Starflare – Fuel
With a sigh Nicola pushed herself away from the desk and the mountain of work piled up on her terminal. Her back cracked as she straightened in the chair then let herself slump down again. She checked the clock. Almost ten at night. She’d worked right through dinner again without realising it. She’d definitely earned a break.
She pushed her way out of the chair with a groan and moved to the far side of her office where she flicked a control. The entire wall slid smoothly back, revealing a floor to ceiling armoured glass window. She sank into the couch facing the window with a much happier sigh and stared at the planet just below.
Even after nearly sixty years it was still a sight that mesmerised her. Multi-coloured streamers of gas swirled across the massive surface, dominated by reds, yellows and browns but with occasional streaks of green and blue.
The planet seemed to stretch out forever. This close to its surface there was no hint of a curve, the planet simply continued until it blurred into invisibility. Space above it was pitch black, the light from the planet far too bright for any stars to shine through. With one exception — the sun. Darkansia itself.
At this distance the sun showed as little more than a bright star, offering neither warmth nor illumination. Nicola didn’t care. Tonight it was sitting just above the horizon and seemed to be twinkling, wavering even, as its light was diverted by high rising strands of the planet’s atmosphere.
Nicola sat mesmerised, the stress of the day vanishing. This was why her desk was well away from the window and the shutters were kept closed most of the time. With this view to distract her she’d never get any work done. Now that she’d finished for the day she could happily lose herself in it for hours.
It wasn’t to be today. She’d been sitting there for barely five minutes when the emergency comm channel kicked in. Nicola shook her head in annoyance, then accepted the call.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Commander, sorry to disturb you, but the Nebulous has returned. Again.”
“I’m on my way.”
Nicola cut the comm channel then let out a stream of curses. Not the Nebulous. Not again!
* * *
Nicola dropped into her seat on the command deck and nodded at the comms officer. A display flared into life in front of Nicola showing the all too familiar sight of the Nebulous’s Captain.
“Captain Black,” she said. “You bless us with your company. Yet again.”
Captain Black raised an eyebrow and smiled back at her. She was certain that, like his name, everything about him was fake. In his mid thirties, he wore a sharp blue suit complete with waistcoat and tie. His dark hair was cut short and gelled down. Everything about him screamed businessman, though not the honest sort.
Almost everything. The Nebulous broke the illusion. It was a massive ship, so heavily converted it was impossible to guess what it had once been. It bristled with weaponry and armour, not to mention dozens of fighter craft. The Nebulous showed exactly what Captain Black was. A pirate.
“Hello my dear,” he replied finally. “Did you miss me?”
“I hardly had the chance. You were only here last week. Surely you haven’t used up all the fuel we gave you already. That should have been enough to last you for a month at least.”
“Ah, my lady, you know how it is. You meet someone in need and you can’t help but offer assistance. We met several ships in such a predicament and so our stocks were used up far more quickly than we’d anticipated.”
“I take it you gave them the fuel for free?”
“Of course! We may have charged a small fee for the trouble of bringing it to them, but nothing unreasonable.”
“And here you are again, seeking more fuel no doubt. I take it we can expect to be paid this time, as you received those small fees for delivering the fuel we gave you for free.”
“Alas, no, for there is no inconvenience to you. The fuel is all around you, you simply scoop it up and deliver it. I’m sure you would be offended if we offered to pay you for such a trifling matter.”
Nicola’s patience snapped.
“So once again you’re here to take fuel from us without payment, to steal it from us, and you’ll take it somewhere else and sell it for a handsome profit? No. No more. You’ve been bleeding us dry over the past six months, turning up more and more often to take fuel we need to sell to survive. Now you think you can turn up each week, take our fuel for free and sell it for a profit? No. From now on you pay for the fuel or you get nothing.”
Captain Black’s voice hardened. “Careful who you threaten, Commander. You think you are struggling because we turn up from time to time? How about if we stay and destroy a few of your customers when they arrive? How long will you stay in business then?
“What if we decide to destroy your mining platform as an example to others and move on to somewhere else? Will that be better than giving us free fuel? Or what if I wipe out your fleet of tankers. I count seven of them within our weapons’ range now. Can you afford to lose that many, or would it cripple you?”
Acid burned in Nicola’s chest. She wanted to lash out at Captain Black, to call his bluff, but she daren’t do it. He was right — destroying a few customers’ ships would quickly leave the platform blacklisted, and destroying the platform as a whole was well within the capabilities of the Nebulous.
The threat to destroy the fleet of tankers was misplaced. While seven were visible to the Nebulous’s sensors, nearly a hundred more were ploughing the cloudy depths of the planet below to collect the raw fuel. While it was available in abundance on the planet that was still a relative term. Each container would spend at least two days to gather enough to return full.
So the threat to destroy the fleet of tankers was misplaced, but Nicola’s people were still on each of the tankers that could be attacked. She knew Captain Black would do it as well. He’d done it the first time he arrived, destroying a tanker before even opening communications, an indication of his resolve. There was no way Nicola could have avoided it but that didn’t stop the guilt she felt for the seven people who had died, and for their families.
“Fine,” she ground out finally. “You win. I’ll send two tankers over now. Just remember that if you keep bleeding us like this the platform will fold. We aren’t self sufficient. We have to have Duterax fuel to sell to be able to import the things we need.”
“That’s not a concern. If your platform goes under we will simply turn our attention to another. Until that happens you will supply us with as much fuel as we demand. And if you don’t mind I think I’ll choose which two tankers provide the resupply. I know Duterax isn’t explosive but I don’t want you getting inventive.”
He told her which two tankers to send and she sent them on their way, hoping they’d be allowed to return safely. She wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to grab the crews as hostages or slaves.
The fuelling process took nearly twenty minutes, an agonisingly long wait for Nicola. Finally it was done and Captain Black was back on her screen.
“There,” he said. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it my dear? I was thinking some of your tankers’ crew might like to enjoy our company for a while.”
Nicola’s stomach clenched. This was what she’d feared.
“But as you’ve been so cooperative,” he continued. “I’ll let them go. This time. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Your crews are free to go. I suggest they move quickly, we will be entering hyperspace shortly. Rest assured, we will see each other again soon. Very soon.”
The transmission cut out. Nicola watched as the tankers struggled to pull away from the Nebulous in time. They weren’t designed for acceleration but at least they were empty now. They’d just opened up sufficient space when the Nebulous activated its hyperspace engine.
The pirate ship disappeared. Not by vanishing into jump space, but consumed by a massive explosion. No one on the command deck cheered, too many lives had just been ended to do that, but Nicola could feel the satisfaction. She turned to the refinement manager.
“Donna,” she said. “It looks as if a step was missed while refining the fuel in our seven tankers. Please order them to dump the rest.”
“Yes, Commander. Should I order the tankers with properly processed Duterax out from the cloud layer?”
“Yes. Please do. We’ve seen the last of our non-paying customer.”
Nicola settled back into her command chair. Captain Black had been arrogant, believing the power of the Nebulous made him unbeatable. His defeat had shown how a little knowledge could overcome a huge amount of firepower. Black had been right, Duterax was not explosive at any stage of its processing from raw gas to refined completion.
However, if one key stage of the processing was missed then it became explosive when used to fuel a hyperspace jump. Unfortunately for Captain Black and the Nebulous there was no way to tell the difference between properly refined fuel and the type that was so dangerous.
That was part of the reason Duterax was as expensive as it was. Customers weren’t just buying fuel, they were buying trust in those who provided it. Investing in goodwill that in turn protected them from danger. Captain Black had chosen not to pay for that trust, and he’d got exactly what he paid for.