Twelve years later, Captain Hughes, of the trading ship Orion, retained his professional composure despite his full understanding of the report in his lap.
Hughes prided himself on his ability to present to his command crew, and the world at large, a quiet and dignified reserve. He imagined himself to be an adventurer, or an explorer, travelling from world to world, star to star, while single-handedly maintaining the civilisation of the Commonwealth states.
It was a mask maintained no matter what troubles arrived on his bridge. Early in his career he had faced down raiders and terrorists. He had negotiated safe harbour for refugee ships during border conflicts between Peleg and Itzo, two systems still squabbling over past glories. They were no longer the supremely important systems they believed themselves to be. No longer the way back to Earth. The route to Earth was lost, and their glory days had faded. Now they were nothing more than unimportant border systems on the far edge of the Commonwealth.
But the situation before him now was enough to crack the mask.
“How long until main engine failure, Natalie?” said Hughes.
“Impossible to be certain, sir,” said Natalie Simms, his chief engineer. “Power readings are highly unstable and the rate of deterioration impossible to predict.”
“That’s the good news. The failure is non-catastrophic. The engines will stop working. We’ll lose guidance and propulsion soon but the main power core is unaffected.”
“And you are certain it is not something we can repair?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but no. The upgrade was pushed upon us by the higher-ups. They insisted the tech was so reliable there would be no need for extensive training. It wasn’t cost effective to maintain. They just swap out the units in dock.”
“More cost effective, my ass,” said Hughes. He pointed at the local star chart on the main screen. “Do you see any docks in this system, Natalie?”
“No sir, I do not,” she said.
The captain clenched and relaxed his jaw, giving his chief engineer a marvellous view of the changing topography of his temple.
Hughes looked around his bridge. It was a small and unimpressive command, but at the end of a long career it was just the kind of thing he wanted. Easy trade routes. No drama. No fuss. So why did his ship have to break down here, of all places?
“Are there any other ships in range able to assist?” he asked the bridge. He already suspected that with his luck so far today the answer would be no.
“Negative, sir,” replied Nicholas Rhine, his first officer. “The rest of the fleet has insisted they can’t wait for us or they risk losing money on their own cargo.”
“Can’t or won’t? Never mind, it’s a rhetorical question.”
“No other ships within range have the technical knowledge we need,” added Simms.
“I would very much like to be wrong in my assessment, but I believe that leaves us only one option if we are to have any hope of getting out of this system quickly,” said Hughes. Help would come, once word finally reached head office, or if he was willing to pay exorbitant fees for someone to recover his ship, but those fees reflected on him as a captain, and he was not about to throw away his long-earned reputation now. Besides, there was his bonus to consider.
“Our options are… limited, sir,” said Rhine sourly. He keyed commands into the armrest panel of his chair. The image on the main display changed. The graceful, curving vectors of their intended route through the Celato system to the Kinebar beacon were replaced by an ugly mass of metal. From this far out it looked like a misshapen potato, a lonely dark grey rock at the bottom of a pond.
And probably covered in scum too, thought Hughes.
The Juggernaut orbited Celato alone. With no frame of reference and no atmospheric haze to give context to the surface details of the city it was impossible to discern the size and scale of the city itself, or any of the component spacecraft from which it was formed.
The shapes had been mashed together to form the Juggernaut could be shuttles or freighters, pleasure craft or deep space miners. From here Hughes couldn’t tell the difference.
The captain touched a control and the image magnified. Now he could see smaller details that betrayed the scale of the monstrosity before him. He could even make out some of the surface features, like cooling towers, engines, and docking bays.
In his years travelling the stars Hughes had seen many examples of beautiful craftsmanship and sleek designs. The Juggernaut was none of those things.
“It’s just a mess, isn’t it?” the captain said to his first officer. As unattractive as it was he couldn’t help but stare. Somehow, despite all appearances to the contrary and their most earnest wishes it was their best hope. “It’s like child just crushed every toy ship he could find into one big lump.”
“It certainly is, sir,” said Rhine.
“What is the population of that thing now, anyway? A hundred thousand?”
“More than that now, Captain,” said Simms. “The last I heard it was over three hundred thousand people, although that was some time ago.”
“Three hundred…? That many, are you sure, Natalie? When did that happen?”
“I don’t know, sir, and I’m not sure. No one keeps records. It’s just an estimate.”
The three senior officers gazed at the display. The image shifted in response to the last offering of their manoeuvring thrusters which slowed the Orion in anticipation of her new heading.
Between them they could identify dozens of different ship types; civilian, commercial, industrial and even decommissioned military craft. The chief even spotted parts of a space station jutting out of the city.
“What a wreck!” exclaimed a crew member, “Who would want to live there? It looks like a spaceship graveyard!”
“Nobody wants to live there, Ensign,” replied Rhine. “That’s why the inhabitants are called the dispossessed. They have nowhere else to go.”
Fantastic, thought the captain morosely. I’m stuck with the serious failure of untested equipment, in a system no one wants to travel to but everyone has to travel through. And somewhere in a city in space which looks like the carcass of a giant metal whale, a place where starships go to die, I have to find someone with the knowledge to fix my ship.
But a captain had responsibilities, even here. Hughes cleared his throat and resigned himself to his only option. “Very well, let’s get this over with. Set course for the Juggernaut.”