“…Ashton, get your ass out of bed or so help me.”
He jumped up, looking up in a haze. “I’m coming… I’m coming!” he said, slipping into his pants and running for the bedroom door.
It was a smallish apartment, the sort that was copy-and-pasted a hundredfold around the complex. He had seen dozens of such places in his lifetime. When one goes where the work takes them, they find the comforts of home anywhere they can.
“Come on, it’s a big day today!” came the boisterous voice from the other room. “They’re going to officially announce Kantoor as being open for occupation!”
Ashton grinned, running into the room and plopping down on the sofa next to his dad. “Does this mean what I think it does?”
“Damn right it does,” said his father, beaming. “Eat up fast, we’ve got places to be.”
After that the rest of the morning was a blur. He ate quickly, dressed quickly and pretty much existed quickly until his dad told him it was time to leave.
It was always a big deal when a newly-terraformed world was “open for business.” Everyone who had a hand in it, no matter how big or small that hand was, wanted to be there for the announcement.
But even with all the celebration going on, they couldn’t stay long. They never did. There would be another station just like this one, someplace else, that needed supplies for yet another chunk of space rock as it slowly became a livable world.
“Where do you want all this crap?”
Josiah Faerwald rubbed his temples as he directed the men moving the large crates. “The ones with the yellow stripes go over there,” he said, pointing. “And make sure to tie them down tight, these are volatile!”
Terraformation crews needed a lot of supplies, and those supplies generally needed to get from one place to the next fast. The freighters were too costly to use, so it generally fell to people like Josiah and their small, fast vessels to get things where they needed to be.
Ashton stood next to his dad. “They just never load it right,” he said with a sigh as he looked down over the cargo bay.
They were, of course, happy to accept the help. Everyone who knew Josiah knew Ashton too. Such a keen young man, they’d say. A chip off the old block, a damn solid worker, and he seemed to know his way around an engine room even better than his father did.
A born spacer, in other words. And he really was. Neither he or Josiah could recall the last time they’d had dirt under their feet for more than a month.
The cosmos called out to them, and they were all too eager to answer.
“…tragic incident surrounding the terraformation of the moon Sliabh VI, as overseen by the Whitesun corporation. Owing to a massive reactor breach, Whitesun’s orbiting space station, which housed over five thousand people, including Whitesun employees, their families and independent contractors, has been almost completely obliterated. An investigation into the cause of the breach is ongoing, but preliminary reports indicate that Whitesun is not at fault…”
Ashton pulled the suddenly very frightened-looking suit closer to him by his necktie. “What do you mean, repossessed? It was my father’s ship; he owned it!”
“Er… he leased-to-own it,” said the suit, gently removing the young man’s hands from his tie and gasped through another breath. “He would’ve had the debt repaid within five sol-years but, well. It can’t be helped.” He straightened up, smoothed out his tie and composed himself. “Unless you can repay the full sum now, we just can’t enter into another contract to lease the vessel.”
“The full sum?” said Ashton, letting the man go. “What do you mean, the full sum?”
The suit’s face blanched. “Um… three hundred and sixty-five thousand chits,” he said.
A red mist began to fill Ashton’s vision. “How the hell am I supposed to get that if I don’t have a ship?” he snarled.
“Look, I’m very sorry, but I’m just the messenger!” said the suit, holding his hands up defensively. “I really mean it. Off the record, Whitesun is not offering the best of severance packages. But your father was an independent contractor. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
He took his business card out. “If something comes up and you do find yourself able to pay, please let us know. Otherwise, have a good day. Someone will be in touch soon with your severance contract.”
Ash sighed as the suit departed. ‘Not at fault’… who the hell did they think they were fooling?
The severance contract was, of course, a joke, but what could Ashton do besides accept it.
Well, he knew one thing he could do, and he was currently doing it.
“Another, please,” he grunted, with his face pressed against the slightly sticky countertop.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, kid.” the bartender said. looking up at the closest screen with the game on. “You’re already four in and you look like a lightweight. “
Ashton slammed his chitstick down on the counter.
“Another,” he said. “Please.”
“Give him a coffee, please,” said a voice next to him. “On me.”
Ashton looked up, and then looked at the guy who had the audacity to cancel his drink order. “Excuse me?”
The bartender, seeing a potential argument brewing, went to start the coffee maker.
The man sat down. He was tall, lean, and perhaps a shade lighter than Ashton, and was dressed similarly, in well-worn coveralls.
“We haven’t met, but I think I know you,” he said. “You look like a man who’s lost everything.”
Ashton blinked, looking at him for a moment. “Does that pickup line work for you on any other girls?” he asked.
The man chuckled. “You’re angry,” he said. “It’s practically oozing out of your pores. Who can blame you?”
He shook his head. “Look man, I’m just here to drink myself into oblivion and then sign up for the first ship I can out of this place. I don’t want whatever you’re selling,” he said, looking at the coffee cup like he had a grudge against it.
“Well, that’s one choice,” said the man. “Or you can drink your coffee, come with me, and then we can talk about how we’re going to bankrupt Whitesun.”
Ashton turned to look at him, eyes narrowed. “…Why would I want to bankrupt Whitesun?”
Another coffee was placed in front of the man.
“The station was powered by Theta-Grade Asimovium reactor cores,” he said. “Industry standards for a station of that size call for Lambda or better, but Whitesun had a surplus of Thetas, and those were close enough. They paid off the safety inspectors and let it go. Everything would be fine. What were the odds something could actually go wrong, really?”
He sipped his coffee.
“Pretty low, actually, unless the on-site maintenance team uses X-2K coolant. Which they would have no reason to believe they shouldn’t have done. Do you know what happens when X-2K coolant is used consistently with a Theta-Grade reactor core?”
“Degradation of the core walls,” Ashton said, not even thinking. “The coolant has a specific chemical in it that’s an ionic variant that doesn’t mix well with that metal type…”
“Exactly,” said the man. “If the wrong coolant was just used once or twice, I’m sure it would be just fine. But if it was used continually for over a year…”
Ashton shook his head. “But everyone knows that. Or well, not everyone, but you know what I mean. People know that.”
“Plenty of people know lots of things,” said the man, shrugging. “And all Whitesun would have had to have done is get one person to look at all the pieces and put them together and this could have been averted. Five thousand, six hundred and twenty-three people would still be alive. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t care. But whether ignorance or apathy is to blame, it would have been so, so easy for it to have been prevented.”
He drained his cup and set it down.
“And they didn’t.”
He may have expected the kid to do a number of things. Ashton simply shrugged and finished his coffee. “So? I could’ve told you they fucked up from the get go. But they’re not going to pay for it. They’re corporate,” he said, “But that doesn’t mean anything. The people who set up the civil lawsuit pointed that kind of stuff out. And it bounced right off of them.”
“Yup,” said the man. “And they’ll go on to do it again. And again. And again. Unless something breaks the cycle. And the only way to do that is to do something big enough to get noticed.” The man paused, and looked around. The bar was empty. It was close to last call.
“Do you remember the scandal around the terraformation of Hecate VI?”
“Or, what they call it now ‘the smoking ruins of Hecate VII’,” said Ashton. “Yes, I remember,”
“And do you remember all the attention that the Turkori Conglomerate got after their refineries mysteriously malfunctioned?” he said. There was something about the way he said ‘mysteriously’. It had a note of insinuation to it.
Ashton looked at him. “I’m four drinks in. I know you’re trying to be subtle, but I honestly don’t want the honey approach here. Just give me the vinegar.”
“Direct approach it is,” he said. He leaned in. “People would call us terrorists if they knew we existed. But what we really are is people standing up for something. The terraformation companies get away with too much, and only by taking extreme measures can we make real change happen.”
Ashton looked down at his coffee cup. “And you’re going to take down Whitesun?”
“We are,” said the man. “And we want you to help us.”
Ashton thought about it for a moment, still looking at his cup. “Well… if someone’s going to take them down. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I wasn’t a part of it.”
The man grinned. “My name’s Leon,” he said. “And I think you and I are going to be friends.”
“I have to say, Ashton,” said Leon, examining the device, “that you may have just found your calling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an explosive so well put together.”
Ashton sat back a bit, looking at it. “I think it’s still kind of rough. But it’s got a certain charm to it. I’ll do better next time,” he said with a smile. “I’m sure Katrina’s is better.”
“It probably is!” called Katrina from the other room.
“Now, now, this isn’t a contest,” said Leon, chuckling.
“But if it was, I’d be winning!” said Katrina.
Ashton shrugged, slowly getting up. “But it’s not about how pretty it is. It’s how big a blast it’s going to make. And this betty will burn,” he said, pleased with himself.
“Good,” said Katrina, strolling into the room and giving the device an affectionate pat. “You’ve done some phenomenal work for the Brotherhood, dear Ashton, but this… this is going to be your magnum opus.”
He smiled. “Careful with my baby,” Ash said, and then hugged Katrina.
She gave him a pat back.
“Right then,” said Leon. “The target today is Skybright’s biggest shipyards. They absorbed a lot of the assets that Whitesun liquidated… not to mention most of their board of directors. I think this will nicely send the message that they can’t hide.”
Ash nodded, looking at the schematics below. “I think our best shot would still be to target the back entrance… If we time it during the delivery gaps, we should be able to get in and out without a fuss. But if you really want to do the front doors, I understand,” he murmured.
“I think Ashton’s right,” said Katrina, nodding. “Yeah, the front doors would be flashier, but their security is super tight. Easy way to get the pokers on us if something goes wrong. Best to play it safe.”
“Agreed,” said Leon. “The message will get across surely enough.” He turned to Ashton. “You’ll be flying solo for most of this one.”
Ashton looked surprised. “Really?” he said.
Leon smiled with pride and put a hand on Ashton’s shoulder. “I have the utmost faith in you, my brother,” he said. “You can do this.”
Ashton took a breath, then nodded. “Yeah. I can do this,” he said with a smile. “I hope that stupid suit is there. I know he won’t be, but it’s nice to dream,” he said, and then looked at the map. “Okay, so if we cut the access line here…”
Skybright’s shipyard was located in the city of New Hartbrook, on the moon Eastwick VII. It was huge, with dozens of ships owned by Skybright parked all throughout the yard.
“How’s the security detail?” Ash whispered as he dropped down on the other side of the fence, waiting to see if he heard any alarms. They’d staked the place out pretty well, but he never liked being reckless.”
“They’re all focused on the front end,” said Katrina’s voice through his earpiece. “You’re all clear. Tread carefully, brother.”
“Right,” he murmured, taking a deep breath and starting to move. It had been a pretty simple plan. They’d use the kinetic force of the other building to essentially stomp the shipyards flat.
It didn’t take him long to set the first charge. The others would need to be placed at strategic locations all about the shipyard, calculated very precisely.
“Speed it up,” came Katrina’s voice in his ear. “There’s pokers sniffing about.”
“Are they on to us?” said Ashton.
“No, apparently they’re looking into some kind of dispute over some bogus shipping manifests. But still, hurry.”
Ashton nodded, and then pushed his way into the northwest corner, where there were some ships being set aside for repair. He couldn’t help but remember his past chapters, and see the vessel designations. Delivery haulers, cargo shippers, wormhole runners. His eyes flit over one of callsigns and he stopped mid-sprint.
The model number stood out in particular, and the star next to its name meant that it had been extensively modified from the factory base.
…It had to be a coincidence, right?
He made his way over to the nearest window, overlooking the shipyards, and looked for the space indicated by the list, and…
His heart skipped a beat. There it was. They had re-plated the hull at some point, but there was no mistaking it.
“Ashton, what did you fall asleep? We’ve got five minutes before the security detail changes,” Katrina hissed. He looked up and saw Katrina at the building on the other side, still diligently laying charges.
Ashton didn’t respond. He continued to stare at his father’s ship. Then he looked down at his satchel of explosives.
“Ashton? Do you read me? Ashton!”
In one motion, he pulled his earpiece out and crushed it against the wall. His mind was made up.
Ash knew he didn’t have a lot of time. If Katrina caught on what he was doing his head would be through the floor so fast the rest of him would still be trying to make a break for it. But he didn’t need time. He had the element of surprise.
He hopped over the fence again and made a beeline for the ship, hoping that it could at least break atmosphere. If he could duct tape the problems together until he got off planet. “Just please let her fly,” he breathed.
In the distance, a long ways away, he heard somebody yelling. He ignored it. The cargo bay of the ship was wide open, luckily, but considering that they were holding it there until it could be dismantled or resold, there was probably a lock on the main engine.
He jumped towards the engine room, taking a look. It was almost like he remembered. They’d updated it with a few parts but, it was like stepping into his past. “These idiots were too dumb to lock it,” he murmured.
There was a distant explosion outside. Ashton put on a burst of speed and made a break for the cockpit. It was just as he remembered it, and he could almost hear his father’s voice, drilling him on the startup sequence.
He closed the cockpit door behind him, flipping on the power and linking it back to the stabilizers. From there he sat down, plugging in the coordinates to an old shop his dad had him memorize.
If anything catastrophic happens, you can count on Chuck. Get there, and he can get you back where you need to be.
Ash strapped in, waiting for the thrusters to kick on as another explosion happened. He needed to get vertical, quickly. He closed the cargo door. He hoped whatever was still on board was enough to get this thing flying again.
His inner voice was screaming at him. He knew he’d left his kit behind. There were too many clues in it. He’d never be able to come back. But most of him didn’t care.
“C’mon, old girl,” he whispered gently, running his hand over the console and begging for it to be spaceworthy.
Praying, he pushed forward, and she sailed.