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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 47: Tales Of Two Businesses

    Great Mandan Laker’s crew all returned to the station at various intervals after they had gone aboard ship to make their schedule arrangements. Joseph still wanted to do most of the repositions the ship would require himself. Practice was the only way to get more comfortable with docking the new ship.
    Urgent as that need was, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend some time on Four Machines Station. Despite his earlier indifference, even Charlie decided to come talk to the mine residents for a while. They hadn’t been in space that long yet, but all were aware how rare these opportunities would be. Even their delivery points, more civilized and well-populated than the mines, often wouldn’t be worth a trip off the ship.
    In the Four Machines cafeteria, several of the freighter crew sat and chatted with clusters of off-duty locals. Excitement was evident on the faces of the older miners and in the exuberant behavior of the children, which made Joseph wonder just how long it had been since they had last had visitors. Joseph poured himself some coffee and went to join Rhett at a table by the exterior window, where the back end of Great Mandan Laker was visible.
    “I was just admiring your ship.” Rhett lowered his own coffee mug as Joseph sat down. “Fine-looking piece of equipment you got yourself there.”
    “Thank you. Even better, she operates flawlessly, at least so far. I think she looks rather like a massive catfish.”
    Rhett laughed and looked at the ship again. “There is some resemblance, now that you point it out. What are the bulged out lines from the bow to the stern?”
    “Access corridors. The mechanical sections are all at the stern. Bridge, quarters and living space is in the bow, so there has to be a way to get between the two. They double as maintenance access for a lot of sensors and equipment on the hull or in the cargo bay, which is why there are six of them that all go to the same place.”
    “That explains a lot.” Rhett ended his examination of the ship to return to his coffee. “How did you end up with an ore hauler? I remember either you or our buyer mentioned that this was your first voyage.”
    “A lot of effort and unusual trips.” Joseph grinned and told the story of his partnership with Tyrone as briefly as he could manage. Purchase of Garden Variety Animal, freight runs to unaffiliated space, Tyrone and Justine’s marriage and the desire of all three to expand their operation were the important points. The only thing to add was his discovery of the profit margins in deliveries from asteroid mines in fringe systems that motivated the whole scheme. “Once we’ve got a better handle on how the market for ore runs works, we may add another hauler or two. We’ll have to find people we trust to crew them first, I already hired most of the ones we had.”
    “Ore prices do fluctuate, but they’re virtually always high enough to make a profit,” Rhett said. “That much I can tell you, otherwise we would never have invested in an asteroid mine. Why did you and your partner decide to go independent? You could have flown for a shipping company.”
    “We could have, and in a lot of ways that would have been easier.” Painful memories of anxiety and frustration from the struggle to fill their schedule in the first few months surfaced. Once they built a solid client base it was much easier, and thankfully that hadn’t taken long. “I think what it comes down to is the desire to be completely in charge of our own operations.
    “We made our own decisions about repairs and maintenance, cargo and destinations, and all kinds of things. Most freight companies don’t do many deliveries to unaffiliated space with their own ships in the first place, they contract most of them to shipowners like us. That was how we filled most of our outbound trips. Crew decisions were in the mix too, if we were both pilots for the same company there would be no guarantee we’d be placed on the same ship.”
    “Do you both plan on this as your lifelong career then?” Rhett asked. “It’s a lot harder to transition to a station or planetside job when you own a ship.”
    “That’s the plan, it’s possible it will change,” Joseph said. “My partner and his wife are already living out our original expectation, which was to raise families on our ships. It isn’t as hard to make that switch as it seems though.” The conversation on that topic went on for a while, as Joseph explained some of the possibilities if Tyrone and Justine wanted to stop their cargo service.
    “That never occurred to me,” Rhett admitted when Joseph mentioned use of interstellar freighters as ready-built homes for settlement of new planets. “I should remember that one. I never thought much about other ways to use a freighter when I managed mines. Ships just came and dropped off supplies or picked up cargo, then left again.”
    “Unless you’re operating one, there isn’t much reason to think about them beyond that.” Joseph gave him a curious look. “Why would you want to remember that particular use?”
    “There’s a garden planet in this system, which we hope will attract other settlers. Maybe it will work out for that.” Rhett scratched his chin and frowned. “Honestly, it might be something we should consider ourselves.”
    “It isn’t necessarily cost-effective for those who don’t already own a ship. Even an old ship is more costly than bringing initial building materials on a transport. Still, I’ve heard from people who know that it’s a good way to put up an initial settlement, especially for a small group of settlers.”
    “Not the least reason being that the ship can still fly you out if the settlement location is a bust,” Rhett nodded.
    “Right, although if it was scouted at all it shouldn’t be.” Professional rangers usually landed on new habitable planets and scouted them carefully for predators and other immediate natural hazards before anyone tried to settle on them. Exactly what they looked for depended on who commissioned the work, but the goal of the whole job was to pick sites that were livable.
    Rhett caught his quizzical expression and nodded. “It’s been visited by rangers a few times already, and the results are good. There are enough resources to make it worthwhile and plenty of natural beauty. Wolves, spinelings and a lot of the usual dangerous wildlife are there but not in extraordinary numbers.
    “We’ve been there a few times ourselves, to places recommended by the scouts. Partly we go down there as a vacation, but it’s also been a good resource. There’s a bunch of large gazelle herds around one of the survey sites, so we’ve been using them to replace our meat stores when we start running low. It doesn’t really save us money because of the fuel expended, but the relaxation time is worth it.”
    “That does sound nice, I haven’t been on a hunting trip since I first left home.” Joseph regretted that, but one look out the window at the shiny new Laker was enough to drive the feeling away. There were things you had to give up to build a business. “Did you know the planet was there when you picked the system or was that an accident of fortune?”
    “Both, I suppose. We knew, but we found out by accident. Presence of a garden world wasn’t one of our criteria, and we weren’t funding a survey expedition. The one that mapped this system was done by a big company a few decades ago. This system didn’t suit their needs, so nobody did anything with it. We were going through old survey records looking for an empty system we could move into, and this one caught our eye. It was already our first choice before we realized it had a garden planet, and that sealed the deal.”
    “Why did you want an empty system?” Joseph asked. “There are plenty of systems with space for new asteroid mines to start up, after all. Fringe miners all have their reasons to pass on them.”
    “Similar reasons to you and your partner’s choice to operate independently,” Rhett chuckled. “Only it was dealing with local government we were worried about, instead of a large company. Most populated systems we could have built in would want us to do things a certain way. Most wouldn’t be such a terrible burden, but it’s easier to be able to do as we see fit than to force ourselves to adapt to a community that’s already there.
    “So we came out here instead. Where there was nothing but empty space and unexplored rocks, we built our home. Give us enough time and we’ll build civilization out here as well. As a community grows some kind of local government becomes a necessity, but for now our community is me, three of my closest friends, and our wives and kids. We’ll help shape whatever grows here, even when planetary settlers come.”
    “The traditional spirit of the ancient Americans,” Joseph nodded. “Three millennia later, it still drives people to go out to the wilderness and live there.”
    “Especially if you can build something and prosper.” Rhett looked around the cafeteria. “So far we’re doing well, and ‘prosper’ probably isn’t that far off. You and your partner are already to that point, you started earlier than we did.”
    “Why didn’t you? It’s clear you had higher capital requirements for one.” Joseph mimicked the miner’s survey of the cafeteria area. There were fewer of the station residents around now. A shift change on the storage deck was the most likely reason that occurred to him.
    “That was a factor. It took a long time to build up the money to launch this place, it isn’t the kind of business you can start in your spare time.”
    “Yeah, you can’t hollow out an asteroid in a remote system on your weekends.”
    “Most of the other reasons ran along similar terms, it took time for them to develop. We had to put together a group of people to go, find a system to settle, and make sure we had someone with every piece of expertise we would need. Having a family pushed it back quite a bit too.”
    “Yeah, I came along and interfered with the plan.” A blonde girl who was far too young to be one of the partners in the mine had approached their table as Rhett spoke, and caught the last few sentences. While every other miner in the cafeteria seemed to be dressed in long clothes, she wore shorts and a tank top. She smiled at Joseph and took the empty third seat at their table. He smiled back as he tried to figure out what the temperature in the room was actually like; it was hard to tell, since his body armor regulated his skin temperature.
    “This is Savannah, my oldest.” Rhett’s demeanor shifted with what Joseph recognized as paternal joy and pride. “Joseph is the owner and captain of the freighter.” She shook his hand, and smiled again. “Did the shift change go smoothly?” Rhett asked.
    “Flawless,” she nodded. “We wanted to swap operators on the loaders as quickly as we could, so that there would always be ore in the hoppers.” She looked back to Joseph as she explained. “We planned it out in advance to make sure we could load the ore as quickly as possible.”
    “Savannah works on the mine crew. She was the driver in the gray armor who waved at us as we went through the storage deck.”
    Joseph nodded his understanding. “Some of the details were fitting themselves together there.”
    “For the record, that was not a complaint,” Rhett told Savannah.
    “I know Dad, relax,” she laughed. “It was just a funny way to say it. Accurate, too, because I did. If I thought it was a complaint, I’d just remind you that I didn’t pick when to be born anyway.”
    “Fair enough,” he laughed. “All four of the partners in Four Machines have families. Thank God we do too, because there wouldn’t be enough people here to handle all the work without the older kids. My wife and I started our family fairly early. I was twenty when Savannah was born.”
    “And now I’m twenty.”
    “I think Rebecca is twenty as well,” Joseph commented. “She’s the youngest member of my crew, the other one who wore armor when we walked through.”
    “You don’t know how old she is?” Rhett raised one eyebrow. “Usually employers collect that kind of information during the application process.”
    “Well, we did,” Joseph admitted. He flushed slightly and twisted his mouth in a half-smile, exasperated with himself. “It seems a little silly now that I say it, but at the time it felt rude for me to be able to recall it from that, so I forgot it.” Both miners laughed, and he did as well.
    “That’s a rather strange ethic,” Rhett said.
    “I don’t know, it seems respectful to me,” Savannah countered cheerfully. “Unnecessary, but respectful.”
    “Well, only one of us here is a young woman, so I’ll defer to your judgement.” Her father laughed again.
    “Are you going to tell Joseph the entire family history?” Savannah asked. “Seems like you two were about to cover it before I got here.”
    “I suppose I might as well, unless you want to do it.”
    “You’re a better storyteller.” She turned to Joseph again and added in a pretend-whisper “he also loves to tell it.”
    “I’m always interested to hear other people’s backgrounds,” Joseph said with a chuckle, “and since I already gave most of mine it seems fair.”
    “Alright,” Rhett said. “All kidding aside, I’ll try to give the brief version.”

Published: December 16 2018

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