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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 49: Back Under Way

    Joseph’s phone beeped with a message from Charlie. The ship was loaded. He suppressed a sigh, then laughed at his own inconsistency. It saddened him that it was time to depart, he’d enjoyed the conversations with the residents of Four Machines. Sadly, random talk wouldn’t help Great Mandan Laker make money, no matter how informative it was. They still had a job to do.
    “Looks like our time is up.” He rose from the table where he and Savannah had continued their conversation. Rhett had gone back to the control room when Joseph returned to the ship to help reposition it, but she’d come back once his shift on the bridge was over.
    “I wish that would have taken a little longer.” Savannah stood as well, stretched, and stifled a yawn. “Still, I knew it wouldn’t be much more than eight hours, otherwise I would have gone to bed by now.”
    “Sorry to keep you up late.”
    “Don’t be. One late night won’t hurt me, especially since I don’t have to help them guide the tug in.”
    Other members of Joseph’s crew scattered around the common area also got to their feet. Charlie had saved him the effort of rounding everyone up.
    They joined the little stream of people headed into the corridors, all bound for the gangway. Each of the Laker crewmembers had at least one miner along, unwilling to end their respective conversations any earlier than necessary. Nathan and a balding man slightly older than Rhett discussed which teams from the Atlas Cluster Combat League were likely to make it into the national championship. Gordon and Samuel, both young fathers themselves, helped entertain some of the smaller children. The peculiar look on their faces reminded Joseph to check the shipment schedule. He wanted to keep the gaps between the mens’ visits home as short as he reasonably could.
    “Does it usually go like this when you get visitors?” Joseph gestured to the little groups that ambled along the hall.
    “You’re the first we’ve had, so yes,” Savannah laughed.
    “Oh. I figured supply ships would have visited at some point.”
    She shook her head. “We go get supplies with our ship. It doesn’t need a big crew, so it’s only two or three people that leave for those trips. A lot of us, myself included, haven’t been out of the system since we arrived.”
    “Does that bother you?” Joseph couldn’t imagine what it was like to stay in one system for a whole year anymore. Once he and Tyrone left home, the travel bug had bit him. If he was in one place more than a week, he started to get antsy.
    “Yes and no.” Savannah made a face. “I don’t mind that I’m in one place all the time, especially with our occasional trips to the planet’s surface. The part that bothers me is what we talked about earlier with my dad, the small population and rare opportunities to make new friends. On that subject, it was nice to meet you,” she added as they reached the gangway.
    “You too. I’ll send you a message in a few days.” Joseph smiled at her and wished vaguely to stay longer, but they were out of time.
    “Good.” She smiled in return. “Keep an eye on the station as you leave. Our tug is almost here with the asteroid now, so you should be able to watch part of that maneuver on your way out.”
    He looked back once more as he started up the gangway, and she waved. After that the station’s airlock slid shut. They stepped aboard the Laker and Joseph closed the airlock on their side, officially ending the visit.
    Rebecca emerged from one of the corridors that led aft to join the men as they came aboard. “Charlie is on the bridge already. He said he would wait to disconnect until we all joined him. The cargo bay is secure, I just checked the intake ports.”
    “Good.” Joseph nodded and turned toward the bridge. “We should get a move on then, I suppose.”
    “I hope we come here again,” Rebecca said. “I liked this place.”
    “So do I,” Joseph said, and the other men murmured agreement. “As their operations expand, it’s likely.” A few of the Four Machines residents would undoubtedly push to hire Great Mandan Laker again. Joseph would also do what he could to arrange it. Their buyer was Hofmeister Steel, a growing producer in a growing sector of Teton. The owner had mentioned intentions to purchase from Four Machines regularly, and so long as this delivery went well Joseph could persuade him to hire Laker again with a little effort.
    “I know your goal was to work out of fringe systems Joseph, but I won’t complain if we keep this run as the system develops,” Samuel said.
    “We’ll see how things go, hopefully Four Machines will become the equivalent of Mr. Carver.” Joseph didn’t immediately realize why this comment made his crew go silent. Once Gregory spoke he realized they didn’t know about the Couradeen farmer.
    “Who?” Gregory asked.
    Joseph should have known better, but the question still caused a pang of loneliness. He flew with a paid crew now, not his business partners. They didn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t want to know every detail of the business. How would they know the names of Garden Variety Animal’s best customers? Tyrone and Justine would have understood immediately, but Joseph wouldn’t see the couple again for at least a month.
    “Sorry, you all wouldn’t know who that is. Mr. Carver is a farm owner who’s responsible for about an eighth of all the shipments we do with the light freighter.”
    “I think I have heard you mention him before, but it wasn’t recent,” Nathan said.
    “No, I haven’t spared much thought for Garden Variety Animal’s shipping schedule in weeks.” Joseph had been quite content to let Tyrone worry about that once he was preoccupied with the arrangements to buy Laker. “Point being, I very much hope we’ll have a similar relationship with Four Machines Mining.”
    “You’ll get no complaints from me,” Rebecca said. “As you’ve said a few times now, a regular run like that would give us some predictability in schedule.”
    “Also a reliable reason to return to the Teton Sector, if they mostly sell to domestic buyers like Hofmeister.” Samuel’s tone showed that would sit well with him. “He planned to become a regular customer, didn’t he?”
    “As long as the ore from this shipment is good, he does,” Joseph confirmed. “I can’t pretend to know mining well enough to know what he means by that, exactly.”
    “I’d guess he basically means that it actually is of the quality the miners say it is,” Samuel said. “I didn’t go examine it up close, but a new mine isn’t likely to promise something they can’t deliver. That’s a good way to loose a customer.”
    “No reason to louse up a good deal by inflating expectations,” Gregory agreed. “The Four Machines miners didn’t strike me as the type to do that anyway.”
    Discussion broke off as they arrived on the bridge. Charlie waited in the copilot’s seat, a course for their departure already plotted on the windshield. “Did you enjoy yourselves?” While Charlie’s question was addressed to the whole group, but he smirked at Joseph as the young captain approached the pilot’s station.
    “Quite a bit,” Joseph said. He raised one eyebrow at the old starman and grinned. Charlie hadn’t toured the station, but did get a shift to come aboard. “I didn’t see who you talked with when you were there, but all the miners must have seemed awfully young to you.”
    “You didn’t seem to mind.”
    Rebecca rolled her eyes and headed for the sensor station. “Since you’re too busy with teasing Joseph because he talked to a pretty girl, I guess I’ll work on sensor readings. Somebody has to get a telescope pointed the right direction if we want to see their tug come in with the asteroid, and I’m curious.”
    “Tugs are fun to watch,” Charlie nodded. “I’ve seen a few before, and it’s impressive to watch them push asteroids around. It’s hard to grasp the size difference until you see it yourself. Tugs are tiny compared to the asteroids they move.”
    Station control chose that moment to open a comm channel to the ship. Joseph tapped the icon to accept as he settled into the pilot’s chair once more. Time to get the show on the road. “We’re ready when you are,” he said to the station.
    “Good to hear,” Rhett’s voice responded. “I’m releasing the hopper clamps now.” A metallic clatter echoed through the hull, and red flashes lit the rearmost two intake stacks on the ship status screen.
    Joseph double-checked that he had the thrusters on the right power settings this time. He didn’t want a repeat of his awkward tail swing on the way in. Satisfied, he fired the thrusters and the ship began a gentle downward drift. The warnings vanished as the stacks cleared the ends of the hoppers.
    “We’re clear,” Joseph said. He fired another series of thrusters that pushed Great Mandan Laker further from the station, then accelerated. “Will your tug pass near enough to us that I need to watch out for it?”
    “No, they’ll come from a different direction,” Rhett said. “Their flight path passes right over the station, so you’re well away from them no matter where you go.”
    “Good, I didn’t want to interfere with their trip by accident.”
    “Nothing to worry about in that department. I would have mentioned it if there was any chance. Feel free to watch as much of their flight as you like, if you’re curious to see how that works.”
    “Rebecca started to line up the telescopes as soon as we got to the bridge,” Joseph said with a chuckle. “Even Charlie said we ought to take a look, and he’s the one member of our crew who already knows all the ins and outs of asteroid mines. If he says it’s worth a watch, I can’t argue”
    “Well, he’s right. Thanks for making the trip out here for us. You’re welcome to come back any time you like.”
    “You’re welcome, and I hope we do. I’m already trying to turn Hofmeister Steel into a regular customer. It shouldn’t be too hard to get them to hire us for the next load they order from you. Of course, you’re always welcome to hire us yourselves.”
    “You can count on a call when we start to hire our own delivery ships. Godspeed on your flight.”
    “Thank you, and to you as well.” Joseph closed the channel to the station. Great Mandan Laker was well away from the station by the time the conversation ended, and there wasn’t any need for constant communication anymore. Spacecraft accelerated quickly, even when the craft in question was a fully loaded ore hauler.
    A few minutes after launch the ship completed a long, arced turn to orient them toward their jump point. Joseph turned his attention to the telescope feed Rebecca set up of the tug headed toward Four Machines, since their course no longer needed to be closely monitored. The image showed the whole asteroid the ship pushed and the edge of the station below.
    Rhett mentioned the asteroid was much smaller than the cup could accommodate, but even with the relatively small size it took Joseph a moment to spot the tug. It was much smaller than even Garden Variety Animal, and designed for function over form.
    The spacecraft was a large box with four long, articulated arms protruding to wrap around the asteroid. They were much like the arms that made up the station’s cup, except that they had many more joints. That must have been so that they could hold onto many different sizes of asteroid without excessive time spent to reconfigure equipment.
    “You were right Charlie, this is pretty cool.” Gregory’s eyes didn’t leave the screen as he spoke. Charlie only nodded in response.
    The crew sat together and watched rock and ship drift past the station. They slowed to a stop a little way beyond, and the tug began a series of maneuvers to get into line with the cup. While it was busy with that, the operators on the station opened the mouth.
    Nathan whistled as the large claws of the cup swung open. “It’s lucky they don’t have to cope with gravity or air resistance to do that. Once they’re covered with the metal skin, those will be some huge doors to open.”
    “Gravity would make that a nightmare,” Charlie agreed. “I’m not sure you could have doors that large in any substantial gravity well. I’m no engineer though, they might be able to dream up a way.”
    Joseph checked their route; they were almost ready to make their faster-than-light jump. “Enjoy a last look while you can guys. We’ll be out of the system in a couple of minutes.” There were a few disappointed sighs, but they couldn’t delay their departure just to watch the tug finish its work. Joseph put the telescope feed on one of the screens as he returned to the pilot’s chair and watched the tug and asteroid slide into the cup with one eye as he executed their jump.

Published: January 13 2019

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