A Rats Tales

Aitken is a pilot, smuggler, explorer, sometime bounty hunter and a Fuel Rat.

These stories will not be in order of events but I will try to give approx. dates.

They can also be viewed at fuelrats.com(<link). I will add to this thread when I write a new story, times will vary.

I hope you enjoy them and thanks for reading

Distance No Object

“Thanks Aitken, you really helped the cause with these trips.”

Said the tall, uniformed kid before me as he handed me a digital pad to read. We stood at the back of a nondescript hanger on a typical Orbis station in Federal held space.

“I don't care about your cause kid. If you Feds what to go about killing each other that's fine by me.”

I looked over the figures on the pad and handed it back to him. Once wear and tear and fuel costs had been paid I should make a nice little profit, I grunted in small satisfaction.

“Everything looks in order kid, you got the right amount transferred to my account, that's a cause I can get behind.”

A smile that made him look as if he had just stepped off a propaganda poster crossed his face.

“Sure Aitken, sure. You know you could have made it one trip if you had just left the fuel limpets here.”

“Sorry kid, those limpets only leave that ship through the firing tubes or if I sell it. I don't see that in the near future.”


'I don't understand guys like you.” The smile coming back to his boyish face as he slowly shook his head. Lifting of his military style cap the close cropped blond hair looked stark in comparison . “You talk all tough and claim you only do work for credits, but when some dumb pilot forgets to fuel up, you guys drop everything and hare off to help.”

It was my turn to shake my head as I turned and headed toward the Diamondback Explorer that sat in the hanger.

“I really don't understand it myself kid but somethings are worth more than credits.”

With that I opened the door, flashed a mock salute and stepped into the FRS Cooper. The thoughts in my mind were of pilots watching their life support slowly wind down or facing the choice of self destruction. No one deserved that, not even some dumb idealist kid who had no idea what he had gotten himself into.

I eased my way into a chair that had taken hours of flight before it contoured itself into one of the most comfortable things in the universe and started flicking switches in the usual preflight routine. As the trio of engines started to warm up, I opened up the Galnet in the hope of finding my next job. A loud siren and a rhythmic flashing red light told me that the next job had found me. RATSIGNAL.

“Dispatch to all Fuel Rats, priority RED, I repeat priority Red. All available Rats report to me. Rat Dispatch out.”

I shrugged my shoulders, lets get out of this floating tin can before I get in touch with Rat Dispatch. I recognized the voice and knew he'd be handling them in a curt, crisp and unflappable manner.

“FRS Cooper you are cleared for departure.” The smooth tones of the station controller informed me.

Short sharp bursts to the vertical thrusters, landing gear up , 10% power to main thrusters and I'm heading for the mail slot. A T9 raises off to my left as I cruise past at 95m/s, ahead of me an Adder pierces the mist around the mail slot and vanishes into space. As the Adder disappears, to the right of where it had been, a Cobra MkIII appears and dives toward it's landing pad. Grayish fog and bright light absorbs me before spitting me, inside Cooper, out into the cold, unforgiving void that is Space.

Red text flashes up on my HUD “Clear of No Fire Zone.” I ease the throttle to max. and turn to the communications module.

“Aitken to Rat Dispatch, come in Surly.”

A grim unshaven face with an artificial eye swims into view.

“Hey Aitken, you volunteering for this one uh? Well it should suit you.” He paused, taking in the sights around me before nodding and continuing. “You might want something a little bigger than the Cooper. I'm sending you the details now.”

On an inset panel beside Surly Badgers face, mission information started to appear. Glancing at the information I started to reply to Surly. “Just how much bigger are we tal.....Oh my world, your kidding.”

“Ah I see you got to the Sector and distance.” A roguish, nearly evil grin cracks the stubble on his face.

“Yeah Plieleae TZ-R A86-3 a mere 18,600ly from my present location. Cmdr Monchiko has run his tanks dry.” I spluttered out as my eyes grew wider.

“Oh it only gets better Aitken, he has limited oxygen left, he's gone cold and should be able to wait a little while for rescue.”

“I presume you have roped other victims, sorry I mean pilots to your diabolical plan Mr. Badger?”

“ Yup, Borg9 and a new guy Alex Traut are already in the “black” and heading there now, I just need one more for back up in case something goes wrong. Which it shouldn't.” He growled as if to tell me not to ruin his well placed organizations.

“You know me better than that Surly. Yeah, I'm in. I'm about 170ly from the December, I should be leaving within the hour.”

“Like I said, you're basically insurance, heck the other two have a thousand lys or two start but you might catch them in that Conda of yours. Keep me posted about you departure. Until then Dispatch out.”

Not one for idle chatter that Surly I though as a made the 5 jumps to get to the system the FRS December was docked in. As I entered the toast rack the memory of meeting Badger for the first time drifted into my mind. A nondescript hanger on a typical rotating station in Imperial held space. The tough looking Imp pilot was telling me of idea he had thought of while flying to Hutton Orbital. When I said I was interested, he gave me a channel to monitor and said he'd be in touch. I honestly never expected to hear from the guy again. Man was I wrong, over the next coming months the Fuel Rats as he called them, went from strength to strength and seemed to be busier and more in numbers, everyday.

As the elevator descended to take the Cooper to it's berth I ran the shutdown procedures. I finished just as the movement stopped and I looked out to see a huge scuffed black hull in front of me. The Anaconda, FRS December. I would love to say it is my pride and joy but that would be a lie. It's a ship, a necessary tool I require that allows me to make a living, and sometimes have fun.

As I walked under the massive blunt black nose of the December, the chief station engineer came down the passenger stairway.

“Hey Chief, I need to blast off as soon a possible, you got an ETA on the repairs and upgrades?”

The balding, heavy set man smiled and shook his head in the way engineers for generations must have been doing. With a sharp intake of breath he gave me his tale of woe.

“Well Cmdr, we've nearly finished the routine stuff, but that new fuel scoop you wanted us to fit will take another hour or two. Sorry but I had to send a couple of my guys to work on a transporter that came in a little shot up.”

“I get it Chief, too much to do with not enough hands to help. Well a couple of hours will allow me to restock limpets and contact the people I need to. Not ideal but it could be worse.” I said wryly trying not to antagonize the overworked space mechanic. Last thing I needed was a grumpy engineer working on a ship I was about to pilot out into space.

“Thanks Cmdr. We'll be as quick as we can.” With that he turned and walked toward where his number two was working on the stubborn fuel scoop.

In the mean time I contacted Badger and told him of my delay. As was usual it seemed to bother him not a jot. Chuckling I sent communications requests to Borg9 and Alex so that we could at least message each other about our progress. Checking all systems and other items I managed to increase the jump range a little and then waited.

I was going over the systems for the third time when the chief eased his bulk into a vacant chair on the bridge.

“We're tightening the last of the placement bolts now Aitken, then you're good to go. Watch out for pirates, although it has been quiet around here of late.”

I thanked the Chief and started to warm up the December, jumping from the DBX to the Conda in so short a time reminded me that they were completely different ships. The Explorer was light, nimble, able to turn with the grace of a dancer. The Conda on the other hand was as subtle as a kick in the groin. Big, heavy and seemed to take hours to turn. If it wasn't for the jump range and new scoop I might have stuck with the Cooper for this mission but Monchiko was expecting help sooner, rather than later. The race was against the clock and not Rat against Rat but even in a life or death situation Fuel Rats always try to have fun in rescues.

Jump, wooooooosh, thunck. Scan, twiddlie, twiddlie, BARRRPPPP. “Fuel scooping”, glug, glug, rattle. Better get used to that I thought, I will be hearing it a lot and often too.

Quick check of the Galmap and I see two green dots many, many light years ahead. “You're back up, insurance.” I tell myself. After the first 1000 lys and no pirates I fall into a pattern I remember from other trips into the “black”. With that pattern comes the inevitable thought and desire for speed. The hang back idea is jettisoned out the airlock like a ton of bad fish.

Misjudging a scooping point leads to the use of heat sinks and some damage. I wince internally when I think about the harassed Chief and the extra work I just gave him. Another check of the Galmap shows Borg9 stationary, probably resting and so I pass him and continue the easy routine.

The communication speakers crackle to life as I hear from Alex for the first time, who is still over a thousand lights years ahead of me. He suggests we each find quite systems and catch some rest. I look at the trip time counter and realize I/we have been jumping for six hours or so. I agree and estimate we have about another three hours of jumping ahead. Alex confirms my thoughts and we retire in our respective ship.

Six hours later, it feels like six minutes. I enter the galley, pour some coffee and grab a bite to eat. As the mighty engines fire up I check the Galmap to see that the other rescuers are well ahead of me again. “No worries, you are supposed to be the back up.” Again that thought reminds me. With another gulp the caffeine kicks in just as the frame ship drive kicks in for the December. Jump, honk, can't scoop that one. Jump, honk, can't scoop that one. Jump, honk, can't scoop that one. Throttle to zero and re-plot for one of the OBAFGKM stars. Done. Jump, honk, scoop. Jump, honk, can't scoop that one. Jump, honk, can't scoop that one. “Reserve tank dry”, Betty informs me. Oh crud. Throttle to zero and re-plot, “Main fuel tank at low limit.” I know, I know Betty, why do you think I redirected us. Waiting for my nerves to calm down I check the distance and see I only have one more route to plot before reaching the target system. As I zoom the map out I expect to see at least one of my fellow Rats waiting in-system for me. Nothing. “Dang,” the thought hits me and calms the rest of my nerves “Anu was right about that scoop being good, damn good.” I hit the comms switch to speak to Alex and am told he and Borg9 had slowed down as their was plenty of time. A smirk crosses my face as I remember the “real explorer's” lists I have read.

Another five jumps and the last scoop-able star before the target system is reached. “Fuel scooping complete” Betty blandly informs me.

“In system. Use this signal as your target Cmdrs.” I transmit in the hope to make their route plotting a little easier. As I wait I ran an advanced scan, in fact I had done it absentmindedly. It had become second nature after the rescue dash. Opening the system map I feel a despair fall over me. It's a desolate place, a L class star gives off it's weak light, five or six rocky planets orbit it like diseased flies. A horrible place to die. I start looking for Monchiko as Alex jumps in. Nothing on scanners, nothing coming through comms. Are we too late? Has our mad dash to help been to slow?

Borg9 comes in system and we slowly move out into a search pattern. A crackle like, barely audible static moans from the bridge speakers. “....ats.........50...........tar.....re.....”

“Did you guys hear that?” I nearly roar into the comms microphone. Two negatives come back to me.

“Moving in a little deeper. I'm sure I heard something.”

Fue...Rats.......500.....seco....fro.......star.....ond”

“Aitken, I heard something then, he's still here.” Alex informs me with joy in his voice.

I move the December with Alex and Borg9 in their Asps coming behind. The back up, insurance briefing totally forgotten in deep space.

“Fuel Rats I am 500,000 Light seconds from star, please respond.”

“Aitken to Monchiko, if you can hear me deploy your wing beacon and we'll home in on it.”

All three ships put max power to engines and begin the last mad dash.

“Borg9 to wing, beacon spotted on scanner, 473,000 ls ahead.”

In each ship target selectors click on the dim light blue signal on their scanners.

And then it's gone.

“If you are still there and can hear me Monchiko, your beacon timed out, please reactivate.” Please no, please, do not let him die, when rescue is so close.

“Monchiko to Fuel Rats, oxygen down to 10 mins. Thank you for the effort.”

“Sit tight commander, it'll be close but we can pull this off.”

It may be a bigger ship but the Conda has engines to match it's bulk the gap between it and the pursuing Asps increases. It eats lights seconds as it arrows toward the beacon marker.

And then it's gone. Again.

Nearly shouting into the mic. but with a calm as possible tone, the request for reactivation is sent.

There, it's glowing brightly, begging for a ship to pass near so it can pull that ship out of supercruise. 200,000. 190,000. If this countdown gets annoying tell me to stop. 180,000. 170,000.

And then it's gone.

“One more time my friend. If you can hear me, the beacon, one more time.”

“Beacon activated.” I hear Bettys voice as the space around me starts to dissolve, with a whip like crack the December bursts back into real space. Disoriented I stare at the scanner as a blue rectangle appears on the edge in front of me. “Programming limpet” Bettys dispassionate voice informs me. Peewooosh, “refueling in progress.” deep breath, two new rectangles pop onto the scanner. “Programming limpet” Peewooosh, “Refueling in progress.”

“We made it Aitken, Borg9. It was nip and tuck but we got here.”

Both Asps release limpets and the third Asp gobbles them up hungry for the fuel they contain.

I watch as one by one each Asp maneuvers to their exit vectors and jump out.

Now, lets plot that route back home.
 
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Takes place roughly two weeks before Distance No Object.

For Every Action.

“Aitken, that had to be the most stupid, idiotic, dumbest thing you have ever done!”

The assault on my intelligence awoke me from a light doze. I was lying on a cold, hard, flat slab of a grayish plastic. The thin blanket that covered two thirds of my body did little to keep out the slight chill in the air. I rolled over on to my side and rested my head on my hand, my elbow being the foundation of my support.

“What? Why?” I shakily replied to the older human standing beside an identical slab on the opposite side of the small room. His name was Gabe Wyndham, he was about twenty or twenty five years older than me. He had been a friend of my fathers and I had known of him most of my life. It wasn't until I got out to the frontier that I actually met him. He was rather nicely dressed. The loud, garish colors were in fashion in the current system I was visiting.

“Why did you, all five foot three inches of you, decide it was a good idea to brawl with the six foot eight tall Martian......... and in my favorite bar at that?” A whine of annoyance in his voice.

“He asked me to.” I replied, still trying to wake up. I hated mornings, I especially hate mornings when I did not have coffee to drink.

“He asked you to?” He blurted out, his eyes bulging and his cheeks growing a delicate shade of pink. “Sorry but that's not how I remember it. I quote, “If there is anyone in this bar that thinks they have the balls to take on the toughest son of a gun that ever step off the shuttle from Mars. Step up or forever hold your peace.” End quote.” By this time the delicate pink was now a bright burning magenta.

“Like I said, he asked me to.” I swung my legs off of the slab, my feet barely touching the floor. The blanket which had been as much use as E1 shield on a Vulture, slid to that floor. All I could do was shrug.

“Whats happened to you boy? Your Dad would never have done some of the stunts you're pulling.” His voice had nearly returned to normal as he sat down on his slab.

“Hey, I've read his logs, Dad did what he had to do.” I relied, a little anger rising at the attempt to compare me with my father. Gabe shuffled his feet and put his hands on his knees.

“I know son, I was there for most of them. The smuggling was par for the course but never slaves, never narcotics.” As he spoke he shook his head. I used the only line of defense I had for my actions.

“I'm not proud of those things Gabe but if I hadn't done them, someone else would have. Besides they paid well.” I could hear the tut, tutting as I spoke. “Ok, if it makes you feel better I'll swear off the slave smuggling.” To tell the truth smuggling slaves had never sat well with me.

“It's a start and I will hold you to it.” he gave a wink. A good sign that his anger had subsided and he was ready to talk calmly. “He would approve of that Fuel Rat scheme you have got yourself caught up in. Yes, a selfless thing, a thing of nobility.”

“Bull!!!” I interrupted him before he got carried away. “Selfless and noble my rear. If I am ever caught in that situation I hope someone remembers I helped them and returns the favor.” I was half lying but I really did not want him making it a big deal.

“Alright, I'll drop it.” Gabe wasn't dumb and could sense I wasn't looking for praise over those actions. So he changed the subject. “When do you think they'll let us out of here?”

“What day is it?” I asked in response. Looking a little confused Gabe answered.

“It's Thursday morning.” A hint of puzzlement in his voice.

“Well then we should be out of here by lunch time.” I said nonchalantly. Gabe gave out a sign.

“Not your first time at this rodeo uh?” Again the head was shaking.

“Gabe you said it yourself, I smuggle. Most times I get in and out no problem. It may be rare but I sometimes get caught. This station happens to have caught me a time or two.” I shrugged my shoulders once more to let him know it was just the price of doing business.

Once again Gabe showed the wisdom of his years and changed the subject.

“I'm still trying to work out why I ended up in here with you?”

“Cos you had to be the peacemaker. You strode up and put a hand on each of our chests, with a “Now, now boys!”. Right at the point the cops busted in. “ It was my turn to shake my head this time.

“Oh yeah.” Gabe replied with a hint of mirth in his voice. “Damn Aitken, if only they would turn up that quick when I'm being attacked in deep space.” I gave him a smile, we both knew that was never going to happen.

“I gotta admit though, you were holding your own against the big mouth. But then again he looked about seven sheets to the wind and you were stone cold sober.” Stone cold sober, little surprise there as I do not drink alcohol and hadn't for a about fifteen years. I had an alcohol allergy, no not a hangover, the medical term flew right over my head. I did remember the medical guys saying it elevated my heart rate and at some point it could lead to cardiac arrest. I didn't need to hear anymore and just stopped drinking. Believe me, it was really no big deal. “Yeah you were getting and giving your lumps if I remember it right.”

Now that I was starting to wake up properly the “lumps” I had taken were starting to show themselves. I dare not touch my nose, I didn't think it was broken but it did contain some dried blood and hurt. I must have got hit on the left side of my head at some point as I could feel the swelling around that sides eye. Luckily I hadn't laughed this morning as I had a feeling that would also hurt. No broken ribs but I had definitely been hit there during the scuffle. Gabe continued as I did my rudimentary medical diagnosis.

“That kick in the nads as your opening move surprised the heck out of him. I have never seen a bald six eight guy brought to his knees that quickly before.” Gabe gave a small chuckle, it reminded me of the noises donkeys made when I had visited the circus as a kid. He also reminded me why my ribs hurt. As the big guy from Mars had landed on his knees, I wasn't quite quick enough to avoid him lunging forward and landing that bald head in that region. We both traded a few punches, once we both stood up again, hence the swelling in the left eye area, and that's when the cops showed up.

“I'm still not sure why you got embroiled in the dust up, it's not like yo.......”

Before he could finish his line of questioning the door opened. An average looking guy, in an average looking uniform, looked at us both before asking.

“Which one of you is Wyndham?” Gabe raised his hand. “Good. You come with me.” We both stood up, Gabe took a step toward me.

“I'll be just a minute.” He told the man at the door. “Next time you're in system we'll do something different, alright.” That brought a grin to my slightly aching face. “ He pulled me into a hug and then whispered in my ear. “I'll remember your word Aitken.” He released the hug and took a step toward the door. “Give your mother my regards next time you are in touch with her.” Before I could reply he was gone and the door closed behind him.

Well, I was alone in the cell. I bent down and picked up the paper like blanket and sat down on the slab that had severed as my bed the night before. I knew Gabe had meant it. He had lived on this station for close to fifty years and had contacts all over it. Those contacts reached out, not just to this station but probably through out civilized space. I gave another shrug, like drinking, slave smuggling would be easy to give up.

I was just thinking about lying down again when the door opened.

“Are you Aitken?” Another ordinary guard, in another ordinary uniform asked.

“Yup that's me.”

“Uh, Aitken. Is that your first name or your surname?” He said looking at the pad in his hand.

“Yes.” I answered in a flat monotone voice.

He shot me a slightly bewildered look and motioned for me to proceed him.

I stepped out into a corridor just wide enough for two people to walk down side by side. More likely line abreast I though, guard, prisoner, guard. Not much room to turn, easy to defend. There were three doors, one at the either end of the shortish hallway and one set in the left hand wall, about half way down. It was this door my guard was taking me toward. We stopped in front of it, there was ten digit key panel on the right. Next to it was a LED panel of similar size and it was glowing red.

We must have stood there for sixty to ninety seconds before it turned green. The guard punched a series of keys on the appropriate panel and the door opened. “In you go.” He said. “Just head for the top, but by the look of ye, ye know the drill.”

I said nothing and stepped through the door and started ascending the staircase that lay before me. Oh yes, I did indeed know the drill, unfortunately.

Knowing the drill meant I knew what awaited me at the top of the staircase. I started hoping it would be a lenient judge on duty and this one might just be a slap on the wrist.

At the last step I walked directly into the dock. “Ah Mr. Aitken. So good of you to visit again so soon.”

My hope crashed to the ground like an overloaded T9. Great, just what I needed, Judge Karaca, a hard-liner and as you may have guessed, we had met before.

“Well let's see what we have here then.” He started pressing keys on what I presumed was a computer terminal. “First time I saw you about six months ago you were smuggling Battle Weapons.50,000 credit fine.”

“You fined me and I paid it.” I said blandly.

“Hmm, then about a month ago you where brought before me for smuggling narcotics.75,000 credit fine.” A note of irratation in his voice.

“You fined me and I paid it.” I said blandly.

“Righhht. And this time it's....” He paused as the screen loaded. “Disturbing the peace with the potentional to incite a riot. Ah a little variety at least.” I nearly said something about the “inciting a riot” charge, but bit it back as nothing good would come of it.

What I did say didn't help either. “Well, I wouldn't like you to get bored your honor.” In for a penny in for a full credit.

“Indeed Mr. Aitken. Do you have anything to say in your defense and I warn you, the evidence and witness statements look very convincing to me.” The hard edge in his voice let me know my attempt at humor hadn't been recieved well.

“No your honor.” Crud, I'd lost this one. Now lets just see what the damage was going to be.

“Well since you are pleading guilty I will go easy on you this time. Fined 250,000 credits.” He paused to look at me and getting no reaction carried on. “You know where to pay it Mr. Aitken. Please do visit again, not to soon though. You have until midnight, local time, to be off this station and don't come back for the next four weeks.You are free to go. Dismissed.”

The right side of the dock lowered and three steps were reveled. Down the three steps and a little over eight feet away a door opened, of course I walked through it.

The door closed behind me and to my right I saw a counter, with what looked like bullet and laser proof plexiglass. Set below it was what look to be a cabinet drawer, cos thats basically what it was. When Judge Karaca had “dimissed” me, the infomation was sent straight to the pertinent stations. This one being Prisoner Possession.

A pad, two five credit coins and an electronic key, not many possessions but mine non the less. The guard behind the glass put these into the drawer, I pulled the handle and put the coins and key into my flightsuits pockets. The pad I kept in my hand.

Opposite the door I had come through was another door. Yup, this one opened next. It looked like the same room I had just left. The exact same set up except no drawer. There was a two way communications device set into the glass. “Aitken.” I said into the speaker.

“You can transfer anytime you like Mr. Aitken.” I stabbed my finger on the appropriate keys on the glass front of the pad. 250,000 credits was a harsh punishment for what was no more than a bar room brawl. Karaca didn't seem to like me I thought. A quick check of the most recent transactions, a look at the final balance and I slipped the pad into one of the breast pockets of my flightsuit. Another door at the other end of the corridor opened. I stepped out back into the station proper.

I started to walk in the direction of the hangers as the station populace carried out their busy daily routine. A beutiful aroma grabbed my nostrils and pulled my head to a cafe across the walkway. I gave a sniff, not broken thats for sure.

“Cafe Marseille” the neon sign in the window proclaimed. I needed coffee and midnight was still twelve hours away, pffft, plenty of time.

A pretty little waitress came over to the table I was sitting at and took my order. A mug, yes not a cup, that's correct miss, I haven't had any since yesterday. With a smile and a swish of her skirt she bustled off in the direction of the kitchen area. Less than ten minutes later she was back with a steaming mug containing a dark brown liquid. I added cream and sugar to taste, took a sip and instantly came fully awake. Parts of me hurt a little worse but right then I did not care. Caffine was surging through my viens again and I was in an excellent mood.

I bent down to take another sip and a shadow fell across the table.

I looked up straight into the eyes of a six foot eight bald human from Mars.

“Transfer was complete early this morning. 500,000 as was agreed.” He spoke in a deep bass tone.

“I saw that. Cool thanks.” I gave a slight grin. “Did your friend recieve the message you had to pass on.”

“Yes, thanks Aitken, see you around.” With that he turned and left the cafe.

“Probably.” I said to the table I sat at.

I finished my coffee, left the two coins for the waitress, I said she was cute and headed for the hangers again.

See Gabe he asked me to.
 
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Better Than The First Time.

“Nothing to it, right? Piece of cake.”

I had just fired a couple of fuel limpets at a T9 Heavy. It was a drill that Badger had set up so that I could get some experience with wing mechanics and refueling. Having only done it the once, I won't call it a “piece of cake”, there were some pit falls I could foresee but it had certainly helped me and worked.

“Sure. Thanks for the practice, it will come in handy.” I did not admit I had any apprehensions, no point, I would make it work or I wouldn't. That it could cost a pilot his life if I failed was also pushed to the back of my mind. Simple, I wouldn't fail.

“So you heading back to the “bubble” now?” The Fu Manchu mustached Imp pilot asked.

“Yeah, that's the plan. I see that this Fuel Limpet Controller is a tad heavy so I'll swap it out for a D1.” I replied as I continued to run what I had just done and agreed to do in the future.

“Ya, good idea you'll save yourself some credits too.” Badger said nodding sagely. “I'm going to jettison some palladium for you. Heck you might as well lug it back and make a little more off your trip out here.”

“It's ok, I really needed the chance to try this out, I don't want to cut into your profits.” I tried but he would not hear of me going back empty handed. Profits that would not be easy getting. Traveling 500 or so light years out in the Asp “Bennachie” hadn't been to bad but in a fully loaded T9 Heavy it would be a pain.

I had bought the Asp “Bennachie” not for Ratting but for exploration and it still had all the tools for that fitted. As much as I loved the Asp, I had been thinking about an Anaconda or trying out one of the new Diamondbacks that Lakon had just released. That was the future though and credit dependent, right at this moment I had more pressing concerns. I made a quick one system jump and reopened the Galmap. I also kept a close eye on the Rat Channel incoming text messages. Surly had explained that some time in the near future we would have a more open communications system but at the moment a basic text board would do.

Interesting things were afoot as I diverted my attention between it and Galmap. A Cmdr had gotten himself stranded in Epsilon Orionis and any ship with less than a 36ly jump range could not reach him. That counted “Bennachie” and myself out. That was beyond our range, even if we were not carrying limpets and 2 tons of palladium. I plotted my new course but continued to read the debate about if the commander should burn off fuel or if a Fuel Rat with an extended range Conda was available to help. When a post that had appeared in the midst of all the to and fro caught my eye.

Arthur Locke had also become stranded but not in such a precarious situation. I searched Galmap for the system he reported from and found, nothing. If I just took the general area I could see I was 500 to 600 light years from it. A little reworking of the figures given and I narrowed it down to 400 light years. With all the hub bub of a major rescue going on around me, I told Arthur that I was “On My Way.” Just as the “Cmdr Anuranium, on his way” to Epsilon Orionis rolled up.

My re-plotting, again, came up with 14 jumps, not a problem I thought, just go into a long exploration mode and jump, scoop, scan but on a smaller scale.

Frame Shift Drive Engaged, I found it highly amusing and appropriate that I kept hearing “Friendship Drive” as so many other pilots did. I typed Arthur to ask he start the process for inter-ship communications when I was two systems out. Just as I has accepted his message I felt the “Bennachie” lurch, the controls became sluggish and it seemed to be being pulled off of course. Interdiction. No not now, I thought as I decided to submit to try and save time.

Whoa, I was spinning like a top and my vision blurred. Instinctively I fought to keep the Asp on an even keel, blam, normal space returned. I pressed the proper sequence and out popped the hard points and target acquisition systems. An eagle and by the way it was maneuvering, an angry and hostile pilot at the controls.

“Can I hel.......” Was all I got out.

“I want it all, give me it all.” I heard as the Eagle continued to try and get behind my Asp.

“Hey look buddy, I'm not carrying anything of value. I am on my way to try and help another pilot.”

“You lie scum. Give me all your cargo or I take your life.”

OK, one, only my close friends get to call me “scum” and two, I really didn't like being threatened and accused of being a liar. It suddenly dawned on me, the palladium. Well, Badger it seems both our good deeds will not go unpunished.

While being dual fitted for exploration and fueling, the “Bennachie” still had teeth. Not the best weapons, a pair of beam lasers and four small multi-cannons but enough to hold its own, I hoped.

“You were warned, now die!!” Comms were cut and laser fire splashed against my shields.

Reallocating power distribution with a flick of my thumb I noticed no discernible difference to my shields,low powered pulses, I thought. I began twisting, diving, climbing. Ok there is no up or down in space but you get the idea. The beams had soon stripped his shields and the multi-cannons began chewing his hull when I heard Betty announce, “Frame Sift Drive detected”. It seemed the pirate had decided that discretion was a wiser choice than valour.

As the Eagle jumped out of system, so did I. I had re-selected the route to Cmdr Locke and was now one jump out. I initiated voice communications and jumped.

The Asp exploded into the system and all the thoughts and concerns I had when practicing came bubbling back to the fore. What if I had “instancing problems” or I forgot how to activate “beacon drop out”.

“Can you hear me Arthur?” I asked tentatively.

“I hear you wall to wall Aitken, thanks for coming out here.” A friendly enough reply came back. I also noticed that no visual communications had been activated.

“I have your beacon, sit tight I'll be with you soon.” If I had relief in my voice it was all too real.

“I'm not going anywhere till you visit.” The chuckle in Arthur's voice was not grim but of a man who had resolved himself to his fate.

A blue open rectangle glowed on my scanner as I wheeled round the unscoopable star. With a shudder and once again a vision blurring thump, we appeared back in real space. Of course as it usually works out the blue rectangle was behind me when I had come back to my senses.

I maneuvered the “Bennachie” to be facing the target and pressed select. Ah, now the lack of visuals made a little more sense. A Vulture wire frame appeared on my target acquisition system. Probably a wanted criminal, or perhaps one that hunted the wanted criminal. Time to find out.

“Thanks Aitken, I was out chasing some criminals for Hudson and a squad of Patreus bully boys decided I needed to be taught a lesson.” A hard edge to his voice told me I was dealing with a fighter.

“No worries, Arthur. Let me get lined up and I'll fire over some fuel soon. I'm not affiliate to any power, one's as bad as the other to me.” I could nearly feel the other man nodding in agreement.

“Yeah, well Hudson pays well at the moment. If another opportunity turns up, I'll be on my way.” Bounty Hunter, fighter and mercenary. Yes, I now knew why I was not getting visuals. One day he might be looking for me, if things went wrong and letting me know what he looked like might be to my advantage. Not a problem, I would probably do the same in his situation.

I fired two limpets and watched as the streaked across toward the Vulture. One entered the cargo hatch and the other waited til the first had been drained and disposed of. I fired another two and thought that those should fill his tank.

“Much obliged Aitken. Good luck in the future, I do hope not to need your services again.”

“You know how to reach us if you do Cmdr. Best of luck to you too.”And I hope I am never on the wrong end of you looking for me, ever.

I watched as Arthur jumped out and then plotted a route to the closest system with a station.

“Cmdr. refueled and moving again”, I typed out as I sat in the hanger aboard “FRS Bennachie”.

“Anuranium is thirty minutes out, you can't mean that one?” Badger typed back to me.

“No, this was a stranded commander in the Col. 285 sector.”

“You went on a rescue straight after our training exercise? Nice job Aitken, congrats”. I was asked. And congratulated all at the same time.

“Yeah and it went even better than the first time.” I replied with satisfaction and a few of the doubts and fears slipped away.
 
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Mischief Stories

Not an Aitken Tale. One I volunteered to write up.



Ground School 101

They filed in. Some in pairs, some in groups of three or four, most were by themselves. All were quiet and hardly a word was passed, well it was kind of early, 0700 Galactic Standard Time.

The two gentlemen on the one step raised dais waited for the assembled mass to be seated, a little buzz started as the students did begin to talk to each other.

A pointer rapped a wooden beat on a podium and silence fell. A medium sized, dark haired male stepped in front of the podium.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us at this late evening meeting.” A small ripple of laughter ran through the room. “My name is Cmdr. Paul Kavinsky, my fellow instructor today is Cmdr. DarDevel.” Paul indicated a slightly older human to his left. DarDevel gave a slight nod of his head then continued to tap away on a keyboard that sat before him.

“We have been asked to show you that things can go wrong, even when you do everything right on a rescue mission.” Paul glanced at DarDevel and the screen behind Paul came to life.

“Some of what you are about to see is a computer recreation, most of it will be actual footage that was taken from Cmdr. DarDevels’ Anaconda.” The long nose of a Faulcon deLacy Anaconda swam into view, then quickly cut to a T6 Transporter, a banged up, badly damaged T6.

“The system does not matter, but it was close to the Witchhaul System as the T6 Transporter was being used for hauling rares.” Here Paul paused as he and DarDevel locked eyes. A silent, almost telepathic message was sent between the two men, they both nodded and Paul turned again to face his students.

“The name of the Cmdr. in the T6 is unimportant too. As you will see one error can lead to another and then another.”

On the screen a Lakon Asp burst into space and view.

“My ship the “Sena”, carrying a Fuel Limpet Controller and eight limpets, basic equipment for Fuel Rats. Now at this point in time I am unable to get a lock on our “client”.” Paul paused to look at a data-pad. “Ah, good I see you have already had the lectures on Super Cruise Mechanics and of the issues with instancing.”

He stopped for a moment to take a sip of water from a glass sitting along side the jug on DarDevels keyboard table.

“Cmdr. Dardevel was still six jumps out so I continued to work on solutions to my problem.
Unfortunately all to no avail.”

Again the image behind him shifted. This was live footage as taken by DarDevel. As the camera swung round parts of the Anacondas hull would be visible.

“Our unfortunate Cmdr. had already made his second mistake before we got to him which was trying to scoop from a brown dwarf. Anyone care to guess at his first?” Paul asked hoping to see every hand rise.

Less than half of the thirty assembled did so. Paul pointed a eager looking pilot in the front row.

“Yes Cmdr. He allowed himself to be come trapped with low fuel levels.”

Hiding his relief Paul returned to the lecture.

“Correct and I do wish that had been the end of rescue.”

DarDevel stood up and took over the narrative.

“I made contact as I jumped in. No issues for me thankfully and one reason it is best to work in pairs.” He took a breath to gather his words, feelings and memories.

“As is Standard Operating Procedures the commander had deactivated all non essential systems and so I began the refuel mission. It went by the book and the T6 started to power up it’s systems.”

Paul stood next to his fellow commander and interjected occasionally.

“Between us, DarDevel and I agreed to escort the badly damaged Transporter into the closest system and station.”

DarDevel took over once again.

“Once his systems were back on line we plotted the course and jumped. Error number three was committed at this point. While switching on his systems the pilot had also switched on “Silent Running” without being aware of it. And with it still on he jumped to a stationed system.”

While both men on the stage were blameless the pain and guilt in their voices was evident. Paul took up the commentary about the rescue mission.

“The pilot noticed that his temp. had risen to 160 before he realised what he had done. Not before his T6 had taken massive amounts of damage, so much damage that he was running on emergency oxygen.”

“And his scanner was toast.” DarDevel chimed in. “Docking was going to be, well, impossible.”

Paul put a hand on the other mans shoulder. “Didn’t stop him trying though. Right up until he hit the side of the station.”

All the time both men were describing the horrific account, the events were playing out in graphic detail behind them.

A chill seemed to have settled on the silent room as each student took in the horror of one little mistake leading to another and to the eventual gory ending.

“So you can see Rats. Even if you do everything correct, no errors from yourself or your back up, even when you think the mission has been a success.” Paul stopped and glanced round the room. “Space can and will prove that it is the competition and it does not like to lose.”

In one voice both men announced.

“Class dismissed.”

All details of this actual rescue were given by the commanders involved. Thanks to them for their help.
 
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Well It Turns Out, You Can Go Home - A Rats Tales.

“MURDERER!!”

I was walking across a mall in Titan City as a women in her late twenties screamed. As with any sane person I turned round to see who she was pointing at. Oh dear, or words to that effect I thought. No one was standing behind me and she was pointing in my general direction. I was just about to explain to her that she had obviously mistaken me for someone else, when Station Security showed up. Man they never show up this quick when I'm in my ship, I thought.

“I think you better come with us sir.” One of the security guards said to me. I noticed another one talking the young lady into a calmer state. “Sure, officer.” I replied and walked beside him as we headed toward the Security Kiosk. Ah the perfect end to a perfect trip home. the cynical thought pushed to the fore of my thinking.

It had started two weeks earlier on this station. A vacation, a trip home to see my Mother, Sister and my kid, a chance to relax. What could possibly go wrong with that.

Apart from the usual motherly and sisterly questions, not a lot I am happy to say.

My sister met me in the hangar just after I had landed. Cleopatra Aitken, I can not call her my little sister as she is a few inches taller than I am but she is my younger sister by two years. I opened the lower hatch and she climbed aboard.

“Wow, this is dads old ship, I can't believe you actually went all the way out there to get it” She exclaimed looking around as the memories came flooding back.

“Yup sis, it's the “Sair Fecht”. I said in return, a smile on my face for the first time in how knows long. The “Sair Fecht” had been my fathers Faulcon deLacy Cobra Mk. III. When I had inherited it just over two years ago it had been in near perfect condition, I hoped I had kept it that way.

“Everything is as I remember 'A', except that.” She pointing to the only piece of equipment I had added for my trip to Sol.

“It's a Fuel Limpet Controller sis, I kind of need it if I am to refuel other ships.” I tried to make it sound like it was just another piece of ship equipment.

“So you're a Fuel Rat, uh.” An wicked gleam appeared in her eye. “But I don't believe you have been all goody, goody, while you've out in space 'A'.” She continued to walk round the Cobras cockpit taking in all the sites and emotions that went all with them.

“No, sis not all goody, goody, as you put it. I've done want I've had to do to get by, just like most out there.” Again I tried to make it sound like nothing out of the ordinary happened out on the frontier. We were close, of course there had been the odd scuffle and disagreement growing up but we were just an ordinary brother and sister.

“Ok, 'A', I know that tone and I won't push it. After all I'm not the Security Services.” She said back to me with mirth in her voice.

“Thanks sis, come on tell me all about the kids and how work is going for you?”

We continued talking as we left the ship, reluctantly on Cleo's part. I did promise we would go sight-seeing around Sol later. The banter and catching up went on for most of the thirty minutes it took to reach where our Mother lived and then the real interrogation began.

“You look so thin dear, what have you been eating?”

“Usually stuff Mum.” “Nonsense. Not real food I warrant, just those nutrition bars.” “No Mum I don't like those.” “Well we'll soon have some meat on your bones again. It is good to see you dear.”

Part one was over and Elsa Aitken paused as I took her into a gentle embrace. “Good to see you to Mum and to see the old place.”

She gave me a smile and headed for the the kitchen area. Cleo and I followed her into her natural domain. It was the largest room in the apartment and one, I realised, I had spent a good deal of my youth in.

Elsa Aitken flitted about like a hummingbird, never seeming to pause longer than a few seconds in each spot. A stir of a pot here, a twist of a there, a small taste of a concoction and on to the next thing. I smiled, it was just as I remembered it all, the only difference was that the hummingbird was a little grayer, a little older. “Has everything been ok Mum?” I asked.

“Yes dear, better here than anything you have been doing. Have you met any nice girls out there?”

A small ripple of laughter escaped as I gave my rely. “No Mother, I haven't.”

“Tsk,” the sound that answered my giggle was of distaste “why not. Your fathers logs make it quite plain that women and nice women are out there or have you sworn off after the divorce?”

Well part two of the interrogation had started a little sooner than I had hoped, I continued the futile battle of defending myself. “No Mum not sworn off, the right time or person hasn't shown up yet.”

She stopped and using a spatula as a pointer let forth with another barrage. “No time. You make time dear if it's important enough to you. Hmm, you've just been smuggling and getting up to no good. Just like your father when he wasn't out in deep space.”

I may not be the most intelligent human in the universe but I knew when to shut up. Part two was over, for now. Since my split from Kathleen my Mother was determined to see me settle down again. I was in no hurry, the universe was big and I had so much to do that I felt I could not ask someone to put up with, not the way my Mother and father had. Even though they had been happy I still couldn't ask anyone to do that for me. On reflection and looking at my Mother perhaps I would have to reevaluate that thought, but some other time and place.

“I hope you have arranged to see Robert in your time back?” Again the spatula fired off a salvo.

“Yes Mum, we're to meet him whenever we get to Lincoln.” Robert was Kathleen's and my son, a good lad of twenty-four. Having left school he was working for the Federation as a civil servant. Doing what I wasn't sure and had never asked. Politics were not my thing.

I had hoped to make Abraham Lincoln Orbital our first stop but as the day wore on I came to realise that I was not the one finalising the plans. As it had always been in our family, that was Mothers role. It was decided we would spend at least one day at each of Sols stations, all expect Burnell Station orbiting Venus. I have never found out where it came from but my Mother had a problem with landing on Outpost Platforms. When pressed on it she would only say that they looked incomplete and still under construction. Having visited many platforms I had no problem skipping another one. My first day back in the Sol System in two years was over. I had been badgered by my sister, interrogated by my Mother and soaked in the sights and sounds of Titan City. It felt good to be Home.

Next morning we followed the route Cleo and I had taken the day before in reverse. As we rounded the corner into the hangar and saw the “Sair Fecht” Mum stopped. Her entire focus for the next three to four minutes was the only ship her husband had ever owned.

I could only imagine the feelings and memories that she was experiencing, I could only relate them to the feelings I had when I first saw the black and white liveried Cobra after my journey out to it. Dad had been a deep space explorer and such is the nature of the job, he was gone for months, sometimes years at a time. He had been present for the births of his children and most other notable events in our life's but for the greater part of it he was out in “the Black”. We did not want for anything, my Mother and he made sure of that. Until I had made my way out to the edge of the human bubble of space I never really understood why. Now that I have been there and beyond, I have a small glimpse into why my father choose this lifestyle. The freedom, independence, living by your wits, call it what you will but I kind of understand him a little more and it went beyond a way to make money.

“Well Dear, you have kept it in good condition. It looks just like it did when your father had it.” My Mother said for all in the hangar to hear. “Thank you” She remarked at a lower volume so that only Cleo and myself heard her. “Shall we go, Mars High looks like a good place to start.”

I watched Mother as we strapped in and prepared for departure. I would have loved for her to tell me her thoughts but it did not feel right to intrude, so I was content with my own. As she settled into the right hand seat the memories of when a younger me would have been sitting there washed over me. Memories of trips to Barnards Star and Boston Station, of the Tau Ceti System and so much more. Even though we did not see him often the times that our father spend with us had been full of wonder, excitement and joy. As I said we did not want for anything.

With a push, pull and up, the elevator pad took us inside the vast flight area of Titan City. Ships of all shapes and sizes buzzed about, the smaller Sidewinders and Eagles flitting between the bigger behemoths of Anacondas and Type 9s. Adders, Type 6s and Cobras making their steady paths to and from designated landing pads. Well ordered chaos, as not one collided with the other.

Working a well rehearsed routine I obtained clearance, lifted up above the pad, retracted the landing gear and headed for the mail slot mist and the family road trip beyond.

Vortexes swirled round the edges of the Cobras fuselage as it exited the mist filled slot at a pedestrian 99k/s. Directly in front of it lay Titan and so I swung the “Sair Fecht” to port and lined it up with the vector to Mars High. Finally after what seemed like hours the No Fire Zone and mass lock were cleared and I engaged the FSD.

Obtaining landing permission and executing it took longer than the actual journey from Titan City. My Mother and Cleo remarked with excitement at the difference between Mars High and Titan City as I approached the round bulbous shape that identified it as a Ocellus Station. A small grin tugged at my lips as I realised just how for granted I took these a amazing feats of engineering. Operating on the edges of colonised space as I did I was more used to the cuboctahedron shape of the Coriolis stations and the seeming random shapes of Outposts. If I did enter a High Tec system the Ocellus, Orbis and rarer O'Neill Cylinder Stations were looked upon as destinations and not for their functional design properties. I know, my loss.

Once again the best laid plans where forgotten as we ended up spending two days and two nights at Mars High. I booked Mother and Cleo very nice rooms to retire to but I slept on the “Sair Fecht”, more so that I could have some alone time than security. Plus I felt more comfortable on board ship than in some swanky hotel suite. The next week and a half followed a similar pattern, a day and night here, two days and two nights there. While docked we would explore the malls and passage ways of each station. It never failed to amaze each of us that no matter how much the flight levels looked alike in each station, the malls and corridors had a character all of their own. When we only had two stations in system left to visit I sent a message to Robert telling of our impending arrival and received a very prompt reply saying he was looking forward to seeing us all but would be unable to meet us on the first day as he had work commitments to attend to. Lincoln, we had agreed would be a two day stop before we moved on to Columbus, Io orbiting Jupiter, then home to Titan City.

I had already booked everything for Mum and Cleo, so the familiar pattern of dock and shop was a little quicker than it had been. I did enjoy visiting the Earth orbiters as each one took on the flavour of old Earth area their name sake's came from. Gorbachev had a European feel to it, while Li Qing Jao was supposed to be Asiatic and of course Lincoln was an Americas experience. I hoped most of the residents could see through the over commercialisation of the styling. I also doubted the accuracy of the styling said to be late 20th – early 21st century chic, of course I couldn't prove it was over the top as I had never been to those times. I did not take it too seriously and I am sure that's why I enjoyed visiting them.

Robert met us at a very nice restaurant on the second day for lunch. After the hugs and cheek kissing we sat at a table that was tucked into a rear corner of dining room. During the meal the chat was of normal life. Cleo's work, how her kids were doing, was Grandmother still happy living on Titan City. After the meal Mum and Cleo set off for a spa afternoon that I had set up for them, more hugs, cheek kissing and promises to stay in touch were passed back and forth. Coffees were ordered and Robert and I sat looking at each other. I guess it's up to the old man to break the ice.

“So, how you doin' Kid?”

A slight arching of an eyebrow told me that the use of “Kid” rankled a little.

“I'm doing good Dad. Enjoying my work, it can be a little stressful but over all it's good.”

The waiter arrived with the coffee and silence returned for a moment or two.

“Mum got remarried when you were out retrieving Grandpa's ship.” Robert said, no hint or trace of malice he his voice.

“I hope she is happy.” I replied, telling the truth as I held no ill will toward his mother. “Good guy?” I asked, more for Roberts sake than Kathleen's or mine.

“He seems ok. Owns a import/export business here in Sol.” My senses perked up hearing import/export as in some circles and systems the phrase stood for “smuggler”. “Not in the same way as you in the past couple of years, he is actually bonded and licensed.”

I took a sip of my coffee as I eyed the young man across the table from me. Just how much do you know and where exactly are you getting your information? I left the question as a thought in my head and unasked.

“You have been working for some very interesting clients Dad.”

“They pay the bills and I don't ask too many questions. I gather you have been speaking to Gabe?” That was one of the ways my work exploits could be getting back to him.

“Gabe and few others, yes.” Robert replied with a slight nod of his head. “You're popping up on a few organisations radar, just be careful our there Dad. Ok.”

Another sip of coffee as I viewed the situation that seemed to be working in reverse. Shouldn't the father to giving the son advise on being careful? I appreciated the warning and started to consider what I would do once my vacation was over.

“I'll watch myself Kid, thanks for the heads up.” I smiled and gave a wink.

“I mean it Dad, you're moving in different circles now that you're out on your own. If you prove to be a liability to some of the groups you work for they will not hesitate to remove that problem. The intelligence I see is that you are still useful to them but with these types of organisations that can turn in the blink of an eye.” I nodded, I knew the types of jobs I took from Bulletin Boards had ambiguous phrasing and I knew the reasons for that too.

“Robert, thank you for the concern son, I mean it. I know I'm not a shuttle pilot any more and I have thought through what to do if things go pear shaped. It is nice to know that you're watching out for me.” Again I smiled and was happy to see Robert cheer up a little as a grin appeared.

“I kind of guessed you had things covered Dad but I just wanted to be sure. I don't think I could get married if you were not there.” How a beaming smile crossed his face and I knew that interrogation number three was finished with. “We don't have a set date yet but it will be in the next couple of years, I want you there so don't do anything dumb in the mean time.”

I gave a small snort and laugh. “I hear you loud and clear son. How's your mother taking the news?”

“She loves the idea, she thinks Song is the perfect match for me.”

“You mean that pretty little girl you hung around most of your final year?” If I was correct I knew the girl and her father. He had been a shuttle pilot at the same company I had flown Orcas for. Robert blushed a little but the silly boyish grin remained.

“Yes Dad the very same. We ended up going to the same college and some of our classes over lapped. We struck it off well and things kind of went from there.”

“Well I must admit I approve then, not that me disapproving would stop you.” Again I was being honest with my son. From what I remembered she was a lovely girl, pretty, even tempered and an excellent scholar.

“I'm happy to hear that Dad. Well my free time just ran out. Next time you are heading this way let me know and I'll arrange some decent time off so that Song and I can spend time with you.”

I of course agreed that it was a splendid idea and that I would do just that. Although I had a suspicion that he would know I was in system long before I contacted him. We shook hands and hugged and Robert then made his way to the exit. I sat down and continued to sip at the coffee on the table before me. As the tall figure in the well tailored suit that was my son left, I reflected on the conversation we had just had. I knew that he was working for the Federal government but he had never said which branch and I had never asked. I couldn't be sure but I was starting to think he was working for one or more of the Intelligence Agencies the Feds had. I stored the information away at the back of my brain, hoping I never had to use it, but you never knew what life was going to throw at you and it might prove useful some day. I finished the coffee and left the restaurant through the same exit Robert had taken five minutes before. The floor I walked onto had a view of the bustling passage way below, as the inhabitants of Lincoln carried on with their busy lives.

After a few minutes of watching a familiar voice reached my ears.

“Everything go as you had hoped 'A'?” Cleo asked as I watched an old guy carrying what looked like a basket of clothes.

“Yes, everything went well Sis.” I turned to face her a grin spreading across my lips. “You know you are the only person I know who calls me 'A', every body else calls me Aitken.”

“I'm too lazy to use that name every time I talk to you.” A chuckle accompanied her obvious lie. “Come on Mum is waiting for us at a cafe close to the hangar.”

When we reached the cafe and Mum I told them both of Roberts up coming nuptials. Both were very happy for my son and started to talk about presents and attire for the still in the distant future wedding.

The visit to Columbus and the return to Titan City went without a hitch, as did the following day when I hung around my Mothers home and started planning what I was going to do next. Next hadn't included a visit to the local security office but that's where I found myself.

“Does the name Matt Geier mean anything to you Mr. Aitken?” The thin hawk nosed security officer asked me. I was seating in a comfortable chair behind a non descriptive table, the kind that could be found in thousands of offices in thousands of systems through out the galaxy. The officer opposite me looked at the screen that he was getting his information from before asking any questions. He didn't seem particularly hostile and I got the impression that it was just another complaint he had to deal with. A little bigger than the usual shoplifters he may have dealt with but a complaint none the less. I genuinely searched through the memory banks of my brain trying to place the name but came up blank.

“I think I may have heard it before but to tell you the truth I can't remember where or when.” I replied with a shrug.

He tapped at the screen before him and with his appearance he reminded me of a large bird pecking at a feeder.

“You have done some interesting assignments for some interesting clients Mr. Aitken. Smuggling, assassinations, bounty hunting, delivery of some suspicious packages for groups like the Sublime Order of Van Maanens Star and the Brotherhood of Terra Mater amongst others. Not the friendliest bunch of people you will meet.”

“You're making me sound like a infamous villain.” I shifted a little in the chair, uncomfortable with the situation.

“More like a petty criminal Mr. Aitken.” The bird like officer replied with a smug expression.

“Ok then, I like the sound of that better.” The smug expression faded as he tried to understand what I meant.

“The last known report of the ship he was piloting was in the Procyon System, his wife, the young lady who is your accuser, confirms he had a business meeting at Pontes Gateway. Does any of that help.”

It did indeed but I was not about to surrender the information. Matt Geier had been involved with the Sirius Corp. and it was they that had put the hit out on him. I had found him in the Procyon System a few weeks ago. As I followed him in super cruise I had noted that he was wanted in the system and so I interdicted his Python. I had brought out a Vulture I keep for these type of jobs Kill Warrant Scanned him and made some extra credits from the mission. Once I claimed the bounty and the fee from the Sirius Corp. I had quickly forgotten about it.

“As far as we can ascertain Mr. Aitken, someone had exercised a contract against him.” The bird man of Titan City Security told me. “His wife, Annabelle Geier, seems to think that you were the assassin that carried it out.”

“Not to tell you your job or that I carried out this crime I have been accused of but if you run a check of the Procyon bounty files and I show up as 'wanted' wouldn't that indicate if I am innocent or not. I would imagine that with both systems being under Federation control that it should be possible.” I was now trying to point the officer in the direction to prove it hadn't been a murder, meh, some people need a little push now and again. He looked at me and gave a slight shrug and started tapping this bony fingers over the screen.

“Well Mr. Aitken it seems you do not have a bounty in the Procyon system. A bounty for Matt Geier was claimed nineteen days ago by, you.” A disapproving look greeted me over the top of the screen. “You could have told me this as you remembered and saved yourself from my interrogation.”

“Where would the fun be in that.” I cheekily replied.

“You don't seem to be much fun for the Geiers. There is a warrant and bounty out for Annabelle Geier too.” The officer remarked with a hint of surprise in his tone. “And since you where instrumental in her apprehension, that money is yours to claim.”

I stood up and now it was my turn to shrug.

“It's money I never had Officer. I'll donate it to the Sol Security Orphans Fund. It's my thanks for clearing my good name and the nicest interrogation I've had since I got hear.”

“Your good name?” The question sound like an accusation, all I could be was smile and give a small laugh. “You do realise that the reward is 125,000 Crs?” His tone changing to one of disbelief.

“Doesn't matter the amount, it's a gift and if putting my name down is a problem just say it's from an anonymise Fuel Rat.”

The tone of disbelief returned as he blurted out. “You're a Fuel Rat?”

Still laughing I left the room and headed toward the hangar area and the “Sair Fecht.”

I still hadn't made up my mind about where I was heading once I reached my other ships but leaving Federation controlled space, considering what had happened here and the warnings from Robert, seemed like a good idea. I still had a few friends in a little independent system close to the Empire, visiting them could be fun and maybe profitable. The closer I got to the hangar the more convinced I was that once I had put Dads Cobra back in storage I would head toward Empire controlled space and the independent system of Quivira.
 
Charity Begins in Crom

“Aitken, you old son of a gun.”

The loud voice cut through the whine of the Asps engines as they shut down. I had just exited the “FRS Bennachie” and before me stood a bear of a man. Adolphus “Nova” Collins looked like a bear in oh so many ways. The man had hair sprouting out of every pore on his body and a smile that shone like a wing beacon in deep space.

“Nova, you piece of space garbage. How you doing my friend?” I replied. And then the air from my lungs was squeezed out. A bear that could act like a boa constrictor. I attempted to reach around his body and join hands so I could squeeze back. I failed and submitted to the bear hug, I was also smiling like a buffoon.

“Not bad little man.” Yes at five foot three I was a little man compared to Nova but then again so were most men. “What do you think of the new decorations?”

The first time I had been in Godel Dock in Quivira it had been an independent system. An industrial economy run democratically by “Peoples Quivira For Equality”. What I didn't know was that the government had taken loans out, quite substantial loans and not from a local bank either. Oh no, being on the edge of Empire space they had taken these loans from a certain Senator Denton Patreus. They and I had not known it but it was a set up, the good Senator had established a pattern. He loaned target systems vast sums of money with decent interest rates. After a while he raised those rates until the system could not pay them anymore and he then peacefully took control. This was all done behind a shadow company so that the good Senator did not look like the bad guy.

Quivira had been a little different. They would not give up peacefully. So Patreus funded a local faction and fought back. Now I hate politics but if there is something I dislike more, that something has to be bullies. As I watched all this happen from my unbiased, kind of, position I saw Patreus as just that. Not just a bully but a crook and a thug. It was around about that time that Nova approached me and ask if I would pilot my ship and fight for his cause. I of course said I would not fight for his cause but I would fight against what I saw as an injustice. Ok, the cause and the injustice were technical the same thing but we all have ways to justify our actions, this was mine.

The civil war that followed was not pretty, what war is and the independents were putting up a good fight. So good in fact that Patreus showed his hand and threatened to send in his Battle Cruisers if his forces had not settled the war within his time frame. The political war was a different story with the Imperial faction gaining control of Godel Dock. The population fled, most to the nearby system of Summerland into squalid refugee camps. I added that all together and didn't like what I saw. The war was heading toward a loss for the Independents and so I striped the weapons off of the Python I was using and started to haul medicines and food for the refugees. Over the next few days Quivira went from Independent to a not to willing Imperial system and I was long gone.

I looked around the hangar at all the trappings of so called Imperial grandeur, turning back to my friend Nova I uttered, “Pretty tacky if you ask me.”

Nova gave out his big booming laugh and slapped me on the shoulder. “A good description Aitken.” Wiping tears away from his eyes he stepped back and looked at me. “And one I agree with. So what have you been doing since I last saw you?”

“The usual, a little of this, a little of that. It's a big Universe out there and I hope I have taken advantage of that.”

“I am sure you have Aitken.” He stopped, as we had been walking toward an exit, his normal voice dropped to what to Nova was a whisper but in reality was a normal mans conversation voice. “We have not given up you know and you could help us while you are here.”

“I didn't think for a minute that you had and all you have to do is ask my friend.”

I ran a few missions in the next couple of days, weapons, covert messages, food for the resistance, nothing that any other smuggler could not handle but it made me feel better about the situation.

It was after one such mission, as I stood on a gantry overlooking the unloading of my Asp, that Nova walked up.

“Not the same, is it Aitken?” He asked.

“No my friend it's not.” I had tried to put my finger on it over the past few days and of course I knew it would not be the same as the last time I had been here. The difference was more stark than I had imagined and I thought I had finally figured it out. “They've given up. People think the Empire is here to stay and freedom as they knew it won't return.”

“Most, true but not all of us, no not all.” He stood up from the railing we were both leaning on. “It's been good seeing you again Aitken. Good luck till the next time you visit.”

“You too.” I had a feeling that he would need it more than I would. Weather it was political or physical something was about to happen, this was Novas, not too subtle way of telling me.

The “Bennachie” was empty again as I checked over the systems preparing for departure. Departure to where though? I'd been warned that Federal systems were getting a little too hot. Now I could see that at least one Imperial system would be similar. What did that leave? Alliance or Independent systems. Structured political systems did not seem to agree with me at the moment, however loose the Alliance maybe, it is still somewhat structured. Large political groups were leaving a bad taste in my mouth so that made up my mind. I shouldn't have too much trouble finding work in other Independent star systems.

First stop was Shinrarta. This was the place I had picked up my Fathers Cobra and knew it had all the modules I could ever need and I wanted to refit the “Bennachie”. I took out most of the cargo racks and added those modules I thought would be handy to have. It went from being a cargo/fuel tanker to a truly multi-purpose ship that still had decent range.

I was aimless, no particular path made out. I would stop at a random Indy system and do a few missions, just enough to pay for fuel and a little profit. A few days after I set out I bumbled into Dhathaarib. I started doing the most profitable jobs I could find there and in the two close by systems of Amalangkan and Chuelchs. After a few I started to notice that they were mostly being given by Hodack Prison Colony. After a few more missions I received a text communication telling me that if I continued doing work for them there would be an invitation for even better paying missions. Intrigued, I did as I was bid and after killing pirates, smuggling narcotics and delivering numerous kill lists, the invite appeared, again in text form. After landing at Evagelisti Settlement I was met by a smarmy looking guy in a not very good suit, who greeted me in the name of the Hodack Prison Colony. He did inform me that more lucrative work could be had directly from them and that I was welcome to do as much or as little as I wished. The words friend and trusted ally were banded about and I was given the access code to the stations bulletin board. He didn't lie, then paid well and after doing a few I decided to move on.

It developed into a pattern that I would enter a system and do a few missions, get contacted to continue, which of course I did. Get an invite to a nearby system and be met by an almost identical smarmy man. As the week worn on I nearly convinced myself that it was really the same guy who was just jumping ahead of me and greeting me after every invite. Of course it wasn't the same guy, I said I nearly convinced myself.

The last system I had this pattern occur in was Crom, well it was here the pattern was broken. It started off normally, I did a few missions and expected the usual text communication. It didn't arrive, so I thought I either miscounted or this faction had a different routine.

It had been a longish day so I headed for the nearest coffee shop. I ordered my usual mug of coffee, added cream and sugar to taste and found a quiet table off to one side. I did enjoy people watching. It meant I could imagine my own background for them without actually interacting. Some of the patrons of “Cafe Franchitti ” were what I would call interesting. No doubt a large percentage were passing through but trying to identify residents of Lounge Port was a fun activity.

“Mr. Aitken I presume.” I looked up to the source of the voice. She was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, of medium build and height and brunette. “My name is Charity Nascimento. May I join you?”

“Be my guest.” I replied warily. I had been in 69 G. Carinae less than 24hrs and already someone knew my identity. Alarms bells in my head were primed, set to go off.

“I represent The Silver Boys of Crom and would much appreciate a few moments of your time.” The alarm bells remained primed but did not ring. I recognised the faction name from the board and had being doing work for them during the day.

“You don't look like a silver boy to me Ms. Nascimento but I'm all ears.”

“Quite. My employers want to pass on how happy they are with your work today and that if you continue to choose working for them, that more lucrative employment will be forthcoming.”

“Uh huh. You do realise that I am not looking for permanent position?” I was independent and wanted to make sure they understood that.

“We do indeed Mr. Aitken and that is your appeal to my employers. Having independent contractors allows us to do things in places we could not usually be.” A smile graced her young face as she nodded.

“Uh huh. You can drop the Mr, it's Aitken.” I paused and took a sip of my coffee. “You could have sent this by personal text, most other factions do.”

“Yes Mr. Sorry no Mr.” Another smile. “Yes Aitken I do but The Silver Boys of Crom are not just any faction, we like the personal touch. We try to be more like family than employers.”

“Uh huh. Well all sounds nice and cozy.” I replied with just a hint of sarcasm. “Thanks for the invitation and vote of confidence.” Just a little drop more sarcasm. Charity either did not hear the sarcasm or chose to ignore it.

“Well, I must be going Aitken. I do look forward to talking to you in the near future.” She gave another smile, stood up and departed.

It took most of the next day, hauling questionable cargo and the odd hunting for pirates but Charity Nascimento turned up as I was exiting the "Bennachie."

“Very efficient Aitken. As promised here are the access codes for the bulletin board on Chorel Survey in Crom. If you have any questions or need help with anything I am your liaison, so please contact me.”

With that and another smile she was gone. Chorel Survey was an outpost platform that orbited the star Crom, there was nothing else in the system. I accessed the board and did a few jobs that paid well, there was not much difference between it and any other board I seen but the little boost in profit made me happy enough.

During my travels I did fit in some “ratting” too. Two stick out in my memory, I'll forego CMDR names to protect the innocent, or not so innocent.

The first was a Viper pilot who contacted me direct. That's why it sticks out, usual channels be damned I guess. The other reason it sticks out is because he called when I was thirty minutes into a Hutton Orbital run. Luckily I equip most of my ships for “ratting” so I still had room for over two hundred tons of scrap in the Python. Jump range was truly awful but the client was saved and I hope happy. Hey could have been worse I guess, I could have been thirty minutes out from Hutton.

The second was a little different. Everything went normal until I jumped into system, spotted the clients beacon, locked on and was pulled out by the Nav-Lock. Empty space greeted me, voice comms were still good, so I jumped back into Super Cruise. I was hoping that if I changed my approach vector the instancing might improve, my hopes were dashed as I appeared for the second time. After a brief conversation with the client I asked him enter Super Cruise and followed as soon as I could. After locating him and maneuvering into position, I interdicted him. Not only pirates and bounty hunters have a use for it.

I had losses too. Losses that still, and probably will continue to, haunt me. The crushing feeling when I hear those final gasps of breath and the thanks for trying bring me close to throwing in the towel. Then I look out through the canopy to see the universe grinning mirthlessly back at me, I hear the cruel sounding laugh. I'm gaining on you Aitken, pretty soon I'll get ahead of you. You can't win, I was here before you and I'll be here after I've taken you too. My resolve is renewed. If I could, I would give my Rat brothers and sisters all my saves if it brought back those I have lost. The universe, space, while being the place I love to fly through, explore and live is also my enemy. One day it may claim me as another victim but not today, no not this day.
 
An Early Morning Stroll - A Rats Tales


“Fuel Rat Control to all available personnel. RATSIGNAL. Stranded Cmdr in the Ceramix system. Respond with distance and jumps. Fuel Rat Control out.”

I had left the Crom system a few days ago and had been wandering in no particular direction. As it turned out though I was close to Ceramix.

“Control, Aitken responding, 40 Ly out, 2 jumps. Over.”

There was a slight pause as I assumed Control looked over available assets.

“Aitken go. Keep me updated on status and progress. Client will be sending Comms request shortly. Control out.”

After acknowledging Control I locked in the route on my Galmap and started charging the FSD. Just as the FSD was warming up the Comms request from Cmdr. Terry came in. I was a little slow and “4, 3, 2, 1, engaged.” beat me to the punch. Oh well it could wait till the next system.

Booom, woooosh. A bright orange, angry ball of flames greeted me. I knew from Galmap that I could scoop it and top up my Asps tanks before heading in system. I turned to the Comms panel and accepted the request for Comms and wing formation from Cmdr. Terry.

I sent a quick text message to reassure him that I was on my way. The reply was a little slow in coming in and told me he was cold.

Tanks full, I orientated the “Bennachie” toward the Ceramix system jump point. Throttle wide open, FSD engaged. Blam, with a kick in the pants the “Bennachie” and I were hurled into hyperspace and the short hop to Ceramix.

“Aitken to Control, in system.”

“Roger Aitken, update when you have acquired visual contact with clients beacon. All requests to client have been sent with instructions. Control out.”

I held station next to the star that gave the Ceramix system it's name waiting for the light blue glow of a wing beacon to appear on my HUD. In due time, which seemed like hours not minutes to me, it appeared and I selected it as the target.

“Aitken to Control. Acquired beacon at 150,000Ls out. Heading there now.”

“Roger Aitken. Advise when starting fueling. Control out.”

I settled down to what should be a couple of minutes journey and checked the Nav panel once more.

“Aitken to Control. Correction client is 1,500,000 from entry point. This could take a little time. Over.”

“Roger Aitken. Get a fix on clients position and distance, we will be advising him to shut down everything apart from life support and this includes the beacon.”

It was a precaution and standard procedure for all nonessential systems to be shut down upon first contact. Control had moved on to treating this as one step away from a “Case Red”, no fuel and on emergency oxygen. The hope was that shutting down the few remaining systems would prevent it developing into a “Case Red.”

“Everything locked in Control. I still have contact with client and will update you as needed. Aitken out. “

“Received and understood. Control out.”

The blue icon disappeared from my HUD, I pushed the throttle to max and once again settled in for what would be a far longer journey than I had first thought.

750,000Ls from entry point, half way to client. I opened voice comms and attempted to talk to Cmdr. Terry. Nothing, so I sent a test asking if he had received. Negative was the response. I was concerned over the lack voice comms. I pulled up Galmap and started to look around the nearby systems.

“Aitken to Cmdr. Blazener. Respond please.” My search had turned up what I had been hoping for. A fellow Fuel Rat in close proximity.

“Blazener here, what can I do for you Aitken?” A calm and patient voice replied.

“Good to hear your voice Blaze, I might have a problem with the mission I am on and could use back up just in case.” We were communicating over voice comms which only added to my concern. I could talk with Blaze but not Terry, that suggested I could have instancing issues later.

“Ceramix correct? What seems to be the problem.”

“System is correct, I have text comms but no voice. Everything should be good but if you could wait next to the star just in case things go wrong. I'd appreciate it and be a little more at ease.”

“No problem Aitken, I'll be there if needed. Good luck and fly safe, Blazener out.”

1,000,000 from entry point, I watched as a pale blue icon appeared behind me and gave a slight smile. Cmdr. Blazener had arrived in system, it was good to have the reassurance that if things went wrong for me the client would still get help.

1,250,000 from entry point. I reduce power to 75% as I do not want to overshoot, text Cmdr. Terry and chat to Control, updating all on my progress.

1,500,000 from entry point. Power set at zero. I send a text to Cmdr. Terry to make sure he has the correct steps needed for the rescue. He assures me he has everything he needs.

“When you are ready, power up what you need to and drop the beacon.”

The wing invite pops up in my Comms panel and as quickly as I can I accept and turn on my nav lock.

The space in Super Cruise starts to blur at the edge of my vision and I feel as though I am looking down a tunnel. BLAM, my head is thrown forward as I enter normal and the “Bennachie” decelerates quickly. I glance at the HUD and select the blue icon that is Terry and start to rotate toward him.

“Programming fuel limpet.” The non pulsed Betty announces. Schwoosh, I hear as the limpet leaves the Asp and streaks across the gap toward the Sidewinder before me.

“Refueling in progress. Mission success.” The message to Control and Cmdr. Blazener are sent simultaneously. Fueling complete flashes up on the HUD. A request for Terry to raise his shields and stand by for another three limpets is dispatched as Control and Blaze get back to me. Control with a brief “Received.”

“Good job Aitken, I'm bugging out. Fly safe.”

“Thanks Blaze. Fly safe Commander.” I replied and then turned my attention to Cmdr. Terry. I had an idea of the answer but still I had to ask the question over the text comms.

What are you doing 1.5 million light seconds from the closest star?

I am heading toward the next system, Brani.


A smile creased my lips as I started to type back my answer.

I hate to tell you this Cmdr but it is impossible to Supercruise between systems. No ship has enough fuel capacity or oxygen reserves to allow it. There was silence for a moment as Terry let the revelation seep into his mind.

Oh. So I was wasting our time out here, my apologizes Cmdr, I just received my wings and thought that it would be possible.

I reassured Cmdr Terry that he was not the first to try and fail at that self appointed task. We chatted for a while and it ended with the scoopable star list. OBAFGKM and a recommendation that he buy a fuel scoop.

We have fuel, you don't, any questions?

If you do have questions we may have the answers.
 
There is No Escape

“Hello Aitken, I do hope you have been keeping well.”

The damn computer woke me up with it's incessant bleeping. I made a mental note to switch it into “silent running”. As grumpy as I was at being woken before I was ready the young brunette that spoke those words took a little of the sting out.

“Ah, Miss Nascimento, to what do I own this unexpected pleasure?” I asked with just a hint of sarcasm.

“Please, if I have to drop the “Mr.” you must call me Charity.” Urrghh, just what I needed a little early morning flirting. “And we have a job for you.”

That woke me up pretty darn quick. The Silver Boys of Crom paid for their work to be done and paid pretty well too.

“Please continue, you have my undivided attention Charity.” A slight smile crossed my lips at the hypocrisy between my thoughts and actions. The unruffled younger woman continued.

“We need you to go to New Dawn Station in the Ceos System and pick up a job from the Bulletin Board. With you being in Wirigans it shouldn't be too much of a hop.” She paused awaiting confirmation from me, so I gave a slight nod. “The job will be on the board for only 8 hours, starting now, so try not to dilly dally too much Aitken.”

She gave me the code words to look out for in the bulletin message, wished me a good day and then closed the connection. I stood up and made my way to the galley, made myself the first cup of the day and stopped in my tracks half way to the cockpit. I hadn't told Charity where I was but she knew. I sat down in the pilots seat and looked out into the hangar wondering which one or how many of the workers here where in the employ of the Silver Boys. Taking a sip of my morning coffee I gave my head a shake, not my worry or problem I was just passing through.

Coffee finished I brought up the Galmap and checked a route out to Ceos, a little over 600lys. I had time so I decided that taking the “FRS December” would be a better, I only knew I had a job to do, no specifics had been given and the Anaconda would give me more flexibility than the Asp I was currently in. The “FRS Bennachie” was a wonderful ship but it had been fitted out with exploration and ratting in mind. Whatever the Silver Boys wanted done out on the frontier I was pretty sure it didn't involve scanning or fuel limpets. Even if it did the “December” was out fitted for those two jobs and more. That decided I prepared to depart.

The clunk and whirrs of the ship elevator accompanied the sound of my voice as I requested permission to take off. The gently thump and a slight rocking announced that we had arrived on the flight deck.

“Geston Horizons control to Asp Bennachie, cleared for take off and exit. Fly safe Commander.”

Acknowledging controls commands I powered up the thrusters and headed for the mail slot. Appearing through the mist I glanced at the scanner, looked up and with no ships near by push the throttle to 75%. As the speed built up I pulled up and to the left on the stick and aligned with my Frame Shift vector. My thumb hovered just above the FSD engage control waiting for the mass lock indicator to go out. A fraction of a second before it did the cockpit was bathed in a pulsating red light that was accompanied by a loud two beeps a second assault on my ears. RATSIGNAL.

I pulled the throttle back and listened to Rat Dispatch as my acceleration bled off. I'd been ratting since close to the start of the Fuel Rats and my response to calls had changed over that time. When I started, like most new Rats I would try to get in on any rescue that came along. I learnt, fairly quickly too, that you couldn't help everybody. Sometimes you were just to far away, sometimes even if you were close, others were even closer and that it did not matter if I was involved. What did matter was that the client was saved. With all that in mind and knowing I was on the edge of the bubble, I did not expect to be racing to any ones aid today. Didn't stop me checking though, you never knew what other Commanders would do. All that meant nothing this time, a Sidewinder pilot had under estimated his range and could not jump from the system he was in, a system two jumps from me and also in the opposite direction I was heading.

“Aitken to Dispatch, two jumps out. Over.”

“Roger Aitken, GO.”

With an “On my way” reply to Dispatch I flipped the Bennachie to it's new exit vector and charged up the FSD.

Commander Aude turned out to be another newly qualified pilot, who was very thankful to the Fuel Rats for saving him and embarrassed at his situation. Along with two tons of fuel he got a little education in fuel scoops and scoopable stars. Neither of which he was aware of, hopefully it would help him in the future. I watched as he jumped out and returned to the Galmap once again. The rescue had been by the book, no issues at all. That's not to say I was getting over confident as I knew that the universe had many hidden obstacles waiting to try and defeat us.

Well two jumps out of my way was not that big a deal but it did make me decide that I would stick in the Asp for whatever it was the Silver Boys had waiting for me in Ceos. I plotted in the course, hit the FSD and headed out.

The 600 odd ly hop to gave me time to think and wonder at the glory of the universe. It was like a mini exploration trip. It felt comfortable, like an old friend welcoming me into their home. It really didn't fool me for a second as I knew the universe could turn on me in a second. It did not take long, relatively, to cover it and the honk/scoop I was used to when in the black would put some extra credits in my pocket.

As the Bennachie broke the mist into the station that familiar feeling returned. I could not count the number of times I had looked upon the sight before me. The inside of space stations all looked similar, if it works why change it I guess, but each one had a unique feel and character, imparted upon it by the locals.

As the Asp settled onto landing pad 15 the raspy growl of the engines faded and I was pleased that I had been assigned one of the back pads, less people this far from the mail slot and it gave the Asp plenty of room to power up, just in case I needed a quick exit.

I left the Bennachie and asked the first mechanic I saw to resupply it with limpets. With that taken care of I headed to the nearest coffee shop for, well coffee and a chance to look through the Bulletin Board.

The coffee and computer pad where delivered at the same time but before that I had time to take in the atmosphere of the station. The occupants seemed to be a little on edge. It could be that it was due to the fact the station was newish or there was something going on in the background that I knew nothing about, heck it was probably both. Not my worry as once I had done this mission the chances I would be here again were slim. The New Dawn Station Bulletin Board looked the same as every other bulletin board I had seen, simple and easy to read. Finding the trigger phrases for the mission proved just as easy, once I had finished reading it I swore under my breath. I had been expecting the usual delivery mission that the Silver Boys fed me. What is it the say about “assuming” well I felt like an as I sat there.

It was an assassination mission, Liam Pierce had escaped justice and I was to dispense the sentence for his crimes. This did now ever pose me a few problems. My conscience was good with it, killing a criminal was not below me as I had done it many times before. My problem was I was not equipped for such a mission. Oh well, time to improvise and adapt. I looked through the ships for sale, a Sidewinder. Nope. Good ship I still enjoyed flying one from time to time, but just not up to this type of fight. Same went for the Eagle. A Lakon Type 9. I clicked on the outfitting screen ignoring the last ship I saw for sale. Pickings were slim and it would require some major re-equipping to get the Bennachie set up in any useful way. It was set up for exploration and Ratting, by that I mean unarmed and with low shielding. The complete opposite of what I needed. As much as I did not want to use the Asp that I had been through so much with, I had little choice as time was running out. I upgraded the shields, down graded the FSD, the target system was Sothis and close. Down grading FSD gave me the buffer in power I needed to fit weapons. Again here I was not happy. They did not sell lasers, which blew my mind. I ordered the Asp to be fitted with Multi-Cannons and Frags. Not the choice I would have made normally but beggars can't be choosy. I had hopes that once I reached Sothis, that Newholm Station might have a better selection of weaponry.

I finished my coffee and went to help the engineers refit the ship. It didn't take long. The banter and humour where good and what ever was happening on this station did not bother them. Perhaps they supported the winning faction if there was a power struggle going on. I thanked them and paid before I set up the Galmap for Sothis.

Everything powered up as I expected, even the interdictor we had fitted had power going to it. The short hop to Sothis felt like it was over before it had begun. Newholm was not far from the arrival point and docking there went with no problems. I sat for a few minutes to gather my thoughts and then decided to repeat what I had done in Ceos and I could use another coffee.

The coffee was good, the weaponry selection wasn't. In fact the only upgrade I could get was the interdictor, from B to A. Meh, it could give me a better chance if I had to pull him out of Supercruise. I finished the coffee and headed back to the Bennachie.

One last walk around, checking everything, chaff launcher full, heat sinks full, ammo boxes full, thrusters clean and clear of any debris. We where both ready to go. Still not happy with my choices I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, adept, improvise and overcome. There was little more I could do to improve the load out so I set out.

Bounty Hunting can be a tedious, sitting, waiting for your target to appear. For such an out of the way system Sothis was still busy. Every contact that appeared on the scanner I targeted. Eagles, Vultures (That must have been a horrible journey), T6s, a vast assortment of vessels sailed past. At each one the interdictor who give out a slight hum as if asking to be used.

The Orca jumped into Supercruise about 50lys out from me. I clicked on the targeting system and the interdictor seemed to growl not just hum. It had good reason, Liam Pierce was in that ship and he had brought friends. His wing of 3 included two Vipers, normally I would not hesitate about those odds but with this load out I was a little concerned. I pushed the throttle into the sweet spot and the chase was on.

The hunt was not that difficult, he had no idea that I was there. I had thought he would be on high alert but he seemed to feel safe this far from the bubble. His mistake not mine.

BLAM, tether established and the wrestle commenced. I was losing him and I could not understand why, my thruster vector adjustments were keeping me right in the white zone. I was just reaching for the distributor control when I felt the Asp being torn out of Supercruise. Interdiction failed popped up on my HUD. As the FSD cooled down I saw my mistake and readjusted the distributor to all pips in systems. A rookie mistake and one I chastised myself for. Pierce would be on his guard how, heck he may have left the system and I could be wasting time.

I jumped back into Supercruise and began the stake out again. Eagles, Asps, T6, even an Imperial Clipper and than the Orca reappeared. I shook my head. He was either really stupid or thought I was no threat, I hoped it was both. Again I had no real problems getting behind the Orca, so again I hit the trigger. BLAM. The adjustments had worked and in what seemed like no time at all the Bennachie with me inside was spinning back into normal space.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” The question was spluttered over the comm.

“You are Liam Pierce? Correct?” I knew from the scanner ID he was but there was no harm in asking.

Over the whine of my hard points deploying I heard, “Well yes I am. Who wants to know?”

It true movie style I answered by starting my warrant scanner and two multi-cannons. I preferred lasers for taking down shields but that luxury had not been granted to me. While the MC were not the best for shields some of the rounds could go through and damage the hull too. The comms lit up as Pierce scream protests at me and called for his wing mates. I had wanted to make this quick or at least quicker than this. I had really wanted to remove the Orca before those damn Vipers jumped in. What I wanted and reality were not destined to meet, they rarely did. The warrant scanner finished I switched my fire groups and brought the Frags online.

Frags are the shotgun of space. Great for damage if you are close but the spread is an obstacle if the distance is too great. I hugged the Orcas hull, it was nearly filling my forward view as I let loose with the first volley. Again those damn shields pulsed blue as the rounds hit them. Two orange blips showed up on my scanner as finally the Orcas shields dropped. Pierce had hit the boost button and I was hard behind him, the MCs and Frags chewing into his hull and engines. Lasers from the first Viper splashed across my shields and I noticed them starting to decrease. The second Viper piled in to. My shields dropped to one ring, damn he has at least one rail gun on that thing. I had caught up to the Orca and started hugging his hull again. That gave me the best chance to get his hull down with the Frags, hopefully a stray shot or two from the Vipers would help me too. Some hope I knew as the Asps plan view was about the size of a barn door, hope was eternal though.

“Shields Offline” Betty announced. If I could at that moment I would have hit the mute button but I found myself a little busy as pieces of my hull start to take MC and Laser hits. The Viper with the rail was holding off. Good I thought he is worried about hitting the Orca. I had been firing the Frags and MCs like a maniac as I manoeuvred round the Orca when it suddenly bloomed into a bright orange and red fiery flower before me. I had been so busy watching my hull I had lost track of the Orcas damage. Job done, let's see if I survive the aftermath.

Boost, close throttle and pull back on the stick. The Asp did a fairly good flip and I was head to head with the first Viper. My hull is taking a pounding as I let fly with the Multis. The Vipers shields drop and it's my turn to grind down his hull. Just as he is about to pass below I let off a volley of frags. Checking the scanner, I see the second Viper above and too my left. 61% hull, out numbered two to one and one enemy has a weapon capable of doing enormous damage to my hull. FSD charging. Discretion got the better of me and I jumped back into Supercruise.

Selecting Newholm Station as my destination I pushed the throttle to wide open. No one is going to interdict me ran through my mind as the sweat and adrenaline flowed out of and through my body.

With one eye constantly on the scanner I cruised over to Newholm and docked. I must have sat in the cockpit for a good 5 minutes, waiting until my body and emotions returned to near normal. Then I headed for the coffee shop. There I cashed in the local bounty Pierce had on him. Sitting sipping at the coffee I contemplated on the dogfight I had just been in. I started to think I should have took on the Vipers when the little voice in my head gave me a slap. Yeah, I had made the right call. The escort Pierce had must have been hired guns, I had no fight with them and after the head to head, probably a run started before the Orca blew, they had no reason to continue either. All three of us got to live for another day.

Content, or as content as one can be after ending a man's life, I walked back to the Bennachie and checked out the damage. It wasn't as bad as I had first feared. I got the worst of it patched up but decided to leave any refitting until I returned to Ceos.

Again I kept a close eye on the scanner, checking every ship I saw just in case those Vipers showed up, they didn't and I docked at New Dawn with no problems.

I stayed in the hangar to talk over the remaining repairs with the engineers. We browsed through the outfitting screen and I managed, with weapons removed, to get a decent jump range. Not as good as it had been but good enough to get back to the bubble where I could pick up the parts I wanted.

“You been in a scrap by the looks of things Aitken.” Nadzieja the chief engineer remarked.

“Yeah couple of Vipers, if they come by, at least one should have damage, you let me know.”

“Sure, sure. They after your cargo or you?” She asked. I took a moment to think that one through but ended up telling the truth.

“Probably me. My know fault, I picked the fight.” I gave a shrug, some you win, some you lose.

“Alright. You're a good guy and a good customer but I'll still service the Vipers if they come by you know.” She was a tall dark haired woman, I could see some of it peaking out from under the cap she wore as she stood up to her full height.

“I would expect nothing less Nadzie, I bit off more than I could chew, you got a business to run. No worries. Oh before I forget, ok if I use your terminal to access the Board?”

“Sure Aitken, go right ahead. Me and the team going to be busy fixing this for a while.” She gave a smile and wandered off toward the parked Asp.

I walked in the other direction and sat down beside the terminal. With a little navigation I was able to pull up the local Bulletin Board. I scrolled to the mission description and hit the “finished” tab. The screen flicker and switch over to a video feed.

“Hello Cmdr.” A pause as the man before looked down, shook his head a little and carried on. “I have just finished speaking with Miss Nascimento. Congratulations and thank you for carrying out the mission.” A guy about my age but with a heavier build and greyer hair stared back at me. The sharp, dark suit reminded me of a Banker, perhaps it was the image he was going for.

“My pleasure and of course the credits didn't hurt. I don't believe we have been introduced.” I replied in an even tone. Before he answered he glanced to his left, gave a small nod and returned to looking at the screen.

“You are correct, we have not. My name is Mr. Smith.” You have got to be kidding me I thought. “I am Lead Controller for Special Operations for the Silver Boys of Crom. Charity is my assistant and liaison to 4 or 5 of our reliable contacts. Which you are one Aitken.” He seemed to pause, so I took the chance to interrupt.

“Ok back up Smithy.” Smith stopped, folded his arms and nodded for me to proceed. “Thanks.” I said with a sarcastic tone. “When you first opened this transmission you couldn't find whatever you had my name on. So you have either found my name, I didn't see you pick up anything or the mystery person in that room with you told you. Which is it?”

The screen picture split and a younger man appeared in the left hand side. Oh good grief.

“Hi Dad. I didn't know you were doing work for the Federals.” Robert Aitken said.

“Believe it or not Son either did I. I thought these jobs were for the Silver Boys.” It was the truth, I really did not care who paid me as long as they kept their word and paid me what was agreed upon.

“They were but we sometimes have to push jobs out for reasons no one needs to know. The Silver Boys are good at keeping things quite, as are you, I have never heard your name when talking to them.” My 23 year old Son looked a little puzzled.

“Well, if they are good at keeping your secrets I would imagine they are good at keeping their own. I was under the impression that you had someone keeping an eye on me, what happened there?” Robert looked a little embarrassed at the fact I knew about my tail.

“We lost track of you about three or four weeks ago,” He admitted. I could not help myself and started to chuckle.

“I was following in your Grandfathers footsteps Kid, I was out in “the Black” for a few weeks.”

“Really!!”He exclaimed. “We ruled that out as Grandpa's Cobra was still docked at Shinrarta.” He said with genuine surprise in his voice.

“I have other ships Kid, I don't use the “Sair Fecht” often, I was out in an Asp this time.” I gave him a smile, just to let him know there were no hard feelings on the tail.

“Well Aitken, it seems today is full of surprises.” Mr. Smith piped in. “I think the relationship between you two should stay between us here, that's if you wish to continue doing work for the Silver Boys Aitken?” It was a honest question, I was sure the Silver Boys did work for more than just the Federal Government, a few other Super Powers sprung to mind.

“Yeah, I have no problem with either of those.” I looked at Robert and he gave a slight nod. “Plus it might help the Kid here keep a closer eye on me.” I quipped.

“Excellent. We do so much like keeping good independent operators. The other surprise is that your Federal rating has been increased to Lieutenant grade. Again my congratulations as this means that certain Federal jobs will open up for you.” A small smirk appeared on his lips. I do believe that was what he thought was a smile. I answered truthfully again.

“I wasn't even aware I had a “Federal” ranking.” I admitted.

“Oh yes Aitken. You have an Imperial one too. Would you like to know it?” Now a crease blossomed on his brow. He seemed to be thinking how could I not know that the Powers kept tabs on us all. That I did know, or guessed. I declined to know that ranking as none of them interested me. For work sure, personally, nope.

“Well if Robert and yourself are finished I think we can wrap this up.” Smith waited for us both to acknowledge and then closed the transmission. Once again I found myself staring at the Board.

“Hey, Aitken you sure you want these here guns taken off. You got 600ly to go back to the bubble.”

“Yeah Nadzie, strip the scummy things off. If I hit trouble I know how to run, right.” I replied with humour in my voice.

With a laugh and a wave of her hydro-spanner she went back to work.

I'd learnt a long time a go that I could drink coffee at anytime of the day. It drove some people nuts, my ex-wife included. Just as they were getting ready to turn in for the day I would be knocking back “another” coffee. Big whoop, to me it was their problem to deal with. So with this in mind I left Nadzieja and her crew to their work and headed for the local cafe.

I found a booth in the diner and sat down. Fairly quickly a waitress came over to take my order. Eggs, bacon and don't forget the coffee. The eggs? Sunny side up will be fine if you have that brown sauce stuff, you do, cool. Thanks. Off she bustled.

I needed time to go through everything that had happened in the past 4 or 5 hours. Not just the assassination, bounty hunt or whatever that had been. I knew one thing for sure the “FRS Bennachie” was going into storage. As stupid as it sounded, even to me, we had been through too much out in the black for me to do this to it again. That's not to say I wouldn't use it, for exploring or ratting but that was it. So I would need another ship of some type to do the other types of jobs I took on, food for thought. As if on cue the food for my body turned up. The Feds had just released some new ships so I might take a look at them. I was in no hurry and could use my Conda the “December” until I made up my mind.

The food was good and once I had the “Bennachie” back in the bubble and refitted as it should be, I'd be happier. With that all decided in my mind the only thing left was to travel back to the bubble and see what transpired.

So that's just what I did.
 
An Equal and Opposite Reaction - A Rats Tales

An Equal and Opposite Reaction.

“Hello Mr. Aitken, so good to see you again.”

Here we go again I thought. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, well it never is when things go wrong. Judge Karaca, AGAIN. If I didn't know any better I would think this had been arranged. Oh man I wish I hadn't thought that, now I'm going to be seeing conspiracy theories round every corner for the next month.

It had started oh so easy. I'd picked up a mission a couple of systems over. Ok it was to take 8 tons of Battle Weapons into a system that they were illegal in but that should not have been a problem. To tell you the truth it hadn't been a problem. I'd dropped out of Supercruise, lined up with the slot, got docking permission, dropped a couple of heat sinks and in. No scan, no “hey you stop”, no nothin'. So why was I in the dock facing Judge Karaca I hear you ask? Import Spot Check they called it. Not what I would call it, but the two opposing groups here might have a different perspective of the situation. Real funny too, even though I had other cargo canisters in there the went straight to the weapons. As much as I told myself that it had been just blind, dumb luck, the voice in my head had whispered, “Set up job.” I couldn't see how though. I had done work for that faction before, nothing even remotely close to this had happened before. I hadn't heard any rumours about them either. In fact no matter how unfortunate it appeared I still couldn't shake the feeling that I had been set up. I stood there looking at the Judge and tried to remain as impassive as possible. It could just be my ego not believing the reality of being caught red handed by a fluke randomly timed import check.

“Let's see, hmmm, smuggling Battle Weapons. Back to your old trade I see.” The dispenser of station justice said smugly.

And pigs grew wings and learnt to fly, my dark thoughts continued. I had to answer as he sat there barely containing the glee he felt at having caught me again.

“Times are hard Your Honor and we all fall back on what we are comfortable with in those times.” Complete line of bull but what did he know.

“Claiming poverty before this bench won't help you Mr. Aitken. This is a classic open and shut case if ever I saw one. You were caught dead to rights with the merchandise in your possession. Would you like the chance to say a few words in your defense and deny the charges?”

I couldn't even bring myself to answer and just shook my head.

“Very well. Fined 1,000,000cr. I won't throw you off the station this time Mr. Aitken but we will be watching you. We can't prove you were involved but less than 24 hours after you left this station last time a jailbreak occurred in the area you had been held in. Good men died in that, for lack of a better word, attack Mr. Aitken. You are free to go, I believe you know the way out.”

With that I was dismissed. I kept my cool as I walked down the small flight of steps. I held on to it all the way through their silly little maze of rooms, until I finally made it back to the station proper. I kept everything in check until I was in a little alley of the main walkway. Once there I swore at the top of my voice a string of words a Fed Navy Petty Officer would be proud of. I also beat the living daylights out of a trash can that happened to be there.

“Feel better?” The voice behind me said.

I spun round ready to lay into who every the heck it was. Then started to calm down.

“A little, yeah Gabe, just a little.” I replied as a gulped in air spent from my tantrum.

“Good. When you're ready we'll leave and go get a bite to eat, I know of a nice little diner where we can talk in peace.” My fathers old friend said.

“Alright, gimme a sec and I'll be with you.” What he meant was a place where he knew no one would be listening to our conversation, in person or electronically.

Intergalactic House of Pancakes, said the sign above the diner as we walked in through the double glass swing doors. We waited to be seated and in no time a waiter appeared, two menus under his left arm. With his right he gestured for us to follow.

“The usual table Mr. Wyndham?” He asked as he lead us deeper into the diner. Gabe didn't even answer as we walked past tables of fellow patrons. Finally we reached a corner booth that had a commanding view of not only the whole eating area, the door we had just come through but also the only other exit I could see, the kitchen entrance. Gabe saw me looking and nodding at our placement.

“We won't need it, we are as safe as house's here. I have know the owner for years, she and her husband are good friends. Before you ask, yes your dad was friends with them too.”

As soon as he said my father had been friends too, I relaxed, a little.

“Before we get down to business, what would you like?” Gabe asked handing me one of the menus the waiter had left. I picked it up browsed through the six pages and had to ask.

“What do you recommend? And if you say pancakes old man I'll string you up.” I quipped at him.

“Spoil my fun why don't you?” Gabe half chuckled out. A little more serious he directed me on what my preferences would lead. “For you anything on Page 5 or 6, you'll like those.”

Silence fell as we both closely studied what we were about to eat, split seconds apart we closed the menus.

“The usual Mr. Wyndham?” The waiter asked. Gabe nodded. “Loaded Potato Soup, Eggs Benedict and a pot of tea.” Again Gabe nodded. “And for you sir?” The waiter turned to me.

“I'll go for Order 66.” I replied as Gabe once again nodded.

“Four Rashers of Bacon, three eggs Sunny side up with HypersPace Sauce, toast with butter and a mug of coffee.” With that he was gone. The more I looked round the more I started to relax.

“Just like your Father, a sucker for Order 66.” Gabe smiled. “Some of the most important decisions in the galaxy were made in this very booth.” He gave a small snort, “Well we thought so at the time, turned out a little different but there you go.” A faraway look was in Gabes' eyes, it slowly faded as he returned his focus to me. “Just like your Father, held in his temper until some inanimate object came close to hand and then BOOM.”

I let out a laugh. Yeah he had Dad bang to rights there. Many a time I saw a can or tool bounce of a wall as he worked on a stubborn piece of equipment.

“Which means I know why you got so riled up over this affair and it ain't the money.” He stopped and took a sip of water. So, so did I. “Waiting to see if I'm right uh? You got that Set Up feelin'. You'd be right too or at least the rumour has been going round this station.”

“Blast.” I sat back and let the last of the anger and frustration drain out of me. “Any idea who?”

“Nope. But that doesn't mean I can't start askin' round.” He stopped as the food was delivered. “Thanks.” We both said as one. Starting with his soup he turn to me just as I put bacon into my mouth. “Whats this I hear about you going back on your word about slaves?”

“Thurmph, murphum.” I said through a mouthful of bacon, holding up one finger I chewed hard and swallowed. “They were not slaves, they were Imperial Slaves.” Gabe gave a laugh.

“So that's how you justify it is it.....”

“Whoa, whoa old man, I am justifying nothing, I am telling you how it is. They are more indentured servants than slaves.” I could see him beginning to interrupt. “Uh uh, you let me finish.” Holding up the same finger I had earlier I continued. “You've been here most of your life, sure you and Dad went out in your ships exploring, trading, smuggling, I've read the logs, the pair of you hardly ever went near Imperial space. For the past ten years you have been retired, here, getting drowned in Federal propaganda, soaking it up like a good little sponge. It's not your fault, it's what they want you to do. So, as I said they are not really slaves, it's a name, probably one the Feds gave them. These “slaves” are working off a debt, they volunteer Gabe, who in their right minds would volunteer to be a slave. Anyway there are safeguards built into the contract, if they are mistreated or abused in anyway, the contract can be made null and void. I spoke to some of them as I hauled them and I had to make some expensive alterations to the December to be allowed to haul them, believe me Gabe they live better than you or I. The real slaves do exist and those I have kept my promise with, man even some of the Imps don't like real slavery. You do know there have been civil wars fought over this issue within the Empire....”

“Ok son I get it and I believe you. I didn't think you'd go back on you word and your right we get comfortable, we start to believe and never question what we are being told. Let's finish our food and go start askin' us some questions, ok?” Gabe looked at me and gave a wink, the old man knew I was telling the truth.

“Makes you wonder just who the slaves are.” I said, Gabe had started on the Eggs Benedict, so did not reply.

We finished eating and left through the same doors we had entered at. Gabe looked around as we stood at the edge of a main walkway.

“Live people serving you, no robots to record your chit chat, sure they could bug you but not there, no not in there. They know you now that you've been in with me, so you got a good place to go for those not-to-be-over-heard type deals. I'll introduce you to the owner sometime. She'll be thrilled to meet Bill's boy.” He gave a chuckle and then continued “I've got some contacts to get in touch with, you wanna come with?”

I thought for a second and then shook my head.

“Nah, I might a have a couple of people I can get in touch with too, we'll see.”

“Ok, this might take a little time so we'll meet at my apartment in 24hrs, ok.” He had already started to walk away. The plan of action was set, so I headed toward my ship, a new Asp, the “Oxen Craig”.

I had taken a break after the Ceos adventure and retired the “Bennachie” as I had intended. I had picked up the Anaconda “December” and started to wander aimlessly, trading where ever I found a decent profit. I eventually ended up in the Empire and stumbled upon a system looking for transport for Imperial Slaves to a not to distant system, paid well so I stayed for a little while. Once I had my fill of trading, which didn't take long I headed back to Shinrarta to drop off the “December”. I looked through the ships available, the Federal Assault Ship did draw my interest, but due to range and flexibility I ended up buying another Asp.

“And happy you'll be with it sor and we'll take good care of the ships you have stored here sor, yes we will. Good care” The old caretaker at Shinrarta had assured me. Old was being nice. That guy had to be into triple digits, easy.

I had a lot to think about as I headed for the hangar, not least a jailbreak, I had struggled to keep surprise off my face when Karaca had dropped that bombshell. I knew the Martian had want to drop off a message but had no idea the message was “get ready, we're breaking you out.” Gonna have to remember to talk that one over with Gabe. Of course the other thing was who to contact, well Robert and the newly met Mr. Smith were out. Heck for all I knew it was them behind me and others getting caught. It may have sounded silly to an outsider that my own son would set me up to lose a million credits, it made perfect sense for the world he and Smithy operated in. Charity Nascimento, damn it that woman was starting to creep more and more into my activities plus I might end up being in her debt for any information she might find. Plus she might have to ask Smith, who in turn could tell Robert and that might not be the best idea. And I might grow a rocket out my butt and not need a ship. Nothing was certain so I might as well try. Ok the not need a ship thing, yeah that's not gonna happen, one down. Whoever it was I contacted I was going to need privacy, which meant a secure connection, not one I couldn't be sure was being listened too.

I sat down and started to power the “Oxen Craig” up. Once everything was up and running I obtained clearance and left the station. Taking a note of what was around me on the scanner I plotted a jump, lined up and hit the FSD. Blasting out of hyperspace I let the “Oxen Craig” drink up the fuel it needed and then jump out again heading for the Apan system. It was a nothing system laying just over 30lys from Sol. It had a M class star and one icy body orbiting it about 2,500ls out. Namely a place no one had any reason to be. Simple. A place I could be alone and if anyone came in, what the heck for, I could jump out, wait a few minutes and jump back.

I had made up my mind who I should contact and was just about to open comms when the cockpit was bathed in red light. RATSIGNAL.

I patched into Rat Dispatch, noted the system the stranded commander is in. A check of Galmap and 3 jumps out. Aitken go, on my way. Jump, scoop, jump, unscoopable, jump, in system. I had received the friend and wing request while en route, now in system I see the hollow blue rectangle that is Cmdr Aurora Xerox. A flick of a few buttons and I am locked on to the beacon and ready to drop. The A5 FSD pushes the Asp I sit in toward the signal. A whine in my ears, the edges of my vision starts to blur and then BANG, my head is thrown forward as the “Oxen Craig” groans to a halt. Checking the scanner I see, nothing. Hmmm, I text and talk to Aurora and we both agree that I should re-enter SC and try a different approach vector, so I do. Nothing.

I get a comm from a follow Rat, Cmdr Vireaux, “One System out if you need any help Aitken.”

“Hold there Vir. I have a few adjustments to make and if that doesn't work I'll jump out and you jump in.” I replied. I got a “Sounds Good.” back.

I jumped out of system after my third attempt as Vireaux jumped in. I sat there and listened, frustration boiling up within me.

“No joy, just blow into empty space.” Vir reported to both I and dispatch.

“Thoughts?” came the question from Sigma who was this shifts Dispatcher.

Vir piped up with the only suggestion that made sense to us. “We got to get another Rat in here to try, Aitken and I are having no luck and no way do we leave this guy to die.”

Dispatched reached out and a response was quick in coming from Cmdr. Spanielz.

“I'm available and ratted up, whats the pickle?” he inquired.

Before Sigma replied my cockpit went red once more. With cool efficiency Sigma turned their attention to the incoming plea for help. Vir had depart and I was one system out from the new call system.

“Aitken go and deal with this new one, Cmdr. Menk will be sending the friend request as soon as they can. I gave a roger and sat poised, ready for action.

The request came in and I jumped straight away, as I entered the target system the wing alert popped on so I quickly accept. Once again there was a whine in my ears and the edges of my vision start to blur, BOOM. There was the Imperial Clipper, floating powerless in space. Phwoosh and a limpet sped for the tube. “Transferring fuel” Betty flatly informed me.

“Hey Fuel Rat, thanks man you really save my butt. I'm headed for the Kaushpoos system. I hear the mining out there is turning a huge profit.” Menk happily blurted.

We chatted a little as I transfer enough fuel for him to reach Kaushpoos. With thanks and an offer to drop some cargo, which I refused, we departed in different directions. I intended to to get back to Apan and finish my interrupted personal mission but Rat Dispatch had other ideas.

“Looking at the Galmap Aitken you are the closest to Cmdr. Hoodlum, you should be 5 jumps out. Transferring info. now.”

A quick glance and sure enough I could not see a Rat anywhere close to Hoodlum, well there was one. Me.

“Route plotted, on my way Dispatch.” I hoped it wasn't another Clipper my limpet stock was down to 3. And 3 turned out to be perfect. Cmdr. Hoodlum was in a Eagle and the 3, while not filling his tank it was enough to get him to a system where he could refuel properly.

I kind of hoped I could get to my business as the 24hrs till I met Gabe was dwindling away. I entered the Apan system and checked the scanner, moving the range to max I saw only the star and icy body on the screen.

I scrolled through the names on the comm and highlighted the one I needed to contact. I paused for a second or two and shrugged, I had nothing to lose.

“Hello Aitken, what can I do for you.” Charity Nascimento asked from the other side of my screen.

“Hi Charity, it's a personal request you understand. I would prefer that this conversation went no further.” I could ask, weather it happened, well we would see.

“I understand Aitken and this matter will be treated with the utmost security.” She said reassuringly. We talked for the next 30 minutes or so, I told her the situation Gabe and I found ourselves in. She nodded, asked pertinent questions at the proper time and seemed genuinely interested.

“I haven't heard of any operations we are conducting like that in that area. Doesn't mean we are not, we are a rather larger organisation, I will certainly make a few discrete inquiries. Thank you for coming to me with this problem Aitken, I do like this development of our relationship. It shows we are starting to build a bond and that you are starting to feel trust toward us. I'll be in touch with you or Mr. Wyndham. Until then Aitken.” And the connection closed.

I sat there for a few minutes going over what we had just discussed, checked the amount of time I had left to meet Gabe and headed for the galley to make coffee.

“Sigma to Aitken. This transmission is to let you know that Spanielz was successful in rescuing Cmdr. Xerox. Thank you for your assistance. Rat Control Out.” The in cabin speakers blared out. I gave out a whoop and relaxed a little knowing that a troublesome case had been closed with the right result.

I sat watching the Icy body spinning below me as I once again pondered the current situation, I had little doubt that Charity would indeed find out something. The Silver Boys had turned out to be bigger than I thought, so surely then had a few connections this close to the heart of the Federation, coffee finished I had just enough time remaining to reach Gabes deadline.

“Frameshift Drive Charging”

After landing back at the station and after I had taken a few personal items from the bunk room of the “Oxen Craig”, I headed for Gabes apartment. Rounding the last corner an interesting sight appeared before me. Gabe was pinned to his front door by a rather large looking guy. Big Man had his left arm pushing on Gabes throat and he had his right hand pushed into Gabes gut, I guessed he had a gun in that hand. As quietly as I could I walked up behind Big Man and took out one of the personal items I had taken with me. The unlatching of the safety made an audible, schclick, that was only matched in volume by Big Mans gulp.

“You don't want to do that.” The voice, that I had knew would come, from behind me said. “You'll be dead before you can turn and get me.” I risked a quick glance over my shoulder and sure enough in the doorway a few doors down and to my right he stood, he and a semi automatic rifle with a laser sight.

“Ah but your friend here will be dead before that happens.” I replied. Not a classic stand off but one non the less. Big Man with a gun in Gabes gut, I had a gun pressed into the base of his head and I had no doubt that I also had a red dot from the laser sight on the back of my head.

I was just about to try talk my way out of the situation, some hope I know but I had an idea, when I heard what sounded like a thump and a body hitting the ground. I looked over my shoulder and it was confirmed. The door behind the Rifleman had opened and a monster of a guy had put him to the floor with a meaty fist.

“Ah, my insurance just turned up.” Gabe quipped. Big Man took another gulp and took the gun out of Gabes gut and handed it to him. I put the safety back on to my gun and returned it to under the jacket that was the other item I had taken from the ship.

“Insurance?” I asked.

“Yup, allow me to introduce you to my grandson, Timothy, but we call him Tiny.” Gabe said as he put the safety on the gun he had just been given and handed it butt first to me. I didn't usually carry a gun and now I had two of the things. Tiny came over to the three of us with the Rifleman under one arm and the rifle in the other hand.

“Hi, you must be Aitken. Grandpa has told me a lot about you, you seem kinda cool for such a short guy.”

“Thanks, I think.” I said looking up at the giant of a young man. Why does everyone I meet seem to be so dang tall I thought to my self. Perhaps it was was the other way round. I was just lacking in height.

All of us trooped into Gabes apartment, I kept the Big Mans gun and Tiny had the rifle trained on the pair as we started to ask the inevitable questions. They were either very good actors or they were telling the truth that they knew nothing. Someone had contacted them trough the Bulletin Board. They never saw anyone and had no idea who was behind the job to give Gabe the frightners. Tiny watched over the two thugs as Gabe and I talked it over in the kitchen area. There was no argument over their fate, Tiny gave them a swift kick in the rear as they both were shown the door. That was one mission they would have to “abandon”.

With the hired thugs gone we sat down to talk and plan our next move.

“What did you find out Aitken?” Gabe asked, he was still in the kitchen area while Tiny and I sat in the lounge.

“Nothing but I made contact with someone I know and it might pan out with something.” I replied as the smell of the newly brewed coffee wafted into my nostrils.

Gabe appeared in the doorway a cup in each hand, Tiny didn't drink coffee, these tall guys could be weird.

“What about you Gabe any leads?” As if I had to ask, someone had sent those thugs, so Gabe had upset someone.

“I had my suspicions before but that attack sealed what I was only unsure about. Everything started out normal at the last pad I was at, but as soon as I started talking about smugglers, the atmosphere changed quick.” The old man stood there head slightly bowed as if trying to conjure up the memory of a few hours ago. His head came back up as he continued. “You know when you catch a kid lying about watching adult holos. No one wanted to make eye contact. I put it down to maybe they had let a smuggler get through and were worried about their jobs but nah it was more than that.”

“What was the number of the landing pad?” I asked as Gabe warmed up to his deduction.

“Number 37.” He replied nodding.

“That's the one I landed at .” I put in.

“I got a couple of guys I know who work in that area Grandpa, why didn't you say what you were doin' and you could have saved all that bother out there.” Tiny spoke up for the first time in an hour. Gabe and I looked at each other and gave a shrug. 'Yeah one of them owes me big time, I got him hooked up with this cute little blond I know, anyway give me an hour, no better make it two and if I'm not back come lookin'” He toss me the assault rifle, “Man I love this spy stuff.” and was gone out the door.

“Doesn't say much but when he starts you can't stop him.” Gabe remarked as I tried to hold in the laugh I felt building up. Thankfully Gabes comm unit gave a beep and he walked over to it.

“It's for you.” He told me as he gave me a wink and sat down.

“Hello Charity, did you find anything out?”

“Yes and no Aitken. Something is going on for sure. I know it's not us, as I arrange this type of op. often. Who ever is arranging this is high up in that station, you need pull to put a sting operation through other Stations Boards.” She paused to look at some notes she must have taken. “If you are looking for the individuals who could pull this off, try the Controlling Faction, government of the station and the judiciary. Hmmm Security Services could do it but I haven't heard of them doing so. First time for everything, right. I'll do a little more digging and get back to you if I should find out a name. Ok.”

“Great, that's what I was hoping to hear. Thanks Charity.”

“You're welcome, we try to look after our better operators. Alright Aitken I'll be in touch.” With that the screen went dark.

“Who is “Us” and “We”.” Gabe asked.

“Just the people she works for. I've done a few jobs for them in the past few months.” I said turning in the chair to face Gabe.

“You're avoiding the question young man, please try and give me a straight answer. I am not one of those frontiers men that you try to hoodwink.” He was being more serious than I had seen him for a while. I really did not want him knowing my business and well, I did not want to face his disappointment.

“Charity Nascimento is my liaison to the Silver Boys of Crom.” I stood up and waited for Gabes response.

“Well, you mean the same Silver Boys who have their finger in just about every shady deal that goes on in the bubble.” He looked at me waiting for a reply, I nodded. “Well done Aitken, getting in with that organisation isn't easy and they seem to trust you, well as far as crime syndicates trust that is.”

“You are kidding me, you approve?” I asked a little stunned and sat down again.

“Heck no I don't approve but if you're going to be a crook or scoundrel or smuggler or whatever it is you get up out there. You might as well do it for what I hear is the best and more importantly, a well connected group of crooks.”

“Uh, did not see that coming.” I blurted out.

“Happy to see I can still surprise you. Think she'll find out anything more?”

“On that I have no doubt Gabe. What about Tiny?” I asked in reply.

“Same. That young man has contacts that even I don't know. He may look big and dumb but he's not and his dumb look means some don't take him serious, that can lead to them slipping up.” Gabe said with some pride in his voice. I had a funny feeling someone had foolishly tried to put one over on Tiny and paid the price fairly quickly.

Gabe poured more coffee for us both and we waited. After the first hour I checked the assault rifle and the ammo mags we had taken off the Rifleman. Six mags total, plus what I had in the two hand guns. Not enough for an assault on Space station but enough, I hoped, to scare a few pad workers into talking. If that made me a thug, so be it. I could only guess but Big Man and Rifleman would not have been paid a million credits if they had succeeded.

After an hour and a half Gabe started to fret. He need not have worried as five minutes later Tiny walked in. Grinning from ear to ear.

“Well come on you big ox, what did you find out?” Gabe said hiding his concern behind mock irritation.

“Easy Gramps, gimme a sec to catch my breath.” I liked his style, Gabe would drive you nuts if you let him. Tiny went into the kitchen area and came back with a glass of water, he sat down taking a sip. “Got a name.....” The comms unit gave out a bleep, Gabe walked over and answered it.

“It's for you again.”

“Hi Aitken,” Charity greeted me. “ I have a name...”

At the same time both Charity and Tiny spoke one word, “Baxter.”

Gabe gave out a groan and I knew why.

“I take it from Mr. Wyndhams response that he knows of Mr. Baxter.”

“Yes Charity,” I replied, “he is the Chief of the Post Authority. Stickler for rules and regulations, I find it hard to believe he is behind this....”

“You would be correct Aitken. He may not be the Kingpin in all this but he is involved and more than likely knows who is pulling the strings.” Charity interrupted.

“Ok, I got ya. Thanks Charity I owe you one for this....” Again she interrupted me.

“No Aitken it is us that still owe you for all the work you have done for us.”

“Pffftt, you paid well for that, let's call it even then.” She look a little chagrin but seemed accept the compromise.

“We'll see. I take my leave Aitken, till next time. Fly safe.” The screen went dark.

“What now?” Gabe asked.

“First, good job Tiny.” I clapped the young giant on the shoulder, he beamed like a buffoon. “Next I go and visit Mr. Baxter.”

“And us.” It was a statement that Gabe gave forth and one I had to put down.

“Sorry old man but I do this alone. I will be leaving this station at some point, Tiny and you will still have to live here, best I do this by myself. Ok?”

“Dammit Aitken I know that makes sense but we can help you.” The eldest man in the room complained. All I could do was shake my head. I handed the rifle over to Tiny.

“Hide it away son, I don't think you'll ever need it this close to Sol but one can never tell.” With that I headed for the door. I still had my own handgun and the Big Mans too, plenty of fire power for what I had in mind.

I hopped on public transport heading for the Port Authority Offices. The journey was not a long one, relatively speaking, I wasn't going to Sagittarius A* after all, just to the far end of the station. I walked off at the Port Authority Station looking like just another pilot on his way for travel or trade information. Or at least I hoped so.

“State your business with the Port Authority please?” A computerised voice asked at the front door.

“Trade and travel information on the surrounding systems please?”

“Level 3, Room 312. Authorised to enter.” Again the computerised voice with it's unfeeling tones replied. I entered through large glass swing doors that seemed to be open all the time. A stroke of fortune I hoped would continue.

I made my way cross a small hallway to the elevator controls and hit up. I entered the elevator and press the button for Level 6, the top level. Oops, my finger slipped. As the doors opened I saw a desk before me with a middle aged woman of about 50 sitting behind it. She glanced up.

“How may I help you? Do you have an appointment with Mr. Baxter?”

“I'm so terrible sorry to interrupt you but I seem to have lost my way.” I said with all the bravado I could muster. She stood up and gave a wane smile.

“What and where is it you are trying to find out or been misdirected too.” Now that see was standing I took the chance. I pulled the handgun out from its shoulder holster and waved her away from the desk.

“I'm looking for the Office of Snivelling Dogs. I do believe their second in command is called Baxter.” Again I waved the gun at her and in the direction of the only other door that could be seen on this level.

“Oh my, what is the meaning of this, this outrage?” She demanded. I said nothing but continued to wave the gun in the direction of the door.

“Oh very well!” She exclaimed and went to the door. I quickly stepped behind her as she opened it. “There is, I hesitate to use the term, a gentleman to see you Mr. Baxter.”

I gave her a slight push in the back and she was in the room a second before I was, the door closed behind me.

“Hands in plain sight please Mr. Baxter, we don't want you activating the hidden alarm. I mean we could be interrupted and we do have so much to talk about.” I said politely.

“Who the devil are you and what is the meaning of this?” Baxter demanded in a commanding voice.

I bid the lady to sit down switched the gun to my left hand and with my right I drew out the second gun and pointed it at Baxter.

“Who I am is unimportant Mr. Baxter and the meaning of this is, well to point it bluntly, you have been found out. I would like the name of the brains behind this scheme. Your entrapped operation can be exposed if you would prefer that.” Again I spoke in a polite voice, it seemed to fit the setting.

“I have no idea what in blazes you are talking about.” He protested. I gave a shake of my head.

“Mr. Baxter, I tell lies for a living and can spot them a mile off. You sir are a terrible liar.” I flicked the safety off and cocked the gun. “I just need the name of your superior and I leave you in peace.”

“Dammit all, I knew we would get caught.” He spat out in a deflated tone.

We spent the next five minutes bargaining our respective positions. I assured him that if he gave me the name or names I would not put out word that his station was framing innocent traders so as to increase their profits from captured goods and the fines that were levied for smuggling. Of course I didn't tell him I HAD been smuggling. Where's the fun in making it easy for him. I uncocked the gun, engaged the safety and slid both back into their respective holsters. I thanked both of them for the information and apologised for spoiling their day. Then I left, quickly.

The elevator doors opened on the entrance level just as the alarm sounded. Blast, I sprinted toward the doors that were swinging shut and squeezed between two that were barely open. Slowing to a walk I mingled with the crowd on the main causeway and headed for my next destination.

I stopped first though at a Coffee Bar. It had been a long day and I needed a little pick me up. Across the street was a rather elegant restaurant and I played my game of people watching. I noticed that it seemed to be those who thought of themselves as the “Upper Class” that were coming and going. So I had some outrageous made up ideas about them in my head. I got one or two funny looks from other customers as I gave out a snort or a giggle.

Then I saw them, I was hoping I had got it right. I was betting that Baxter had no way of contacting them at this time of day. I could only hope. I gave it another five minutes, well I wanted to finish the excellent coffee I had been served. Leaving a tip I headed across the causeway for an interview that I hoped only I knew about.

The Maitre'd was not willing to believe me when I said I was expected but 500cr seemed to take away the doubts. It certainly was a nice place, a little too ostentatious for my liking but I wasn't overpaying for the fare. I saw who I was looking for and made my way there.

“Hello Mr. Aitken, so good to see you again. Please take a seat. You haven't been introduced to my wife yet, have you?” I slipped into a vacant chair and nodded to the lady across the table.

“No I haven't Your Honour, pleased to meet you ma'am.” I again was on my most polite behaviour.

“And to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure Mr. Aitken? Although I do have a feeling I could hazard a guess. You really only have yourself to blame. I can't prove it but I am certain you had something to do with that jailbreak.” Judge Karaca replied smoothly.

“Hmmm.” I replied. I had forgotten to ask Gabe about that, oh well it could wait.

“You really must try the steak Mr. Aitken. It's real meat not that synthetic stuff you get out on the outer edge.” A waiter had come over a minute after I had arrived at the table. Just a coffee please, yes a cup will do. I doubted they even knew what a mug looked like. “Please do continue Mr. Aitken.”

“I know of the little entrapment, sting operation you have going on and I'd like you to end it.” My coffee appeared with a dainty jug of cream and a small bowl containing sugar. “Thank you.”

“Oh, I thought you were here about your million credits. Well this does leave me in a rather difficult position.” He paused and dabbed at his lips with a napkin. “You see Aitken, I can call you Aitken. I believe it's how you like to be addressed. Not only is it having the desired effect of reducing smuggling into this station, the gains are helping keep it ship shape as you pilots would say and repair the damage to the jail.” He returned to his meal. “Yes a rather difficult position.” He said between forkfuls.

“Not my problem Your Honour. My problem is you are breaking Federal law to achieve your aims and more importantly to me, interfering with my business and thus my profits.”

“Don't tell me about law young man, I have been practising it since before you started breaking it. I presume that if I don't cease these operations you'll let it be known what we are doing?” No flies on His Honour I see.

“That and a little more, I'll put it out there that you are setting up innocent traders too.” He stopped eating and looked up at me.

“That would be, how do you pilots put it? Oh yes, dirty pool.” Again he dabbed at his lips with the napkin. “Hmm, a very tricky turn of events. I don't suppose a bribe would work? No silly question, you didn't go through all this cloak and dagger stuff just to be bought off.” Yup Ol' Karaca was not that crass after all. He continue to look at me as if expecting me to solve his problem for him. I had no plans to drop dead, so I couldn't help him.

“Very well Aitken I'll call off the dogs, you drive a hard bargain.” He motioned for the waiter and asked for coffee,cheese and biscuits, when asked his wife agreed with his choice. “I will warn you though. We will search your ship every time you dock here. Even if we don't suspect you.”

“Fair enough, there are other stations and I can always pay someone to take cargo in for me.”

“That's what I like about you Aitken, resourcefulness. It's a quality the younger crooks seem to be missing.”

“Well it has been a pleasure doing business with you Your Honour.” I said as I stood up to leave.

“I wish I could say the same Aitken but you win this round.”

“Thanks for the coffee, it wasn't bad.”

With that I left.
 
In that case: a response!:) Great work! How many have you saved?
Thank you too. Checking the leaderboard at fuelrats.org I see Aitken has 39 rescues.

The rescues in the tales are real, I haven't had to move the timing around too much to fit in but the actual descriptions are as close as I can remember.
 
A Table for Two - A Rats Tale

A Table for Two

“If you walk this way sir I will show you to your table.”

I watched as the waiter took a few steps, he had a strange gait so I decided I did not want to walk that way and followed him with my normal walking style to the table. Sitting there was Charity Nascimento, that wasn't surprising as I was on Chorel Survey in Crom and it had been her that had requested I pop on over to Crom for this business meeting. The waiter nodded and walked back toward the entrance, strange gait and all.

Chorel was of the modular design for outposts. You could refuel, rearm, repair any damage and trade a little. There was also a thriving black market, no surprise. The small mineral extraction industry that existed within the system was really a front for the Silver Boys to operate their crime empire. As I was finding out, they were involved in nearly every illegal operation in the bubble and probably beyond. Without a shipyard or a ship outfitter, one of the modules had been given over to commercial operators, clothing store, gun shop and the like and of course a restaurant. As I had walked to the table I had taken in the decor. It was based on what they called Ancient Earth Italy, this ancient Earth stuff was all the rage at the moment. I had seen Vipers and Cobras adorned with old Earth nation flags, just another fashion fad, meh, I gave a small shrug. Thanks to my Fathers interest in ancient history I appreciated some of it and found the rest just down right funny.

“Hello Aitken, please.” Charity looked up from a datapad she had been working on and indicated the only other chair at the table. I stood for a few seconds more looking at the tri-colour flags and pictures of old buildings, probably no longer on Earth. The ones that made me smile were of men in white shorts and blue tops with either a ball at their feet or arms upraised, strange times indeed.

“Well Charity to what do I owe this invitation out to Chorel?” I asked, taking my seat at the table.

“A review and to see where we are going with you, as I said when we first met, this organisation is run like family.”

I took a look around the restaurant and let the word “family” rattle around in my head for second, remembering the stories my father and I had read about the old Earth mafia, it all seemed to fit.

“Just to remind you of what I said when we first met, I am independent and mean to stay that way.”

“I remember Aitken and you can do as much or as little for the Silver Boys as you wish, that remains a constant in out dealings.” Charity gave me a smile and I actually believe she meant what she said. I nodded back to show I was happy with the arrangement.

“Since the smuggling sting we have scaled back that particular part of our operations, I am sure you have noticed?” It was a question not a statement, I was about to reply when the waiter appeared.

“Can we get you any Antipasto and drinks, ma'am, sir?”

“If you have bread sticks that will be fine for me and coffee.” I replied. Italian coffee was some of the finest around and there was no way I was missing out on it.

“Mozzarelline fritte and a glass of the house red please.” Charity made her choices.

“Thank you, sir, madam, we'll have them to you shortly.” and then he was gone. I turned back to Charity.

“Yes I have noticed the dwindling supply of smuggling jobs. As you will know I've been doing mostly assassinations and bounty hunting missions.” Not that I was to thrilled to be doing those type of jobs. Payment was good sure but the lay out cut into the profit. Ammunition and damage repairs and with the type of jobs I had been getting damage repair was going to happen. That could be expensive. I had no problem taking out the low life's that were the targets, heck I wasn't that far above them if at all, I just wasn't some psycho that enjoyed snuffing out human life.

“I understand your disdain Aitken but these jobs are important to us and to our clients.” Charity was trying to be nice and I truly appreciated the sentiment. “But I can't see that changing within the bubble anytime soon.” She paused and looked at the data pad. “I am happy to see that you have been doing some work out of Robigo, at the present time The Cartel are an important customer.”

Just then our Antipasto and drinks arrived. With an “enjoy” the waiters vanished back to where ever they had come from. As we ate I took the opportunity to view our fellow diners. The room held about ten or so tables of varying sizes and the restaurant was at least half full. Most were couples but the odd table of men in dark suits made me a little uneasy. Gangsters in their most dapper finest. I gave my head at little shake as I remembered I did work for their like, oh well it paid and they made excellent coffee, so perhaps they were not that bad.

“Tell me how the last few jobs panned out?” Charity asked between mouthfuls of fried mozzarella cheese.

The quizzical look I shot her had the desired effect.

“Ok, sorry the last three?” She replied glancing once more at the data pad. I finished my second bread stick and took another sip of the espresso before I answered.

“The last three were assassinations, one escaped prisoner and two terrorists. The prisoner, Ronald Catersels was in an Eagle, with another as an escort. They went down without much difficulty.” I paused and took a the last sip of the coffee to gather my thoughts. “ The first terrorists Gillian was in a Python with an Eagle and Sidewinder escort. I hit the Python first and I hit it hard, taking out the power plant. Once it was drifting I dealt with the escorts and then finished off the Python.” Here Charity interrupted my train of thought.

“What ship were you using? I can't imagine you would put an Asp through this?”

“Nope, I have, well had a Federal Assault Ship, I have the Asp stored away.” I replied and continued on with my mission debrief. “Moose the second terrorists was also in a Python but with a better escort. DBX and a couple of Eagles, once the Python was out of the fight the escort bugged out and as they were not part of the mission brief I let them.” I looked at Charity hoping she would disagree with my charitable action but my guilt would not be purged with the argument that might ensue.

“Good call. Why waste resources when you are not being paid for their expenditure.” Even I could not argue with that clinical assessment.

The waiter reappeared as if from no where.

“Would you like to order your main course now, ma'am, sir?”

“Yes thank you GianLuca, I'll have the Pesce all’acqua pazza.” Charity relied with a smile. GianLuca nodded and pressed his finger to a data pad. Turning his attention to me next.

“Well, sorry to be boring when the menu looks impressive but I'll have the Spaghetti with meatballs please.”

A smile crossed the waiters face, “Excellent choice sir, that is our chef's specialty and so few order it anymore.” Then he was gone.

“Everything seems in order Aitken. I am going to advise you to continue with what you are doing or take a break as I know assassination missions can be wearing on those completing the contracts.” She paused and a small resigned smile graced her face. “While you are an independent contractor and I know your feelings on that, we still want to help look after your welfare. You've proved your worth to us over and over again, we want to keep you around for whats on the horizons.”

A second cup of coffee had been delivered along with the waiter, no espresso this time, I took my time as I added cream and sugar. Took a sip after stirring the brown blend together.

“Thanks, I think. I try not to make long range plans so we'll see how this goes once I get back out there.” I was interrupted by the swirl of bodies around us as the wait staff put plates and dishes on the table before us. With another “Enjoy.” the whirlwind was over as quickly as it had started.

“Your fish looks good.” I remarked to Charity. Indeed it did, it was in description a simple dish of poached fish but description and preparation could often be two worlds apart. The chef in this case appeared to know his trade. The spaghetti and meatballs that had been laid before only reinforced my belief.

The conversation slowed as we both began savouring our respective dishes. Seemingly the review or interview or whatever this had been was over and I just had to ask.

“So that's it, you got me to come all the way out here to Crom for, well this?” I really didn't mean it to sound brutal or that I felt she was wasting my time but that's kind of the way it sounded. Charity had just put more food into her mouth so she continued to chew, finished and took a sip of her wine before answering.

“Yes and no.” she cryptically replied. I added a touch more Parmesan cheese to my meatball and twirled a little more spaghetti onto my fork and remained silent.

“Yes the review was for us and you so we know where we stand with each other. From what we have just spoken about I think both parties are happy with each other, or at least willing to continue the relationship.” I nodded. “No, because it isn't the only reason we asked you here. As well as reviewing your work for us, we'd like to know you.”

Again I remained silent, allowing her to expand on her last statement. She was a bright kid and took the unsaid cue.

“What makes you tick, what makes you do the things you do and why?”

I stopped. I put the fork down and cleaned the sauce from around my mouth with the napkin I had in my lap.

“I can answer all three questions with one answer. Credits, cold hard cash. You pay and I'll deliver. If that be drugs, weapons or death, you'll get your goods if you pay enough.”

“Aitken I like you. Professionally and personally so drop the mask. You may have the look of a hard nosed bounty hunter and you can even sound like a emotionless killer but that's not you. Other actions that you perform tell me you have a heart and that you care.”

I gave a shrug, replaced the napkin in my lap, scooped up the fork and speared another meatball.

“You're going to make me spell this out, aren't you?” The young brunette said to me. I finished the meatball and looked into her eyes.

“Damn right sister. If you want to play psychologist and probe my motives, you ain't getting help from me.” I wasn't angry, in fact I found this amusing, I just didn't appreciate anyone asking these type of questions.

“Ok. On one hand you smuggle, kill and work on the wrong side of the law. On the other, you give to charities, let targets go if you do not see them wanted in the system you are in and most importantly you are a Fuel Rat.”

More spaghetti, another wipe of the mouth and a shrug.

“I'll play your game I guess. I smuggle cos it pays well, you've seen the money they are throwing at those willing to risk it at Robigo. I kill those that the law has deemed to be threat, if they are not wanted in a system I am in, who am I to be judge and executioner in those cases? Rather arrogant for me to assume that mantle. Sure I work in that gray area that is just on the edge of the law, again because it pays well and people ask for those services.” I took another sip of the excellent coffee and allowed what I had just said to sink in.

“On to the “good” me. I donate to charities to increase my standing to those particular people, you know how this works, heck it's similar in a way as to why I have access to Crom. I already explained the wanted stuff so onto the Fuel Rats.” I put the napkin I still had in my hand onto the plate, I was done eating and gathered my thoughts on to why I Ratted and gave her the only answer I could think of.

“Because it needs to be done.”

“That's it. You've traveled 19,000 light years to give a guy fuel. You've diverted from time sensitive missions to fire limpets at someone and risked going into hostile situations just to give fuel to others. Because it needs to be done?” I detected the sarcasm and nodded to each point.

“Yes.” A smile and a shrug. I looked into her eyes once again. “Maybe it eases my conscience to rescue those that are in need. Maybe in my mind it balances the death I deal to save those that can be saved. I don't know, I just know it needs to be done.”

“Ah, the mask cracks a little.” A sip of wine, a slow smile creeps on to her lips. “You care. Under that gruff exterior that all you frontier pilots have, you actually care.”

“So?” A simple word that carried a lot of meaning in this context. As I spoke I picked up the cup and signaled the wait staff I would like more coffee. Silence hung in the air as the cup was refilled. “Thanks” a nod, a smile and I dressed it to my taste.

“It's good to know Aitken. Nothing dark or sinister, just something that is good to know.” She glanced at her data pad once more. “You like to work alone, why?” I shook my head.

“Wow you really do want to play amateur shrink. Alright, I prefer to work alone, smuggling, hunting, killing and ratting, true. It's an easy question to answer.” I raised the cup and took a deep sniff of the aroma it gave off. “Beautiful. If things go wrong, and sometimes they do, I know who to blame. Saves having to review two actions and perhaps trust is also in there.”

“Kavinsky?” Charity said the name while looking at her pad.

“What about Paul?” I answered in turn. “I've worked with him on a few projects. I don't trust him if that's what you are asking even if he is a Rat. He could go rogue or help others at the drop of a hat. He's even more unstable than I am. Nice guy though.”

“You do seem to attract that type of personality.”

“Present company included?” I could not resist asking.

“A little perhaps, as with you Aitken we work in the shadows. Providing services that certain people don't want to advertise. You, and others like you carry out these services. No questions asked and no answers given. Trust, as you know is a valuable commodity, and one that has to be hard earned. One that you and I are hopefully starting to build.”

“Perhaps.” I took another look around me, I had little idea that this is what Italy on Earth looked like, I hoped one day to visit and find out but not today. A slug of coffee. “I like being nobody, I was once described as a petty criminal and that is still to high on the monitor list for me but I'll take it. I don't want to be remembered, I want people when talking about a situation to say, “yeah there was this guy, average looking, just another pilot.” Just another shadow that slips away unnoticed.”

“Then we are on the same page Aitken. But being a Fuel Rat seems to be the complete opposite of that. So the question remains, why?” I stood up and looked at Charity.

“Thank you for the meal, my mother would be happy to know I eat good food occasionally.” I turned to the wait staff and addressed GianLuca. “The food and coffee were excellent, my complements to the chef.” He smiled and gave me a curt nod.

I took Charity in to my arms and kissed her on the cheek and took the opportunity to answer her question and whispered it into her ear.

“It's what we do.”
 
Within Wheels

Within Wheels

Takes place in the weeks prior to planetary landings being introduced

“Thanks man you really saved my bacon.”

The tinny sound of the Eagle pilots voice bled through the comms unit of the FRS Bennachie. I'd taken it out of retirement to use as my Ratter, the Oxen Craig having been refitted for mission hauling. Both could rat but the Bennachie was a dedicated Ratter and with a few tweaks turned it back into the explorer it was.

“No worries Cmdr.” I replied. A debriefing of advising about a fuel scoop and the scoopable star types followed. I watched as the Eagle powered up the rest of his systems, I'd requested he raise is shields after the first limpet. With a nose to tail flip, a trail of burnt hydrogen, a blue white flash and he was gone. I opened Galmap on one screen and Rat Dispatch on another, reported that the rescue had been successful and filed the necessary paperwork.

Instancing issues were the bane of the Fuel Rats and had been an issue with this rescue. They had seemed to becoming more frequent lately. There were a few methods of attempting to overcome them, the one I relied on more and more was interdiction. I fitted the lightest, cheapest interdictor I could find, usually a D1 and asked the client to jump into supercruise, if they had a little fuel to do so. Zero their throttle, get behind them and boom. Usually clients ran out of fuel in lawless systems, so no fine and I am more than willing to eat the fine if I have too. I'd talked my strategy over with Prof. Norvegicus of the R and D Dept it kind of made sense to me. All ships while in supercruise create their own little time and space bubble. Sometimes when using the usual way of Nav-Lock and Wing Beacon, upon dropping, these bubbles do not merge or sync, the reason he gave me made a swooshing sound as it flew over my head. Cmdr. Pyry being the first Rat I can remember doing this, it may have been used before but my memory can be foggy. In lay mans terms, the indicator forces the client into the Rats bubble, I can't remember this method failing me but again my memory can be foggy.

I had heard the call for help on my way back from Crom but that hadn't been the first time on this trip that I had seen an interdictor in use. I had been two systems out of Crom and lining up for my next jump when I received a comms signal.

“Cmdr. Aitken, I know you carry nothing of value, so please submit.” The use of my name stopped me from hitting the FSD button, what followed had me setting my throttle to zero. “Mixing Vanadium and Germanium can make you jump further.” As the tether took a hold of my ship I shook my head at the use of the silly phrase. Wanna be spies.

I didn't deploy my hard points as the Cobra Mk. III maneuvered in front of me and parked itself off my starboard side.

“Thanks for stopping. Can you give me a report Aitken?” A tinny sounding voice asked.

“Sure. I was requested to Crom for a business meeting, which was basically short and to the point. I had a very nice dinner with a delightful young lady. The restaurant was one of those new places that thinks it's Italian, the coffee was excel...”

“Did you see anything strange?” The question interrupted me before I got a good flow going. I gave a shrug.

“Yes.” I paused for dramatic effect. “The young lady I had dinner with ordered red wine with fish.”

The silence that followed could be cut with a mining laser.

“The spaghetti and meatballs were something I would highly recommend if you are looking to eat out.” More silence.

“Anything else Aitken?” The hard edge in the voice told me playtime was over.

“If you would tell me what was supposed to be strange it might help?” I asked in return.

“You DID read the mission brief.” The statement sounded accusatory and ended with a sigh. “Only thing I can add is by strange we mean things that would not fit into that setting.” Another sigh and more silence.

“Oh yes, I DID read the mission brief. A little scant on details if I remember it correctly but your added content makes it SO much clearer.” At this point I didn't care how much they were paying me, with so little to go on I doubted I would ever see the final installment. “Thank you for supplying it.”

“Sarcasm aside Aitken, I think I got what I needed to hear. We'll be in touch.” With a click the comms went dead. Betty chimed in with “Frame Shift Drive Detected” and the Cobra was gone.

I sat there looking out on the beautiful vista that spread out before me, deep in thought. Out loud I murmured my reply to Betty.

“Just what have I gotten us into now I wonder.” Betty as was her way did not answer. “Interesting times a head I foresee.”

It had started out as a simple Bulletin Board mission, again. I'd been in the Atagat system, for no other reason than that it was there, when I'd pulled up the Bulletin Board. As usual I perused most of the jobs available, the one marked 'own ship needed' looked no different than the rest till I actually selected it. The first thing that was different was that it was addressed to me. Not the open to any commander stuff I was used to seeing but it actually had my name at the top. The second difference was that there was even less information than the scanty description of normal missions. Those were not the only two reasons that I accepted it of course. The fact that someone had managed to not just access the Bulletin Board and address something to me but had to have had enough pull and know how to have it targeted at my ship computer. That alone told me that whoever it was had some serious clout. That alone should have made me ignore it but oh no not me. My curiosity was peaked and well, they were offering a nice little payment plan that I just could not resist. Whatever my misgivings had been at the time, I had clicked 'Accept'.

As I sat there and watched the high wake remnant vanish, those second thoughts and misgivings started playing at the edge of my thoughts once more. I needed somewhere I could think this through and feel safe. I say feel safe, I was under no illusion that if someone wanted to get to me they could. Having even just the feeling of safety and security would allow me a little time to think some of the situation out. I opened the Galmap and selected the one place I felt I could trust at that moment. Frame Shift Drive activated, destination, Fuelum.

Fuelum had began to be home to the Rats officially a few months earlier and this would be my third visit to the system, shameful I know. I say 'officially' because a few Rats had been using it before that as a base of operations. Here my foggy memory can be used as an excuse again as I can't remember if it was Cmdr. Shinobi or Kerenn or some other deserving soul who first stumbled across the system. Whoever it was though, it had become the home for the Fuel Rats and Wollheim Vision the headquarters.

As I guided the Bennachie through the toast rank of the Coriolis station I felt a slight calm descend over me, I may not have been one hundred percent safe but here I was safer than anywhere else in the universe. With the Asp lined up on it's landing pad I eased it over and gently dropped it down.

As the Asp engines started to wind down, the ship elevator began it's decent into the hangar area with the whirs and grinds that I had grown accustomed to. I had my chair buckles undone and was on my way to the stairway at the back before the gears and hydraulics had finished moving the Bennachie into it's parking spot. After stowing my flight helmet and setting the on board security system I climbed down the staircase and headed for the corridor at the back of the hangar.

“Mr. Aitken, good job on that last save of yours.” A cheery and familiar voice spoke as I walked past Dispatch.

“Thank you Ms. Hail and you can drop the Mr. if you don't mind.”

“I will if you drop the Ms. please.” The young woman answered.

“No worries Becks, how have you been?” I asked. Rebecca Hail hadn't been a Fuel Rat for long but she had shown a flair for not only Ratting but Dispatch too. She had my respect for that as running Dispatch could be a nerve raking experience, that she was a friendly soul also had made me like her.

“Not bad.” She smiled. “But what brings you to these uncharted shores?”

“Ok I may not visit often but uncharted is a bit of a stretch.” I replied shaking my head. “Are you going on or just finishing?” I asked nodding to the Dispatch Room behind her.

“Just going on and I'll be late if you hold me up any longer. Catch you later Aitken.” With a jaunty wave she headed further into the room.

Buoyed by seeing a friendly face I continued deeper into the station heading for the recreation area where I could watch ships come and go. A relaxing way to pass sometime, especially as I would not be piloting any of them.

I headed for the bar built at the back of the room, at the front were three large glass windows whose view looked out at the mail slot. I watched as a DBX shot through, flew half way down the flight line, landed, sunk on the elevator, was spun round by the pad, raised up and took off again, also at speed. I was about to ask the barman what that had been all about when I noticed it was a robot and ordered coffee instead. While I waited I leaned back on the bar just in time to see an Asp do the exact same performance as the DBX had, well apart from the fact it needed a medium pad and not a small.

“Your coffee Cmdr.” The robotic voice behind me announced. I dressed the coffee to my taste and moved to a table close to the center window. Sitting there was a fellow old time Rat and so I plunked myself down. He was watching the slot so closely that he did not notice me until I spoke up.

“What the heck is going on out there Alec?” Alec Turner had been a Rat since, well before me, foggy memory again. A good guy and fun to be around.

“Buckyball racers Aitken.” Alec replied, he glanced at the computer screen that was on the table before us. “The Mischief Mile to give it the official title.”

It was my turn to have a look at the screen, two categories, regular or crazies, Cmdr. names, ship names but no times, well not that I could see. “No times?” I asked Alec.

“No, one of the rules of this race, positions are updated but no times till the end of the event.” Alec smiled, I made a rolling motion with my right hand asking him to continue with the explanation. “Names, are, well self explanatory. Regulars are ships that Rats use for rescues, Asp, DBX, Hauler and so on. Crazies would be ships with not very good range and we would not use often, if ever.”

I was going to point out that some in the regular class were crazy to me, T9, T7, Python and a few others but I had my favourites and the other thing that stopped me was I knew Alec had done more than half of his rescues in a Python. I'd only used it twice for ratting but even then I had fitted it for ratting as a secondary use.

“What about you Alec? Taking part?” I asked scanning the Commanders names in the list.

“Yes. I've already had a run in my Asp.” He pointed to his name in the list. “Been thinking about trying the DBX next and...” He stopped and looked at me, nodded. “Well you're crazy enough to help me.”

“Do tell?” I asked and gave a small snort of a laugh.

“I need a refueler. A twist to this run is no scoop and not only no extra fuel tanks but a reduction in size of some classes. That means for some ships that we would have to land and refuel. You know that takes time.” He paused and looked at me, no expression on the usually jocular face.

“Whats the route?” I asked as the beaming smile returned to his mouth.

As Alec took a datapad from inside his flight suit I started to tell him of the Anaconda I had sitting waiting for this challenge, but as we got deeper and deeper into the planning I saw that the Asp I had with me would be able to pull off the job. Between the starting point of the Tepech system and the finish at the Mirateje system, the course had three mandatory stopping points. With one being Wollheim Vision, where he could refuel, that meant we would choose one of the two remaining points to refuel the DBX. We chose MCC 811 to make the last leg as short as possible, even then he would be on fumes when reaching Mirateje.

“So when do you think you'll be ready to give this a go Aitken?” I could tell Alec was itching to see if his idea would work.

“Lemme finish my coffee and then we'll go.” I lifted the mug, took a long pull and set it back down on the table. I nodded toward the exit and was greeted by the beaming smile again.

We hammered out the last details before we split up at the hangars. Fitting sixteen limpets into the Bennachie didn't take the engineers and myself long and as I strapped in I heard Alec receive final clearance from Wollheim control. A little over five minutes later I was exiting the slot and heading for MCC 811. One system out from my destination I heard from Alec announcing that he was leaving Tepech and starting his run.

I jumped into MCC 811, scooped my tank full and waited. I watched what little traffic there was coming in and out but ended up bring up the Galmap and keeping an eye on the progress that Alec was making. At one system out, NLTT 48288, I checked that I had the Nav-Lock set correctly and glued my eyes to the scanner. Just as I heard “In system” from Alec I saw the open light blue rectangle appear on the scanner, behind me. Putting a little power into the engines I began to loop but Alec was already on the button and I started to drop. Again I looked at the scanner for the open rectangle and again it was behind me. A few precious seconds slipped past as the Asp and DBX danced around each other getting into refueling positions. Once the strange space waltz had ended two limpets streaked across the gap from Asp to Diamondback. As each one ended its short life with the wail “Fuel Transfer Complete” another was on its way to replace it. Finally Alec told me he was full and heading out. “See you back at Fuelum.” and with the pop of a ship entering hyperspace he was gone.

I was on my second mug of coffee when the smiling Cmdr. Turner walked up to the same table we had departed earlier.

“Oh that felt quick Aitken and I mean really fast.” He said sitting down and rotating the computer screen so we could both see it. “I sent the new run in from Mirateje so it should update soon. You want more coffee? No, you have a cup. Okay I'll get myself something. Be right back.” I'd never seen him so nervous but then again it was something new we were trying and I guess he wanted to be proved right with his idea.

He returned with some kind of soft drink and had just set it on the table and sat down, when the screen updated. I had just enough time to snatch up the glass before it went tumbling off the table as Alec shot to his feet.

“Good grief, my names at the top of the list. Aitken my name has NEVER been at the top of any race list. Wow, it worked. I thought it might but not this well.” Alec sat back down and took a sip from his drink, his eyes never leaving the screen.

“We can make it faster you know.” I chimed in. “Anytime your ready, I can make a few adjustments to my load and try again.”

“Wish I could mate but I got a message on my way back here. Duty calls, I have some things I need to take care of.” Another longer sip of his drink. “That time will have to hold me. I hope near the top but if not I'm happy we proved that the refueling idea works. I have to go but thanks.”

He stood up still looking at the screen and then with a shake of his head he turned to leave but instead pulled a slip of paper out of his top pocket and handed it to me.

“Get in touch with this guy. It should be a little more challenging.” With that and a smile he left. I looked at the name and pulled it up on the computer and sent off a quick note with enough detail that he could get in touch.

I finished the coffee before me, watched a few more ships come and go, mostly at a less rapid pace and chatted with a few other Rats. Then I returned to the Bennachie and retired for the night.

Next morning I was sitting having breakfast, bacon, egg, brown sauce, toast and of course coffee, when an Imperial Eagle pierced its way through the mail slot mist. It caused a little stir as it was an usual ship to see at Wollheim. It just as quickly subsided as in reality it was just another ship.

I was finishing off the last piece of toast and staring out the window when the room drained of most of the morning noise. I began to turn to see what had brought such a hush to the room when a voice spoke up.

“Cmdr. Aitken I presume?”

Before me stood a tall commanding figure. A figure that looked dashing in the white flight suit with cyan coloured piping. A white helmet adorned with the crest of the new Emperor, also in cyan, tuck under his left arm and cyan gloves clasped in the left hand.

“Who wants to know?” I asked, wary of strangers even in the semi-safe confines of Fuelum.

“Cmdr. Timothy Knight at your service sir.” The right hand shot out inviting a handshake. “I received your communication and would like to try out the idea.”

I rose and took the offered hand. “I think we had better sit down and talk this over Timothy, if I may call you by your first name?” Imperials and their protocol.

“Certainly Cmdr.” Placing the helmet and gloves on the table, he sat down.

“It's Aitken, no need to stand on ceremony.” Take the not too subtle hint, please.

Timothy nodded, pulled out a datapad and the planning began. This would not be sitting in a system waiting, no no. This would be a race within a race. He seemed to be concerned with that aspect the most.

“If I have to sit in system waiting for you, I may as well refuel at a station.” I heard the line a couple of times. The trick was going to be staying ahead of a rapidly moving Imp. Eagle. An Asp would be gambling to much and working out it would have to carry at least 22 limpets ruled it out for me.

“I have an Anaconda that has the range to jump twice to your three. I think we can make it work, the FRS December just needs a few tweaks and I'll be good to go.”

“Very well, I have some maintenance to carry out on the Cortana, can we pencil in some trial runs after lunch? Will that be enough time for your modifications?” Timothy asked, picking up the helmet, placing the gloves inside and rising for his chair.

“Sure, more than enough.” I lied. Well maybe not lied but it was cutting it fine. With an “Excellent” he strode toward the exit. I waited until he had left and then made a beeline for the hangar the Conda was sitting in. I was planning on grabbing the first engineer I saw and that is what I did, right after I got over my surprise.

“Nadzieja? Did I take a wrong turn and end up back in Ceos?” I asked the tall dark hair woman before me.

“Aitken!” She roared and I was in a back breaking hug before I could say anything more. “Good to see you again. No you are not in Ceos.” She replied with a chuckle. “I heard about a job here about a month ago, applied and well here I am. What are you doing in Fuelum?”

“If we can start refitting my ship I'll tell you as we work.” She was surprised I meant a Conda and not the Asp but once we had that sorted out, she grabbed her crew and we all got to work. I had not thought I would get two extra hands to help when I had agreed to Timothy's timeline so we were done with time to spare. Enough time for me to treat Nadzie and her crew to lunch. Timothy joined the four of us just as we finished, after the introductions and handshakes, Nadzie and her two crewmen excused themselves to move on to other projects. Timothy and I remained seated and went over what we hoped to accomplish with the remainder of the day. After talking for a few minutes we both agreed that actions were better than the words we were exchanging and we headed for our respective ships.

In true racer style Timothy was out of the station and heading for Tepech before the December and I had obtained clearance from the control tower. So I had missed the gleaming white hull of the Imp. Eagle as it had left, not to worry as I would be seeing plenty of it during the coming hours.

My thought was proved correct as Timothy and I plotted, replotted, took the odd break to get repairs and limpets and worked out the bugs for a real run. Finally be both declared to be ready for a timed attempt, I could tell that he still had a few misgivings and assured him that I could stay ahead of the speedy Cortana and I did except for one jump where that was my poor navigation and not anything lacking in the Decembers capabilities. Apart from that one error the other four fuel stops went quite smoothly. Sure there were the odd annoying things we wished had gone better. Things like us appearing on completely opposite sides of a star, appearing on the same side but with engines facing engines and having to scramble to get into Nav-lock range.

We both sat in the rec-room in Fuelum with a beverage before us, coffee for me and tea for Timothy.

“That was more impressive than I thought it would be. By the Emperors Bones that slashed my previous time.” Timothy told me, tiredness sounding in his voice. I too felt the exertion of the day looming over me but knew we had to continue the recap of the events.

“I can refuel you even quicker if I make some more adjustments. Just need to replace the controller.” Strength seemed to sap out of me with every word I spoke.

“Good, I can save a little more time if I plot the route even tighter. That though my Rat friend can wait until tomorrow. I have a room booked and shall retire for the evening, I suggest you get some rest too.” With a clap on my shoulder Timothy stood up and was gone. I headed for the hangar area and the bed in the Asp. On my way I found Nadzieja coming off duty, so we spoke about the new controller I wanted to fit. She moved that request to the top of her list and left to grab something to eat.

I never made it to the Asp and ended up spending the night on the December. I was awoken in the morning by Nadzie and her crew preparing to fit the new controller. I left them to it and grabbed some coffee from the galley and pulled up the Buckyball times on the ships computer.

I winced with surprise when I saw Alec had been pushed down a place and took a mental note to get in touch with him at the end of the day. The name Timothy Knight sat atop of the Crazies Class and I felt we could increase the gap between him and that of the second placed ship. I was just about to use the comms to see if he was on the go when he beat me to the punch. After a brief conversation we agreed that he would head for Tepech while I headed for the first refuelling point. I checked with Nadzieja and found out she would need a little longer to finish fitting the new equipment. Good, it gave us time for breakfast before another busy day.

Timothy met me in the rec-room and we discussed the days targets as we ate, I even had time to have something for the engineers working on my ship sent down so that they didn't starve. So it was mid-morning before both ships left Wollheim heading for their first stops of the day.

We worked, and I mean worked, at every bug and possible problem we thought we might encounter and some we hoped we never would. Timothy refined his route to the point that he could take out a jump point and the only points that resembled the previous days run were the first refuelling and the race required systems. The new route did introduce a way point with no scoopable star as a refuelling stop but the Cortana had to visit Fuelum at that time in the race. That gave me more than enough time to jump to a nearby system, fill the Decembers tank and still beat Timothy, or so I hoped. We both decided to go for a timed run without stopping for a break, we were in a groove and did not want to spoil that rhythm.

That decision could have been that led to the one mistake we made, dropping to close to the star at MCC 811, otherwise the run was near perfect. At the last stop for me, I watched as the Imp. Eagle blasted onward to Mirateje, then I plotted in the course and headed back to Fuelum.

I was back at the center window table when Timothy returned, it was a good looking sight as the white Eagle entered the landing area. The only mar being the fuel scoop that disfigured the smooth lines, even in the retracted position a slight bulge was still evident. We had more than an hour till the positions would update so we sat watching ships come and go and shooting the breeze. This update would be the final one as the competition would end 24 hours later. The conversation trailed off as the top of the hour loomed near, I wasn't sure if for me it was waiting to see if Timothy still sat at the top of his class or I dreaded seeing Alec slip further down, I hoped he won't but I had to face the possibility. Then the table updated.

“Well, we are still top Aitken and I know that last run was far better than the other I entered.” He stood up and extended his right hand. “Thanks to you I think we may have won this race. Do you see anyone else beating our time?” I shook my head.

“No not really. Unless they refuel in system and fly a shorter route.” I paused and took a sip of coffee. “You were the pilot, the racer Timothy. I just shot the limpets.”

“Pfftt, modesty. This was truly a team effort and I will remind anyone of that fact if they claim otherwise. Well unless something truly miraculous happens in the remaining time I am happy to let it stand.” He gave me slap on the shoulder. “Thank you once more and now I must take my leave. If we need to do another run may I call on your services.” I nodded, the December was still set up and I would be in Wollheim for a little while yet. “Good, good. Till me meet again Cmdr. Aitken, I salute you.”

I should have said more but my mood was not as jubilant as Timothys. Alec now sat third in the Regular Class and from what I had been told the next 24 hours would be frantic as other racers tried to better their times.

It didn't look like it as I sat another hour in the rec-room, after which I grabbed a few hours sleep but the remainder of that day was. Along with the usual traffic, racers sped in and out and to reflect this the race organisers were updating the positions hourly. Timothy stood atop the Crazies Class as other names jockeyed for positions below him, that made me smile. Alec unfortunately tumbled down a spot every hour it seemed. At the end of the day he was in ninth. I had tried to get in contact with him but to no avail.

As the time ran out I got a message from Timothy, again he thanked me, again he extolled the virtue of teamwork. I replied thanking him for the chance to try out Alecs idea and to remind him I was just the fuel guy and to congratulate him on his, our win. I heard from Alec the next day, yes he sounded a little down but seemed happy the refuelling scheme had worked and grateful to have been in the top spot, if even it was just for a day.

For me the whole experience had been unexpected. I'd come to Fuelum to lay low and had probably done the exact opposite. It had given me time to think and I knew I had options, in fact perhaps I was inventing problems. If I wasn't. Well I could and would start putting a few of those options in motion. The Crom Silver Boys may be one of the biggest crime syndicates but they were not the only one I had contacts with, so finding work shouldn't be a problem. I also made up my mind what I wouldn't do. Stay in Fuelum much longer, sure I could get back up here if I needed it but I couldn't ask fellow Rats to risk their lives more than they already did when out on rescues. I won't go there, nor Sol either, as much as Robert may have the pull to help, well this was my problem, if it truly was a problem. I also knew the place I could vanish if I needed to, billions of places actually. If I had trouble telling where I was out in the black, I doubted someone else could find me.

I hung out in Wollheim for another day taking care of a few loose ends. One of which was to make sure the only engineer allowed near the December was Nadzieja and her crew. With that done and a few other things it was time to leave.

A familiar voice called to me as I made my way to the Bennachie.

“Don't be a stranger so long next time Mr. Aitken.” I turned a waved across the hangar, calling back to the lone figure.

“I'll try not to be Becks but no promises.” I heard a “Sure, sure.” as she wonder off back into the bowels of Wollheim.

I boarded the Bennachie and strapped myself in, checked the systems and asked to be raised to the ramp. Clearance was granted and together we rose and started toward the slot. With options before me and few regrets behind the only thing left to do was what the Bennachie and I did best together.

Find trouble before trouble found us.
 
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