CHAPTER 1: A Bad Dream - Part I
I awoke to the sound of my alarm clock. A pulsating high pitched tone that made me wish I had some blunt instrument to pummel the object into oblivion. Sadly the only thing within reach was the alarm clock itself, so I slammed my hand down on the snooze button and stared blankly at the ceiling for a moment. I had gotten used to this sort of morning, the dream had become more frequent .....how odd.
I sat up slowly, like undead mummified remains rising from they're sarcophagus. As I stretched my aching limbs I stole a quick glance at the clock. It was still mid-morning.
My old slippers waited by my bed, they were just as dull as the floor they rested on, which incidently was just as dull as my whole room. I threw on a dull robe and strode down the dull hall to the dull bathroom. Did I mention that my house is rather dull?
The bathroom wasn't spectacular. Shower, toilet, sink and many other hygiene related items were arranged neatly around the small room. I stared at myself in the mirror briefly, the reflection stared right back with it's cerulean eyes. My short brown hair was in extreme disarray.
An old hairbrush was one of the only things I had left from my mother. Even though it was easily hundreds of years old it still worked pretty well. As it was doing it's job, I pulled the curtain away from the window with my free hand and took in the view outside. I could see for kilometers, billions in fact. My view of the infinite cosmos was only obscured by the near-by planets Titan and Saturn.
Yeah... I live in space. But what is so amazing about that? So does over 40% of the Human race. And the Saturn Sector isn't all that spectacular anyway. The travel brochures can say whatever they want about glory and riches, once you get out here you quickly discover that things you thought were amazing were just everyday occurrences out here. To an average person living on Earth, Chikyuu or Dìqiú, Saturn may seem like a great wonder of the universe. In reality its just another ball of hydrogen. Titan wasn't much different, just methane and violent weather. There were a few cities far below the yellow haze but they're mostly just mining outposts, nothing you could call comfortable living space.
My home in comparison was like a 4-star resort, I shared the 2-bedroom suite in the Kansas Trade Port's Habitat section with my aunt and uncle. We owned two decks, the top is mostly for sleeping, the bottom is mostly for everything else. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, including mine, a bathroom and a study. Down below was the kitchen, dining area, living room and another bathroom. There wasn't much space to move around in.
My hair was once again as straight as it was 12 hours ago.
"Dorothy!" an old woman's voice shouted. "It's time for breakfast! Get down here before it gets cold!"
I was caught off-guard by the sudden violation of the almost total silence that hung around me. I walked briskly back to my room, a short trip indeed. My favorite dress was waiting next to my closet, blue plaid with navy trim. It was out of fashion many decades ago, but compared to what most people wear out here, I look like a princess in this thing. Now that I think about it, the frock was more of a skirt's length then a dress's, it didn't even get all the way down to my knees. I adjusted the short sleeves to sit better on my arms.
"Damn I look good." I couldn't help but say to myself. I was overheard...
"Quit gawking at yourself and hurry up!" The old woman shouted again, Can she see though bulkheads?
I quickly checked myself over in the mirror again, everything seemed fine visually. I made my way down the ladder and pressure hatch at the end of the hall and was greeted by the sweet smell of bacon and eggs. My guardians were already at the table enjoying breakfast. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. The three of us made up the bulk of the remaining Gale family lineage.
Henry had spent most of his retirement years on the station, usually doing an occasional odd job to kill time, but mostly advising the higher ranking officials and local administrators. It gave him an unusually large amount respect and notoriety, he could even run for a seat on the local council if he wanted.
Em was an ex-scientist and worked in the life support systems in the station's lower sections, her job was to keep the 2845 permanent residents alive. Henry and Em were two of the first people to move in once this old trade station was completed twenty years ago. After I was orphaned, I was sent to live with my closest living relatives... close meant the ringed, Cronian hydrogen ball in our backyard.
I sat down at the table and started to eat. My dog, Toto, hopped onto my lap. Toto was a gift from Em about 5 years ago and had served me well as a companion. He was a cute little black ball of fluff, his only drawback being he technically served no real purpose here on Kansas. But in another sense, he did. He was probably the only thing that would stop me from going crazy and stepping outside to see how long I could hold my breath. The dog clearly wanted food that wasn't engineered for a small animal. I slipped him a scrap of bacon.
"Shhh... don't tell Auntie Em." I whispered to the pup. I glanced at Henry, who saw the whole transaction. "Neither should you!" He simply shifted his gaze to the dog, then to Em and continued eating his oatmeal. He was such a pushover.
The bacon I was shoveling into my mouth was clearly artificial and probably grown in a factory. Thankfully the eggs tasted real enough. I was about to bite into a piece of a bread-like substance when my aunt spoke up,
"I'll probably be late getting home tonight, Naomi called earlier and asked if I could help inspect the liquid O2 storage tanks."
"Sounds fun," said Henry "just as long as your back in time to fix up a another fine meal afterwards."
Bullshit. I knew that was a lie, Henry had never liked Em's cooking, he was too kind to say anything about it. Like I said before, pushover. I had always wondered if he had ever or will ever voice his own opinions to her. ...maybe he is scared of her? She does have a wicked temper.
I glanced at the calendar. "June 18, 2634." The digital readout displayed boldly with no memos shown below.
I immediately popped a fake question, a little recon could prove useful.
"Hey Henry, is it ok if I go hang out with Alice later? We were going to the theater later today, something about pre-colonial movies from the 20th century."
"That sounds fun too, but I've got a little chore for you first..."
Henry paused a moment, grinning behind his thick, grey moustache. I knew right away where he was going with this.
"...would you be a dear, take the old girl out for a spin and deliver some cargo for me? I think someone has been station-side a little too long." He added a wink.
inhaled the rest of my breakfast and rinsed my plates quickly.
"What is it and where am I going?" I asked past a mouthful of bacon.
"Just some tanks of liquid Methane for Bill over at the Saturn dockyards, think your up to it? Or should it just give the job to another boat?
I swallowed the last bites of my meal and grinned at the old man.
"Just who do you think your dealing with? Dorothy Gale! High Speed Armoured Express at your service!"
Toto barked at me, followed by a quiet whine.
"Sorry Toto, a spaceship is no place for a dog to play."
Em waved me off.
"We'll keep an eye on the pup till you get back.I bent low and stroked the little dog's head. "See, you'll be fine, and I won't be gone long so be a good boy and take a nap or something."
Toto snuggled up against my hand, I would occasionally take him with me but it was too dangerous for him out there, by all logic he shouldn't even be here. One small hull breach and the poor little guy would be treading stars. He finished his goodbye and trotted off to his usual spot next to the couch.
"Em, make sure he doesn't get loose again, ok? Last time he got out I had to pick him up from a barge near Jupiter."
Em nodded her acknowledgment. "He'll be fine, you go have fun."
I smiled warmly at my family and jogged briskly out the hatch.
After weaving though various subsections I finally came out to a large open area, the main concourse. It was pretty big, somewhere around 100 meters across. It's most prominent feature was a large oak tree and minor park in the middle. The green leaves and grass were freakishly out of place within the steel structure but it served a purpose beyond looking pretty. It was a great spot to hang out, even though I only had one mentionable friend to hang out with. It also recycled some of the air in the immediate, high-traffic area.
High above me was a large steel reinforced glass dome, which provided an excellent view of the yellow-orange clouds of Titan. When I first arrived on the Kansas the tree was only two decks tall, now it almost reaches the large skylight. Even though it was morning the place was already packed with people. Some were locals but most were travelers waiting for they're next shuttle to arrive. Amidst the chatter and something bout the next shuttle to the Oberon Colonies being delayed, I heard a familiar voice.
"Hold up Dorothy!"
I halted as ordered and turned. My best friend was fast approaching from her family's bakery. I had known her almost as long as I'd lived here. Most of the people on the station knew her as Ms. Liddell, socialite. I know her as Alice, part-time pain in the ass.
She was born on the New England lunar colony and she move with her family to the Kansas twelve years ago. Alice and I became friends and nearly inseparable in a very short span of time. We however have huge differences. Alice was more into society, fashion and beauty as opposed to my love of machines and weaponry, this was clearly reflected by our dress codes. Alice, as usual, wore a sultry tight cocktail dress that was clearly more for display rather then the simple, functional garments I usually wore. I'm surprised that her parents let her get away with wearing stuff like this...
I paused a moment to examine Alice's freakishly revealing garment... if it could even be classified as clothing...
"Thought you were running a bakery, not a brothel." I said with a blank stare, I hope she gets the hint.
"Not working today, heading over to the theater in a bit." She looked at me with a devilish grin and pounced on me. "Your coming with me today, right? They're still having antique movies this week, they're starting a Gojira movie marathon today if I'm not mistaken. I hear it's so old, it's in black and white film! Can you believe that!?"
Whoa! How incredible was that?! My lie to Henry was legitimate!
"Can't today, I got a job." I pushed the well endowed blonde off me.
"Anything like last week's old calligraphy sets?"
"What's wrong with writing by hand?"
"Nothing, it's just so time consuming... So if your not going..." Alice clung to me again, her eyes reminded me of Toto begging for a piece of protein-cake.
"Can I PLEASE have your extra movie pass? I was going to ask Alexi if he wanted to go with us... well, I guess its just ME now."
"It won't be a very long relationship you know, he's not worth it either."
Damn woman doesn't give up...
I pulled the forged adult-level movie pass from my pocket and taunted my shorter friend by waving it above her.
"Fine, but you owe me."
I dropped the ticket onto Alice's face, it then fluttered into her waiting hands.
"Thank you! OH! In return I could get Alexi to hook you up with one of his friends!"
"Fat chance, fat like them... besides, I'm already in love... in love wi-..."
"YEAH YEAH, I know who..."
"Yeah, so anyways, I'll see you when I get back, should be before the first movie is over."
Alice smiled at me. "Sure thing, Oh!" She dashed over to the bakery and scooped up some muffins and donuts from behind the counter, she quickly returned carrying a box of the baked goods.
"Here you go! First instalment of my debt!"
I stared blankly at the box.
"And the interest rate?" I asked.
"Some are jelly filled." Alice responded, she added a wink.
My cold, unforgiving stare shifted to a grin.
"Good kitty." I accepted the box with a quick bow.
I turned and jogged toward the exit. I didn't even wait for a response, it would have been another one of those "Be careful, there's mean men out there, blah blah blah." speeches.
I felt a minor jolt of hunger flash though my stomach, apparently breakfast didn't quick cut it this time. That or I must have caught a whiff of the fresh muffins. I reached into the box and crammed a donut into my mouth, the apple cruller was still warm from its conception.
Soon I reached my destination, Loading Dock 8.
A catwalk ran the full length of the dockyard's main bay. From here I had a wonderful view of everything below me. The Terran Union always used the Kansas as a rest station for they're customs and patrol ships. One of they're Tereshkova Light Cruisers was taking on fresh supplies below, looked like the T.W.S. Sergei Korolëv. I'd seen the ship a few times, even raced with it when it was out of The Union's tracking range.
But the hell with that, I was too preoccupied to worry about the money they still owed me. My mind was fixated on one single thing, a simple goal. I rounded the corner at the end of the bay into my reserved parking space. There sat the one thing that could light up my normally dull life, the love of my life... The "Yellow Brick Road".
Uncle Henry was once a well known trader in and among the known worlds of the Orion Region, he'd been from one end of the Terran Space to the other. However, the economic collapse of 2610 had caused him to sell off his business. He only kept his ship, turning it into a home for him and his wife. Eventually they found shelter on the Kansas. Henry, no longer having a use for the vessel, gave it to me hoping that I may take an interest in space travel. Hell, I was beyond interested, I was OBSESSED.
The Yellow Brick Road, or Y.B.R. as most people call her, was probably the oldest ship on the station, but looking at it's grey hull and goldenrod markings you would never know that this was once a fearsome gunship used near the end of the Colonial War. Gunships were used to attack lunar colonies, space stations, habitat platforms... anything that could be shot at. Although lightly armoured when compared to most warships, they packed one hell of a punch. The Y.B.R. was called the T.W.S. Yukikaze before Henry bought her. Built by the Yamatsute corporation in Japan as a Super-heavy interceptor, she guarded The Union and it's assets from the occasional small marauding warship for over twenty years. It was eventually phased out of service and sold to a used starship lot, where it was quickly snatched up and refitted by a younger Henry Gale.
None of this history and back story mattered to me, the ship was mine now, my own set of steel wings. Nothing would be able to separate me from it. I calmly approached the ship and wrapped my arms around one of the forward landing skids. Leaning my head against it, I spoke softly to my beloved vessel.
"Did you miss me? Don't worry, mommy is back now..."
A voice rose up from behind me.
"Dorothy...you REALLY need to get yourself a man..."
I sighed and sat up slowly.
"With this baby I have over forty-five thousand tons of thrust between my legs, what do I need a man for?"
I grinned at the approaching technician, a young Japanese woman named Tomoko. Although she was only 24 years old, Tomoko was Kansas' best engineer. She wore her usual grey overalls and tool belt, her dark eyes matching her short hair. She was not the cleanest person on the Kansas, generally working long shifts in the dark bowels of the station, almost always by choice. Such a hard worker...
She, like always, was held together with several bandages.
"Support cables again?" I asked, gesturing at Tomoko's wounds.
"Nope, couple minor burns and a communication distribution box that had sharp edges." "I hate it when that happens..."
"Yeah, I beat it with a wrench for a while and yelled at it. Seems to be working fine now."
We both chuckled a bit. I glanced back at the ship for a moment. Tomoko had helped me with almost every refit and modification made to the Y.B.R. since I took command. The vessel was as much her's as it was mine. If the old girl was a race car, Tomoko would be my whole pit crew.
"Uncle Henry said something about a load of dangerous liquids."
"Yeah, the tanks are all loaded up. Just give me a minute to sign the paperwork and we'll get your old rust bucket ou-..."
"HEY! DON'T YOU BE CALLING MY GIRL A BUCKET!"
I stroked one of the hydraulic rams on the Y.B.R.'s landing skid.
"You don't need to take that from the mean lady... we'll show them not to underestimate you."
Tomoko grinned, her teeth glaringly white against her engine grease covered skin.
"Is that a challenge I hear?"
"Here to Sat-dock and back in 50 minutes."
Tomoko pondered for a moment.
".....deal, your ship gets my respect if you win, what do I get if you lose? Pink slip?"
I pulled a small slip of paper from my pocket.
"How bout' a free dinner coupon for the Cobalt Grill?"
The engineer thought for a moment, probably remembering the amazing oden she had there and couldn't stop talking about last week.
"Deal! The clock starts when your ship hits the sky, and no cheating and using your fancy little Phase Drive... by the way, do you have a permit for that thing? And is it even civilian legal hardware?"
I smirked and patted Tomoko's shoulder.
"Your talking to a Gale here, when have we EVER done anything legal?"
Tomoko thought for a moment.
"Well there was that one time you flew the speed lim-..."
"THAT DOESN'T COUNT!" I shouted. "I had to stay in the lane and I was stuck behind a ninety year old bushpilot in some antique ESA Shuttle!"
We both laughed again, the sound seemed out of place in the dull, steel dockyard.
"Anyways, I'll see you at the finish line, hun. Sayonara!"
Tomoko ran off to prep the clearances. I grinned widely, I knew I had already won. I could fly to Saturn blindfolded in twenty five minutes if I really had to. The trip was a simple cakewalk.
I dashed up Y.B.R.'s boarding ramp, I had a bet to win.
Yellow Brick Road's cargo capacity was actually quiet small but with its combat-grade armor plating Y.B.R. was excellent at running the gauntlet of pirates corsairs in the Sol Asteroid belts and they're blockades near the Brigand Enclave at Namaka. The cargo bay already had a few crates tied to the deck, filled mostly with spare parts as the Y.B.R. was always in a state flying itself apart. What little space that was left was taken up by 2 large cylinders of cold liquid methane.
I made my way to the cockpit. It was a large, open area housed at the front of the ship, divided into two decks. The lower deck served as a lounge, with places to relax and entertain one's self on longer trips. The upper deck was where I, the pilot, sat as well as the navigator and communication technician stations. There was also a spare multi-role terminal, usually tuned to the engineering channel. I took a seat and harnessed myself in. The chair absurdly comfortable, like a cloud bolted to this massive bullet. I began to start up the various systems. Navigation, engineering and communication screens lit up with a faint green glow. The deck plating outside had already been deactivated, I would simply need maneuvering thrusters to get around in the weightless environment.
Yellow Brick Road came to a halt above the start line and the outside the pressurization sirens began to blare, warning anyone in the dock to get out before the air did.
I stretched. Although flying was easy enough, being loose and alert for such a ride doesn't hurt. As the launch board outside began to display all green, I gently gripped the controls and slowly eased the throttles open to they're idle setting, the engines started to hum. The noise didn't last long though, once the atmosphere was pumped out of the docking bay the sweet mechanical melody grew quieter until all I could here was the faint sounds from the engine room far behind me.
Tomoko's voice reached my ears over the communication channels.
"Yellow Brick Road, launch approved. Traffic clear. All moorings detached."
I pulled my headset tight over my ears and adjusted the microphone.
"Yellow Brick Road confirms. Ready to go." I responded. I looked up at Tomoko in the control loft above me. She smiled and waved.
Infront of me red lights began to flash and the main door folded open reveling the black cosmos.
The lights turned green, I slammed the throttles forward.
My vision blurred a little bit as I was pressed into the back of my seat. Despite the gravity plating and inertial dampening system built into the deck below me working at optimum efficiency, the display infront of me registered 5.72 on the internal g-force meter. The Y.B.R. shot into the deep void like a bullet from a rifle. Tomoko's voice crackled though the earpieces once again.
"One airborne, One sensor contact, no interval. Yellow Brick Road you are clear of Kansas airspace. See ya in a while."
"You too." I responded. With that, I switch frequency over to the shipping traffic. I arced toward the giant gas planet and glanced at my home off to my right, From here it was quite an impressive sight. The main body of the station was about 3 km long and 1 km diameter. However, her two massive solar panel wings added at least 6 km to her overall width. She was a beast, if Kansas fell out of Titan's orbit she would make one hell of a crater. Silver and blue spires stretched out beneath her like inverted skyscrapers, she was a floating city.
A Trondheim-class heavy carrier sat docked in one of the stations exterior moorings, an odd sight in this area.
"Odd, they usually resupply they're big battlewagons at Sat-dock..."
"No kidding, eh? I'll bet you a whole lemon pie that they're up to something illegally scientific." That friendly voice must have heard me talk to myself, and with mention of lemon pie it could only be our local conspiracy theorist "Winter".
"Hey Winnie, you eavesdropping on everyone again?"
"Only the people worth listening to hun, haulin' methane again?"
Damn. He must have hacked the Kansas' system again. Little bugger is always one step ahead of everyone else, even though he doesn't leave his cave. He can be kinda creepy but he has given me useful intel plenty of times, enough to earn my respect.
"Any thoughts on what they might be up to?"
"Hard to say, somethings always up when it comes to the Union."
Winter was considered a renegade by the authorities, it was never a good idea to talk to him on an open channel for too long.
I'm a little busy today, we'll chat later. Ok?"
"Sure, take it easy." The line went dead and silence once again filled the cockpit.
I took this moment to stare at the yellow beauty of Saturn as it lay before me. The far-off silhouette of the Sat-dock looked very small against the backdrop of the massive gas giant. It's ice rings lay beneath my feet like a cosmic highway of dust and rock. The rings were considered a planetary reserve, messing up the rings brought a hefty fine to your letterbox.
My mind began to wander while the Y.B.R. glided lazily though space. A memory of my first flight drifted into my mind, initiate flashback!
[To be Continued]