Chapter 1: Old Dog, Old Tricks
My knee throbbed. A rather recent injury that didn't heal quite right. It would announce itself as we were leaving orbit, my only souvenir from the war. At that moment all I wanted to do was close my eyes and enjoy a moments peace as everyone else was busy with their duties and while the engines, for once were running as well as they were going to run.
Pops, creaks, and hisses sang out from cooling pipes and various vents like an old out-of-tune pipe organ in the change of pressure from the assent. I paid them no mind as I knew the difference between a tolerable strain and immediate problems. Instead, my mind went back to the same thing it had often gone to for the past few months.
“Why the hell did I sign aboard this tub?"
The answer was simple. My new employer had offered twice the going rate if I could keep the old cargo ship flying another year without a refit and well,'stupid me,' I agreed without seeing what I was getting myself into.
"You could have been a pilot, Reilly," I scolded myself aloud. There wasn't anyone else around to hear my self-degradation, so I was free to purge my frustration. “You could have reapplied to the academy. You only missed the acceptance qualifications by a few points. If you had, you would have been a command level officer by now. But no, you had to take the engineering track and what did you have to show for it after 20 years? The rank of Second Lieutenant and a medical discharge three months before your full pension kicked in." I looked around to make sure I was still alone as the exercise of griping to the vacant space out loud helped a little, but not enough to make me feel any better about my lot in life.
From the other side of the joke of an engine room, a withered alarm sounded along with intermittent red flashing lights. “Now what?" I muttered as I got up and crossed over to the console that was squawking the alert. I knew the problem before I even got close enough to read the screen. The cooling system on thruster number three wasn't pumping again, and the engine was starting to overheat. Knowing precisely what needed to be done, I keyed in the proper workaround into the computer, but it didn't work. It should have. There was no reason why it wouldn't. But yet, the indicator was climbing past the red line, and I could feel the heat on my face.
Now, I was not worried.
I closed one valve, pulled the backflush lever and opened the secondary pipe to fill the cooling system with a new flush of liquid coolant, but still nothing.
At that point, I might have looked worried, but the sweat on my brow was from the heat and steam filling the compartment, or at least that's what I was going to say if anyone came into the engine room at that moment.
The situation left me with only one choice. I took a titanium composite wrench with both hands and beat on the pipes as hard as I could, over and over again. If anyone walked in at that moment, they would probably have thought I was trying to kill the ship.
The sounds of the impacts echoed down the crawl-ways and through the ventilation shafts. I kept up my assault on the pipes until I heard what I needed to hear. A massive pop and the whine of something giving way inside the pipes., whatever was blocking them broke loose, and the next sound I heard was a rush a liquid. After that, the alarm stopped.
"Good, that's better," I said, again to the empty space of the engine room as I hobbled back over to the control station, which was where the only chair was located.
"Reilly!" the irritated voice of the ship's Captain came over the intercom.
"Yes Captain," I answered, not masking my own irritation very well.
"Why the hell is the fuel pressure in the red line?" he barked.
"Don't worry about it. You can go to quantum speed at any time," I answered. Frankly, I was more concerned with propping my leg up on the desk and putting a cold pack on my knee than once again explaining to the green Captain how his instruments were as unreliable as most everything on the ship.
"Are you insane? I thought you were supposed to be some kind of brilliant Alliance engineer, not a...a… slug-like doofus."
I chuckled at the fact he was so inexperienced in life he couldn't even come up with a good insult. I waited a moment and then calmly asked, "Are you done?" I rubbed my knee and waited for another moment with no reply. Then I continued “Look, your previous brilliant engineer installed a QS-17 power converter. I'm sure he got it for a great price as they had all been recalled nearly a decade ago. The damn thing can't correctly convert arilic-donomate, so there is a buildup of corrosive gasses in the system that needs to be purged.
"So?" The captain asked expecting more.
"So... What?" I returned.
"So why didn't you purge it?"
I shook my head at the stupidity. "Because it is a biohazard and illegal to purge within a solar system. An offense that will automatically ground a ship and cost its captain his license." I waited for a response and got silence. Opening a canteen of water, I took a swig and continued my lecture. "So, once we are safely in open space I will have us drop out of quantum speed for two minutes, purge the gas and then we can be on our way. Reilly out."
I cut off the comm line and rubbed my throbbing knee. The ship lurched, and for the moment everything blurred as we jumped into quantum speed.
At the time, I didn't necessarily dislike Gerald, the young man who was the Captain of the small cargo ship. I just didn't believe the kid had the experience, skills or intelligence to run anything, especially an interstellar spaceship. Yet I think that might have been a large part of the reason the owner, who was also Gerald's Mother, hired me; to keep both the ship and the boy in one piece.
A noise came from the other end of the compartment. The unmistakable sound of a heavy latch being released and the loud squeak of an improperly oiled hatch announced someone climbing down from the upper deck. I wondered if it was Gerald coming down to give me a piece of his mind, face to face. An act that would accomplish very little, but I would have gained some respect for him if he had. Yet instead it was Kayla, a bright, but complicated young woman. I watched from the corner of my eye as she climbed down the ladder. The one size fits all coveralls hugged parts of her very fit body in a way that intrigued a man's imagination. Suddenly I realized I was leering and forced myself to look away before she landed and turned to face me.
Her waist-long, dirty blonde hair was braided into a long ponytail that wagged like a lioness when she walked. There was something you could feel in the air when she was in the room as if the air thinned making you a little bit light-headed; and she had a charm that exuded from her when she smiled that affected every male aboard, including me.
Kayla was always finding excuses to hang out in the engine room with me. I wasn't entirely sure if she had a crush on me, or if she was just trying to avoid the other younger men who were consistently trying to get into her pants. I have to admit that I had more than my share of inappropriate thoughts about her. Yet I really never considered any possibility of pursuing the young woman. After all, she was at least fifteen years younger than me, and I was nothing more than a washed up engineer. Dalliances with a beautiful younger woman were for the rich and influential, not penniless washouts like me.
"Gerald's really pissed at you,'' she said with a smile she couldn't contain.
"He sent you down here to tell me that?" I asked.
Sitting on the edge of my desk she grinned and shook her head knowing what she was about to say was absurd. "Not exactly. He sent me down here to explain to you that you are not to speak back to him ever again and when you do speak to him, you are to address him with respect afforded his rank."
That last part didn't sit well with me, and I think it showed on my face.
"Rank! That BOY does not have a rank. He has a title that came with ownership of this overaged scow. If he wants the respect afforded to someone with a proper command rank he can join one of the armed forces anywhere in this galaxy and earn it. Until then he can just stay out of my way if he doesn't like my attitude."
Kayla's smile just grew with my tirade. "It's been a long time since anyone has had the guts to talk back to him, mostly because the ones who did were left behind on whichever port we happened to be on. So, it might be best if you stayed clear of him for a while."
She was right of course, yet at that moment, I felt like I was reaching the end of my rope. "Yeah, well, maybe so, it's just too bad for him that I don't give a damn. The fact of the matter is he needs me a lot more than I need him. His mother gave me a very generous signing bonus for just a one year contract. Primarily due to the fact that his reputation for being a hothead, and a moron,has preceded him to each and every port of call this tub has ever reached. There isn't a single qualified engineer who will work for him. Hell, he couldn't even get a deck-monkey to sign on with him now. So once I'm gone, his career as a Captain is over and it's back to where-ever he was before."
Kayla looked directly into my eyes with an intensity that surprised me for a moment. I wasn't sure if she was evaluating my resolve or if she was just at a loss for words. The smile on her face was almost mischievous, and she leaned in as if she had something profound to say, but said nothing. The buzz of an imbalance warning from the QSG system gave me the excuse to get up and end the awkward moment.
"You might want to tell El Capitan that we are going to drop out of quantum speed in less than a minute."
"What's wrong with the damn thing now?' she asked with her hands square on her hips.
"Nothing, I've got it working just fine," I answered while moving over to the QSG control panel with as much grace as I could muster through the pain in my knee. "It looks like something shifted in the cargo bay and threw off the weight distribution. We'll have to recalibrate after everything is properly secured."
"Hmm, lucky for you," she said with a snort.
I turned back towards her having found the statement odd.
"I just meant that Gerald will be pissed at the cargo guys for now and forget about you, at least until something else breaks down."
"Right," I said. I realized that I had been venting my frustration out at the only member of the crew who had shown me any respect. Making a conscious decision to be more polite I said, "If you would, please tell the Captain that it will take me roughly ten minutes to get the ship ready to jump once the cargo is secure."
The word please was as rare as Swiss Chocolates to Kayla and just as sweet. With a girlish grin, she said, "Right away, Mr. Riley."
From the corner of my eye, I watched the fit, and stunning young woman climb up the ladder and brace herself by wrapping one leg around it while opening the overhead latch. Then she looked back at me, catching my gaze and smiled. I looked back at my control panels and waited to hear the door close and latch behind her before looking up again.
The name of the old and the nearly worn out ship was Glacier Runner 17. I guess it had once been used to collect ice or other frozen elements from asteroid belts or planet rings. With the advent of superheated moisture scoops, the need for collecting hunks of frozen blocks of anything and towing them to processing centers went the way of the dinosaurs; which is where this ship should have gone as well. It took me about three months of work, 14 hour days, 7 days a week, but I got it running like a ship half its age. My job was general maintenance at that point, but I knew that it was just a matter of time before something else major broke down.I could have made money on that bet.
We had made it to the port at Lion's Head with time to spare, but as soon as we touched down, a regulator in the main engine gave out. I informed the Captain that we would need to install a new one before leaving. He was not happy as it was yet another expense that wiped out all of his profits and then some. Most of the crew took the opportunity to take some free time off the ship while I stayed behind to remove the defective part and prep for the replacement. Within the hour Gerald returned with what he considered was a bargain.
"Here," he said dropping a two-foot square box on the floor.
I pulled off my welding goggles and looked up at him from the maintenance pit below the fuel processing assembly. “What's this?" I asked.
"Your part," Gerald answered as he turned and walked off, not interested in getting his own hands dirty.
"This isn't going to work," I called back after him.
"Yes it will," he yelled back.
"I can't install this," I shouted, making sure to be heard.
Gerald stopped and turned back. "Yes you will, or I'll fire your ass for, ...for..."
"The word is insubordination," I said, intentionally belittling him.
"Right! For that!" he barked back.
At that point, I pulled myself up out of the pit and got to my feet with my welding torch in one hand and the box in the other. Walking up to the Captain I held the part out to hand it back, but he would not take it. So, I dropped the package at his feet and locked eyes with the younger man.
"If I install that piece of junk your thrusters will seize up before we leave the atmosphere. You can't fire a man for refusing to commit suicide."
Gerald smiled at me like he had just laid out a straight flush. "I was hoping you would say something stupid like that. Collect your gear. You have five minutes to get off my ship. You're fired!"
I knew he was arrogant and hot-headed, but I never really considered that he was that grossly incompetent. I looked to my left, placed my tool on a crate and then slowly looked back at him.
Calmly I said, "In life, you rarely get the opportunity to walk back a mistake. I'm going to give you that chance now."
I guess he took my tone as condescending because he answered it with a right cross at my jaw. My military training kicked in, and I caught Gerald's fist in my palm and stopped it cold. My grip tightened, and I bent Gerald's wrist back, causing him to drop to his knees.
"The human skeletal structure is just a system of joints and pulleys," I said to him as I applied just a little bit more force. “I know exactly how much pressure to apply to separate them. So let's try this again. Agree to get the correct part, I will happily install it, and we can be on our way."
Tears of pain raced down Gerald's face as he refused to back down. "Go to hell!" he spat.
I held my stances for a moment longer as I considered if there were any other options, but I couldn't think of any. Shaking my head, I released my grip. Gerald collapsed to the floor, cradling his bruised wrists and gasping hard to hold back his sobs. At that, I decided babysitting was not my forte, so I headed for the hatch and said without looking back, "I'll be off your ship in three minutes."