Two silently raging furnace engines propelled the box-like craft through the void of space, leaving a trail of white-hot debris dissipating in its wake. At barely one hundred yards from tip to tail, she was not a large ship, but had every spare space crammed with whatever equipment and luggage its occupants could acquire. Slogans and graffiti adorned the outer hull, adding a dash of colour to the otherwise gun-metal exterior. At the nominal prow of the vessel the registration UN-C11 0-X could be made out amidst the wash of words and patterns. However, the vessel's occupants had dubbed it in their own way, using brightly coloured (and strictly non-regulation) paint, altering the code to read: L UN-C11 B0-X. Light speared from the port holes, piercing the surrounding dark like a dozen pinpricks of electricity. Sitting at the pilot station, a tall, ebony-skinned man monitored the ship's course.
Jonas let out a cavernous yawn, rubbing his eyes and stretching fitfully before returning his attention to the book clutched in his left hand. Whistling quietly to himself he let his eyes wander down the well-worn page, but the words failed to hold his attention for more than a few seconds at a time. Scratching his thin layer of black hair, he closed the book and leaned back in the pilot chair, letting his gaze wander into the myriad of twinkling lights outside the bridge window.
"Hard at work I see," a voice chuckled, causing him to twirl lazily in the pilot seat.
"As always, Cassie, as always." He grinned at the young woman standing in the doorway of the bridge, her diminutive frame outlined in the light. He tapped the side of his neck with one finger. "I'm getting a little twinge in my neck from staring at the same bloody vector for the whole trip." She rolled her eyes, flicking the fringe of her thick brown hair to one side.
"Oh yeah, Jonas, that can be tough, sitting doing bugger-all." Cassie pouted in mock sympathy. "How long till we hit the coordinates?"
"Long enough for me to switch off," Jonas answered, shrugging. He glanced at his control console. "Bout two hours tops."
"Brilliant." She blew out her cheeks with a sigh, fiddling absently with the screwdriver in her right hand. "It's been a while since we had a proper gig."
"You like this job too much," he teased.
"I know." She grinned inanely. "Anyhow, Xander want us down in the mess hall for a chat. I guess its briefing time, Jonas!"
"Oh I'm beside myself." He winked at her. Laughing, Cassie flashed him a winning smile before spinning lightly on her heel and disappearing back down the corridor into the bowels of the ship. With a sigh, Jonas cast one last glance at the bleeping mass of vectors and distances, before standing up and following her.
Corrugated metal walls made the ship feel like the interior of some kind of prefabricated house, covered with snaking pipes and power-lines. Long, pale bars of tacky lighting circuitry illuminated the corridors connecting the two main parts of the ship. On one side the bridge and living quarters were located, while the other half housed the masses of engineering equipment and the furnace chambers.
Sitting in the central mess hall of the ship, Xander waited for the last of the crew to join them. He stirred the cup of coffee half-heartedly. As the commander of the E-Corp UN-C11 0-X, or the Lunchbox, as it was better known, he needed to brief them before every mission, regardless of how routine or simple it was. He let his eyes fall to the open file sitting on the steel table in front of him and took a deep breath. At least for him, this mission wasn't going to be totally routine.
The arrival of Jonas, the ship's pilot, broke him from his thoughts and he looked up, seeing a gathering of expectant faces. One eyebrow rose almost without his consent. There were six of them in total including him: Jonas the resident wheelman and computing specialist; Cassie, a young engineering whiz and early graduate from her college; the lanky, methodical Brodie who focused on hull design; Isla the nominal medical expert and Redge, an explosives and demolitions specialist. They were all capable and all experienced, but he still had to go through this rigmarole before every single mission.
"Eh…okay guys," he began. "We've got a pretty heavy duty gig this time round. The Merchant Corp factory ship Gehanon radioed a distress call to E-Corp three days ago. At the time of the transmission they were harvesting fuel compounds from the nearby gas giant Alsace IV. The report detailed containment breach of their main furnace drive and a blow out of most central systems. In short, they've screwed up their own engines and are dead in the water. We're going to get them moving again. Any questions?"
"How long till we get there?" Redge grunted, sitting across the table with his arms folded.
"Two hours give or take." The pilot made a noncommittal gesture with both hands. "I can make it less if we need to."
"Do it if you can. We're not sure exactly how much damage they've taken."
"Did they need spare parts?" Cassie piped up. "They've got the big Mark IV furnaces on the Gehanon! I've always wanted to mess with one."
"Cass, you want to mess with everything." Isla nudged her crewmate with a grin.
"Like you don't?"
"They'll need a new stabiliser for the main furnace arrangement and some reinforcement for the manifold plating," Xander interrupted before they could continue, warily eyeing the screwdriver twirling between Cassie's fingers as though it were alive. "You know, the usual stuff that should have already been done in dry-dock. Outside that…I'll find you a sand pit."
"Oh, you're hilarious." Isla shot him a mock glare, accompanied by a raised middle finger. Beside her, Cassie giggled, curling up till she was crouching on chair. "Why were they harvesting out this far anyway?" She paused, shifting the dark blue cap more comfortably over her fiery red hair. "Alsace IV is pretty off-the-grid. I didn't know there was anything out there, especially for a Merchant Core ship to go for."
"Don't know, don't care," he grunted. "That's really nothing to do with us. If the money hungry idiots want to stay out there then fine by me. They'll be paying us for the repairs."
"Amen to that," Redge laughed.
"Brodie?" He turned his gaze to the one member of the crew yet to speak.
"You got anything to say?"
Typical, Xander thought, giving the taller man a withering look. He stood up and closed the file. "Alright, Jonas, get back to the bridge. Let me know once we're in hailing distance."
"Going." The pilot nodded before vanishing through the leftward hatch.
"The rest of you get your boarding gear prepped and I want all EVA suits standing by." He grinned at the group. "Consider the briefing over."
"Aye, aye, Captain!" Cassie snapped a military salute and proceeded to exit the room with a ridiculously exaggerated march. Xander closed his eyes and sighed in exasperation. Redge and Isla grinned; even the taciturn Brodie allowed a thin smile to cross his features.
"Yeah, yeah, she's a riot of laughs. Go on, get moving." With a suppressed mumble of laughter the others dispersed, save for Redge who remained lounging in his chair. Xander stared at his stocky companion, waiting for the inevitable objection. As the longest serving specialist in the crew, Redge had been more or less the second in command for years, and his record made it clear he had no qualms about questioning authority.
"Xander, you know that factory ship would have its own engineers," he grunted.
"Why is the point. Why'd they call us?"
"Maybe they don't have the parts; maybe the people they have can't fix a proper blow out." Xander threw his hands in the air. "I don't know. What I do know is that we are the professionals. This is what they pay us for Redge, why does it matter where we do it?"
"There are better things we could be doing than fixing up an M-Corp ship, just because the cranks they hired couldn't run the damn thing properly! Useless bloody contractor-," Redge paused in mid-rant as a realisation struck him. Xander met the other man's gaze with a look of cold apprehension.
"Want to finish that sentence, Redge?" he said quietly.
"I-…" the bigger man hesitated. "Sorry, Xander, I didn't mean to-,"
"I know you didn't, just think before you gout out that crap, okay?"
"I know, I know," Redge conceded, raising his hands in placation. "I just meant that it's weird, that's all."
Xander let a fleeting smile slip across his face. "I think you're weird sometimes, but you don't hear me banging on about it."
"Oh-ho, touché." He stood up, with a sigh, standing a full head taller than his shipmate. He rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Hell with it. I'll go get the EVA suits ready." Turning, he stalked out of the mess hall without another word, leaving Xander alone with his thoughts. Sighing, he drained the last of his coffee in one massive gulp before sitting down and opening the mission file again.
As it turned out the pilot's prediction of two hours was an overestimation. Barely an hour and a half later Xander heard his voice echoing through the hallways of the Lunchbox, calling the rest of the crew to the bridge. Entering the tiny space, he jumped into the rickety command chair, reclining comfortably against the cushion he had added. The rest of the group took up their respective positions at the various stations on the bridge, the tightly packed, block-like consoles leaving barely enough room for them to move around.
"Well, there she is folks," Jonas declared, gesturing to the bridge window. Xander stared at the sight of the Gehanon, floating motionless beside the vast blue-black bulk of the nearby gas giant, a thousand painful memories lurking in the back of his minds eye. The factory ship dwarfed the Lunchbox, nearly two miles long with a dozen decks of twinkling lights and four massive furnace engines at its stern. Shaped like a long squashed oval, its deep satin hull had no embellishments, save the name printed clearly along the bow plating. It hadn't changed at all.
Cassie let out an impressed whistle. "I want one."
"Keep dreaming, Cass." Xander smiled at his companion's enthusiasm. "In the meantime, how bout you give us some readings on that thing." With an affronted snort she complied, fingers dancing over her console with practiced ease.
"Huh," she murmured.
"Eh…everything reads normal," Cassie continued, her hands darting back and forth over the console as she rechecked the readings. "Power output, life support, all like they should be."
"Confirmation?" he asked.
"Confirmed." Brodie punched in calculations of his own. "It's all normal."
Xander closed his eyes for a moment and bit his lip. "Alright, Isla, open a channel to the Gehanon. Let's ask them."
"Channel open," she replied after a moment. "Fire away."
"Merchant Ship Gehanon," Xander began. "This is Colonial Engineering Corp tugboat, registration UN-C11 0-X.We have been dispatched to assist you on rescue priority. Please respond." He waited, but only static crackled over the com. "You sure they can hear me?"
"Positive, we're broadcasting on all frequencies."
"Cass, scan for life-signs."
"I got nothing," Cassie declared after a moment. "Power output's normal, but nobody's home. At least no-one that the scanners are picking up."
"What's the crew compliment of one of these things?"
"Almost two thousand, I think," Redge interjected.
"Damn." He leaned back in his seat, placing his hands together with his fingers interlocked. His eyebrows furrowed. "Jonas, bring us in closer. Isla, hail them again."
As the Lunchbox started edging towards the colossal mass of the factory ship the com channel began to crackle and hiss violently.
"What the hell's that?" Xander asked, grimacing slightly at the incessant blare.
"I think it's an incoming message," Isla replied, frantically fiddling with dials and switches on the communications console. "Give me a second…I think I've got it. Yeah, putting it on speakers now."
"Tugboat 0-X," said a deep, refined voice. "This is Captain Nordstrom of the Gehanon. Sorry for the delay. Several of our main systems have been damaged by the main drive malfunction. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated." Exchanging a quizzical look with Redge, Xander narrowed his eyes.
"Captain Nordstrom, this may seem strange, but we have scanned the Gehanon, and our sensors aren't reading any sign of malfunction," he said. "As far as we can tell your systems are in good working order."
"I'm sorry Captain, but the interference from the main drive is probably playing merry hell with your sensors. The main furnace containment has been ruptured." Swivelling to one side in the command chair, Xander caught Cassie's eye. She shook her head, a sceptical expression on her face.
"Our sensors are perfectly functional, Captain," he returned. "We check our systems every twenty-four hours."
"I don't know what to tell you," Nordstrom said. "We're not going anywhere, and we're stuck here until you can help us fix the main drive."
"We have no life signs readings either, could you shed some light on that?"
"I believe I can, Commander. The electromagnetic disturbances from the drive malfunction are almost certainly masking our signatures. It's impossible for us to be located by conventional life signs detectors."
He glanced at Cassie. This time she gave a reluctant nod.
"The quicker you can get here the better," Nordstrom continued. "We have a quota to meet and we're falling badly behind schedule." Xander gave a quick motion with one hand and Isla paused the transmission. Swivelling in his seat he locked eyes with Cassie.
"I guess that all adds up," he said. "What do you think?"
"Well a core rupture would bugger our sensors," she answered with a shrug. "But as far as I can see there hasn't been a core rupture."
"The actual Captain is speaking to us," Brodie interjected. "I just checked it out. Captain Andrew Nordstrom, he's been in charge of the Gehanon for over two years now. That's good enough for me."
"Maybe so." Xander rubbed his eyes. "But that doesn't explain our readings."
"If there's been a central core rupture there could be serious electromagnetic interference," Isla cut in. "But Cass is right. A disturbance like that doesn't just mask a life sign. If our sensors were screwed up we'd at least know that much."
After taking a moment to think, Xander made his decision, spinning to face the bridge window and the bulk of the factory ship. "Well, there's only one way to find out. Jonas, take us in to dock with her." With a nod the pilot complied, dialling up the level of the Lunchbox's engines and steering her towards the massive factory vessel. Approaching with painstaking care, Jonas manoeuvred the tugboat alongside the bigger ship, closing in on the docking port inch by inch.
"Gehanon, be advised," Xander said over the com. "We're approaching the main docking port. Prepare for impact."
"Understood." A few moments later
the two respective hatches met, causing the Lunchbox
to shudder all along its length despite the slow approach. Xander
winced at the screeching sound that filled the bridge for a moment.
"Jonas?" he asked quietly.
"I've got a seal," the pilot declared, raising one hand with a thumb up. "Both airlock lights show green, we're good to go. And by ‘we' I mean you."
"Okay, you hold down the fort." Xander stood up, eyes locked on the black hull of the factory ship. "The rest of you grab your gear and meet me at the airlock."