The first thing you need to understand about what we do is that space is huge! Like super duper holy moly BIG! In fact, it’s a little too big. That’s why humanity has only developed about four ‘Homeworlds’; Firma, Atlas, Gaius, and Horizon. Everywhere outside of those four planets are… well…‘wild space’. That’s not to say it’s uninhabited; you’ve got colonies, asteroid mines, space stations – you name it!
The thing is: there’s no permit process or laws or really any regulations whatsoever to establish a facility or colony outside of a Homeworld’s start system. If you’ve got the ship, equipment, crew, and money; you’re free to knock yourself out. That said, there’s not much to pull your butt out of the fire if your equipment breaks or if you get attacked by pirates or if the local wildlife starts thinking you’re tasty. There’s no police, no navy, no nothing!
That’s where we come in. We’re the Colonial Assistance Company or ‘ColAidCorp’ for short. If you’ve got a problem, and the money to pay for a solution, we’ll fix it!
Most of the time.
Bakur Stiles is a man as dark as he is tall. Though his stature might have intimidated some, his kind eyes and warm smile was enough to set most at ease. Stiles was smiling today. In fact his entire team found themselves in very good humor, for each of them had been afforded a look at the payout for their current work order.
They lazed near their humble, albeit heavily modified cargo vessel, ensconced within the hangar bay of the asteroid mining facility; each of them fantasizing about what they planned to do with their shares. The colonists around them, however, were neither so idle nor amused. They rushed to secure equipment, peruse checklists, and chatter frantically over their radios.
Most of the equipment in the facility was showroom new. The chemical lights flooded the hangar with brilliant opal fluorescence. The bay floor lacked the myriad scuffs and scoring that would have pervaded an otherwise well-used launch deck. In fact Stiles’ ship, the Cassiopeia, stuck out as the most abused piece of machinery in the place. As Stiles watched the colonial engineers flit about their duties, it was clear that the facility’s crew was as untested as their equipment.
He stole a glance at his own team, flush with the grime and frayed threads that indicated the completion of a job well done. Ava Mujarez, his co-captain and crew surgeon, examined the bandaged hand of Jake ‘Corsair’ Kousey, their pilot. Mujarez probed his injured hand in a manner that was far too playful for an earnest medical inquiry. Were they on one of the homeworlds, proper treatment would have closed and healed Corsair’s wound near-instantly. In wild space, however, stitches and bandages were still the best one could hope for.
An ingress door to the hangar hissed open and a harried and disheveled colonial magistrate made for Stiles and his team. Dark bags had formed under the magistrate’s eyes, and what was left of his hair had been left unkempt after many long hours awake and at work. “Heads-up, people,” Stiles announced, “payday’s here!”
They turned their attention toward the approaching man, their broad grins contrasting sharply with his exhausted gaze. “LiDAR has detected a group of ships passing beyond the outer markers.” The magistrate stated. He did his best to keep his tone neutral, but there was a tinge of fear buried beneath.
“Well, they’re in for a little surprise, aren’t they?” Stiles replied.
“Provided the shield generators you installed actually work.” The magistrate returned sharply.
Stiles chuckled softly. He could sympathize with the man’s position. His entire livelihood was tied to this asteroid; an asteroid that had been the target of numerous raids from pirates seeking to benefit from all the profits of platinum mining without doing any of the heavy lifting. Still, his noisome huffing and incessant meddling had come to wear upon Stiles’ patience. In the ten days since starting this assignment, the Cassiopeia’s Captain had exhausted the limits of his patience with this man.
“Of course we appreciate your concerns,” Stiles replied warmly, “Vac, would you like to tell the magistrate what you told me?”
‘Vac’, their engineer, lowered his tablet without bothering to mask the look of contempt that etched his face. He was a man of very pale and angular features, with tightly cropped platinum blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He was a man who rarely ate or slept, yet he occupied himself with work as little as possible. And he certainly felt that having to field questions from a clearly ignorant client was very much ‘work’. Vac sighed “We installed and successfully tested four Model-DN50 inport/outport landing membranes, and six Model-GN96 shield generators. Ninety Sixes created an output of 42,000 GSSUs with an effective combined area of nine hundred cubic kilometers.” The magistrate only stared at the engineer, completely lacking in all comprehension and clearly too proud to admit it. “They work.” Vac elaborated dryly.
The magistrate cleared his throat nervously. It was evident that he still had certain misgivings about the contractors arrayed before him, but he was having difficulty mustering any further grounds for objection or delay.
“I believe we agreed upon a price of 800,000?” Stiles prompted.
The magistrate scoffed. “Do you think I’m going to pay you before I’ve a chance to see the shield generators in action? For all I know, they’ll fail the instant a pebble drifts too close to the bubble.”
Stiles trademark smile wavered a touch, his dark eyes hardening ever so slightly. A disinterested observer might not have noticed the change in atmosphere, but the magistrate quickly realized that he might have broached the issue of payment more tactfully as the eyes of a half-dozen ruggedly seasoned ColAidCorp contractors suddenly locked upon him.
“Uh… perhaps I misspoke. W-What I meant was-”
“Oh we heard you just fine,” Stiles interjected with all warmth evaporating from his tone, “you’re not sure you want to be under these shields when the action starts. Perhaps you’d like to inspect our handiwork from a small and nimble vessel?”
Their counterpart paled and sputtered, taking an involuntary step backward. He found his escape route blocked, however, by one of Stiles’ crew. She was Daisy Diaz, the youngest among them and a fair female specimen at that. Her dusky skin was well tended, her long hair managed into a practical pony tail, and her face adorned with the slightest hints of makeup. Even beneath the grime and smudging of mechanical work, she was disarmingly beautiful.
However, the magistrate was less interested in the graceful symmetry of her features and more upon the fact that the muscles that coursed over her sleeveless arms were as tightly knotted as steel cables.
“Or maybe you think you can get away with stiffing another crew.” Stiles continued. He effected a wide, toothy smile but it lacked any charm or warmth. “Make sure our employer finds a good seat Diz,” Stiles concluded, “everyone else; let’s get her ready for takeoff.” Stiles’ crew wasted no time in setting about their task. So quickly was the magistrate usher aboard their vessel, that none of the miners noticed his disappearance.
The cockpit of the Cassiopeia was cramped on the best of days. The magistrate’s addition as a passenger did not make the space any more comfortable. Nonetheless, the grins of the crew spanned ear-to-ear. So far as they were concerned, there was nothing better under the stars than showing stuffy colonists what real space faring was.
‘Diz’ secured the magistrate to his seat beneath a lattice work of crash webbing and an emergency locking bar. She added a set of super-plasti zip wires to his wrists for good measure.
“Open up please,” Diz said sweetly.
“I beg your par-” The magistrates objections were aborted by a mouth guard being firmly shoved between his teeth. “Just a safety precaution, sir.” Diz cooed insincerely as she better affixed the guard with a liberal application of flash-tape.
“Kimber Station Grand, this is Cassiopeia. Requesting permission to leave dock on a heading of Oh One Two mark Four.” Corsair spoke evenly over the radio.
*Cassiopeia, are you crazy!? We’ve got pirate raiders incoming! They’ll be on top of us any second!*
“Copy all, Grand, however the magistrate has insisted upon inspecting the shielding system up-close. Drop the outport shields on the flight deck.”
*He… he what!? Where is the magistrate!? Put him on!*
“Roger that, stand by.” Corsair made no effort to remove the magistrate’s gag, however, instead he keyed another button on his communications panel.
“You’ll get a kick out of this.” Stiles remarked to the bound man beside him.
“Hey Vac, you got an off-switch for the outport hangar shields?”
*First rule of engineering is to always have an off-switch.* Vac’s reported from the engineering bay. The magistrate’s eyes went wide as locked upon the red translucent ring that rimmed the hangar’s opening. Stars glittered beyond the threshold, forcing the man to recall that the only mechanism that protected the hangar from the unforgiving vacuum of space was the double-membrane shielding system that these contractors had installed.
Before, a heavy titanium door would have prevented any ship from entering or leaving the hangar. However, he had allowed himself to be talked into purchasing a more ‘convenient’ inport/outport system. He was beginning to regret that decision.
The instant the red ring flicked to blue, the Cassiopeia rocketed forth and the magistrate distinctly felt a strong desire to return to the protective bubble of his station’s brand new shield generators.
*Well, we didn’t smack into anything. I assume the remote override worked?* Vac asked.
“Like a charm.” Corsair confirmed.
*We didn’t blow anyone else out with us, did we?*
“Uhh…” Corsair examined his sensors, “Nope. Worked exactly like it was supposed to.”
“See?” Stiles prodded impishly, as if this event really were a routine inspection, “exactly like it was supposed to.” The magistrate angrily mumbled something beneath his make-shift gag. “Ah,” Stiles replied knowingly, “I can see you’re still on the fence,” The magistrate responded with an alarmed yelp, “fair enough; it’s your money. Corsair…”
“What’s up, skipper?”
“Let’s give the man a good show.”
“Aye, aye!” Corsair keyed his console again. “Cutting engines… hey Vac, do me a solid: make sure you raise all outport shields back up then… drop main shields.” The magistrate erupted into apoplectic sputtering. He kicked and wriggled ultimately to no avail.
*Operation Bug Zapper?* Vac asked over the clamor of the magistrate’s struggles.
“You know it!” Corsair replied eagerly.
“Heads up!” Diz announced, lifting her head from her sensor readouts. “Bandits incoming. Count is around six fighter class vessels, two corvettes, and one heavy bulk freighter.”
“Check.” Corsair confirmed. “Man, they are definitely not expecting trouble. Tight formation, engines wide open. We could probably take them out from here.”
“Hmm. If only we were being paid to fight.” Stiles remarked. The magistrate only offered a stony glare in response.
“Fighters breaking formation, looks like they’re establishing a close perimeter. They’ll be within the shield bubble in twenty seconds.” Corsair keyed his console. “Vac, standby to snap the mains back on.”
“Belay that.” Stiles interjected.
Corsair paused. “Skip?”
Stiles turned to the magistrate. “The big freighter, I’m guessing they get close enough to use their docking ports, right? You never offer resistance?” He nodded bitterly. “That’s well within the shield perimeter; we’ll snap it closed when they make their approach.” Stiles offered a side-long grin to his prisoner. “Should cut them right in half. Maybe you’d like to take their stuff for a change?”
“Uh…skip?” Diz remarked nervously. “Something’s wrong… the fighters are within the shield bubble and have locked weapons on the station.”
Suddenly, the magistrate began an insistent albeit unintelligible stream of declaratives. Stiles removed the gag, trusting that the man, for once, had some relevant insight. “I’m not there to contact them!” He shouted. “They know something’s wrong!”
“They’ve opened fire!” Diz reported. “Superficial damage to the station. That was a warning shot, but I don’t think the next one will be!”
“Have they detected us?” Stiles asked.
“They don’t act like it.” Corsair replied.
“Let’s change that. Open up the engines, let’s give them something to chase!”
“Just raise the shields!” The magistrate protested.
“How do you propose we get you back inside that shield perimeter if we’re on the wrong side of it?” Nearly all color drained from the magistrate’s face as he digested the implications.
“Engines to full!” Corsair announced as the ship accelerated.
“They’ve sure noticed us now!” Diz reported.
“What’s the plan skip? I was kidding earlier; I don’t really think we can win a straight fight against nine ships.”
“That’s why we’re not going to try. Cassie is faster than those junk Mark 15 fighters. We’ll lead ‘em out of the bubble, pull a Crazy Ivan, jet right back in and slam the shields behind us.”
“Y-You’re insane!” The magistrate sputtered.
“No sir, we’re just that good.” Diz shouted over the steadily increasing thrum of the engines.
The Cassiopeia rocketed for the mining station, juking and spinning to avoid the incoming ARC fire from the enemy fighters. The ship skimmed within several dozen meters of the station’s outer hull; confusing the opposing targeting sensors with the facility’s greater proximate mass.
“Vac, I could use more speed out of these engines.” Corsair reported.
*We’re running hot as it is!*
Shots zipped across the cockpit’s view screen. Their pursuers’ aim was off, but not by much. “They’ll get a lot hotter if one of the nacelles catches a bolt.”
*I’ll see what I can do.*
“Fifteen seconds until we clear the bubble.” Diz announced.
“I’d like to point out that this all could have been-” The Magistrate’s protest was cut short as Corsair juked the ship hard to starboard. Bolts narrowly missed the Cassiopeia, instead etching a superficial impact pattern on the mining facility’s outer hull. “…avoided.” The Magistrate finished.
*You’ve got speed!* Vac announced over the radio.
“Whooo! Yeah I do! Getting a lot of shake on the stick.”
“Oh, I’m letting that one go,” Diz retorted, “five seconds… three… and… hard turn! Now!” The crash webbing that restrained the crew was pulled taught as the centrifugal force from the sudden change in direction threatened to throw them from their seats. Luckily, the straps held fast and Corsair rocketed the Cassiopeia directly for the fighters.
Panicked, the enemy pilots flitted away before any damage could be done. By the time they recovered their pursuit, the Cassiopeia was already nearing the range of the shield perimeter.
“Vac, get ready on those shields.”
*Gimme a second.*
“You don’t have a second!”
*Stupid key won’t…turn…*
“We need those shields now!”
An sudden pulse of blue energy surrounded the facility as the shield generators kicked online. “Whew!” Diz said with relief. “Fighters pulling away, the facility is…” Her face fell as she regarded her scopes.
“Diz?” Stiles prompted.
“I… only see five fighters pulling away…”
“There were six, right?” Corsair asked.
“Uh… the last one got caught in the field. Exploded… tracking debris… telemetry says… oh no! Kousey, hard left!”
“What!?” Diz did not get the chance to repeat herself as a chunk of errant debris impacted with great force upon the Cassiopeia, shredding its starboard engine and sending it into an uncontrolled spiral.