“Well, she’s a fixer-upper,” Stronn admitted, clutching the straps of his coverall.
The plastic tarpaulin lay in a crumpled heap at their feet.
“Death-trap.” Martine replied. “The word you’re looking for is death-trap.”
They were stood off the starboard bow of an old Lindbergh-Class shuttle, her hulking, rusted form one of nearly a hundred fliers, aircraft and shuttles crowding Stronn’s salt flats. She was a belly-lander, a stubby pair of fold-out wings widening her compact, vaguely cylindrical profile, the whole hull caked in ochre muck. Mounted to these wings were a pair of large, ducted fans and four engines, each fronted by the ugly muzzle of a ram intake.
Assuming the Lindbergh-Class was still flightworthy, her vast banks of superconducting capacitors would power the lifting motors and superheat the air passing through those ramjets. On her very fore was a streamlined viewing cupola — in atmospheric mode, that cramped space was her cockpit. The colourful patina of rust coating the coilguns which flanked that cupola made them younger than the rest of the shuttle, by her estimation.
“Tell me more about her,” she said. “History, all that.”
Stronn shrugged massively. “Built the Lindberghs for the Consolidation Wars, way back when. Fusion torch for interplanetary flight, capacitor power for atmospheric flight. Rated for Ice Giants, in a pinch.”
She knew all that.
The ramjets could be configured as fuel scoops inside a gas giant like Neptune or Uranus, if the situation required — wilderness refueling, Free Traders called it. She’d seen enough broken-backed freightships on the landing fields of Hamilton Spaceport to know the risks of that particular pastime. Martine glanced at Stronn, instructing him wordlessly to continue.
“Well — once the war was over, mission profiles changed. Imperial Navy didn’t need quite so many military transports, so they sold them. Some went to Free Traders — good ship for starting out with, miss, if you’re in that business — but also to passenger freight concerns, exploration teams visiting terraformed worlds on the edge of the wormhole nexus, even colonists.”
“What’s this one’s history?”
He ran one greasy hand over his stubbled scalp.
“Seven careful owners. Demilitarised in the 430’s, aside from some low-yield point-defence guns, stowed in atmospheric-mode. Sold to a Mister al-Hashemi under the working name Ashurbanipal, no modifications on record, who sold it to a… that’s it, a Mademoiselle Rusnak., who renamed the ship to Feodosiya. Ran a crew out of the ship prospecting Terraformer worlds, so she needed firepower, hence the, ah–” Stronn gestured to the coilguns, his manner almost embarrassed. “After that, she was forced to sell to the First Eridani Bank — things did not go well for Mademoiselle Rusnak’s business after the ‘520 financial–“
Martine gave him a withering look. “Cut to the chase, Stronn.”
“Right, miss. Naturally.” He consulted his notes on the Lindbergh-Class in his computer slate. “Coilguns are the biggest modification. Owner number four refurbished the RCS. Number five fitted an inflatable heat shield for reentry, just needs a patch or two.”
“And since she’s been in your care?”
Stronn stepped forward and released the starboard ‘lock, the outer door hissing as the seal broke. With some effort, he dragged the door down the rails mounting it to the hull. Martine’s heart fell. The lock’s interior had been stripped down to its steel and ceramic bones, tangles of wire spilling over the ribs like hanging ivy. At the heart of the airlock, he’d left the electronics and gubbins — control panels, light fixtures, sensors, pressure gauges, aluminium pressure tanks — in a translucent plastic crate.
He sensed her disappointment. “Shouldn’t be more than a week’s work for me to put it back together, miss. For a service charge, of course.”
Martine laughed. “I can fix this in an afternoon. Assuming you haven’t broken anything for good, that is. It’s just more work. Show me the rest.”
Most of the interior didn’t look much better. It was divided into half a dozen square rooms, separated by thick steel bulkheads — these would serve as the ship’s decks, when she was under thrust in open space — most of the fittings and fixtures stripped out in an amateurish fashion. A brushed steel ladder, the rungs worn smooth and oily, was mounted to the ceiling – this would bridge the ship’s decks under thrust.
“You still have the parts for the lifesystem?” She asked.
Stronn nodded eagerly, opened his mouth to speak. She cut him off.
“For a service charge, yeah. I figured.”
The Lindbergh’s life support system was an old-fashioned yoghurt pot, an acrylic vat full of brown mulch, the decomposed leftovers of recycling algae. Stronn had stripped out most of the plumbing, metal pipes as big as her arms. What remained was fitted to a gimballed toilet and, on the other side of the lifesystem deck, a crusty bank of food printers. Grim, but she’d seen worse. Martine headed downship, to the engine room.
Most of the space was dominated by an MHD tap — half a dozen pistons, each as thick around as her torso, driving great flywheels, designed to siphon power from the pulsing, lurching motion of the torch drive — with most of the remaining volume given over to banks of glossy, black supercapacitors, their rugged plastic hulls gleaming in the dim light. All of this was mounted to the back wall — the one which would be the floor of the engineering deck, when the ship was in flight. Here, at last, Martine found a part of the shuttle Stronn hadn’t interfered with.
Satisfied, she toured the flight deck.
It all looked a little funny, oriented wrong like that. Bellylanded, the array of screens which formed a half-globe around the pilot’s seat looked like some kind of modernist take on a chandelier, hanging awkwardly from the ceiling. With most of the command deck’s inner hull stripped away, she could see the shuttle’s guts, exposed — a brutalist cityscape of reaction mass pumps, coolant lines, overflow tanks for propellant, hydraulic links for the fold-out wings.
With some difficulty, she clambered into the viewing cupola. It was surprisingly spacious, actually — when Martine had been a kid, she’d visited a museum of war, and had there been able to sit in the cockpit of an ancient Chinook helicopter, from Old Earth, which was about comparable in scale. The cupola’s flightseat was an ugly shade of brown and dusty to the touch, the fabric motheaten and foul-smelling.
“Avionics?” She asked, trying to hold in the urge to sneeze.
“Originals,” he said, gesturing at the dials, gauges and flatscreens of the shuttle’s flight controls. “I had a go at them, but I’m too clumsy to strip them out. They should work fine.”
Martine felt her eyebrow quirk. That didn’t inspire confidence.
“Fine. She’ll do.”
Stronn looked genuinely surprised. He worked his mouth for a moment and then shrugged. “Alright then. I’ll give you her scrap price — twenty-two thou.”
He winced. “Fine. Nineteen thousand.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Fifteen grand, and you waive the service fee on the parts from the life support system.”
“Seventeen fifty. C’mon, you’re robbing me blind here.”
Martine shook her head. “Sixteen. Final offer.”
Stronn dithered for a moment, then nodded. “Sixteen. In cash?”
She sat back in the dusty flightseat, and tried to imagine herself living here.
The more she thought on it, the more the idea appealed to her. There was all sorts of work out there for a Lindbergh-Class these days. Not much cargo space, but a ship like this didn’t have the overheads of larger ground-to-orbit shipping companies, which meant she could make a living on a tighter profit. Or maybe she’d become an explorer. A frontiersman. Now there was a thought. Martine found herself laughing at the idea.
Stronn knocked on the bulkhead.
“I’ve charged the capacitors, brought all the parts I could find, and I grabbed the fuel pellets, like we agreed,” he said. “Where do you want them?”
“Just… leave them by the lifesystem, thanks.” She heard him stomp his way downship, and called out, “oh, and when you’re done, make sure you get clear of this rustbucket.” Hm… Rustbucket, she thought. That would make for a nice name.
“I’m going to head to the northern plains,” she replied. “It’ll be easier to work on getting her spacetight up there. No distractions. But I’d rather not flatten you on the way out.”
“Y’ really think you can do it all yourself?”
Martine frowned, looking out at the sky.
“Why not? I spent my teenage years fixing Free Traders down at Hamilton Spaceport. And anyway, I can’t trust you not to break her even worse — no disrespect.”
“None taken. I’ll be outta your hair in two ticks.”
Perhaps fifteen minutes later, she caught Stronn waving at her, both arms raised, from the salt flats below. She drew a deep breath and prayed, silently, to any god or gods who’d listen — her hands found the avionics, their tactile controls comfortably chunky and familiar. One at a time, Martine flicked the startup switches, the keening whine of the ship’s capacitor banks giving way to the creaking, metallic complaints of the ship’s hull and wings. Confident the Rustbucket wouldn’t kill her on takeoff, she eased up the lever which powered on the ship’s VTOL fans and ran her final checks. Satisfied at last, she gunned the engines.
The death-trap rattled to life and, at length, rose from the salt flats under her own power. The engines rose, their whine becoming a low, throaty roar, and soon she was easing towards the northern edge of the flats, over a field of decrepit ships. The Rustbucket swayed perilously for a moment, the wind rocking the shuttle — but the longer she flew it, the more used to the ship’s unorthodox aerodynamic profile Martine became.
The suns were beginning to set, their amber light pouring between the peaks of the mountains to the Northwest. Above, the sky was turning inky, the stars showing their faces. Ahead, the path was clear and open.
For the first time in her life, Martine felt free.