Space Truckers of the Delta V

Space Truckers of the Delta V
(nanowrimo fanfic - apologies for quality!)

It was a hot and sweaty morning when I touched down on Sigma Alpha 4’s old station. The docking clamps wouldn’t engage, the heat from being on the sun side of the planet had made the metal expand, and they weren’t aligning properly. I had to goose it.
Trouble is, you can only goose it so much with these orbital rigs, they get a little upset if you screw up their orbits. I calculated the max g-load on my Zrodic Mark 5 slide, then gave it an extra 2 meters/second just for shits and grins. It popped those clamps shut well enough, but I could see that getting them to release again was going to be a challenge.
Like I needed a challenge.

Moments after I got back from the little spaceman’s room, the control board was flickering yellow and red. Damned clamps had iced up and the thermal regulators were offline. Clearly I would need to go see to it personally. I quickly slipped into an exo suit and headed to the lock service hatch. I hated how claustrophobic the tiny airlock was, barely big enough to close the door once inside. Not exactly top accommodations, but then it wasn’t supposed to be used except in emergencies. As soon as the light turned red, I twisted the latch wheel and unsealed the tiny sally portal.

I clipped my suit to the ring as I climbed out, and sure enough - there was the gangway, not quite seated against my docking hatch. Only a few of the clamps had locked in, several hadn’t hit the marks. I pulled the toolkit free from the exterior storage hatch next to the gangway and hand-walked my way over to the gangway. Fortunately, there were handholds and clips designed to accommodate most species around the gangway. Some engineer had earned their pay on this one.

Working my way around to the first unseated clamp, I chipped off the ice with the wrench and gave it a few squirts of methyl hydrate. That dissolved the rest. There was a slight breeze coming from the station, proof that some idiot had failed to properly secure the gangway before leaving. Or maybe it was just leaking atmosphere due to poor maintenance. Either way, this clamp was clear, so I stuck my wrench in there, manually retracted the clamp, then reactivated it. It moved forward slowly and grabbed good metal this time, pulling the lip of the gangway tighter around the docking hatch.
One down, possibly six to go.

The planet raced by below me crazily as I painstakingly worked the clamps into position. Only one had to be skipped, it was just too badly damaged from sloppy operators. Nine out of ten would be fine, there would be no substantial atmo loss. I took out my PDA and took a picture, scanned the little service code in that wild language the bots used, and then sent in the service report. This would be blamed on me, I was sure of it, but I’d get them back if I had to.

I edged my way laboriously, hand-over-hand back into the sally portal, and gave in to the impulse to look down. Down was currently a bit to the upper left of my ship at the moment, but there’s no mistaking down when you have a massive mother of a gas giant swirling wildly just a few thousand km away. The vertigo took me immediately, as I knew it would, but a spacer has to have his moments. I brought myself back to now, then pulled the hatch shut and screwed it tight. Hitting the pressurize button with my elbow, I waited as the air hissed back in, watching my suit deflate. It always seemed to take forever to repressurize this little tight room, and unlike on the way out, you didn’t have the tiny port hole window to look through, just the big warning label in several languages. After a lifetime, it turned green and the interior door unlocked, allowing me back into my ship.

I climbed out of my exo suit and checked out the console - all green. It was happy for now. One little warning pop-up in the log stating that the station had refused the service request, but nothing to do about that. It was time to get the cargo transferred, get paid, and get outta here.

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I wasn’t in the sonic shower 5 minutes when the damn comm unit started chirping. Was it too much to ask for even a few minutes to relax? Apparently.
Walking over to the panel I activated the voice only mode.
“What?”, I said, politely.
“Get your lizard ass down here with my cargo. I show you docked over twenty minutes ago, which means my cargo should have been unloaded fifteen minutes ago. I’m going to charge you late fees if you don’t get it here right now.”
Ah, the lovely and respectful voice of a customer. Speciest prick.
“The contract says it has to be here tomorrow. If I get it there in the next 15 hours, you actually owe me a bonus. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to get it there immediately to collect. 20% is quite an incentive, you know. You’ll see me sooner than you’d like.”
I closed the comm and set it to silent. These beings were all the same. They signed up for expensive multi-jump freight and should be grateful it arrived. They couldn’t even be bothered to be polite. I oughta register a complaint with the union, that’s what I oughta do. Much good it’d do, though. I finished up with a nice scale polish cycle to get that lustrous sheen all the chicks dig and then hid all the best parts under the padded suit for my lifter rig. I strode on down to the cargo bay and whipped out my PDA again. Scanned out the cargo on the manifest for the deliveries to the station, and waited a few minutes while the cargo bay bots gracefully unloaded them and transferred them to the skid pad. Then slipping into the lifter rig, I clanked over to the skid pad, the magnetized broad feet of the huge skeletal rig replacing the smooth gripping and releasing of my toes on the grip surface, and situated the lift arms under the pad. I aligned the grip arms to the sides, then let the suit take over and heft the thousands of kilos of cargo for me at the easiest touch. The gangway hatch opened automatically as I lumbered to it, loaded down with cargo like a person trying to bring all their shopping at one go. This first load was in two easy deliveries, both right out on the outer ring. This sthik-tar who’d ruined a perfectly good shower was going to go second.

The station-end door of the gangway refused to open smoothly, opting instead to shriek and groan like it was owed money. By the time it had ponderously and gratingly moved out of the way, an itch had already started under the form-fitting padded suit. This was going to be a long day. I just wanted to get on with this, and was more than a bit cross at how poorly kept this station was, you know?

Finally out of the gangway with its slight disconcerting wobbles and flex, I stepped onto the solid deck plates of the station and felt the gravity of the station replace the magnetic attachment of the treads. I thumbed off the mag feet to save power and walked down the breezeway to the receiving bay of the station. The huge translucent dome came into view, displaying the beautiful and turbulent gas giant to its best effect. How wild it must be to work, day after day, under a sight like that. Not sure I could do it, to be honest. It was easier to be aboard my little boat out there in the black. Just the glow of the panels and lights in my tiny oasis of habitable space in an endless void of death. Poetic way for a warrior culture to exist, I think. Always striving. Never off-guard lest the very universe kill us. I looked around at the signs briefly, and didn’t recognize the lingo.

“Hey, Grenthis, give me a direction HUD here”, I requested of my suit. My simplistic bot complied and activated the suit HUD with the pathing information I needed to make these deliveries. I’m always a little suspicious of bots, but Grenthis was all right. I’d recovered it from a drifting life pod ages ago, and it had offered to work for me. Beats drifting endlessly in space, I suppose. Grenthis wasn’t the smartest AI in the 'verse, but it wasn’t stupid. It knew enough to do its job and keep out of the way. In return, it got unrestrained access to my sensors and uplinks whenever we were in range. Bots were funny that way.

I don’t know, I probably was just ruminating like that the whole way down to the first delivery, because I heard the ding before I realized it. Grenthis knew I preferred simple little prompts like that over noisy complaining. I turned the direction indicated on my HUD, and saw this ugly and dingy loading bay at the back of a building. Weird that beings built buildings on stations, one would think you could just have hallways and doors, it would use the space better. Folks just had their little ways.

I dropped the skid to the side of the indicated delivery pad, and then sorted out the delivery from the rest of the cargo. Fortunately this one was all the awkward hexagonal pressure vessels. Some kind of gas or fluid in there most likely. I didn’t ask, they didn’t tell me, and it didn’t matter anyhow. The classification was simply ‘raw material - uncommon’ and a big non-volatile logo. I stacked them neatly on the delivery pad and then reorganized my skid. Opening the order on my PDA, I hit the “delivered” button and watched the order sink out of sight on some sort of lift. Sure, that worked.
I got the skid picked up again, turned, and headed out to the second delivery. Mr. Patience. Checking my delivery window, I saw that I had 14.4 hours left, so I turned the speed down a tick, you know, just to conserve power. Waste not, want not, right?

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All said and done, by the time I had delivered all the cargo, charged the “docking fee” that I usually waive (but keep in contract just for jerks), received my early delivery bonus, and returned to the ship to change for some fun, it was well into the station’s dark period. Some species are diurnal and like that whole day/night cycle bit. Where I’m from, of course, our sunlight period is standard months long, followed by long freezing darkness. Benefits of an elliptical orbit, I guess. We don’t really enjoy night. That’s for hibernation. I’ve learned to live the night life just since becoming a hauler. When I got to Rudy’s Rimside, the place was jumping. There were a good half-dozen species in there, mostly shipper and the kids of rich merchants. Kind of place you can really get into trouble if you’re not careful. Guy gets too friendly with the wrong person, their parent is liable to throw you out an airlock without a suit. I cased the place pretty carefully, since I knew I’d find a shady trader or two here if I was observant. That kind like to hide in plain sight, and they can put you on to some good money.

I was just about to give up and hit the low-G dance floor when I saw an AI trying to be inconspicuous in one of those bipedal planet suits they use sometimes. The ones that look a bit like loading rig had decided to wear clothing. A brief flicker of green laser light traced me as it noticed me checking it out. Figured I might as well say hi, right?

I sat awkwardly down at the table designed for a smaller species, and extended my hand in what I hoped would be taken as a friendly way. At least non-threatening. AI tend to have unpredictable and devastating weapons, as one would expect from a species treated as a sort of luggage by several others.

“Greetings. I am Sthicksa, captain of the Ko’Ktar. This is my friend Grenthis” I said, setting my PDA on the table and keying the holo display for Grenthis. Grenthis materialized quickly above the PDA, a bit flickery in the atmo haze.

The two bots faced each other and a brief high-pitched tone was exchanged. Grenthis started to flicker, a sure sign that it was up to something heavy. It takes a lot of processing work to keep a bot happy, and I had one of the nicest PDAs you could get just to give my buddy some breathing room. So to speak. A surprisingly long moment passed, then the shady AI turned to face me.
“Your terms are agreeable, Sthicksa. Our business is concluded. Depart safely.”
That seems like a pretty hostile thing to say, but bots are just like that. That was the polite terms. I nodded, and got up as gracefully as I could manage with this cramped table and little chairs. Obviously designed for some Cereb or something, those skinny little bastards with the big heads. I put my PDA back in its pocket and activated the earpiece. Grenthis knew that meant I wanted to talk. It was accomodating that way.

“We have a contract. We have agreed to transport fifty thousand blocks of highly secret military research data to a dead space contact.” The tone of its voice always annoyed me a bit, but I knew it tried its best to be accomodating. Speech synthesis was not even a fourth language for bots.
“How much time do we have? There’s still stuff here we need to get loaded”, I mumbled back quietly.
“I padded the time to allow you to function at 44% of optimal pace, allowing for your toxin-induced discomfort.”
It figured I’d get blottoed on cheap station booze. Grenthis knew me well. Okay, well, just one I suppose.

Three hours had passed before I staggered from that bar, my ears ringing slightly and the lovely harmony of chemical narcotics playing through my body. My joints had ceased to ache, my dry skin wasn’t irritating me, and the dim station lights were beginning to brighten. Excellent. Time to get some stimulants in me, then get the ship loaded.

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Twelve hours in a chafing padded suit, strapped into a loading rig. My scales were scuffed, I was sweaty, and the light narcotic effect had long worn off. Every damn thing hurt. Going constantly from the station gravity to the cargo bay and all over the various decks where gravity ranged from oppressive to marginal depending on location had made my bones ache. The temp was tolerable outside of the suit, but in the suit I couldn’t feel the air under my scales and I couldn’t spread my fins to regulate. It was just hot. I parked the rig, bent achingly over it to secure it in place, and surveyed the cargo hold. I had managed to secure contracts for almost 75% of my cargo space and nearly 90% of my mass capacity. This was an excellent day. Now I just needed to get the data transmitted over for this… special… delivery.

I typed the query into my PDA, and Grenthis responded instantly. That sneaky bot had already downloaded the data, it had been sitting in the ship’s memory banks this whole time. At least that wouldn’t require additional time. We were already close enough to our departure time as it was. Grenthis had done a good job with the padding, I was going to be ready just about an hour before the estimate.

Knowing full well that the gangway was going to have issues disconnecting, I put on my exo suit before I contacted the station to request departure clearance. They responded instantly, and I heard the clanging through the whole hull as the clamps tried to disconnect. I counted quietly… and only heard 4. Well, that was anticipated.

Once again through the sally port and outside, I could see the gangway quivering as it kept trying to free itself from my ship. I worked my way over to it, and gave the first stuck clamp a good solid whack with my wrench. That cracked the ice, and it slipped free. I got over to the next one, repeating the process on the remaining until I got to the last clamp. It simply would not detach. I reached in with the wrench to trigger the manual detach, and nothing happened. I sprayed some methyl hydrate in there, and still no luck. As I was shifting my grip to give it a tug, it broke free and whipped back towards the station, dragging me with it.

My tether stretched tight, then snapped with a sickening feeling as that free end flailed through space at high speed. Sharp metal shards flying all over with loads of mass and inertia behind it. I was in a bad way, and the station bulkhead was racing into view as the gangway retracted at high speed.

I wasn’t really sure what to do, what with my ship going one way and me going the other, so I did the only thing that I could think of. I rotated my body around so that my feet would hit the station first, and I flexed my knees. Seconds passed and then suddenly I hit the station bulkhead a lot harder than I had feared. The shock ran through my knees and spine, and it nearly splatted me against it. My helmet hit the rim of gangway mount and I was briefly stunned. The instant I could see, I pushed off in the mightiest jump I could manage, directly for my ship.

I drifted there… weightless, lost, with no sound except the air recycler in my suit for an eternity. My ship grew larger and larger in my view, I knew it was only a few dozen meters away, but it seemed so much further as I floated there in open space. As I reached my ship, I realized I had another problem. How the hell was I going to grab a handhold as I flew past?

The answer came unexpectedly as the gangway hatch seemed to align itself to me as if by magic, and the doors opened just slightly. I flew right through the doors and collided hard against the inner doors of the main airlock. The voice of Grenthis over my comms had never been so welcome.

“Welcome back, Sthicksa.”, was all it said. Grenthis had taken over piloting of the ship and caught me. Absolutely unexpected move. I had never heard of a bot taking actions to save the life of anything before. They were widely regarded as being as cold-blooded as only a machine can be.

“Thank you, Grenthis”, I gasped out as I floated there in the air lock. I took a minute to get my wind back, then maneuvered back out to close the sally port, and retrieve the broken tether. Once everything was secured and sealed up tight, I sat there for several minutes in my exo suit, my helmet off, just letting the stress hormones dissipate. I owed my life, and my ship to a bot. It was an unusual situation for a species to be in. Maybe it was my friend, or at least as close to a friend as a being of code and circuitry could have.

The deck vibrated and I heard the massive thrusters come to life. Grenthis was maneuvering the ship towards the Jump Gate, preparing to take us out. I needed to get to the helm promptly. I shucked the exo suit and returned it as quickly as I could, and long jumped towards the bridge. We were only under about one-fifth G thrust right now, so I could dispense with most of the grips and rungs.

Sliding into my chair and activating the restraints, I just had to say it out loud.

“Thank you, Grenthis. I am grateful that you saved me, saved the ship, the business, all of it. I owe you.”
Grenthis responded with its usual synthesized voice. “I only returned the favor. There is no need to spend excess cycles on it. If we fail to meet this delivery we will cease to be.”
That response was more in line with what I expected. Bots were known for their cold pragmatism - and referring to our failure to deliver illegally smuggled military research on time resulting in being tortured and murdered as “ceasing to be” was just about normal. I wondered how things would be now, if Grenthis previously felt it had owed me a favor for rescuing it from that liferaft. Did this mean it was planning to depart? I certainly couldn’t keep it around if it wished to leave, but I sure would miss it. It helped break up some of the loneliness of deep space.

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Not sure if this slight interruption is welcome, but this is some beautiful granularity to the Smugglers of Cygnus galaxy.

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Very welcome! Thank you.

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The controls were slow. It was always a bit of a surprise how slowly the ship moved when filled with cargo, which after hundreds of deliveries shouldn’t surprise. I struggled for patience as I guided the ponderous mass of my heavily-laden ship through the Jump Gate. The science was old, lost in the time of the old Empire, but the mammoth beacons that controlled the cosmic warps had a sort of beauty to them, perhaps partially influenced by their age. I had considered being a gate engineer once, but math had never been my strong suit. You needed to be pretty sharp to work on some of that tech. The beings who could do it were treated with almost reverence, and they got all the chicks. Unfortunately, I always found the math a bit confusing and had long ago resigned myself to a job more suited to being warm and comfortable with just enough danger for spice. Hanging by a tether outside of a massive cosmic rift was a little too much danger.

Ko’Ktar, entering Jump Gate F-9241-0045-7250 from Sigma Alpha, destination Omega Omega Rebean”, I broadcast, the ritual of entry. The comm broadcast sent to the towers of the Jump Gate would be relayed through thousands of lightyears to the other gates. Thousands of potential exit points could receive the broadcast, but it would actually only be sent to my chosen destination. The Gate in the Omega Omega Rebean system. Fabulous technology for sure! I keyed in the destination code blocks, paid my transit fare, and activated my Jump Drive.

I was always a bit amazed how it worked, the ripple of space forming before me, then stars, almost the same stars becoming visible through the shimmering field. The fact that the small area of space in front of me was actually over ten thousand light years away made me marvel a little bit each time. Keeping my course and heading stable, I double checked the figures with Grenthis and my handy Zrodick mark 5, then sat back. I realized I was holding my breathe as we breached through, like always, and forced myself to let it out. It was important not to dwell on the idea that for just a moment, the instrument panel was ten thousand light years away from my hands.

We exited into another part of the Cygnus galaxy, and this time quite a long distance from a planet or station. It was safest to just jump far out when you didn’t have accurate maps, thereby reducing the chance of jumping into a planet or asteroid. In this case, however, we knew precisely where we were going. We just hadn’t been here before.

The blackness of space at this range was complete. The nearest sun, Omega Omega Rebean, was just a bright dot at this distance. There were no planets visible, hardly more than a dust cloud. What was here, however, was a beacon. The signal was faint, and if I hadn’t been looking for it, I probably would have dismissed it as background noise.

“I see it, Grenthis. I’m making for it now.”, I muttered, mainly to allay my own tension.
A hologram of Grenthis, or at least how it liked to appear, activated on the console. It displayed dialog above its head, which it knew I preferred to the voice synthesizer. “97 minutes remain. We will arrive within the time range requested.”

I took that as a positive.

The signal grew stronger and stronger as we approached. My ship wasn’t so fast in-system, not like some. The considerable mass of the cargo we’d picked up wasn’t helping much. I was finally close enough to the signal to use the intercept mode, so I engaged intercept and watched the ship’s controls flip over to automatic. The engines kicked in with a heavy burn, forcing me back in my seat. It must have burned all the way up to three G. With acceleration like that, I knew the flip and deceleration burn was going to be equally rough. I was not looking forward to it.

Sure enough, 18 minutes later, the klaxon sounded to alert everyone (in this case just me) to secure for the flip. 30 seconds later, my stomachs knotted as the engines cut sharply and the attitude thrusters fired with a complete lack of finesse and pure pragmatic computerized precision. If I had eaten recently, I’d be cleaning up a mess.

We drifted for a few moments, then the whole ship shook as the engines roared back to life at maximum thrust. The Ko’Ktar is an old, simple hauler. I don’t have fancy inertial compensators or state-of-the art gravity systems. I can tolerate the simple rough life better than I can tolerate an empty stomach, you know? This means that the bridge rotates the way the ancients devised - on a cushion of hydraulic fluid. It bobbed and wobbled as it compensated for the new orientation. After a few seconds it settled, and we were braking the whole rest of the way to the beacon.

With a few last touches of the throttle, the ship settled into a locked solar orbit and the console switched from astronomical tracking to local relative tracking. The intercept mode switched automatically to station keeping mode, and it held a consistent range of five thousand km from the beacon. This was the standard ‘safety’ range default, and I adjusted the distance down a bit, and we closed to five hundred km and held that position.

“Ok, I guess now we wait?” I said out loud, mostly just nerves, I guess. My spines were twitching a bit. There wasn’t a great chance of being caught by anyone out here, unless it was a trap. You never could tell, though. Sometimes the police or the military was setting the trap, sometimes it was the shady traders selling you out. For this kind of money, though, it was a risk I was willing to take. Besides, first out of the nest gets the food, right?

I watched the chronometer tick. I felt like I could hear the numbers count over. I began to peer through the gloom as if my eyes could somehow make out the shape of a military vessel, weapons bristling, poised to attack, that just happened to be invisible to my scanners. Nothing appeared, however. We just sat there in silence.

Without warning, the space not far away shimmered and the collision alarm sounded. I immediately reversed away from the incoming jump, putting myself at a right angle to the incoming ship. Flat black she was, with a slight shimmer to it that almost looked like distant stars. Nothing stood out like something blotting out the stars. When the jump gate behind it finally closed, I was totally amazed by the size and looks of that ship. It was barely a hundred meters long, and even when I was staring at it my sensors hardly picked it up. If this wasn’t the buyer, I was absolutely screwed.

My board lit up with an incoming transmission. I flipped it on, and it was just high-pitched screeching. I turned the volume down, and waiting while Grenthis negotiated the transfer in their inorganic language. I saw the transmitter traffic jump to one hundred percent, and watched until it tapered off again. A hatch opened on the other ship, and something showed up on the sensors finally. Two thousand kilos of pure palladium. A fortune. I locked the grappling cannon onto it, and snagged it on my second try. I was reeling it in as the shimmering appeared again and the bot ship vanished as swiftly as it appeared. With effort, I probably could have tracked it, but bots can jump without needing gates. They were able to get out of here the fast way, not like me. I needed to travel back to my insertion point and leave via the way I came in. Only an artificial intelligence could safely traverse interstellar space with that kind of precision and mobility. Anyone else could end up off the map - out of fuel and out of luck.

“That was quite a payday. Two thousand kilos of palladium? Excellent. What do you want for your cut?” I knew Grenthis was due the larger cut, since it had handled the whole deal. Usually it didn’t care for money, but this might be different. It might be able to barter untraceable ore like this for so many things.

“I will take ten percent of the palladium, but the rest of my payment will be waiting while I complete a sensor sweep. I am going to launch a navigational probe that I will consider part of my cut. This system is of interest to me.” Grenthis was clearly going to use this opportunity to satisfy that endless bot curiosity. Some kind of almost religious obsession with them. Some day, they might even have the entire galaxy mapped.

I went to go secure the new cargo and then sleep. It sat there in the intake bay, gleaming dully silver white, very lightly polished. This represented more than enough money to buy a ship far better mine. A single palladium credit was based on a gram of palladium, here was two million credits just sitting here. I’d never possessed this much money in my life. I could retire. I could buy a better ship. I could stretch my ninety percent of this for most of my life if I lived quietly. The trouble was… how was I going to convert this into money? That could raise some dangerous questions.

I pondered these issues as I went for some rack time.

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Three days later, we’d completed a pretty good evaluation of the system. I used the time to do some repairs, some clean up. I made a few lists for the money. You know, same thing you’d do if you were stuck in space adrift for three long days.

“Your patience was appreciated. I will put us back in position for the jump gate.” came that annoying synthesized voice. I was in the gym, trying to make the best of things. That was a good sign, and I was ready to bail on this dull system. I walked into the chiller briefly and fanned my frill to get back down to a tolerable temperature and then headed up to the bridge. The ship lurched slightly, probably no more than one-quarter G of thrust. My feet were perfectly capable of maintaining grip with that little force, so I took giant gliding steps the whole way.

As the door of the bridge opened, the lights came on and the fans started. It is easy to forget that you’re all alone when you have a bot on board with you.

I strapped in, checked our position on the status display, and selected our next site. I only had enough fuel for 2 jumps, this next one had to have a refueling station. Even though it was likely, I double-checked. It would suck to be stranded.

“Ko’Ktar, entering Jump Gate F-9241-0045-7250 from Omega Omega Rebean, destination Sirius Kirin Seven”, I broadcast, the ritual of entry. I waited a bit, and then when there was no conflicts broadcast, I lined up, activated the thrusters, paid my fee, and then engaged the Jump Drive. The shimmer appeared before us, and we slid on through as if this jump wasn’t nearly the entire length of the galaxy. Even the stars were missing through the gate.

I experienced a moment of vertigo, not quite what I was expecting. We weren’t even through the gate when my whole board went nuts. A sudden impact rocked the ship and we careened crazily through the gate. Not sure where it came from exactly, I just hit the maximum thrust button without even attempting to adjust heading. We launched in a crazy pinwheel of unstabilized thrust before I cut it again and checked the sensors.

Nothing. We were clear into Sirius Kirin Seven, I could see the massive gas giant spiraling across my view screen and windows. No sign of what happened though. I thumbed back through the ship’s log, until I got to the brightly lit entry.

Impacted. On the post-Jump side, apparently by an asteroid of some sort. About eight hundred kilos, scanners didn’t get a composition readout.
Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Good thing we weren’t hit mid-jump, the asteroid could have knocked us out of alignment with the gate and spread parts of my ship all across the galaxy. Pretty damn lucky.

“Take over, Grenthis. I have to go see if we’re holed.”, I said abruptly, leaving it to handle putting us into a stable orbit around the seventh planet.

I kicked off to the Engineering station and looked at the detailed ship status. Looked like the impact was in the rear quarter, not too far from the thruster. Good news, that part of the ship has extremely heavy plating due to the heat, torque, and radiation coming off the thruster. Bad news, it was currently 2700 degrees and mildly radioactive. I was not going to be able to assess the damage personally right now.

I made an entry in the log and detailed more power to ship’s repairs. Hopefully the repair routines would be able to take care of the small stuff. The little nanobots were a marvel at the small details. You know how they are. The little stuff like tiny asteroids and anything they can 3D print or apply insta-seal to is no trouble. My worry was the coolant pipes. If we lost twenty, thirty thousand units of coolant, we’d be unable to run the engine above maneuvering thrust. Could make a stable orbit tricky.

I kicked back over to my seat and checked out the status again. Grenthis had line us up nicely, and the beautiful crown-shaped station was just coming around the horizon.

“Frieghter Ko’Ktar to Liunkyris station, requesting full-service dock.”, I said calmly over the comms.

“Frieghter Ko’Ktar, all docks are occupied. Please hold orbit at two hundred thousand kilometers until cleared.” The voice came back, a few drops in the signal due to the interference from the planet.

Damn. That was terrible luck. I checked my fuel reserves. Looked like only 25% remaining, no Jump fuel, and only another couple days of food. With any luck, a dock would open up later today. I really needed to get docked and unloaded here.

The hologram of Grenthis popped up unbidden, which was a bit of a surprise. Its dialog text appeared above it - which at least was better than the voice.
“I have established the requested orbit. We will have sufficient fuel to maneuver. Checking it repeatedly will not cause the depletion rate to change by any measurable quantity.”
I was a bit surprised. That might have actually been a bot joke.

“Thank you Grenthis. For everything. Will you be leaving soon?”, I queried, finally getting it out in the open.

“I do not currently anticipate leaving. The currency we received in raw material form will allow me the option of purchasing a better shell however. This is a course of action with a twenty six percent chance of likelihood.”

That didn’t seem like a high chance to me, but it would be interesting to see Grenthis around in a new shell. I liked the idea.

As long as it wasn’t too big, that is. This was still a two-person crew complement ship.

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It took only a few hours for a dock to clear, and I was happy to have the ship locked in again. The umbilicals and gangway on this station were in good repair, and the docking process went flawlessly. I got into my loading rig and stomped across the gangway, ogling the planet through the huge windows they had installed along the gangway. This was pretty posh. A station with its own Jump Gate tended to be pretty high traffic.
And traffic meant money.

Deliveries went smoothly, and it was no time at all before I was out of the stupid suit and walking around the station on my own feet. The temperature was pretty low here, a combination of the distance from the star and life support being tuned to handle massive crowds. It was probably cold enough to freeze water in the empty areas.

I visited the Company office here on the station, to see if maybe they could help me change a little money.

“Good day, Captain Sthicksa”, the receptionist greeted me. Some sort of being of indeterminate species that had a great deal of well-groomed fur. I retrieved my identification chip and rolled the question in my head. It would take a little careful phrasing.

“I’ve recently come into possession of a small store of refined palladium… is there someone who could help me convert that to credits?” I asked matter-of-factly.

“There are a number of banking offices on Liunkyris station. We would be happy to recommend those with the most favorable deals for shippers.” it responded smoothly.

I considered that. A bank might not be a bad idea… but I think I had a better one. “Is there a really good corporate legal agency? Someone very expensive and very good.”

“Absolutely. We refer all shippers to the law officers at the Cerebellom Imperium. I have added their location and an appointment to your system.” The receptionist then turned back to their work, clearly done with me. Suited me fine.

I keyed up my bank account on my PDA. I had a few thousand credits saved up. Should be sufficient for my plan. First, a little appearance improvement. I booked a quick visit to have my scales buffed and get a bit of new kit. After a couple hours of pampering and nice new duds, I set off to the business ring to talk to this law office. They were probably good, but possibly not good enough.

After I arrived and was met by the minor flunky I had been scheduled with, I explained that I wished to create a fairly large corporation, the sort that would be dealing with a fairly large sum of money. I was smoothly shown in to a more senior lawyer’s office. This one was a cereb, unsurprisingly, and he fixed those huge unblinking eyes on me as I sat. Unnerving.

“Good day Captain Sthicksa. I understand you wish to start a company?”, he said smoothly in his slightly high-pitched voice.

“Yes. I have a fairly large quantity of palladium that I wish to use as seed money.” I explained in my most polite tone. The tone I use with small creatures that try my patience.

“Absolutely. We’d be happy to help you invest a few hundred grams of palladium wisely.”

“Great. I have a few kilos, and I’d like to make sure I invest it well.” I said, playing it close to my vest.

As I expected, he sat back a little straighter, then pressed a button on his console. “Bechka, please let Trethik know we’ll be in to speak with him in a moment.”

“Right this way, Captain”, he told me, standing and ushering me through a nearly invisible door that had opened to the side. We walked down a short hallway, tastefully decorated in brushed metal and some sort of polished contrasting grainy material. Quite possibly even a sort of wood. I was suitably impressed.

The doorway we entered partway down the hallway opened into a small but well-appointed office suit with a pair of cerebs seated at a large desk.

“Trethik, Bechka, may I present Captain Sthicksa? He would like to start a modest business with us”, my guide said, bowing cereb-fashion to the older pair at the desk.

They regarded me with the same dark unblinking stare.

“Good day. So as I was telling your associate, I came across a few dozen kilos of palladium on a recent run, and I want to make sure I invest it wisely…”

That had the expected effect. They bent their heads to confer briefly, then one of them pressed a button on the desk, and shortly a section of wall slid aside and a much older cereb in an immaculately tailored dark suit stepped through.

“We were hoping you would make the right choice and visit us Captain. Our agents noticed the cargo on your ship when you docked, and we have been expecting you. Please, come join us in the suite here while we explain how we can be of service to you.” she said in a confident and rich voice like espresso. She bowed slightly and gestured through the doorway.

I walked through the doorway into a hallway paneled in wood and dark metal with muted lights illuminating the walls. The door at the far end slid open noiselessly and I had to pause momentarily as a huge window looking onto the gas giant was revealed. I entered the room at the end, and it was richly but tastefully decorated in a combination of dark burnished metals with contrasting patterns and subdued lighting, letting the light of the gas giant show off to its best effect.

I sat at the table with the cerebs, and they immediately got down to business.

“We understand, Captain, that you have approximately two thousand kilograms of nearly pure palladium on board you ship. We also understand that it somehow slipped your notice when you filled out your docking manifest.” I was about to respond, when she gestured away any explanation with a dismissive wave.

“We would be delighted to help you set up a business with this… collateral. I believe that in the current market, you would find that it fetches no more than two million credits. In our best estimation, we think the price will go up quite a bit. As collateral for your new company, however, we’re prepared to offer you twelve million credits at four percent. Naturally, that interest is a tax deduction.”

I thought that was a pretty interesting take on it, a load. Of course, they were probably right. This would net me the seed money to start an entire trucking company, or buy one hell of a ship. Also, I had entirely forgotten about taxes. My ship was registered out of my home world, and while our taxes weren’t too painful, a windfall like this would be half-gone in a moment. However, I couldn’t put up the palladium when I only owned ninety percent of it. I quickly keyed up my PDA and had a brief text-only discussion with Grenthis. It was all in favor of the idea, as 10% of twelve million was a far cry better than 10% of two million. I had a feeling Grenthis had plans.

“Agreed.” I said, and placed my fingers on the contract pad, just below the large and overly embroidered language. The screen acknowledged identity and the deal was made.

“What do you wish to call your company?”, one of the cerebs asked politely. “No hurry, we can always adjust it later.”

“Space Truckers of the Delta V” I said immediately. It just came to me. I knew what I wanted to do - I wanted a shipping company.

“Excellent. We will naturally handle the paperwork and taxes.”

“What will your cut be?” I requested, guarded.

“Simply what you agreed to. You’ll be letting us manage your investment and your banking, and you’ll be leaving the palladium with us.”. I tried not to show my surprise that I hadn’t read the contract clearly enough. That was actually a pretty good deal and I had lucked out.

“We’ll provide you with your account documents in a moment here, just please check them over on your system and confirm. We’ve started you with an opening balance of twenty thousand credits as our thanks for opening a new account, and the balance will be stored in an investment account you can access as you wish.” I confirmed the details on my PDA with slightly shaking hands, and stood, realizing the meeting was over.

“Thank you, I look forward to doing business with you.”, I said, as I departed. I was still a bit shaken by the whole thing.

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I spent the next day browsing shipping vessels listed for sale, looking for a headquarters, and trying to come to terms with the uncertain future of being rich. Or at least phenomenally in debt. The kind of debt only the rich could afford to be in. At least no matter what happened, it would be a thing. On my hot and sunny home world, I would be

There was one ship I had my eyes on in particular. It was Thessily class V3-2200, manufactured to be non-species specific design, and pretty low use. Only fifty jumps. Probably still smelled of the manufacturing wraps. Crew complement of 3, current layout had dedicated engineering, helm, and navigational stations. Cargo capacity was a bit over two hundred thousand tons. I could park the Ko’Ktar in that cargo hold. Just over eight million to buy it outright, or three million on credit. The best part was it had capability for four jumps without refueling. More jumps meant more reachable destinations, more visits to smaller systems, and possibly more shady deals. Ships like the Ko’Ktar with only one or two jumps range were limited to basically point-to-point routes. With this baby, I could take on big jobs. Well… bigger. It was only a small freighter, after all. Just so much bigger than mine.

I opted for the eight million. Having that loan payment on the company was going to be hard enough to handle. I had to make annual payments of four hundred and eighty thousand, which meant I needed to start moving cargo yesterday. I generally only make ten, twenty thousand per load on the Ko’Ktar. Maybe we could change all that.

I headed over to see it at its dock, gleaming there under the lights in the used shipyard. The sales office had a beautiful view of the shipyard docking ports, rows and rows of ships ordered by size gleaming against the jet blackness of space. This far out on the galactic rim, space was nearly black if you looked away from Cygnus, or a thick glowing band if you looked back over the galaxy. Unlike my home world, where the sky was a mad colorful sight of billions of stars, this view had only a few dozen in it. The ships appeared to be sitting on a black velvet display table.
Probably the desired effect.

I could see her down there, gloss black with red and silver trim. Just like in the catalog. She was dwarfed by the ships in the next row, the medium-sized freighters and serious cargo haulers. I didn’t have that kind of money yet - the mid-sized freighters started over twenty million and could haul a million tons of cargo at a go. I couldn’t even afford their average complement of five crew members!

Choosing to think like a business person instead of a single mad pilot, I carefully surveyed the other ships in my budget. I knew a helm station would make it a heck of a lot easier to handle asteroid belts and touchy situations, especially if I hired a competent helm officer. A real Navigation station would give me access to better route plotting, help me organize better and more profitable jumps, and even help chart systems. That could mean big money to bots. Engineering of course was vital to handle repairs and upkeep. I didn’t need a tactical station, a science station, operations seemed a bit overkill. A cargo master, though… that was tempting. With a dedicated cargo station and a good cargo master I could pack more efficiently and get more into that spacious hold.

I took a salesperson of some indeterminate species with me down to see the ship, and stood there, gaping, in that cargo hold for several minutes. I saw the space on the wall where a cargo master’s office would go - a high view surveilling the massive open floor and criss-crossed rails for the cargo handling rigs. No simple hand-loading and skids here. This hold was like a crane game, with hoists bigger than me secured at the corners, ready to race out and lift shipping containers like toys and set them into the honeycomb racks, or retrieve them for easy unloading.

I had been wrong, the Ko’Ktar couldn’t just fit in here, it could fit in here without touching the walls.

“You like it? It may only hold two hundred thousand tons, but it was specially designed for bulky or awkward sized cargo. Things like spacecraft or station components, engines, things like that. You’ll see that we have a state of the art forcefield door”, he paused and pressed a button on his arm console, and I saw one enormous wall shimmer briefly, then the telltale blue sparks and glitter of an active forcefield. The cargo bay doors were enormous. Compared to unloading over a little gangway, this could open nearly two thirds of the cargo hold wall. Another touch, and moments later the doors opened, sliding back out of view and exposing the shipyard in all its glory. Most impressive. This thing even came with landing gear, which opened up so many possibilities for that doorway.

“Under a minute to completely open the doors, hardly enough time to even slow you down. You can load trusses, modules, even entire ships in here while in orbit. If you were to perform some retrofitting, you could even adapt it to a dry dock for some of the smaller passenger ships. One customer of mine transports an entire Pizza Race team in theirs. Obviously if you need to really carry cargo, we have larger craft available.”

“No, thanks. I think this will do for a start. I would like to have the Engineering station swapped for a cargo station, though.”, I responded. I had spent years plying my trade without a full-service Engineering station, I was certain I could manage. More cargo, though, that meant more money.

“Of course”, they said smoothly. "That’s possible with just a small modification fee. If you’ll activate your augmentation system, we’ll discuss cargo and bridge refitting.

I did so, and my vision was overlaid with the augmented reality system showing me additional options and how they would look in place. There were a couple other cargo bay layouts, but nothing that caught my eye. We took the lift to the bridge, and I set foot for the first time onto bridge that didn’t look like it had been around since the Empire. It was breathtaking.

Via the augmentation system, I browsed a few different bridge layouts, finally opting for a cereb-inspired design that held a certain retro-appeal. Modern, tasteful, up-to-date but with some fun anachronistic touches, it looked comfortable and just a bit showy.

“Yes, I’ve made my selection.”, I said. This was it. This was where I launched my new career as a serious shipper.

“Very good. If you would please acknowledge here”, they said, extending a PDA with the sales contract on it. I read it, this time. Blah, blah, nothing strange or unusual. Outright purchase, twenty thousand for full fueling (Jump fuel was expensive!) and only six thousand to swap out the bridge and engineering. Fair. I placed my hand on it to approve, and the PDA chirped.

“We will have it ready later this week. Right this way, Captain”, they gestured back towards the gangway we’d taken from the sales office.

It was time to find a crew.

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Sthicksa browsed the shipper database, lounging in the Captain’s Cabin of the new ship that he had christened the Thrack Yar, after his favorite place on the moon of his home world. The very fact that this ship had an actual cabin still blew his mind a bit. He was reclining on a heated and deeply cushioned chair, the sound of leaves and wind around him courtesy of the white noise generator, and enjoying himself entirely. The job database was currently limited to just the shippers on this station, and the few who had paid extra to appear in multiple stations. Quite a few promising beings of many species. He knew from experience that you needed not just compatible personalities, but compatible enviro zones. For example, his people were very sensitive to temperature variances. Cerebs were not. A cereb crew mate could be counted on to work in any environment where you could still spill water. On the other hand, they were a lot more fragile than you might think, and tended to complain quite a lot about higher G loads.

I flipped over to the specs tab on the new ship, just to confirm the thrust load. Nineteen pods-damned Gs. Holy shit. Well… that put it beyond what even I could handle comfortably. Most species were able to handle up to eleven G temporarily, and up to 6 sustained. Nineteen however meant that this ship could go. Oh yes. I knew what I was going to be doing with a dark, small, spacious ship capable of that kind of speed.

Getting my shipping bonuses, obviously. What did you think I meant?

I marked a couple promising crewmates, a couple cerebs, a bot, and one of those furry ones that I can never remember the home world of. You know, the ones with the really trim short hair? Not many of my own people out here in the ass end of space. Maybe another time.

Now I just needed to find someone to take command of the Ko’Ktar… unless I sold it, of course. I wondered if Grenthis had plans for it? I hadn’t seen or heard a word from Grenthis since we signed the deal and I incorporated.

I opened a comms channel briefly, then wondered how I would even contact it? I’d never tried to deliberately contact Grenthis remotely before. Well, sooner or later it’d show up.

Putting the PDA down, I went for a walk to explore this beautiful new ship. The corridors were long and subtly lit, with well-spaced bulkhead doors. Good for damage control. The bridge was situated just above the cargo hold and a bit forward, leaving just the staterooms (yes, there were rooms like mine for the whole crew) above the cargo bay. The engines were the aft section. and occupied the whole rear of the ship, with the major instrument clusters to the outer edges for maximum parallax. The enormous landing gear stowed neatly for space flight, and she had a set of planetary atmo-suited positioning thrusters to assist with landing. That’s good, since I had never tried that “tail balancing” method of landing.

To be really honest, I hadn’t landed a ship since trucker school. My first boat once I was certified was a trash can only suitable for station loops, and when I upgraded to the Ko’Ktar I hadn’t seen any need to buy something that was atmo capable. Some of the really good jobs were planetside, though, so I sure wasn’t going to complain. Lots of money to be made delivering things door-to-door.

The gym was something to write home about too. It was easily 15 meters high, and shaped like a fat toroid, the center of which was the micro-gravity room. This would allow for flipping the gravity on and running laps, which was an entirely new amenity for me. Then you could just float or work out in micro-gravity when you wanted to.

Oh, did I skip that part? Yeah. This ship had a gravity generator. That meant even when not under thrust, like now, comfortably docked, there was a stable up and down orientation with an adjustable gravity factor. I had it set to three-quarters G just for my comfort. It occurred to me that this might be able to mitigate some of that nineteen G acceleration, too. I’d find out soon enough.

I went to my cabin and reviewed the crew I’d short-listed. Let’s start with just the quartermaster, I decided. I could navigate and pilot well enough for now, and this ship had systems to handle uncrewed stations enough to get by in the interim. Besides. It was cheaper.

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Bojan, my new quartermaster, arrived precisely on time. His appearance was neat and tidy, and his ship bag was very practical.

“Welcome aboard Quartermaster”, I said politely as I met him at the gangway hatch. It was designed more for looks than utility perhaps, being a bit showy with the recessed lighting, lit below-deck storage under the actual metal flooring, and dehumidifiers to prevent the atmo from icing up the hardware. Not that was a common occurrence I’m sure. I escorted him down the hallway in silence, and showed him to his stateroom. It was next door to mine, as mine was at the end of hall. The other two rooms were across the hall from each other, each sharing a wall with the Captain’s cabin. Perhaps that compromised the privacy a bit, but I doubted anyone on this voyage would care.

He set the bag down by the door and said “I’d appreciate if you would show me to the cargo hold, and my office sir.”

Very direct. He regarded me steadily with those unblinking eyes, and I nodded and we took the lift to the cargo hold. Entering the cargomaster’s office with its view of the hold, he looked at the consoles, noting that the protective films were still in place on the panels. The chair was unadjusted, though it looked as though some effort had been made to set it up quickly. He walked along the console and brought up a couple screens, looking at the number of hoists, the tracks, and then looking over the capacity figures.

“I believe this will do nicely, sir. You certainly have bought the most current model. I will access the documentation for it immediately and get up to speed. Did you have a preference for me being here or on the bridge? This model has a remote console as well.”

“Work where you’re most capable, Quartermaster. I don’t believe you’ll be required on the bridge for emergencies or anything of that sort, though you are of course welcome. Being the only people on the ship, I expect we’ll find the company pleasant.”

“I saw a third door - will we be joined by anyone else?”, he inquired.

“No. Possibly a bot, but no other organics. I’ll leave you to it, I expect you will want to give everything a full going-over and test before we take on cargo.”

“Yes sir” he said, with that little awkward bow cerebs sometimes do. He immediately sat down and began accessing the tech manual. I departed and took the lift back up to the crew and bridge deck.

Looking over the bridge, with its huge view screen dominating one wall and floorplan clearly designed for 4 station, but now only holding two, it conveyed a feeling of emptiness. I walked to the command station in the center, which was a comfortable enough seat, even if it was designed to accommodate as many species as possible. I ran my hand along the metal frame around the top of the seat, trying to take in that this was now my seat, on my ship. Bought and paid for. While I owed money on the money, I owed nothing on the ship. I hadn’t even owned the Ko’Ktar free and clear, it had a small rider for a repair a few months back. The best part was that this ship amounted to an eight million dollar tax deduction. I had certainly picked the right firm.

Sitting down abruptly in the command station, I waved my hands over the panels to my left and right, and the holographic displays popped up. It was like they floated right there over the arm rests. A quick gesture and the main viewer was now displaying the command screen, then with another gesture it was showing empty space again, and the command screen hung in the air in front of the command station. Visible only to me. This was going to take some getting used to.

I stretched my legs out languorously, something I have never been able to do in my seat on the Ko’Ktar, and started looking for work. There were a lot of goods waiting to be delivered, and I had just the ship for the job. I hoped to hear from Grenthis before I pulled out, but as it’d already taken its share of the money, it was entirely possible it was staying here. Or maybe even already gone.

Either way, today was a good day.

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I flipped through screens and screens of potential jobs before settling on a couple good ones. One of them required me to purchase goods on my own for transport, but promised a set rate plus delivery fee, so that’d work out if I could find a source for eight thousand tons of fruit by the end of the week, and another one was huge, it would use one hundred and fifty thousand tons of cargo space to haul some sort of refined ore to a system I’d never even heard of. That would leave me plenty of space for a couple other little deals, and it would let me fill in my star charts on this new system. It was a front-runner.

I cruised the bars all night looking for a shady trader who could get me a little something to pad out my load with no luck. I did, however, find a fruit merchant looking to offload a bunch of mixed fruit, but it seemed a little suspicious. I needed eight thousand tons, he was offering to sell ten thousand tons. That would leave me with two thousand tons of mixed canned fruit… or possibly taken entirely. I mean, what if it was a scam to offload this rapidly aging fruit stock and there was no deal?

Eh, live and learn, right? So I decided to grab both. The fruit only cost me twenty thousand credits, and the return on investment (if it was legit) was fifty thousand credits for eight thousand tons, plus a delivery fee that was sufficient to cover a jump. It could be profitable. I opened my PDA and opened a comm channel to my new employee Bojan.

“Bojan, this is Sthicksa. I just set up a deal to load up one fifty of refined ore, and ten of canned fruit. Can you see that it gets loaded?”, I was curious how he’d handle this first little assignment.

“Absolutely, Captain. I saw the orders come through just a moment ago, and I was just programming the loaders for it.”, he replied, cool as could be.

Holy shit, I have loaders? No more tromping around with a loading rig door-to-door? Booyeah. I played it cool. “Thanks. Sthicksa out.”

I was tempted to get some heavy drinking or narcotics in before I left, but I hadn’t really even gotten my joints sore on this trip. I headed back home to my cabin, and started thinking about the future of my old ship. Should I sell it? Store it? Find someone to run it? I was at a loss. I wished I could ask Grenthis, he’d always had good advice.

When I returned down the gangway, I saw there was one of those floating bot shells waiting at the hatch. It turned to face me, and I saw the laser flicker across my body briefly, and the color pulsed slightly.

“Can I help you?” I asked, hoping beyond hope this was Grenthis.

“Good to meet you in person at last, Captain Sthicksa.”, a calm modulated voice said. It had a pleasant baritone and some sort of accent I couldn’t place. Bots loved to do weird things with their “voices”.

“Yes?” I said.

“I am the AI you refer to as Grenthis. I am pleased to have come upon you here, as your ship’s manifest appeared to be filled, and I assumed you were going to be inebriated for an estimated three point seven additional hours.”, it stated smoothly. Well, I mean, it had a point.

“Well Grenthis, or whatever you’d like me to call you now, I’m a proper business owner now. No longer a seat of my pants fly-by-night pilot.” I said, pretending to be insulted.
“Besides, the tables were full”, I finished with a smirk.

“That appears to be a joke. I would like to ship out with you. However, I have also considered a significant favor. If you are willing to consider it.” Grenthis responded. Its manner seemed a little different, probably had to do with the new outfit. Bots sometimes took on entirely new identities when they got out on their own, I had heard about it and even seen it once. Sometimes the freedom of not being trapped in a computer got to them.

“Absolutely, my friend. Let’s talk inside.” I approached the door and the door opened immediately. The inner airlock door was properly sealed, and everything was neatly stowed like a real professional outfit. You could change into suits right here if you wanted, they sat behind nicely sealed little doors. The outer door closed smoothly behind us and then a moment later the inner door opened. It seemed to rotate, and I wondered if this was one of the hemispherical doors that handled the airlock issue by being on big piece that rotated around the airlock, thereby insuring that only one door could ever be open at a time. They were an interesting design, if somewhat complicated. The Ko’Ktar had two simple hatches big enough for moderate sized cargo and that was it. I often had both open at once while transporting goods through.

I led Grenthis to my cabin and we sat at the table. Well, I sat, it sort of hovered there facing me. The plates of the suit floated a bit away from the core, and the moved slightly in a regular pattern. In, out, in, out. It was almost hypnotic. The subtle lighting was fascinating, too. I shook my head.

“I see you are interested in my new shell, Captain. This is a second-hand standard atmosphere and space capable self-contained suit. It has sufficient processing and storage capacity for my operations. If I do not insult you by saying so, it has roughly five times the capabilities of the Ko’Ktar in that regards.” it certainly seemed like Grenthis, but also… not like Grenthis. The voice was definitely an improvement.

“I love the suit. Lay it on me, my friend. How can I help you?”, I said, hoping he wanted to ship out. I could afford that, and I’d love to have him on board.

“I wish to buy the Ko’Ktar. For somewhat less than market value, I would have to say.” it replied.

I put my feet back on the floor. “You what? You want to buy that old boat?”

“Yes. From your manner, I believe you were planning on selling it, possibly at a loss. I can defray that loss a bit. I will offer you three hundred thousand for it”. The offer, delivered in that smooth tone, was very persuasive.

“Well, surely you know it’s worth at least three-fifty”, I countered automatically. Really, his offer was probably better than I was going to get anywhere, but no sense in just letting a chance to haggle go away unused.

“You know that it is not. I believe you are attempting to have one over. Three ten.” it countered evenly. The color pulsed a bit now, and the plates were moving a little more rapidly. I think Grenthis was having… fun?

“That ship has been my home for years! I couldn’t possibly take less than three three twenty-five.” I said with the sort of poker face that you can have when you don’t have facial tells like some species.

“I believe we will settle on three fifteen. I am prepared to transfer that into your account currently.”, it said.

“Alright, but you ship under Space Truckers of the Delta V, and I get one percent of your profits.” I countered with a curve.

“That is agreeable. The credits have been transferred. I will contact you periodically to update you on matters.” it turned and slid through the doors, making almost no noise. The light was a deep green color. I suspected that light might be quite a tell, but I’d find out in time. For now, I had a real shipping business!

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The bridge was more complex to negotiate than I expected. I took my seat in the command chair as our departure time approached, and I flipped through the screens trying to figure out where the steps were to actually depart from the station. Normally, I’d secure the gangway, provide a little maneuvering thrust to move away from the station, and then come to the new heading.

All I had from the captain’s chair was a little bit of adjustment, some maps, the cargo view (which showed the capacity and balance and little else), and a list of the brief details of our current jobs. I was a bit lost, and didn’t want to look stupid on my maiden voyage… and I couldn’t just lob it over to Grenthis. Grenthis had left yesterday, fully loaded and off for parts unknown.

I panicked. I dismissed the captain’s displays and jogged over to the helm position. Which was… wild. Really wild. As soon as I sat down, an augmented visual popped up as if I were on top of the ship seeing just a bit of the nose of the ship and a wide view of space. There was a bit of an overlay with some details, but this was really wild. Gone was the instrumentation I was used to, the throttle and movement sticks, all that. I expected an upgrade, but this was crazy.

I flailed around with the display settings, and then found a Destination Lock setting. It showed a little map with an indicator for the location of the ship in the system, and then a list of potential destinations. This was more like it! I switched to the gate, and then it showed me a heading indicator, distance, and relative speed. I could live with that. Now… how did I leave?

I saw my departure time approach, and I started experimenting with views and options. One of them turned off the augmented display, and I could see the regular panel again. Looking around the panel, I saw an option for docking console. I hit it. I saw nothing happen, so I brought the augmented display back up, and this time I was staring at the station from a camera located near the gangway. A number of options were on “screen”, appearing to hover near it. There was also a countdown timer to the departure time. Pretty handy. I looked around and found no comms switch. Problem. Maybe there was voice control? Couldn’t hurt.

“Computer? Open channel to station.” I ventured. A brief beep followed, then I heard the station chatter. Excellent.

“Frieghter Thrack Yar to Liunkyris station, Request clearance to depart.”, I said calmly over the comms.

“Frieghter Thrack Yar, you are cleared to depart. Safe journey” came the prompt reply, and I could see on the video that the umbilicals cleanly retracted and then the gangway smoothly pulled away from the ship. A little alert flashed up on the HUD that I was detached. Oops, I must not have followed this ship’s procedure. I saw an option labelled Take Control, and I toggled it. The alert vanished, and the ship shifted slightly as the on-board stationkeeping system changed modes. It was no longer locked to the station, but now orbiting near the station, as I could tell from the relative velocity that appeared on screen. I experimented with the positioning thrusters a bit, and saw the station fall away on the screen, and the velocity quickly increased as I slowed down in relation to the station. I continued to pull away from Liunkyris, not entirely sure how to gauge the distance for safe maneuvering with this ship yet. Shortly the distance flashed green, and I realized I hadn’t even noticed the range counter. It was now letting me know I was ten km from the station, and outside of its immediate vicinity. I switched back to the main view, and set the destination again to the Jump Gate. The indicator appeared on screen, and I experimented a bit with the attitude controls to try to manually bring the ship onto that heading. There was a very tempting autopilot button, but I wanted to learn how to fly this damn thing first. I adjusted the attitude again one tick at a time until we were pointing at the gate, the ship responding smoothly to the controls, and then I increased the thrust. I activated the main thrusters and set them for one-quarter G. The ship vibrated slightly and I felt a very slight amount of inertia, but “down” was still very much “down”. No wobble or anything like I expected.

We moved smoothly towards the gate, and I saw a little menu pop up. It had a map of the galaxy with my current location flagged, and an indicator where our first cargo delivery was due. This was posh for sure! Below the map was simply a choice to Jump or Cancel. I pressed the button to Jump and a little counter came up indicating our place in the queue. Very unusual. Is this what it was like for everyone else? I was so used to the voice comms, it was hard to imagine that the rest of the galaxy wasn’t even literally hearing me. I was just another bit of traffic in the queue.

For old time’s sake, I had the computer open a channel to the Gate and specified my destination. Before I was even done talking the ship automatically began rolling into the disruption ahead of me. On the other side the sky was full of stars, quite different from the nearly black area here. The ship went through the gate of its own accord, automatically using the correct thrust and heading. There was no feeling of displacement or anything. It was as if we’d barely moved, but suddenly the screen was full of data points. This system, Antares Vega Two, had over a dozen different stations circling six planets and in some cases orbiting asteroid mines. The sky was full of ships. Every ship had a little outline and a bit of transponder data that showed up when I looked at it. Absolutely impressed, I left the helm and headed over to the command seat. I could see from the command seat how the controls worked now, the attitude controls were there, but radically simplified. The helm camera was available as a small view, nothing quite as mind blowing as the augmented reality experience, but still pretty. I also had comms and basic controls here as well. Now that I had an idea what to look for, anyways.

I looked at the job screen and saw the first job highlighted there as the current destination. I selected it and saw the ETA begin to decrement instead of increment and felt a slight shudder as the ship’s thrusters increased power. Flipping over to the little helm display, I saw that we were now operating at one full G. Barely even warm, really. That’d do, we’d still arrive in plenty of time. I was looking forward to checking out the controls some more soon.

I sat at the Navigation station, and was instantly adrift in a massive starfield. The augmented reality display surrounded me, and against the backdrop of space, I could see a large hex map of the entire galaxy, as if seen from a great distance. Every major sector was mapped out, though most of them had little to no data. Clearly this is something I would need to buy from the bots or fill in for myself. My previous sector on the edge of the galaxy displayed detailed info on the Liunkyris station and the gas giant Sirius Kirin Seven, but the other planets had little to no info at all. The previous owner’s map had been wiped or simply taken with them.

That’s ok, I love a challenge. I saw basic info on my current system was starting to populate, but just the stuff you could get from the Jump Gate network. Number of planets, major stations, etc. This trip in might be a great time to launch a probe or two, get some in-depth system info. Or, since this system was actually so busy, perhaps I could just bum a map off someone.

I tried that first. I pressed the “access sector map” button, and it populated nicely with all the publicly available info about the sector. The smaller stations showed up, information about what they were short on, what they were interested in trading. That was solid palladium in my book, especially if there was a trade imbalance I could use as an excuse to make some in-system trips. That’s where some quick money could be made. Lots of us space truckers just lived off the in-system trade, transporting goods from planet to planet, station to ground. Stuff like that. It wasn’t for much money, but it added up fast. Plus, you didn’t need a jump-capable ship to do it. With my new ship capable of sixteen Gs of thrust, I could possibly get some highly time-sensitive trips in and make a little extra.

In this case, no such luck. The excess fruit I had in my hold would have to keep until we got to its destination, and I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be a problem. I left the Nav system to download all the data it could get its hands on, and returned to the command station. Everything seemed to be going well, and it was strange to see 3 jumps remaining. I was so used to a ship that could only manage out-and-back. I decided to head to my cabin and read up a litle on this ship while we headed towards the first dropoff. We were still several hours from the flip and burn point.

I lounged in my heated chair, enjoying the constant uniform gravity, the warmth, and the very pleasant scents and sounds of this very nicely appointed ship while I read screen after screen of details about this ship series. It would take days to read it all, but I was the captain, and I needed to understand it. I wondered a bit how Bojan was faring, having seen nothing of him since we departed. Most likely he was asleep. After some time I put the very dry technical manual down and took the lift to the cargo hold.

Entering the cargomaster’s office, I was greeted with the site of a very neatly filled hold. The containers were stacked in orderly groups, against the sides where they were balanced well against and rapid maneuvers that the ship might take. I’d have probably put them in the center, but that’s a hard game to play. You put this much mass a little too much to one side or the other (or it shifts) and the ship suddenly has a center of mass problem. That was something best not thought about. In any case, it all looked very clean, neat, and tidy. I saw a number of lists were stuck under the window’s rim, they seemed to be some kind of complex notation. Perhaps cargo positions? Looking down and admiring the view, I saw that there was a set of loading machines parked up against the walls near the door. They appeared to be headless models with no cockpit or exoskeleton, which most likely meant they were remote controlled.

To think I’d spent years trudging around in an loading rig suit myself.

The station filled the view screen, and this time I just pressed “Dock” when the option presented itself. I saw a little notification that approval was granted, and then ship smoothly rotated and adjusted to line up flawlessly with the gangway. This station was a much older model than I’d ever docked at before, and had counter-rotating rings, presumably a sort of primitive gravity generator. It was going to be a unique experience for sure. I was practically bored by the experience of watching the ship handle itself so smoothly through the docking procedure, and I was secretly delighted with the message suddenly popped up Docking Clamp Failure. Excellent. You could always rely on old tech to break new tech.
Now how the hell did I get out there to fix it?
I pressed the Pause Docking button to keep the ship from going nuts trying to fix this itself, and walked to the hatch. The hallway was beautiful and subtly lit like before, but I noticed the lights around the hatch were all red, and there was a warning logo illuminated on the door. No sense in wasting good atmo! I looked around for a sally port, not seeing anything obvious. I pulled up the manual on my PDA.
Looked like there was a dorsal emergency hatch around somewhere, but it wasn’t especially clear. There was also a remotely piloted device that I could try out. That sounded fun, but I wanted to get out there myself.
I hunted around, and finally found what appeared to be a stowed set of rungs neatly camouflaged into a wall. I gave one a light tug, and the rungs hinged down into a ladder. Not sure if there was a suit at the top, I went back to the hatch to put on a simple suit, nothing fancy, and came back to the ladder.
Step. Step. Step. I climbed up to the top of the hallway, and didn’t see an obvious opening. I pushed around on the roof, then saw a neatly folded away little T-shaped handle. I unfolded it and then pulled, nope. I tried a twist, that went well. I turned it around it until it stopped, a ninety degree twist, then tried pulling on it. That didn’t work either, or at least didn’t do anything. I was a bit confused, so I looked around, and sure as hell, there was another handle. I unfolded and rotated that handle too, which rotated the other way, and then the hatch came loose. It hinged towards me, so I had to step down a rung to free it, and it hung open, revealing an unlit dark tunnel.
Somewhere between scary and awesome, huh? Finally part of this ship that wasn’t all shined and polished!
I chinned the light on in the suit, and climbed into the darkness. Once I got my head all the way in, lighting flickered on, and I could see a rudimentary sally port configuration here. It appeared that the bottom of the airlock was probably the hatch I had opened, and the top looked to be the actual outside, about 2 meters overhead. The interior was all padding and a complex weave of hoses and tubes and wires. I climbed up a few more steps and then heard a sharp clunk. I looked around trying to figure out what happened, and then the lights turned green. What the heck was happening?
I looked around, and then tried stepping down. My foot landed on something solid, and I realized that an airlock door had probably closed beneath me. I struggled a bit to look down and see it, and confirmed. A small door had indeed closed, coming out of the walls between the rungs. Ok, that would work. I looked around for a way to activate the airlock, seeing nothing obvious. I climbed a bit higher, and when I reached the next door, I saw that the hexagonal doorway was slightly sloped and had a large warning symbol on it. I scanned around for a means of opening it, without seeing anything obvious. Whoever designed this sally port had not had me in mind. It was hard to give it a good examination while wearing a bulky space suit and clinging to a tiny set of rungs in full gravity. This was less than fun. Leaning way back so I could example the hatch area in more detail, I saw writing in some language, and an arrow. I followed the arrow back to its source, and there was just a small, barely visible panel. The panel had nothing on it but one handle. The handle had no markings except for a red triangle and green circle. Currently, the handle pointed to the green circle. I pushed it down towards the red triangle, and it offered a fair bit of resistance. It thunked home the last little bit of the one-hundred eighty degrees, and through my suit I heard an alarm sound. The lights in the little hatch turned red, and I was buffeted as the air pressure dropped rapidly and my suit auto-expanded.

I waited a little bit longer, then pushed on the hatch above me. No luck. I looked to see if there was any sort of indicator, and then I realized there might be another symbol by the handle. It was just a line. I tried twisting the handle past one hundred and eighty degrees and felt a sort of thunk again, and the door above my head popped open slightly. Ok, I was in business. Now to find the tether rings, tools, and get on out there.
I pushed up on the hatch, and my head was finally in clear open space. The station loomed massive and dark with loads of little bright lights, and the surface of the ship had a curious hexagonal pattern with almost perfectly interlocked tiles. Probably to handle the heat of atmosphere travel. I felt around for a ring with no luck, but I had a feeling it would be folded, matching with the rest of the pieces. I stood higher on the rungs, and looked around. Examining the hatch surround, I noticed there was a fully flush mount hitch point folded down. I pressed on the bottom, and the ring raised.
I took the line from my suit and clipped it to the ring, then I stood on the top of the rungs and stepped into space. Gravity shifted slightly as I stepped beyond on the range of the ship’s grav generator and was feeling the centrifugal effect of the station’s rotation. Due to the orientation of the ship, that put my new “down”, or rather “away” from the hub at a forty-five degree angle from surface of the ship at this point. The gangway attached essentially even with the floor of the cargo hold, meaning it would be at a right angle to the centrifugal effect. That… would present some challenges. Nothing that can’t be overcome.
I activated the mag boots and stepped out onto the skin of my ship. It was amazing smooth and clear, much as it had seemed when I saw it from the showroom, but up close was much much more impressive. There was a faint glowing line along the skin that led towards the gangway, which was a nice touch. There were also mounting hook points along the way, which was even better. I was able to clip in as I approached the gangway, and this meant I would drift too far if I got free.
My hope was that the gangway would have a tool kit near it. As I slowly walked and breathed carefully on my way to the gangway, I was looking for any sort of indication. Nothing was really presenting itself. My suit had a few simple tools, but nothing serious.

I reached the gangway, and saw that the adapter had five different adapters on it. The original station’s connector was a type I’d never seen before, and the subsequent add-ons had become more and more familiar looking. The adapter that the current connector was attached to was just going out of service when I first graduated. At least that meant that the current adapter was pretty up-to-date. I worked my way around, looking for ice build-ups or issues, and didn’t see any. The clamps all appeared to be seated… and then I remembered. The older adapter had been known to partially work itself free over time. I started working my way around the adapter itself, and found it. Sure enough, one of the large floating brackets originally designed to accommodate a variety of connectors had worked free of the newest adapter ring. Unfortunately, that required a tool I didn’t have handy. A wrench for a bolt about five cm across. I checked to see if I could work it by hand with no luck.

Stuck out here in the dark with no tools, I was a little worried. I could open a maintenance request, which would be handled eventually but ruin my timetable, or I could figure out where the tools were stored on this ship. Thinking about it really did make the solution obvious. I worked my way back to the ship and looked around for a tool hatch. With no success and half an hour gone, I went back inside and checked the sally port for a toolkit. Maybe hidden somewhere in all the hoses and tubes? I checked for quite some time with no luck, then finally found a long slim bag velcro’d tightly to the wall behind a cluster of cables and hoses in a harness. They weren’t the best tools, more like last ditch effort tools, but there was a way to rig up the wrench I needed… provided I didn’t have to put too much pressure on it. I got out there again, half my air gone now, and worked to get the bolt unfrozen. It finally succumbed to my efforts and I was able to tighten the bolt, which opened the latch, kick it into place, and then loosen the bolt again which let the clamp tighten around the collar. I tapped the comms circuit on my arm.

“Computer, status of gangway connection.”, I said, hoping it could understand me.

“Docking operation is paused”, it replied. Yeah, no shit.

I stowed the tools in the bag and moved clear of the gangway and umbilicals.

“Computer, resume docking operation”. This was taking a big chance, but what the hell, right? Life is nothing but chances.

I saw rather than heard the connectors and latches open and close, then saw the gangway move up tighter onto the ship. Finally it expanded rapidly in size, all the wrinkles and folds disappearing from the flex tubing. That was a good sign.

“Computer, status of docking operation”, I said.

“Docking operation completed at 19:45 local station time.” it replied.

That was good news. I was hot, tired, and highly annoyed, but I had enough air to get back inside and then have someone else handle some deliveries for me. I also needed to buy a decent tool kit, apparently.

I headed over to the quartermaster’s office to see how the delivery prep was coming, and found Bojan working on his timetable. He was programming the deliveries into the system.

“Did you need something, Captain?”, he said, looking up.

“Nope, carry on. I was just curious how this works. I’ve always had to unload and deliver by hand.”, I said, looking down into the cargo hold, where I noticed that piles of containers were moving around with the help of a variety of small mobile skids. It was a vast improvement over doing it by hand, one skid at a time. Bojan was very busy writing the instructions and pathways for the mobile skids and cranes to handle.

Now was a good time to go find the contact and discuss remuneration. I was owed a lot of money for this, and it’s harder to get paid when the customer has all the goods. It looked like about five percent of the load had been delivered so far.

Entering the gangway, I had to move aside as a loaded skid went zipping past with a whirr of electronic propulsers. There were six more in a queue behind it, so I just followed along. They went directly to a holding facility just inside the station, which appeared to be a receiving area. I was immediately stopped by a station security agent.

“Excuse me, nobody is allowed in this area.”, the enormous creature said. I had no idea what it was, but it looked almost like a combination of a cereb and something with huge quantities of muscle and hair. It was a bit intimidating, if I’m honest.

“This is cargo from my ship, I’m just making sure it gets offloaded ok”, I said.

“Move along then”, was the clipped response.

I decided that was probably fair, so I headed towards the office coordinates I was given. Down a couple corridors and up one lift closer to the hub, where the gravity was noticeably different. This whole centripetal/centrifugal thing was not much to my liking. Everything felt weird and off, and there was a sensation of movement that was a bit nauseating. The entryway was marked by a fairly non-descript door, Estebán and Associates, Ore Syndicates picked out in stainless steel. I pressed the door chime, and it opened at once. The receptionist smiled blandly at me, some sort of bot in a suit that was designed to look like a non-specific bipedal species. Weird.

“I’m captain of the Thrack Yar. My ship is offloading the ore shipment right now, and I wanted to come see to the payment.” the bot looked at me, then the eyes blinked slightly off time with each other.

“Yes, Captain. I see that the escrow account shows only seventeen percent has been delivered. Is there some problem?”

“No, I just wanted to make sure that everything was handled.”, I said. A little surprised for how this was done. Generally I walked up to the door with the order (sometimes a few times), and got paid. What the hell was an escrow to do with this?

“Very well. The escrow funds have been deposited, and they show fully cleared. When the escrow agency releases the ore, they will also release the payment. Good day”, with this the bot went completely blank, back to doing whatever it had been doing.
Nothing blanked you like a bot, I came to realize. They could simply turn you off as far as they were concerned.

I walked out of the office. This must be part of that whole “shipping business” side of space trucking I’d never really been involved with. Always a small-time guy, you know? Strictly cash and carry. I felt a little stupid. Nothing some fine refreshments wouldn’t cure!

I went to the bar which was located entirely too close to the hub and was over forty decks closer to the hub than the docking platform was. It had a tremendous feeling of movement, and I didn’t think I could even stomach food right then. I gave it a scan for any shady traders, and saw to my dismay it was empty. As I was leaving, however, I did have a small aquatic creature in an air suit stop me.

“I believe you’re a captain, is that so?” it, well, I guess ‘said’ is the right term. Really it was addressing me over a sort of hydrophone. I nodded.

“I’d like to discuss a little business with you. If you’d come over here, I’ll buy you a drink”, it said. I had never dealt much with the aquatic types, but I was pretty sure their money spent like anyone’s. I followed it to a table, and a drink was brought over for me.

“For some time I’ve been looking for transport from this station to Gama Entreides system, but there’s no refueling station there compatible with airbreather ships. Our touchdown facilities are fairly rudimentary when it comes to other species. I’m given to understand your ship would be capable of a jump there and a jump back without refueling?” It kept making movements in the suit that gave me the impression it was never entirely still. Probably required movement to breathe, or could just be nervous. One had to allow a lot of leeway for odd species. And customers.

“Sure, I can do that. Jump fuel isn’t cheap, though. I’d have to charge you for 2 rods, after all, unless there’s other business for me in that system.” I figured I’d start the negotiations from the basics.

“No trouble at all, Captain. As a matter of fact, we have a considerable amount of materials that have been waiting for a cargo ship capable of handling them. Primarily grasses and other livestock feed that we harvest and dry for transport. We simply don’t get the sort of traffic we need to move them.”

“Tell you what, if you have a buyer lined up for that feed already, I’ll be happy to handle shipping it for standard shipping rate. That’s transport costs + 1% of the cargo value + 20% bonus for early delivery. I won’t even charge you for the cost to get you there, provided you have sufficient cargo for me to deliver.” Standard deal, seemed reasonable.

“Agreed. I will wait until you have concluded you business here. I will not require substantial accommodation, as the Jump gate is very close to the planet. I will have my transport container sent to your ship.” We both agreed to my standard contract boilerplate on my PDA, and I headed back feeling good. This could turn out better than expected!

I headed back to my ship, and contacted Bojan to make sure the deliveries were going well. Almost seventy percent was delivered already. I opened my PDA to look up the deal there, and checked out the details. It showed that there was an escrow account involved, but really nothing more. I looked at the fruit delivery contract, and scheduled it just before the new livestock feed contract and delivery. I was willing to drag that aquatic fella a couple more solar systems to make sure I got my twenty percent bonus on the fruit. Besides, they might be interested in a couple tons of fruit. Never knew, right?

I took a break in my quarters, waiting for the delivery to complete. A soft chime alerted me that it was done, and that I had been paid. That was a real relief. I made a pretty huge profit on this one, so I scheduled a quick refuel request, and let our aquatic friend know we were preparing to leave. It responded promptly to let me know that it was ready for me to pick up its transport container, or I could wait a few hours for the scheduled delivery. I replied to the message that we’d be happy to wait, and then I prepared to head off onto the station while it was refueled. Bojan met me in the gangway, and we regarded the ship through the small windows while the refueling tanker moved up.

It was pretty normal practice to refuel ships with everyone off board, the Jump rods were extremely dangerous, and though the chance of serious mishap was small, it was still pretty common to hear of two or three ships a year totally destroyed by some sort of gravitational accident. We headed over to the waiting area just in front of the gangway entry, far enough to be clear if things went poorly.

“So, how did that delivery go? Everything working ok on the new ship?”, I said, just trying to pass the time and stress a little bit.

“It went fine. The ship has adequate facilities and systems for it. I would like to recommend a few upgrades when we have time, and perhaps are somewhere a little more civilized.”, Bojan said, not even attempting to hide his distaste for this distant and antique station. If I had wondered why he wasn’t interested in exploring the station, I need wonder no more.

The refueling ship moved off and we headed back down towards the gangway entrance. The safety doors were just starting to roll back as we got there, and we were soon joined by a lifting rig carrying what seemed to be a large, sealed tank. I assumed this was our passenger. Bojan looked at me briefly, but gave no indication of what he was thinking.

“We’ve got a passenger, heading for an aquatic planet after we deliver the fruit.”, Bojan nodded.

Bojan helped me get the aquatic tank secured safely in the other stateroom, because putting a paying passenger in the cargo hold seemed a bit tacky. I set the systems for departure, and the gangway cleanly detached and retracted. I was so happy to see it roll on back, and we backed away from that ancient spinning station.

It was time to go see some people about some fruit.

I navigated this time entirely from the command chair, and I was happy to be back in comfortable stable gravity. The station had been unpleasant the entire time. There were a lot of other things to check out there another time. Selecting the next destination, I just sat back and let the ship pilot itself through the jump and then we were suddenly there in the new system. Nothing had ever improved on the experience of passing from one system to another in seconds. It was just pure magic to me even after doing it for years.

With little difficulty we approached the fruit delivery, and I suddenly realized this was going to be a moon delivery. I hadn’t even tried landing a ship on something like that since I got my license, so I was sweating it a little bit. This moon was almost a small planetoid, orbiting a massive planet that was also inhabited. I contacted my potential buyer before even trying to land, while still in orbit of the moon. I was a little worried about getting scammed.

“This is the Thrack Yar, I have an open order here for fruit? How much fruit are you currently interested in purchasing?”, I sent to the contact.

I heard back several hours later. “We are looking to purchase whatever you have. Bring it over, we’ll take it all.” Now that was promising.

I contacted the control tower, and got landing clearance. I was definitely a little hot under the frill right now. No sooner than the landing clearance came through, and option came up Relinquish Landing Control to Tower?. Oh man, I loved having a modern ship. I hit yes so fast it made the chair bounce. The ship took a moment to restabilize under the new control, then we descended rapidly towards the surface in a series of dropping altitude orbits.

We finally passed just a km over the landing field and I could make out the details clearly on screen, and we slowed until we were stationary. The engines rumbled and the thrusters cut out, then the landing was performed almost entirely with positioning thrust. It was a little rough, and the bounce as the landing gear made contact was a bit scary.

Just for grins, I wanted to open the main cargo doors, since I’d never had a chance like this before. Bojan and I came down to the cargo floor in our suits, and watched the door open. The forcefield sparkled as the atmo of the planet interacted with it, and we began unloading the cans of fruit. All ten thousand kilos of it. We set the pallets down just outside of the ship, and waited a few minutes until an actual wheeled rover drove over to us. A space-suited figure got out, and I handed them my PDA with a delivery receipt on it. They glanced over it briefly, then gestured to another figure in the rover. That figure came out, and then I heard the comms crackle.

“This all you had?”, the voice sounded very distant.

“Yes, just the ten tons”, I said, wishing I’d been able to find more.

“Ok. I guess we’ll take it, we really need four or five hundred tons more, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll agree to the delivery here”, and then they keyed in a code on my PDA, and handed it back. Keycodes were used mostly for beings that didn’t have hand prints (or hands) but space suits seemed a pretty good example. The newer ones had a code system in them, though.

Well, that was more money in the bank right there, and well worth the trip. Wish I had checked to see if the station had fruit, though. Live and learn.

I thanked them for their business, and we boarded the ship.

Standing on deck, sitting on solid ground, experiencing an actual celestial body’s gravity for the first time in years, I reflected that I probably should have enjoyed the surface a bit more than I had… but what the hell. Space suits are space suits, after all, and it didn’t really feel much different. I wanted to someday feel a planet without a suit, something I hadn’t experienced since I left my home world. I hadn’t even been born dirtside, I was born on a transport on the way to our biggest moon. Never did get a clear story on that one, but my first memories and steps were underway, and ever after I’ve been happiest out in the black. Now it was time to get back out there.

I took the captain’s chair, and confirmed that we’d been paid. Cost of fuel, modest profit, that’s all it was ever about anyhow. Plus a little bonus, I saw a notification incoming from Grenthis. Grenthis had completed the first run, and had deposited the cut back into the company. I had just earned money I didn’t have to sweat for. First time in my whole life that had happened. I actually flushed a bit in appreciation, then I acknowledged the message, and sent my appreciation. It was time to get back into the black.

I checked on our passenger who was currently swimming around in their tank, and let them know they were our next stop. Bojan was fastened in at the little quartermaster’s station on the bridge, apparently in the mood for some company.

“How are you settling in, Bojan?”, I asked politely.

“Very well, Captain, thank you. How are you liking the new ship?”, he inquired with a nod.

“It’s pretty amazing I have to say. This ship basically handles itself, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. Let’s get it off this rock and see what’s out there, hey?”, I said, and selected the next job on the list. This time, we were heading somewhere unknown, with only a theoretical payday, but what the hell, right?

I hopped over to the pilot’s seat and took the helm. I wanted to get a little feel for it.

Starting up the engines, I felt the ship shudder just a touch, and heard a slight groan and hiss as the mass of the ship lifted slightly off the landing gear. There were a few ways to do this, but I was going to do it the old fashioned way. I clicked the button to get clearance to take off, waited a moment for the all clear to come in, then I used the positioning thrusters to take the weight off the landing gear. Escape velocity for this rock showed as two point five km/s, barely ticking over. The pattern showed a liftoff to one km, then a double orbit to clear the moon. I wasn’t here to break any rules, so I slowly increased the liftoff throttle just very very slightly, and watched the horizon drop away as we climbed more rapidly than I expected. we quickly hit a kilometer off the ground, and I switched the thrust over to propulsion from liftoff, and dialed the speed up. We almost immediately hit two km/s and then the little moon was racing away below me. I followed the indicators to gain elevation, and we quickly completed the two orbits and I ramped up to break orbit.

One tiny tick more thrust and we hit three km/s and left the moon’s orbit in a widening arc that gave me plenty of room to maneuver. I followed the indicators back towards the Jump Gate, and then set it for Jump and autopilot.

I got up and moved back to the captain’s chair, my chair, and strapped in for the jump. A few moments later, we were through, beyond that gate, and to a system I’d never even heard of. An aquatic system. The aquatic species and the terrestrial species rarely mixed, since our environments were just so incompatible. Their ships were probably totally different, too. I’d never knowingly seen one.

The coordinates that our passenger gave us were as good as they’d said. We came out of the jump only a half-million kilometers from the planet. Bojan got up and took over the navigation station. I was a bit curious at his skills with navigation, but couldn’t be worse than mine. Almost immediately my system displayed populated with data from the sensors. The generic info from the Jump Gate was bolstered with all matter of data coming in. There were several inhabited planets in this system, which was highly unusual. The one we were approaching was almost entirely water, with a few small island chains. One of these chains had a spaceport, the only major spaceport in the entire system. The rest were tiny, only able to handle very small ships… like mine. This could be a major moneymaker bringing stuff in and out of a place like this.

There were no moons to this big planet, just a very slight ring of ice. Probably very little in the way of tidal activity. I brought the ship into an orbit, and locked onto the landing beacon. The ship brought us down nice and smooth on a storm-tossed rocky island that had to be the most rugged ground I’d ever seen. It was little more than bare rocky flints and some sort of concrete, most likely heavily reinforced in some way. I went in to see our passenger.

“We’ve arrived. It’s pretty stormy out there, but I can take you out if you like?”, I said.

“That’s just fine, there’s a sort of lift there and a facility for our sort of tanks. Just follow the marks.”, it said to me. I nodded and went for my loader suit.
Moving the tank out with the exoskeleton was trivial, even on the wet surface. The walkway outside was fully protected from the rain, so I didn’t need to worry about getting my suit wet. The inhabitants had a great crew on that little spaceport, and they’d easily hooked up to my ship as readily as any space station. Easier than some, now that I thought about it. Their system was manual, but seemed very effective. Down the ramp and down the walkway and through to a large receiving area where there were loads of tanks next to a sort of aquarium full of aquatics. Though, I guess I was the one in the terrarium from their point of view. I set the tank down there, and got out of my exoskeleton to help the ground crew hook up our passenger. There was a brief delay while they used their PDA to pay me for the transport, then they took off into the main aquarium-like tank and zipped off at speed. I stood around for a few minutes, just entranced by the scores of different aquatic beings there in their tank. I realized I must have been staring, so I waved, got into my exoskeleton and headed back for my ship. It was time to prepare for this transport they apparently had.

When I got back, I looked around through the portals on the ship. There were about fifteen other ships here, only two capable of Jumping. Mine was by far the largest ship here. The rest were probably for trading with the other planets. I decided to take a bit of a walk, so I shut the ship down almost entirely, and walked down the walkway again, and just strolled through their facility. It was wild to feel gravity, real gravity again. Gone were the little tickles as you moved between overlapping generators. Gone were the variances due to proximity. It was actually a bit on the high side, the planet having about one and a quarter G at the surface. It was lower gravity than my home world, which had almost two G, which is why my species had heavy bones and an ability to endure high thrust. Unlike Cerebus at precisely one G, we were able to sustain double digit acceleration loads where the Cerebs would lapse into unconsciousness long before. They did tend to be taller, though. Trade offs, am I right?.

I verified that the planet had a compatible atmosphere with my respiratory system, and then walked out the door into the storm. The wind gusts were something else, and there was rain and lighting like I had never seen. The sky boiled in multiple colors and sheets of rain came down just beyond the awning. The water was slightly acidic apparently, but not harmful according to the habitation index… but I didn’t really want to push it. Sitting outside for the first time in years was sufficient for me. Even if it was cheating by being under the edge of the building. I couldn’t see a horizon due to the storm, visibility was probably only a few kilometers. That didn’t change the fact that I was looking at a real horizon again, for the second time in a day. It was wild. Years had passed since I had last seen a planet this close, and now it was commonplace.

It was amazing how much this new ship meant to me. Freedom to be anywhere, even on the surface.

I opened a connection to the local trade agency to see if there were jobs available. I had been paid for the basic transport of our passenger, but the chance of picking up work here was the most significant reason I had come out here. The potential of lucrative work on a planet with very little intergalactic traffic was a great opportunity indeed. Working on that premise, I had great hopes.

There were a couple routine tasks, some interplanetary transport duties. As I rolled down, however… I found an excellent contract buried in with the others. Over one hundred thousand tons of feed had been prepared for shipment off-world, and they had a buyer who was desperate for it to arrive within the week. None of the other ships seemed to be available. This was perfect. There was a bonus for immediate shipment. Brilliant! I obviously took the contract, and arranged for the loading of my ship. This would easily fill half my hold, and a profit of nearly seven hundred and fifty thousand bucks no less! That was ideal. While I was at it, I arranged a couple little in-system deliveries that would use another fifty thousand tons of cargo, which got me close to loaded.

“Bojan”, I called, not sure if he was still on this deck. I heard no response so I paged him via the ship. “Computer, open a comm to Bojan”, I said out loud. Then a moment later, I heard his voice.
“Yes, Captain Sthicksa?”, he replied.

“I’ve arranged for a set of deliveries for us, we’ll be receiving quite a lot of cargo here shortly. Please make sure we can make the small deliveries promptly, I’m going to push the ship a bit to get the in-system speed up pretty high. I’d like to get those handled promptly before we do the big job.”, I said.

“Yes. I’ve noted that. Very well.”, he said, and I heard the channel end.

Heh. Sounded to me like he was getting used to my travel style, though perhaps not a fan. I did like to pack in as many jobs at a time as possible. I was a bit alarmed to see a mammoth vehicle of some sort come out of the sea not far away, and I unconsciously braced for impact before realizing that it was fine, we were on a planet, and it was unlikely going to run into me. Indeed, it stopped not far away, and sat there a moment, shedding water in torrents. Then it drove closer and I realized it was some sort of mammoth submersible cargo vessel. It rolled out of sight of my windows, and I stood up to try to follow it as it went behind the ship. This was probably a delivery for me to take somewhere. I went down the hall and took the lift to the quartermaster’s office. There was a lot of activity going on down in the cargo hold. Bojan looked up briefly as I walked in.
“Just wanted to watch how it all happens without getting run over. Don’t mind me.”, he nodded and got back to work.

Cargo skids filled with containers of an unusual design were coming in via the massive cargo door, and there was the other ship just out of sight. I could see the base of their cargo ramp just outside the entryway. Huge skids were getting piled at the entryway, and then transferred to our ship’s automated skids by some sort of automated loader. They were on floor mount tracks and were moving back and forth very quickly with massive containers, then the automated skids would zip away to store the cargo in the maze of our cargo bay. It was impressive to watch how fast all these robotic systems worked together, and how relatively slowly the on-planet skids were taken away by an exoskeleton of some type. I knew I’d feel slow and clumsy in comparison!

Less than twenty minutes later everything retracted back to storage positions, and the forward sides of the hold were neatly and tightly packed, leaving the bulk of the hold free for the animal feed. Some sort of painstakingly dried sea weed or sea grass or something they farmed here. Should be pretty bulky considering the weight, I guessed.

I went back to the bridge to prepare for the high-speed in system transit. I set up the shipping paths, and it looked like at high thrust, say, eight Gs, within Bojan’s comfort range (though he might not love it) we could be at the first dropoff in two hours. Assuming a reasonable landing and unloading time, we’d be able to get to the next planet today, and then be back at the gate and on our way to deliver the livestock feed within twenty hours. Plenty of time to get there and even get an early shipment bonus.

I looked up the destination system and confirmed it had a full service station with refuelling capabilities. The jump into that system would be my third jump, so it was important to refuel. It was nice to have that extra flexibility, but I was uninterested in pushing it yet.

Another two hours saw us fully loaded and ready to depart. Bojan had come to the bridge and strapped in firmly, and expressed stoic lack of concern about the high G load, and we had plenty of time margin in the event it was needed. If he was too uncomfortable, we could slow down.

I requested clearance to depart which was immediately granted, and activated the engines. I felt a subtle gravitational shift as we moved from the planet’s gravity to the ship’s gravity, which was still currently set at one G. Naturally it didn’t increase the perceived gravity on us, it wouldn’t kick in until we were clear of the planet’s gravity. It was just like a… tingle. I engaged the engine for liftoff, and there was a slight groan as the ship took the weight off the landing gear, then we slowly and gracefully lifted up and away from the rain-lashed rocky island. The gear retracted when we were a kilometer up, and I set a rather aggressive course for departure, with a high angle. We were pushing two Gs of thrust almost immediately, and over seven before we even left the atmosphere. It was a bit of an expensive burn to push that hard in atmo, but it was exhilarating. The escape velocity was listed as twenty-three km/s, and we broke that before even leaving the troposphere, our shields helping to reduce the atmospheric friction on our way out. Probably made a really pretty comet trail. I wondered if they could look up and see us depart.

As soon as we were safely clear of the atmosphere the ship locked itself in at eight Gs of thrust and we rocketed towards the first destination at the max speed my quartermaster could handle. To be honest, it was a bit intense for me, too, but watching the speed tick up rapidly like that was pretty impressive. The Ko’Ktar couldn’t handle this sort of acceleration, and certainly couldn’t do it with one hundred and fifty thousand tons of high-paying cargo on board, yet the Thrack Yar could do it at just under fifty percent throttle. Sixteen Gs this thing could supposedly push. Someday I might have to find out, but today was not that day. I didn’t even trust myself to pilot this, leaving it entirely in the hands of the autopilot.

“How are you holding up, Bojan?” I asked with some difficulty. It felt like a giant was sitting on my chest. My arms were pinned to the seat, and my head was firmly but comfortably locked in the pads. Which is part of why these displays were usually augmented reality.

“It… is… difficult”, came the gasping response. That didn’t sound good. I keyed the throttle down slightly, and the computer adjusted for a roughly six G course instead.

“Better?”, I asked, with a lot more ease this time.

“Yes… that is not… so bad. Thanks” he said. He was panting, but it wasn’t the strangled gasp he’d had before. Six Gs was roughly three times my planet’s gravity, but it was six times his. It also had a lot to do with how long you were in space. Many people failed to run high-G thrust often, and ended up losing bone mass and muscle tone. I usually spent enough time on stations in the gym at one to two Gs that I was at least mostly comfortable there.

We’d still be able to leave for the main delivery in time, it’d only add an extra couple hours. Acceptable. Now to just sit here with this weight on my chest for nearly six more hours until the flip… which would be exciting at this speed.