tagSci-Fi & FantasyOutpost: Hetero Version

Outpost: Hetero Version



"Your transfer papers, Corporal Schaffer," the Admiral chimed, handing him a file with a condescending smirk. Schaffer took it, opening the document and glancing over its contents with a concerned expression. His concern turned to horror as he realized where exactly it was that the admiral was sending him.

"This isn't legal Rawling, you can't just make me disappear into thin air, people will notice."

The admiral straightened his spectacles, his smirk turning into a wide grin.

"Oh I assure you, Mister Schaffer, you have already disappeared, and nobody has noticed."

Schaffer rose to his feet, standing before the admiral's mahogany desk, the dark, varnished wood shining under the mellow office lighting. He balled his fists, anger overcoming him.

"I could hop over this desk and beat the life out of you before security was even alerted," he snarled.

"You'd never get out of here alive, Corporal. You're on a navy space station, where would you go?"

"This assignment is a death sentence and you know it, you miserable old bastard. You too yellow to do the job yourself?"

The admiral stood, placing his hands, gloved in formal white cotton, on his desk and leaning over to look Schaffer in the eye. He was clad in an immaculate white uniform, the standard attire of the UNN Admiralty who oversaw military operations in human-controlled space. The badges and medals that were displayed proudly on his breast identified him as one of the overseers of affairs on Pinwheel, the most notorious of all the naval stations in Coalition space. It was a prominent and esteemed position, and Rawling had not attained it without significant nepotism and corruption, at least one instance of which Schaffer had accidentally stumbled upon.

"Listen here, you insubordinate worm," Rawling sneered, emphasizing the last word as if Schaffer were a stain he had just discovered on his lapel. "You stuck your nose where it didn't belong, you made problems for me. As your commanding officer, it is fully within the scope of my duties to reassign personnel who I have deemed...disruptive to the day to day operations of this station."

"I have friends, you think they won't notice that I'm missing?"

"My dear fellow," Rawling chuckled. "Check your papers, you aren't missing."

Schaffer scowled at the man, then turned his eyes down to the folder, scanning the text as Rawling waited with a smile. It was all legal, there were no inconsistencies. The Admiral outranked him, he couldn't refuse his orders To be charged with insubordination or dereliction of duty in wartime was to risk a lengthy prison sentence or even execution. He could try to challenge the ruling, but it would be a kangaroo court, no doubt presided over by the bastard himself and a jury of his minions. In fact, he might be counting on that, it would add legitimacy to his plot.

"I'll tell people, I'll tell everyone," Scaffer blurted, panicking somewhat as he started to realize just how carefully Rawling had orchestrated his plan. It had all the subtlety of a mob hit.

"You aren't telling anyone, Corporal Schaffer. You're actually quite late, in fact you've not been on the station for several days."

"What are you talking about? You're insane." Schaffer scanned the document, noticing the date on it. November the third, today was the fifth. According to the documents he held in his hands, he had been transferred two days ago. He looked up at the admiral in disbelief. "Even you can't pull this many strings, what about security camera footage, the testimonies of all the people I've interacted with," he waved his hand in the direction of the door behind him. "Your own damned security personnel who just escorted me in here?"

"All taken care of, I assure you. I am a powerful man, Schaffer. You knew as much when you decided to challenge me. Your peers all had the good sense to take the bribe and shut their mouths, as did a few of your so-called friends." Schaffer lowered his head at this revelation, staring at the carpeted floor. Who? Who had sold him out? "The rest have been shuffled around, they won't be in touch with each other, most have been reassigned off-station. The only narrative that could ever be constructed about your whereabouts is my own, and the official records reflect that."

Schaffer seethed, he was out of ideas, completely outsmarted.

"You won't-"

"Get away with this?" Rawling interrupted with a chuckle. "I already have. As far as anyone knows you are long gone, just another brief acquaintance who was rotated out, one face among thousands." The admiral pressed a button on his desk, activating an intercom with a hiss of static. "Guards, please escort Corporal Schaffer to his next assignment."

Two marines in black UNN combat armor entered the room, making a beeline towards him. He briefly considered struggling, but it would be pointless. If he were beaten to death on the carpet before the eyes of the Admiral, he would only be playing into his hands. He wouldn't give him the satisfaction. The guards grabbed Schaffer firmly by his arms and twisted them behind his back, restraining him with a zip tie secured tightly around his wrists.

"It's a fairly long trip to Borealis," Rawling called after him as the guards dragged him through the automatic doors. "I hope you don't mind being in solitary confinement for a couple of weeks."

The guards, obviously corrupt themselves, manhandled Scaffer through the cramped engineering tunnels of the station. They were careful to keep him out of view of the general population who lived and worked in the giant torus that ringed the central control hub, rotating on its axis to provide artificial gravity. That was where the space station got its nickname. The Pinwheel.

Schaffer didn't struggle, it was pointless. As far as anyone knew he wasn't on the station, and if the marines were to dispose of him in these tunnels and drop him out of a convenient airlock, he would not be missed. He should be thanking his stars that Rawling had not done precisely that. The man was cruel, but his cruelty ensured that Schaffer had a chance, however small, to escape his fate.

He knew where he was being sent, he had recognized the name in the documents Rawling had handed to him. It was the Polar outpost. Oh it had some official designation, a long string of numbers and letters that would only mean something to the button pushers and screen tappers who worked in logistics, but its reputation preceded it. It was a small, manned base in the northern polar region of Borealis, an inhospitable planet with crushing gravity, unpredictable weather, and inhabitants who could at best be described as unfriendly.

Some kind of deal had been made with the alien who ruled the area, its permission had been sought to build a listening post there, so that the UNN might spy on its 'allies' in other territories of the planet. It was top secret, but word had circulated, as it often does, when the station had started to earn a bad reputation for driving its personnel crazy. Word had it that even the aliens who lived in the region found it inhospitable, a frozen tundra, a featureless wasteland, and had sought to escape it by any means. Those marines unlucky enough to be stationed there were confined to the tiny outpost, and after a string of suicides and attempted desertions, the Admiralty had eventually abandoned the base, letting computers run its systems.

Schaffer knew that he wouldn't be coming back from 'the Terminal', as it had been aptly named, as it had been the final destination of many of the poor souls who had been stationed there.

The guards dragged him through the winding service tunnels, ducking under protruding pipes and bundles of electronics. They must be taking him to one of the docking hangars that were spaced at regular intervals along the torus. Perhaps he could call for help once there, and some crew member loading cargo would notice him and raise the alarm. Though he doubted Rawling would have failed to account for that.

The Admiral was certainly vindictive, but Schaffer had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Part of his job as a Corporal on the Pinwheel station was to take inventory of the cargo that came in and out of one of the hangars where the larger supply ships docked to unload their wares. He had noticed goods going missing, cargo being loaded onto ships that had not been inventoried, and money changing hands outside of official channels. He had investigated, and that investigation had led him to none other than Admiral Rawling. The man had been abusing his position of authority to run a black market under the very noses of the Admiralty, and on the largest military installations outside of Sol system no less. He was audacious, that was for certain, but what Schaffer had initially assumed to be a small smuggling operation had ended up extending to half of the damned station staff. They were all corrupt, taking bribes to keep quiet.

He had wanted to be a hero, and had confronted one of the smugglers in the hangar who had obviously reported him to Rawling immediately. A short while later he had found himself summoned before the corrupt admiral.

They arrived at their destination, and one of the guards shoved him through a small service door and into one of the cavernous hangars, as he had suspected. The ceiling extended hundreds of feet above him, the walls lined with walkways and bridges, large enough to accommodate even battleships should they need refueling or repairs. A low powered force field contained the air, strong enough to prevent the loss of atmosphere to space, but not so powerful as to impede the passage of ships and shuttles. It was common practice not to venture too close to the edge, a human pushing hard enough might slip through the barrier, such accidents were not unheard of. The same artificial gravity created by the spin of the station was present in the hangars, as they were located on the North and South faces of the torus.

The same guard shoved him roughly from behind, the bay was mostly deserted, what few personnel staffed it were too far away to pay any attention, small figures in the huge hangar. There was one shuttle docked, sitting on the floor of the bay as two men loaded crates onto it. It was a standard UNN dropship, engines under the tail fins and short, stubby wings for atmospheric flight. The guard pointed at it over Schaffer's shoulder with a gloved hand, his voice somewhat muffled under his full-faced helmet.

"There's your shuttle, and out there," he pointed to open space, where a tiny structure floated in the distance, too small to make out details. "That's the jump carrier that's gonna take you to Borealis."

A jump carrier? Did the corruption extend so far? Jump carriers were the largest class of ships operated by the UNN, their very purpose being to use their massive superlight engines to tow smaller vessels into hyperspace in their wake. Perhaps the captain was not aware of the situation, but some of the ship's crew certainly were. With luck he would have an opportunity to escape, or to interact with someone who was not in on the conspiracy, but he doubted it. Admiral Rawling did not make such mistakes, and his money greased the palms of anyone who might interfere with his plans.

One of the men loading the crates onto the shuttle stopped what he was doing, placing a box down on the loading ramp and wiping his brow as he appraised Schaffer.

"This the guy the boss wants us to clip?"

"Yeah," the marine replied, pushing Schaffer forward, keeping a firm grip on his arm. "This is a special job though, don't bump him off, he needs to get to the Terminal first. If they go looking, that's where they'll find him." The man loading cargo whistled, eyeing Schaffer up and down.

"Don't know what you did to piss the boss off, buddy, but that's a tough break."

Schaffer kept quiet, antagonizing these people would do him no good right now. The guard continued, talking over his shoulder.

"Fence this lot," he said, gesturing to the boxes with his free hand. "The boss says you get an extra twenty percent of the cut for doing him this favor."

"I hear that, give him my regards."

The marine handed Schaffer off to the shuttle crew, turning to leave with his colleague.

"In you go," the man on the ramp said, taking him by the upper arm and angling him inside the craft. "You're riding in the back with the crates, don't give me and my co-pilot any trouble and we won't give you any. I'm here to get you to Borealis, that's all. It's not personal."

Schaffer took a seat on one of the boxes inside the cargo bay, and after loading a few more crates, the pilot raised the ramp, sealing him in darkness. There was a short delay, then he felt the craft rise off the deck, feeling the thud of the landing gear as it retracted into the belly of the shuttle reverberate through his feet. He tried to steady himself, his hands still tied behind his back, the inertia buffeting him around as the craft accelerated and made course corrections. It didn't take long for the shuttle to arrive at the jump carrier and begin to slow, angling itself towards what he knew was the landing bay of the larger craft. Jump carriers were massive, blocky vessels, their hulls covered in recesses where shuttles full of marines would anchor themselves like limpets in order to ride the superlight current that the behemoth generated. Larger ships with more mass could coast up alongside it in formation, ensuring they were pulled in when the engines came online and tore a hole in space. Carriers had a docking bay for cargo that ran through the middle of the ship, open to space on both sides and contained by a force field much like the ones on Pinwheel. They looked as if they had been stamped with some giant cookie cutter from port to starboard.

The shuttle slowed to a crawl, and he felt the landing gear descend and impact the floor, the shock absorbers making the craft bounce briefly before coming to rest. Most ships in the UNN, including shuttles, had artificial gravity generators. It was trivial to generate an AG field on something as small as a dropship, but as the mass of the vessel increased, so did the power requirements. Large space stations like Pinwheel just couldn't feasibly meet those requirements, and so they were given a spin, using centripetal force as a substitute.

Schaffer waited, his eyes unable to adjust to the pitch blackness. After a couple of minutes the ramp descended, the glare of the hangar lighting blinding him for a moment. The pilot climbed up into the cargo hold and draped a jacket over Schaffer's shoulders, concealing his tied hands.

"No trouble now, and this will all go smoothly. If you try to make a scene, you'll regret it. The boss said you had to be alive when you got to Borealis, he didn't specify in what condition."

"I won't make a scene," Scaffer muttered, following the man off the shuttle.

"You unpack these crates," the man called back to his co-pilot. "I'll deal with this guy."

There was nobody else on the deck, a few other shuttles lay idle, powered down and waiting for their crews to return. A few cargo lifters with thick, tank-like treads were stowed near the walls, their long forks colored with yellow warning markings. Schaffer looked out into space, watching the Pinwheel hang in the velvet blackness, the planet it orbited shining below it. It spun lazily, the fat torus ringed with glinting lights and the off-blue glow of force fields. This was probably the last time he would ever see it. His train of thought was popped like a bubble as the pilot urged him forward.

"Enough sight seeing, come on, let's get this done and we can both be on our way."

They marched over to the forward wall of the great vessel, entering the carrier proper through one of the automatic doors that led them into a cramped hallway. Schaffer had ridden carriers, but he had never actually been inside one before. It was much like a battleship or a cruiser, the low ceilings and narrow passages were claustrophobic and one had to duck to avoid protruding pipes and machinery. It was like being inside some kind of industrial factory. The air was stale and had that metallic, dry tinge to it that was so familiar to naval personnel.

They proceeded down the corridor, turning a couple of corners, until they came across a man waiting for them, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed. He was wearing blue overalls, standard attire for a navy engineer. He put out an e-cigarette, the only kind permitted on service vessels because of the air filtration systems, and greeted the pilot with a wave of his hand.

"This him?"

The pilot nodded, reaching into his pocket and retrieving a wad of blue bills. He handed it to the engineer who flipped through the stack, counting the notes. Schaffer recognized it as UN currency, the kind most often used in the colonies. Countries on Earth and Mars tended to retain their ancient currencies, but colony worlds and outposts preferred to deal in UN credits. Paper money was still preferred to digital transactions where shady dealings were concerned.

"I counted it already, Patrick, you know I won't stiff you."

"Just making sure," the engineer replied, his voice gruff and gravelly. "I got a storage compartment for your...cargo. Two weeks, one-way trip, there's a toilet and I'll bring him food once a day. Nobody will find him here."

"Rawling sends his regards."

The pilot handed him off to the engineer and turned his back, walking away down the hall towards the hangar. Patrick took him roughly by the arm and tugged him forward, typing in a four digit code on a panel beside a door. It opened with a whoosh of stale air, revealing a small room, no larger than a prison cell. There was a sink and a toilet, and a metal bed frame with no mattress. This must have been a janitor's haunt not too long ago, somewhere to rest and freshen up without having to travel the entire length of the ship to return to the living quarters. Schaffer was shoved inside, then the man drew a short retractable blade. Schaffer tensed, fearing the worst, but the engineer ran it over the zip tie, cutting his hands free of their restrains.

"You're in the engineering section, nobody comes here besides me. You can shout for help if you like, nobody will hear you. The door is locked from the outside, so you can't escape. I'll bring you rations once per day, that's all you get." He brandished the knife, popping the blade free of the handle, the sharp metal glinting under the fluorescent lighting. "Don't try anything stupid, I'm not allowed to kill you, but I can sure as hell make you regret it."

Schaffer didn't reply, but the engineer seemed satisfied. He turned to leave, then hesitated for a moment, digging through his pockets.

"Catch," he said, tossing an object to Schaffer. He snatched it out of the air, examining it. It was a clear, plastic bit, of the kind used during superlight jumps. "Don't bite your tongue off during the jumps, or it'll be my neck on the line."

The engineer left, sealing the door behind him. Schaffer was glad for the bit at least, though he had no crash couch and no restraints in this cell. He would have to make do.

Sentient minds were unable to handle the strain of inter-dimensional travel, the neurological effects of which included uncontrollable muscle spasms, hallucinations, temporary insanity and blackouts. The energies at play did strange things to the nervous system, and the safest way to traverse the dimensional tears was to be safely strapped down, rendered immobile with a bit preventing you from biting off your own tongue and bleeding out.

He was cold, moisture dripped from an exposed pipe that had been sealed with some kind of tape. This must be one of the older vessels still in service, it certainly didn't seem up to spec. That was probably why it was hauling cargo to irrelevant allied worlds rather than serving on the front. What had Rawling said, it took two weeks to get to Borealis? Fuck...

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