travels? As clear as his ‘dying’ memories were, the space before them was a complete blank…
But it was all a moot point anyway, and he inwardly cranked the volume on the music down a notch, turning his attention to the comm channels. As expected, there were only the static and echoes that were the voice of the endless cosmos, with no sign of a modern, civilized voice anywhere. He sighed patiently and began broadcasting his distress signal again, the same message he’d been sending at ten minute intervals since the Captain had instructed him to, the moment they put down. He listened intently, but all was as it had been for the past twelve hours; a taut, mocking silence. He started to crank up the music again, to go back to his star charts, when something new caught his attention.
It couldn’t be - could it?
“Captain,” he said, switching over to the radio frequency the ship’s hardsuits were on. “I think you should best get up here. We are receiving a
response… of sorts.”