WARNING:
CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 57: Unexpected Normalcy

    Reentry in a ship this size could be tricky, so for once everyone was strapped in on the bridge. Warships even larger than Great Mandan Laker did it all the time, but those were warships. Freighters were built with different priorities.
    Joseph watched the path indicators presented on the windshield intensely. He’d never done a reentry in a ship this large. He’d done simulations to get a captain’s license for bulk haulers, but this time if he messed it up too badly the crash would be real.
    Things were going well so far, despite his misgivings. The computer-provided path was simple enough to follow, and atomospheric reentry wasn’t a new procedure for him. Confidence gradually returned as he discovered it wasn’t that much different for a bigger ship.
    Finally they were in the atmosphere. Joseph reoriented the ship and headed for the refinery, another fifty miles inland from where they’d descended. Rebecca was first to unbuckle and the others followed rapidly.
    “You may not want to do that yet,” Joseph warned. “Landing over the ore pits at surface refineries is tricky. It can bang us around far worse than if we missed a station feed port.”
    “I have every confidence in your abilities.” Charlie waved the concern away. “It’s the same amount of precision, and your feed port docks have all gone pretty well.”
    “Except for that first one.” Rebecca’s grin was so wide it was nearly audible.
    “He still didn’t hit anything. You haven’t done either yet young lady. Just wait, soon we’ll be laughing at your mishaps. Hopefully.” She must have given him an affronted look. “What? If we laugh it wasn’t a serious mishap, and you will have mishaps so let’s hope they aren’t serious.”
    Joseph hadn’t visited a surface refinery before, and looked with interest as they approached. There were several buildings whose functions he couldn’t tell from the air, and a small one to one side that was clearly the office. The ore pits were interesting structures, half above and half below ground with walls that were thicker at the bottoms and large pillars to support freighter landing struts.
    Landing on the pit turned out similarly to reentry. Joseph was nervous about it, but had practiced enough that his worries were unnecessary. He managed to get them down on the first try. It was much harder to hit than a flat landing pad, but it was doable.
    “No radio contact,” Nathan observed. “What next?”
    “We just put out the gangplank and head over to the office,” Charlie said. “It doesn’t look like a big enough operation that they have cargo coming and going constantly, so I’d guess nobody bothers to man the radio even when they’re expecting company.”
    “Do we all need to go?” Rebecca was halfway out of her chair as she asked.
    “Definitely not. Just Joseph, and maybe I’ll go with him. Someone should stay here to start the unloading when we get the go-ahead.”
    “I’ll go over to the office and make sure everything is set,” Joseph said. “Charlie, come along if you want. Everyone else can mill around the ship as it pleases you, just make sure there’s someone on the bridge. When I call I want the unloading to start immediately.”
    “No problem,” Nathan nodded. “Are we in a hurry to make our next stop?”
    “Not really.” Joseph and Charlie started for the exit. “I just don’t want to hang around any longer than we need to. We still don’t know much about these people, and I’m still nervous.”
    The hauler’s gangplank got them to the walls of the ore pit. From there they made their way down a ramp and across a dirt-covered stretch of pavement to the small office. Next to that building was a gate that led off the premises.
    Inside, the office was comprised of several small rooms. In one, visible through an interior window, a man Joseph recognized as the owner sat at a desk on a call. The room to the other side looked like record storage and electronics, and the one they’d walked into had a receptionist’s desk and several armchairs.
    “Good morning.” The middle-aged woman behind the desk smiled at them and gestured toward the chairs. “Mr. Reese saw you land, so he already knows you’re here. He’s talking to a client right now, but should be done soon.”
    “Not a problem.” Joseph returned the smile as sincerely as he could. “We’re not in a hurry.”
    Only a few minutes after they sat down however, Mr. Reese opened his office door and waved at the receptionist, still with a phone to his ear. He mouthed something at her and she nodded, then he retreated to his office again.
    “Apparently it’s going to take longer than he thought,” she explained. “He said I can give you clearance to start unloading. What mine did you come from? I didn’t check the schedule.”
    “Kalleta Asteroid Mine, out in the fringe systems.” Joseph frowned. “I don’t think the system has a proper name, for all they’ve been there long enough to give it one.”
    “Well, we’ve purchased from them before, so he must not be worried about quality.”
    “Do you purchase from them a lot?” Joseph asked.
    “No, they’re not one of our large suppliers. Once in a while, when the others can’t keep up with our demand. I think the last time was two months ago.” She looked up from her computer and smiled. “Alright, everything should be ready out there. Go ahead and start your unload. Mr. Reese will come out to talk with you when he’s done here.”
    Joseph sent an order to start unloading as he and Charlie left the office again. By the time Mr. Reese was off his call, they had retired back to the walls of the ore pit where they could watch. The ore made so much noise that both had donned large headphones for hearing protection. 
    Once Mr. Reese managed to get their attention they went back to the ground where they could speak easily. “I’m sorry about all that, we’re hammering out the details of a very large order and it took longer than I thought.” The gray-haired man’s friendly tone caught Joseph off guard. Many of the businessmen he knew tended to be brisk or pushy, and with their worries about the pirates at Kalleta he’d expected Mr. Reese to be that type of owner.
    “Not a problem,” Joseph said. “People tend to be a little touchy when they’re spending a lot of money. Since you were busy we came out to keep an eye on the unloading.”
    “I’ve noticed freighter captains like to keep a close eye on their ships.” The businessman extended a hand which Joseph shook, matching grips.
    Joseph nodded. “Not only is it an expensive piece of equipment, it’s your only way home and the way you earn your living. It deserves close attention.”
    “”I haven’t spent that much time off planet myself, but I can understand the impulse. I’m much the same with the refinery.”
    “My scheduler said you supply a lot of the local construction industry.”
    “Among others, yes. We don’t have a lot of iron mining on the planet, so we ship in most of our material. You made a fast run, incidentally. Most of the time orders from Kalleta take nine days or more in transit. I didn’t believe it when she said seven, but here you are.”
    “We picked out a fast ship. Helps keep the schedule and helps us get out of trouble.” Joseph saw Charlie shoot him a warning look from behind the businessman.
    “Well I’m glad for it, we only order from Kalleta as a stopgap when our other suppliers can’t keep up. We just about ran short.”
    “It did look pretty empty in there.” Joseph gestured to the sloped concrete wall of the pit next to him. “I was concerned about ore mounding up high enough to jam the outflow tubes, but once I looked it was pretty clear that wouldn’t be a problem.”
    “We rarely have it get that full at any rate. I try not to keep more on hand than we actually have orders for. It helps with cash flow, despite the drawbacks. It also lets us capitalize when ore is available for a price that’s just too good to pass up, too.”
    “Are Kalleta’s rates good for you?” Joseph asked. “I know how they compare to Teton Sector rates, but I don’t know much about the market in Islinglonde.”
    “Good enough to buy from them when supplies are low.” Mr. Reese gave him a tight smile. “Despite the added cost of long distance shipping. Not good enough to buy from them all the time.”
    “Fair enough. What brought you into contact with them? Old friend on the station?” Joseph had promised Examiner Giffard not to tell the story, but nothing stopped him from fishing for answers.
    “No, one of my clients shipped supplies of some kind for them and mentioned them to me. I can’t recall what, because I can’t recall which client told me. It was quite a few years ago now. They’ve been reliable so we keep using them. How long will your ship take to drain? It looks like it’s going faster than most.”
    “With all the outlets open, it should only take a few hours. All our prior deliveries have been to stations, so I can’t say exactly. We’ve never had them all open at once, so this is our first opportunity to time it.”
    “I see. Well, you arrived early enough in our workday that it shouldn’t matter. Stations tend to operate at all hours, but we go home at night and I don’t like to shut the place down with a freighter here. It’s inconvenient for them, often.”
    “Also a security risk, I’m sure,” Joseph nodded. “Well be done well before that.”
    “Good to hear. I’d better go back, there’s plenty more for me to get done today. If you need anything or something goes wrong, let us know.” Mr. Reese departed with a wave.
    “Not much the wiser for that, are we?” Charlie commented after the owner disappeared into the office again.
    “Nope. “Nothing he said makes him sound like one to help pirates. They do, however, sound like things that would make a perfectly believable cover story.”
    “At least we know he won’t try to hire us again for a while.”
    Joseph nodded. “For all we know he may never have reason to again. Border Patrol and the System Guard may shut down Kalleta, in which case he won’t get deliveries from them anymore.”
    “I could live with that.”
    “As long as it’s the right thing.”
    Charlie grunted and affirmative. “Don’t want to put innocent people out of business. Let’s be honest though, what are the chances those miners are entirely guiltless?”
    “They could be under duress.”
    “They could be, but most pirates wouldn’t go to the trouble. They’d just hide a base somewhere else. A cover is an advantage, but not by that much.”
    “Perhaps.” Joseph wasn’t convinced. To him, he advantage of an established miners’ base seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. Nobody questioned why a fifty-year-old asteroid mine was where it was, and fewer still visited it. That was why other types of criminals liked them. It also meant no need to work through intermediaries when contacting the outside world. The location didn’t have to be kept secret, only their presence. With a little care, that was a much easier secret to keep.
    “For now, let’s just steer clear of the place,” Joseph said. “We’ll let the investigation run its course. Then we’ll find out for sure.”
    Charlie grunted. “I hope we stay clear of it even after we find out. I don’t trust them now, one way or the other.”
    The ship took about two and a half hours to empty, and once unloaded the crew immediately prepared for departure. Everyone had at least poked their heads outside while they were there. It was the first chance they’d had to breathe planetary atmosphere since the ship launched and most of them had grown up planetside.
    “That wasn’t a very long stop,” Rebecca commented as they assembled on the bridge again. “Full gravity and all eight outflow ports open makes for a fast unload.”
    “It certainly does.” Joseph settled into the copilot’s seat, since Charlie would pilot them offworld. “I wish we could get it done that quickly when we unload at stations.”
    Charlie shook his head with a smile. “Keep wishing, maybe it will happen once. It’s not common for refineries to have docking bays big enough to accommodate an ore freighter at all, let alone include the equipment to unload one. I’ve only seen a couple, big refineries.”
    His hands were on the controls as he spoke. Great Mandan Laker floated up from the ore pit and rotated to go back the way they’d come. She was a cumbersome turner in atmosphere, but Charlie soon had her pointed the right direction. They began a slothful acceleration back out of the atmosphere.
    “Have you seen any asteroid mines with that kind of setup for loading freighters?” Gregory picked up the same line of conversation as they flew. “I’ve heard there are some around the Teton Sector.”
    “I was never at one, no. Usually those would be large mining companies that have the money to build that way from the start. Smaller mines build the way we’ve already seen to get the ore flowing as soon as possible, and most won’t invest the time and money to switch to a full bay.”
    “What are the chances we’ll ever visit a mine like that?” Rebecca asked.
    “Not spectacular.” Joseph shook his head. “Most large mining companies also own their own ore fleet. They do hire contract ships, but it’s a low percentage of the work available. Even lower for those of us who work the fringe.”
    It was a nice change to be in a safe region of space. Charlie was the only one who had to do much work as they soared back into low orbit. The others were able to sit back and relax as they kept an eye on various system monitors.
    Once back in space, they changed course to head for the next mine, on the far side of Islinglonde. It was another fringe mine. Before they had visited Kalleta, Joseph considered their next stop the greater risk.
    “We’ll be less than eight hours between FTL jumps on this run,” Nathan commented.
    “That’s a pretty quick stop.” Joseph rubbed his chin. “I like it. We’ll have to find more planetside refineries to haul for, knock a few hours off our runs.”
    Charlie laughed. “You might change your mind when you look at the fuel usage figures.”
    Joseph waved a hand. “We’ll burn through more, but pound for pound fuel is cheaper than downtime. Conserve both if possible, but when you have to pick, burn fuel.”
    “I’ll keep that in mind if I ever have to make that call while you’re asleep.”
    “Sounds good. I’m not sure how much it will come up in transit.”
    The rest of the crew didn’t need to stay on the bridge, but everyone except Gregory loitered anyway. It was interesting to watch a planet fall away in the distance as they traveled to their jump point. Joseph missed that from travel on Garden Variety Animal. Somehow it never got old.
    “Well, another run behind us.” Charlie leaned back with his hands behind his head as they accelerated into faster-than-light travel. “Could we please go a few more without any adventures this time?”
    Joseph chuckled. “Let’s try for that at least. We’ve got enough of them plaguing our wake for the moment. While I’ve got nothing against law enforcement agencies, I’m getting tired of calls with them.”

Published: June 16 2019

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber