PROLOGUE: Part III
Ashkelon Station: In Orbit of GL382
Deep within the bowels of Ashkelon Station Lead Engineer Storen Bull
began his day walking his dog. Never a handsome man, nor energetic, Storen carried a look of perpetual disinterest with a slack rested facial expression and tired droopy blue/grey eyes that rarely seemed to focus on anything. Storen was in his mid-fifties, balding with thinning hair pulled back into a rough knot tied above his collar. A short beard peppered with grey was trimmed low along his jawline but thicker around his mouth and chin.
This early in the morning Storen moved with a sluggish pace holding the leash of his Black Norwegian Elkhound Spacer
loosely in his grip. A handsome animal, the canine padded dutifully alongside him making no sound as Storens boots clomped and stomped along the metal grating of the lower engineering decks. Spacer had a squarely-built body, shiny short-haired coat, pointed ears and a firmly curled tail arched over his back. Generally good-natured with a headstrong stubbornness, the hound was much beloved around the station; more so than Storen himself there was no doubt.
Standing 6’2” Storen dressed in an engineering jumpsuit the same as other techs except for an old tan leather jacket tightly hugging his shoulders. Climate controls were constantly on the flux, especially in ‘low-priority’ areas of the station where none of the haughty corporate execs deigned to tread. Down here in the stations guts Storen was happy to have the added warmth. On each shoulder was a black-over-red patch of Ashkelon Station, with the added cluster of three dark-orange starbursts sewn above the heart on his left breast marking his rank as a Lead Engineer. On each collar was a golden pin bordered in silver. One was a spacecraft and the other was a space station indicating his broad level of expertise.
Storen had long since made a habit of taking a stroll around the lower levels looking for anything the station techs might have missed that might affect operations above. It wouldn’t be the first time he caught something and he had his reasons to be concerned. The station in orbit of GL382
was many times more massive than an M-Class freighter, but it was still much like a space craft in many senses of the word. Though not equipped with engines it had a towing platform so it could be hauled through space. it also had powerful maneuvering thrusters to maintain and modify its orbit.
Ashkelon was home to over sixteen hundred souls but there were only enough escape pods for for about a fifth of that number. Spacer paused mid-step as a slight rattle and the hiss of gas escaped a bundle of pipes and hoses above his head. The hound lifted his snout, swiveled his ears and sniffed curiously before huffing his throat slightly.
Storen peered up at the hoses slowly sniffing a few times himself. “Sounds like another leak,” he said absently hooking Spacer’s leash on his thumb while reaching for the engineering multi-tool clipped to his waist. The device was an older model designed for EVA use encased in a high density polymer shell with a low-definition back-lit LCD display and fat rubberized buttons. Storen waited a few moments for it to boot up selecting ‘sensor wand’ from a sub-menu. An instant later, a pen-like ancillary tool popped up through a port in the casing. Storen pulled it free the rest of the way holding it up above his head. Steady tones of blips and beeps confirmed the source, type and severity of the gas leak.
“Yep,” Storen murmured to himself glancing at the readout. It read pure nitrogen which wasn’t an absolute emergency insofar as the gas was neither toxic nor flammable. Spacer barked once. Storen reached down to pat the dog reassuringly replacing the multi-tool back on his belt. He would order a station repair tech to fix this as soon as he reached his office.
There was something of a professional rivalry between the station techs and the spacecraft techs. Whenever the groups happened to encounter each other at a bar or cafeteria some sort of insults, arguments or contests were soon to follow. Unfortunately the rivalry had very real consequences in budgetary terms as both groups pressed for a larger share of funds from station administration.
The debate was always the same. Spacecraft techs argued that a well-managed, well-supplied space dock was vital to both safety and commerce. Station techs argued the needs of the space dock were secondary to the wants of the corporate labs, the hospital and other vital systems for the stations six hundred residents. Neither group was happy with what they got and neither group felt like Storen was on their side, which was true, he wasn't.
Storen was one of the few members of middle-management who was truly impartial. He also didn’t blame a lack of funding for the daily woes of the engineers. Ashkelon Station was constructed in 2093, it was ninety years old. Older than the great majority of spacecraft that used it as a port of call and one of the oldest stations still in service anywhere in the Outer Veil.
Slightly smaller and less expensive than its lost sister-station, Sevastopol
, Ashkelon was the first major attempt at exploration into the Frontier by the CSC
(Central Space Consortium). The CSC was a cutthroat cabal of corporate giants and off-world colonies coming together to declare independence from earthbound governments to create their own laws and avoid paying taxes.
At the beginning, member corporations were all too eager to invest their fortunes into the station for the promise of future dividends. Though never faulted for their ambition, the CSC’s reach seemed to extend beyond their grasp. In subsequent decades little exploration actually occurred beyond the Tartarus Sector
and no colonies beyond GL382 (also known as Temple
) were actually founded by the CSC. Once its operating costs this far into the outer reaches of known space seemed to outweigh its usefulness to generate profits it didn’t take long for the station to lose support.
Besides that, the lawless and underhanded reputation of the CSC made the station a black spot along the space lanes for interstellar commerce. Ships registered in the UA
(United Americas) and the 3WE
(Three World Empire) strongly discouraged their crews from stopping at Ashkelon Station.
Storen had no illusions about what to expect when he took his job twelve years ago. Ashkelon was no one’s idea of a premier posting. Lack of ICC
(Interstellar Commerce Commission) regulations and oversight made everything troublesome. Station equipment had no maintenance standards, spacecraft repairs were improper or outright negligent. Parts, fuel, tools and supplies were in short supply for one reason or another. Many things on the station had strings attached to unethical individuals. Storen didn’t put up with any of that.
Since those days many people tend to forget how bad things on the station used to be and fewer still give Storen his due credit for cleaning it up, not that most were even aware of how and what he actually did. Storen preferred it that way. Recent circumstances however, changed the station in ways no one anticipated. The evolution of the CSC into the ICSC
(Independent Core Systems Colonies) created entirely new problems.
Ashkelon Station was never a legitimate port of call in the eyes of the old earth governments and for the better part of ninety years that looked like it would never change until the ICSC decided it should. In the spirit of free commerce and the desire to attract new colonies into their re-branded consortium the ICSC agreed for limited ICC oversight of Ashkelon Station and a few other way stops on the trade lanes back into the core systems. In addition to this, Colonial Marshals
were also permitted postings in these locations to safeguard ICC personnel, visitors, and to uphold the laws of the Colonial Administration
This agreement was hashed out after months of talks with the ICC under intense media scrutiny. Everyone in the galaxy seemed to have an opinion on whether or not this would work or should even be attempted. Merits of the agreement as a good idea were debated against arguments attesting it as a bad idea for quite some time.
Along with this drastic change in policy, the ICSC promised an overhaul of the station to meet ICC standards. Meanwhile on the station rumors of personnel changes, layoffs and new management ran rampant. Tensions between residents, techs and staff were higher than they’d ever been. Tempers grew short.
Those who believed the changes would be positive struggled to do their best and exceed their performance quotas. Those who feared change, the ICC, or the Colonial Marshals specifically strongly protested. Few could blame them. Many residents of Ashkelon Station had a past that would cause much grief if they ever ended up in the custody of a Colonial Marshal.
It had already been close to a month since the ICC and the Colonial Marshals started operating on the station. Initial reactions were harsh of course. Protests and acts of violence occurred as many predicted they would. One ICC officer and two deputies of the Colonial Marshals Office were seriously injured while undertaking their duties.
Storen wasn’t one to overreact too much of anything but he was genuinely worried about what might happen if things kept up this way. Accidents, Injuries, brawling and drinking were on an upswing among his people. No doubt that trend was true for the rest of the station as well.
By comparison a tiny nitrogen gas leak didn’t seem like a big problem in itself but it hinted at a greater problem station-wide. Storen knew he wasn’t the only tech moving through these corridors on a daily basis. The only reason he and Spacer happened to notice this leak at all was because he wasn’t in a hurry concentrating on something else.
What’s worse, he could easily imagine some other tech ignoring the leak altogether unless it was assigned to them on a work order. Such was the short-sightedness of priorities that led to the sorry state of Ashkelon station, Storen mused, tugging Spacer along as he kept walking.
A short while later Storen reached the dry dock proper approaching the personnel airlock which was flanked by two yawning ICSC security officers. Though early for him, these officers were nearing the end of their shift.
“Hey Bull,” one of them said in a low grunt. This one was the larger of the two, almost as tall as Storen but heavier and meaner in appearance. His square skull was trimmed in a buzz cut and beneath his collar were the hint of tattoos. His eyes met Storen’s only briefly before he shifted his gaze again down towards Spacer. The hound stopped panting and stared back unkindly.
“Don,” Storen stated flatly. The other officer glanced between the two sensing there was a history here. Storen didn’t know this one. He was younger, leaner and a few inches shorter standing more on the balls of his feet grasping his hands together behind his back. The black and red uniform he wore had the name J. Heisinger
over his badge.
moved to open the airlock for Storen as the other officer held up his hand, “Hold on! Animals aren’t allowed in the dry dock. Where is your identification?” He asks Storen with an arrogant undertone. Don took in a breath and clenched his jaw. Storen could tell he was frustrated. The smaller man was clearly new to the station, another fresh graduate from the ICSC Security Officer’s Academy back in the core systems.
Don was an ASS
(Ashkelon Station Security) for almost as long as Storen was a Lead Engineer. After the ICSC was formed orders came through to begin a 'restructuring' of Ashkelon Station Security. Don was forced into reassignment within the new ICSC security officers hierarchy. Don’s familiarity and experience with the station apparently didn’t matter so much as his lack of training and familiarity with the new regs. He was demoted down from assistant chief to a lowly guard and patrol posting.
“Jack, this is Storen Bull, one of the stations Lead Engineers,” Don said to his fellow officer trying to make it clear that Storen was free to go pretty much anywhere he wanted.
“I wasn’t asking you!” Jack shot back.
Storen locked eyes with Jack as Spacer started to growl. Jack put a hand on his sidearm. “You’ll want to keep that animal under control!” he warned. “Now where’s your ID?"
Storen reached up to his jacket and pulled it aside very slowly. There on his right breast was his nametag sewn on his jumpsuit. S. Bull
. Beneath that was a plastic ID card in a clear plastic cover. The cover had push-snaps sewn into the corners that snapped unto the jumpsuit.
“That’s the old CSC ID Card,” Jack complained. “You’ll need to report to the ICSC security office for a replacement.”
“Sure, no problem,” Storen said calmly. “I’ll get around to it.”
Jack crosses his arms, “I can’t let you pass until you do. Take your mutt with you.”
Don slowly shakes his head and rolls his eyes.
Storen steps forward and Jack flinched, “Halt!”
“I don’t have time for this I have work to do,” Storen muttered stepping even closer.
Jack grabs for his sidearm as Spacer lunges snapping his jaws around the young mans calf pulling him off balance. Jack never even managed to un-holster his weapon before Storen slams his head back against the airlock frame with a solid thud. Jack makes a soft 'whuuuhhh'
sound before he starts to collapse.
Don grabs him as he topples over and lays him down gently, “naughty word! Sorry about this Bull. Jacks got his head up his ass.”
Storen pulls back on Spacers leash and the hound returns to his side obediently.
“It is what it is,” Storen says placing a hand on the bigger mans shoulder briefly. “Don’t report this to anyone. Make sure the kid understands to keep his mouth shut.”
Don nods as he frowns, “It makes no sense what they’re doing with station security. These new guys just want to make problems.”
“They didn’t grow up on Ashkelon like you did Don. You need to make them understand this is our home. They have no right to treat us like criminals or act like jailers.”
Don nods his head, “They don’t give a naughty word about us.”
“No they don’t. They just want to overhaul the station. Those of us who already live here are just in the way. It will get worse. This is just the first wave.”
Don spits, “They demoted me!”
“They made a mistake and it won’t be the last. We have to be smarter than that. I’ll put in a word for you with the old man Don. We'll see what we can do for you.”
“Ok, thanks Bull,” Don says appreciatively.
Storen presses the open button for the airlock, waiting while the stations AI samples the air pressures on either side of the bulkhead verifying it was safe to open. All the bulkheads, airlocks and viewing windows into the dry dock were as strong and secure as those of the outer hull. This was by design in case of an explosion or emergency venting. Thus nearly all sound outside the dry dock was muffled. Looking through the airlocks tiny portal made the dry dock look cavernous with a surreal laboratory-like quality.
Storen was pleased to see how cramped and busy it was on the other side. Ashkelon’s dry dock had the capacity to hold one M-Class freighter at any one time, along with three smaller G-class spacecraft, but it was rare to actually see the bay near full capacity. Everything else looked small and toy-like in comparison to the spacecraft.
However, walking inside was an entirely different experience. Most visitors felt small and vulnerable, at odds with the environment like they didn’t belong. Here the machines commanded attention as techs and maintenance personnel swarmed around them like so many devotees. Above all the spacecraft loomed high, as powerful and prominent as chariots of the gods.
As the airlock opened with a deep throbbing hum of heavy hydraulics a cacophonous rattle of power tools, the low frequency chugging of auxiliary fluid pumps, the loud whine of robotic gantry arms and the heavy thudding steps of power loaders washed over him like a wave of noise.
Storen stepped through the airlock and across the threshold. Beneath his boots the reinforced deck plates were layered with synthetic rubberized plastic tiles. Light grey in color, these tiles served three purposes. They provided a durable surface resistant to fuel and chemical spills, improved grip and traction as well as an electrical insulator. Storen felt many vibrations through the floor, as good an indicator as any of just how busy it was.
As he moved across the bay Storen let his eyes rove around, taking stock of the work being performed. When necessary the dry dock worked around the clock splitting the crew into three shifts, each with twelve techs and sixteen maintenance and loading personnel. ICC regulations wouldn’t allow more than that in a bay this size during any one shift, even at full capacity.
Working on spacecraft was a job like any other, except when it wasn’t. People trusted these ships with their lives and livelihoods. So far as Storen was concerned there was no excuse for mistakes. Storen expected a high degree of proficiency. He also demanded a modicum of professionalism and a safety-conscious attitude, but most of all he asked for pacing. A good rule of thumb with spacecraft was this. Working slow was working safe. No rush no fuss.
Suddenly there was shouting. One of the ICC Supervisors was yelling at the Senior Tech in charge. Storen steered himself towards the commotion but he was intercepted by Elsie Macgill, the manager of dry dock, shuffling towards him with the aid of two strong metal canes, one slipped over each forearm.
Storen frowned, he didn’t like to see her moving so strenuously. Her place was up in the control room taking charge of logistics, scheduling and supplies the same as she’d always done. Twenty five years she’d been in charge of this dock. Elsie was one of the few people on this station he respected completely.
“Don’t bother with that just yet,” Elsie said jerking her head towards the ICC Supervisor. “You’ve got a visitor waiting in your office.” She stated in that tone she used when she was more concerned about what she was talking about than what she was actually saying.
Storen could only remember one other time when the station administrator came to his office personally, and that was about a week after he accepted this job just to check on how he was fitting in. Elsie knew the man much longer than he did but by the expression on her face she didn’t know what to make of this odd visit either.
This put Storen in an awkward position. The truth was he spoke to Ze’ev fairly often, always face-to-face, but in a completely different capacity than Lead Engineer and never in his office. Storen allowed the genuine look of bewilderment to come over him.
“He doesn’t look so good,” Elsie continued.
“Ok, let’s not keep him waiting,” Storen said walking with Elsie back towards the lifts at the rear of the dry dock. Normally he took the stairs with their terrific high climb but Elsie would never manage those. Elsie never spoke of her degenerative spinal disorder or let it slow her down in any way, but Storen believed she should have been able to do more with her life. She was smarter than he was and even more learned as an engineer. If she could walk and crawl around the spacecraft the way he did he had no doubt she would make a fine Lead Engineer. At least he convinced her to set up a classroom to instruct the techs whenever she had the time.
Spacer whined as the lift doors shut prior to its ascent. Spacer didn’t like lifts, trams, spacecraft, basically anything that gave the impression the whole room was moving.
“Ssshhh,” Elsie said soothingly. “I’ve got some bacon for you today Spacer!”
Spacer barked with excitement. Elsie kept bowls of food and water for him in the operations center along with a rug for him to lay on beside her terminal. She and the rest of the operations staff kept an eye on the hound whenever Storen was busy in the dry dock or elsewhere on the station.
“Come along Spacer,” Elsie said as the lift reached the landing twenty meters above the deck below.
Storen handed off Spacers leash to her before walking down the corridor towards his office. His door was open and there inside, Ze’ev was waiting for him just as Elsie said he was. The station administrator was sitting before his desk dressed in a freshly pressed suit. His grey eyes however, were baggy and tired, with little of the usual vitality that belied his seventy five years of age.
“What can I do for you sir?” Storen asked politely, keeping his voice professional. So far as anyone knew they had no relationship beyond his role here and he wasn’t comfortable breaking that secret by acting too familiar while the door was still open.
“Good morning Storen. Sorry to bother you like this but this couldn’t wait. I need to ask a favor,” Ze’ev said standing extending his hand. Storen glanced over his shoulder and down the corridor before he shut the door behind him. Ze’ev stood a good seven inches shorter than Storen and his handshake felt frail and weak. Storen also noted his hair was seemingly getting whiter every time they met.
Ze’ev sat down again and continued to speak as Storen moved around his desk, “There is a ship scheduled to dock here in the next few days, the USCSS Casimir
. I need you to find out whatever you can about it and the crew as soon as possible.”
Storen looked puzzled, “I remember that ship. It's an older M-Class Bison cargo hauler, been stopping here fairly regularly, always needs something. It's almost as much of an old wreck as Ashkelon station itself. Why are you so interested?”
Ze'ev pursed his lips, “It's a long story, I'll explain later."
Storen shrugged, "Well I have access to all the records of service done here of course, and whatever flight plan and manifest was filed with the ICC. Public records about the crew should also be available.”
“That’s a start, but I want the whole story. I want to see all the ICC records with detailed personnel files on every crew member the ship ever had. I want to see every cargo manifest and transaction, every flight log, every captain’s log, you understand?”
Storen shook his head, “Risky! The ICC database is one of the hardest to pull records from without proper authorization. That’s a very serious federal offense. I am not entirely sure I can even manage it here on Ashkelon Station. You know our access to the Network is under strict management and observation.”
“There are back-channels the ICC and the Company don’t know about,” Ze’ev said in a low voice. “I can provide all the Network access you’ll require.”
“There is still the issue of authorization.”
“Any one of the ICC officers here should have authority to access to those records. The Casimir is scheduled to arrive soon, that should be reason enough for them to make an inquiry if you can come up with a legitimate reason for it."
Storen leaned back in his swivel chair prompting a loud squeak. He was starting to understand why this was more of a favor than an order. Ze'ev was asking him to put his neck on the line and the look on the old mans face told him this was likely only the beginning of what he was really after. Storen had as many doubts as he had questions, but that's how favors worked. Storen had to admit he still owed the man and Elsie was right, he didn't look well. Storen had never seen Ze'ev this desperate before.
"Ok Ze'ev," Storen said after a long pause. "I'll get you those records but I have a favor of my own I'd like to ask in return."
Ze'ev look surprised, clearly also uncomfortable with this new facet of their relationship, "What's that?"
"Don's been demoted. Can you pull some strings, get him back into a respectable role?"
Ze'ev blinked, "Don? Forgive me but I never thought you two were friends?"
"It's not about that. Ashkelon Station is under threat. We have to look after each other or the ICSC will have us all replaced."
Ze'ev looked hurt and clearly offended, "I would never allow that!"
Storen raised his hands in a unspoken statement of apology and doubt, "No offense boss, but the times-they-are-a-changin."