The tool ground against the hull of the ship, producing bright, blinding sparks. Through the dark visor of his welding mask, the sparks looked like a bright star suspended in the middle of empty space to Rel. The loud noise was drowned out by the thick protective safety helmet, and if not for the oppressive gravity of Cagus II, he might have believed he was actually in space.
He stopped, and drew his tool away from the hull of the ship. He lifted his visor, and inspected his handiwork. The hull patch was makeshift, but it would work. The ship he was working on had had its hull breached in space by a roaming pirate ship. Two crew members had been killed, and considerable damage had been done on the inside as well.
With the repairs to the external hull complete, Rel was about to make his way inside, when the captain of the ship approached him.
“So? How is it?”
“I’ve managed to patch up your external hull. It’ll protect your crew from the void, but you need to head to the core to get it properly fixed,” Rel replied. “I’m going to board, see how the inside looks.”
The captain nodded, and indicated the ship ramp with an open hand. Rel nodded in turn, and climbed the ramp.
The inside of the ship had been thoroughly mangled. It had been breached by a burrow-burster, a projectile that had a hard outer shell that enabled it to breach thick hulls, and then explode with tremendous energy, causing massive internal damage. In most ships, the pressurized cabins would compress the shock wave, disorienting cabin members at best, and ripping their bodies apart at worst.
Several pieces of shrapnel were embedded in the walls, and the door through which they had entered was bent, and the captain had to shove it forcefully back into its frame in order to allow Rel to pass through. The lights had been destroyed, and the only thing that allowed Rel to see the inside was the hull breach and the occasional sparks that flew from the holes in the walls. Even with the sparse lighting, Rel could see that blood caked the walls, and pieces of dried flesh were scattered about the room.
Rel grimaced, and muttered, “This is going to take a lot of work.”
“My men will give you all the help you need. We need to be spaceborne as soon as possible, or we’ll lose profits.”
A tradeship, Rel thought with some disdain. They roamed space, gathering rare and exotic materials from frontier systems, and brought them back to sell off to the wealthy.
“I appreciate the offer for help, captain, but I’ve got half a dozen broken vessels landing in my smithy a day. It’ll be at least two or three weeks before you’re even a little bit close to going back up.”
Rel briefly considered saying something along the lines of, ‘If you’re a tradeship, you ought to have made some cash. If you fork some over, I’ll get you spaceborne in a week.’ but thought against it. He’s a trader, you’re not, he told himself. Don’t be like him.
Then, almost as if his mind had been read, the captain leaned against a wall, and a sly expression came over his gruff face, “You know, we’re a tradeship. Successful one, too,” he pulled a stack of Unic tiles out of his grease-stained overalls. It glinted in the dim light of the ship’s interior. “I could give you a portion of our profits if you get us spaceborne in a week.” He extended his arm, holding the tiles between his thumb and forefinger.
Rel gazed at the tiles, tempted. The tiles were ten-thousand Unic tiles, enough to keep his smithy effectively maintenance-free for at least two standard months if there were as many in that stack as Rel thought. “Yeah, I could probably get spaceborne as well,” he muttered under his breath. He looked the captain straight in the eye, who seemed not to have heard his remark, and said, “No, thank you, captain. There are ships in more urgent need of repair.”
The captain’s back straightened, and he stood on both legs, distributing weight perfectly evenly, no longer leaning against the wall. He stood there for a few seconds silently mouthing words without uttering any sound, then finally grunted, “Your loss.” He shoved the tiles back in his overalls, and headed outside the ship. Rel could swear his footsteps were louder and angrier. Rel looked over the ruined interior before following him out; it wasn’t good manners to stay in a captain’s ship without express permission, even when repairs were needed.
The top of the ramp afforded Rel a wide view of his smithy. It was a large hangar with multiple levels. Each level was two hundred meters wide and deep, and fifty tall. It was enough to contain most of the roaming ships that came to the surface of Cagus II for repairs. Those that didn’t fit, Rel lacked the tools to fix anyways. Rel has inherited the smithy from Old Vyn, the local shipsmith, after he had died in an accident eight years ago. He had in many ways replaced the man, taking in new apprentices and running the smithy.
Most of the others who grew up with him in the smithy were now gone, either pursuing education off-world, working, or dead.
“Masta’ Coadof! Masta’ Coadof!”
Rel Cordof looked for the source of the voice. It was clearly Yost Ononcas, judging by the bizarre accent. Yost was an apprentice of his. Not the smartest, but an honest and hard worker. He was a favorite.
Rel finally located the boy running towards him, after looking about himself for a good ten seconds. The sound echoed off the walls, making it difficult to pinpoint the origin of the noise.
“Yes, Yost, what is it?”
“New ship come in, Masta’ Coadof. Prit’ bad. Burra-burstas hit de bridge, cap’n wen’ all splat, ‘n’ half de crew too!”
“Alright, Yost, get Xan and Qylstig and get on it. Clean the bridge first, cremate whatever you can, then start repairs.”
“Yes, Masta’ Coadof!”
The captain of the ship that Rel had just climbed out of had witnessed the exchange, and interjected, “You keep boys here to work with you?”
“Some girls, too.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? And traumatic? Sounds like the captain wasn’t in very good shape.”
“I do all the really dangerous stuff, of course, like when a warp drive is damaged.” He added, “And besides, my master took me in when I was thirteen. Most of the kids I’ve got here are at least fifteen or sixteen. They can handle it.”
“How many do you have?”
“Twenty-six, in all. Thirteen boys and girls each.”
“Oh? I thought there’d be more boys than girls. Parents aren’t as willing to send girls to dangerous places like these, after all.”
Rel explained, “It’s not like they have much of a choice.”
“How do you mean?”
“Cagus II, captain, is what you call a ‘frontier system’. We’re not swimming in Unics out here.”
“Ahh,” the Captain exhaled, a hint of remorse evident in his expression.
Rel changed the subject, “I’ll get two of my kids on this ship. They’ll be here shortly. One of them, Gartris, is a new one, so he’ll be learning from the other one. He won’t be doing much, so don’t yell at him if one of my kids is just watching.”
The captain nodded.
Rel turned away, and headed for Quarters. It was a space in the smithy where all of the children under Rel’s care slept, and where all of the operations of the smithy were coordinated. When he was about halfway there, the announcement system beeped loudly before the garbled voice of a girl said, “Master Cordof, Master Cordof, please head towards Two-Aph-Six, please head towards Two-Aph-Six.”
Two-Aph-Six was a place on the second level of the smithy. Rel had come up with a system of dividing the smithy into sections while he was still working under Old Vyn, so that the people working at the smithy could more accurately relay to a person where to go.
Two-Aph-Six had a ship in pristine condition sitting on it, and a very happy woman standing next to the ramp. One of his boys was standing near the woman, looking for him. When he saw Rel approaching, he pointed, and looked at the woman, who nodded and said something.
“Ship’s all done, Master Cordof.”
“Thank you, shipsmith Cordof,” the woman said. “My wing is in better shape than it ever was.”
“Thank you, miss, but the kids are the ones who did the heavy work.”
She smiled at the boy standing next to her, then said, “How much is the payment?”
“Well...” Rel said, pulling out his portable computer, pulling up the tab on the ship. “Wing repair...” he muttered a number of variables that affected the sum of payment, and said in a more clear voice, “Eight hundred unics.” He showed her the screen of the computer, ensuring her that he had not inflated the cost.
Without even looking, she said, “That’s it? That’s pocket change.” She pulled out eight hundred-unic tiles out of her pocket and handed them to Cordof. Then, she placed another, and smiled, “A bonus for you and your children for their work.”
“Thank you very much,” Rel said, smiling. He watched her climb aboard her ship, and he stayed until the ship had penetrated the thick cloud cover of the Cagusian sky.
He then turned to the boy, and said, “Here, take this. You and your brothers worked on it. You deserve it.” He tossed him the extra tile.
“Polt, we’re still working.”
Realizing his mistake, Polt frantically apologized, “Sorry, Re- I mean, Master Cordof.”
“Just don’t let any of our clients hear you call me that. Now head back to Quarters, take a break.”
Abruptly noticing the absence of his three brothers, Rel called out, “Polt!”
The boy whipped around.
“Where are your brothers?”
“Olke went to the toilet, but Zenyia called, so Mohn and Gemd went with her.”
“Zenyia? Why’d she call?”
“I don’t know, but she said it was important. Ran off just as fast as she came.”
A sense of mild panic took hold of Rel. “Where is she?”
Polt looked up, trying to remember. “I don’t know, she didn’t say, but she ran off towards the lift.”
“Okay, then, go back to Quarters and get as many people as you can. We’re going to look for Zenyia.”
Polt was clearly disappointed he wouldn’t get a break, but he only let it show for a moment. He ran off towards quarters, while Rel towards the lift. When the lift got to the first level, he hopped off the lift, and started running towards the center, where he’d get a better view of his surrounding. Before long, the children had joined him, and were searching the area, calling for Zenyia, Mohn, and Gemd. They searched, but couldn’t find the missing children. Even the clients staying at the smithy had caught on to the fact that something was wrong. One crew member from a ship asked him what it was, but Rel dismissively said it was nothing. He had learned it was good to act like everything was going smoothly, even if it wasn’t. Especially if it wasn’t. Getting his clients riled up would make them lose trust in the smithy, and explaining to them that three children had briefly gone missing would not make a good impression.
A girl came up to him. “Master Cordof, Arti found some zoomers on the horizon.”
“Yes. Two of our zoomers are gone. Arti thinks that Zenyia took them.”
“What? She- what?” Rel gathered his thoughts, then said, “Why would she take our zoomers?”
He ran towards the gate of the smithy before the girl could respond, and took a pair of binoculars that were hanging on the wall. He scanned the horizon, and sure enough, he found zoomers. He increased the magnification, and he was able to make out the face of Zenyia. She was on a zoomer equipped with a cot, and Mohn and Gemd were also on one themselves, also equipped with a cot. He squinted through the binoculars, and saw what he thought might be human bodies on the cots. He muttered to himself, “What in the galaxy is going on...?”
He hung the binoculars back on the wall, and waited as the zoomers drew closer. When they were back at the smithy, the children whose help Polt had enlisted were all gathered near Rel, staring curiously.
The zoomer cots carried two human bodies each. One of them was horribly burnt all over, another was missing an arm, and the other two were covered in gashes and bruises, and were unconscious, or dead.
“What’s going on?!” Rel shouted.
Zenyia jumped off the zoomer, and said urgently, “A ship crashed a few kilometers away! There’s still more people in there! We have to help!”
“It’s dangerous, Zenyia. You should have told me first,” Rel said. Then, trying to keep a calm demeanor, “I’m going with you. The rest of you, get these people over there, and treat them.” He indicated an open space.
All of the children gathered took action. Some rushed back to Quarters to get medical supplies, others tried to gently move the injured people off of the cots and into the space Rel had indicated. Rel himself helped two boys get the bodies off before jumping onto a spare zoomer himself and speeding off in the direction of the crashed ship.
While they sped through the plains, Rel yelled so that Zenyia could hear him over the wind, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know! A ship just crashed!” Zenyia yelled.
Rel came to the realization that he couldn’t get a proper answer out of her, regardless of whether she actually knew or not, and gave up trying to ask questions, simply following Zenyia’s lead. Before long, he noticed a plume of smoke peeking above a forest some two kilometers away.
When they arrived at the crash site, Rel was greeted by a sight much worse than he had anticipated. The ship had obviously been shot down. It was quite large corvette. Though it had been scorched to a near crisp on reentry, the green-grey color scheme of the Terrae Popula navy was still recognizable. Perhaps it had been shot down by a pirate ship. Both of its wings were missing, and it appeared as though the ship had been ripped in half; there was a massive gaping hole near the aft of the ship. There were several other smaller holes in the ship hull, where weapon projectiles had impacted, and a massive ditch had formed where it had skidded through the dirt before grinding to a halt, where other smoking pieces of wreckage were visible along the ditch.
Rel got off his zoomer, and started searching the area. He stumbled, and when he looked to see what had caused this, was mortified to find it was a leg, severed at the thigh and ankle, still contained in the pant leg of the military uniform. A part of the armored boot that Terrae soldiers wore still remained on the shin. Rel stumbled backwards away from it, horrified.
From behind him, a weak voice sounded, “H-help...”
Rel turned around to find a woman leaning against the wreckage. Her face was covered in soot, dirt, and blood, as was her uniform. As his eyes traveled down her body, he found that her legs were missing. Both of them had been ripped off at the middle of the thigh, and he realized that the leg was the woman’s. Her head was also leaned against the wreckage, and her body was completely limp.
“I...I can’t move...I can’t feel anything...”
Rel knelt beside her, and tried to pick her up. “Your going to be fine. You’re going to be fine.” He kept repeating it until he had carried her back to the zoomers. He laid her onto the cot, and looked into her eyes with a reassuring smile. His smile faded, however, when he realized that she had died. Her eyes had gone blank, and there was absolutely no movement. He sighed, and heaved her carcass off the cot, and placed it on the ground. He had heard of horrific injuries in space combat, but he had never seen a person die of it. Whenever he cleared out the ships, all of the crew members had already died, and, due to exposure to the vacuum of space, had usually had all their blood boiled off, leaving a dry, colorless, cold body that didn’t feel human, but more like a life-sized doll.
“What do we do with all the dead ones?” Rel heard Gemd call out.
“We’ll cremate them later. Get the survivors back to the smithy first,” he replied.
Rel walked back to the severed leg he had tripped on earlier. He picked it up carefully, but the leg bent before he could take hold of it, and the remainder of the boot slipped off. He left it, and carried the leg back to its owner. He couldn’t tell whether it was the left or right leg, and so he placed it ambiguously, in the middle. He then continued searching the site, scanning the immediate vicinity around the ship for more survivors.
He reached the end of the ship without having found any. The ship itself -or the remainder, at any rate- was roughly five meters tall, ten wide, and twenty long. Rel assumed it was meant to be much larger, but most of it had been sheared off by the woods. He peered inside the gaping hole. The lights had gone out, but the interior was still lit by a sparking cable that had been exposed during the crash. Blood and scorch marks covered the walls. He stepped timidly inside, and hesitated when the floor creaked beneath him. He tested the floor, and when it didn’t cave in, he continued, trying to ignore its incessant groaning protest. There was a door on each side of the wall, and Rel attempted to open them by pressing the button, but, as he expected, there was no response. He grabbed the bars, and tried to manually open them, but to no avail. The frame was so hopelessly warped that opening it would be nearly impossible. He tried the other door. This time, he was successful, after a fashion. He managed to push the door about three inches back into its frame. Enough to see inside, but not enough to go there. He could see there were multiple bodies inside, and he thought some of them might be moving.
“Is anyone in there? Can you hear me?” Rel called, cupping his hands around his mouth.
“Ye-” the response was abruptly cut off by a fit of coughing. Once it subsided, the person on the other end cleared his throat, and said once more, “Yes.”
“Can you walk?”
“Alright, alright,” Rel muttered, deciding on his next course of action. Then, “This door is jammed. Can you get it open?” It was admittedly a foolish question, and Rel realized it after he said it, but he blamed it on the stress of the situation.
“The bridge…” another coughing fit, then grunting, and the solid thud of a boot landing on the floor. The man on the other could be heard walking over to the door.
Rel peered in, trying to see him through the darkness of the other room. Suddenly, a face jumped out of the dark, and came within an inch of the open door. The left side of his face was horribly burnt, and he reeked of burnt hair. Rel soon realized, when the other side of his face became visible, that the man had had a beard, and that it was scorched off.
“The bridge...there’s a crookbar there. Captain...captain kept crookbars in the bridge...up the ladder and straight ahead...it’s…” the man slowed, backed away, inhaled, then brought himself close to the door again, then resumed speaking, “it’s got ‘bridge’ written on it.”
“Okay, I’ll be back soon. Just hold on.”
Rel stepped away, and climbed the ladder at the end of the corridor. He cautiously climbed, wincing and expecting the ladder to fall off the wall everytime it made a noise. Miraculously, it didn’t, and he emerged on the second level of the ship without having caused additional damage to the ship.
The roof had been ripped off, allowing what little sunlight that penetrated the clouds and forest to light the corridor. He turned around, and found a bent door, with half of the paint on it burnt off. With some squinting, he could make out the faint remains of the letters ‘d’, ‘g’, and ‘e’. Assuming it was the bridge, he stepped through. There were a few seats with computers in front placed, facing something that resembled a podium in the center, which Rel assumed was the central ship computer. Surprisingly enough, the bridge had remarkably survived relatively unscathed. Even the lights were still on. There were three people. One on the floor next to the podium, dressed in the usual Terrae Popula uniform, but with an officer’s cap. The body was bleeding profusely from the head, and was quite obviously a dead one. It was probably the captain. The other two were slumped over in their chairs, and it was unclear whether they were dead or unconscious. Rel placed his finger on their necks, and found that both had a pulse.
“I’ll be back for you two later. Just wait here,” he said, hoping the unconscious men would hear.
He continued searching the bridge for what he thought a crookbar was. There was a small locker placed in a corner behind the seats. Rel opened it, and found three crowbars, along with a few firearms and other equipment he did not recognize.
He grabbed the crowbar, and assumed that the planet the man below was from referred to crowbars as crookbars for some strange reason. He then stepped back out of the bridge, and dropped the crowbar down the ladder before tentatively climbing back down it himself.
The door was completely and utterly jammed. He had placed the crowbar in between the wall and the door itself, and had pushed with all his might, but it didn’t budge. He heaved again, but felt no give.
Resignedly, the man inside said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Get the others out first. Give me the crookbar, I’ll try to get it open.”
His words sounded optimistic, but the tone in which he said them was not.
“Alright, good luck,” Rel said, handing the bar back before going to the ladder again.
Just then, Gemd and Zenyia entered the ship.
“Oh, good. You two,” Rel said, realizing he would need their help to get the other two men down. “Where’s Mohn?”
“Took the zoomer back with two more survivors.”
“Okay.” He looked back up the ladder, “I’m going to need your help. There’s two more people up there. I’m going to bring them back here. You two get them down.”
The two nodded, and Rel climbed the ladder. This time, it broke. Startled, Rel just barely regained his balance. He propped the ladder up against the wall, and began climbing again. Through the bent door again, and onto the bridge. He unbuckled the belts fastening one of the men to his seat, slung him over his shoulder, and stepped back out of the bridge. He put him down on the floor, and put his legs through the hole through which the ladder went.
“I’ve got him,” Gemd said.
“Alright, I’m going to put him through.”
Rel picked the man up by his arms, and carefully lifted him, and then lowered him through the hole, only letting go when he heard Zenyia say, “Got him!”
They repeated the process with the other man, but Rel returned to the bridge once more to check on the captain. He took the cap off to reveal a caved in skull. The bone had embedded itself deep in the brain, and Rel hurriedly placed the cap back where it was. He stood up, and climbed down the ladder.
Rel suddenly realized that the man from earlier had been suspiciously quiet during the whole ordeal, and so walked to the door again, and called, “Hello? Can you hear me?”
There was no response. He called again, “Hey! You in there?”
Zenyia asked, “Someone in there?”
“Yeah, someone’s in there. But he isn’t saying anything.” He turned to Gemd. “Gemd, go back to the zoomer. Get a light.”
He nodded, and ran off.
When he returned, Rel took the light from him, and peered inside the dark room. He saw the man sitting on the floor, leaning up against the door, crookbar in his lap. Now, with the aid of the light, he could see that the man’s thigh had been impaled by wreckage. He had likely bled out during the time they had brought the other two men down from the bridge. Rel wondered whether the man had known he was doomed, and what he had thought during his last moments. He shivered, and pushed the thought out of his head.
“Well?” Zenyia said expectantly.
“He’s dead. Bled out.”
Rel saw the dejected looks on their faces, and, to shift their attention away from the soul they hadn’t saved to the ones they could, said, “Let’s get back to the zoomers. We’ll take these two back to the smithy.” Then, after a second of consideration, “Have you found anyone else?”
“No. We’ve looked everywhere. There’s nobody left,” Gemd said.
Silent, Zenyia picked one of the men they had lowered from the bridge earlier by the feet, and waited for Gemd to pick up his shoulders. Rel took the other man and slung him over his shoulder.
The laborious process of carrying the men back to the zoomers in the uneven, wreckage-riddled ground was carried out without a word said, and the two teenagers got on the zoomers, Zenyia in front, and Gemd holding onto her waist. Rel jumped onto his own zoomer, and they sped back to the smithy.
When he got back, the six other survivors that the children had taken were laid on tarps, and four girls were caring for them as best they could, given the admittedly nearly nonexistent medical supplies they had access to.
“How are they?” Rel asked one of the girls.
“Not good.” Then, lowering her voice so only Rel could hear, “I don’t think half of them are going to live ’till nightfall.”
Rel stroked his scruffy beard, wondering what he ought to say. During his fourteen years working at the smithy, he had never been encountered with anything like this. If only he knew what Old Vyn would say…
“We’ll do our best, Xan. We’ll do our best to help, and if we don’t succeed, that’s not our fault,” Rel said, trying his best to imitate what Old Vyn might have said during a time like this. “We didn’t ask the universe to crash a Terrae ship a couple kilometers off our smithy, and we’re just making the best of it.”
This seemed to console the girl a little, and she nodded, and continued caring for the injured. Five men and three women they had rescued from the crash. Eight people out of how many he did not know, but it was eight people who otherwise would have died had the children working under him not spotted the crash. It was eight people they were trying to save when nobody else was -not even the Terrae Popula- and that thought comforted him. He decided it to say it out loud, loud enough for the others to hear.
This seemed to encourage them, and Rel resumed his duties repairing the ships that had landed in the smithy; he trusted them with the lives of the survivors more than he trusted himself. Ships were his specialty, not people. They were likely more adept at handling the delicate hardware that made a human function.
At the end of the day, two more ships had gone spaceborne, and another ship had landed. The clients had all gone to sleep in their ships. All of the children had returned to Quarters, except for four boys. The children had decided to care for the survivors of the crash in shifts. Rel was proud of them for having done so without his saying anything about it.
All of the other children were gathered in the common room, as they usually were, talking and taking turns playing board games. Rel was sitting on a cot in the corner of the room with his portable computer, calculating income and expense. The smithy had just about broken even, with a net income of three hundred unics.
He had only stored about a quarter of the money he needed… In fourteen years, only a quarter. Ship prices were rising daily. He could work a decade more, and he might still be at a quarter. He sighed, and turned off his computer, placing it on the cot next to him.
“Something wrong, Rel?”
It was Rien. She was the oldest one working for him, and the only thing keeping her, by her own words, was poverty and family.
“No, it’s nothing. I’ve just had a long day.”
“Yeah, the crash.”
“You should go to sleep, Rel. I’ll take care of things for a while,” Rien said, sitting down on the cot next to him.
“No, they worked just as hard, if not harder than me. Zenyia did a fantastic job today.”
“And so did you. You’re the one who has to keep track of twenty-something kids constantly.”
Rien’s case sounded awfully convincing to Rel, and he was beginning to consider sleeping earlier than everyone else. He had made it a habit to stay up until he had made sure everyone was asleep, and he had broken this rule only a handful of times since inheriting the smithy.
After silently debating with himself, he finally said, “Alright, Rien. I’ll check on the survivors before I go. Make sure everyone else goes to sleep before you do, will you?”
“Sure thing, Rel.”
He sleepily pushed himself off the cot, taking his computer with him. He trudged out of Quarters, towards the place they had put the survivors of the crash.
When he arrived, three of the assigned children were sleeping, leaving only Arti awake. He wasn’t surprised. It was late, and even the survivors, whom he expected to be groaning in pain, were silent.
“How are they, Arti?”
Arti, who appeared to have been in a daze, shook his head and lightly slapped himself in the face a few times before saying, “They’re alright, for now.” Just as soon as he had snapped himself out of his daze, he fell back in, reverting to the posture he had been in before Rel spoke to him.
“Goodnight, Arti,” he said, and returned to Quarters.
His room, the ‘Master’s Quarters’ as they called it, was the smallest room in the entirety of Quarters. There was a bed in one corner, a small desk in another, a locker in another, and nothing in the last corner. Despite the minimalism, it was still claustrophobic. Rel had become accustomed to it, however. He placed his computer on the desk, took off his greasy, soot-stained overalls and placed them in the locker. He changed into his ‘pyjamas’, a pair of pants torn at the knees, and a shirt. He turned out the lights, and threw himself onto his bed. He was unconscious within seconds.