For a Price - Nanowrimo 2021 Fan-fic

Another late delivery. Keziq had been out of the academy delivering shipments for only three months, but already he could tell it wasn’t working out. Dozens of late shipments. Nearly thirty customer complaints. Only five top-rated deliveries, and this one was his fiftieth delivery overall. The big five-oh, and it was going to be late.

In a way, he wanted to blame something. This time, for example, he had been sitting in the queue behind dozens of shippers and was forced to wait for quite some time as the highly popular jump destination rebalanced the accretion mass. It hadn’t taken long, but it had set off a chain reaction of events that resulted in yet another shipment being delayed. He’d been late arriving for that first jump, had forgotten entirely that he had three containers worth of deliveries in that system, so he’d jumped off to the next delivery without unloading it.

That had required him to refuel his jump rods before jumping back, and that had cost time and money. It was a hard job requiring more organization than he felt he could manage. Plus, the money just wasn’t that good… unless you got those early arrival bonuses. But that required being organized.

He sat up, knocking a can of Space Chow (the slogan “It Makes Its Own Gravy” all but covered under the congealed remains of the “gravy”) off of his cluttered dashboard. He realized he’d forgotten to actually lock the computer onto the destination, and the countdown timer for the flip and burn was now at negative two hundred seconds and climbing.

“Oh shit”, he muttered, his voice loud in the empty bridge.

Keziq pulled off his headphones and hurriedly shoveled the messy piles on his dashboard and console into a storage bin and slammed it shut. The now-uncovered “EXECUTE” button pulsed angrily, as if it was personally offended it had been forgotten. He slapped the button, leaving another greasy mark on the scratched and pitted screen.

The ship lurched crazily and he was thrown free of his seat, having forgotten entirely to grab on or buckle in. He floated a bit as the acceleration dropped into temporary weightlessness, grasping desperately for any sort of handhold. His fingers hooked a rung just as the ship rumbled and groaned under the full-power thrust the engines were producing in their attempt to get him back on the flight path. His wrist hurt under the two G load, but he had been able to keep from slamming into anything sharp or especially fragile. Just the crew lockers.

Once the thrust stabilized and the bridge re-oriented, Keziq got his feet under him and limped back to his chair. Throwing himself down into the mess of stains and detritus that he called his “Office”, he brought up the manifest, selected the current shipment, and locked the destination into the nav computer. More complicated than the ships at school, but then his bosses weren’t especially interested in loaning modern state of the art ships to the worst shippers.

He watched dejectedly as the delta v climbed past the energy budget his engines could sustain, and the arrival time shot up. Right now, even burning at max power for as long as the engines could sustain, he’d fly right past the station and possibly even past the planet it orbited. Fancy schmancy pilots who had taken notes in the unbelievably dry orbital mechanics classes could probably figure out a way to make it, but they probably also would have set the destination lock in the first place. Whereas all Keziq had done was jump into the system and point his ship in the right direction.

Shit. Time to make an embarrassing call. “This is freighter Altivo Shippers Gamma Forty-Five to Pistorius Station, requesting course assistance”, he said dejectedly into the taped together headset surmounting his large grey head.

“This is Pistorius Station Navigation Control, proceed Gamma Forty-five” came the response a few moments later.

“Please transmit course for intercept… my uhhh… my nav computer had an issue on approach.”

There was a long and pregnant pause, Keziq felt every bit the rookie he was. Absolutely humiliating, and he knew they’d probably demand an inspection report before he’d be cleared for departure. A few dozen seconds later, his console lit up with a new option. It read “Allow remote helm control?” in big bold letters. Wow, so they were going to go that way with it?

“Not like I have a choice” he muttered, hoping his mic was off, and then tapped the big check mark. The ship’s engines took on a different noise, and the vibration changed subtly. The course data now showed a series of loops of the planet then an approach to the station. That probably would have been obvious to him if he’d paid attention. He remembered reading somewhere that passing close to a planet there was friction from the atmosphere, or the gravity or something. Honestly, he’d been too busy day dreaming or playing on his PDA to pay much attention. Eighteen weeks was a long time to focus on something.

Keziq put his small feet up on the dash and kicked back, his headphones back on and a bubble popping game on his PDA. By the time the planet was taking up the view screen, he’d all but forgotten the stressful entry into the system. Altivo Shippers had not.

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Keziq was walking up the large gangway from his ship after docking and arranging the cargo container drop off, when his PDA trilled. He dug it out of his coverall and saw that it was from Altivo Shippers. That probably wasn’t going to be good news. He opened it quickly and found that he had been given one standard cygday to remove his personal effects from his ship and turn helm over to the computer for return. His contract had been terminated, and his last paycheck deposited.

A brief wave of panic washed over him, and he quickly pulled up his bank balance. The final deposit showed as pending, and at merely three hundred credits, it would hardly last him long at all. Without being able to live aboard ship and expense what few meals he took while on deliveries, his total balance of three hundred and forty credits was unlikely to last him very long at all. Keziq jogged back to the ship, and saw the consoles were already locked out, and displaying a huge countdown timer. Every screen had the same big timer on it. Everywhere he looked around the interior there were just signs of the mess he had made of his life. He was in the process of throwing his clothing quickly into the largest bag he could find when a warning alert indicated that some sort of life support system had failed. Unsure if this was just another ‘feature’ of the crappy and poorly maintained ship or part of the repossession effort, he just prioritized the things he had left that mattered and sprinted for the hatch. The airlock took forever to cycle, which was pretty odd for a pressurized gangway, and when the door opened he couldn’t get through it any faster than he did. No sooner was he outside the door than he saw the lights on the ship dim and then go out entirely.

That was probably a power failure, then, not some sort of aggressive repossession effort. “Same to you”, he muttered, and gave the hatch a kick before shouldering his bag and slumping down the gangway to the station.

And that, he would reflect later, was when everything changed for him.

The next thirty seconds passed in a sort of slow motion. He was aware of a tremendous heat and vibration, then the gangway buckled and leaped like a wild animal. He saw the station end of it break away from the station and everything began to rotate, showing only the cold black of space where once had been a friendly and lit hallway connecting to the station. The air blew past him in a fast wind out into the void, tugging him along the gangway. He had the presence of mind to yank his helmet out of his bag, losing the bag in the process. Rapidly pulling it down over his head, he slapped it on and felt the inflatable neck seal tighten around his throat before a small hiss filled his ears as the emergency air supply filled the helmet with a small amount of atmo. The entire gangway was dark now, the emergency lights providing more of a definition to the darkness than actual illumination, and there was no gravity whatsoever. The contents of his life were scattered along the corridor and out into open space, and his hold on the side rail was all that helped him keep any sense of calm.

“Ok. Think, Keziq. What the hell do I do now?”, he thought to himself, focusing on getting himself together. The emergency supply in the helmet wouldn’t last more than fifteen minutes or so, and he praised the engineer who had foreseen just such an emergency in their endless design tests. Activating the helmet lights with his chin, he looked around to see if there was anything he could use to get either back to the ship or to the station. Obviously the ship was locked out, or would be soon, but the station should be available for him if he could just get to it. With any luck it wouldn’t be far away, since the gangway should be following it very closely through its orbit. He saw a fire extinguisher hatch, and removed the cannister. This should do - it was a sort of non-flammable gas with some kind of powder. Basically, a mini jet pack. He really wished he’d paid more attention in class right now, and swore to whatever gods his people had long ago deserted that he would study up.

Moving to the end of the gangway, he saw that things were worse than he thought. There was some kind of large scale fight going on out there, with black and red ships firing on the station in waves, and the station firing back with huge batteries of guns. The end of the gangway was melted free, probably by some sort of energy weapon. Weapons were also not Keziq’s forte. What he did know, however, was that the gangway was pivoting slowly and moving further away from the station. He watched dizzily as it rotated, deciding when it would be as lined up as possible. He yanked the safety pin out of the fire cannister and flexed his knees, ready to make a jump for it.

A few moments later the station rolled back into view, and he jumped hard, squeezing on the fire extinguisher lever briefly to correct the angle. He knew enough to figure out what “ahead” was. The station slowly came up to him, though he wasn’t sure if he was catching up to it, or if it was catching up to him. The important part was that he could see the side clearly now, and could make out scorch marks all over the plates nearest him. Not entirely sure if that was bad or good, he let himself drift towards the station before realizing that the scorched area had been sealed.

That made sense, though it didn’t make things any easier. The little life support display on his helmet HUD was just buried in the red, so he had no idea how much time was left. The connectivity bars lit up, however, which meant that he was now close enough for the radios in his PDA to connect to the station again. That was excellent news. That was, in fact, the first good news of the day.

When the station came close enough that he could make out the service rungs on the outside, he made a tiny correction so that he would reach them, and impacted with a small thud. Not even enough to knock the breath out of him, fortunately, and it didn’t even shake his hold on the fire cannister. He tucked the cannister under the arm he was holding onto the station with, and then fished his PDA carefully out of his coverall. The station network showed at the top, and his helmet had automatically connected to his PDA when he’d turned it on. He didn’t dare waste the air to talk, however, so he opened a text only connection to the station.

The station was broadcasting an emergency beacon on all channels, so the text channel was constantly being interrupted with the emergency declaration every few seconds, but he managed to send that he was outside when the gangway was blown off and needed to know how to get in.

There was no response, but he had a feeling they would at worst assume he was a pirate or something and send a guard. Being in a cell for a few days would certainly beat being in the black of space with no air for a few days.

He climbed down to the nearest maintenance hatch and banged on it with the fire extinguisher repeatedly. Bang. Bang. Bang. Pause. Bang Bang Bang. Pause. Bang. Bang. Bang. He was about to give up, when his hypoxic oxygen starved brain realized that there was a simple manual hatch control right there. Keziq pulled it down, rotated it, and shoved it back in, and the hatch popped out slightly. Just enough for him to get his fingers in there, if he tossed away the fire extinguisher. He chucked it away from the station in the general direction of one of the pirate fighter ships and jammed his fingers in the crack. Pushing with his legs and pulling hard, he was able to pull the hatch slowly open on extremely recalcitrant hinges.

He clambered into the hatch and slowly pulled it shut behind him. The manual latch on the inside required the opposite procedure, so he worked the manual latch shut, and the door sealed with a grinding that he could feel through his arm. Clearly inspection and maintenance of these hatches was not high on the list.

Trapped now in a small dark airlock, he passed his dim helmet lights over the interior in search of any kind of panel. He wasn’t familiar with this design, and didn’t remember encountering anything quite like it before, but surely something like that had to exist. Sure enough, he found a simple panel with two large chunky buttons on it. He pressed one at random, and nothing happened.

He pressed the other, and a light flickered to life, followed by a beeping sound he could hear through his helmet, and a series of little red lights lit up around the interior door. There was a mechanical vibration more felt than heard, then the red lights turned green. He pressed the button in the middle of the interior door, and it opened smoothly for him into a long dingy and barely lit hallway.

Not having any choice, he passed into the hallway, and close the hatch door behind, where the lights promptly switched back to red, then turned off. Keziq collapsed against the wall and slid down the cramped and curved wall a little ways, and removed his helmet. The little inflatable neck seal had almost no resistance when he pulled it over his head, meaning the air had pretty well given out. Fortunately the maintenance corridor he found himself in here was filled with breathable air, or he would have added a gruesome footnote to the next inspection log. He breathed long and deeply, his brain recovering from the hypoxia and his thoughts coming more clearly. Obviously, there was some seriously bad stuff going on right now. Best thing he could hope for was to run into a guard patrol and explain later.

Keziq stood, tucked his helmet under his arm, and made his way down the long disused and dimly illuminated hallway. He had no idea where it went, but literally anything was better than being lost into the vacuum of space until his body fell into the planet and burned up. That was a bit of a wake up call, really. The gods abandoned by his ancestors must not have abandoned him. He walked for quite a few minutes until he came to a junction, marked only in an alien language he didn’t recognize, and proceeded ahead. Soon the hallway ended at a ladder, and he put the helmet back on, the lights helping him to find the rungs as he climbed upwards. When he reached the next junction, he could hear an alarm klaxon in the distance. Clearly he was approaching a section of the station with people in it.

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Keziq was walking towards the sound of the klaxons when he began hearing shouts. In between the shouting there were occasional soft crump noises - that probably wasn’t good, maybe weapons firing? On the station? He was torn between a desire for safety, and a desire to find out what was going on. Keziq proceeded softly as he could with the somewhat bulky station boots he was wearing. He was very happy that he wasn’t wearing a proper exo suit right now, there was no way to move stealthily in those. Lumbering was about the closest you could get.

As he crept down the dusky corridor, the noise got louder and louder, then went away. Only the klaxons remained. It sounded like it would be safe to go out there now, if and when he found a door. He was scanning around with what remained of the light from his helmet, now noticeably dimmer than before. An older model, it didn’t hold a charge like it once did, and had no suit with powerplant to feed from. He saw an old style rotating wheel lock hatch on the side of the hallway, again with that alien writing next to it. There was no window he could see through, and he had no way of knowing what awaited on the other side. It could be water. It could be a garbage dump. It could even potentially be an opening into space, though it was missing the old-style manual controls the other hatch had. Most likely it opened somewhere into the inside of the station.

He took a chance and tried to turn the wheel. It was completely and totally beyond his ability budge. Either locked or stuck, he wasn’t going to get out this way. He scanned around for some sort of latch, and found nothing. Dejected he proceeded further down the hallway until a sudden violent jolt knocked him against the wall. There was a sort of flash and a belated crump noise, and then a bright finger of light reached through the hallway wall across the corridor. He walked up to it and peeked through. An explosive of some sort had gone off on the other side of the wall, and he was staring into an open area with bodies scattered amidst the wreckage of some sort of office. Tables and chairs had been flipped over, and he could see people exchanging fire back and forth across the open plan office. The irregular hole he was looking through had been torn by some sort of shrapnel. This was not where he wanted to be right now, and he knew he better make tracks!

Keziq ducked down to try to hide behind what he hoped might be additional protective material, and crept forward. Just his luck, only a few steps further down was a junction including a well-frequented hatch of modern design that would probably open into either the office or just outside it. He was about to pass it, when he heard someone trying to open it and bang on it impatiently. He flattened against the wall next to the hinges, hoping he could escape detection and perhaps leap on the person and catch them unawares. Assuming it was a pirate, that is. Or whatever the attackers were.

Moments later the door opened with a sharp click and a creak, and a young cereb woman slipped through and shut the hatch behind her. Keziq coughed gently, and she gave a small cry of alarm and rounded on him with a tiny deadly weapon. He raised his hands, and she stepped back, cautious.

“What are you doing here?”, she asked his in a low voice.

“I was outside when the station was attacked, and managed to climb to a hatch”, he answered truthfully, too surprised to come up with something more believable.

“What? That makes no sense. You’re going to keep your hands where I can see them, or I’ll ventilate you”, she replied. Direct and to the point.

Keziq kept his hands in front of him and stepped back down the hallway slightly. “Ok. I’m your prisoner. I don’t want trouble, I’ve had enough today. I just don’t want to die, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’m heading to the security deck. You’re coming with me. Turn around and start heading down that corridor.” She gestured with her free hand to proceed, and he turned and started walking. At least now he had a goal.

“I was fired earlier today, and now I’m being arrested. If this isn’t my rock bottom, I don’t want to see it.” he said grumpily as he walked down the dim corridor, his back itching.

“Well, just move spacer or you’ll find rock bottom is drifting in space”, she retorted.

“No thanks, once a day is plenty for me, I already did that today and things haven’t gotten better.” he replied, then thought that things hadn’t gotten a lot worse either. He was alive right now, and wherever they put him it’d likely be safer than being out there in a freighter while the pirates were attacking. He wasn’t sure if anyone would even bother to ransom his escape pod. Assuming the escape pods on the Altivo ships even worked.

The charming walk to the security deck was interrupted a few minutes later by a series of rapid sharp bangs that made both of the cerebs in the hallway pause in alarm.

“Dammit, they’re using mass drivers in here like they don’t even care if they punch holes.” she muttered, louder than she probably would have liked.

“What’s a mass driver?”, Keziq replied, grateful for his, until now, fairly safe and uneventful life.

“They’re portable weapons that shoot chunks of metal at high velocity. Very effective against flesh targets and shielded areas alike. Unlike the usual field weapons which won’t do much more than scorch a bulkhead.” she said, gesturing with the small PDA-sized weapon she held. It looked the business, but apparently it was safer. Probably not safer on Keziq’s side of it, though.

“Why are they taking that sort of risk?” he said naïvely.

“All of our security checkpoints are sealed, stupid. They’re trying to use the mass drivers to break through them. It’s not like they care two credits what happens to us, they just want to get whatever they’re after and then escape. Talk less. Walk more.” and with that she shoved him from behind making him stumble slightly.

He kept walking in silence until they came to a large and well-lit junction. This area looked frequently used and had storage a compartments lining the walls and a series of large containers set in it. The cereb woman walked to a panel and pressed a button, still covering Keziq with her weapon.

An intercom beeped, and a voice came over a hidden speaker. “Sorry. We can’t open the doors, the intruders are too close. You will have to go around”.

“What are you talking about, there’s nobody else here!”, she yelled back. A crashing noise rang out and the wall just above her head suddenly smoked where a laser blast had impacted. Keziq dove for the cereb and pulled her down the tube of the junction. She elbowed him in the face, and he held his finger to his mouth in a universal sign for “be quiet”, and she stopped to listen intently. There was the sound of footfalls and tearing metal from down the other leg of the t-shaped junction.

“We gotta move right now!” Keziq whispered, standing rapidly and hauling the cereb up with him. She nodded briefly, and then they started moving at speed down the dim corridor, occasionally pausing to look behind. The could hear the pirates now, they were in the same access tunnels, and they were loudly battering on a door or wall somewhere. At least they weren’t trying to use explosives to force their way in. That would probably cause the whole area to ventilate into space.

“Thank you”, she said tersely as they paused briefly in a dark alcove just out of earshot of the commotion. Keziq looked over, a bit surprised at the bitterness in the tone.

“It’s been a terrible day. I didn’t want it to get worse”, he replied.

“Got some bad news there”, she said, and then gestured down the hall into the dark. “The bulkheads have already sealed down there. This section has been isolated, and we’re going to have to go around. Hope you like heights.”

“Heights? What do you mean?”, he wasn’t sure how you could have ‘heights’ on a space station. It was basically a tiny floating metal island far above a planet. What more was there? He shortly found out when she led him up a ladder and out onto a tiny catwalk only a few centimeters across that went out above the lights, just below the great arching dome over the habitation zone. He’d never thought about the great green and blue scenes he sometimes caught a glimpse of when docking. He was thinking about it really hard right now.

The catwalk was parallel to a mammoth beam and just below the transparent dome that kept the artificial wonderland below safe and comfortable in the inhospitable cold and dark of space. He’d never realized how good it was to be rich. Even here where water and space were rare and valuable, there was an entire paradise of lakes and beaches, trees and grass with little houses and huge hotels dotting it. The supremely wealthy had brought their favorite planet side attractions here with them, safe from the realities of poverty, gravity, space, or any brush with how the universe really worked. And right now, this fantasy was several hundred meters below his feet, with nothing keeping him from becoming an unlikely station death except the tiny shaky catwalk and the mammoth lamps that provided artificial sunlight for the wealthy.

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