Within Wheels

Takes place in the weeks prior to planetary landings being introduced

“Thanks man you really saved my bacon.”

The tinny sound of the Eagle pilots voice bled through the comms unit of the FRS Bennachie. I'd taken it out of retirement to use as my Ratter, the Oxen Craig having been refitted for mission hauling. Both could rat but the Bennachie was a dedicated Ratter and with a few tweaks turned it back into the explorer it was.

“No worries Cmdr.” I replied. A debriefing of advising about a fuel scoop and the scoopable star types followed. I watched as the Eagle powered up the rest of his systems, I'd requested he raise is shields after the first limpet. With a nose to tail flip, a trail of burnt hydrogen, a blue white flash and he was gone. I opened Galmap on one screen and Rat Dispatch on another, reported that the rescue had been successful and filed the necessary paperwork.

Instancing issues were the bane of the Fuel Rats and had been an issue with this rescue. They had seemed to becoming more frequent lately. There were a few methods of attempting to overcome them, the one I relied on more and more was interdiction. I fitted the lightest, cheapest interdictor I could find, usually a D1 and asked the client to jump into supercruise, if they had a little fuel to do so. Zero their throttle, get behind them and boom. Usually clients ran out of fuel in lawless systems, so no fine and I am more than willing to eat the fine if I have too. I'd talked my strategy over with Prof. Norvegicus of the R and D Dept it kind of made sense to me. All ships while in supercruise create their own little time and space bubble. Sometimes when using the usual way of Nav-Lock and Wing Beacon, upon dropping, these bubbles do not merge or sync, the reason he gave me made a swooshing sound as it flew over my head. Cmdr. Pyry being the first Rat I can remember doing this, it may have been used before but my memory can be foggy. In lay mans terms, the indicator forces the client into the Rats bubble, I can't remember this method failing me but again my memory can be foggy.

I had heard the call for help on my way back from Crom but that hadn't been the first time on this trip that I had seen an interdictor in use. I had been two systems out of Crom and lining up for my next jump when I received a comms signal.

“Cmdr. Aitken, I know you carry nothing of value, so please submit.” The use of my name stopped me from hitting the FSD button, what followed had me setting my throttle to zero. “Mixing Vanadium and Germanium can make you jump further.” As the tether took a hold of my ship I shook my head at the use of the silly phrase. Wanna be spies.

I didn't deploy my hard points as the Cobra Mk. III maneuvered in front of me and parked itself off my starboard side.

“Thanks for stopping. Can you give me a report Aitken?” A tinny sounding voice asked.

“Sure. I was requested to Crom for a business meeting, which was basically short and to the point. I had a very nice dinner with a delightful young lady. The restaurant was one of those new places that thinks it's Italian, the coffee was excel...”

“Did you see anything strange?” The question interrupted me before I got a good flow going. I gave a shrug.

“Yes.” I paused for dramatic effect. “The young lady I had dinner with ordered red wine with fish.”

The silence that followed could be cut with a mining laser.

“The spaghetti and meatballs were something I would highly recommend if you are looking to eat out.” More silence.

“Anything else Aitken?” The hard edge in the voice told me playtime was over.

“If you would tell me what was supposed to be strange it might help?” I asked in return.

“You DID read the mission brief.” The statement sounded accusatory and ended with a sigh. “Only thing I can add is by strange we mean things that would not fit into that setting.” Another sigh and more silence.

“Oh yes, I DID read the mission brief. A little scant on details if I remember it correctly but your added content makes it SO much clearer.” At this point I didn't care how much they were paying me, with so little to go on I doubted I would ever see the final installment. “Thank you for supplying it.”

“Sarcasm aside Aitken, I think I got what I needed to hear. We'll be in touch.” With a click the comms went dead. Betty chimed in with “Frame Shift Drive Detected” and the Cobra was gone.

I sat there looking out on the beautiful vista that spread out before me, deep in thought. Out loud I murmured my reply to Betty.

“Just what have I gotten us into now I wonder.” Betty as was her way did not answer. “Interesting times a head I foresee.”

It had started out as a simple Bulletin Board mission, again. I'd been in the Atagat system, for no other reason than that it was there, when I'd pulled up the Bulletin Board. As usual I perused most of the jobs available, the one marked 'own ship needed' looked no different than the rest till I actually selected it. The first thing that was different was that it was addressed to me. Not the open to any commander stuff I was used to seeing but it actually had my name at the top. The second difference was that there was even less information than the scanty description of normal missions. Those were not the only two reasons that I accepted it of course. The fact that someone had managed to not just access the Bulletin Board and address something to me but had to have had enough pull and know how to have it targeted at my ship computer. That alone told me that whoever it was had some serious clout. That alone should have made me ignore it but oh no not me. My curiosity was peaked and well, they were offering a nice little payment plan that I just could not resist. Whatever my misgivings had been at the time, I had clicked 'Accept'.

As I sat there and watched the high wake remnant vanish, those second thoughts and misgivings started playing at the edge of my thoughts once more. I needed somewhere I could think this through and feel safe. I say feel safe, I was under no illusion that if someone wanted to get to me they could. Having even just the feeling of safety and security would allow me a little time to think some of the situation out. I opened the Galmap and selected the one place I felt I could trust at that moment. Frame Shift Drive activated, destination, Fuelum.

Fuelum had began to be home to the Rats officially a few months earlier and this would be my third visit to the system, shameful I know. I say 'officially' because a few Rats had been using it before that as a base of operations. Here my foggy memory can be used as an excuse again as I can't remember if it was Cmdr. Shinobi or Kerenn or some other deserving soul who first stumbled across the system. Whoever it was though, it had become the home for the Fuel Rats and Wollheim Vision the headquarters.

As I guided the Bennachie through the toast rank of the Coriolis station I felt a slight calm descend over me, I may not have been one hundred percent safe but here I was safer than anywhere else in the universe. With the Asp lined up on it's landing pad I eased it over and gently dropped it down.

As the Asp engines started to wind down, the ship elevator began it's decent into the hangar area with the whirs and grinds that I had grown accustomed to. I had my chair buckles undone and was on my way to the stairway at the back before the gears and hydraulics had finished moving the Bennachie into it's parking spot. After stowing my flight helmet and setting the on board security system I climbed down the staircase and headed for the corridor at the back of the hangar.

“Mr. Aitken, good job on that last save of yours.” A cheery and familiar voice spoke as I walked past Dispatch.

“Thank you Ms. Hail and you can drop the Mr. if you don't mind.”

“I will if you drop the Ms. please.” The young woman answered.

“No worries Becks, how have you been?” I asked. Rebecca Hail hadn't been a Fuel Rat for long but she had shown a flair for not only Ratting but Dispatch too. She had my respect for that as running Dispatch could be a nerve raking experience, that she was a friendly soul also had made me like her.

“Not bad.” She smiled. “But what brings you to these uncharted shores?”

“Ok I may not visit often but uncharted is a bit of a stretch.” I replied shaking my head. “Are you going on or just finishing?” I asked nodding to the Dispatch Room behind her.

“Just going on and I'll be late if you hold me up any longer. Catch you later Aitken.” With a jaunty wave she headed further into the room.

Buoyed by seeing a friendly face I continued deeper into the station heading for the recreation area where I could watch ships come and go. A relaxing way to pass sometime, especially as I would not be piloting any of them.

I headed for the bar built at the back of the room, at the front were three large glass windows whose view looked out at the mail slot. I watched as a DBX shot through, flew half way down the flight line, landed, sunk on the elevator, was spun round by the pad, raised up and took off again, also at speed. I was about to ask the barman what that had been all about when I noticed it was a robot and ordered coffee instead. While I waited I leaned back on the bar just in time to see an Asp do the exact same performance as the DBX had, well apart from the fact it needed a medium pad and not a small.

“Your coffee Cmdr.” The robotic voice behind me announced. I dressed the coffee to my taste and moved to a table close to the center window. Sitting there was a fellow old time Rat and so I plunked myself down. He was watching the slot so closely that he did not notice me until I spoke up.

“What the heck is going on out there Alec?” Alec Turner had been a Rat since, well before me, foggy memory again. A good guy and fun to be around.

“Buckyball racers Aitken.” Alec replied, he glanced at the computer screen that was on the table before us. “The Mischief Mile to give it the official title.”

It was my turn to have a look at the screen, two categories, regular or crazies, Cmdr. names, ship names but no times, well not that I could see. “No times?” I asked Alec.

“No, one of the rules of this race, positions are updated but no times till the end of the event.” Alec smiled, I made a rolling motion with my right hand asking him to continue with the explanation. “Names, are, well self explanatory. Regulars are ships that Rats use for rescues, Asp, DBX, Hauler and so on. Crazies would be ships with not very good range and we would not use often, if ever.”

I was going to point out that some in the regular class were crazy to me, T9, T7, Python and a few others but I had my favourites and the other thing that stopped me was I knew Alec had done more than half of his rescues in a Python. I'd only used it twice for ratting but even then I had fitted it for ratting as a secondary use.

“What about you Alec? Taking part?” I asked scanning the Commanders names in the list.

“Yes. I've already had a run in my Asp.” He pointed to his name in the list. “Been thinking about trying the DBX next and...” He stopped and looked at me, nodded. “Well you're crazy enough to help me.”

“Do tell?” I asked and gave a small snort of a laugh.

“I need a refueler. A twist to this run is no scoop and not only no extra fuel tanks but a reduction in size of some classes. That means for some ships that we would have to land and refuel. You know that takes time.” He paused and looked at me, no expression on the usually jocular face.

“Whats the route?” I asked as the beaming smile returned to his mouth.

As Alec took a datapad from inside his flight suit I started to tell him of the Anaconda I had sitting waiting for this challenge, but as we got deeper and deeper into the planning I saw that the Asp I had with me would be able to pull off the job. Between the starting point of the Tepech system and the finish at the Mirateje system, the course had three mandatory stopping points. With one being Wollheim Vision, where he could refuel, that meant we would choose one of the two remaining points to refuel the DBX. We chose MCC 811 to make the last leg as short as possible, even then he would be on fumes when reaching Mirateje.

“So when do you think you'll be ready to give this a go Aitken?” I could tell Alec was itching to see if his idea would work.

“Lemme finish my coffee and then we'll go.” I lifted the mug, took a long pull and set it back down on the table. I nodded toward the exit and was greeted by the beaming smile again.

We hammered out the last details before we split up at the hangars. Fitting sixteen limpets into the Bennachie didn't take the engineers and myself long and as I strapped in I heard Alec receive final clearance from Wollheim control. A little over five minutes later I was exiting the slot and heading for MCC 811. One system out from my destination I heard from Alec announcing that he was leaving Tepech and starting his run.

I jumped into MCC 811, scooped my tank full and waited. I watched what little traffic there was coming in and out but ended up bring up the Galmap and keeping an eye on the progress that Alec was making. At one system out, NLTT 48288, I checked that I had the Nav-Lock set correctly and glued my eyes to the scanner. Just as I heard “In system” from Alec I saw the open light blue rectangle appear on the scanner, behind me. Putting a little power into the engines I began to loop but Alec was already on the button and I started to drop. Again I looked at the scanner for the open rectangle and again it was behind me. A few precious seconds slipped past as the Asp and DBX danced around each other getting into refueling positions. Once the strange space waltz had ended two limpets streaked across the gap from Asp to Diamondback. As each one ended its short life with the wail “Fuel Transfer Complete” another was on its way to replace it. Finally Alec told me he was full and heading out. “See you back at Fuelum.” and with the pop of a ship entering hyperspace he was gone.

I was on my second mug of coffee when the smiling Cmdr. Turner walked up to the same table we had departed earlier.

“Oh that felt quick Aitken and I mean really fast.” He said sitting down and rotating the computer screen so we could both see it. “I sent the new run in from Mirateje so it should update soon. You want more coffee? No, you have a cup. Okay I'll get myself something. Be right back.” I'd never seen him so nervous but then again it was something new we were trying and I guess he wanted to be proved right with his idea.

He returned with some kind of soft drink and had just set it on the table and sat down, when the screen updated. I had just enough time to snatch up the glass before it went tumbling off the table as Alec shot to his feet.

“Good grief, my names at the top of the list. Aitken my name has NEVER been at the top of any race list. Wow, it worked. I thought it might but not this well.” Alec sat back down and took a sip from his drink, his eyes never leaving the screen.

“We can make it faster you know.” I chimed in. “Anytime your ready, I can make a few adjustments to my load and try again.”

“Wish I could mate but I got a message on my way back here. Duty calls, I have some things I need to take care of.” Another longer sip of his drink. “That time will have to hold me. I hope near the top but if not I'm happy we proved that the refueling idea works. I have to go but thanks.”

He stood up still looking at the screen and then with a shake of his head he turned to leave but instead pulled a slip of paper out of his top pocket and handed it to me.

“Get in touch with this guy. It should be a little more challenging.” With that and a smile he left. I looked at the name and pulled it up on the computer and sent off a quick note with enough detail that he could get in touch.

I finished the coffee before me, watched a few more ships come and go, mostly at a less rapid pace and chatted with a few other Rats. Then I returned to the Bennachie and retired for the night.

Next morning I was sitting having breakfast, bacon, egg, brown sauce, toast and of course coffee, when an Imperial Eagle pierced its way through the mail slot mist. It caused a little stir as it was an usual ship to see at Wollheim. It just as quickly subsided as in reality it was just another ship.

I was finishing off the last piece of toast and staring out the window when the room drained of most of the morning noise. I began to turn to see what had brought such a hush to the room when a voice spoke up.

“Cmdr. Aitken I presume?”

Before me stood a tall commanding figure. A figure that looked dashing in the white flight suit with cyan coloured piping. A white helmet adorned with the crest of the new Emperor, also in cyan, tuck under his left arm and cyan gloves clasped in the left hand.

“Who wants to know?” I asked, wary of strangers even in the semi-safe confines of Fuelum.

“Cmdr. Timothy Knight at your service sir.” The right hand shot out inviting a handshake. “I received your communication and would like to try out the idea.”

I rose and took the offered hand. “I think we had better sit down and talk this over Timothy, if I may call you by your first name?” Imperials and their protocol.

“Certainly Cmdr.” Placing the helmet and gloves on the table, he sat down.

“It's Aitken, no need to stand on ceremony.” Take the not too subtle hint, please.

Timothy nodded, pulled out a datapad and the planning began. This would not be sitting in a system waiting, no no. This would be a race within a race. He seemed to be concerned with that aspect the most.

“If I have to sit in system waiting for you, I may as well refuel at a station.” I heard the line a couple of times. The trick was going to be staying ahead of a rapidly moving Imp. Eagle. An Asp would be gambling to much and working out it would have to carry at least 22 limpets ruled it out for me.

“I have an Anaconda that has the range to jump twice to your three. I think we can make it work, the FRS December just needs a few tweaks and I'll be good to go.”

“Very well, I have some maintenance to carry out on the Cortana, can we pencil in some trial runs after lunch? Will that be enough time for your modifications?” Timothy asked, picking up the helmet, placing the gloves inside and rising for his chair.

“Sure, more than enough.” I lied. Well maybe not lied but it was cutting it fine. With an “Excellent” he strode toward the exit. I waited until he had left and then made a beeline for the hangar the Conda was sitting in. I was planning on grabbing the first engineer I saw and that is what I did, right after I got over my surprise.

“Nadzieja? Did I take a wrong turn and end up back in Ceos?” I asked the tall dark hair woman before me.

“Aitken!” She roared and I was in a back breaking hug before I could say anything more. “Good to see you again. No you are not in Ceos.” She replied with a chuckle. “I heard about a job here about a month ago, applied and well here I am. What are you doing in Fuelum?”

“If we can start refitting my ship I'll tell you as we work.” She was surprised I meant a Conda and not the Asp but once we had that sorted out, she grabbed her crew and we all got to work. I had not thought I would get two extra hands to help when I had agreed to Timothy's timeline so we were done with time to spare. Enough time for me to treat Nadzie and her crew to lunch. Timothy joined the four of us just as we finished, after the introductions and handshakes, Nadzie and her two crewmen excused themselves to move on to other projects. Timothy and I remained seated and went over what we hoped to accomplish with the remainder of the day. After talking for a few minutes we both agreed that actions were better than the words we were exchanging and we headed for our respective ships.

In true racer style Timothy was out of the station and heading for Tepech before the December and I had obtained clearance from the control tower. So I had missed the gleaming white hull of the Imp. Eagle as it had left, not to worry as I would be seeing plenty of it during the coming hours.

My thought was proved correct as Timothy and I plotted, replotted, took the odd break to get repairs and limpets and worked out the bugs for a real run. Finally be both declared to be ready for a timed attempt, I could tell that he still had a few misgivings and assured him that I could stay ahead of the speedy Cortana and I did except for one jump where that was my poor navigation and not anything lacking in the Decembers capabilities. Apart from that one error the other four fuel stops went quite smoothly. Sure there were the odd annoying things we wished had gone better. Things like us appearing on completely opposite sides of a star, appearing on the same side but with engines facing engines and having to scramble to get into Nav-lock range.

We both sat in the rec-room in Fuelum with a beverage before us, coffee for me and tea for Timothy.

“That was more impressive than I thought it would be. By the Emperors Bones that slashed my previous time.” Timothy told me, tiredness sounding in his voice. I too felt the exertion of the day looming over me but knew we had to continue the recap of the events.

“I can refuel you even quicker if I make some more adjustments. Just need to replace the controller.” Strength seemed to sap out of me with every word I spoke.

“Good, I can save a little more time if I plot the route even tighter. That though my Rat friend can wait until tomorrow. I have a room booked and shall retire for the evening, I suggest you get some rest too.” With a clap on my shoulder Timothy stood up and was gone. I headed for the hangar area and the bed in the Asp. On my way I found Nadzieja coming off duty, so we spoke about the new controller I wanted to fit. She moved that request to the top of her list and left to grab something to eat.

I never made it to the Asp and ended up spending the night on the December. I was awoken in the morning by Nadzie and her crew preparing to fit the new controller. I left them to it and grabbed some coffee from the galley and pulled up the Buckyball times on the ships computer.

I winced with surprise when I saw Alec had been pushed down a place and took a mental note to get in touch with him at the end of the day. The name Timothy Knight sat atop of the Crazies Class and I felt we could increase the gap between him and that of the second placed ship. I was just about to use the comms to see if he was on the go when he beat me to the punch. After a brief conversation we agreed that he would head for Tepech while I headed for the first refuelling point. I checked with Nadzieja and found out she would need a little longer to finish fitting the new equipment. Good, it gave us time for breakfast before another busy day.

Timothy met me in the rec-room and we discussed the days targets as we ate, I even had time to have something for the engineers working on my ship sent down so that they didn't starve. So it was mid-morning before both ships left Wollheim heading for their first stops of the day.

We worked, and I mean worked, at every bug and possible problem we thought we might encounter and some we hoped we never would. Timothy refined his route to the point that he could take out a jump point and the only points that resembled the previous days run were the first refuelling and the race required systems. The new route did introduce a way point with no scoopable star as a refuelling stop but the Cortana had to visit Fuelum at that time in the race. That gave me more than enough time to jump to a nearby system, fill the Decembers tank and still beat Timothy, or so I hoped. We both decided to go for a timed run without stopping for a break, we were in a groove and did not want to spoil that rhythm.

That decision could have been that led to the one mistake we made, dropping to close to the star at MCC 811, otherwise the run was near perfect. At the last stop for me, I watched as the Imp. Eagle blasted onward to Mirateje, then I plotted in the course and headed back to Fuelum.

I was back at the center window table when Timothy returned, it was a good looking sight as the white Eagle entered the landing area. The only mar being the fuel scoop that disfigured the smooth lines, even in the retracted position a slight bulge was still evident. We had more than an hour till the positions would update so we sat watching ships come and go and shooting the breeze. This update would be the final one as the competition would end 24 hours later. The conversation trailed off as the top of the hour loomed near, I wasn't sure if for me it was waiting to see if Timothy still sat at the top of his class or I dreaded seeing Alec slip further down, I hoped he won't but I had to face the possibility. Then the table updated.

“Well, we are still top Aitken and I know that last run was far better than the other I entered.” He stood up and extended his right hand. “Thanks to you I think we may have won this race. Do you see anyone else beating our time?” I shook my head.

“No not really. Unless they refuel in system and fly a shorter route.” I paused and took a sip of coffee. “You were the pilot, the racer Timothy. I just shot the limpets.”

“Pfftt, modesty. This was truly a team effort and I will remind anyone of that fact if they claim otherwise. Well unless something truly miraculous happens in the remaining time I am happy to let it stand.” He gave me slap on the shoulder. “Thank you once more and now I must take my leave. If we need to do another run may I call on your services.” I nodded, the December was still set up and I would be in Wollheim for a little while yet. “Good, good. Till me meet again Cmdr. Aitken, I salute you.”

I should have said more but my mood was not as jubilant as Timothys. Alec now sat third in the Regular Class and from what I had been told the next 24 hours would be frantic as other racers tried to better their times.

It didn't look like it as I sat another hour in the rec-room, after which I grabbed a few hours sleep but the remainder of that day was. Along with the usual traffic, racers sped in and out and to reflect this the race organisers were updating the positions hourly. Timothy stood atop the Crazies Class as other names jockeyed for positions below him, that made me smile. Alec unfortunately tumbled down a spot every hour it seemed. At the end of the day he was in ninth. I had tried to get in contact with him but to no avail.

As the time ran out I got a message from Timothy, again he thanked me, again he extolled the virtue of teamwork. I replied thanking him for the chance to try out Alecs idea and to remind him I was just the fuel guy and to congratulate him on his, our win. I heard from Alec the next day, yes he sounded a little down but seemed happy the refuelling scheme had worked and grateful to have been in the top spot, if even it was just for a day.

For me the whole experience had been unexpected. I'd come to Fuelum to lay low and had probably done the exact opposite. It had given me time to think and I knew I had options, in fact perhaps I was inventing problems. If I wasn't. Well I could and would start putting a few of those options in motion. The Crom Silver Boys may be one of the biggest crime syndicates but they were not the only one I had contacts with, so finding work shouldn't be a problem. I also made up my mind what I wouldn't do. Stay in Fuelum much longer, sure I could get back up here if I needed it but I couldn't ask fellow Rats to risk their lives more than they already did when out on rescues. I won't go there, nor Sol either, as much as Robert may have the pull to help, well this was my problem, if it truly was a problem. I also knew the place I could vanish if I needed to, billions of places actually. If I had trouble telling where I was out in the black, I doubted someone else could find me.

I hung out in Wollheim for another day taking care of a few loose ends. One of which was to make sure the only engineer allowed near the December was Nadzieja and her crew. With that done and a few other things it was time to leave.

A familiar voice called to me as I made my way to the Bennachie.

“Don't be a stranger so long next time Mr. Aitken.” I turned a waved across the hangar, calling back to the lone figure.

“I'll try not to be Becks but no promises.” I heard a “Sure, sure.” as she wonder off back into the bowels of Wollheim.

I boarded the Bennachie and strapped myself in, checked the systems and asked to be raised to the ramp. Clearance was granted and together we rose and started toward the slot. With options before me and few regrets behind the only thing left to do was what the Bennachie and I did best together.

Find trouble before trouble found us.

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