Epsilon Indi star system
Ted Allbright hated his job. This feeling wasn't the kind of disdain people express about their jobs when they've had a bad day. No, Ted felt a visceral, and passionate hatred for his job. It wasn't just the fact that running maintenance checks on communications relays was pure tedium, it had more to do with the fact that this was a fall-from-grace kind of job. This was the kind of job you ended up with after screwing up so many other aspects of your life, there weren't many options left this side of institutionalization. He hated it for all the failures it represented in his life. Most of the time he kept these feelings quiet. But after his third whiskey on those rare occasions he drank, it would emerge in a violent solitary rant to the indifferent walls of his small cylindrical shelter. Nevertheless, he clung to the job, and executed it meticulously in full knowledge that this truly was his last chance.
To make matters worse, he was in a foul mood today because he'd been called out on his day off to run a check on an FTL relay that was acting up for the third time this month. Being on call was just one of the many things he loathed about his job. It wasn't that he had much planned for his day off. But he knew that he should be half in the bag right about now, watching some ogee-ball or some porn, not coasting out to a remote satellite in his rented, piece-of-shit utility vehicle. He was also a little cranky because, as hard as it was for him to admit, he was lonely. It wasn't easy for a loner like Ted to admit something like this to himself. He wanted to meet someone on today's outing, just to exchange a few words over the comm. It must be the isolation was getting to him. Most of the time, his job was very quiet, and very lonely.
He once served proudly as chief engineer on a Puffin-class tug. He was the chief grease monkey on the Acadian for eight years, and had been pretty good at it. Unfortunately, he was less good at getting along with his fellow crewmembers, and even less good than that at curbing his drinking habits. The drinking eventually got so bad he couldn't do his job anymore. He'd made too many enemies and screwed up too many times. He lost his posting, his savings, his girlfriend and most of his friends all in the same year. After that he continued to slide down that slippery slope. He bounced from station job to station job, cleaning, repairing, sweeping and doing pretty much any kind of work he could get. But every crappy job he tried quickly turned sour and ended with a boot in the backside and a door slammed right behind him. After four years of this, he got the kind of serious wake-up call that only comes from a close brush with death. His friend-in-inebriation, Bernie Burns, got himself killed in a stupid, preventable and particularly messy accident that had more to do with an alcoholic haze than the inherent danger of life on a space station. Ted knew that the sloppy mess they packaged and unceremoniously cremated, once known to him as Burnsie, could just as easily have been him. He finally decided to quit drinking, clean up, and get his life back on track before he joined Burnsie for the final cocktail party in the big black. Staying sober turned out to be the hardest thing he'd ever done, and was pure hell every step of the way.
He never forgot how bad the alternative was, though, so he eventually got himself cleaned up, and registered as an Engineer (third-class) again. He even got his drinking mostly under control. Mostly.
He was not entirely what you would call 'dry'. He still gave himself a kind of controlled burn once a month, as a form of test for himself. It was one of the promises he negotiated with himself when he was praying for strength during one of the more painful, nauseated, and shake-filled phases of his detoxification. So far he'd managed to keep his occasional binges within the limits he'd set for himself.
He found decent, though loathsome, work as a "handyman" of sorts, roaming around the Epsilon Indi system in a small utility repair ship he'd leased, doing odd jobs. He hated it. He also hated the name on his utility vehicle, but he was leasing the Cupcake, so there wasn't much he could do about it. The small 26-meter utility vessel wasn't made for comfort or long-duration trips, but it was tough and versatile, and you could find them in use just about everywhere these days. His work was despicably boring, but it kept him away from people, for whom he had little use most of the time, and it kept him away from the bars.
During the last few months he'd been doing maintenance on a local network of FTL relays out on the rim, just beyond Old Man Panemito's orbit. Oh, sure the relays were all automated, and they had robotic repair systems already in place. The relays even had specialized and certified maintenance people contracted for checkups and emergency repairs, but their services were expensive as hell. So he was hired, much more cheaply, to do the little troubleshooting stuff. He made sure the relays were clear, that the bots were working OK, and that any glitches got fixed before they got noticed by anyone who's services cost a lot more. He flew a regular route between the six relays, covering a huge portion of the entire system. It took days for him to complete the circuit and get back to the small asteroid hovel he called 'home base', but most would have called a storage garage. After a day or so off, he'd head back out and do it again.
He slowed the Cupcake to a crawl as he approached relay CCT-L1602, and began his scans. Though his vessel never exceeded what most would laughingly describe as a crawl in space travel terms, he throttled back considerably as he neared the relay so as not to disturb its very sensitive calibrations. This particular one had been acting up a fair bit lately, warranting an extra careful approach. This was the halfway point in his regular three-day circuit, and relay CCT-L1602 was the furthest one out. He wondered to himself if its position had something to do with the problems he'd been having with it during the last two visits. He didn't worry himself too much about it, though. It was getting late, and he wanted to get through his checkout routine as quickly as possible, so he could point his ship home, set the autopilot and get some sleep.
He stuffed the last half of a dry sandwich in his mouth, and released the harness holding him into the pilot's seat. With a single kick and a twist of his stocky torso, he was drifting back toward the vac suit locker. Crumbs drifted around his head as he deftly inserted himself into the back of the husk of what looked like a headless hollow man in the middle of a gentle bow, and sealed the suit around him. He pushed off the wall and drifted back to the pilot's seat, helmet in hand, still swallowing the last bites of that too-dry mouthful. He keyed up the communication protocols that would let him chat with the 1602's onboard computers, and he readied the remote for a visual inspection. He did as much as he could using the remote MFD drone he'd named Sneezy, allowing him to keep the inevitable outside work to a minimum. He wished he could meet the design tech that thought it would be a good idea to place an external hand-toggled maintenance check recorder on an FTL satellite.
As the Cupcake crept closer to the relay, two contacts appeared on his passive sensor that should not be there, and they were dangerously close to the relay. He halted his approach and stared at the information on his screens. They looked at first like small bits of debris that might have broken off from the relay. But there was no positional drift to the contacts, and they appeared to be side-by-side, equidistant from the relay. The best analysis that his next-to-useless computer could come up with was 'unknown', but he already figured that they were not rocks or drifting junk. If they were indeed ships, as he suspected, their passive signals showed them to be quite small in profile.
He knew that fighters wouldn't come out this far just to have a look at a relay. These could be repair ships or drones. Maybe they were utility vessels like his, out here doing some unscheduled repair work. That made a little more sense to him. Surprise spot checks weren't unheard of. This relay had been acting up lately. But then he realized that this was unlikely, as he hadn't reported the last two anomalies from this relay to anyone yet. He'd just fixed the problem, documented it, and added it into the monthly log record he was going to send in. He hadn't sent anything yet, though.
He wasn't interested in doing any more guesswork trying to figure them out, so he chose to get a conclusive ID on them. He set his active sensors on high (used mostly for locating dropped tools, fasteners, or small rocks), and pinged them a good one.
Whoever or whatever they were, that seemed to wake them up. He got movement as well as some data on them.
This time, the returned profile was quite different from the initial passive impression. These were not small vessels after all. The contact registry continued to read "unknown" in its mindless yellow lettering, but the computer's best-guess profile now classed them as Patrol Combatant-sized vessels. The computer on board the Cupcake was another thing Ted hated about his job. It was next to useless, and often unreliable. He knew instantly that these two ships were PatComs by their shape, mass and the way they moved. But they were not like any PatComs he'd seen in his tug crewing days. Eight years aboard an armed tug had taught him a thing or two about ship recognition. He knew he was looking at PatComs, but they didn't match any Tariq-type configuration known to him.
As thoughts of new designs and naval prototypes wandered through his mind, other thoughts of ass-covering and job-preservation seemed to kick in, too. While trying to raise the 'unknowns' unsuccessfully on comms, he also started recording all his communications, external camera views, and sensor data. As usual, he sent backups to Sneezy out of habit. He wasn't about to be screwed by another failure of the Cupcake's antique computer.
This suddenly got him to thinking about more than job-preservation. All at once, thoughts of survival and self-preservation hit him in a surge of tingling adrenaline. After all, there was a war going on out there somewhere. He'd lost track of the politics and the hostilities, for the most part, since he left the Acadian. One sure thing, though, he knew he was defenceless in every sense of the word, aboard the Cupcake. The two 'unknown' contacts were appearing to be less and less friendly every moment. He donned the helmet and sealed up his suit as quickly as possible. He sent a status and position test squirt through the relay, and he launched Sneezy, still firing every bit of data its way that he could. He sat back down in the pilot chair and strapped himself in as tightly as possible.
He tried to communicate with the approaching PatComs again, this time using mostly expletives, but all he heard back was static and the sounds of his own breathing inside his suit.
It occurred to him that he really needed to work on his people skills.
He could hear his breathing becoming more rapid and shallow as he watched the two unknowns close on him. This was definitely not the kind of social encounter he'd been hoping for. Self-preservation was the only thing driving his actions now, as he keyed up a full-volume, wide-spectrum test broadcast through the FTL relay and hit the "test" button. A deafening, high-pitched shriek came from every system of his ship. The sound set his bones on edge, and felt very much like someone was jamming needles simultaneously in both ears. He instinctively clasped his gloved hands over his ears, but only managed to slap the sides of his helmet. He would have launched himself out of his seat with his thrashing if he hadn't been strapped in. He felt the Cupcake buck and jolt but couldn't be sure if it was his own writhing or some kind of impact. More systems around him sounded alarms as they flared and sparked. Lights and consoles flickered and died, until the entire cockpit was illuminated only by the dull red glow of warning indicators and the flickering light from the screen in front of him.
He managed to turn off the sound in his helmet, but he was sure he'd suffered some damage to his hearing. The electronic keening that had jarred him a moment ago was now replaced by a painful ringing he knew was probably coming from inside his head. The sounds of his breathing seemed distant, now, as he shook from the recent, painful auditory event. He glanced at the flickering workstation display in front of him to see that the two 'unknown' contacts were gone. The only thing disturbing this new ringing sound in his ears was a new rushing sound. Miraculously, there was no smoke, and no fire in his control cabin.
The rushing sound was fading as he unbuckled his harness to visually examine the damage. Maybe his ears were recovering a little, because the rushing sound had stopped. Red lights flickered across his panels, indicating severe damage everywhere except for the drive system. There were no readings, whatsoever, from the drive system, for good or ill. The few systems that still seemed to work were on battery power. He had no idea how long the cells would hold him, but he knew they wouldn't get him home. The star field visible outside his forward view port was rotating slowly, like the time-lapse films of the night sky he watched as a kid. He could feel the Cupcake tumbling, so he knew the stabilizers of the flight assist weren't working to stop the motion. He cursed his luck. If he couldn't get this utility fixed, he was going to lose his job. And he could barely afford the payments for it as it was. He needed to get outside to inspect, and get some of these control systems repaired, and he needed to do it quickly. He also needed to get the main power back online, so he could find out why he was getting no readings at all on the status of the main engine. He floated clumsily from the seat and moved to the control room hatch that opened aft to the main corridor. The airlock to the outside was at the other end of the corridor just beyond the hatch.
The tumbling motion was starting to bother him. Maybe his ears were more damaged than he thought, because he was starting to feel a fair amount of nausea. He just hoped he could get there in all this spinning without puking in his helmet. He stabbed the 'open' key twice, but door didn't budge. He located his small toolkit from under the co-pilot seat and removed the override panel to the hatch. After a few more moments of tinkering, the override worked and the hatch door slid sideways in complete silence.
What should have been a five-meter corridor ended raggedly two meters away in the emptiness of space. Beyond the bent remnants of beams and conduits, floating tangles of raggedly torn wires, and twisted plates where the entire aft section of his utility ship once was, he watched the star-filled blackness of space spin slowly in a counter-clockwise direction.
And he thought he hated his job before this.