Free Fiction: “The Watchers” – Part 6


‘The Watchers’ is a short story set in the universe of ‘Shallow Space’, 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 5: The Sanctuary
Part 4: The Limp Home.
Part 3: The Flight.
Part 2: The Investigation.
Part 1: The Find)

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6: The Big Rock

The one day became three. The landing pads had filled fast and legitimate ship repairs had kept Antonio from analysing the data. Digger could have taken the original crystal elsewhere he supposed, but he wasn’t in a hurry. Gravity felt good. The food was fresh and real. And Bones wasn’t making a meal out of his down-time. He paid the girls and they kept him out of trouble. It was damn paradise.

Which naturally meant it would all go tits up soon enough. So by the third day Digger was getting itchy to move on.

The queue at Antonio’s booth was long. The steel chamber warmed as both stars shone down. The air vents pretended to do their job. The room swelled with multitudes of smelly pilots. By early afternoon Digger was wishing he was anywhere else. Back on the Asteria in the frigidity of space being chased by mysterious kills for instance.

Finally he reached the booth, a dozen other ship captains behind him.

“Yes?” Antonio said, his tone bland but helpful. “How I help?”

“I want my ship,” Digger said, impatience colouring his words. “And some answers if you have any.”

“Antonio’s gaze remained neutral. He maintained his business smile for a moment, before looking down at his pad. “The Asteria, yes? She’ll be ready to leave drydock in a few hours. Landing Pad 93 has been secured for her release. You shall find all your answers there.”

Digger nodded. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for custom. Please come again.”

Digger left to find Bones. He started at the far end of the chamber were the boarding houses were. Bones was in the third door to the left on the second floor entertaining a woman named Mitsy. Her blonde hair reached the floor and her eyes were blue. She had sharp cheekbones and a pointy chin. Young twenties. Digger restrained from checking out the rest of her.

Bones collected his pants, kissed the girl on the cheek and then they returned to the surface. A carry-all appeared in the sky near the factories, a spider shaped ship with the Asteria captive within its legs. It eased toward pad 93, released the Asteria then flew off again.

Digger walked around his ship, inspecting the repair job. Damage from micrometeorites pockmarked the hull. The MFC logo was faded and scratched, barely legible. ‘ASTERIA’, written in script across the side of the cargo section, was in a little better condition, but only because
Digger had touched it up last year.

The repair welds appeared crude, but the fusion looked complete. A cheap and cheerful repair. Everything he needed and nothing he didn’t. Antonio’s crew had done perfectly.

Digger ended his inspection at the rear cargo doors. He waved his transponder and the door creaked open, the lower half dropping to form a ramp. No cargo this time though, just the crew of two.

Bones had to lumber faster than usual to keep up with Digger through the cavernous cargo bay. “What’s the hurry, Diggs?”

“I want to see if Antonio left us anything.”

He had.

A note, written on hemp board hung from the pilot’s chair: ‘Enjoy your new data library.’

Digger logged on and searched the ships archives. There was a new entry titled ‘Mary Celeste’. Digger smiled. Antonio thought he was funny.
He opened the file to the projector so Bones could see the data.

Antonio’s head appeared instead. He stared straight through Digger.

“Well my friend. I had a fun time with your information. Remember we could find nothing about the crew? Well it was there all along, right in front of our noses. Lots of crew information, but all of it designated with numbers. Not rank or name, but hexadecimal digits. Odd, yes?
“Unrelated perhaps, but I have heard whispers that the Terran Confederation Navy has been experimenting with clones.”

The image of Antonio’s face smiled a dazzling used ship salesman smile. “Enjoy!”

Then he vanished and the data appeared. Digger leant forward. Antonio had flagged the data. He was right. These weren’t crew. In fact if Digger didn’t know better he would have thought they were robots.

Digger heard muted voices from outside, and cargo cranes whining back and forth. A wind had picked up, gently rocking the Asteria. But inside it was silent.

“Do you really think its robots?” asked Bones.

“About as likely as Zombies,” Digger replied with a smirk.

Bones rubbed his chin as if seriously considering Digger’s words. “It won’t be the TCN,” he said.

“Why not?”

Bones pointed spaceward. “Because there is a whole bunch of them up there. If the TCN wanted us dead, we couldn’t have flown past a bunch of them and sat right under their noses for three days.”

Digger nodded. He had a point. “I doubt the TCN’s right hand knows what its left is doing though.”

“But the left could tell the right what to do, under normal pretext. We’re wanted fugitives, or we are wanted for questioning. Any guise would do.”

Again Digger nodded. Bones was probably right. “Ok, let’s say it’s not the TCN. Who else? The Pleiades Corporation?”

Bones snorted. “They wouldn’t be caught dead using an INC ship.”

“Even if it was to frame INC?” Digger asked, playing Devil’s advocate.

“No. Their noses would be turned up so high they wouldn’t be able to see where they’re going. The men from Pleiades have principles, Digger, come on!”

Digger laughed. “Must be proper in all proceedings, show the rest of Shallow Space how superior they are and what-not.”

The laughter died away. Digger wiped a tear away. “Not PLC then. INC? Surely not MFC? Pirates? The Alliance of Interstellar Mercenaries?”
Bones opened his mouth to speak when an air siren wailed though the starport. Through the hull it sounded low and sonorous, like the crying of a distant God.

They both scrambled for the cockpit. “What have we got? What have we got?” asked Digger as he strapped in.

“Planet wide emergency call,” Bones said, disbelief tingeing his voice. “Incoming asteroid?”

Digger was already on the comm to traffic control but it was jammed. Everyone else was trying the same thing.

“Ahh, fuck it,” Digger mumbled. He spooled up the engines and lifted off. About twenty metres. He spun the ship to check no one was about to crash into him. Then, when he realised he had just committed a traffic felony in full view of the navy, he activated the prime mover and fired the
Asteria into orbit.

“Talk to me,” Digger said, words rushing together.

Bones grunted. “Hold the comm. Tracking computer detected it coming in from the asteroid belt. It’ll be here in a few days.”

The adrenaline evaporated instantly. “TWO days? What the hell did they do that to my heart for?”

“They want everyone to assist in blowing it apart before it gets too close.”

Digger eyed the scanner, the navy taskgroup moving into formation, the rising freighters and other ships moving to join them.

Asteroids didn’t just wander out of the asteroid field by themselves. There was a huge dance of gravity interactions, the sun, the planets. Everything was in balance. Digger leaned over at Bones scanner.

Shit, he thought. That asteroid was larger than Terra’s moon. At that size, someone had to have made it change course. Someone hiding in the shadows trying to remove evidence.

It was a setup.

“Bugger this,” Digger said, pushing the Asteria through a sharp turn. “We are out of here.” Turbulence buffeted the ship but in the atmosphere she turned on a dime and they headed away from the fleet.

“Where are we going?” Bones asked.

Digger’s mouth settled into a thin line. He’d known the answer for a while, now, he just hadn’t realised it. There was anger and animosity throughout shallow space, corporations attacking corporations, xenophobia from the Pleiades system. The Imperium was a tinderbox. And somewhere, some part of it was trying to kill him.

In all that mire there was only place he thought that he could even start to consider safe. “To MFC headquarters. We’re going to Terra.”

“We might need this then.” Bones flipped a switch that looked very much bolted on to Bones’ control panel. In fact, Digger had never seen it before.

“Umm, do I want to ask?”

Bones winked. “Salvage.”

———————-

‘The Watchers’ is part of the short story anthology called Shallow Space: Factions and is available on Amazon now..

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