Dawn on the ecliptic. In terms of the physics, it’s not the same as a terrestrial dawn, but the effect on the mind is the same. Planets large and small — pale and cratered, large and colorful, elegantly ringed, or simply unadorned — swing by. Countless stars shine, as featureless as if poked through a black curtain. Just another stately cosmic morning, until off in the distance to the left a tiny moving speck appears. Gaining speed, it grows as it approaches, resolves into a finned silver rocketship leaving a teardrop of exhaust in its wake. As it approaches, the lettering on the side becomes clearer: Galactic Repair Services. And on the nose, below the curved window: Ranger.
On the other side of the window, Chuck Banner sat in his padded command chair, his feet up on the console, contemplating the dawn. He yawned and stretched, clearly uncomfortable in his silver space suit. Idly, he reached overhead and flicked several switches.
Behind him, a spacetight door slid open. A clunky service robot waddled in carrying a large thermos in its right claw. It stopped next to Banner and turned its cylindrical head toward him.
“would you like your coffee chuck,” the robot spoke in a metallic monotone, his light-bulb eyes flashing with each syllable.
Banner casually reached over to take the flask. “Thanks, F.R.E.D.D. How long until we reach our next delivery?”
“we are scheduled to arrive at space station x-9a in two hours forty-seven minutes at present speed.”
Banner took a sip of the coffee. “Still no word from the Dispatcher on what our cargo is?”
The tape reels on F.R.E.D.D.’s barrel chest whirred and clicked for a moment. “negative.”
“Ever since we picked up that container on planet Chartia Three I’ve been a little spooked. I like knowing what I’m delivering. But the Dispatcher was pretty good at avoiding the details. Except for the part about ‘Don’t open the container under any circumstances.’ She was explicit about that.”
On the console in front of Banner, a yellow light blinked, accompanied by an insistent beeping. The small monitor speaker next to the light began to glow.
“incoming message from the dispatcher,” F.R.E.D.D. said.
“Maybe now we’ll find out what our little secret mission is all about.”
Banner swept his feet off the console, ran his hands through his close-cropped black hair, and ran his hand over the stubble on his sharp chin. “Do I look okay?”
“the dispatcher cannot see you chuck i do not understand the relevance of your inquiry.”
Banner waved dismissively. “It’s all about making a good impression, kid.” He pushed the button next to the winking light. “Good morning, Dispatcher.”
“Good morning, Clarence,” replied a sultry woman’s voice, its liqueur-smooth tone unbroken by the millions of light years of space static through which it had traveled. “I hope you slept well?”
Banner cleared his throat in embarrassment. He hated being called by his first name. “Yes, thank you, Dispatcher. How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” the voice purred. “I don’t mean to disturb your morning coffee and paper, but since I see that you are getting close to your destination, I thought I’d give you some more details about your cargo.”
“I appreciate it, Dispatcher. You know how I don’t like to fly blind.”
“Hmm,” the voice cooed. “Indeed I do. You prefer keeping your eyes open. Well, I can tell you this. You’re delivering a brand-new Mark Six ether converter.”
Banner raised an eyebrow. “That’s a pretty expensive piece of equipment.”
“Don’t worry. Space station X-9A has already paid for it. Your job is to install the ether converter in the engine room of a new space cruiser that the station’s owner is building. It’s quite a special ship, I understand.”
Banner rubbed his chin. “Ether converters are standard equipment in vermilion drives. You know how dangerous those things are.”
“That’s why I’m sending him our best repairman.” The smile came through the speaker quite clearly, and it nearly melted Banner’s resistance. “You won’t disappoint me, will you, Clarence? The Company has a big stake in the success of this new ship.”
Banner hesitated, then nodded. “Sure, I can install it.”
“Good. Thank you, Clarence. I promise to make it up to you. Someday.” The speaker went dark.
“I hate it when she calls me that,” Banner muttered. He turned to F.R.E.D.D. “How good are you at installing ether converters?”
Whirr. Click. “i have a type alpha certification.”
Banner nodded, then turned back to the command console and began operating the controls. “Good. We’ll need them. I’m a little rusty.”
“that is not possible you are a human you do not have metal parts.”
Banner laughed heartily and slapped F.R.E.D.D.’s back.
* * *
As the Ranger approached the doughnut-shaped space station X-9A, three spindly landing legs deployed from beneath the curving, steel-colored hull. The ship made a smooth approach to the landing pad on the station’s spherical central module, positioned in the center of the doughnut and connected by four large spokes. A moment later, the landing pad began to descend into the module and a covering panel slid into place.
Once the pressurization had been equalized, Banner opened the main passenger door right behind the cockpit window. Below the door, a ladder slid down from a narrow opening, settling on the floor of the hangar. Banner stood in the door and looked around the hangar; it was a typical space habitation, with pipes and conduits running along the bare-metal ceiling and walls, smooth tiled floor beneath. Banner’s eyes were drawn to a contingent of four men walking briskly toward the Ranger. Banner climbed down the ladder to meet them.
The short, stocky, bald man in the lead extended his hand as Banner reached the bottom of the ladder. “Welcome to space station X-9A. I am Jules Ferguson, the station master.” Banner shook his hand, noticing his bland gray business suit — unusual attire for a space station.
“Chuck Banner. I’ve never been out this far before. It’s a pleasure.” He kept his voice light, despite noticing that the other three men behind Ferguson were well-armed guards — with their firearms already out.
“You are alone on your ship, yes?” Ferguson asked.
Banner was about to mention F.R.E.D.D., but something about the way Ferguson asked the question made him reconsider. “That’s correct.”
“Good.” Ferguson raised a hand and flicked a finger in Banner’s direction, and the three guards swiftly moved to either side of Banner and behind him. “I’m afraid there’s been a change of leadership on the space station since you were instructed to come here,” Ferguson said, his voice level, almost bored. “I am now in charge, and the cruiser with the vermilion drive now belongs to me. Once you install the ether converter, I will be able to carry out my plans. Take him.” Ferguson turned and began to walk back the way he had just come.
The guards on either side of Banner grabbed one of his arms and began to pull. “Where are you taking me?” Banner struggled but the guards’ grips were too tight. The guard behind him shoved him in the back with his rifle to get him moving.
Ferguson didn’t stop or turn around. “Not to worry. You’ll be well taken care of.” He chuckled. “For as long as you’re useful.”
Back on the Ranger, F.R.E.D.D. slowly and carefully raised his head until it was just above the bottom of the window, enough to observe the guards shoving Banner through the door out of the hangar. Then just as carefully he lowered his head again.
The tape reels spun furiously as he calculated what he had just seen.
“this does not look good.”
* * *
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