Slamming the warped steel door as hard as he could manage, Victor Sanchez paused as the relative warmth of the room painfully brought his body closer to normal operating temperature. Relative being the operative word, as it was only about 10 degrees warmer than the mines outside, which were well below freezing. Victor was given an extra dose of superficial warmth as he turned into the room and caught a sight that made his blood boil. The narrow room, which contained a walkway and the thin metal tracks that transported the mines cash mineral, was filled from end to end with fully loaded train cars.
Each car was filled to capacity with reclite, an amethyst colored stone that could instantly melt through 10 inches of any mineral or alloy known to man when ignited, and the only value of the frozen companion of a star known as Recluse.
“Shane!” Victor screamed, ignoring the pain in his ear drums as his voice bounced back at him. The door at the other end of the room creaked open a moment later, and through the crack the chubby bald head of the rail operator poked out. Shane pointed to himself with his usual perplexed expression. Victor pulled off his hood and goggles in frustration and stroked his graying goatee, trying to keep his temper from flaring out of control. “You’re the only person on this godforsaken rock named Shane!”
Shane seem to process the statement for a moment before understanding and stepping from the warm control room into the hallway. “Something wrong?”
Victor stuck his arm out in an exaggerated gesture of presenting the motionless train cars. “What the fuck are these sitting here for?” Shane pondered the question for a moment, absentmindedly bringing his lit cigarette to his mouth. Victor grabbed it by the tip and squeezed with his gloved hand till it was extinguished. He considered questioning the stupidity of bringing a lit cigarette into the same room as a substance as volatile as reclite, but didn’t want to put any extra pressure on the limited processing power Shane’s brain was working with. “Well?”
“The light’s red,” Shane replied with a tone that implied the answer was obvious.
Victor resisted the impulse to shove Shane’s head into the side of the nearest train car, and calmly asked the next pertinent question. “How long have you been waiting on them up there?”
He looked in the arbitrary direction that Victor had pointed and thought for a moment before understanding the question. “Oh. ’Bouts four hours I ’spect.”
Victor leaned against the train car and gently knocked his head against the steel surface. “I don’t suppose you know what the holdup is?”
“No, sir. I just run the cars.”
Victor grabbed Shane by the arm and dragged him back into the control room, immediately spotting a red light on the control panel that indicated the packing and shipping bay was not ready for the next load. He let mumbled swears fly as he tapped the screen to contact the shipping bay. The S.S. Charlotte had left three days before with 2 million tons of reclite, but it would only be three weeks before the next ship arrived. Though reclite’s original use in military ammunition had declined in favor of the ever improving plasma weapons, industrial applications had maintained a steady demand for the mineral.
Reclite mining was a slow process as most high-speed mining tools would create enough friction to ignite it, so Victor had been ecstatic when they discovered a new vein that was already broken up. The load that was shipped out with the Charlotte had been prepared in record time, but this new delay would quickly eat up their lead.
He slammed his fist down on the desk after several minutes with no answer from the other side. Activating the security cameras, he found the shipping bay seemingly devoid of life. His confusion was quickly overcome by the sensation of a rock at the bottom of the stomach. Several of the thick blast proof shipping containers appeared to have large holes in them, and the dark smear on the floor looked suspiciously like human blood. “Stay here, Shane. I’m going up there myself to see what’s going on.”
He flew out the door barely checking to make sure it had shut behind him. Just as he stepped towards the elevator that would bring him to the surface, a loud clicking noise turned his attention to the train cars. The sound was unnerving, something like bones breaking in quick succession, but much louder.
There was a long moment of silence, and Victor was going to dismiss it as his imagination, but the clicking noise returned, this time vibrating the thin steel surface of the train car. He stroked his goatee and nervously walked towards the car, climbing the ladder before he swung the lid open and looked inside. The reclite shifted, startling him enough to knock him off balance, and he grabbed the rim just in time to save himself from a hard fall to the ice below.
Get a grip, he thought. It’s just the reclite settling.
As he prepared to close the lid, he spotted something odd in the shadows. It didn’t have the color or texture of reclite, and he squinted to get a better look. The last thing he saw was circular rows of razor-sharp teeth, flying straight for his head.
The echo of his footfalls his only companion, David Cole marched absentmindedly down the corridor as he began the final leg of his patrol. He smiled as the occasional chatter from the security channel vibrated his right eardrum via his audio implant, reminding him that he wasn’t as alone as he felt. It was the biggest lull of the year in the shipping industry, as it was approaching the end of 2246 on the Sol standard calendar. Within two weeks the 200 kilometer-diameter dwarf planet that was the Orion shipping hub would be bustling with life again, but for now he was left with empty corridors and the chatter of the handful of fellow officers in his hemisphere of the station that weren’t on vacation.
David was a customs officer, which in the context of the hub meant security officer, emergency medical tech, and firefighter. He loved his job, at least in contrast to most of his fellow officers. There was never a shortage of customs officers complaining about the wide range of responsibilities and having to work so far from their homes and families, but these were the very reasons he took the job.
Orbiting the star named Akers, the Orion shipping hub took him far from anything he knew and kept him busy. Unfortunately, this time of the year brought a surplus of downtime, monotonous patrols, and very little social interaction. At the end of the year he was invariably dragged into the emotional doldrums that his coworkers took residence in.
David caught his reflection on the doors to the omnivator and scratched his chin. The coarse stubble on his face was a reminder of how the seasonal depression had taken a toll on his grooming habits. He checked his hair and found the matted black mop on his head was starting to push the limits of acceptable length. Pulling his cap from his belt loop, he fixed it on his head, tucking the excess hair behind his ears as his audio implant buzzed. “Base to fifty-six.”
David tapped the sub-dermal switch under his ear and lifted his left wrist. “Go ahead, base.” The holographic emitter on his wrist-comp activated and materialized the image of Dan Lacko, customs supervisor for the Northern hemisphere.
“Cole, I have a favor to ask.” His slender pointed facial features seemed more worn with frustration than usual, but were mostly hidden in the shadows of his cap.
“Sure, what do you need?”
“The S.S. Charlotte is docking in less than ten minutes and I’ve got no one to cover it.”
“I thought Woods was assigned to the Charlotte.”
Dan let out a heavy sigh. “He was, but he’s dealing with a pretty serious situation in section fourteen. He probably won’t be done till the end of his shift.”
David furrowed his brow and tried to remember what he thought was meaningless chatter for a clue to what the serious situation was, “No problem then. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks, Cole. I know it’s the end of your shift, but I’ll make sure someone is over there to relieve you as soon as possible.”
“No worries. It’s section fifty-seven, dock twenty-six, right?”
“Yeah that’s it.”
“On my way.” The image of Dan nodded before disintegrating. David pressed the pad next to the omnivator, and stepped into the car, pressing the key for section 57 and gripping the handrail as the car lurched in the motion.
Tamsyn Jones walked down the catwalk of the S.S. Charlotte’s cargo bay, tying her wavy bronze hair back as she went. The three-day trip across quadrant two was just starting to make her restless. To make matters worse, it had been two weeks since they had stopped in a port where she could get a decent drink. And so, chomping at the bit to disembark, she stood staring at the sealed hatch when she had no more catwalk left to travel.
The cavernous room was filled with a dizzying echo of hundreds of cargo containers beeping as they moved themselves into position for unloading. The sealed containers of reclite ore from Recluse I still gave off a smell that was both earthy and volatile from their time sitting in the mining station shipping bay. She double checked her breast pocket for her pass card, grateful to find that she wouldn’t have to run back to her quarters and delay her departure any further.
“Two minutes till docking completion,” a voice rang out over the intercom. Right on cue, Tamsyn heard the hiss of the lift bringing the rest of her security team to the catwalk. Nothing like the last minute, she thought. It wasn’t a complaint. The arrival of her team left her feeling indifferent.
Tamsyn had pondered frequently over the past month if she had made a mistake taking the promotion to supervisor. She wasn’t exactly antisocial, but found most people too dull and simpleminded to enjoy social interaction with. By that token, she preferred solitude, and struggled with the “people person” dynamic required for supervisory roles. She gave the new arrivals a nod.
The hatch clanked as Jeremy Cook leaned on it and tried to catch her eye. “I bet the corps would look real kindly on their decision to promote you if we save credits by sharing a room,” he remarked, every syllable dripping with feigned charm.
“Fall in or I’ll save you credits on your next dentist visit,” She snapped back, keeping her eyes fixed on the hatch. Freight security was a bit of a boys club. Not by design, but in an era where it wasn’t difficult to find work one could enjoy, few chose this line of work, and most who did were men.
This was never a major problem for Tamsyn, as she fit in well with these environments. She was tough, engaged in playful flirting that even the most respectful men enjoyed to let off steam, and could hold alcohol as well as any man could—a skill her mother claimed was genetic, but one Tamsyn had always credited to binges she went on as a teenager to alleviate the boredom on the backwater moon she grew up on.
In spite of the cultural shift that finally ended the disparity between the treatment of men and women, every post that Tamsyn took had at least one man who was raised on a backwater like she was, and hadn’t been taught manners or how to control themselves around a pretty girl.
She knew that Jeremy was the one the second she saw the curly mullet and greasy mustache. The not-so-subtle wink as she was introducing herself as their new supervisor confirmed her suspicions about the walking stereotype of a interstellar hick.
For a month she had been patiently waiting for the opportunity to really put him in his place. The moment was finally here. “Oooo, I love it when a woman tells me what to do,” he whispered in her ear, basking her neck in his rancid breath.
She felt the air shift as his open right hand swung forward to smack her butt, giving full justification for her next move. She grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm, nearly dislocating it at the shoulder. He yelped in pain, but was quickly cut off as she jabbed her palm into his trachea. Pinning him against the bulkhead, she kept his shoulder on the verge of dislocation. “If you ever touch me again, you’ll have to learn to shoot left-handed,” she whispered in his ear. “Because I will rip off your girlfriend here at the elbow.”
Jeremy nodded, still struggling for air. She released him and he fell to his knees, rubbing his shoulder and coughing incessantly. She heard laughing from her left and turned to find Terry Berner leaning on the guard rail for support while wheezing with laughter. His face was scrunched up and he was grinning from ear to ear. His smile was so bright that it was difficult to look at, but as often as he smiled, you got used to it. His most distinguishing feature, and the one that his fellow officers poked fun at, was his shaved head, which reflected light so efficiently that Tamsyn sometimes jokingly used it as a mirror.
He held out his palm and she gently slapped it. Terry had shown the utmost respect for Tamsyn since her first day, and was one of those rare people that were interesting and intelligent enough for her to hold long conversations with. “I told you not to fuck with her, Cookie,” Terry mocked when he regained his composure.
“Back of the line, Jeremy,” Tamsyn added. Jeremy obliged, and she looked over at Terry. He smiled at her and she smiled back before returning her attention to the hatch. The ship shook a moment later, the docking process complete.
By the time David reached the hatch for Dock 26 of Section 57, the display next to the hatch indicated that the Charlotte was already docked and open. The inner hatch beeped and slid open as he approached, recognizing the authorization from his wrist comp. When he stepped through, the rear cargo door of the Charlotte was open and blast proof shipping containers were floating themselves off the ship.
The vessel’s security team was gathered on the catwalk chatting idly amongst themselves, with the exception of the female officer whose cobalt blue eyes were fixed on David. He approached her and she held out a data card. “Final manifest and crew list,” She explained as he took the card. He scanned it over his wrist comp and handed it back. In response, a barely audible high pitched ringing could be heard as platforms slid into the cargo bay on the rails overhead. The platforms floated down to the first five cargo containers, and lifted them to casters as if on invisible cables, before sliding out of sight.
David turned his attention back to the security team. “Welcome to Orion Hub. You are currently docked in section fifty-seven, dock twenty-six. Quarters have been reserved for all crew members in section one, level five. The information kiosk there will allow you to claim your room. The nearest amenities, including a food court, are in Section forty-five, level three. A customs officer will be here around the clock to accommodate any crew members who wish to return to the ship. If there are no questions, I can take your pass cards now.”
David was slightly startled with how quickly the female security officer swung her pass card at him, but hid his reaction and scanned it. He glanced at her to confirm her identity, but had to do a double take and stifle a chuckle as he realized her current expression perfectly matched the emotionless I.D. picture.
“What’s so funny,” Tamsyn asked.
“Nothing,” David lied.
She shook her head and walked past him before turning to the rest of the team and walking backwards. “Cook, you have first watch.”
“Are you kidding—“ Jeremy started, but cut himself short and rubbed his sore shoulder.
“I’ll take first too,” Terry added.
“Thanks, Terry. See you tomorrow.” She left without another word.
As David finished scanning the pass cards and the two guards took watch over the unloading, he heard the hatch slide open again. One of his fellow customs officers, Maria Cervantez, stepped groggily into the loading bay.
“Morning,” she said through a deep yawn.
“Something like that,” David chuckled, giving the standard response to her greeting. Arbitrary times like “morning” were running jokes on a station like the Orion hub. Though their clocks were set to match the capital city of the territory of Bellefonte, there was no discernible difference between day and night, and “morning” was different for every employee based on when they got up. For David, it was actually very late in the day, as he had been up for 16 hours.
“I thought you were already off duty for the day,” Maria inquired, slightly disinterested.
“Woods got caught up in something.”
“Sounds like fun. Guess I should relieve you so you can get some sleep.”
She activated her wrist comp and poked the holographic image to officially take responsibility for the post.
“Good-night,” David said as he walked towards the hatch.
“Yeah, something like that,” Maria replied before he stepped out.