Ice World Truckers
In the universe of Ice World Truckers, always question the cargo you have been assigned to transport.
Friday, February 22nd 2115, 1413 Hours.
Galactic Industries Fuel Depot 3.Orbiting Saturn’s moon Titan.
Jax sat at the controls of the Earth Cargo Union hauler, Mari Kait. “Are the docking clamps ready?” he called over his shoulder without taking his eyes from the panel displaying the ship’s position in relation to the Depot’s docking port. They appeared to be perfectly aligned, but he wasn’t going to leave it to chance.
“Standing by,” Hershey replied from behind Jax. The small but powerful craft groaned as metal pressed against metal. “Engaging clamps.” Hydraulic presses latched on to their ship and the craft squelched under the pressure. “Docking clamps secured.”
Emma breathed a sigh of relief. There was nothing more dangerous in their line of work than manually docking with a station or outposts. One wrong move and they could puncture the hull, vent atmosphere, and die horribly from asphyxiation a billion kilometers from civilization.
Jax locked down the piloting controls before rising from his chair and stretching the kink in his back. The last six hour stretch to the depot had been a long one and he was glad to finally get a break. He wasn’t pleased to learn that the facility’s automated docking procedures were on the fritz, but some of these distant outposts were always in need of regular maintenance. Stepping to the back of the Mari Kait’s cockpit, he passed Emma. “Tell the lumpers to hurry up. I want those containers disconnected and hauled away so we can pick up a new load and hit the burners back to the Ceres stock yard as soon as possible.”
“They’re already on it,” Emma replied.
“I’ll keep an eye on them, Captain,” Hershey said getting to the tiny command center’s only exit.
“Good. I’m going to the mess for a bite, and then I’m hitting the rack for some shut eye,” Jax said. “Wake me when we’re ready to head core-ward.”
“Just a second, Jax,” Emma said, before he could leave. “The Warehouse Supervisor wishes to speak with you about our next load.”
This couldn’t be good news. It never was. Releasing a sigh of pent up frustration, Jax stepped away from the door. “What does he want? It better not be to cancel or post pone our return load.”
Emma shrugged as Jax came around to her panel. “He didn’t say, just that he needs to speak with you.”
“Fine,” Jax said, punching the line that had the Supervisor on hold. “I’m not having a good day, Gerry. Don’t ruin it for me.”
Gerry Durst frowned. “Sorry to be the bearer of more bad news, but your return load isn’t ready yet.”
“Once we get that new pump you delivered installed, we’ll be able to fill the tanks,” Gerry explained. “It’s going to be five or six hours, at least.”
Jax didn’t want to hear that. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to grab his next load and get back to flying. He didn’t like sitting still. Ever since he lost his husband during the Colonial Wars, Jax hasn’t felt at home anywhere, except aboard his ship a million miles from other people. Hershey and Emma were among the few people he could count on one hand that he trusted, and he barely tolerated them.
“But, I’ve got another job for you, if you want it,” Gerry continued.
The news caught his attention. “What’s the job?”
“There’s a research outpost on Enceladus that has a cargo container they need picked up and hauled core-ward to Mars. It’s yours if you want it,” Gerry said. It wasn’t uncommon for some of the research and scientific outposts studying Saturn and its moons to use the Titan Fuel Depot as a way point contracting passage, storage, and other vital services for their activities in and around the ringed planet. “If you’re not interested, I can pass it along to Hugo when he arrives next week, but they indicated that it’s a time sensitive load.”
Jax growled at the mention of his biggest competitor’s name. Hugo was another hauler on the Titan/Ceres run carrying loads of freight and hydrocarbons for Galactic Industries. He wasn’t about to let Hugo get a leg up on him with another load. “I’ll take it,” he finally said, sounding more tired than he had a few moments ago. “What’s the cargo?”
“They didn’t say,” Gerry said. “I just have the coordinates where the container is waiting to be picked up. I’ll send them to you now.” True to his word, the coordinates appeared on the panel. “They said the paperwork and shipping details are with the load.”
“Alright,” Jax said. “As soon as we’re unloaded, we’ll grab their container and head back here. Your return load better be ready to go by the time we get back.”
Gerry laughed. “It will be.”
Jax tapped the panel and disconnected the call. The knot in his back ached from stooping over the communications panel. He stretched his back once more, kneading the tight muscles with his knuckles.
He headed for the door, barking orders as he went. “Emma, remind me to requisition new chairs with better lumbar support when he get back to Ceres. Tell Hershey, we’re leaving as soon as the last container is offloaded. And, if you need me, I’ll be in the mess making a sandwich. Want one?”
Friday, February 22nd 2115, 1741 Hours.
Xeno-Oceanographic Society’s Research Lab.Surface of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.
The roar of atmospheric reentry beat against the ship’s hull while the fires of friction burned just outside the cockpit’s main window. The view of the ice world was completely obscured by the superheated gases as they plunged through the moon’s thin atmosphere. Jax, Emma, and Hershey knew the ground was out there and rushing quickly towards them.
Jax was once again in the hot seat, finessing the ship’s controls and staring with an unwavering intensity at the images displayed on the panel that revealed the Mari Kait’s speed, angle of descent, and other pertinent information about their craft and the rapidly approaching glacial sphere. They were right on track for the coordinates Gerry had given them regarding the container’s location.
As the rumble of superheated gases died down, Enceladus appeared out the forward window. The desolate wasteland was utterly uninhabitable without the assistance of modern technology, some of which was starting to come into view.
The domed structure the Xeno-Oceanographic Society maintained for their primary research site was a standard issue inflatable habitat commonly used throughout the core worlds and the farthest outposts within the solar system.
Jax leveled out the Mari Kait and brought her in for a landing.
“Landing struts have extended,” Hershey said, rising from his seat. “I better suit up.”
Emma met Hershey at the door with a serious expression on her visage. “Be careful this time. We don’t have any spare maglock mounting pins.”
Hershey shook his head and mumbled as he left the cockpit, “Jeez. I make one mistake...”
After the doors closed, Emma took Hershey’s seat with a chuckle.
“Why must you continue to torment him like that?” Jax asked working the controls expertly. “Engaging reverse thrusters.”
“I like making him squirm,” she replied nonchalantly. “I’ve located the container. It’s half a kilometer south of our current position.”
“I see it,” Jax said, easing the stick and hitting the throttle. “Adjusting our course.” The Mari Kait’s engines swelled, pressing Jax and Emma into their seats.
“HEY!” It’s was Hershey. His voice was coming through the intercom. “Why don’t you give a guy some warning next time?”
“Sorry about that,” Emma said punching the intercom button. “ETA to the container is less than a minute.” She released the intercom and turned to Jax. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
Jax chuckled. “You have your ways of messing with Hershey, I’ve got mine.”
Moments later, the Mari Kait landed a few meters from their quarry. Jax leaned back in the pilot’s seat. He winced as a fresh thread of pain shot up his back. He worked the knot in his lower back. It seemed to be getting worse. He was looking forward to some downtime in his bunk.
“You really should go have a doctor look at that,” Emma said, noticing the obvious pain he was in.
“It’s nothing. I’ll be fine,” Jax said unconvincingly. “New chairs will fix it right up.”
The intercom buzzed with static as Hershey said, “I’m ready to go.”
“Opening airlock doors,” Emma replied, speaking into the intercom pickup. The deck vibrated as the airlock door opened.
Jax tapped a control on the panel above his head and the view outside the forward window changed to display multiple angles of the rear of the ship. In each image, Hershey in full gear stepped from the Mari Kait and bunny-hopped down the ramp to the snow-covered surface of the moon. A couple more hops and he was standing next to the container. Moving carefully around it, he found the paperwork for the load stashed in a cubbyhole. “Well?” Jax asked, thumbing the intercom button beside him. “Is this the load we’re looking for?”
“It sure is,” Hershey replied, folding the paperwork carefully and stashing it in his suit’s front pocket. “Start easing her on back.”
“Alright,” Jax said, grasping the controls again. “Let’s get her locked up and ready to fly.”
The image of Hershey leaped up a ladder built into the container’s chassis. He secured himself to the container with a safety wire and used hand signals to direct the Mari Kait into the container. It eased into position and the hard jolt that rattled the cock pit, along with Hershey’s abrupt hand gestures were his signals to stop.
Hershey connected the umbilical to the container that would supply power and other required services for their journey core-ward before sliding down the ladder. He approached the first of the two maglocks that secured the rig to its trailer and kicked it to ensure an adequate connection. He quickly moved onto the other and repeated the process. They both held. A few minutes later, Hershey was back inside the ship and the exterior airlock doors were closed. “We’re ready back here,” he said over the intercom.
Jax tested the connection with the storage container by moving the rig forward. The container followed. It was secure.
“Hold onto something, Hershey,” Emma said, thumbing the intercom.
Jax shot her a glare. She ruined his fun. He hit the thrusters and the Mari Kait began to rise from the ground, pulling the storage container with it. Several minutes later, they were in orbit of Enceladus when Hershey entered the bridge with their paperwork in hand. He handed it over to Emma and plopped down in the empty seat opposite her. Jax punched in the coordinates for Titan and Galactic Industries Fuel Depot 3.
Friday, February 22nd 2115, 2249 Hours.Galactic Industries Fuel Depot 3.Orbiting Saturn’s moon Titan.
Jax finished his sandwich, chewing it slowly, satisfyingly. After draining the last of his ale, he leaned back in his chair and allowed his eyes to close for a moment—a single moment that passed much too quickly. He allowed it to stretch for another and another. If he wasn’t careful, his crew would find him asleep in the mess hall again. He tried to force them open, but it felt good to let them rest.
Light footsteps. Leather soles on the deck plating. They’re drawing closer. Stopped. A tray set down on the table across from him.
Jax groaned and said, “I’m not sleeping, Emma.”
“I know,” she replied sitting. “Your snoring puts the big red storm on Jupiter to shame,” she teased.
That forced his eyes open. “I do not snore.”
“Yeah right… and I’m really a blonde,” she added. Before he could respond, she continued, “That was some turn around at the fuel depot. I don’t think we have ever been in and out of there so fast in the three years we’ve been coming out here.”
Jax wasn’t in the mood for conversation. All he wanted to do now was climb into his bunk and sleep for the next three days. He sighed heavily and said, “Well, I certainly hope so. They had nearly seven hours to get ready for it.” Once the Mari Kait returned to the depot, Gerry had them loaded down with six hydrocarbon storage tankers in under 15 minutes. If Jax hadn’t been so tired, he would have been impressed. Instead, he sent Gerry his farewell, and set a course back towards the core worlds of the inner solar system and the warehouse facility on the dwarf planet, Ceres. With the ion thrusters operating at maximum efficiency, he left the cockpit for his first real break in the last 26 hours.
Jax pushed away from the table. Groaning, he massaged his back once more. “Excuse me, but I’m beat. I’m going to hit the rack. Don’t wake me unless we’re going to explode.” He stepped away from the table.
“On this ship, that’s pretty likely,” Emma teased.
Stopping, he looked over his shoulder at her and said, “Remind me again why I keep you around?”
“Beats the hell out of me,” she replied. “I keep hoping you’d come to your senses and kick me off this death trap.”
“Very funny, Emma. Good night.” He strolled out of the mess.
It was a short walk to his quarters, if they could be called that. On Earth, the home he shared with Bart had closets that were larger than the room that currently possessed all of his worldly possessions. Closing the door behind him, he pulled off his shirt and stuffed it into the hamper. He sat on his bunk and kicked off his boots. His gaze fell on the photograph of Bart he kept on the bedside table. It was partially obscured by several tablets. Grabbing the photo, he laid down and stared at the only man he had ever loved. It had been six years since Bart had been killed during an engagement in the Colonial Wars. It seemed like such a waste, but it had united the colonies under a new government that for better or worse at least kept them talking rather than shooting at each other.
Jax hugged the photograph and for a moment allowed himself to imagine he could feel Bart’s tender touch on his chest. He kissed the photograph and set it back on the nightstand. He cleared out the tablets from around it so he could get a better view of it. Picking up a tablet, he opened the book he had been reading. It was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, taking place during a much simpler time, when much of the world was still a mystery and the romantic idea of treasure buried on some far away tropical island. In a sense, he and his crew were also seeking their fortune buried on some ice world a billion kilometers from civilization—only their treasure was the fuel that powered their civilization: hydrocarbon. He read until he could no longer keep his eyes open and allowed himself to drift off to sleep.
Wednesday, March 8th, 2115, 0609 Hours.
Earth Cargo Union Vessel, Mari Kait, Registry #4392.
Interplanetary Space between Saturn and Jupiter.
Hershey was in the pilot’s seat chatting with Emma when Jax entered the cockpit with a steaming cup of freshly processed coffee. He sipped it and remarked, “It almost tastes like the real thing this morning. Did one of you do something to the food processor?”
Emma and Hershey looked at each other, unsure how to answer. Finally, Hershey responded, “Uh… we forgot to change the filter. You’re drinking yesterday’s grounds.”
Taking another hearty sip, Jax said, “Well, it’s good. We should forget to change the filter more often.” He stepped quickly over to the pilot’s seat and sat down once Hershey relinquished it. “Anything interesting on the news net this morning?”
“A solar flare is wreaking havoc on the Venus outposts, the election of a new Presider for the lunar colonies is proceeding as expected, and a new terra-forming initiative has been put forth on Mars that most likely won’t get any farther in their Parliament than the last one, and the cost of hydrocarbon has risen two points since yesterday,” Emma reported, summarizing the day’s news.
Jax quickly looked over the piloting logs for the Mari Kait and frowned. “You had to make six course adjustments since last night?”
Heshey took his usual seat. “Yeah. I’ve run checks on the thrusters and there’s nothing wrong with them that I can find.”
Jax frowned, his brow creased, and his displeasure was evident. “That can only mean one thing,” Jax said. “One of the tanks is off-balance.”
“I’ve checked and the hydrocarbon tanks register as full,” Emma replied, examining the data from the cargo sensors. “They shouldn’t be causing us any trouble.”
If the hydrocarbon tanks were properly balanced, that could only mean that the container they picked up from Enceladus must be responsible for the alterations in their course. An improperly packed shipping container was costing them a lot of credits in fuel. He had to do something about it, before they ran out of fuel and had to get towed back to port around Ceres. That was the last thing he needed. After all, he had a reputation to maintain. Their only chance was to activate the artificial gravity for that container. It would use up their power reserves more quickly, but it would keep them flying. “Hershey, suit up. You’re going out there to check out the container’s moorings. If everything checks out, I’ll activate the artificial gravity.”
Emma turned towards Jax. She was both surprised and concerned over his latest order. “You can’t be serious. It’s too dangerous to send him out there while we’re traveling at nearly 32,000 kilometers per hour.”
“We can’t stop and we can’t keep going like this. We have no choice,” Jax said.
Hershey stood up from his chair and moved toward the door. “It’s fine, Emma. I’ve always wanted to try this. Jax, I expect hazard pay for this.”
“If it fixes the problem, you’ll get it,” Jax replied.
“And, you’re as crazy as he is,” Emma said, rising from her chair to meet Hershey at the cockpit’s only door. She lowered her voice so only Hershey can hear her. “Be careful.” She planted a kiss on his cheek.
The unexpected display of affection surprised Hershey. “What was that for?”
She punched him hard in the gut, doubling him over. “That’s a taste of what I’m going to do to you, if you screw this up and get yourself killed out there.”
Wheezing, he struggled to straighten up. “I’ll make sure not to disappoint you then,” Hershey said, turning away from her and exiting the cockpit.
As soon as the door closed, Emma turned on Jax. “What the hell is wrong with you, making him go out there?” She fumed.
Jax sipped from his coffee. “It has to be done. We’ve got no choice, unless you want to get stranded out here a million kilometers from civilization.” Emma deflated right in front of his eyes. “Besides, Hershey is a trained professional. He’ll be fine.”
“He better be,” she said returning to her seat.
Emma and Hershey had been flirting with each other since the moment they came aboard the Mari Kait. They had respected Jax and their working relationship by never crossing the line. Jax suspected that their status may soon change after recent events. He didn’t begrudge them for finding comfort and solace in each other’s arms with such long trips to the outer worlds and back again, but he didn’t want it to compromise the ship’s operations because of their emotional attachment. He would have to keep a careful eye on them.
“I’m ready,” Hershey said over the intercom. “Open the airlock.”
Jax replaced the forward window with the latest feeds from the cameras that watched the airlock and the container. The airlock doors opened and a moment later, Hershey stepped out. He secured his safety tether to the outside of the Mari Kait and traversed the narrow maglock mechanism to the container with nothing more than the umbilical and his magnetic boots keeping him from tumbling into space. He moved slowly and carefully. Jax urged him onward.
Emma watched Hershey’s progress and held her breath as he crossed the narrow stretch. Open space surrounded him. A misstep and he could be swept away from the ship and stranded to die alone. She urged him to be careful and only dared to exhale once he had reached the other side and secured his tether to the container.
Hershey grabbed hold of the umbilical’s connection with the container and pulled on it. It held tight. “The umbilical is good,” Hershey’s tinny voice came from the cockpit’s speakers.
“How are the maglocks?” Jax asked.
Hershey kicked the first of two large metal clamps that held the entire rig together. “Port side maglock is secure. Checking the starboard next,” he replied. Shuffling to the other clamp with his back pressed to the container’s shell, he could feel vibrations building up from inside. “Hey Jax. There’s definitely something weird going on with this container. It feels like its three-quarters full of some kind of liquid.”
“What is it? More hydrocarbons?” Jax asked, glancing over his shoulder to Emma. Surprise transformed her face, causing him to whip his head back toward the primary display. Hershey was leaning well away from the container with his tether pulled taunt. He was struggling to keep himself from falling off the edge.
Hershey recovered his balance and grabbed hold of the umbilical again. “I’m alright.”
“What happened?” Jax demanded.
“There’s something banging around in there and…” Hershey hesitated, as if searching for the right words. “I think it’s alive.”
“What?” Jax couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Alive?”
“I can’t say for sure, but it sure felt like it,” Hershey said.
“Should I scan the container?” Emma said, swiveling in her chair to access a nearby panel.
“Regulations be damned. Do it,” Jax ordered. “What have those idiots at the XOS gotten us into?” It was against regulations to transport any life form from the outer solar system core-ward without a permit and the XOS had conveniently left that out of the paperwork. In fact, XOS had left out any details pertaining to the contents of the container they were shipping core-ward. Jax was pissed. They could have just destroyed his entire career.
“I can’t get a clear view of its contents,” Emma said. “It’s shielded.”
Jax rubbed his forehead. “Of course it is,” Jax mumbled under his breath. “Hershey, get back in here and be careful.”
Emma continued, “However, I got something on the laser microphone.”
Jax watched Hershey shimmy along the umbilical back to the Mari Kait’s airlock, before giving the order to hear it. The sound that filled the tiny cockpit bordered on the threshold of human hearing. A long low moan followed by a series of high pitched clicks sent shivers up Jax’s back. Loud bangs and splashing indicated that it was striking the container’s walls. There was no denying it. It was alive.
TO BE CONTINUED...
About the Creator
Great storyteller. Co-owner of Busy Little Beaver Productions and is the producer and co-host for G & T Show and Gates of Sto’vo’kor.
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