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An Unplanned Delay

    I swear, sometimes I have the worst luck imaginable. Last cycle I spent three weeks literally stuck to the surface of an icy asteroid after the heating coils on my landing gear malfunctioned. It turned out one of my less professional crew members had rerouted the heat from the coils into the hot-water heater, no doubt trying to get the most out of his two minutes of shower time. I nearly kicked him out to scrape us free manually when I found out, but he was a Union spacer, and the Union gets awfully picky about that sort of thing.

    Thats the problem with running all these cheap freights, I can't afford to pay a good crew, so the idiots I'm left with are barely fit to scrub the bottom of the barrel, much less help me maintain and pilot a ship like the Auroc. Not that she's the best ship out there, not the fastest, or the biggest, certainly not the most luxurious, the port side engines have always fired a bit hotter than the starboard, and the builder skimped on the docking clamps so we have to disembark in pressure suits... But she's mine. Free and clear, or mostly, and you've got to believe me when I tell you that I know her front to back.

    Which is why it was so very frustrating when, without any reason I could see, the primary steering stopped functioning halfway through what should have been an easy milk run.

    My hands had been gripping the steering mechanism loosely, ignoring the tactile indicators of a slight drifting left. How many hours had it been since I'd slept? Eyelids, heavy eyelids. The void of space stretched on, untarnished by stations or the charged engine wakes of other freighters. To infinity, with miles to go while I sleep, with miles to go while I creep closer to a silent hunk of iron and glass...

    The crunching sound of metal jarred me back to reality and out of the seat in the cockpit. "Fuck that's going to cost me!" I exclaimed, not even considering stopping to consider the damage. 
We'd hit... something, something smaller than us thank god, but we were spinning uncontrollably, and as the cockpit turned I saw, with some embarrassment, that a planet had snuck up on me whilst I slept.

    I slammed my hand down on the port side auxiliary thrusters, felt them shudder on, and felt the whole ship kick to the side before they abruptly cut out again. The spin had stopped, but the gravity well indicators were all lit up and flashing, we were falling.

    The intercom crackled to life, "Boss... Did we hit something, Boss?" That'd be Mikey... Mikey wasn't the brightest kid I'd ever hired, and unfortunately he didn't have that "dumb-brick" strength I'd come to associate with half-wits. But he was a wizard in the kitchen. Let me tell you, when you're out on some god-damn rock, half brain dead from cold and fatigue, Mikey's Reconstituted Mushroom Steaks were damn near heavenly.


    I held back a sigh as I hit the switch on the intercom, "All hands to ready stations! That means you too, Swartz! Prepare to fire emergency mass thrusters!"

    The mass thrusters were an old holdover from the Auroc's previous owner, you might have seen them if you've ever been on a ship more that 50 or 60 cycles old. They were outlawed when I was just a kid. Probably because they were never really used for their intended purpose. They were designed as highly calibrated mass thrusters, set so that you could counter spins and control your angle of approach when low on fuel. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your opinion of piracy) they were basically just short barreled cannons and even legitimate uses of them could cause unimaginable devastation to anyone who happened to be in your firing line.

    Needless to say, the fact that Aurocs was fit with four of them was a fact that I tended to hide from the port masters whenever we docked. The ship lurched again as they fired. Once, twice, three times, then stopped. I looked back at the control panel. We were still descending. But at a much more reasonable pace. We'd be able to land safely, assuming there was anywhere safe to land down below.

    With another sigh (I'm not normally a negative nancy, but this was shaping up to be a hell of a day), I slipped down the ladder and out of the cockpit. "SWARTZ, get your ass to the fore-bay. Lets see what we hit."

In the last four jobs I've pulled with Swartz I'd seen him unconscious more than I'd seen him conscious. Occasionally that was due to his slow reaction time and an unhappy customer conveying his displeasure at our provided services by means of a closed fist, but more often than naught, he had no alibi except his supernatural ability to regard even the hardest objects as pillowlike. 

    But he was Union. Hell, everyone was Union. Not that that's a bad thing mind you, no sir. After all, I'm Union, too... Mostly. I love the Union, good jobs, good security, it does my heart good to know that someone's out there that has our backs. Covered and zeroed.

    At any rate, Swartz was a Union Brother, and when he was awake he wasn't a half bad worker. As I decended from the Auroc's raised bubble cockpit I saw that the interior hallways were lit only by the red emergency lamps. Hopefully it was just the lights that had blown, and not the heaters, I didn't need that again. 

    "Mikey, where the fuck is Swartz?" I bellowed as Mikey's lanky frame leaned on the threshold. "He's taking a nap on top of the cargo in the main bay." he said with a waving hand gesture towards the back. "He does realize that what we're shipping is not only NOT his bunk, and NOT his property, but that it's NOT exactly NOT radioactive?" Mikey's expression mirrored the pale landscape before he turned heel and ran to wake his friend. "and get him to fix my baby's damned power supply while he's at it!" I shouted after him. I hated to admit it, but Swartz was one of the most gifted mechanics this side of the United Colonies. He could have been hauling in more credits with one client visit than we'd make in half a cycle if he'd taken a job in the core systems fixing luxury craft for the rich. Instead, he chose to pull wrenches and jerry-rig spare parts on the Fringe with the band of rascals I call our crew. Everybody had their reasons for being a Union Brother. Some even chose it. 
The Auroc wasn't a big craft by any stretch, and I was down in the maintenance bay long before Mikey managed to get Swartz down off his glowing cot.

    The pressure gauge next to the hatch read normal but I took a peek through the frost covered porthole just in case. It didn't look like the already disorderly bay had been ravaged by explosive decompression since I'd seen it last. The small workbench was still tied to the wall, most of the parts that weren't integral for day to day operations were stowed away safely, and the yellow haze of hydrolic fluid that coated every flat surface was still liquid. That was probably a good sign.

    As I idled by the door, considering whether to go back and put on a pressure suit, just in case, Swartz barged past me and pressed his face to the hatch window.

    "Sorry, Captain. Just catching a wink, you know how it is with this cold, it just saps the energy out of you." 

    "And I greatly appreciate you not diverting power from the thrusters, lights, or life support to better accommodate your normal sleeping habits." I replied with a pressing tone. "Yet the lights on my ship of late could incapacitate an epileptic!" I continued.

    I was met with a puzzled look unfettered by any facial twitches or nervous gestures. Swartz hadn't touched anything, I could read him like a book, and that made me nervous. That meant there might be a problem, and out here a problem could mean permanent retirement.

    Swartz politely sidestepped me to peer through the porthole to check the pressure gauge in the engineering bay. "Looks ok," my mechanic contributed. Swartz locked eyes with the retinal scanner granting access to the bay.

    The doors opened and began to suck all unsecured items through the slowly growing gap between the bay doors with howling force. I caught myself one hand and knee on each door panel as they separated. The oxygen in my lungs was forcibly drawn out of me, a less than pleasant feeling, and my world began to dim.

    Swartz's arm shot out and smashed the E-stop button on the wall. The door's magnetic coupling engaged swiftly and silently, slamming and bonding the panels together centimeters from my nose.

    "I thought you said it looked fine!" I exclaimed from my position on the floor of the ship. Probably not the best use of my newly acquired oxygen; the room still slightly spun, but I was alone.

    Suited up in a pressure suit, Swartz returned so fast you'd swear he had slept in it.

    "Gauge must be broken captain." he said in an innocent tone shrugging matter-of-factly.

    I watched as Swartz entered (or was sucked into) the chamber of my ship he felt most at home in, activating his magboots clamping him to the floor. Hours later he emerged from his domain with a semi-confident look. Hell broke loose for the seconds in which the engineering doors opened and promptly retreated when closed.

    "I've secured all the tooling and repaired the gauge, but I wasn't able to patch the hole." Swartz resigned taking off his helmet.

    "What good is fixing the gauge but not my ship?!" I questioned accusingly.

     "Well it was broken!" defended the perspiring mechanic.

    "Great, well at least I'll be able to determine how fucked we are accurately and in metric units." I gruffly retorted.

    "We'll just quarantine that section of the ship. As long as nothing else serious breaks we should have enough air to make the drop and a repair in some place with atmo." Swartz replied, but I was already down the corridor heading back to the helm.

    Just my luck. 

    Where the hell did we land anyway? 

    "Sure as hell ain't Topeka" a mechanic said down the hallway, gazing out of one of the portholes at the strange world we came upon.

Through his faceplate I could see him frown, "Sure as hell ain't anywhere else I've seen on the maps for that matter..."

    He yawned and turned back to me, "Well Captain, if you don't mind, I'm going to get some rack while I can. I'll see you in the morning."

    With that he walked off down the hallway, the joins in his heavy suit rasping as he made his escape.

    From behind me Mikey whispered, "Captain, Swartz does know it is morning now, right?"

    I sighed and turned towards the mess. "I'm sure he does Mikey, is there anything to eat? 

    Luckily for my nervous stomach, there was still plenty of good food in the larder, and enough freeze dried "food" in cold storage to last another week or so after the real stuff ran out. Mikey sat by me quietly while I gave the meal he'd made me the respect it deserved. Not that he would have had much to contribute in any case, while I slowly worked my way through a plate of jellied eggs and rubbery meat, I concentrated on calculating exactly how far we'd drifted off course before we suffered our little mishap.

    Modern ships have fantastic navigation computers, horribly expensive, complex little machines that are hooked into data banks that contain maps of every methane sea, pockmarked asteroid, and dusty comet ever explored.

    The Auroc's navigation computer was... less tangible. In fact, I'd sold it a few years back to cover my gas bill, and had been relying on dead reckoning and my imperfect memory ever since. 
For the moment my memory was proving to be no better than usual - either that, or I'd never noticed this place on a map - because nowhere in my mind-maps could I find a planet that matched our relative location in this arm of the Milky Way. So, time to rely on the good old eyballs and instinct.

    Having finished off the last bites of what could probably be interpreted as breakfast, I got up and announced "Time to have a look outside then. Come along."

    "I'm not sure I can be of much help," Mikey said hesitantly.

    "Well, for once all you need is eyes and a memory. Come along."

    Mikey nodded and followed me over to one of the portholes. We were close enough to the surface to make out mountains ranges and inland seas. The atmosphere wasn't quite blue; instead it was a greenish aqua, as if the air itself were growing. The mechanic had been right - this definitely was not Topeka. Topeka was blue-skied and almost completely flat thanks to the sucesssful introduction of oxygen to the atmosphere and a lazy tectonic plate system. As we continued our descent, I spotted green patches on the ground. The patches were small and almost random. These were no natural forests or grasslands, which would have taken up great swaths of land hundreds of kilometers apiece. No, these were the 20k max, a telltale sign of either new terraformation or a past, failed attempt at it. 

    "If there is terraforming there is bound to be some kind of tech down there," I said as I piloted the ship towards the center of one of the patches of green.

    "If we could find a holomap or some kind of transmitter, we could get out of this hellhole." Mikey didn't answer and I could feel his doubt.

    "Look, would you rather starve to death after forcing yourself to eat freeze dried SynMeat for three weeks?," I snarled at him.

    "I guess...," Mikey started, but I cut him off.

    "Look, just get the ground crew together and wake that damned Swartz up. We'll be hitting terra firma in a few minutes and I want everyone ready for a quick in-and-out tech salvage and no causalities," I barked.

    Mikey rose to attention and started to leave. Turning just as he was about the exit the door, a look his eyes said what we both knew; This wasn't going to be a quick mission where no one got hurt... 
A crew was hand-picked for reconnaissance in an effort to survey and relay information to the craft. Supplies were limited as it were and the majority of the crew agreed that it would be wise to explore this strange world for whatever resources could be made available.

    Mikey was among the small party that was going to search the planet, biting down on a cigarette and looking out the port window, admiring the strange colors of the alien landscape.

    He checked his equipment and made sure that all was secured tightly to his person and examined his sidearm, ensuring it would operate properly, pulling back the slide and seeing the familiar shine of a brass round, ready to be cocked and readied.

    "We need this quick and orderly. Report back on the com in five minute intervals and make sure you give us details. None of us want to walk into any sort of ambush if anything is out there"

    the Captain said to the four men who were suited up and about to embark on the mission.

~Page x~
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