Tuesday, January 14, 2014

One

Larry Drover displayed his checklist, but hesitated before he turned down the music rattling through the cockpit. For the three hundredth time, he was about to begin one of the many call-and-response litanies of interstellar flight operations. Larry and his flight engineer used the same standard orbital insertion list for every star; they did every step in the standard order; Larry knew it by rote, but he still read the list from his computer, faithful that no problem would escalate to fatal consequences. Larry balanced the stability of standard procedures against the chaos of flying to frontier outposts.

“Weapons lock,” the cockpit annunciator said. The computer-generated voice had an eerie calm, at odds with the situation it described.

“Now is not a good time,” Larry said. He turned down the music and checked the details of the lock. The display showed that it was very likely to be real, not a misinterpreted stray signal. “Just don’t shoot,” Larry added.

Larry tried to set the weapon lock aside and focus on the navigation problem of lining up with the Lyman base planetary orbit. Stellar insertion was the real work of space flight. Days or weeks of idleness were exchanged for moments of panic. In addition to dodging the various forms of debris that orbited a star, his ability to find the tiny base swinging a tiny planet lost in glare of a star was already of life-or-death urgency.

“Unknown ship,” a voice squawked over the communicator, distorted by the speed of propagation.

“Not unknown to me,” Larry said, trying to look for the gravitational eddy created by an uncharted moon around the Lyman planet.

“Unknown ship,” said the voice over the communicator. As they closed, signal propagation was improving.

Larry risked taking a hand off the controls to engage the communicator. He still had a velocity where seconds could become a million kilometers of error.

“Unknown cannon-jock, this is the Mule II on final stinking approach to Lyman base,” Larry barked into the communicator.

There was a satisfying pause while this was digested.

“Weapon IFF Interrogation,” the cockpit annunciator chimed. Larry was hoping he would be located on the friend side of the friend or foe identification.

“Mule II, Lyman base is on full defensive alert, please reduce inbound velocity or you will be fired upon.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m coming in heavy, and this is the only approach that will work.”

“Mule II, you must reduce inbound velocity. You are on an attack profile.” Larry glanced at his navigation chart display. While he could switch to a low-eccentricity orbit, it would take a lot of those big round orbits to loose all of his interstellar energy. Time was money; he didn’t have the budget for planetary politics.

“Check again: I’m a freighter. I’m on a scheduled delivery!” Larry turned off the communicator, and continued, shouting at the instruments, “I’m bringing your stinking factory! Let me brake! Who’s the new idiot down there?”

There was no reply. Larry took this as permission to continue toward a high-eccentricity orbit.

The cockpit announced “Weapon Lock Cleared.”

“Thanks a hell of a lot,” Larry said to the controls.

When the communicator chimed, “Mule II, have you had contact with Cephalopod scouts?” it was a different voice, a different channel, and they had politely used the introductory chime instead of just barking out their message.

Cephalopod depredations were the norm on the frontier. It seemed like one planet in three had some kind of Cephalopod bacterial production facility, typically called a “slime mine”.

Between gravitational eddies, Larry risked a quick jab at the communicator switch.

“Cephs?” Larry began, “the cluster’s oozing with them.”

“Where was your last contact?”

“You know,” Larry said, pausing as the ship finished the climb out of one planet’s gravity field, heeled over and started the final slide into the central star’s field, “I’m trying to fly a ship here, can we talk later?”

“Regulations forbid planetary contact without a complete report on Cephalopod contacts.” “Weapons Lock,” the cockpit annunciator added.

“Is this your first day?” Larry shouted, loud enough to trigger the gain limiter on the communicator. “I’m doing stellar braking. I’ll try to remember to wave to your goofy little pile of crap as I rip past. I’ll be glad to catch up on the latest gossip before base rendezvous, okay?”

“And you listen to me, pilot, we’ve all got sacrifices to make out here.” Larry wondered if the sacrifices extended to blowing up a transport ship to comply with an intelligence-gathering directive.
Since the Core Planets frontier spanned several Cephalopod bases, almost every Mammal base in this cluster had Cephalopods either working or loitering. Larry had personal and business contacts with Cephalopods. A change in the political climate here could cast a big shadow on ordinary, legal business dealings. There was a very real possibility that Larry could be flying into a situation where he was a criminal. Larry’s freighter was a target that no cannon-jock could miss.

There communications silence was long and satisfying. The bite of stellar gravity was eating energy away from the ship at a good rate. The ship’s metal frame pinged and groaned as the forces shifted around it. The time to orbit clock wound down at the right speed. As he got closer to his planned stellar orbit, he would be able to start the more complex procedure of chasing the planet around the star. Then he could chase the base around the planet.

The communication silence stretched out to an ominous length. It could mean that he had offended the intelligence office, which could be a problem. Larry was well aware that problems tended to accrete, growing larger and more complex. The transport business depended on problem-free delivery; he needed a spotless record of satisfied customer references.

“Mule II, report in when you enter stellar orbit,” the communicator chimed.

“Thank you,” Larry replied, and shut the channel off.

Larry had won a contract to take a mini-factory to Lyman Base; after a paid layover, he would take it to a newer base, further out into the frontier. The postings for loads to the frontier were always vague, but offered well above average compensation for those pilots who could navigate to an otherwise uninhabited star; a star with no preset beacons or orbital data, no planetary survey or navigational model, no accurate mass estimate or precise distance from nearby stars. This was Larry’s frontier; he was one of the few who was sure to arrive successfully when everything else was unsure. He had more problems with large, established bases than he did with the uncharted stars.

From stellar orbit, Larry downloaded his log information to the Lyman base computer. The  intelligence officer wanted to talk about the log. Larry insisted he actually read it first, rather than tie up the channel having Larry read it to him. In Larry’s opinion this satisfied the necessary reporting of Cephalopod contacts. Intelligence, unhappy, threatened to call if they had any questions. Larry could see that they hadn’t developed a simple procedure and checklist for debriefing pilots.

Larry looked on intelligence officers as a kind of tax on his time, to be recovered in higher fees charged for military transport. Another price that Larry paid for the privilege of military contracting was enduring the disorganization stemming from the complexities of a rendezvous involving dozens of ships. Each pilot had different requirements for docking and loading as they crowded around Lyman Base. The swarm of Core transport ships was its own navigation hazard, just as dangerous and immediate than the nearby planet and its irresistible gravity.

Most of the Core Planets bases were massive structures, almost planet-like in their solid framework and dense use of interior volume. Around the outside of a structure were docking piers and bays. On the military bases, these were specialized for military ships, leaving transport freighters to struggle for useful docking facilities.

Larry’s attempt to dock the Mule II included the additional stress of long holds while other freight ships were consulted. Each small step cascaded into a series of adjustments and consultations. The sizes of the various transports were something that the Lyman Base could barely accommodate. Larry fretted and chafed while they located other pilots and moved ships to make space for the Mule II. Since he was precisely on schedule, Larry found the last-minute adjustments inexcusable.

Larry created some of his own stress by sticking doggedly to his ritual. He needed to do everything in order, with no expeditious short cuts, and no temporary accommodations. He repeated the old saw through each of his four hundred and fifty dockings: “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.” Each step in his ritual had its place, its proper call and response. When other ships were involved, however, he could create his own navigation hazard. The possibility that his conservative approach could be dangerous was a heresy that he would never imagine.

At the end of the list, with parts of the ship powered down, and positive indicators for all of the docking systems, Larry could climb up out of the pilot’s cockpit and enjoy a long-awaited shower, shave, and clean civilian clothes. This made it easier to face the perils of navigating the maze of people and procedures inside the base.