First Frontier

Zeta X 2 Covero

Space station Zeta X 2 Covero was not a name that conjured the greatest that the galaxy had to offer. No vast expanses of beautiful grounds, kept immaculate in zero G. Nor the sweeping neon of commerce, a slick and clear oil of advertising to make every surface shine. Zeta was a trade outpost whose major customers had long since expended their worth. Nearby, a small abandoned was attempting to relaunch itself as a Dire Warning for future worlds – part education, part theme park – on the subject of mis-calibrated terraforming. The early attempt to turn the oceans green in a bid to become a tourist trap having necessitated this strategic pivot as much as it necessitated gas masks.

Zeta’s ambitious makeover in the hopes of becoming Emeralida’s nearest trade post had long since faded to embarrassment. The gold leaf over the entrance plaque was flaking, the burnished bronze of the handrails corroding, and the gleaming white tiles of the floors slowly drowning under a thousand legions of tired boots.

There was little joy to be found anywhere on the station. Most people were passing through on their way somewhere better – or hoped to be. The best place to find somewhere better, however, was in the BetaChow Crew Bank, a vast room of faded blue carpet and stained beige columns and a loop of plastic desks, most of which featured the logo of a trading company long since out of business, sponsored by BetaChow. This was the place where ships passing in the endless night could recruit those who needed somewhere better to be. Apart from the Sisters of Charity and the local Milita Recruiting, it was almost eternally empty.

Alice was getting very tired of sitting by the Sisters in the Crew Bank, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she’d considered looking into the book the Sisters were preaching, but if getting off this place was going to involve selling her soul, she decided she needed a more interesting buyer. The Milita had done nothing but border patrols for decades at this point, and the idea of getting off the station only to return a few days later, then repeat that for a five year term, didn’t bare thinking about.

It had been nearly three months since she’d been stranded on Zeta. Alice had found some work on the station as security crew, which was enough to claim a bunk and meals in the station canteen, but it would take another year of saving to have enough to summon a taxi ship this far, and double to get her somewhere after that. Still, it wasn’t like Zeta offered anything else to spend her money on.

The empty hall felt like an abandoned careers fair, save for the irregular snores of the Milita recruitment guy clashing atonally with the tinny hymns of the Sisters, and Alice was resolved to stay here for another half hour until her shift started. Alice noise-cancelled the stalls out of her attention, and pulled up a book on her slate.

Moments passed.

There was a dog.

Reasonably large as dogs go, extremely fluffy, mostly white with some very light grey patches. It was sat about ten feet in front of her, feet together, and looking directly at Alice with soft brown eyes. When the dog was sure she had noticed it, it padded briskly closer, licked her knee once, padded away again and looked over its shoulder.

“No pocket-watch”, said Alice, “which is a good start, I suppose.” She stood up and walked towards the dog, who trotted away.

Alice, lacking any better options, followed.

First Frontier

Port to Starboard

We have known for a long time that Space is Big.

People living in the Middle Ages knew that England was Big, because it took days to get from the south to the north, and later that Europe was Big because of how long it took messages to get from Rome.

Eventually it realised that the world was Big, because of the number of days you had to wait on a liner before you were in America.

Then mankind made it economical to fly, and Space was Big.

Space is Big. It takes an awfully long time for light to get from one end of the universe to the other, and we haven’t found a way to run faster than that yet. Instead, we made another discovery, which was that patches of space act as links between each other, and what passes in one will pass out another. Unfortunately, these patches were usually between two and twelve centimetres wide, hardly enough for a thoughfare. So Space remained Big, because the links between it remained small.

It took a little while for a company to work out a way to make the holes bigger. They didn’t think it was possible to begin with, not knowing how the holes – or gates – were formed, but someone in a lab discovered that the edges of the holes reacted to some frequencies, and lasers, and electricity. With application of this kind of thing, they found a way to make the holes bigger, by posting gates either side. Then they discovered that unless the holes were the same size both sides, you couldn’t poke larger things though. So you poked though a remote controlled thing to make holes wider, and you programmed that to turn around and widen the hole it had come though so you could send a larger machine though, and that could make a hole you could send an even larger machine though…

…and Space wasn’t so big anymore.

You only realise how large Space really is when you try to do things the slow way. In my case, I have a reason for this, though it’s a bit complex. You should know at this point that it’s not actually reasonable for the Mafia to be after me, or for every bounty hunter in the Sector to be after my head on a stick; since I was actually in their designated docking bay with the goods as the deadline ran out. Of course, it took an hour or so for the message to get though due to a collapsed funnel gate, and they had already posted the message. For reasonably obvious reasons cancel messages on bounty posts are rarely honoured, and it is amazing how a bounty hunter can get a new target in a few seconds, but take weeks to get around to obsoleting an invalid one.

My solution to this problem was to go treasure hunting. Being a trader when entering any major port could cause a firefight isn’t really a fun occupation, and I wasn’t contracted to do anything anyway, so I decided to go looking for relics of the past, and one in particular: Dodgeson’s Port.

The Right Honourable Doctor Reverend Lewis Dodgeson MP was the Minister External for Space Science at the time when the Titania – the New British Empire’s first space-going liner – first set sail. It was his job, therefore, to launch the thing. Being head of MiniSpacSki at the start of the NBE’s new golden age was not the position of glory and popularity it would one day become. The Minister External had been handed the position more as an endurance test than with any kind of expectation he would actually complete the task. To everyone’s surprise, and mostly thanks to his resourceful and dedicated staff, the final pieces had been brought together under his reign. Woefully over budget – though no more so than when he had been given the post – and working way past its bedtime, the construction of the Space Elevator to Robert Door’s exacting standards, as well as the spaceship Titania herself, was finally complete. The passengers were aboard, the technicals done, even – and this had taken a while – the speeches finished. The ship was to be christened with a bottle of Port from Dodgeson’s Alma Mater’s deepest cellars, a monument to British Engineering (Constructed on African soil from Japanese components). With a length measured in miles, the hull of the ship filled the Reverend’s vision. None of which explains entirely how he missed. The bottle spun off into space. The Titania was eventually christened with a bottle of cheap red wine from the nearest store, and bore a stain on its hull until it was decommissioned and rebuilt as the MSS H.Q. decades later.

The theory runs that the bottle floated off into space, hit a freak unGated hole, and drifted somewhere into deep space. In the centuries since, we’ve pretty much mapped out exactly where all the various gaps in humanity’s home system are, so I could use that information to plot where it might have got by now. Of course, space is huge, but coincidence is bigger, so there is a massive chance that it’s been knocked into a million shards by now. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, and less than four weeks after I passed beyond the Gate, I see it up ahead in a cloud of dust.

I avoid space walks where I can. Easier just to locate the cat, vacuum the air out of the hold, void into space, back the hold around the bottle, reseal, reoxygenate, and go and collect it. This done, I now own a bottle of port which could easily buy me a solar system or so. Time to take it somewhere where it can be appreciated. Or at least depreciated. Set course for nearest Gate – eight weeks should be long enough to not be headhunted anymore – find a book, tell the computer what’s inside it, ask the same computer to avoid anything that might spoil the paintwork, and go back to bed. Not bad for a days work.

Space is Big. So I’m making the most of my life by wandering around it as much as I can. Life is small, but my bit of it’s been getting more complicated lately. It all starts, for me at any lick, with the bottle of wine. It spins around the eventual fate of Dodgeson, and it generally weaves a bit. But I’ve decided to start it here. I am, currently, a Free Market Trader. That is: I make my living picking up short-term (usually one job) one-way contracts, fulfilling them by going somewhere else, and then picking up something new. In this way I meet large number of people across the range from honest and law-abiding to outright piracy, sometimes on opposite ends of the same job. Most FreTees aren’t as lucky as I am, in that I own my own ship – the Azure Day – instead of having to pay rental to a faceless organisation. Instead, I pay subscription to Kanopy, an umbrella – hah – organisation set up to give normal FreTees the same protection that members of the faceless corps tend to get. I’m Stavern, this is my boat, and right now I’m off to see my brother.