(This story is set in the Starstrikers Era of the Star Saga.)
by Ken McConnell
“There I was, hanging from my thrusters…” my eyes rolled and I looked away. I’d heard this one a thousand times before.
“…that’s where they found me when my ship steered into the space dock, all by its lonesome.”
The others seated around the table all laughed at the poor pilot’s predicament. I just shook my head and took a long sip of brew. These gutter rats didn’t have anything on my crazy life. I sat up and ordered another round for the table. They all leaned in to hear me over the din of the tavern.
“You guys ever hear how I found my starship?” I asked.
Heads and what passed for heads shook all around the table. I had a ready audience, so I cleared my throat and inhaled the stale tavern air.
“I was fresh out of the Law Force and my pockets were swelled from a fat pension and the spoils of several shooting contests. I had enough to buy a decent sized transport but not enough to get one that actually flew, if you know what I mean. I was looking for a fixer-upper that I could build up into the ship of my dreams, over an extended period of time, anyway.”
I could see that I had everyone’s attention. Who hasn’t wished that they could just build their own starship from the ground up and put anything they wanted into it? I know it was what kept me going through some pretty harsh times on the force.
“So I hitched a ride on a transport vessel that was heading out for Ocherva. I gave the ship’s quartermaster some fresh fruit and a new smokeless pipe. He was a smoker and life aboard transports didn’t allow for such pleasantries, so he was plenty grateful to me. He made sure I was well fed and warm during my trip.
“Anyway, I arrived on that dusty old moon where the whole war started hundreds of years ago. It has since been terra-formed into something just above miserable and just under tolerable. They had breathable air and lots of valuable minerals to begin with, now the place had a few large cities and a rotting suburban area that housed many scrap heaps and junkyards. That’s where I wanted to begin my search for the perfect starship shell.”
A skinny kid piped up, interrupting me, “I know the place, run by an old codger who can’t hear too well and always screams at customers.”
“Yea kid, that’s the place. Now sit down and let me finish my story.”
He sat down quickly and shut his trap. Some people’s children, anyway, I started back in where I was before I was so rudely interrupted.
“I looked around for the better half of a day. Hit every major scrap dealer and space junkyard I could find. Nothing was striking my fancy, until I came upon a stripped down Class E ship sitting all alone behind some Tariun garbage scows. The owner of the yard said it was decommissioned about ten years before. Captains of similar makes and models had scavenged most of the good equipment. They were looking to get cheap parts to keep their own birds flying. There were large holes in the hull and the main servicing crane was missing, as was the port engine.
“Some kind of bizarre tail pipes were fitted to the exhaust system. The old codger said he had no idea if the main drive even worked much less what brand it was. The stern landing pad was low on hydraulic fluid and as a result the back end of the ship sagged almost to the sandy ground. The two main front struts and pads were not in much better shape.
“I checked the ship’s logs and found that it had sustained some light structural damage along the starboard bow. It was not severe enough to red line it, but no real effort was made to repair the damage. It was designed to house a crew of three, but I didn’t plan on hiring an engineer or a navigator. I knew enough about starship maintenance and stellar navigating to get around Federation space.”
I was loosing a couple of the moon bellies around the table, so I skipped some details and got right to the point of the story.
“I did a walk through with the old coot and didn’t see any show stoppers. The ship was lightweight, fast and reliable when it was maintained correctly. I transferred most of my life savings to the yard owner and he promptly gave me one week to get the steaming pile of shit out of his lot.
“At least he gave me access to some basic tools and a power generator. I headed back into the nearest town to look for a couple of strong backs to help me out. It was going to take a lot of man-hours to get the damn bucket space worthy and on its way to Negram. I knew a great mechanic there who owed me a huge favor. With any luck I’d be able to con her into helping me make the modifications that I had in mind for the little starship.”
I took a long drink from my warm as piss beer and then started again, “You know it’s going to be a hard ride ahead when you can’t find so much as a deck hand in town to help you move some plasteel. I went into every dive I could find, looking for some strong boys to help me with the welding. Didn’t find anything but cheap whores and old drunk bastards with broken bodies and wasted minds, which was typical for a backwater world like Ocherva. You’d think you would find some hearty folk living out there that would jump at the chance to make a quick buck. No such luck.
“Anyway, I did manage to find a few electronics and a good portable navigation system for not too much. Amazing what you find in a rat hole some times. If I could just get the drive on line, I could work on making the bridge airtight. That’s all I needed for the ride to Negram. I owned an old ragged space suit, so if I had to go fix something I could.”
“Hey, you can’t fly a half pressurized ship in space!” the jerk blurted out louder than if it were not drunk. It had a dark complexion with beady black slits for eyes that were too close together. I disliked it immediately. Something about aliens with no head only a body, that didn’t sit right with me.
“Shut up and drink pal, I’m telling a story here!”
It looked around at the others who mostly shrugged and gave me their undivided attention. I waited for the Graphelon to calm down before continuing.
“So I headed back to the ship the next morning and started getting myself organized. It was hotter than hell on that dirt ball and the fine red sand got into everything. I decided to check out the condition of the main drive. Normally a general tanker like this would have two engines, you know, two of everything for safety and all. But the second drive had been ripped out of the hull leaving a gaping hole.
“I managed to pry open the airlock wheel and stepped inside the warm and dry engine room. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Not the warm smell of burning oil and expanding metals. But a rancid, rotting smell like something had crawled into the room and died. I stepped back out of the room and caught my breath before I flat puked all over the floor. There was some foul smelling shit in that room.
“I took a couple of deep breaths and barged in again, heading for the main engine cut off switches that I knew were along the far wall of the room. Some movement caught my eye from under the main drive cylinder. I stepped back again and instinctively drew my pistols. A huge, multi-segmented, multi-legged centipede like thing whipped out from under the engine and raised itself to the ceiling.”
Everyone was hanging on my every word. I paused for effect, wondering if maybe I was having just a little bit too much fun. Naw.
“I ‘bout crapped my pants. The damn thing moved as fast as a little bug only it was big enough to swallow me whole. Now I’ve been in my fair share of derelict ships, but I’ve never been accosted by a giant bug before. As I stood there charged and cocked, I noticed a weird sensation in my ears. I pushed a shoulder into my right ear, trying to clear the noise. The bug was looking down at me with its black beady eyes and some kind of gnawing pincers. That was when I noticed a correlation between the moving mouth and the noise in my head.
“The damn thing was trying to communicate with me in my head, you know, telepathically. I don’t know about you all, but I don’t like bugs that crawl on the floor and I damn sure don’t like them inside my head. Well, you know what I mean. I backed up towards the hatch I came in through, keeping both eyes on the monster-sized centipede. Its antennae were twitching and I had this urge to blast it full of holes. Only thing that held me back from opening up on it was the thought of cleaning up the mess.
“That’s when I heard it speaking to me, in my head. ‘I am engine guardian, ‘ it said. I looked at it with a dumb stare.”
One of the guys huffed at me and waved his paw, “Joules you’re the biggest fragen liar in the quadrant.”
It was Hoggert, Boils Hoggert, quite possibly the ugliest human this side of neutral zone. He had a flat face covered in boils – hence his name. It looked like someone put a boot through his nose and it stuck in that scrunched in position. He was heavy too; you could hear him breathing from ten paces. He wore a specially made space suit that was layered in filth. Some of these space rats haven’t bathed in so long, I think they forgot how.
“Shut up Boils, the bug could flat talk to me inside my head. If you don’t like the story take it on out of here, our noses could use a break.”
He did what passed for a sneer and waved his pudgy hand at me. The skinny thing that had interrupted me before seemed to be enjoying watching me lay into someone else. I took another swig of brew and cleared my throat before continuing.
“It repeated that it was the engine guardian. I heard it plain as day the second time. I asked it what it was doing in my ship. It lowered itself until it was level with my head before it spoke again. ‘I engine guardian. I come with engine. You own engine, you own me,’ it said. I looked quickly at the engine casing. It didn’t look very familiar to me, come to think of it. I asked it what kind of engine it was. The thing recoiled slightly and then said, ‘Mark 3 Saberliner, I built the engine and I stay with it until I die.’
“The bug had built a starship engine. I thought I’d seen and heard everything, but it’s times like this that I know the universe is far bigger and far stranger than even I could imagine. I had never heard of a Saberliner engine before. I didn’t know if it was the model name or manufacture. In the end, I didn’t care. I was going to install something completely different after I got the ship to Negram, so it could have been a rocket drive for all I cared.
“I told it that I was taking the ship to another system for an over haul and all I wanted to do now was get it space worthy and out of the junk yard. It stared at me, at least that’s what it looked like it was doing. Its two long antennas were twitching in unison. ‘I help you fix engine. You need one charging tube and stellar-fuel number 8,’ it finally said. I agreed to add those things to my shopping list when I went back to town. I asked it why it hadn’t fixed the engine itself and just taken off. It looked at me with those big shiny black eyes and said, ‘Would you crawl into a shop looking like me?’ I guessed not.
“Having struck a deal with the twenty legged monster I spent my time cleaning up the rest of the ship and making sure all the life support systems and navigation equipment were functioning. I kept making notes of things I wanted to change or replace when I reached Negram. The ship was going on forty years old by her registry. That was a long time for a starship to be in service. Technology had marched on past most of the ship’s systems. I could replace or modify nearly everything for less money than someone had paid for this hunk of junk when it was brand new.
“The bug confined itself to the engine room and that was fine by me. I found the sight of it unsettling to say the least. I cleaned up the captain’s cabin and moved in. It was cramped and had no windows but I didn’t care. As long as the door could be locked and it had a bed, I was fine. The dry air of Ocherva had been good to the metals and the composites but the rubber tubes and hydraulic lines were cracked and needed replaced. I was never going to find all the replacement parts I needed, so I prioritized my repairs in order of absolute necessity. After a couple of days work, I was ready to test start the main drive and see if the bug had kept his word.”
“I was working so hard on getting things patched together I didn’t have any time to fully explore the inside of the ship. I decided I had better make sure I wasn’t hiding any contraband in a hidden storage container somewhere that would sure as hell get me boarded by the local Rangers. I wondered all around the hull, checking into hatches and unlocking service panels as I went. Everything seemed empty and well used. I came upon a small room adjacent to the engine room and found the hatch locked. My command over ride did not free the hatch lock. That was odd. I pulled back an access panel on the wall and two creepy craw-lies came running out on rows of tiny legs. I brushed them to the floor and squished them with my boot. I hate bugs. The first thing I was going to do when I got to orbit was pop the hatches and suck out or kill all the little critters that had made the derelict ship their home over the past few years. I had found some kind of varmint nesting in a landing strut well and had to pull it kicking and screaming out of its home. It ran around like a headless bird until I shot it.
“The engine room hatch opened and that bug thing started to come out. I asked it what was inside the locked room and it said the room was empty. I didn’t believe it for a second. It said the engine was ready to be tested, so I went back down the main corridor to the bridge. I’d get into that room later. Right now I had a ship to fire up.”
“I bet there’s a dead body in the room,” said the starman. He was the only military member at the table. His rank was Senior Chief and he looked like he had seen plenty of action in the fleet. His black face was etched with lines and his eyes were narrow and knowing.
“Perhaps Chief, but it’s not important now,” I said. I didn’t want to insult him; he spent his time in uniform defending the Federation from Votainion enslavement. We all owned our livelihood to his defending of our freedom to trade in open space. He was no doubt on leave here on his home world and was enjoying my tale and the good food of the darkened tavern.
“Please, continue Captain Rouse,” the Chief said.
With a nod to the Chief, I began again, “So I checked all the systems and slowly brought the Saberliner engine up to idle. The ship shuddered and then began to hum with life. Air blew from the vents at my feet and lights lit up all over the control panels. A relay blew and quickly started to burn. I grabbed a hand extinguisher and sprayed it on the fire.
“The bug’s voice seeped into my head again, ‘Everything okay up there?’ I told him yes. He suggested I do a full run-up to test the power conduits. I agreed. It was better to have a blow out on the ground than while you were thousands of feet in the air or in space. Keeping an eye on the gauges, I slowly brought the power levers forward. The intermixer was flowing steady and the turbines rumbled, vibrating the hull under my feet. She sounded strong, like one of those new heavy lift jobs. I wanted to take her up straight away, but I decided to just hold off and take it easy.
“The bug seemed pleased on his end of the ship. He signaled for me to throttle back to idle speed. I did so and adjusted my controls to hold it steady. Then I got up and did a cursory hull check by walking back through the ship. No relays had blown and there was no burning smell, both good signs. I climbed up the ladder and opened the top hatch. Bright late afternoon starlight greeted my squinting eyes. I pulled myself up and walked around the top of the ship for the first time.
“The ship came from the factory with a dull white paint scheme, but over the years, maintenance workers had affixed panels to the hull of various shades of gray and white. Sitting on this red dirt ball moon for almost a decade had taken a toll on the paint. It was scratched and worn all over with little piles of sand up against the engine nacelle and faded paint everywhere. I walked the perimeter and found nothing unusual so I came back inside.
“The bug, which didn’t have a name, by the way, was wrapped around the engine working on something when I came in. ‘Everything looks all right topside. Hey, what’s your name anyway?’ I asked. It pulled out of the engine and gave me a quick glance. ‘You could not pronounce it.’ I heard it reply in my head. Okay, I’ll buy that. ‘I will call you Nightmare, then. Wear the name with pride, it fits you justly.’ Nightmare returned to whatever he was doing. I don’t know it understood what I said or not.
“A few days passed and I was eventually ready to get into space. I went into town one last time and purchased enough food and water to get me to where I was going. When I got back to the ship I used the loading elevator to get the supplies into the main cargo bay. When I was done, I went to the bridge and sent my launch request and flight plan to the local authorities. They responded almost instantly with permission to take off and leave the system. The same request on an inner system world would have taken weeks. I guess they don’t have the kind of traffic out here in the middle of nowhere that developed worlds were plagued with. I spoke into the intercom to Nightmare. ‘Hey ugly, you ready for take off?’
“He didn’t respond right away. I was about to call him again when he spoke inside my head, ‘Ready.’ He was certainly not a conversationalist, which was fine by me. I strapped in and plugged my space suit into the ship’s environmental system. Then I walled the throttles and pulled back on the main yoke.
“The ship throbbed and then started to lift off the ground. I could hear the hull creaking and popping as it pushed free from the moon and rose into the pink colored sky. I wondered if we were leaving a trail of dust and sand as we gained altitude. The engine really responded nicely inside the atmosphere. The thin starship handled pretty good too. I had flown one of them years ago when we impounded it for smuggling in the Selenia system. It had made such a good impression on me that when I was ready to get a ship of my own, I made a point to get a Trestar III general transport. The design was clean and sleek, with classic lines that were perfectly symmetrical. I’ve been a lover of starships since I was a kid, sometimes you develop favorites and this one was one of my favorites.
“When we broke into orbit the ship really showed what it could do. I did some rolls and some tight turns to see how the controls handled. Not bad for a piece of junk that just came back from the grave. I put her in orbit and went back to the engine room to see how Nightmare was doing. It was not in the engine room. I called out to it but got no reply inside or outside of my own head. I decided to put on my helmet and go for a walk through the ship, to check hull integrity and see if any compartments were not pressurized.
“The main two cargo holds were fine. The secondary holds were also good. I went into the small equipment rooms, more like closets than rooms, they were fine too. The only area of the ship left to inspect was that locked room next to the engine. I took my Markline Piercer pistol and aimed it at the locking mechanism. One well placed shot later and the door slid open. Inside was my worst nightmare. Millions of bugs were swarming all over the room. They were those damn centipede like insects just like Nightmare. At the same time my head was filled with a million screaming voices. I staggered back away from the door and shook my helmeted head. I could not get the cries and screams out of my head. From out of the wiggling, creeping hive of bugs came Nightmare. He moved so fast I barely had time to turn and run before he was out into the corridor trailing little bugs in his image of all sizes.
“Oh man, that is nasty,” Boils sneered.
The others had disgust written on their faces too. Some of them stopped eating and pushed their food aside on the wooden table. Did I mention I loved to tell this story?
“The ship was positively infested with bugs. I ran down the corridor towards the bridge and turned around with both of my pistols charged. Nightmare came to a halt about three feet from me. If I turned to go inside the bridge, he would snap me up and tear me in half. I was breathing heavy from the sprint. Then the little bugs came down the hall crawling on hundreds of rows of legs, their long bodies steady as they came like a wheeled vehicle on good shocks.
“They were not going to stop and if I blasted Nightmare, they would still be able to swarm over me like ants. I decided on a course of action that was as desperate as it was stupid. I shot the ceiling above Nightmare. The ship decompressed explosively. Everything not locked down was blasted out into space, including all the little bugs, Nightmare and myself. I let go of one pistol and grabbed a handrail as my feet flew out from under me. I watched the Piercer zip away into the eternal night. I really loved that pistol and now it was gone. Come to think of it, that probably pissed me off more than the bugs in my ship. Nightmare was sucked out side the ship but managed to find something to hold on to with one segment of his body. I aimed the other pistol at his legs and blasted away until he let go again. This time his huge body floated out of the ship.
“In my head the maddening sound of a thousand insects was quickly faded and replaced with the hellish taunts of Nightmare as he floated out in space, his legs paddling away at nothing. ‘You will die for this. We will not be defeated so easily,’ he sneered. I just aimed at his head and blasted away. His whitish insides exploded and his segments came apart in a milky spray of tiny beads that sparkled in the starlight. I turned away from the display and pulled myself back to the hatch that led to the bridge.
“After a few minutes of struggling I managed to get into the bridge and seal off the area that I blew a hole in. Then I quickly started blowing the hatched to every room in the ship, starting with the engine room and making my way forward. I looked down and saw a bunch of little bugs coming out of the air vents. The little bastards were everywhere. As far as I could tell, I was safe inside my space suit, so I concentrated on ridding the ship of them and tried not to think about how they were crawling all over me.”
“Oh man, that’s just not right,” Boils said.
The others nodded their heads in agreement. “How could you work with them crawling all over you?” the Chief asked.
“Well as I said, they were not actually hurting me. They were creeping me out pretty good, but I tried not to look at them. The vacuum of space apparently did not affect them. I moved the ship out of orbit and headed for the gas giant of Ocherva. Then I strapped into the pilot seat and turned off the gravity. There was one crawling over my face plate when it suddenly drifted away, spinning like a gear, its legs having no affect in the null gravity.”
“I couldn’t move any better than they could but at least I could run the ship from my captain’s seat. I gunned the engine and entered the upper atmosphere of Ocherva. I had a plan, but I wondered if I could survive it any better than the bugs.
“I knew Ocherva was a gas giant and I knew that most such planets were composed of hydrogen, oxygen and methane. If that didn’t ride me of my bug infestation, I didn’t know what would. After a short ride I lowered the ship into the gaseous atmosphere and watched the squirming, spinning bugs closely. They were still alive, near as I could tell. I pressed on, going lower and lower into the foul muck. The ship was buffeting pretty good in the heavy winds. She felt like she was going to come apart at the seams. I made sure all the rooms were exposed to the noxious weather by rolling and spinning in big slow moves that put little pressure on the ship but knocked as many bugs as possible outside.
“I kept going deeper into the atmosphere until the pressure became dangerous for me. Apparently the bugs had had enough too. They began to slow down and then started dying off in mass. I maintained a level course until I was certain that nothing outside of my suit was living. I turned on the gravity plates and headed aft to check on the engine room. The drive was performing admirably considering what I was doing with it on my shake down cruise.
“I searched the main engine room first, looking for living bugs. All I found were dead shells of bugs both large and small. Nothing was alive in there so I went next door. The room was empty except for a floating pile of clean white bones, probably from previous crewmen or maybe from passer’s by. Not one sign of any bugs. I lifted an access hatch on the floor and nothing squirmed out to get me. The orange gases from the planet were whipping through my ship and taking every little thing that was not secured. I didn’t care. The bugs were gone. It was time for me to leave.
“I took the ship back out to space and started closing all the hatches. Because I blew a good-sized hole in the main corridor, there were some areas that I just could not restore with air. Back on the bridge I sucked out all the bug carcasses with a hand vacuum and then restored the air to a breathable mix. I kept my suit on and my helmet near by in case something went wrong. It was only a few days’ travel at maximum speed to Negram so I decided to stick it out. The bridge smelled like noxious fumes from the Ocherva clouds.”
I sat back in my wooden chair and drained my mug, end of story.
“That’s a pretty good one Rouse. Especially the part about using the gas giant to fumigate the ship,” the Chief said. He ordered another round of rotgut for everyone. I raised my freshly filed mug in his honor.
“So did you ever find out what species that bug was? Did he really build the engine?” that from the skinny alien.
“No, it was only using the ship as a nursery. The Ximerans out on the far rim of the Federation made the engine. I still use it today, best damn engine I’ve ever seen. I did look up the species when I got back to civilization. There was nothing in the Federation libraries about telepathic bugs.” I shrugged. It was a big universe, what could I say?
“So did the ship turn out to be a good platform for you?” the Chief asked.
“The Renoke? Yea I still fly it today. It turned out to be a damn fine ride, after I worked the bugs out of it.”