Jean sat atop a crate in the hangar, watching as his uncle and the lady captain did business. His legs dangled a foot off the ground, and he wiggled them in nervous excitement. His uncle, Tim, owned the massive hangar space, but this was the first time in a long time that they had needed the entire space! The Hull-E might have been the biggest ship he’d ever seen. Jean hopped down from the crate, arms out wide, oversize sandals flopping on his feet slightly as he ‘flew’ at a run, counting his strides in his head. When he reached two hundred ungainly steps, he stopped—a bit out of breath—and looked up. He was only halfway down the length of the Hull-E!
It was definitely the biggest ship he’d ever seen.
“Jean! Stick at your post, son!” Tim’s booming voice carried across the hangar.
Jean spun to look at Uncle Tim, startled. How’d he always know when he moved? His back was still turned away, discussing business with the lady captain of the Hull-E. Jean turned and ran back to the stack of crates near the primary elevator of the hangar, jumping awkwardly back atop the crate before spinning back to sit, legs dangling once more. He stared up at the side of the Hull-E, noting the damaged billboard for Consolidated Outland halfway down the hull. It had a huge dent in the center of the billboard that had crumpled the panel. There was some evidence of a few other scrapes and encounters pitted over the hull of the ship – laser burns, scarred metal, even a damaged airlock from what had to have been a boarding action! Jean grinned, imagining the action the ship had seen over the course of its career
He turned his attention to the elevator next to his post. The massive cargo lift was silent, no thrum of machinery indicating that it was being used. Jean sighed, wiggling his legs. Uncle Tim always made him sit by the elevator whenever he was doing ‘special’ business. This week, he’d been posted at the elevator three times, all for meetings with the lady captain of the Hull-E. Uncle Tim said they might be able to get this Hull-E and strip it for parts and scrap. It would make them a lot of credits, and it would help them buy a second large hangar space. Uncle Tim said there might even be enough left over to pick up a simulator pod!
The lift next to Jean began to hum. Jean stared at it for a moment, before glancing back at Uncle Tim. He hopped off the crate and accessed the lift controls, tapping in a few simple queries. The Lift had been called up from the central shaft position Uncle Tim always left it during his ‘special’ business deals. It was heading for the secondary access deck, a maintenance and high-level-security area. Jean frowned. That didn’t make much sense. The engineers on the secondary deck had done lift maintenance a week ago.
“Uncle Tim?” Jean called.
His voice was ignored, Uncle Tim and the lady captain talking. Jean shifted nervously, unsure of whether he should interrupt them. He remembered Uncle Tim’s insisting that he tell him if the lift moved today.
“Uncle Tim, the lift is moving!” Jean called, louder this time.
Uncle Tim and the lady captain both turned to regard him, faces blank. Jean pointed to the lift. “It’s moving,” he offered, hoping that was all the explanation he needed for his interruption.
“Where’s it going, Jean?” asked Uncle Tim.
Jean peeked at the lift controls. “The… secondary access deck.”
Uncle Tim stared at Jean for a moment, before jogging across the hangar to the lift controls. He stared at the computer panel for a moment, before he typed in an override, halting the lift. Jean watched the older man as he set in a few fast commands to the lift control. Uncle Tim turned to him and said, voice steady. “All right, Jean, listen to me. Somebody is going to call the lift again. Let me know when it starts moving, and then go and hide in your secret spot. Stay there and don’t come out. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jean replied, shifting from one foot to the other anxiously.
Uncle Tim reached over and ruffled Jean’s hair. “You’ll be fine. Just do as I say, and stay in your spot until I come and get you.”
Jean nodded and turned back to watch the lift controls as Uncle Tim strode back across the bay. Jean glanced back at his uncle and the lady captain as they began to talk again. They were louder now, their hands gesturing.
“I thought you said we were secure!” said the lady captain.
“We are secure, but I can’t say the same about your massive ship. Have you swept it for bugs or trackers? Did you wipe the internal computers?” Uncle Tim replied.
“Of course we wiped the computers.”
“What about trackers?” asked Uncle Tim.
The lady captain was silent. Uncle Tim slapped a palm over his eyes. “Oh, you didn’t.”
“Listen,” the lady captain snapped, “we were a bit busy when we acquired this ship. We needed to get her somewhere and get rid of her. We were told that you were the best in the system.”
“I am the best in the system, but that doesn’t protect me from amateur pirates, Miss Kels!”
The lady captain glared at him for a moment before throwing up her hands in exasperation. “Fine. Fine! I fucked up. Just do me one favor, and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“Fine, but it better be fast. And you’ll be leaving the Hull-E.”
“Just open the hangar doors. I’ll call my crew to pick me up, and you can have the Hull-E.”
“Free of charge?”
“Yeah, free of fuckin’ charge. Just remember who dropped it in your hands.”
“Oh, I’ll remember, don’t you worry about that. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” Uncle Tim spat, and then he strode across the hangar, accessing the controls for the massive doors at the far end of the bay.
As the lady captain began walking towards the far end of the hangar, the huge doors began to open. At the same time, the lift began to thrum. Jean called out, “It’s moving again!”
Uncle Tim gave Jean a wave. “Go on. Get in your spot.”
Jean ran to the side of the hangar, following along the wall to a stack of empty crates. He climbed carefully up to a metal grate at the top of the stack and gave it a pull, swinging the grate out on recessed hinges. He sat down in the little maintainence crawlspace and gave the top box a kick. The stack of crates fell apart, scattering across the ground. Then Jean pulled the grate closed. He sat behind the metal grate in the darkened crawlspace, kneeling on his hands and knees, watching the lady captain as she reached the far end of the hangar. The doors were almost fully open, and he saw a ship—an older model Freelancer—approaching to land in the space behind the Hull-E.
Just as the Freelancer touched down, the lift doors at the opposite end of the hangar opened, and six men with guns stepped out. They were all dressed in street clothes, but had ballistic vests on over the top. Uncle Tim spoke to them, gesturing down towards the far end of the hangar, and the six men broke into a run. Uncle Tim took cover behind a group of crates.
Jean watched as the lady captain sprinted for the opening rear hatch of the Freelancer. Two armored men stood at either corner of the hatch, riding it down as it opened, one armed with a pistol and the other aiming a massive rifle. The six men pursuing the lady captain halted, scattering for cover.
“Fex! Mar! Keep ‘em busy!” shouted the lady captain.
The two men didn’t reply, but simply opened fire. The pistol’s sharp cracks were drowned out by the concussive roar of the massive rifle, the round shattering a crate and hitting the man behind it. The man dropped to the floor, unmoving. The five remaining men fell back towards one of the the landing struts of the Hull-E, taking cover behind the thicker material.
The lady captain rushed aboard the ship, disappearing into the interior as bullets pinged off the hull around her. The ramp began to close, and the two armored men retreated, covering one another’s exit up the ramp. A hail of gunfire erupted from behind the strut as the five men rallied and began to return fire in earnest. At the far end of the bay, the elevator opened again, and another four men arrived, wearing heavier armor and carrying large weapons. The Freelancer’s hatch shut as the ship lifted off, and it sped into the dark sky. As Jean watched, the men moved quickly through the bay, surveying the damage.
Uncle Tim stepped out from behind the crates, visibly shaken. “Well, that was unfortunate.”
One of the heavily armored men pulled off his helmet and approached Uncle Tim. “We appreciate the tip. Those pirates have a bounty on their head big enough to bankroll our group for months. The Nightside Consortium wants them.”
“Well, I’m not one to stand in the way of the Nightside Consortium and something they want,” Uncle Tim replied.
“Right… but we know that you were in contact with them days in advance. We checked your logs.”
Uncle Tim took a step back. “There must be some mistake, Lars. I didn’t know they were wanted until just yesterday, when I contacted you!”
The man, Lars, scowled. “Next time, you should contact us first.”
Another of the mercenaries approached the man. “We’ve got interceptors after them. Sten’s dead.”
Lars rolled his eyes. “Mop him up and burn him,” Lars said, before turning back to Uncle Tim, “One of my boys got killed. That’s on you, Tim. You’re gonna chop the Hull-E, yeah?”
“Yes,” Tim muttered.
“I want half of the profits for our trouble. If I see a credit less, we’re coming back here for what’s ours.”
“Of course. Half. I swear.”
Lars smirked and clapped a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “A pleasure doin’ business with you.”
Lars gestured to his men. “Get this shit cleaned up and get topside to our hangars. We’ve got pirates to catch!”
As the men went about mopping up the mess and clearing out, Uncle Tim walked over to the grate where Jean hid, shaking. “Jean? You all right up there?” Uncle Tim said softly.
“Y-yeah,” Jean replied.
“My friends are about done, and then you can come out, all right? Stay there until they’re gone.”
“Okay, Uncle Tim,” said Jean, scooting back into the darkness a bit more. He didn’t like any of these guys.
Uncle Tim straightened up the stack of crates and took a seat beneath the grate, watching as the men left, carrying the limp body of the man who’d been shot. Jean scowled as they left, fists clenching. These men were bad. They’d shot at the lady captain, and you aren’t supposed to hurt girls. They were also taking Uncle Tim’s credits.
All Jean knew was, he didn’t ever want to see something like that again. “Uncle Tim?” he asked, as he opened the grate.
“I don’t think you should work with those guys any more. They’re bad.”
Uncle Tim smiled, but it was a thin-lipped smile that didn’t quite seem like a smile to Jean. “That’s the price of doing business here, son. No UEE to watch us, so we have to watch ourselves.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, pal. Neither do I.”