Free Fiction – The Watchers – Part 5: “The Sanctuary”


‘The Watchers’ is the latest in a line of Shallow Space stories, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.

(For previous chapters, click on the links below:
Part 4: The Limp Home.
Part 3: The Flight.
Part 2: The Investigation.
Part 1: The Find)

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5: The Sanctuary

The moment Asteria touched down on Lucifer a weight worthy of Atlas fell from Digger’s shoulders.

They were safe.

Docking Pad 6 in the starport Garden. Anonymous amongst the hundred other freighters currently docked, and with a Terran Confederation Navy force in orbit.
Safe. At least as safe as you can get on a volcanic world trying to rip itself apart.

Digger yawned, stretched and looked over at Bones. “We made it.”

Bones smile was even bigger. “Showed them mystery warriors how to put your tail between your legs and run, huh?”

“Showed them how!” Digger laughed and they sat there for a moment burning off their residual nervous energy.

Digger unstrapped and clapped Bones on the shoulder. “Shall we unload?”

“We shall.”

Digger took the lead to the cargo hold. It felt good to walk under gravity again. Harder perhaps, but he always felt that bit more co-ordinated.

Rectangular containers of ore filled the hold, leaving a narrow aisle in the middle. Digger had to half turn to walk between them. They reached the far wall – the cargo door – and he palmed the release.

Hazy orange light filtered through the widening gap. The door crashed to the ground and Digger stepped off onto solid land for the first time in two months. He raised his arms, tilted his head back and closed his eyes. Light. Wind. A bitter tang of sulphur. The grit of volcanic particulate on his tongue. The distant cry of a flying predator. Cooking food and factory fumes and the sharp scent of what passed for pine trees on this planet.

Why did he keep going back inside that artificial steel box of a ship with its processed recycled air?

Because you’ll be bored in a week.

Maybe. But maybe this time he’d welcome the boredom.

Melinda’s Star was directly overhead, its dull orange glow fighting hard against the gloam of the primary binary stars. The dullness was almost welcoming, like a homestead lit by candles. Intimate. Relaxing. Safe.

The Rust Hutt Mountains meandered past to the south, disappearing behind the haze. Digger coughed.

The north was littered with factories, and smoke stacks and wind and tidal traps. Energy in, energy out.

To the south, his landing pad stretched out and linked with other landing pads, a central towel between them. Bones was over there chatting to a stevedore. They knew what to do. MFC cargo went to a particular factory to be graded. MFC got an instant payment, and at some point Bones and Digger would get their payment. Unless there was an ‘accounting error’ or ‘a problem at the bank’ or ‘subspace is slow today’ excuse to dish out. Because for every minute the money stayed in MFC’s coffers, an extra milli-percent of interest they made.

Digger left Bones to it. The Asteria needed fuel and repairs, and Digger needed a stiff drink. And being a professional pilot he had to prioritise those two requirements.
The walkway turned left before he reached the factories and took him to the customs facility. Digger flashed his MFC credentials and a customs agent waved him through to Ship services, a large cavernous steel space underground. Processed air again, but clean.

There weren’t many smells with the recycled air but sound reverberated well enough. Haggling, arguments, a trio of TCN pilots acting out some manoeuvre to a female audience.
The docks and Ship Services were the only parts of the planet he could easily access, but he had everything he needed there to cheer him up and send him on his way.

His gaze settled on a bar called the Frothy Mons. The three windows were tinted but the dull thump of music wafted across to him, a treble soundtrack of spaced-out voices playing over top.

Digger smiled. Priorities. Then he stopped. No, he really had to fix the ship first. Just in case. He turned and found Antonio in his services booth.

“Antonio!” he called, waving as he walked over.

Antonio looked up. He was in a small box backing onto a dry dock. He rested against a counter, his hands busy working away on a computer no doubt. “Jeremy! It has been too long! I thought you no longer made the Blankicite run?”

Digger shook his head. “No my friend, I’ll be doing this run till I die. Had a few problems out on the fringe. Some of the miners were behind on the quota. We figured it was best to wait. Save coming back with a half hold.”

“Ahh, and keep your MFC Board off those poor men’s backs?”

“Women, actually. It wasn’t the hardest layover I’ve endured.”

Antonio beamed, his gaze beyond civilised space, where lonely women lavished Digger with undivided attention.

As if.

Antonio shook his head. “So you staying long? Need to catch up on the schedule, no?”

That was the question Digger had been playing with too. Right now the last thing he wanted to do was get back in the Asteria. Not after what he’d just been through. The Board would need answers though. He squeezed the data crystal in his pocket. Maybe he could get some.

“The Asteria needs repairs, so I’ll be laying over for a little while.”

Antonio’s hands appeared from behind the counter carrying a PAD. His eyes lost their sparkle, the grin not so lavish. It was business time. “So, repairs, yes? Overhaul? Specifics? And Benzina?”

Digger nodded. “Full load of fuel. Everything is a bit shot to hell. Just fix it up enough to get me going again. I don’t have the DRM for a full overhaul.”

Antonio turned and opened a window behind him. A cacophony of hammers and drills and welding discharge assaulted them. Antonio leaned through the window, waving and whistling. He yelled something Italian then closed the window and came back to Digger. “We’ll bring her in, yes? Sort her out down here.”

“Perfect.” Digger nodded and began to turn away when a thought struck him. He withdrew the crystal from his pocket. “Who is best to take a look at this for me?”

Without looking Antonio gestured across the way to the row of media outlets – Imperial Nightly, the Guardian, Pleiades Press, Incorporated Now. Even the tabloid Wealth Lately had an outpost here. “They help. I fix ships, I don’t play with crystals.”

Digger glanced to either side. There was no one within ear shot so he leant forward, elbow on the counter. “I don’t think this crystal is for general media.”

Antonio’s eyes tracked upward. He repeated Digger’s double glance and leant forward to match Digger. “Go on.”

“Did you hear about the TCS Constitution?”

Antonio’s brow crinkled. “Of course, she went missing after-” his voice trailed off, his gaze lasering in on the crystal. “Santo Cazzo Madre di Cristo,” he breathed. “You found it?”

Digger stepped back at Antonio’s rising voice. He raised his hands. “No one’s saying anything, Friend. I just want to see what’s on this crystal. Discreetly.”

A blur of light to Digger’s left. He flinched away, arms rising for a fight, but it was just Bones, collapsing against the counter. “Yeah,” he said, a half-cocked smile on his face. “Discreetly.”

Antonio’s gaze narrowed at Bones, then he turned back to Digger. “Tell your friend to find himself a whore. Then you can come out the back here.”

Digger heard a thump as a lock de-energised around the corner of Antonio’s booth. He pulled Bones a few steps back, wondering what it was that his co-pilot had done to Antonio.

“Listen,” Digger whispered but Bones raised a palm to him.

“Whores. Understood. I’m on it.”

Digger snorted. “I think he said ‘Whore’. Singular.”

“Nope. Whores. Adios.” Bones waved and was gone.

Digger watched him for a moment, shrugged and slipped into Antonio’s booth.

#

He’d never been in Antonio’s booth before, his knowledge of it limited to that visible from outside the counter. The window out to the drydock, fuel, filter and welding product posters on the walls, a sartori rug on the floor and the computer terminal on the counter.

Inside he could see the drop down shield locking the counter, but there was nothing else of interest.

Then Antonio rolled the sartori back to reveal a trap door.

Digger climbed down behind Antonio into a room that reminded him of the Asteria’s engineering room, all computers, glowing lights and things that looked like they might explode and kill you.
Digger kept his cool for appearances sake.

Antonio lead him to a three-dee projector with a crystal reader in the side. This reader had a mass of wires feeding to and from it. Like a bird’s nest. Or a bowl of spaghetti. Or a third party alteration to a proprietary product in order to achieve illicit gains.

Digger shrugged. Details.

Antonio typed commands into the projector, then pushed the crystal into the reader. A cloud of numbers materialised over the projector. Antonio waved his hand through it, zooming in on some sections, pushing others away. Digger gave him the play-by-play, but glossed over the details of the black-clad death squad. “I freaked out a little and we bailed with this data.”

Antonio nodded along, but it was clear his focus was the data. Digger was watching it too, but none of it meant much to him.

“There,” Digger said, pointing. “Those are coordinates. The Pleiades system.”

Antonio rewound the data. He nodded. “You’re right. And so are these. And these.”

He pushed the data to his pad and loaded a star map. In the centre of the screen was the knobbly cloud of shallow space. To the top was The Nest; to the bottom the Teutonic Nebula. A red line ran across shallow space, sprinting back and forth at different angles until it looked like a toddler’s drawing.

Antonio whistled. “Looks like your mystery ship has been tiki-touring all over shallow space.”

Digger leant forward as if proximity might enhance understanding. “What about the crew?”

“I don’t see any information about them. You say you downloaded this from the navigation station?”

“That’s right, but I would have thought duty officer, or navigation officer details might be in there. Or that an evacuation was ordered. I’m still a little weirded out by the lack of, you know, people on board.”

The projector beeped. Antonio pulled out the crystal and handed it to Digger. “I’ve copied all the crystal data-” Antonio raised a hand as Digger opened his mouth to retort, “Which is the price of my assisting you here.”

Digger’s mouth froze open a half inch then closed. “Ok, fair enough.”

Antonio flicked off the projector and gestured Digger back upstairs. “Go hire a bunk, get some gravity sleep and come see me tomorrow. I have work to do, such as fixing your ship.”
Digger nodded as he left. “Thanks Antonio. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Bones would probably need rescuing from whatever drunken disorderly mess he’d gotten himself into anyway.

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