In the darkness of the universe, a small ship slid through the spaces between the stars. Anyone scanning this section or space would have seen the ship as a cloud of space dust among the billions of similar clouds that drift like ghosts of long-forgotten collisions. The ship was surrounded by thousands of small nanobots, collectively acting like cloaking device, and at the same time, scanning for anything interesting they came across.
The captain of the ship was sitting behind her shuttered windows, lounging in her captains chair amid some dirty laundry, food wrappers, and piles of assorted brick-a-brack from other worlds. Behind her was a poster of "the model employee," distributed by the shipping company that owned the cargo freighter she piloted. She was not dressed in the snappy blue navy jump suit uniform pictured on the mannequin in the poster, but in a pair of loosely fitted sweat pants and a stained white tee-shirt. Her bare feet propped up on an instrument panel, the only piece of the official uniform Captain Eliza Chilihar wore was the company cap which kept her long strawberry blond hair slicked back in a loose and sloppy braid. It said, "S.U.N.G.O.D." which was the company name. It didn't stand for anything anymore, having been a logo bought out in a massive super-conglomerate buyout eons ago, but seemed like a good trademark for a long-distance shipping company that delivered into the outermost reaches of mapped space.
She was reading a large newspaper she had picked up in Verde Mujeres, a large cluster of resort platforms orbiting a small white-green dwarf star. Unlike a majority of published media, this newspaper was actually static ink printed on a fiber that was both edible and delicious. But Eliza was not thinking about the spicy-minty goodness that was to follow when she was done reading, but some subtext about difficulties in obtaining weapons in the system she was about to deliver to.
See, her ship was stocked with sugar skulls, a type of delicacy Verde Mujeres was famous for, and in the interests of tourism, none of them were allowed outside the system. So, of course, Eliza had them practically packed to the walls in her ship. And the merchants who made them, of course, sold them to her for a reduced price, because the fact that Eliza showed up with an empty ship to their loading dock and handed them untraceable credit vouchers. All very illegal, mind you, but S.U.N.G.O.D. paid so poorly, that practically every driver in the employee roster was a smuggler. It was an unspoken agreement between S.U.N.G.O.D. and their employees that they were simply putting warm bodies to guard the ship between the vast stretches of space, and the smuggling was not allowed whatsoever by official company policy... providing they had an employee stupid enough to be caught in the act. That happened a lot, and the cargo seized was "destroyed" in an unregulated manner that involved promising some government official the goods were tossed into a boiling sun. Maybe that actually happened a few times.
But the fact that weapons were hard to come by near her destination did not mean the area was at peace, but quite the opposite: planning for war. The the nature of arms missing suggested a very haphazard war, which meant several splinter groups fighting among what small pieces of drifting rock around the orange sun they occupied. The central government of Sol Guapo was corrupt even at the best of times, but since the colonization over 100 years ago, they have had a dozen bloody revolutions. The current military government had been holding peace for nearly 12 years, but the leader was assassinated a few years ago, and his son seemed to sew the seeds for his own overthrow: corrupt AND lazy.
Eliza's concern was two fold. One, people shooting at each other's ships would mean they wouldn't stop to buy sugar skulls off of her, and wouldn't have excess money to purchase them anyway. Two, she should have bought small ship-to-ship weapons when she was in the Yakuza Ichi system a few weeks earlier, because now they were the hot commodity. But the sugar skull express was always a sure bet before. This was Día Dela Mortal del Espacio Vacío, the annual worker's festival which employed a lot of workers from Verde Mujeres and other neighboring resort systems. Normally, a freshly imported sugar skull could fetch nearly ten times the asking price. But during times of war, the future seemed uncertain.
"Captain Eliza?" came a voice from the intercom.
"What is it Essar?" Eliza shouted back.
"The Cayman guard has found the problem with the drive core. It appears we can be back on track in a few hours. But we'll have to shut down the main engines and come to a full stop. Steerage will be limited to steering jets."
Eliza looked at her clock. "You have one hour."
"One HOUR? Look, captain, I--" but Eliza shut off the Intercom.
Navigational Officer Essar Eavesdrop stared at the blinking "connection lost" light. Her face screwed up with rage, she considered storming up to the main navigational room, and shooting down the door. But the sugar skulls packed in all the hallways were incredibly flammable, and she wasn't sure she wanted to look at the disrespectful mess that Eliza had made of what was supposed to me their main station at all times. She was upset enough that she had to sleep on a cot near the aft of the ship, where her personal belongings dangled from a rope she tied to the ceiling. Her otherwise company designated quarters served as a refrigeration room when they were smuggling perishables, or the stench of dirty laundry got to much to put near any ship atmosphere intake vent.
"Did she say we could turn it off?" asked security officer and chief engineer Thrust Flameripper. Thrust happily slept on the floor of the engine room, because as a former officer of the Caribbean Empire, he was used to toughing it out, and thought beds were too soft and perhaps a little dangerous. He was good with tools, and a very handsome man, but he wasn't as bright as Eliza or Essar would have liked.
"I guess, but she gave us an hour."
"Okay," said Thrust,
"That's NOT okay!" Essar protested. "That's not nearly enough time to even remove the access panel. It's just..."
Essar looked at Thrust's simple eyes and shook her head. "Never mind, just turn it off and do it as Eliza said."
Essar returned to her cot, and looked at herself in a mirror she hung up on the wall with some strips of gray adhesive bands. Was this where she wanted to be at 35?
Essar came from a wealthy Terran family who owned a vast stretch of land on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean. Her arranged marriage to Danni Thistledown was cut short when he died at the young age of 4 in a dachshund wildlife preserve. Thus, at 3, she was already a widow. Left to her own devices, she became a very self-reliant girl, and used to roam around her father's property for days at a time, stopping at one of the various guest villas only to sleep and use the toilet. When she was 8, she watched the hustle and bustle of her father's spaceport near Mogadishu and decided to become a space pilot. Sadly, in her father's culture, girls did not become space pilots except to add to a "skills list" to make a marriage more attractive, and even that was rare, because being a space pilot would mean she'd have to leave her father's enforceable property.
But Essar became one anyway, mostly because she wasn't kept in line as some of her other 20 or 40 sisters, but also because the shaved head of an 8 year old widow made her indistinguishable from a boy. By the time she reached breeding age at 12, she was already top of her class. But when she achieved her first pilot's license at an almost unheard of age of 14, her father remembered that he could still marry her off to another wealthy family, and make back some of what he lost in her educational pursuits.
Essar took umbrage to this turn of events, and promptly took a ship outside of Terran space and told her father to kiss her ass. But Essar soon found out that being top of your piloting class did little to help one actually land a piloting job. After a lot of "assistant navigational officer" work, she got her first ship by age 22. A memorial barge.
A memorial barge is simply a large floating cemetery that slowly drifts between designated star systems in a 5-10 year cycle. These types of ships have spaces purchased by the wealthy elite who still want to travel in space after their death, and have scattered relatives visit them when the ship is piloted close to their star system. The ship she manned, "The Pine Crest Gardens," was one of the best ever made. The domed top consisted of one of the largest simple pieces of glassteel ever extruded, and it gave all the viewers a view of their local sun shining on the millions of memorial stones, wall plaques, and mausoleums arranged on the uppermost deck.
But that didn't swell Essar's ample chest with pride. It bored her. Her job was more administrative than hands-on; a sort of "who do we blame when something goes wrong?" kind of job. And the long hours that went into days and months dragged on endlessly. And she couldn't find time to relax, either, because the company that owned the ship were micro-managing every last detail down to the crease lines in her uniform, a complex series of starched layers of black and red cloth. Her daily duties included answer the staggering amount of requests to complain to the captain that the angle the ship had to the sun was not right, someone had defiled a grave marker, and other various petty complaints where one of her 360 other staff simply would not do.
It was only bay chance that she found out S.U.N.G.O.D. needed ship captains. One of the supreme executives of the company was there visiting his mother's grave, and spoke of the opportunity. But when she was finally hired, she was told she'd be a navigator again, and for the next few years she served under Milo Kuolema, a mysterious older man who didn't quite understand the "unwritten rules" of the employee-company relationship, and so actually ran a very disciplined, moralistic model of the ship for many years until he was killed by his own security officer in a bar fight.
Since Essar was the only employable survivor of that encounter, she was reassigned to Eliza, who made it clear in no uncertain terms that she wanted or needed a navigator or security officer. But since she had been caught falsifying pay records for these positions, she was put on "detention" and Essar was put in place with a recent Cayman retiree.
So now she was 35, and her delicate feminine looks were graying, sagging, and if she was a ship, she would have requested a paint job and trim upgrade years earlier. Essar had been sulking that even though she was the one who had piloted the ship that returned the bodies of her former captain and his security officer (he committed suicide after the incident) to the main company headquarters, she was simply reassigned to be a navigator. And she couldn't even blame it on being a woman, since Eliza, as far as she could tell, was a woman and very skilled pilot.
It was Eliza's attitude that really burned, though. She was very a non-feminine, anti-teamwork type of person. She wore casual undergarments most of the time, used the toilet without closing the door, and spent most of her shore time wheeling and dealing with some very subversive characters. And she didn't need Essar or Thrust to help her in any way. She treated them like unwanted cargo most of the time, and even in moments such at these where their skills came in useful, Eliza gave them no more recognition than defective system maintenance software.
Thurst called to her from the engine room. "Essar, you better come look at this."
Essar sat up from her cot, pushed in her hint of a round belly one last time in the mirror, and turned the corner to see Thrust bleeding heavily from his shoulder.
"Oh my God!" she exclaimed. Reflexively, she said a 4-line prayer she learned as a little girl.
In Jabberwok they say,
Lives a man old and gray.
He keeps us all from harm,
The devil cannot charm.
"I know, right?" Thrust said, "the entire control conduit is fried."
"No, your arm!" Thrust looked. "No, your OTHER arm! It's bleeding!"
"Is that what that is?" Thurst asked.
Essar ran for a first aid kit on the wall. When she opened it, there was only a piece of paper with Eliza's handwriting. "IOU."
"Oh, god dammit!" she said, going back to her cot and pulling out a roll of gray adhesive tape. She looked around for some cloth.
"My old sergeant used to say 'All bleeding stops eventually,'" Thrust called from the engine room.
Essar found an old undershirt of hers. While it had some sentimental value, it wasn't so valuable that she wanted the security officer to bleed to death. She tore some strips of the shirt when she saw Thrust coming in, dripping blood on the floor.
"So, we can't do anything until we get that conduit fixed. It's completely shorted out."
"My God, Thrust, have you any sense of ... pain? Common sense? I can't put that blood back in you, you know!" Essar wrapped his arm with cloth and pushed him into her cot. The cot creaked in protest. Applying pressure, she put in a knot of strips directly on the deep cut, wrapped the bandage tightly, and taped the whole thing on his thick arm with frantic tape-ripping noises. "Hold still!"
"But the conduit--"
"The FUCKING CONDUIT CAN WAIT, Cayman! You are bleeding profusely and that has to stop before you die."
"My old sergeant used to say 'All bleeding stops--"
'YOU WILL SHUT UP NOW!"
Thrust fell silent. Essar looked at the impromptu bandage and sighed in relief it wasn't quickly turning red. "Okay, Thrust, I want you to lie down while I try and find a more permenent patch."
"We don't have any patch conduit, this is a massive fiber circuit break--"
"NO, IDIOT, your arm! Holy... gees God willy..." Essar stormed out of the aft section and started digging through all the piles of crap they hadn't traded yet. There HAD to be a first aid kit.
"How's it going down there?" asked Eliza's voice over the intercom. Her voice had a hint of patronized amusement.
"Thrust is hurt. I am trying to find some decent first aid. You got any--"
"Okay," Eliza cut her off. "I need to bring up the drive systems now."
"NO! The entire access panel is off, and it's unshield--"
"No, see, our nano-shield has picked up a large cloaked ship sliding towards out little neck of the woods real fast, and I don't feel comfortable being here when he arrives. I'd rather be--"
"The drive is down, the conduit to the primary engine is gone. Burned out, Eliza."
"Right." Eliza sounded like she was speaking to a small child. "That's why we have been using the secondary. Remember? You were supposed to FIX the primary so the secondary could get a little rest--"
"BOTH ARE DOWN, Eliza! What do you want me to do??"
"Both are down. Oh, fucking great, Essar. is Thurst there?"
"I'm HERE!" Thrust said, standing quickly at attention. But the lack of blood pitched him to the floor, where he head struck Essar's mirror, and a new leak started to form, only this time, Thrust didn't get up.
"What was that?" asked Eliza as if she really didn't want to know.
"Your security officer is now unconscious--"
"Are YOU conscious?"
"Then get your conscious self to the engine room, and put the secondary engine online. Or primary. i don't fucking care which as long as I have full power ten minutes before immediately!!"
"Yes ma'am..." Essar said. The rules stated that disobeying a superior was immediate grounds for expulsion into space, "should that seem the safest option," which Essar was positive Eliza would say at her court hearing. She gritted her teeth and headed back to the engine room.
Meanwhile, the cargo ship, dead in space and drifting lazily to the left, was being watched by a group of large men huddled around a makeshift snooper monitor.
"It's a S.U.N.G.O.D ship," said the crew's chief security officer. "Registered under Captain Eliza since it last left port at Verde Mujeres. Crew of 3... one is a Cayman,,."
"Impressive," said another figure. "A Cayman would make for a formidable pet."
"Most likely shipping weapons to one of the rebels at Sol Guapo. Could be armed. Shoot them down or board her, sir?"
"Why not both? In reverse order, of course."
"Of course," smiled the security officer. "Start up the weapons system and put the gravity pump online... we're doing a standard board and sweep people. Lets GO LETS GO!"