"We've not been gone that long," said Dirk, with one of his rare smiles.
"Long enough," grumbled Henjo from behind them.
"We need a break," said Kai. "And this is the best place for it. Then we pick up a nice little job or two and on our way again--"
"Just do me a favour," said Michael, from where he watched them in the doorway, "no more fucking livestock, please. It's going to take me a week to get the hold properly clean from that last lot.”
"Fine. Next time you get to shovel the shit out from between the deck plates--"
Kai listened to his crew bicker with half of his attention; the rest was occupied with scanning the station 'net, looking for evidence of friends, contacts, people they could talk to before they set off on their next run. He'd have preferred to spend some time planetside (fresh air! Sunshine!), but there were those nasty little rumours circulating about them, so... Maiden Station it was.
Not such a bad place for a break; the station was built around the crash site of one of the larger cargo vessels that had plied their trade in this area. The Iron Maiden had been caught in the crossfire of one of the endless squabbles between the various independent planets that littered this part of inhabited space; she'd made a bloody great hole in a small moon, and her AI had decided that he was done with travelling, thank you very much. The word had gone out that anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work building the station would be welcome to stay, and that any refugees from violence (and weren’t there always those running from violence?) would be cared for in return for their help in creating the place the AI had dreamed up.
So between the crew, the computers and a small horde of refugees Maiden Station had been born. And it was resolutely independent; come here looking for converts to your latest crusade and you'd find yourself shoved smartly out of the nearest airlock.
Trade, drink, fight, fuck, gamble; do as you please, but no taking sides.
So far, it had worked. All the little independent traders used the place to pick up contracts, sell off smaller items, blow off steam after a long stint away from the comforts of home; law enforcement used it as an information gathering point - although arrests were very rarely made on the station itself. It had its own home grown security that did not take kindly to a lot of uniforms prancing around the corridors acting as though they owned the place.
Abide by the rules, cause no trouble that resulted in too much death or mayhem, and Maiden Station was the safest place this side of the crab nebula.
Piss the station's AI off, on the other hand, and you'd be a frozen piece of space junk before you could say 'What the fuck…?'
"Maiden Station, this is the Gamma Ray asking for permission to dock," Dirk's voice cut through Kai's musing, his fingers flicking efficiently across the control panel.
"We're a bit full at the moment, Gamma Ray. Can you stay in orbit for a while?"
Kai leaned in and keyed himself into the conversation. "Eddie. This is us you're talking to. What's so fucking important that you can't squeeze us into half a berth?"
"Kai!" whooped the AI. "How's it going, you old reprobate? I've been hearing some stories about you recently. Did you really--"
"Whatever you've heard, it's an exaggeration." Henjo snorted in the background, eyed his captain with affection. Kai shot him the finger. "Come on Ed. You must have a quiet corner somewhere for us?"
"Fine," sighed the voice, with a decidedly put-upon tone, "I've sent co-ordinates. Get that lovely pilot of yours to tuck you in...there. Usual rates apply, Hansen. Just in case you were considering making another attempt at not paying your bill."
Kai pressed his hand over his heart and looked hurt. "Eddie! Would I?"
"Of course you fucking would. Just don't try it again, or we will be having words. Maiden station out."
"Thank you Maiden station, Gamma Ray out. See you in the bar."
Making their way past the rows of docked ships they spotted several whose crews they knew well; there was the Helloween, the Edguy, Zico Chain, Leppard, Masterplan, Magnum, Saxon...
"Fuck," muttered Henjo, "is there anyone who isn't here?"
Kai shrugged. "Something's up. We need to find out what it is - if the Helloween is here then Weiki's the man to ask. He always knows what's going on."
"I didn't think you two were talking," said Frank, from the back of the line. Kai shrugged.
"He blows hot and cold, but he's OK with me at the moment, I think. If he isn't, we'll get Henjo to talk to him."
"Fuck, don't be dragging me into your squabbles, Hansen! I've got few enough friends without you causing a row with the ones I've got left."
They stopped outside the main bar that was the hub of the social life of the station. It was jammed, and the air conditioning was struggling with the mingled miasma of several hundred examples of various species; most were humans, most of the rest were at least humanoid... but some were much, much stranger. Kai caught sight of the tall lizards from the Kallis system, the giant praying mantid-type of insectoid from further out toward the rim... and possibly his least favourite of all, the blobs of intelligent slime that hailed from the forest world of Selayar 3.
"Oh god, the snot-monsters are here..."
"Kai. Don't be vile. We've had some good jobs from them, remember?"
"From them?" asked Michael, incredulous. Dirk waved his hand vaguely.
"Yeah. Before your time - and from what I remember Dan saying, if you think getting cowshit out of the deck plates is bad, you should try cleaning up after a few families of those things."
Kai shuddered. "Do not remind me. And speaking of Dan, did anyone see the Freedom Call as we walked down here? If there's this big a buzz she's got to be here somewhere."
Henjo and Dirk exchanged a swift, uneasy glance. Although their previous loadmaster hadn't left on really bad terms, things had been somewhat... strained... for a while. And when he'd left to fly his own ship, run his own contracts in direct opposition to his former colleagues on the Ray, Kai had spent several weeks in a foul mood, and still pulled a face when Dan's name was mentioned.
They pushed their way into the crowd, made a beeline for the bar. The bartender was an old friend, and when he caught sight of Kai's mop of red curls heading for his corner of the bar he greeted them with a cheerful whoop.
"Kai me old mate! I wondered how long it would take you to get here! Heard the buzz and decided to grace us with yer presence, eh? About bloody time, it's old home week here on the station - by the way, your old loady is here somewhere, ever such a green crew he's got with him now..."
"Evening Nicko," grinned Kai. "Usual please."
Five drinks slid across the bar, with Frank regarding his with some puzzlement.
"What's up with your young man there?” boomed their ebullient friend, "he never seen Altair brandy before? And that's the genuine article I'll have you know, no rubbish here."
"How did you know that's my favourite?"
"Because Fangface and Eddie go way back," snorted Michael, lifting his beer to Nicko in salute. "And they talk."
"You would be surprised what they talk about," agreed Nicko, affable as ever, "even the non sentient ones gossip, although they say they don't - they say they file share for the comfort and convenience of their crew. But the ships with the wild AIs, the ones like our Eddie and your Fang? Oo, now they do gossip. Like old women.”
Dirk tapped his fingers on the bar, eyed the surrounding crowd. There was a tension in the air, not quite celebratory, more a sense of... anticipation. This place was pretty rough on a normal night, although if you didn't start anything you were usually left alone; tonight, however, it felt as though you were in danger just by breathing. Violence hung in the air, and it felt as though all it was going to take was one wrong word--
"So what's going on, Nick?" he asked. The last thing they needed at the moment was to be involved in a generalised bar fight; they were tired, and Eddie's enforcers could be rather, well, indiscriminate.
"There's a big job in the offing, isn't there? Spooky stuff, by all accounts. One of those bloody mega corporations from over Andromeda way wants, I dunno, something or other brought back. Trouble is, it's a nasty one so everyone's saying, and even the AIs are getting nervous. Fuck knows what it is, tho - no bugger's talkin', or at least they ain't talkin' to me. But I reckon if you want to know a bit more about it, you should look over there--" he waved his hand at a dark corner of the bar, "--and talk to your good buddy Weiki, who seems to have more to say about it than most. Go on lads, off you go, here's a beer, I'll send some more over in a minute.”
Thus dismissed, they picked up their drinks and shuffled through the heaving, swaying crowd toward the crew of the Helloween, who'd bagged themselves a table in the corner. As usual, their friends were surrounded by empty bottles and ashtrays, Weiki busy on his small touchscreen while the others talked and laughed.
"Andi. Room for a few more?"
"Always," he replied, and the crew shuffled themselves a little tighter to accommodate their friends. Frank shook his head, backed up into the crowd.
"You lot talk, I'm off to the baths. Anyone wanna come?"
Replies all in the negative, he finished off his beer and pushed off into the crowd. Kai watched him go, and got an elbow in the ribs from Markus.
"Yeah, but he does his job - that's all I need. And he's not so bad, truly.”
Henjo shoulder bumped Sascha. "Right, come on. What's going on that's got everyone so fired up? We came limping out of hyperspace--"
"Hardly limping," grumbled Dirk, who got somewhat nettled when anyone criticised his beloved ship.
"--I had to nurse that fucking drive all the way here, Dirk, if I say we limped, then we limped. So. We limped in, and find you lot here along with every other independent in the sector, plus extras. What's up?"
Sascha looked at their resident genius, and then at Andi, who shrugged permission. He sat back, lit a cigar, and watched his young engineer bring his counterpart up to speed.
"There's a big contract up for grabs," he said, nose ring catching the smoky light, "and yeah, it's all the independents here. One ship, fast in and out--"
"So that's you lot out of the running," grinned Markus, a glint in his eye as he regarded the other crew. Kai snorted at him.
"I've sent you the details," added Weiki, looking up for the first time. His mechanical eye focused on Kai, a slight whirr as it focused on him. "But I don't like it. There's some sort of presentation in a couple of days time; we'll be there, but..." his voice trailed off, and he refocused on his tablet with a shrug.
"You've heard of the Silence?" asked Andi, leaning forward with a wicked grin and a cloud of cigar smoke. Groans rose from the rest of the table.
"God, not that old story again," sighed Michael. "It's utter fucking nonsense."
"Apparently," said Dani, "it's not. That's what the rumours are saying anyway.”
"So they've called everyone in - "
"Except us," grumbled Dirk.
Markus shook his head, curls tumbling over his eyes. "No, your names were on the list. The call must have missed you while you were in hyperspace."
"Everyone in," continued Kai, shooting his pilot the evil eye for interrupting. "To make us, what? Compete? Race three times round the station to see who gets the contract? That's crazy."
Weiki tilted his head again. "Yeah. It doesn't make any sense - unless, of course, they're going to send everyone."
"A last man standing job?" mused Michael, tilting his beer bottle to see if it was as empty as he feared. It was, and he waved it at a server to ask for another one.
"No chance," said Kai.
"Yes. Because we'd beat you anyway," smiled Andi beatifically.
Silence fell across the table.
"You did not just say that," groaned Markus. Too late; the gauntlet had been thrown, and Kai could be seen visibly expanding at the combination insult and challenge. Markus pushed himself to his feet, held his hand out to Dirk who was also eyeing the other captain with irritation.
"Your muscle had a point. Baths? This lot are going to be screaming at each other in about, oh," and he cocked his eye at his captain's smug expression, "twenty seconds. And I can't be bothered."
Dirk accepted the hand up, and waved vaguely at his crew mates. "See you later guys."
The pilots pushed away from the table, and the crowd closed behind them.
So on the way stations and checkpoints scattered along the trade routes you could find bath houses that catered for the basic human need to soak in hot water, gossip, and generally relax. Everyone stopped off at the baths at some point of their visit, and it was often the most anticipated part of any trip.
Maiden station's baths were larger than most, as befitted the importance of their position. You could choose from half a dozen different rooms which catered to different species and sexes; the two pilots picked their usual haunt (humanoid basic, no restrictions on age or sex, warm to hot), put their clothing in the provided lockers and made their way into the steam room. Steam, shower, soak; no better way to spend your first evening at the station, as far as they were concerned.
By the time they'd made their way through to the big pool the pair of them were feeling far more mellow. Small flying servers made the rounds, delivering drinks to the bathers and collecting payment; the station generally found that highly relaxed, slightly buzzed spacers rarely got into fights and were, in fact, much easier to sell things to.
A small manipulation, but a harmless one.
The baths were big enough to hold those who wished to use them without becoming overcrowded, so by the time Dirk and Markus were settled with a beer there was a comfortable buzz around the steam softened edges of the pool.
"So what's going on - really?"
Markus rolled his eyes upward and sighed. "Honestly? No idea. But the rumours have been wild. Where the hell have you guys been that you missed all the buzz? It started a week or so ago. Last we heard you’d had a nasty little run-in with Sanctuary enforcers half a parsec from here.“
Dirk grumbled into the neck of his beer bottle. "Some crazy idea of Kai's. He'd agreed to help out some of the settlers on the far side of the Jimbert system—“
"Oh man, those weird separatists?"
"Yeah. An old friend of his lives out there, raises cows and children and does without technology, on the whole. Only they've been having trouble with raiders recently."
"Who hasn't?" grumbled Markus, "Those bastards are everywhere."
Dirk nodded, let out a long sigh and relaxed back into the water, his hair spreading around his shoulders in a smooth fan. "So this friend of Kai's was going to move family, livestock, lock stock and barrel to a new settlement further out. All fine so far. Except the transport company doubled the price, the family couldn't afford it so he called Kai--"
Markus chuckled, the deep roughness echoing across the steamy water. "He of the soft heart, and the endless desire to ride to the rescue?"
"Exactly. You know what he's like. So off we went, loaded up all the family's possessions and you have never seen so many fucking cows in all your life, Markus. Michael was going nuts trying to keep everything contained; crates and chickens and wild children and fuck me, you should have seen the wife - she went from terrified to hysterical to horny in about an hour. Unstable? Shit. It was possibly the craziest week of my life.”
Markus chuckled at his friend. "Surely not. What about that week on Mars?"
"That was a long time ago. And yeah, this was crazier - more cowshit, less whores. Markus, I thought we were going to drown in the stuff, I swear... and you try manoeuvring through plus three atmosphere with a cargo that will not. Sit. Still.”
The two men thought about this for a while, then Dirk leaned over and rested his head on his friend's shoulder. "So you can imagine. A week in, we're all hiding from the bloody wife - although I'm not sure about Frank, he’s irrepressible - Michael is making noises about barbecue, Henjo is trying to keep all our systems running despite the river of shit which was getting everywhere and at this point, the raiders show up."
Markus sat up, cocked eyebrows at his friend. "You're kidding."
"Nope. So we dive into an asteroid field and try to hide from them - no such fucking luck."
"So what happened?"
"Did you know that if you jettison half a ton of cowshit that you can clog the engines of a mark three Marauder?"
Markus' bark of laughter had half the bathers looking over at them curiously. It took him several minutes to get the laughter under control, and he grinned across at Dirk's impish smile.
"Really. Anyway, we ran like hell, dropped off family and cargo and split. It's taken us a week to get back here, and I swear that cargo hold will never, ever smell the same again. So whatever this job is," and he took a long swallow of his beer before slumping back into Markus' side, "it really, truly can't be any worse than the last fucker was.”
Markus’ laugh this time was rather softer. “Those, my friend, sound like famous last words to me.”
They clinked beer bottles, and settled back into the warm water to enjoy a little peace and quiet in the middle of their hectic lives.