First Across the System
Tired of a humdrum job?
Undervalued at work?
Life passing you by?
Are you looking for Excitement?
Ready for life in the Deregulated Zone?
Then Ragnox Inc. is looking for YOU.
Director Jordan Pascal invites you to sign up now for a stimulating and lucrative seven-year contract at N1 Research Station on Triton, the nerve centre of Ragnox Inc’s Outer Circles operations.
Take the challenge
Learn to live
Come home a millionaire!
Contact us now!
Terms and conditions apply.
‘You will be a good boy, won’t you? And not get in the way or anything?’
‘I promise, Ma.’ Tim Faber kept smiling as he reassured his Earth-bound mother that all was well. She seemed to think she was still packing him off for the school bus.
‘Selina! Don’t baby the boy.’ Muttered remarks off-screen.
His mother sighed, and shifted aside to make room for his father, who peered out at Tim with a frown. ‘We don’t want you embarrassing us. You’ll obey Commander Foxe’s orders to the letter.’
‘Is your jacket undone? Respect your uniform. Smarten yourself up, you’re not a scarecrow. Learn a bit of discipline and when you come back, we’ll discuss college. Yes?’
‘Keep in touch when you can.’ His mother shouldered her way back onto the screen.
‘Well, yeah, but it’ll be difficult out there.’
‘I know, but you will try, won’t you? Have a lovely time, anyway.’
He waved as he disconnected, just catching his father’s last command. ‘Do your buttons up!’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ he muttered, swivelling his chair around to survey his home from home for the next year and more, the flight deck of ISF Heloise. The ship was currently slumbering quietly, lights dimmed, at docking bay 73 on Newtonia Relay Station One, 300 kilometres above the Earth.
‘Going to be sent back to school then, Tim?’ Officer Siegfried strolled over to slap him on the back, and then neglected to remove his hand.
Tim shifted his chair sideways. The craggily Teutonic Siegfried was just a bit too fond of him for his comfort. ‘Not if I can help it.’ He ambled across the deck to check the equipment that would keep him occupied as far as Ganymede on the Jupiter circle. ‘Hey! Someone’s reset the Altair!’
Chief Officer Kwame Addo looked up from his command console with a smile. ‘We always do.’
‘Yeah, but I’d almost got the hang of it.’
‘Faster second time.’
Second time. Tim liked that. He was part of the crew and heading for considerably more excitement than anything awaiting his college-bound mates. The ambitious ones might one day find themselves hurtling up the corporate ladders to offices on Ganymede or even Platinum City, but he was the one going Out, across the Protocol Line beyond Jupiter, into the furthest reaches of the deregulated zone. Nothing could beat that adrenalin rush.
‘Right. Seems we’re in business,’ said Addo.
Tim looked up at the banks of screens monitoring the ship. It was coming to life. Channels clicked into place, lights came up, chandeliers emerged out of the gloom, shutters sprang up on the bars, trolleys rattled, smartly uniformed staff took up their stations.
The announcement from the departures concourse reached them. Gate 73 is now open for passengers for Flight EGT 490 to J1A Ganymede Alpha and Triton. Gate 73 for Flight EGT 490.
For the next three months, the ISF Heloise would be serving as a cruise liner, under the management of Ragnox Travel, offering sedate entertainment to middle-income tourists with time for an ambling cruise across the Inner Circles to Jupiter Settlement 1A; Ganymede Alpha.
The passengers were, for the most part, of a generation ill at ease with the surge of advances that had made rapid expansion out to the furthest reaches of the solar system a possibility. They regarded the future with alarm and the past with longing, so Ragnox Travel offered them the past – a fictional past, mixing touches of Art Deco, Rococo and Imperial Rome. On their voyage they would be pampered, for a cost, by seventy-eight stewards, cooks, croupiers and cleaners.
The four officers who made up the flight crew of the Heloise were merely required to look smart and efficient until Ganymede. After that, their real work would begin; ultimately the Heloise was bound for Triton Station, Neptune, with a handful of passengers youthful and bold enough to be heading that way. Tim scanned the crowd bustling on board, dismissing most of them, trying to identify the ones that mattered. One bully boy, mid-twenties, snarling at the fat lady next to him – odds on, he’d be for Triton. Tim singled out another one, a girl, slinky as a prowling Siamese cat, pushing her way with arrogant indifference through the crowd. Seriously hot.
‘Yes! Oh yes.’
‘Hands off the livestock, boy.’
Tim swivelled round to find Commander Foxe looking down on him. Commander Foxe looked down on everyone. In his dress uniform, he looked at least three metres tall.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Tim, standing to attention.
‘Did you call your parents?’
‘Yes, sir, like you said.’
‘Are you going to do up those buttons?’
‘Yes. Right. Absolutely.’ Tim fumbled with them.
The doors hissed and silky, silver-haired Brian McBride, Passenger Welfare Co-ordinator for Ragnox Travel, sauntered in breezily.
‘All geared to go?’
Commander Foxe glanced at the last phalanx of passengers shuffling onto the ship. ‘All right, Bridey. Tell me the worst. Any nuns?’
‘No nuns. Tarts are another matter. I’ve been commissioned to arrange secret assignations with you for Señora Consuelo, Mrs Simpson-Travis-Parker and Mrs Clunes. Don’t look at me like that. You’ve no idea what they’ve paid for the privilege.’
‘I can guess. Come on, what else is on the list?’
‘Just the average mob. Twenty-nine First Class, ninety-four also-rans. And your Triton babes, of course. Six of them this trip.’
‘I’m aware of that, thank you. I have their contracts. Tell me something I don’t know about them. You usually manage to extract blood in the thirty seconds it takes to check their passes.’
‘A pretty average Triton bunch.’ McBride stepped up to join the commander as he conjured up six faces on the nearest monitor. ‘Let’s see. He’s an orang-utan – give him a kicking. She’s a mouse, yawn. Very keen to tell me her name, so must be an alias. That one’s an alco – can’t stay upright. He’s a psycho. She’s a bitch…’ McBride studied the slinky Siamese cat’s face complacently. ‘If you want someone to spank her, I’m your man.’
‘Thank you, Bridey. I do the spanking on this ship. And what about him?’
‘Ah yes. Him.’ McBride sniffed at a long, blank face, eyes magnified by thick spectacles. ‘Yes, all right, that one’s definitely out of the ordinary. His name – it’s his real name, by the way – is David Rabiotti.’
‘Any connection to Michael Rabiotti?’
‘Son of, no less.’
‘Why would a Rabiotti be travelling to Triton on the Heloise?’
‘Yes, a mystery, isn’t it? Your guess is as good as mine.’
‘No, mine, as ever, will be better. Yes. Interesting.’ The commander perused the screen for a couple more seconds, then switched it off. ‘But the Triton contingent is my business. Time you were off to chivvy your own passengers, Bridey. You’ve only got three months to milk them dry.’
‘It’s all in hand.’ McBride did a quick survey of the monitors. The casino on A-Deck had its first customers. Passengers were already gathering in the B-Deck observation lounge, where the great screen had nothing to show more exciting than a parade of orange gantries, but the bar was up and running, doing healthy business. McBride rubbed his hands.
‘In that case, get out from under my feet.’ The commander consulted the departure schedule screen, then glanced round at his crew. ‘Gentlemen, time to go.’
Tim’s fingertips tingled in anticipation. There would be no great roar, no whoosh, as they trundled out on automatic guidance to sling round the Moon, but this was the start. Onwards and outwards. How could college possibly compare?
Commander Foxe tapped a button. ‘E1 Newtonia Control, this is flight EGT 490 requesting clearance for departure to EAP guidance.’
‘EGT 490, your departure is cleared for EAP guidance channel 9.’