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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 14: Couradeen Station

    Allison shifted in her seat, looking eagerly out of the cockpit windshield even though there was nothing to see yet. Joseph and Tyrone sat at the pilot’s and copilot’s positions respectively, waiting to bring the ship out of FTL. They were only a few minutes from arriving at Couradeen Station, potentially her new home.
    “Is there a reason you switched pilots? Tyrone was flying when we left Temorran.” Allison fiddled with the webbing strapping her to her chair as she asked, trying to ignore her nervousness. The restraints weren’t all that comfortable. She hadn’t noticed the last time she was wearing them.
    “Nothing in particular.” Tyrone assigned various sensor displays to the screens in front of him. “We just take turns. Neither of us is really a better or worse pilot, so it doesn’t matter too much who does what. The ship could really be controlled by just one of us, but it’s easier with two. It’s not like I’d have anything better to do either, it’s best to be strapped in for takeoff, landing, and switching between normal propulsion and FTL. The inertial drive can get a little confused.”
    “And that confusion is worse when you’re entering zones with artificial gravity,” Joseph added. “Real gravitational pull affects anything that’s close enough in any direction. Artificial gravity affects anything that’s in the exact right spot, and sometimes it’s not as confined as it should be.”
    “What?” Allison frowned as she asked the confused, one-word question.
    “Yeah, you might want to elaborate on that,” Tyrone chuckled. “You’re eloquence is missing today.”
    Joseph gave Tyrone a hard look and continued. “Artificial gravity can reach past the walls of the structure where it’s supposed to be providing gravity. If you fly close enough above a spot where that’s happening, you’ll feel that gravitational pull briefly as you pass. There’s also no gradual change with artificial gravity. If you fly into the right area, it’s just suddenly pulling on you. We’ll be flying past a few spots on the station where the artificial gravity does that.”
    “That doesn’t sound enjoyable.” Trepidation struck as Allison wondered what it would feel like to have gravity suddenly doubled for the time it would take the system to catch on and correct. She doubted very much that it would be comfortable.
    “It isn’t, no. We’ve done it a few times by accident.” Joseph grimaced at the memory. “It’s not especially painful, but definitely not something you want to do on purpose. Fortunately, artificial gravity does something else that real gravity doesn’t: turn off when you tell it to.”
    “Oh!” Allison recalled what he’d said before about the starmen turning off gravity whenever it was convenient. “I’d forgotten you could do that.”
    Joseph chuckled, watching the screen in front of him. “Probably because we still haven’t done it with you on board. Like I told you, spacedwellers tend to turn it off a lot. You’ll get to experience weightlessness shortly.” As he made the comment, an indicator on the screen in front of him started flashing. “Very shortly. Dropping out of FTL,” he announced.
    The glow in the windshield slowly dimmed and vanished as the ship decelerated. For a moment Allison couldn’t make out anything at all, then the windshield brightened. She hadn’t even known the computer was tinting it, and she suddenly wondered how bright FTL actually was; it had seemed as bright as a sunny day in the cockpit moments before! It certainly explained some things about the ship’s structure.
    Now she could see the location of the system’s star, ahead and to their right. Couradeen Station was also visible, but it was still a long way off. The computer had highlighted it on the windshield, an indeterminate mass that she could cover with the tip of her thumb. It was not getting noticeably larger, either.
    “We are actually moving toward it right?” Allison gestured toward the station.
    “Yes,” Tyrone replied. “Couradeen is a massive station, and we’re a long way off still. If this was Orson Station, where we’re based out of, you wouldn’t really be able to make it out yet. It’s a lot smaller.”
    “It’s also orbiting a planet, so there’s always a good chance it’ll be hidden from sight,” Joseph added. “We should be up to the station in about half an hour.”
    Allison leaned back in her chair again, moving less than an inch, and stifled a disappointed sigh. She felt let down, but there was no reason to inflict it on her friends. It wasn’t their fault, she ought to have realized the station wouldn’t be visible immediately. 
    She was excited to get a good look at Couradeen; thirty minutes wasn’t too long to endure. It would be the first space station she’d ever see. She might as well enjoy watching it come closer.
    It wasn’t long before she was distracted from her frustrations. The way the station seemed to shift as it grew larger in the window was tantalizing, and she eagerly tried to make out more details. When it had grown to the size of her fist, she noticed what looked like little pins sticking out of the surface. It also appeared to have scales like a fish, but obviously that couldn’t be right.
    Eventually they were close enough for her to see that the station was a rough cylinder, miles across and far more miles in length. She couldn’t guess at either number. The scales and pins she had noticed before were different sections of the station. The scales slowly resolved into a hodgepodge of solar panels and glass domes, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them in every shape and size imaginable.
    The pins were tall towers in a fairly wide variety of colors, whether from different materials or because they had been painted she couldn’t determine. Their tips had lights that dimmed and brightened slowly to indicate their position to passing starships. None of them rose very far above the domes; since Couradeen was an agricultural station, that was probably to keep from blocking the sunlight. The domes struck her as the most likely places to grow crops.
    That assumption was confirmed as they drew close enough to make out the nearest domes. Most of them had clear glass, and in a few she could see the tops of many massive trees. A similar dome was probably where their cargo was bound.
    Their angle of approach let her see a little bit into the open end of the cylinder as well as the “surface” of the station. The surface reflected natural sunlight, but the mostly-hollow center was lit artificially. The various parts of the station’s exterior were attached to a massive central shaft. The end of the shaft had several lights like those at the tips of the towers, and ships flashed past it in and out of the cylinder.
    The domes and solar panels were attached to the shaft by long tubes, and their overall structure reminded Allison strongly of tall mushrooms. The towers were a little different. From what she could see, most of those didn’t actually reach all the way down to the central shaft. In fact, few extended more than a quarter of the distance between there and the surface. Usually they widened as they stretched down to their base, secured on a large platform that attached to several of the dome supports.
    The few that did reach to the central shaft looked very different. Much like the domes, the part that attached to the shaft was a skinny-seeming stalk. The actual tower began about halfway up, thickened gradually until it was about as big as the bases of the other towers, then narrowed to the tip that protruded above the domes.
    The whole thing seemed breathtaking to Allison. She actually did hold her breath for a moment, then exhaled with a soft “wow” that was a little louder than she’d intended. She blushed, feeling like an overawed farm girl. That was technically an accurate description. Fortunately, the starmen couldn’t see either her openmouthed gaping or her blushing. Unfortunately, they could hear her just fine.
    “Impressed I take it?” Joseph asked with a chuckle.
    Allison nodded, then remembered he was facing away from her. “Very.”
    “It’s one of the largest stations we visit regularly. It definitely makes an impression.”
    Allison had to agree with that. All in all, watching the station come into view slowly had been much more satisfying than suddenly appearing right before it could ever have been. It had given her the chance to get a good look at every piece of it, something she wouldn’t be able to do on the station itself. The view from the tops of the towers would be spectacular of course, but it couldn’t be the same as coming in from open space.
    “Are we going into the cylinder? That seems like where you have us pointed.”
    “Yep. We’ll be going most of the way down. Mr. Carver owns several domes close to the opposite end of the station. We should be inside in a few minutes.” He turned his head to look at one of the readouts next to him.
    “I’m turning off our gravity.” Tyrone began entering commands as he made the announcement. A few seconds later a warning light began flashing on the windshield to indicate the ship was now a zero-g environment.
    Allison didn’t notice the difference immediately, but it became apparent as soon as she raised her arm. She didn’t need to use as much force now, but she hadn’t realized that and almost poked herself in the eye reaching up to brush at an errant strand of hair. It was a good thing most of it was in a ponytail right now. There was no telling where it would have drifted otherwise.
    Joseph turned the ship to starboard to point into the cylinder of Couradeen station. Allison felt a rumble through the hull as the portside thrusters fired to stop their drift, and the central shaft stopped getting closer.
    “I don’t think I’m going to accelerate any.” Joseph gave the station a calculating look, then eyed the sensor data again. “We’re closing at around a hundred miles an hour. It’ll take us another thirty minutes to get to Mr. Carver’s bay, but I don’t want to bump into anything in there.”
    “One hundred miles an hour isn’t too fast?” Allison couldn’t remember ever getting any of her family’s vehicles up to that speed.
    “We were going a lot faster as we were coming in,” Tyrone pointed out. “And the station has a radius of a little over five miles. There’s a lot of room to maneuver. One hundred is good. You should see the speeds some of the fighters and other small ships rocket through at. Matter of fact, you probably will. One hundred miles an hour is pretty fast on the ground with trees and ditches that could wreck your car instantly a few feet to either side. When the closest object is fifty yards away, it’s more manageable.”
    Allison wasn’t entirely reassured. Still, she tried to relax as they slipped into the interior of the station. The two men certainly wouldn’t do anything likely to wreck their ship, and they were experienced pilots. 
    Once they had passed a few of the big attachment beams, she understood what Tyrone meant; they really weren’t passing that close to any of them. Joseph used the thrusters to strafe back and forth, up and down, adjusting their path to stay well clear of them. The tube had looked crowded as they approached, but there was a lot of empty space inside.
    Garden Variety Animal kept close to the outer edge of the cylinder, where most gaps between structures were wider. Now that they were inside, Allison saw another type of structure on the station that hadn’t been visible before. Attached to the bottoms of many of the wide domes and solar panels were giant metal boxes. Now that she’d noticed, there were tons of them, more than all the other structures combined. A few even protruded from the connecting tubes.
    Even if she’d been able to see them as they approached Allison doubted she would have spotted them. They were bland and uninteresting compared to the domes and towers. Occasional windows were their most interesting feature, but airlocks and exhaust ports were far more numerous.
    “What are the boring metal boxes?” Allison asked Tyrone, pointing one out as they passed nearby.
    The big pilot laughed. “They’re where the work gets done. Well, most of it anyway. Those are warehouses, docking bays, facilities that process the crops, and pretty much anything else that requires a lot of space but no specialized structure.”
    “We’ll dock in one of them then?”
    “We will, yes. Mr. Carver’s docking bay is painted bright blue, so it’s marginally less boring.” Allison laughed. 
    “Speaking of Mr. Carver, why don’t you call him and let him know we’re almost there?” Joseph suggested as he strafed around another connecting tube. “We’re a little early. They should be ready for us anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure.” Tyrone turned toward the communications console to oblige.
    Mr. Carver himself answered the video call. He was an older, stern-faced gentleman with iron-gray hair. “I was hoping that was what you were calling to tell me,” he said when Tyrone told him they were in the station. “I’ll come over to the docking bay and let you in. Hopefully we can get you unloaded before the end of the day.”
    “That sounds good to me. Will you need us out of the docking bay when we’re done?”
    He frowned at the camera and shook his head. “Not unless you park in the middle of it, there’s enough space in there to service two ships your size. We do have some outbound cargo overnight, but it’s going on a smaller ship. You should be able to park there long enough to get Allison settled, if she decides to stay. I have a few job leads for her to look into with our business partners.”
    Allison’s curiosity rose as she speculated what sort of jobs he might have found, but there wasn’t a chance to ask before Tyrone ended the call. There would be time enough to find out when they arrived. Farming required all kinds of outside suppliers and services, so the possibilities were almost endless.
    Soon Allison spotted their docking bay, recognizable to her only because of the blue paint Tyrone mentioned. Joseph slowed the ship as they approached, and they turned to face the bay door which began opening slowly. Allison laughed internally, remembering how large she’d thought Garden Variety Animal’s clamshell doors were the first time she’d seen them.
    Once the doors were open, the ship’s thrusters fired a short burst and they coasted gently into the bay. Joseph extended the landing struts, the magnets attached to them activated and the ship settled to the docking bay floor. Joseph shut down the engines and a few other systems, and the three began unstrapping.
    “Don’t stand up until they turn the gravity in the docking bay back on,” Joseph cautioned.
    It returned suddenly a few seconds later, and only then did Allison realize she’d drifted several inches off her chair. One of her elbows smacked into the chair arm as she landed. Sudden changes in gravity would take some getting used to.
    “Alright, looks like everything is good.” Joseph rose from his chair. “It’ll take a few minutes for them to fill the docking bay up with air again, so we can go back to the cargo bay and look things over.”
    “Will they be turning the gravity back off to unload us?” Allison also stood, rubbing her elbow.
    “Yes. We won’t need you to help with that, so you’re free to do whatever you want. It might be good to go up near the nose of the ship in the cargo bay and spend some time getting used to moving in free-fall though. Living on a space station, it’ll come up from time to time.”
    “Okay. I’ll plan on that,” Allison nodded. On their advice she’d worn jeans today instead of a dress, and she was glad they had thought to mention it. Even with some form of pants underneath, mixing skirts and free-fall seemed like a bad idea.

Published: April 8 2018

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