Jovian Uprising - 2315 by Michel Poulin - HTML preview

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On the bridge of the KOSTROMA, Tina Forster watched with cold satisfaction as the pirate ship was enveloped completely by the plasma exhaust from her ship’s fusion drive, now at full retro thrust power. The KOSTROMA’s forward tractor beam generators were also powered up, immobilizing the pirate ship relative to the cargo ship and preventing it from emerging out of the hot plasma cloud. After about six seconds, large blobs of molten metal and other materials started streaming out, but she kept her engines on for another thirty seconds. When she put back her engines to idle, ready to power them back on if need be, there was only a large, shapeless mass of white hot metal left in space in front of the KOSTROMA.

‘’Justice has been done.’’ She said quietly to herself as her bridge crew cheered wildly around her.

Zara Varanian had been asleep in her cabin when the howl of the ship’s alarm had brutally awakened her. Disoriented at first and unsure what to do, she had taken nearly a minute just to remember where she had put the emergency life suit leased to her with her cabin. Fortunately, putting on that life suit had been child’s play. Conceived as an emergency vacuum suit for passengers who didn’t own their own spacesuits, it resembled once pressurized a big egg from which jutted out two short tubular legs and two gloved arms. Unpressurized, it was not much more than a flat metallic backpack to which was attached a flabby suit made of layered fabrics and polymer, the whole thing crowned by a detachable and transparent helmet wide enough to let a person slip into the suit via the opened helmet. The thing was somewhat crude-looking but had the benefit of being able to fit various sizes of persons without being custom-fitted. It was also relatively inexpensive and very simple to use. What Zara thought of it now as she nervously waited, sitting in her lounge with her executive secretary and her dressing lady, both wearing as well emergency life suits, was that she looked utterly ridiculous in that contraption. She also was starting to think that, maybe, she should have put on the 55

adult diaper that came with the emergency suit, instead of dismissing it as too embarrassing.

As she waited with her two employees in her lounge, an emergency message, along with a repeating video showing how to put on an emergency life suit, was displayed on the large flat screen of her entertainment unit. It still said to all passengers to stay in their cabins and to refrain from trying to contact the crew to ask them questions, but Zara grew furiously tempted to call somebody as the minutes passed.

The muffled noise and shakes from multiple life pod ejections about twenty minutes after the start of the alert made her sit up nervously in her sofa.

‘’Now, what the hell was that?’’

Her two employees didn’t answer, themselves not understanding what was going on.

The answer came however after another two minutes, when the howl of the ship’s alarm stopped and the image of Captain Forster sitting in her command chair replaced the instructions on the screen of the entertainment unit.

‘’May I have your attention, please. This is the Captain speaking. I am sorry for the inconveniences of the last half hour but our ship had to evade a collision with an unexpected space obstacle. The problem has however been resolved and all danger is now gone. You may take off your emergency life suits now and return to sleep or to your previous activities. Again, I am sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you. I will ask you however to repack your emergency life suits and store them back in their lockers, ready for any future use. Thank you for your attention, ladies and gentlemen.’’

‘’A space obstacle? Does she means an asteroid?’’ Asked the executive secretary. Zara nodded slowly her head at that.

‘’Probably that, or a piece of space debris of some kind. I heard that there are millions of uncharted space debris floating around, from garbage containers to broken ship hulls. Colliding with one of them would definitely be bad for us. Thank God that our ship’s crew seems to be on the ball. Well, let’s get out of these ugly plastic eggs, girls.’’

Her employees were too happy to comply, having found the experience a bit claustrophobic. On her part, Zara let her dressing lady repack her emergency life suit for her and went back to bed after a quick visit to the bathroom.

With the alarm terminated and her message of reassurance given to her passengers, Tina sat back in her command chair and thought about how to handle this 56

incident with the space authorities. Complicating her decision process was the fact that she was now sure that someone, either from the Vesta Corporation or from the TCN, possibly Rear Admiral Parwan himself, had leaked her flight plan to those pirates. How else could they have been able to ambush her ship so precisely in the vastness of space? That Parwan had refused to provide an armed escort ship for such a valuable cargo load tended to make Tina believe that the leak came from the TCN. However, by law she had to report fully on this incident to the TCN. For one thing, she now had twelve empty life pod launch tubes to refurbish and refill, something she would have to explain in detail anyway. Finally taking a decision, she rose from her chair and went to pat Renée Dargenteuil on the shoulder.

‘’You have the bridge back, Renée. I am going to my day cabin to start writing my report on this incident. In the meantime, make four copies of all the relevant sensors, communications and video logs, ready to be attached to my report.’’

‘’Four copies, Tina?’’

‘’Yes! One for the ship’s logs, one for Karl Langemann’s eyes only at the Vesta Consortium, one for the Jovian Shipping Lines space operations center and one for the central command of the Terran Customs Navy on Earth. The message will be classified

‘Urgent’, but we will send the copy for the TCN two hours after the other copies. Advise our supply officer as well to secure in advance twelve replacement life pod from Earth, to be installed once we are docked at the Las Americas spaceport.’’

‘’Got

it!’’

With a million things on her mind, Tina walked out of the bridge proper by a door connecting it to her day cabin, a small suite that allowed her to rest or work in private while staying close to her bridge’s command chair. Wording her report on what was going to be the first official pirate attack in a hundred plus years was going to prove a delicate job. For one thing, she was not sure how the Terran authorities would react to her utter destruction of that ship and the killing of its crew, especially if someone in the TCN had an interest in hiding the existence of these pirates. After all, if there had been one pirate ship, there could well be others still hiding around the Main Asteroid Belt and bribing people into silence. Hell, there could even be a whole pirate base hiding out there! Her report could very well unleash a storm of reactions, both official and unofficial, some possibly hostile towards her. With a cargo of rare metals worth over 140

billion credits, some very powerful people could have had their hands dipped in the jar.

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02:16 (Universal Time)

Friday, March 12, 2315

Residence of Karl Langemann

Kirkland, Vesta asteroid.

‘’Sir! Sir! Wake up, please!’’

‘’Uh?’’ Said groggily Karl Langemann, waking up slowly in his bed. Finally able to focus his eyes in the semi-darkness of his bedroom, he saw that his principal aide, Agneta Braun, was bent over his bed. Many forked tongues pretended, in Langemann’s back of course, that the beautiful blonde in her late thirties was in reality his mistress, but in truth she was the one member of his personal staff that he trusted completely. She was also a highly intelligent and competent woman of strong character, able to take hard decisions quickly when needed. If Agneta had decided that he needed to be awakened in the middle of the night, then it must have been for a truly urgent matter.

‘’What is it, Agneta?’’

‘’We just received an urgent message from the KOSTROMA, sir, eyes only for you.’’

‘’Did you read it?’’

‘’Yes sir! The KOSTROMA is safe, but it just repelled a pirate attack while still inside the Main Belt. The pirates were lying in ambush for the KOSTROMA but Captain Forster was able to destroy the pirate ship in a rather surprising way.’’

The words ‘pirates’ and ‘ambush’ finished waking up fully Karl Langemann, who swung his legs out of bed and sat up.

‘’Damn! Somebody leaked the KOSTROMA’s route and cargo manifest. Alright, where is this message?’’

‘’It is on your personal computer, sir. I already opened the message for you.’’

‘’Well done, Agneta! Give me a few minutes to read it. I will certainly have directives for you afterwards.’’

‘’Understood, sir. Would you like a cup of coffee while reading that message?’’

‘’It would be most welcomed, Agneta.’’

The industrialist then got up and put on his favorite robe and slippers before walking out of his bedroom and into his private study. Sitting behind his work desk, he started reading at once the message shown on his computer’s screen. Next, he watched the multiple audio-visual recordings attached to Forster’s report, nodding in appreciation at 58

the way she had dealt with the pirate ship: there was a young woman of merit. A maid delivered to him a coffee service as he was halfway through the viewing and he sipped with content on a hot cup that finished waking him fully. Eight minutes later, he sat back in his swivel chair, feeling a mix of relief and anger. Relief that the KOSTROMA and its precious cargo were safe. Anger at the one who had informed the pirates of the cargo ship’s route. His mind went nearly immediately to Rear Admiral Parwan: the man was at best an incompetent idiot, unwilling or unable to do his job properly, or at worst an accomplice to piracy, a crime he was sworn to prevent from happening and that rated the death penalty. Langemann did not however forget that many other actors may be at play here and that he would need to cover all the bases if he wanted to ensure his personal safety and the financial freedom of his consortium. Pushing a button got the ever ready Agneta Braun to step inside his study and walk to his work desk, stopping in a nearly military posture.

‘’Yes, Mister Langemann?’’

‘’We need to find how and by whom the KOSTROMA’s itinerary and schedule were leaked to those pirates. Don’t spare the means or the money to find that out, Agneta. Also, I will need to know if the good Rear Admiral Parwan has any dirty little secret of his own. This affair now has top priority.’’

‘’It will be done, sir.’’

‘’One last thing: have an extra ten million credits wired to Captain Forster and tell her that it is a reward for her and her crew for a job very well done.’’

‘’Understood, sir.’’ Replied calmly Braun before turning around and leaving the study. Now alone, Karl Langemann wondered how many other pirates existed in the Main Belt. If piracy ever became a serious and widespread problem, it would have the potential of strangling space commerce, raising dramatically insurance fees for shipping and discouraging space tourism. That would definitely be disastrous for all Spacers and not only for himself.

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CHAPTER 4 – REFIT AND SHORE LEAVE

06:33 (Universal Time)

Sunday, March 14, 2315

Docking Station 2, Las Americas Spaceport Earth orbit

As Tina expected, the first persons to come on the KOSTROMA from the spaceport once her ship had docked in Earth orbit were a team of Terran Customs Navy officers with grim expressions on their faces. She met them at the entrance point on the Promenade Deck, presenting her right hand to the senior officer, a commodore no less.

‘’Commodore, I’m Tina Forster, owner and captain of the MSS KOSTROMA.

Welcome aboard!’’

‘’Thank you, Captain Forster.’’ Said politely the commodore, a small, thin Asian man in his forties, while shaking her hand. ‘’I am Commodore Hiro Misawa, sent by the Headquarters of the Terran Customs Navy to investigate the incident between you and an unidentified ship you destroyed in the Main Asteroid Belt.’’

Seeing Tina tense up at his choice of words, Misawa quickly reassured her.

‘’Please do not take negatively how I phrased that, Captain Forster. It is just that, until proven, little is known officially for certain about that incident, apart from the role played by your ship. I do not want to imply in any way that you acted wrongly, on the contrary.’’

‘’That does reassure me, Commodore Misawa. If you will please follow me, I will bring you to my bridge-level meeting room, where you will be able to review all the pertinent data. Is my crew allowed in the meantime to start unloading our cargo and our passengers?’’

‘’They can go right ahead, Captain. I will just ask that your senior officers stay aboard for a few more hours, that is until we leave.’’

‘’An understandable request, Commodore. This way, please.’’

Twelve minutes later, Tina sat with the four TCN officers around the large table of the bridge meeting room and ordered from the crew’s cafeteria trays with coffee and tea 60

service sets and an assortment of muffins, croissants and other light pastries. While they waited for the food and drinks to be delivered, Tina selected on the computer terminal in front of her a number of electronic files, then sent copies to the terminals of her visitors.

‘’Here are all the pertinent electronic files on the incident, gentlemen. You are of course welcome to peruse any other file in my ship’s databank if need be.’’

‘’Your cooperation is truly appreciated, Captain Forster.’’ Said Misawa sincerely.

‘’Could you tell us first in your own words what happened out there in the Main Belt?’’

Tina obliged him with good grace, speaking for about three minutes. Misawa was thoughtful for a moment before asking his first true question.

‘’These pirates, did you recognize any of them from their voice?’’

‘’No! If you implied that the old crew of the RISING STAR had gone into piracy, I will flatly tell you now that I will never believe that. I knew well my uncle Peter and most of his senior officers and they were all honest, decent people. I have personal recordings of my uncle and of some of his crew that you can listen to and you will find that their voice signatures don’t match with any of the voices from the pirate ship.’’

‘’Without wanting to insult you by doubting your word, miss, could we have copies of those recordings?’’ Asked one of Misawa’s officers, a tall African woman.

‘’You can, Lieutenant-commander. In fact, I will retrieve them right now and send them to your terminal, so that you can copy them.’’

‘’Thank you, Captain.’’

Tina was still sifting through old communications recordings, selecting some and sending them to her visitors’ terminals, when a young and very beautiful Asian dark-skinned woman, a teenager actually, entered the meeting room after knocking on the door. Dressed like a waitress, she pushed a cart supporting cups, smoking pots and plates close to the table. Tina was secretly amused to see the three male TCN officers focus at once on the newcomer with delight.

‘’Commodore Misawa, may I present you Miss Tiki Batrang. She works as a waitress both in our crew’s cafeteria and at the lounge-bar APEROSSIMO, one of the commercial concessions on our Promenade Deck. I have to say that she has quite a few of my male crewmembers smitten.’’

‘’I can see why.’’ Replied Misawa, smiling. That made young Tiki smile as well, making her even more delectable. She however served the TCN officers and Tina 61

quickly and efficiently and left without delay, in order not to distract unduly her captain’s guests. Tina thanked her mentally for that and looked at Misawa, who was sipping from his cup of coffee.

‘’I believe that the voice recordings I just gave you will put to rest the thoughts that my uncle and his crew turned to piracy. My belief is that they were executed by the pirates after their ship was captured by them two years ago.’’

‘’Unfortunately, your ship left only a mass of hot slag out of that pirate ship, Captain Forster.’’ Said the female lieutenant-commander. ‘’It will now be impossible to identify those pirates.’’

‘’And I am sure that Captain Forster had no other choice at the time, short of surrendering her ship and then possibly see her crew and passengers slaughtered.’’ Cut Misawa, to the secret relief of Tina. ‘’In fact, I have to say that the tactics you used were near strokes of genius, Captain. What made you think about using your life pods as projectiles?’’

‘’Well, in view of the extremely high value of my present cargo, I was worried from the start of my trip about what I would do if attacked. I eventually realized that my life pods were the nearest things to projectiles I had. Attracting the pirate ship within their effective range was actually the real challenge. The aiming and firing of the pods was handled by the ship’s main computer, using the ship’s attitude control.’’

Misawa then asked a question that left Tina confused and shocked.

‘’Captain Forster, if you were fearing an attack on your ship, then why didn’t you request an escort ship from the TCN’s sector commander?’’

‘’But…Mister Langemann, CEO of the Vesta Consortium and the owner of the rare metals I carry, did ask for a TCN escort ship. Rear Admiral Parwan rejected that request, citing the lack of available ships.’’

‘’Rear Admiral Parwan did?’’ Said Misawa, clearly surprised. Tina then understood that only part of the facts was known on Earth…or that someone was trying to cover his behind in this affair.

‘’Yes, according to Mister Langemann. In view of the immense value of my cargo for Earth’s industries, I was very surprised as well that your Admiral Parwan didn’t consider escorting my ship as his top priority, Commodore.’’

‘’Indeed!’’ Said Misawa, frowning at the possible reasons for such a refusal. The female lieutenant-commander however reacted in a much more heated way at what she thought Tina was implying.

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‘’Surely, Captain Forster, you are not suggesting that Rear Admiral Parwan was negligent in his duties?’’

Tina, having heard enough of her, stared coldly at the lieutenant-commander.

‘’Lieutenant-commander Mavimbi, that is exactly what I am suggesting. We Spacers are constantly requested by your navy to pay taxes, shipping and custom fees of all kinds and are sometimes stopped and inspected on the whim of your captains in the middle of shipping runs. We thus have I believe a reasonable expectation to get some protection from the TCN when transporting cargoes worth many billions of credits.

On this run, my cargo was worth over 141 billion credits, more than the worth of your whole navy. Yet, your sector commander could not be bothered to provide my ship with an escort.’’

Mavimbi was about to reply hotly when Misawa raised a hand to signify her to keep silent.

‘’Captain Forster has a valid point, I must say. I will definitely inquire about that aspect of this incident. Well, now that we have all the data we need to study this incident, I think that we can let the good captain free to take care of her business, unless you have something else for us, Captain.’’

‘’Actually, I do, Commodore.’’ Said Tina gravely. ‘’That pirate ship’s armament was visible once at short range, thus I could not see how it could use regular spaceports to refuel and resupply. It must have had a base of its own, a clandestine base that could be sheltering more pirate ships and would be used to transfer its illegal loot on more legitimate-looking ships for shipping and sale to customers that are not too scrupulous about forged waybills. I believe that the TCN should seriously investigate that possibility, Commodore.’’

‘’Again, you make a lot of sense, Captain Forster.’’ Replied Misawa somberly. I will convey your suspicions to my superiors.’’

‘’And what about Rear Admiral Parwan?’’

‘’My superiors will have to examine his case, miss. In his case, I can only make suggestions.’’

Meaning that somebody up Misawa’s chain of command will probably hide the whole mess under the carpet, thought bitterly Tina. Misawa then rose from his chair after a last sip on his cup of tea and presented his right hand, which Tina shook after rising herself.

‘’Well, thank you very much for your cooperation, Captain Forster, and for your hospitality. We will keep you appraised of the final results of our inquiry.’’

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‘’That is much appreciated, Commodore. Let me guide you back to the boarding tube.’’

Twelve minutes later, Tina was seeing off Misawa and his three officers at the port boarding gate of the Promenade Deck. Natalia Vasilyeva, who was supervising the disembarkation of their passengers, approached Tina, stopping besides her and watching with her the TCN team walk away.

‘’So, what is the Navy saying, Tina?’’

‘’They say that they will investigate the pirate attack against us. Commodore Misawa appears to be a good officer, but I don’t have much faith in his superiors. For all we know, Rear Admiral Parwan, of the Vesta Sector, may very well be the one who leaked our route to the pirates, but I could not say so directly to Misawa. We can only hope that Misawa will have the balls to push his investigation all the way. Well, enough about that! None of our passengers suspect that we were attacked on our way to Earth, I hope?’’

‘’I heard nothing about that…yet. They all seemed to have enjoyed their trip, including even our choosy diva. I arranged for one of our shuttles to carry her and her troupe, complete with vehicles and equipment, directly to her hotel in Paris. That made her quite happy.’’

‘’A nice move, Natalia. What would I do without you?’’

‘’Muddle through?’’ Suggested with a smile the tall blonde, getting an elbow in the ribs in response.

‘’Yeah! Well, I will go see Denise on the Hangar Deck. I will feel better when that rare metals cargo will be offloaded and our shipping fee credited to our bank account. See you at lunch, Natalia.’’

Going down two levels, Tina found Denise Lonsdale supervising the unloading of the crates of rare metals with three men. One of the men, the local representative of the Jovian Shipping Lines at Las Americas Spaceport, was known to Tina, but the two others drew blanks in her memory. A strong contingent of armed security guards bearing the patches of the Corbon Metals Consortium were on hand as well, supplementing the four armed guards from the KOSTROMA’s security section. Raising her nose from the data pad she was looking at, Denise smiled at Tina as the latter approached her group.

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‘’Ah, Captain! I believe that you know already Mister Jimenez, from the Jovian Shipping Lines?’’

‘’I effectively do.’’ Said Tina, stopping besides the group and shaking Jimenez’

hand. Denise then presented the two other men with her.

‘’Then, let me present you Mister Fred Nugent, representative of the Corbon Metals Consortium, and Mister Antonio Bergamini, representative of the insurance group that was covering this cargo of metals.’’

Tina shook hands with both men, with Bergamini speaking to her in a low voice while smiling widely at her.

‘’My insurance group is presenting you a very special thank you for protecting your cargo the way you did, Captain Forster. I don’t want to sound insensitive about the fate of your crew and passengers if those pirates had succeeded in boarding you, but having your cargo stolen would have meant a huge blow to us, possibly even bankruptcy. Our CEO has thus authorized me to credit your ship’s account with the sum of fifteen million credits as a reward for safeguarding this shipment.’’

Tina’s face brightened on hearing that: while some would call that reward ‘niggardly’ in view of the value of the cargo involved, the fact was that nothing obliged the insurance group in giving her any reward at all.

‘’Those fifteen million credits will make for a nice vacation bonus for my crew, Mister Bergamini. Please present my warmest thanks to your CEO.’’

‘’I certainly will, Captain.’’

Fred Nugent was next to speak after taking the time to register the serial number of an outgoing crate of rare metals.

‘’My consortium is also very pleased with you and your ship, Captain Forster.

This cargo of rare metals will sustain our smelters for a good seven months and will help us keep a steady production of specialty steels. Iridium in particular is in such rare supply these days. Thank God that the Vesta Consortium recently found a real nugget of an asteroid made nearly entirely of heavy metals. We will certainly keep your ship in mind when we will need to transport another shipment of rare metals.’’

‘’Thank you for that thought, Mister Nugent. I have however to warn you that I will possibly get my ship to a shipyard for a mid-life refit after unloading of this cargo and payment of the shipping fee. My KOSTROMA is still in very good shape but it is 25

years old now and it could use an infusion of newer technology.’’

That made Nugent smile widely and he showed her his right thumb.

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‘’Then, it will be my pleasure to use this thumb to certify delivery of the cargo and to authorize the transfer of 4.246 billion credits to your ship’s account as soon as all these crates are moved out and on their way to our ground installations, Captain.’’

‘’Hell, for four billion credits I would suck that thumb with pleasure, mister!’’

Replied Tina, making the group laugh. Alfonso Jimenez, whose JSL was getting a cool half billion credits of its own for having helped arrange the shipment deal, nodded slowly his head.

‘’The Jovian Shipping Lines will be sad to lose the services of your ship for all these months in refit, Captain Forster. We will be however most happy to eventually reintroduce a rejuvenated KOSTROMA on our shipping lanes.’’

‘’Well, my KOSTROMA may go into a refit, but I still will have all my embarked fleet of passenger and cargo shuttles available to take up the slack for in-orbit and orbit-to-ground transportation work on behalf of the Jovian Shipping Lines. However, I intend to give first a good month of vacation on Earth to my crew…and myself.’’

‘’That is most understandable, Captain Forster.’’ Said Jimenez, brightening.

Being able to use the shuttles from the KOSTROMA would save him daily tens of thousands of credits by avoiding the need to rent at inflated prices the services of Terran-owned shuttles, which were getting greedier by the month and, in his mind, were less well maintained than the shuttles belonging to the JSL fleet. The group then went on watching the unloading of the heavy crates of metal ingots and powders. A bit over two hours later, Fred Nugent made a show of signing with his thumbprint the transfer of the shipping fees to the KOSTROMA’s and the JSL’s bank accounts. Of a common accord, the group then went to the crew’s mess to toast the event with a round of drinks.

Another hour and Jimenez left the ship with Nugent and Bergamini in very good spirits indeed.

15:58 (Universal Time)

Monday, March 15, 2315

Crew mess, MSS KOSTROMA

Docking Station 2, Las Americas Spaceport Tina waited until all the members of her crew and their families, including the personnel temporarily transferred from the APOLLO and the staff and owners of the 66

commercial concessions on the Promenade Deck, were sitting before starting to speak in her microphone.

‘’Ladies and gentlemen of the KOSTROMA, now that the unloading of all our cargo is completed, I will be happy to announce a few good news to you. First, you may all know already that our latest cargo has earned us a huge shipping fee equal to a bit over four billion credits, plus an insurance reward of fifteen million credits and another ten million credits bonus from the Vesta Consortium. While most of that money will be used for a serious refit of our ship and for our future operating expenses, all of you will get substantial individual bonuses. Since this huge profit was due to the specific cargo we hauled on this latest run, all the crewmembers that worked aboard during that run, including those temporarily assigned from the cruise liner APOLLO, will each get identical immediate bonuses of 100,000 credits. The employees and owners of the commercial concessions renting space on our Promenade Deck will receive on their part individual gifts of 25,000 credits, to thank you for the services you provide on this ship.’’

Tina had to pause for a moment, while a wave of loud cheers went through the crowd.

‘’There is more, my friends. Each permanent crewmember of this ship will as well see soon an individual bonus of one million credits transferred to savings accounts in your names at the Jovian Credit Bank on Callisto Prime. I will urge you to be cautious about how you use this money and that you ideally save it for your retirement days, or for the higher education of your children. We don’t know how the economy or space commerce business will fare in the years and decades to come, so, please, try not to burn that money on wild buying sprees.’’

This time, there was a delayed reaction to her announcement before the crowd cheered again: her crewmembers were obviously stunned by their sudden good fortune. Tina again waited for a relative calm to return before speaking.

‘’I intend during the next few days to go shop around the shipyards in Earth orbit and around the Moon, in order to find a suitable yard that could conduct a major refit of the KOSTROMA, especially to its propulsion systems. Once such a yard is selected and a refit contract is signed, we will move our ship to that yard, then will be free to take a well deserved vacation on Earth. You will each get an all-expenses covered, one month paid vacation package for you and your families at one of the Earth vacation resorts our administrative office will select. Be assured that we will not be cheap about the resorts selection we will offer. After that month of vacation, you will return to the ship to help with its refit, but will be able to leave your families at the vacation resorts for the duration 67

of the refit, and that out of my pocket. For the staff and owners of our commercial concessions, do not worry about seeing your businesses shut down during the ship’s refit. You will be allowed to stay open as long as it does not interfere with the refit work.

Furthermore, I am suspending from now until the end of the refit the need for you to pay your monthly rent, whether you close or stay open.’’

More cheers and applauses followed her words. Now feeling as proud and happy as she ever had been before, Tina smiled to the crowd around her.

‘’That is all for the moment. You may start shopping around for Earth resorts in which you would be interested to spend your vacation. Our administrative office will then select the ten most popular resorts that you will suggest and start preparing packages for your use. Oh, one last thing: LET’S GET THIS BAR OPENED!’’

Tina didn’t have to repeat herself before there was a massive surge towards the bar of the mess.

10:06 (Universal Time)

Thursday, March 18, 2315

Chief designer’s office, Avalon Space Yards Earth orbit

Tina was led by an Avalon Space Yards senior secretary to the office of the enterprise’s chief designer, where she was greeted by a tall, lean man in his late forties with blond hair and clear blue eyes. The man, dressed very informally with an opened neck shirt and beige slacks, gave her a frank smile while presenting his right hand, which Tina shook.

‘’Welcome to the Avalon Space Yards, Captain Forster. I am Gustav Shomberg, chief designer of the yard.’’

Tina opened wide her eyes as the engineer’s grip nearly crushed her hand.

‘’Gustav Shomberg? THE Gustav Shomberg who designed the Shomberg Fusion Drive?’’

‘’In person!’’ Replied proudly the engineer. ‘’So, you want to overhaul and improve your KOSTROMA, Captain?’’

‘’I certainly do! Having it done under the supervision of one of the most brilliant ship designers of the day will certainly help me sleep soundly during the next few months.’’

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The smile of the engineer widened at her words.

‘’And the reputation of our space yard for quality work is not overblown, I assure you, Captain. But let’s sit down at my design console to discuss your needs.’’

Tina accepted the chair shown to her near a work station with a large holographic display sphere, with Shomberg sitting at the station.

‘’Mister Shomberg, I will certainly not dispute the reputation of your shipyard, which is well known, but I was surprised to learn that it is presently working only at half capacity. Mind you, I am not complaining about that, as it is giving me an opening to get your enterprise to work on my ship.’’

Shomberg’s smile dissipated somewhat and he became thoughtful, speaking in a calm, slow voice.

‘’That, Captain, reflects the latest government budget cuts to its space-related expenditures. In case you haven’t heard in the news, the financial situation of the Terran government has worsened steadily during the last months, due to increasing demands by Earth’s population for social benefits and assistance.’’

‘’I have heard about those demands but, frankly, found many of them completely unreasonable, Mister Shomberg. There are already too many billions of Earth citizens living on welfare and doing nothing. Hell, there are simply too many billions of people on Earth in view of its depleted natural resources.’’

‘’I totally agree with you, miss.’’ Said glumly the engineer. ‘’While I work and live in Earth orbit, I consider myself a Spacer first and have little sympathy for the masses on the planet who do little by themselves to improve their lot. Unfortunately, those masses also represent big voting blocks for the politicians of the Terran Federation, blocks that they can manipulate and use to stay in power by granting them ever more generous social benefits. However, those benefits have to be funded in order to keep the Federation’s budget from sinking into red ink. Unfortunately, Grand Administrator Li and his governing council have chosen to fund these social programs via cuts to space development projects and increased taxes on Spacers and space shipping. We at the Avalon Space Yards saw last month a government contract for the refit of a number of heavy units of the Terran Customs Navy cancelled abruptly, leaving us high and dry with no warning. The Terran government is even disputing payments for stocks of structural steel and aluminum and ship machinery parts we had acquired for that contract.’’

‘’But, such a breach of contract is clearly to be blamed on the government, and not on your yard, no?’’

69

‘’Most lawyers would say so, miss. However, too many judges in the Terran Federation justice administration are corrupt or totally subservient to the government, owing it their seats.’’

Tina looked at the engineer with visible worry.

‘’Are things really becoming this bad on Earth? I watch regularly the space news but did not pick up on that.’’

‘’Miss, one would need solid proofs before being able to publicly post such accusations without risking immediate arrest for defamation of public servants. Most news agencies won’t risk such legal pursuits…or worse.’’

‘’Worse? What do you mean?’’

Shomberg bent forward towards her and lowered his voice, as if he was afraid to be overheard.

‘’Let’s say that, in the poorer areas of Earth where the government gets the majority of its public support, an increasing number of journalists and reporters critical of the Terran administration have been attacked by bands of thugs and beaten, or even killed in a number of cases. When some of those reporters complained to the local police, they were either ignored or accused of having provoked the incidents themselves. In most cases, nothing was done. I have a friend on Earth who was an investigative journalist. She was looking into a case of government corruption in India when she was brutally beaten at night by a bunch of thugs. When she went to complain to the police, she saw with a shock that one of the policemen at the station was one of her attackers. She then decided to drop her complaint and abandon her investigation.

She has since abandoned journalism.’’

Tina could only look at him with horror and disgust before she could regain her voice.

‘’But,

that’s

outrageous!’’

‘’Yes, and it unfortunately represents a growing trend in the state of affairs on Earth.’’

‘’But, I am due to send soon my crew on extended shore leave on Earth. Are you saying that they would then be at risk?’’

‘’Not if they avoid certain areas and don’t meddle publicly in local politics or social affairs. Personally, I avoid Africa and the Indian Subcontinent like the plague, and have done so for years. They are grossly overpopulated and polluted, are ripe with widespread corruption and are sustained only by massive social programs from the 70

Terran Federation. Australia, North America and Northern Europe are however quite safe for Spacers in my opinion.’’

‘’Quite safe for Spacers… I am not sure that I like what your last sentence implies, Mister Shomberg. Why would Spacers be especially at risk on Earth?’’

‘’Because many in the unemployed masses on Earth believe that us Spacers are living on their back, a belief that the Terran government does little to dispel. You must know the old proverb that says: if you have a problem, it is easier to blame outsiders for it than to deal with it.’’

‘’Yes, I know it.’’ Said Tina in a dejected tone. Shomberg then patted gently her shoulder.

‘’Please forgive me for having lowered your morale with such a ghastly subject, miss. Let’s see now what the Avalon Space Yard can do for your ship.’’

Nearly three hours of technical discussions followed, with Shomberg projecting a 3D image of the KOSTROMA on his holographic display and modifying it as he responded with suggestions to the refit requirements presented by Tina. At the end of the discussion, Tina looked with awe at the 3D image of her ship, now quite different from its present state.

‘’My God! This would indeed be like a dream come true. How much would all this work cost and how long would it take, Mister Shomberg?’’

‘’I would have to first do detailed plans and calculations before I could give you an accurate cost estimate, miss, but I would say out of experience that the bill would come to a bit over three billion credits. Fortunately, the machinery parts and plating we had stockpiled for that now cancelled government contract will allow us to save a lot of time and shave some of the costs. I would say that the work should take between seven and eight months.’’

‘’That is quite reasonable, in view of the finished product.’’ Said Tina, satisfied.

‘’I will be waiting for your yard to send me a detailed contract proposal for signature before giving my final approval. Once the contract is signed, I will move my ship in dry dock. Can my crew help your workers during the refit?’’

‘’To a degree. Most of the work will take place outside of the main hull, so your people will be free to still use their onboard accommodations during the refit.’’

71

‘’That suits me just fine, Mister Shomberg. By the way, there are a number of commercial concessions that rent space aboard my ship. If they are interested, your workers would be welcomed to visit and use them.’’

‘’Concessions? What kinds exactly?’’ Asked the chief designer, showing interest. Tina then took out of a pocket a small electronic tablet and switched it on, then opened a file listing the facilities of the KOSTROMA. She presented the tablet to Shomberg, who read quickly the list. He smiled on reading some of the entries, then gave the tablet back to Tina.

‘’I believe that our yard workers would indeed be interested to visit some of the establishments on your ship, miss. I must say that, for a cargo ship, your passenger facilities are impressive. Once overhauled, I believe that your ship will be well equipped to attract many juicy contracts.’’

‘’I am certainly counting on it, Mister Shomberg.’’ Replied Tina, a wide smile on her face. Something then came back to her mind and she became quite serious. ‘’Uh, with all these fascinating proposals of yours, I forgot to mention something: I will need to refurbish and refill ten of my life pod launch tubes.’’

‘’You had some kind of emergency aboard your ship recently, miss?’’ Asked a surprised Shomberg, bringing a grimace on Tina’s face.

‘’You could say so, mister. I wanted to keep that incident hush hush, but I suppose that it will come out sooner or later. In truth, my ship was attacked by a pirate ship while navigating inside the Main Asteroid Belt a few days ago. Since I strongly suspected that those pirates would not leave living witnesses behind, I decided to defend myself by firing life pods from point blank range at their ship. While they were spinning out of control, already severely damaged, I then fired my main fusion drive and caught their ship in my plasma exhaust, melting them to a slag.’’

Shomberg stared at her for a moment with disbelief, then broke out into a short laughter before regaining control of himself.