I had always hated my alarm clock, some mornings I thought that it was too good at it's job. My small bedroom was filled with a pulsating and high pitched tone, I wished that I had some random blunt instrument to pummel the object into oblivion with, must to my dismay the only thing within reach was the alarm clock itself... target acquired! Engage! My palm hit the snooze button with a satisfying thud and the room once again was silent as a tomb... tomb..... thoughts of the dream I had just woken from, and of few weeks following the accident, flooded into my head. I simply stared at the ceiling... most people would probably cry a bit, I used to, but that was long since past, I had gotten used to it.
I sat up slowly, like undead mummified remains rising from their sarcophagus to death and mayhem to all those that disturbed my slumber and now bare the curse of the pharaoh. Sadly the only cursed thing in my room was the alarm clock, I stretched my aching limbs and stared at it's face. It was still mid-morning.
My old slippers waited by my bed, they were as dull as the floor they rested on, which incidentally was just as dull as my room. I threw on a dull robe, stepped through a dull sliding door into a dull hall and made my way to the dull bathroom. Did I mention that my house is rather dull?
The bathroom was all that spectacular, some might even call it dull. Shower, toilet, sink and many other hygiene related items were arranged neatly around the small room. The water from the tap was cold and clear, I splashed some on my face, hoping to gain some of it's clarity. It didn't work as well as I'd hoped it would but at least I was more awake now. I looked up at the mirror, my reflection stared right back with it's cerulean eyes. My short brown hair was in extreme disarray from an eight hour assault by a pillow.
An old, wood handled hairbrush was one of the few things of my parents that I still had with me, it's presence didn't do much to help me forget my dream. It was at least a hundred years old, probably more, but it still worked fine. With my free hand I pull the curtain away from the window to check the weather, clear skies as far as the eye could see. I had a nice view from here, I could see for kilometers, billions in fact. My view of the infinite cosmos was only obscured by the near-by celestial orbs of Titan and Saturn.
Growing up I was told that space used to be a vast unknown expanse, that half a millennia ago people were barely able to leave the homeworld in ships that were little more than tin cans with rockets strapped to them. Today nearly forty percent of the human race is camped out in the vacuum, the remaining sixty get to have real gravity... nearly a trillion humans spread out over several solar systems, what once seemed like science fiction has become fact. To most people Saturn might seem like a great wonder of the universe. In reality its just another ball of hydrogen. Titan wasn't much different, just nitrogen, methane and violent weather. There were a few cites far below the yellow-brown haze, but nothing you could really call a home, mostly just mining and research outposts. My home in comparison was a five-star resort, a two-bedroom suite in the habitat section of the Kansas Trade Port.
My hair was once again as straight as it was twelve hours ago.
"Dorothy!" An elderly woman's voice resonated down the corridor. "It's time for breakfast! Get down here before it gets chilly!"
I was caught off-guard by the sudden violation of the almost total silence that hung around me. I briskly walked back to my room. My favorite dress was waiting in my closest, 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. The sleeves were short, as was the hemline, only barely reaching above my knees. I spun once, the lace trim of the pleated skirt fluttered through the recycle air. I struck a pose infront of the mirror for the hell of it.
"Damn I look good." I couldn't help but say to myself. I was overheard...
"Quit gawking at yourself and get down here!" The old woman shouted again, can she see through bulkheads?
I did a quick visual cheek in the mirror to hunt down any flaws. Nope, none, I was the very image of beauty. Venus, eat your heart out!
I was greeted at the a pressure hatch by the sweet smell of bacon and eggs. My guardians were already at the table enjoying breakfast. Henry and Emily Gale, my aunt and uncle. 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 the occasional odd job to kill time, but mostly he advised the higher ranking officials and local administrators. The old man was well known and respected, he could probably run for a seat on the local trade council if he wanted to.
Em was the daughter of chicken farm tycoon of all things, but instead of living off her daddy's poultry business she decided working would be more fun. She couldn't find much work as a scientist, the jobs being taken up by people with massive trust funds, the kind she refused. Her skills weren't completely wasted though, a few years later she was part of the team that designed and built the Kansas Trade Dock. Now she maintains the life support systems of the station, keeping the approximately five thousand permanent residents and travelers alive.
Em and Henry met when the then young man was taking on a job for the station construction crew, Em was outside of the station and the tether on her suit broke. She lost her grip and started to float away from the half finished superstructure, Henry saw the whole thing and maneuvered his ship to intercept. He caught her with his windshield and it was love at first sight. Twenty years later I was orphaned and was sent to live with my closest living relatives... close meant the ringed, Cronian hydrogen ball in our backyard.
The morning meal looked splendid, problem was it only looked that way, Em was a terrible cook. The meal wouldn't kill me, but I could scrape ooze off the side of a recycling bin that tasted better. Just like my nightmare I'd gotten used to the taste ages ago. I took a seat and soon felt a pressure on my lap, a small fuzzy head poked out from under the table, followed by a cute little bark.
"Good morning Toto." I smiled, an uncommon expression for me to use, especially this soon after waking up. Toto always had that effect, I mean how can you not feel happy around such an adorable little ball of fluff. The dog was a gift from Em about five years ago, probably one of the few things that has stopped me from going crazy and stepping outside to see how long it would take before ebullism set in.
The little mutt wanted food that clearly wasn't engineered for small animals, he was probably the only one here who like Em's cooking. I split a piece of bacon with him, gagging on the half I kept for myself.
"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 back to the newspaper he was reading, then to Em and continued eating his oatmeal. He was such a pushover.
Despite the poor quality of taste it was easy to notice the bacon was in fact artificial, probably grown in a factory, the eggs however seem to be organic. I was about to bite into a piece of bread-like substance when my aunt spoke up.
"I'll probably be late tonight, Naomi called earlier and asked if I could help inspect the liquid O2 storage tanks."
"Sounds fun," Henry's gaze didn't shift from the newspaper. "Just as long as you're back home in time to fix up another fine meal afterwards."
Bullshit. I can't believe Em hasn't caught on yet, Henry had never liked Em's cooking, he was too kind to ever say anything about it... which is probably why it's never improved. I had always wondered if he had or ever will 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." No memos were displayed, a blank and uneventful day...
A little reconnaissance could prove useful, I engaged in conversation.
"I was thinking bout' hanging out with Alice today, that is... if nobody has any jobs for me. Might go down to the theater, I heard something about pre-colonial movies from the twentieth century."
"That sounds fun too, but I do happen to have a little chore for you first..."
Henry paused, grinning behind his thick grey mustache. I knew right away what was coming next.
"...would you be a dear and take the old girl out for a spin, I've got some cargo sitting all alone in the dockyards and I think someone has been station-side a little too long." He added a wink.
I inhaled the rest of my breakfast as fast as my mouth could chew, I nearly gagged and had to wash it down with the first glass of milk within reach.
"...you ok?" Henry was trying hard not to laugh.
"What's the job and where am I going?" I wiped a minor milk mustache away and quickly rinsed my plate.
"Just some tanks of liquid CH4 for Bill over at the Saturn Dockyards, noting too fancy, nothing you can't handle."
My signature coat waited on the rack by the door, it was an old uniform from the Oceanic wars of mid twenty-fourth century. Plain olive drab, I liked it for it's unique look and sturdy materials. I had left the brass buttons on the cuffs but had removed all but one from the front, replaced by velcro. The ranks of a staff-sergeant were still polished and shiny on my shoulders.
"Consider the job done." I nodded at the old man, I felt a small paw against my leg, followed by a quiet whine.
"Sorry Toto, a spaceship is no place for a dog to play, you remember what nearly happened last time..."
Em waved me off.
"We'll keep an eye on the pup till' you get back."
I crouched and stroked the little dog's head, the last time he'd come with me for a ride I was attacked by pirates near Charon's orbit. The only thing that saved him from treading stars was my foresight of sealing the bulkhead doors the moment I saw the muzzle flash from the pirate's railguns. Not more than a second later the shot ripped a hole in the upper deck's corridor.
I hadn't really recovered from that scare of nearly losing Toto, he was safe here and here is where he should stay.
"Em, make sure he doesn't get out again. Last time he escaped 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, then the hatch sealed behind me.
After weaving through various subsections and corridors I finally reached a large open area, the station's main concourse. It was fairly large, about fifty meters across, though I never bothered to measure. It's most prominent feature was a large oak tree and minor park, perfectly centered along the Kansas' long axis. The green leave and grass were very much out of place inside the steel, glass and plastic structure but it served a purpose beyond looking pretty. Aside from being a great spot to hang out, the foliage helped convert the carbon dioxide in the high-traffic area into something a little more breathable.
High above was a large steel reinforced glass dome which provided an excellent view of the starry sky and old Sol herself. The place was already packed with people, some were local faces I could recognize but most were travelers waiting for they're next shuttle to arrive or traders looking to make deals. Amidst the chatter and something about the next shuttle to the Oberon colonies being delayed, I heard a familiar voice.
"Hey Dorothy! Wait up!"
I halted as ordered and turned just in time to be struck in the chest by a flying chesty blonde. The young woman was my best friend, known her almost as long as I'd lived here. Most 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 colony on Luna, she and her family moved to the Kansas not long after I arrived. Alice and I became friends and nearly inseparable in a very short span of time. We however have huge differences, Alice liked social status and fashion, I liked machines and weaponry, this was clearly reflected in today's mode of dress.
Alice, as usual, w 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 pried the clingy girl off me, I'd gotten used to violations of personal space like this but that didn't mean I enjoyed it.
When she stepped back I couldn't help but start for a moment at Alice's freakishly revealing garment... if it could even be classified as clothing...
"...I thought you were running a bakery, not a brothel." I said with a blank stare, I hope she gets the hint, I REALLY hope she does...
"Hmm? What are you rambling on about now?"
Nope. Typical airhead mode. She nodded towards the theater on the far side of the concourse. "Not working today, was just on my way over to the theater." She looked at me with a devilish grin and pounced on me again. "You're coming with me today right?"
"Let me guess, old movies from the twentieth century."
Alice stared in amazement. "How'd you know?!"
".........lucky guess? Anyways, I can't today, I have a job." I pushed the well endowed blonde off me.
"Watch the next movie with me when you get back? I'll probably be in there all day."
"Yeah," I smiled and started to walk away. "I should be back in a couple of hours."
Alice giggled and waved, then suddenly stopped and flailed her arms in a pattern that signaled me to wait. She dashed over to the bakery and gathered some muffins and donuts from premium "fresh baked" section of the store. She quickly returned carrying a box of baked goods.
"A little something to help you recover from breakfast hell! Teehee!" She leaned close to my ear, an action that could almost be considered seductive. She smiled and whispered softly. "...some are jelly filled."
My cold, unforgiving stare shifted to a grin.
"Good kitty." I petted her head in a slightly comical manner, accepted the box with a quick bow and jogged towards the exit. I didn't bother waiting for any kind of response, it would have been another one of those "Be careful, there's mean men out there, blah blah blah." speeches. I must have caught a whiff of the fresh muffins, my stomach started to protest it's emptiness, despite having already been filled with what most would call bacon and eggs. I reached into the box and crammed a donut into my mouth as I walked, the apple cruller was still warm from its conception.
Soon I reached my destination, Loading Dock 8.
A raised walkway ran the full length of the dockyard's main bay. From there 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 talking on fresh supplies below, it looked like the T.W.S. Sergei Korolėv. I'd seen the ship a few times, even raced with it when the crew was felling lucky and we were beyond the Union's tracking range.
I was too preoccupied to worry about the money they still owed me. I rounded the corner at the end of the walkway and paused to stare down at my reserved parking space. I couldn't help but smile, There on the deck all shiny and pretty was the one thing that lit up my normally dull life... The "Yellow Brick Road".
Uncle Henry was once a well known trader in and amongst the inhabited worlds of the Orion Region, he'd been from one end of 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 himself and drifted from world to world looking for work. The economy soon recovered and Henry continued from where he left off, but now from solely aboard his ship which he had named for the brick-like pattern and golden colour of the of the solar panels that once surrounded the hull. It was around that time that he met Em and settled on the Kansas to be closer to who he would soon marry. The golden solar panels had now been removed and replaced by a more powerful power system, though the vessel's name remained unchanged. No longer having a need for running such a dangerous business, Henry nearly mothballed the ship in the storage hanger until I came along. Having to feed an extra mouth in the household meant he had to continue plying the trade lanes. Once I was old enough, Henry left the ship in my care. He had raised me hoping that I would take an interest in space travel, I was far beyond interested, I was obsessed.
The Yellow Brick Road, or Y.B.R. as some have called her, was probably one of the oldest ships in Titan orbit. One look at her grey hull and goldenrod markings and you'd never guess that she was once a powerful gunship. Compared to most craft that traverse the Saturn Sector, Yellow Brick Road was an antique, he registry plaque in the engine room was one of the only completely original components left, it would soon be my vessel's two hundred and sixteenth birthday. When her hull was completed in 2418 the designers said her class would last for a century, of the sixty Yukikaze class gunships built only a dozen survive, half of those in museums.
Uncle Henry bought the craft from a junk-craft dealer that found the then named "JDS Naganami" adrift on the far side of Luna, the main viewport blown out by cannon fire, century and a half old corpses still at their posts, undecayed in the vacuum of space. After a complete refit, the Yellow Brick Road made an excellent cargo ship and courier.
And now, she was my cargo ship and courier, my own set of steel wings. I walked down the stairs to the lower deck, the old metal structure clanked under the footfalls of my heavy boots. The ship was considered small but from the flightdeck, staring up at the side of the spacecraft, I couldn't help but feel a little on the small side. It felt childish but I wrapped my arms around the bulky hydraulic rams of the forward landing skids and gave the ship a big hug.
A voice echoed across the hanger at me.
"Dorothy... you REALLY need to get yourself a man..."
I looked up at the approaching technician and laughed, I pointed to the armoured hull above me.
"I have over eight thousand tons of thrust between my legs, what do I need a man for?"
The technician giggled slightly, she was easily recognizable, even at a distance. Grey coveralls, bandages and a robotic hand were the trademark fashion of Tomoko Horikoshi, her dark eyes matching her short hair. Tomoko's skill as an engineer was unrivaled, despite her relatively young age. 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...
"Fight with another of the maintenance bots again?" I gestured at Tomoko's wounds.
"Nope, couple minor burns and a communication distribution box that had sharp edges. I beat it with my mallet for a while and yelled at it. Seems to be working fine now."
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 for Sat-Dock."
"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 the hydraulic rams on the Y.B.R.'s landing skid as if it were a kitten... a seven hundred and fifty ton kitten.
"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. The metallic joints of her prosthetic limb clicking loudly in the echoing hanger.
"...what are the profits for the winner?"
"A free dinner coupon for the Cobalt Grill?"
"Deal! The clock starts when your ship hits the sky, and no cheating and using your fancy little military grade phase-drive... by the way, do you have a permit for that thing?"
I tried my best to force an innocent look onto my face.
Tomoko sighed, seeing right through me. "Get the permits. And get in your ship! You have a bet to lose and I'm hungry!"
The technician 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.
Yellow Brick Road's was originally a warship, so her cargo capacity was actually quite small, but with her combat-grade armour plating she was the ship of choice for running the gauntlet of corsairs in the Sol Asteroid Belt and the pirate 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 of flying itself apart. What little space remained was taken up by two large tanks of cold liquid methane.
A few ladders, hatches and a corridor later and I was in the cockpit. It was large and spacious compared to ships of similar same size. Divided into two sections, the lower deck served as the ship's lounge, and with the ship's main viewports surrounding it, it was a great spot to sit back, relax and enjoy the view of the cosmos while on long trips. The upper deck was the actual cockpit, set above and behind the lounge. The pilot naturally sat in the middle, with a few other seats and consoles navigation, communication and engineering set up around the room. I sat down in my favorite chair in the universe, it was absurdly comfortable, like a cloud bolted to a massive bullet.
I harnessed myself in and began starting up the ship's systems, the displays lit up with faint glows. The gravity alarm outside sounded a few times, then my vessel was suddenly weightless. The refueling hoses detached with a dull hiss, follow by the clicking of the armoured hull folding back over the hose sockets.
Pressurization sirens began to blare, warning anyone in the dock to get out before the air did. The lights of the launch-board outside started to change from red to green in sequence. The noise of my idling engines grew fainter as the atmosphere was pumped out of the hanger. The sweet mechanical melody was soon silent, all I could hear of them were the sounds from the engine room far behind me.
"Yellow Brick Road, launch approved. Traffic clear, all moorings detached." Tomoko reported from the control loft to my left, I couldn't hold in the laugh when I saw the stopwatch in her hand. I pulled my headset tight over my ears and adjusted the microphone.
"Y.B.R. confirms. Ready for launch." Gave a thumbs up signal as I glanced over the diagnostic screens once more. Red lights flashed silently as the main door folded open, beyond was nothing but black cosmos and burning stars. My eyes were fixated on the watch in Tomoko's grip, silent and unmoving, much like myself.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the doors lock into their open position and green lights flash a few times. Tomoko's thumb pressed hard against the timer, it's hands sprung to life... So did mine.
My vision blurred slightly as I slammed the throttle forward to the maximum setting I could legally use while in a dock, despite the gravity plating and inertial dampening system built into the deck below me working at optimum efficiency, the HUD display infront of my registered enough g-forces to for someone to casually stand on the bulkheads during my acceleration.
The Y.B.R. shot into the deep void like an artillery shell. Tomoko's voice crackled through the earpieces once again.
"One airborne, one sensor contact, no interval. Yellow Brick Road you are clear of Kansas and free to maneuver. See ya in a while."
"Aye, Y.B.R. out." I switched frequency over to the shipping channels. A one-hundred and twenty degree yaw and full throttle boost later, I was on my way towards Saturn. My home hung silently in the void, from here it was quite an impressive sight. The main body of the station easily three kilometers long and a kilometer wide, though I never really stopped to measure her exact size. Her two massive solar panels wings added at least six thousand meters 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 of reinforced steel and thick glass plates stretched out beneath her like inverted skyscrapers, she truly was a floating city.
A Trondheim-class heavy carrier was just starting it's undocking maneuvers from one of Kansas' external moorings, an odd sight in this neighborhood.
I smiled to myself, the radio had the usual chatter but I knew I wasn't alone on this channel.
"...Winter, I know you're there, pick up the phone, channel code... microwave oven?"
I switched over to the coded frequency and waited, a few seconds later a clicking noise, like somebody fumbling with the microphone followed by a groggy yawn met my ears.
"...geez Dorothy do you know what time it is?"
"Yeah, its when most people are awake and working for a living. How is the illegal information trafficking business?"
The man on the other end of the radio yawned again. "Winter" was the codename the hacker had given to himself. I'd never actually met him before, I'd heard rumours that he lived in an abandon mine on Titan. There wasn't anything that happened in Sol Space that he didn't find out about.
"...Winter? You still there?" I tapped my headset.
"Yeah, sorry, was getting myself a drink. What can I do for you today? General question or something that'll put coin in my pockets?"
"Just an inquiry, what's with the heavy hitter snooping around my house?" I gestured unconsciously at the sensor contact on my displays. I could almost here the gears in the data miner's head turning.
"Sorry Gale but I have no idea, they must be up to something though, the T.U. only deploys their Tronnies when something big is going down. My guess is something wacky, if I were you I'd watch my back out there today."
Hmmm, I had hoped that Winter would be able to cure my curiosity, but he only fueled it further.
"Thanks, I'll close down the channel before they get a fix on your location."
"Much appreciated, fly safe." 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.
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]