I might not be the smartest guy in the galaxy, but I do know my way around the place. I also know my way around every kind of ship in it.
So when I picked up the distress signal from a T-Class 405 Cruiser, my first instinct was to ignore the red flashing light on my console. 405’s are strictly federation vessels. Military. The last time I helped a 405 out of a jam, it took a solid month to get paid. No tip, either.
Not to mention this particular distress call belonged to a ship that was 250,000 miles away. Unless someone invented a magical warp drive and didn’t tell me about it, a quarter million miles was 36 hours of my life I’d never get back. That’s a big sacrifice just to save a handful of federation yahoos who’d just as soon arrest me as pay me for my services.
Screw that noise. I’d rather enjoy my beer.
It was my last one, though. Acquiring a good batch of IPA was hard enough with a healthy credit line. My line was more on the anemic end of the spectrum. And by the end, I mean past the edge and over the side. That’s probably because the last job I had was over three weeks ago, towing a non-wealthy family of four back to their home base for a grand total of 46 credits and a bout of some rare sickness called “the measles” that left me weak as a baby.
I took another swig of my beer, delicately nursing the last few drops just in case they were my last for a while. I enjoyed a great brew more for the taste and the relaxation than to get drunk. There was something about those hops that hit me just right. I also had a soda problem. Basically, put something delicious in a can and make it hard to get, and I wanted a lot of it.
A testament to my favorite vices loomed in the corner of the cabin: a pile of empty cans and packets that rose like a mountain, growing closer to the ceiling each day. Around the base of the structure were discarded plastic food containers I hadn’t got around to trashing yet. One of these days I would move the heap to the incinerator…if I could just find the wheelbarrow. Or even a shovel. The control panel was littered with vintage books and magazines, some of them hundreds of years old and filled with quaint stories of Earth and its many “countries,” which were basically various plots of land with imaginary boundaries drawn around them.
The copilot chair served as my foot rest most of the time. The heels of my boots had actually left a pair of matching, permanent dents in the seat.
Sleeping atop the back of the chair on a gray flannel blanket was Pirate, my one-eyed cat. He was born that way (with one eye, not sleeping atop the blanket, though he does spend most of his time there). Some of his mock-tuna cans were in Mount Trashmore as well — like captain, like cat. He drew his black and white paws tighter as I walked past him toward the bathroom, which was situated down the hall, inside the section of the ship that contained a row of living quarters designed to accommodate up to eight crewmembers. Which meant Pirate and I each had four rooms to ourselves, if we wanted them. I of course imposed no such imaginary boundaries on myself. The entirety of the ship was my home, from the cabin to the various crew rooms to the cargo bay. Five thousand square feet of sovereign soil wherever I chose to fly it.
Mustang 1, as the vessel had been known since well before I’d inherited it from my uncle, was far more impressive on the outside. Its exterior panels were outfitted with large swaths of chrome in an homage to the muscle cars that used to prowl the roads of Earth in the late 20th century. The massive wings formed an X around a tubelike center retrofitted with not one, but two extra turbine engines, giving the Stang a total of four turbines “under the hood.”
Some people questioned my uncle’s sanity when he had the additional nuclear core installed, but he had the engineering chops to do it right. The result was unparalleled power and speed for a ship in its class.
Yep, Uncle Erwin had been a genius and a pioneer. Me? I was just a lowly mechanic. He’d also been a shrewd businessman, building the only independently-owned ship in the galaxy capable of towing a battlecruiser to either end of it.
I took a few moments to study myself in the bathroom mirror. I didn’t look amazing. For a 19-year-old, I had some pretty heavy bags under my eyes, thanks to a constantly shifting sleep schedule. Sometimes I went days without decent shuteye. Other times I would be out for 12 or more hours a pop. My curly black hair was tangled and filled with grease of various origins – the engine, my body, maybe even the garbage stacked up all around. It was just hard to stay motivated to clean myself or my ship between jobs. That always bit me in the ass when I got a new gig, as I had to clean out the Stang all in one go.
As I exited the bathroom, I nearly tripped over a bin of spare turbine parts in the middle of the corridor. Like I said, it was the maid’s year off. I made a mental note to clean up and shower before the next time I went to bed.
I looked down at the parts by my feet and grimaced. Resting atop the stack of mismatched metal thingamajigs was a piston for the very type of engine found in most 405’s. Once again, the universe was trying to tell me something. I hated when it did that.
The distress call was fairly specific as far as those things go. The ship had apparently stalled about a hundred thousand miles from the Earth’s moon. The message suggested it was a mechanical problem, which means it was probably something else entirely. If they had the right diagnosis, they’d be able to fix the damn thing themselves. They wouldn’t need me. And you can bet that’s the first thing the engineers would say when I arrived: they already knew what the problem was. They’d keep talking down to me, even after I fixed their ship for them, or gave them a tow. That was the federation way.
Formally known as the Interstellar Federation Force, the military group started as a joint peace-keeping organization between the governments of Earth, Mars and the various stations that had sprung up in between. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. You know, keep the verse safe through collaboration and cooperation. Blah, blah, blah.
The very first General of the IFF was a well-respected former military man who had served on Earth as the head of the United Nations forces, and then later on Mars as one of the first settlers there, back in the early days. He modeled the federation based on what he knew. That was the military. So instead of creating some kind of new organization to fit the dynamics of life in space, he just copied what worked on planets. The result was an inefficient mess. One of the first signs that the federation model was flawed came just a few years after it was formed, when they realized you basically had to just hope the captains of any particular ship were good men and women. If they weren’t, it could take months or even years to track them down, and a rogue captain can do a lot of damage with no oversight.
So, like any governmental agency – and especially one spread so thin across the verse – the federation grew more and more corrupt over time. It was just too much territory to cover. Back on Earth, there was a finite plot of land an army had to protect or a police force had to oversee, and they still had problems. Out here in space, it was naive to think rogue admirals wouldn’t begin to treat their little pockets of the verse more like personal fiefdoms than parts of a larger community.
These days, the feds (I didn’t like to use their full name, it gave them too much respect) were basically their own nation-state, spread out across hundreds of ships in every corner of the verse. Under the guise of keeping the peace, they enforced arcane taxes and tariffs, extorted local officials and often laid waste to ships and individuals they deemed as being threats to society. In some ways, the federation was the most dangerous and powerful force in the world.
Most of the officers were also insecure morons who got off on being in a position of power, and the crew were people who couldn’t hack it on their own in the private sector, where things like talent and skill mattered. That wasn’t just my opinion. It was the opinion of most non-feds. In my opinion, anyway. So it didn’t surprise me at all to receive a distress call from a fed ship. They couldn’t fix their own ships if their lives depended on it. Which they did, of course.
The main issue with being stalled in space is the life support system. As advanced as the tech is in the 24th century, all systems will eventually fail. Then you either freeze or suffocate, depending on the order of your malfunctions. I always thought freezing would be better.
In addition to the Stang’s prodigious towing capacity, I had enough life support reserve to keep a small army alive for a month. If Pirate and I ever stalled, we could probably last five or six years if it wasn’t for the whole running out of food thing (I think we had a month of food reserves).
That is, unless Gary drove us crazy first.
Gary was the ship’s on board AI. My uncle was a big fan of the historical entertainment programs on Earth. In addition to filling the Stang’s hard drive with scores of old movies and TV shows, he’d discovered that a select number of shows had licensed out their characters as navigational “personalities” available for purchase back in the day. Most of the personalities were pretty basic, but my uncle the genius decided to hack a certain comedian and curmudgeon named Gary, infusing him with artificial intelligence.
Digital Gary was 69 years old (he was launched at age 55 and had existed in AI form for 14 more so far), and he’d probably outlive me if my uncle got his way. “Big E,” as people called him, only had two conditions when he left me the Stang: I had to continue the family business and I couldn’t ever disable Gary.
Note the wording, there: disable. My uncle never said anything prohibiting me from forcing Gary to sleep for eight hours a day, just like the rest of us.
“Another military rescue,” Gary noted as he perked awake, his voice emanating from the nearest speakers, as if he were standing right next to me. “Do you think they feel bad when they don’t tip?”
“They better,” I quipped, searching for food in the kitchen. “I know I do.”
“I’d think that’s the best part about being in the military. It’s almost worth joining up just to avoid all those awkward exchanges. You certainly don’t have to tip in the mess hall. The other thing that would be nice is the uniforms. Deciding what to wear day in and day out is such a hassle. Obviously you don’t have those problems as you have like three items of clothing, total.”
I sighed as I slunk back into my chair, gnawing on a stale protein bar. As usual, Gary had a point regarding the military’s lack of tipping. The federation was notoriously cheap with outside vendors. But they also knew how to hold a grudge. If word got out I’d left a few dozen of their buddies to freeze and/or suffocate, they’d have no problem accidentally firing on my ship the first chance they got.
“Want me to drive?” asked Gary. “As you know, I’m pretty, pretty, pretty good at it.”
“Sure, why not,” I replied. The ship rotated and the turbines gently whirred as we embarked on our journey.
Sensing the shift in direction, Pirate stretched and yawned, then went back to sleep, as if he knew this was not some wild adventure we were about to undertake, but instead another routine job that would allow us to eke out a few more weeks of tuna. Which was fine with him. And on some level, with me too. Adventures tend to get people killed in this business. My dad and brother found that out the hard way 14 months ago at a remote outpost called Missura, located a few hours off Mars’ atmo.