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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 45: Four Machines

    Four Machines Mining Station was still nothing but a bright speck in the windshield when Great Mandan Laker left faster-than-light travel and began decelerating. It would take another half hour to reach it. Once Joseph had that timetable he announced it on the intercom and radioed the station to advise them. Charlie was already on the bridge, seated at the copilot’s station, and the others would undoubtedly filter in to watch their arrival.
    “Charlie, would you keep an eye on our course for a minute? I’m going to put one of the telescopes on the station so we can get a better look at it.”
    “Not a problem. Take your time, we’re fine for a while.”
    An asteroid with a variety of manmade protrusions appeared in a window on the windshield once Joseph aligned the telescope. The rock itself was an ovoid shape, around three miles long and two across. The most notable of the manmade modifications was a ring of metal lattice structures sticking out of one end for over another half-mile. Attached to their ends were smaller, shorter metal lattices that reached out toward the center of the ring. It looked rather like a many-toed claw. A few hundred feet behind it he spotted the docking structure for ore haulers.
    “They’ve made a lot of progress for how long they’ve been here,” Charlie said.
    “You’d be the one to know. This is the first asteroid mine I’ve seen this close.”
    “Well, you’ll know them as well as I do before long.”
    Nerves over his first time mooring Great Mandan Laker were affecting Joseph more than he expected. Jittery already, he’d even limited his coffee intake when he woke today. She was much larger than any ship he’d moored outside a simulator, and the match had to be more precise than Garden Variety Animal had ever required. He found himself absorbed in study of the display that would show him the position of their cargo intake hoppers relative to their counterparts that protruded from the station.
    Focused on that, he didn’t notice that other members of the crew had joined them on the bridge until Rebecca came to lean against the helmsman’s console. “I didn’t realize the station was an asteroid itself.”
    “That’s pretty common in asteroid mines,” Charlie said. “Especially remote ones like this. Less material has to be hauled in for construction, and as long as you pick the asteroid carefully you generate income as you build. With how young the station is, I’d bet a month’s pay that the ore we’re taking came from this asteroid.”
    “No bet,” Samuel said from the doorway. He clomped down the ramps to join them by the windshield. “That’s exactly where it came from, I’ve been around enough mines to know.”
    “Even if he offers a better bet, please don’t gamble amongst yourselves.” Joseph rubbed his face. Even the thought made him tired. Bets that size would make fights between crew members inevitable, even with the people he’d picked.
    Charlie had been a ship hand long enough to predict Joseph’s thoughts exactly, and chuckled. “It wasn’t a serious offer. I’ll play the odd card game, but you didn’t hire any big gamblers.”
    “What’s the big claw thing on the end of the asteroid?” Rebecca asked.
    “The first few construction stages of a Cup,” Charlie said. “The term for it varies place to place, but it’s a structure to enclose a fair-sized asteroid while it’s broken apart into manageable pieces. This one will be able to hold rocks with about a half-mile diameter.”
    “It isn’t finished though?”
    “No, although I think they have all the structural and mechanical pieces up, so they could start using it. They still have to put a skin on it, which is going to take a lot of time and metal. Once that’s completed, it will stop any asteroid pieces from escaping as they cut it up. If they use it like this, the miners have to retrieve any large chunks that get away, otherwise they’ll become hazards for the station and nearby ships.”
    His mind focused more on avoiding errors in ship maneuvers than space junk, Joseph soon lost track of the conversation. Agitation dampened his normal curiosity. As Charlie said, there would be lots of opportunity for him to learn about asteroid mines. Right now there was lots of opportunity for him to bang up his ship, and he wanted to avoid that.
    “Not that I want a bigger audience for my first time docking this thing, but where is Nathan?” Joseph asked. As they got within a few minutes of the station and he finally checked the bridge to see who was there, he noticed the man was absent.
    “He said he was going to bed.” Gregory smirked as he answered. “If you crashed, he figured he’d rather be asleep when it happened.” Joseph’s stomach lurched again and Samuel and Rebecca chuckled.
    Charlie rolled his eyes, not impressed. “Go wake him up and tell him he’s an idiot for me. Joseph did fine with the launch from spacedock and the trip through the shipyard, and that was much tighter quarters than this. There’s no reason to think this will be any different.”
    Gregory only laughed harder. He knew that, and Nathan knew that, and they were only giving Joseph a hard time. It had been the way of men for thousands of years, and always would be.
    When they were within two minutes and the view of the station through the windshield was better than that on the telescope, Joseph hailed them. “Four Machines Mining Station, this is Great Mandan Laker. We’re starting our final approach.”
    Traffic control around a small station like this required much more direct communication than a place like Couradeen Station, or even much smaller Orson Station. Once a station was big enough to require a municipal government they bought computer systems that would track space traffic and assign paths to each ship. Until then it had to be done by radio, and Four Machines wouldn’t have enough traffic to require the upgrade for a long time.
    “Rodger Great Mandan Laker,” responded a reedy male voice, “Everything is in order on our end, you can connect to the hoppers whenever you’re ready.”
    “Always nice when the station is ready for you,” Charlie observed.
    “Something I shouldn’t get used to, I take it?” Joseph replied
    “Definitely not. Asteroid mines are busy places, and they don’t want on-shift employees just sitting idle waiting for the hauler to show up. When I worked these runs in my younger years, it was fairly typical to wait a half hour before the station was ready to make the connection.”
    “Do we need to sit down and belt in for this?” Gregory asked.
    “No.” Charlie shook his head, eyes on the asteroid that now filled the windshield. “There won’t be any gravity shifts on board, we won’t be close enough for any interference. The bump when we connect will be the only jolt, and we won’t be moving fast enough for it to be that bad.”
    Joseph clamped his hands on the controls to keep them steady as he cautiously brought them alongside the massive rock. They faced the incomplete Cup, just a few of its long masts visible around the curve of the asteroid. The big catfish-shaped fish felt like a minnow next to the station. If they collided with the asteroid it would take very little damage compared to them.
    “Move us a little to ventral, Joseph,” Charlie said. The old hand watched the same readouts as Joseph with the same intensity. “A little more clearance from the hoppers until we’re actually under them won’t hurt.”
    Joseph complied in silence, and took a long look at the big steel pipes as they inched past above the windshield. The panicky part of his brain imagined that they still wouldn’t have enough clearance, and the pipes would crash against their analogs on the ship, destroying both, despite the instruments’ report of a thirty foot gap between the two. The trained pilot in him knew to trust the instruments, and training mastered panic. He made no adjustments, and the ship slid into position beneath the pipes without incident.
    “Push the tail away from the station just a little,” Charlie said. “We’re a couple inches out of alignment with the second hopper.”
    A gentle tap on the controls from the tense captain swung the rear end of the ship much too far. He and the rest of the bridge burst into fits of laughter. The second hopper was now feet out of alignment in the other direction.
    “Remember to adjust the sensitivity first.” Rebecca was the first to recover her speech.
    “Too late for that,” Joseph replied.
    The thrusters were capable of a much wider range of outputs than could be duplicated at the control panel. They could fire bursts powerful enough to spin the ship around inside a few seconds, or slight enough that it would take an hour for the ship to move an inch. Every control mechanism had a sensitivity adjustment, and he’d left it on the same setting from the previous correction. That one had been a movement of feet; this one only needed a few inches.
    He adjusted the setting and tried again. Great Mandan Laker’s tail moved slowly back toward the station, until the station’s hoppers were both nicely aligned with her first two cargo intake points.
    “One more adjustment,” Charlie said. “Bring the bow up about two feet to get our intakes level relative to the hoppers.”
    Joseph complied, and Charlie gave a thumbs up. He fired one more set of thrusters, and the ship drifted slowly up until it hit the hoppers with just enough force for the clamps to engage.
    “That went well,” Samuel said.
    “Reasonably,” Charlie agreed. “Joseph, will you want to fly her to reposition when that comes up or should I take care of it?”
    “We’ll have to move at least three times since they have two hoppers to our eight intakes. I could use the practice, so I’d prefer to do at least two of them.”
    “Alright, that leaves one for me, which is good. I wanted to do at least one to bang the rust out. It’s been over two decades since I’ve done it, I could use a little practice myself.”
    Ship’s computers dinged a warning and a camera feed opened on the windshield showing a gangway extending from the station toward the airlock on the lounge deck. Joseph tapped the notification to clear it, and left the camera feed. Just as he wondered whether he ought to go aboard to talk to the miners, the radio crackled to life again.
    “Sorry for the delay, I had to leave the control room,” the same voice explained. “About half our workers are actually off the station at the moment. Let’s get the cargo transfer started and then you’re all welcome to come aboard for a bit.”
    Joseph opened the airlocks on the first two intakes and activated various equipment that would monitor the process. Machinery rumbled to life in the station and aboard ship as the loading began, which produced a slight hum on the bridge. A rattle announced the first ore as it tumbled into the hold and clattered to the bottom.
    “It’s feeding a little slow from our end.” The tone of the man in the station control room conveyed the image of the slightly critical frown that he doubtless wore. “What’s your hold gravity set at?”
    “Point one Gs,” Joseph replied. “I’ll turn it up a bit.” He fumbled through a few screens to find the gravity drive adjustments, and the rattle increased. Fortunately it still wasn’t all that loud; the ship had been soundproofed well enough that they would barely notice it when they were trying to sleep. “There’s point two, how is it now?”
    “Much better.” His mic picked up the creak of his chair as he shifted positions. “I was told this was the first voyage for your ship, is that correct?”
    “I’d imagine then that few or none of you have visited an asteroid mine before. You’re all welcome to come over to the station and visit the common areas at any time, but I’d be happy to give a full tour of the operation to anybody who wants one. The control room is just to the right when you board from the gangway we connected. Once you folks get organized, come over and knock.”
    “Thank you.” Joseph looked around at the curious expressions of those on the bridge. “We may take you up on that in a little while.”
    “Well,” Gregory began when Joseph muted the mic, “I know you said we usually won’t disembark at the mines. On the other hand, this one is a Tetonite base. Should we go aboard?”
    “I think we may as well,” Joseph agreed. Samuel and Rebecca finally stopped suppressing excited grins. “Charlie is the only one who knows how asteroid mines run, and it would be good for us to learn a little. Not to mention that I’d like to satisfy my own curiosity. We may have to go in shifts.”
    Charlie shook his head. “No need for that. Wake Nathan up and see if he wants to go along. I’ve seen plenty of these operations before, I have a pretty good idea what it looks like. I can manage the ship while the rest of you go have a look.”

Published: November 25 2018

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