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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 50: The Next Stop

    The windshield of Great Mandan Laker brightened as they lost speed, the computer-controlled tint no longer needed to block out the glare of faster-than-light travel. The view didn’t change much. All that became visible was the nearby star of a nameless system that was occupied by one lone asteroid mine. Joseph checked their position on one of the monitors at the copilot’s station, and was pleased to see they were closer to the mine than he’d expected.
    “How does it feel?” Joseph asked. “Comfortable?”
    Rebecca was seated at the helm, eyes wider than usual and hands clenched on the controls. “So far so good. She responds better than I expected, but it’s still pretty sluggish. Good thing there isn’t much to hit out here.”
    Laker was now in her third week of operation, and Rebecca was at the controls for the first time. Joseph insisted that everyone on the crew learn to fly the ship. He didn’t expect everyone to become master freighter pilots, but he did want them able to manage well enough to get away from trouble if needed. Rebecca and Samuel were almost complete novices with large spacecraft, and Gregory had only slightly more practice. Joseph was cycling the three through the pilot’s chair on departures and arrivals to make sure they learned.
    “Large freighters aren’t known to be nimble.” Joseph stood and peeked past her shoulder at the pilot’s screens. “It looks like you’re doing fine. Will you be alright if I step away for a minute? I want to get the telescopes set up on the station.”
    “Yeah, I should be okay.”
    “Good. Yell if you need me.”
    The fist several weeks in operation had gone well. Joseph’s crew were learning to work together and know the ship. Joseph and Justine had been in frequent communication and had developed a good understanding of the business side of the operation.
    Better still, they’d gotten word that Hofmeister Steel would order from Four Machines regularly. They would hire Great Mandan Laker to make a regular run from there to the refinery once per quarter. He and Savannah had been exchanging messages at an impressive rate when the long transmission times were accounted for, and he looked forward to the next trip there.
    Once a telescope was pointed at the station Joseph set the rest to map nearby objects, along with the various other sensors. The charts they’d been able to find for this system were light on details, offering just enough to get them in and out safely. Lousy charts were a hazard he hadn’t predicted. Despite his best efforts to plan every possibility in the years that led up to the ore hauler, some things came as a surprise.
    This mine was more established, just over five decades old. Like Four Machines the station was hollowed out of an asteroid, but they had selected one of a more irregular shape. It was a plate about a quarter of a mile thick, half-circular in shape and with a diameter of about six miles. Four asteroid cups of various sizes poked out of the top, partly obscured by the asteroid in the telescope view since Great Mandan Laker had entered the system slightly below the station.
    Flashing lights marked the location of the hoppers, on the straight edge of the station beneath one of the cups. Joseph highlighted the spot in the navigation system so that Rebecca would know what part of the asteroid to head toward. For now it didn’t matter much, they had a lot of space to cover. He should return to offer guidance again before she got too nervous.
    Just as he made to stand a strange shape on the screen near the smallest cup caught his eye. A loose chunk of rock that got out of the cup somehow? He tried to find it again to identify it. Asteroid mines produced a lot of debris, and not all of them controlled it well. This mine was a likely suspect for that laxity, since it had no national affiliation and thus no external legal power to enforce any standard. Joseph didn’t want anything to bang off the hull if it slipped into a sector where the shields were down. There were any number of things that could break, and they were a long way from a repair dock.
    Joseph couldn’t quite make out what the object was on the main display from the telescope he’d programed to watch the station. He assigned another to look at the cup. He could have just magnified that part of the display, but if there was a loose debris cloud they would want to track it independently anyway. It wasn’t as though they were short on telescopes.
    A could of debris was not what he found. When the image came into focus, he tilted his head and frowned. Why on all God’s planets were there ships around the cup?
    “That’s strange,” He said aloud. He quickly added the view of the ships to the windshield display so that Rebecca could see what he meant. “There are a bunch of ships around the station’s smallest cup. They must be inactive at the moment, otherwise they would show up on our sensors a little more readily.”
    She spared a look at the image and also frowned. “Odd. Any idea why they would be there?”
    “Not really. I don’t know a lot about operations on an asteroid mine though, there could be a lot of explanations. Maintenance on the cup maybe, but then why are they inactive?” He took a closer look at the sensors.
    “With four cups it must be less important to keep the smallest one in operation,” Rebecca pointed out. “They probably have more ships than Four Machines does too, this mine is a lot older. Maybe they got halfway done and just parked them for a while because they needed the manpower somewhere else.”
    “Good thought, it’s a possibility. In the same line of thought, they could just be older ships that aren’t used much anymore and they don’t want to take up the space in their docks.” He set the telescope to track the ships as long as they were visible, then he really did return to the copilot’s seat. It was time to give the station a call so they could set up to dock.
    “Kalleta Asteroid Mine control room.” A thin, nervous-looking man appeared on the windshield when Joseph hailed the station.
    “Good morning Kalleta, this is Great Mandan Laker. We’re just about to you, beginning final approach.”
    “Alright, we should be ready by the time you’re up to the hoppers,” the man replied. “The loading floor was about to start setup when we detected you on long-range sensors, and last I checked with them they expected to be ready on time.”
    “Good to hear,” Joseph nodded.
    “I’m afraid it’s likely to take us a while to load you,” the man apologized. “You’ll only need to worry about connecting to the first hopper.”
    “There were four total, weren’t there?” Joseph gave the control officer a confused look, and he sighed.
    “Yes, but three of the four are out of service right now. Two have been for almost a year, and the third broke down a month ago. It’s been a chore to find replacement parts to get them back up, and they weren’t very fast feeders to start with.
    “Sorry to slow you down, but there isn’t much we can do about it until our next supply ship gets back. We gave up on repair parts and ordered new equipment to install on two of the hoppers. If you wind up here again, it should go more smoothly.”
    “Not much to be done about it, I suppose. Any estimate on how long it will take?” Charlie had advised Joseph to build long load times into their delivery schedule for any mine they didn’t already know. He was glad he’d listened.
    “Thirty-two hours is the estimate they gave me.”
    “Alright.” Thirty-two hours was still within their schedule. “It won’t be a problem. We spotted a lot of ship traffic around your half-mile cup, what’s the deal with that? Some kind of maintenance going on?”
    The operator reacted as though Joseph had slapped him. He jumped in his chair and a panicked look flashed across his face. “Oh, don’t worry about that! Uh, yeah, they’re doing some maintenance on that cup.”
    Rebecca gave Joseph a concerned look. He met her eye but didn’t give any reaction. She wasn’t in the camera frame, but the operator could still see him.
    “What kind of maintenance?” Joseph’s misgivings about the ships deepened. He couldn’t think of any repair task that would warrant a fearful reaction like that when an outsider commented on it. Now he wanted to know what was going on. It did cross his mind that it was probably illegal and he might be wiser not to push too much for details.
    The control room officer recovered and tried to give a plausible answer. “I’m not really sure, when we don’t have a freighter in the system I only operate long-distance communication gear. I think they’re making some kind of repair to the skin.”
    Joseph accepted the evasion, but he doubted any word of it was true. “Well, it’s not that important anyway, I was just curious about it. We’ll call in again when we get closer.” The man nodded and Joseph ended the connection.
    “Wouldn’t repairs to the skin be done from inside?” Rebecca asked as soon as the channel was closed.
    “That would match what Rhett told us.” Joseph tried to think of anything that wouldn’t be feasible from inside the cup.  “I guess different mines could do things differently, but it seems silly. Why risk spacewalk accidents for work you can do from the inside? Even if there was a lot of spacewalk activity going on, there’s no reason to have seven ships on standby in case anyone slips off, that doesn’t happen that often. One ship is plenty.”
    “He had a pretty strong reaction when you pointed out the ships.”
    “Yeah.” Joseph leaned back in his chair and scratched his chin, replaying the conversation in his head. “He clearly operates the short range communication equipment as well, I can’t imagine they’d have separate traffic controllers for freighters and their own ships. They can’t possibly have enough for that to be necessary. In which case he ought to know fairly well what’s going on by the cup, it’s his responsibility to know.”
    “I thought something about that didn’t sound right.” Rebecca’s attention was back on the controls. “I was too busy with flying to think about what.”
    “That’s good, your priorities are in the correct order,” Joseph laughed. “One jittery station traffic controller doesn’t mean too much. Whatever he’s nervous about isn’t likely to impact our trip.”
    “So are you really worried about the ships or not?” Rebecca spared a glance at him. He couldn’t tell if the nervous expression was new from the conversation or the same one from her inexperience at the controls.
    A certain answer to that question evaded him. He wasn’t worried, but he wasn’t ready to dismiss the ships entirely. Their location was odd, and the control room operator’s reaction was suspicious.
    “Worried, no,” he answered. “Whatever the reason for them, I’m sure it involves some kind of illegal activity, but it isn’t likely to concern us.”
    “Why would he be so nervous that we noticed it? They aren’t under any national laws.”
    “Technically no, so a government prosecutor couldn’t haul them into court over what they do in this system. It could still bring trouble on them if a nearby government finds out too much about it, because they don’t have protection from any other government to balance that.”
    “They probably ought to do a better job of hiding it then.”
    “No arguments here. I’ll probably take a closer look at the telescope footage once we’re docked and see if I can find out anything. I’m not that worried, but I still want to know what’s going on. Who knows, maybe his fear is well-founded. Maybe it will be something we want to report.”
    Telescope footage might not have much to find that would be useful. Ship registration markings were a possibility, even ships with no national flag would have some identifier. They would need something to compare with those to find any more information though, and they didn’t have a lot. They kept the information from a few Teton Sector databases updated in the ship’s computers, particularly that of known or suspected pirate vessels. He could at least check against those.
    Just like at Four Machines, there was no nearby connection to the Instantaneous Communication Network. It would take a long time for messages sent from here to reach the nearest relay. Attempts to check external databases would have to wait until they were long gone from the system. He shrugged mentally; it was still worth doing.
    Once that was decided, Joseph put the ships out of his mind for a while. They were close to the station now. “I should take over again now, unless you’d like to try to dock her yourself.”
    Rebecca gave a frightened reaction only slightly less severe than the control room operator’s. “Absolutely not! I just started flying her in open space, and the closer we come the more nervous I get.”
    Joseph laughed. “Alright, we’ll save that for when you’ve had more practice.”

Published: January 27 2019

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