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Star Travel

I saw on the news a few years back about the discovery, five hundred light years away of a twin to the Earth.  Orbiting its own sun in its own solar system, just far enough away from its sun to maintain conditions similar to Earth, maybe slightly cooler: I thought: How many writers grabbed their tablets/pens/keyboards and started writing? I did.

That scenario, just a few years ago, was laughed at as science fiction, now it’s fact. So I suppose soon we’ll gear up to visit. We’ll have to use something like an ION drive to get us there quickly, maybe Star Trek’s Warp Drive, Solar Sail. All cool, and we’ll need to overcome that five hundred light year separation, so we’ll need faster than light drives.

When we get there maybe we’ll find life, and eventually be able to communicate, and someday some other writer could be sitting in front of his keyboard typing: “Yeah, It’s cold and snowy here too.” Five hundred light years just to find the same weather. Oh well, it’s still excellent book material, and the thing about books, movies, music and other things that take us away from our minds for a few hours or even days, they are whatever we want them to be. I love that about imagination. A writer writes, and a song plays, and it means different things to each of us.

Here is what I got from that news when it first came out and I sat down and began to write…

Rocket

Copyright 2018 Dell Sweet all rights reserved.

Cover Art © Copyright 2018 Dell Sweet

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Hay Vida 02281 11-08 21:58:27

Present Day

Michael Watson sat at the mouth of the cave staring out over the valley below. This close to the thick plastic the air was cold, but the wooden benches were comfortable if a little hard. They had served for dozens upon dozens of people since Mike and Tom had built them some thirty years before: They still served them well. He turned and smiled at several children who sat nearby pointing out different landmarks in the valley far below. The children, especially, never seemed to tire of sitting on the low benches and looking out over the valley.

Michael chuckled to himself, turned his eyes from the other benches, and back out on the valley far below. The snow was falling heavy. Two hours ago late fall had been holding steady, little smudges of green had still existed throughout all the fall foliage in the valley. Now it was quickly becoming a blanket of white. Fall had lost this round.

Years before they had devised a new year that better kept track of seasons and the much longer year Hay Vida had. Even with a year that now held some 95 extra days spread over fifteen months to even the seasons out the time still seemed to move by too quickly. Time was never a friend to anyone, Michael thought. Well, maybe death nothing else.

The seasons had worked themselves out after a few years. Some longer, some shorter, it was winter that had come out the winner in that round. Even slightly longer winters had a huge impact on the year around weather and the planting that could be accomplished. It took much longer to get through winter, longer for spring to thaw the valleys and fields for planting, longer for the sun to warm the ground and glaciers were forming in the north: Growing ever bigger year by year. Michael had sometimes wondered in years past if he would see them come this far. Of course the answer was no: They would not come this far in his lifetime, but he had no doubt they would come here eventually.

Winter was coming in strong today; there would be little left to do soon but plan the hunts and tell stories around the fire.

They still kept their own herds started from the stock they had worked so hard to bring into this valley, but they often hunted. The habit was good and it passed the skills down to the younger ones. There were places in this still-young world where those skills were essential.

The whole mouth of the cave had been closed off from the elements for many years. Salvaged carbon sheets that spanned floor to ceiling: A graphite frame that held them: Warmth inside the elements without, but always within reach. Something Tom had built. The last thing Tom had built, Michael remembered sadly.

He shook his head slightly remembering. That had been back in the council days before the wars had begun: Before the years of leaders, kings, the two queens and everything else that had come with the wars. Even so, even in the council years, Michael had been their leader. The council had made its decisions, but he had lead them.

Michael had been the only leader for several years now, he had helped to build this society, but he was getting older and it was getting closer and closer to the time when he would need to turn the reins over to a younger, stronger person. Maybe even this winter, he thought as he watched the snow swirl and blow.

Back in the cave behind him there were three generations waiting to take their own steps into the procession that would bring them to leadership. Some of those young men and women were ready now. It really wasn’t something he should be thinking about it was something he should be doing.

“Grandfather?”

Michael smiled up into the eyes of Rain, a newborn at her breast; her swollen belly a testament to the one coming. He took one of the furs from his shoulder and laid it across the worn wooden planking for her. A second went around her shoulders as she sat.

“It’s not too cold for the baby this close up is it?” Michael asked. The carbon held the weather out, but it was still very cold this close to the huge sheets.

Rain smiled back. “Thank you, grandfather. No it isn’t too cold.” She looked out over the valley too.”It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It is, but it can be treacherous. Winter is here now… Probably you should stay?” he asked the last. Too often he came off as demanding. The rule giver; it was something that Petra had always chided him about: He missed her constantly.

“It’s what Ron and I thought too. Base One will be there in the spring. I thought we could send a messenger… Maybe tomorrow after the snows?” She smiled widely. She knew he had been worried, and she was glad that he had given them the time to work it out between them. Glad now to give him what he would consider good news. Michael had already stood and turned though, his large frame standing tall from the rock floor.

“Jerrica,” he called out.

A young woman came from the back area of the cave. She was tall, dark, short black hair framed her face. Her clothes were stitched leather, heavy, well made. A laser rifle rested upon her back. A wide belt circled her waist; pistols on either side and a knife sheaf depended from it: Firepower was a luxury not easy to come by any longer. She came and stood next to Michael. She looked so much like her mother, Michael thought, that it amazed him. He had known Petra at this age, the resemblance always threw him when she was here and made him think for a second that reality had side slipped and he was back in time somehow.

“I will need you to deliver a message to your mother for me,” Michael told her. He stood and walked a short distance away and continued to talk to her in low tones. Rain turned her face back out to the valley and watched the thick flakes of snow fall, when they had finished their conversation they both came back to the benches. Jerrica gazed out over the valley, her eyes veiled.

Rain smiled at Jerrica, but her face barely softened. She was so serious. All members of the guard were always serious and Jerrica was no exception. Rain supposed she had been the same during her service too, but something in Jerrica had gone past service, she had come to love it. She had never left it. It was her life. Younger than Rain, she had already been a guard for several years. Rain had done her own duty for two years and had then become a wife and mother. She and Ron were going to Base One to be considered for leadership. She listened to the low whispers of talk between Michael and Jerrica and thought about her own life as she did.

She had come to this valley as a child with the original settlers: Years past now. That bought her to nearing her middle years, the age of leadership. As she looked out over the valley she realized there was little left of the original settlement she had watched rise from the valley floor as a child. In those days the people had still clung to the old technology. That was long gone here now, except with the guard and some other applications like the power plant; a few others. The people themselves had gone back to simpler roots. The old ways Tom had taught them. His motto had been; why use it just because it’s there? Do we want to return to the old life or do we really want to move on to something else? Always a challenging question and one everyone had to answer in their own way.

There was only a settlement here at all because Michael had come back, killed the ones that had enslaved the people; freed them, Rain included and taken the settlement back.

Michael spoke, interrupting her thoughts.

“A team is outgoing with Jerrica. She will tell them to look for you in the spring.” He smiled. “Maybe that will give me time to talk you out of leaving.” He smiled, but it was an uneasy smile.

Rain smiled. He didn’t know why they were leaving. They had told him it was simply time to move. She didn’t know how he would feel if she did tell him, but she hadn’t wanted to hurt him.

Michael turned back to the valley speaking as he did. “They will know inside of a week.”

Rain made up her mind. “They have asked us to come… To be considered to lead… Petra asked for us.”

Michael turned and straightened. “Petra?” He looked from Jerrica to Rain as he spoke.

“Petra wishes to step down,” Jerrica told him quietly.

“… I remember the times we spent there… When it was still good for all of us,” Rain said. Her eyes teared up; she shifted the baby and looked at Michael.

Michael nodded. “You should not leave here. I have sat staring out at this valley and wished you would stay so I could offer you this leadership,” He turned away to hide his own eyes from her. “Not so large or advanced as Base One, but large and in need of new blood to lead.” He turned back to face her. “Had I known I would have offered. I was afraid you would refuse it.”

“I…” she caught herself as her voice broke. “I didn’t know…” She turned her head away and then stood quickly and walked away.

Michael turned to Jerrica. “I had thought that it would be you that would lead after your mother stepped down.”

“It was offered… I refused. My place is here in this valley where I was raised; not there… I … I refused,” her eyes seemed to struggle to say more, but it was not really necessary.

It was the same with many aspects of the split that had torn them apart. There were sides and they were chosen. After all of these years he couldn’t think of a single reason why he had stayed and fought here. He reached out and placed one large hand on her shoulder. “I understand your choices. I am glad that there are no barriers between your mother and you.” He waited for her eyes to meet his. “I hope to be going with you. I should make some changes here.” He glanced over where Rain stood talking with Ron.

Jerrica followed his eyes.

Ron had watched Rain from the seat he shared at the fire with some other hunters. He excused himself, and followed her to the back of the cave where they made their own winter quarters.

“Rain?” he asked as he came to her and placed one massive hand on her shoulder.

“He is stepping down… He wanted me to know he would have already given the leadership to us.” She turned and buried her face in his shoulder and wept. The baby fussed for a second, upset at the confinement and emotion and then went back to nursing; sniffling as she did.

Ron smoothed her hair with his roughened hands. He turned her slowly and then pulled her and the baby down to the floor where he held her silently for a few moments.

“What do you want, Rain. What do you want?”

“I can’t leave now… I can’t. We can lead here. We can make it bigger. Rebuild it even more from the wars. It could be good,” Rain said as she looked at him with her tear reddened eyes.

“Trade the sea for the snow?” he asked with a smile.

“Leaders can visit.” She shifted around. “I think all the people that caused the wars are dead now. Just the ones who worked so hard to end it are still going. Michael, Jerrica, Ash, Terrica. They are still here. They still want it all back together. We should try to get this all as one again and as leaders we could do it. I could accept leadership here you could accept it there. It could work.” Her eyes pleaded with his.

“They would turn both of us out if we tried that,” Ron told her.

“Not if we were straight forward. Accept leadership here and take the proposal to them next spring. We will already be leaders here. They can only say no, but I do not believe they will say no. I think it is time to put us all back together,” Rain said softly. The baby let go of her nipple and began to fuss. “Poor, baby,” she soothed as she put her over her shoulder and patted her back softly, rubbing for short periods. Her eyes met Ron’s.

“Tell Michael. Tell Michael and see what Michael says about it,” Ron said after a few moments.

~

Michael watched the heavy flakes fall. He had not known what to make of Rain jumping up and leaving so quickly as she had. He only hoped it was because she wanted time to talk to Ron about what he had said. What he had essentially offered.

He had shocked himself. While it was true that he had been sitting here thinking about turning leadership over he had not thought it would be so soon. He had hoped that when Rain and Ron came back from their trip to Base One he could approach the subject with them. Now he could see that it would have been far too late then. They would have left and they would never have come back.

It saddened him to think of passing leadership to someone else, but in another way the responsibilities were too heavy. He was too old. Petra was younger and stronger. He couldn’t understand why she would give up leadership. A position she had held in one capacity or another for all the years since the end had come. She was a natural. What would make her consider stepping down, he wondered as he stared out over the valley.

He had been on the verge of rising; going to find Rain when Ron dropped down beside him.

Michael held his eyes when he turned to him. “She spoke to you?”

“She did, grandfather.” He laughed. “She would never leave you now.”

“It wasn’t meant to make you stay… It was time,” Michael said. He turned his eyes back out to the valley. In the far distance a herd of bison grazed. Whether their own or a wild herd he could not tell. At one time the entire valley had been closed: No longer. A smaller valley on the opposite side of the mountain held the winter herd: Small; what they could afford to keep and feed through the cold. The rest were turned loose. They mingled with the wild herds, but they never forgot the valley was their home and so they could be depended upon to come back in the spring.

Ron followed his eyes and watched the herd of bison in the distance through the blowing snow. “Big herd.”

Michael nodded and then turned. “You will stay?”

“She will stay…” he paused and let his words sink in: Concern mounted in Michael’s eyes. “She seems to think that I should take the leadership being offered by Base One… Bring us all together as a people again.”

Michael smiled. “She is like my own blood.” He laughed; a small laugh, but then he let it roll out of his huge chest. “I can see it. I can see it.” He fell quiet, watching the bison as they moved more fully into the protection of the walls of the valley. Their coats were already heavy; carrying the weight of the snow as it hid them from the eyes of predators. Ron watched with him.

“Almost gone already… If I didn’t know exactly where to look…”

“Yes, I never get tired of it,” Michael agreed. “I’m older than all of them you know. It was so unfair… Petra is so young; she should rule for years to come yet she is stepping down. Here I am in my late seventies, almost eighty now… Soon I will be…” He sighed. He shook his head. “Where did it all go to?” He turned and met Ron’s eyes, but Ron only shrugged as he held his eyes. Both men turned back to the valley, but just that fast the bison who had been moving nearer had disappeared under their walking blankets of white.

“Insulates them too: Hard for me to believe that but it is true,” Michael said. He turned back to Ron. “She’s right… It’s what should have been done long ago.” He stood and turned back into the cave where Jerrica stood talking to several others. The only vehicles they still had were the transport vehicles the guard used. Everything else had long been given back to rust and age. The guard transports had only gotten better. Built from scratch and modified with more and more technology as they came across it in the old drops they discovered out on their missions.

Michael stood to his full height and raised his arms high above him. “People,” Michael’s voice boomed out and the people in the cave stopped what they were doing and looked to him. He may have been closing in on eighty, but there was still a great deal of fight in that voice: Power.

At one time there had been several thousand people here. Now there were slightly more than two thousand; still a great responsibility and a growing one. He waited until he had everyone’s attention, at least those that were inside. Most were working at this time of the day, but it didn’t matter. The news would find them.

Rain came from the back: The baby gone; most likely sleeping on a pile of furs with a few others, Michael thought. She came to Ron; her face tense, unsure what was about to be said.

“You all know me. You all, I hope, know that I am not pretentious. I pray to God I never have been or will be. I am just a man.” He paused. “There is no easy way to say this, for I love you all. You mean something to me. Every one of you; and if you can look at this in that light you will realize it is past the time that I stepped down.” A few gasps punctuated the silence and a very low buzz of hushed, surprised conversation.

“It has never been concealed from you that I have looked at Rain as my blood. That is why I hope and pray that you will accept her leadership of this settlement.” Michael fell silent and the silence in the cave held for a few moments before the cheers began. With a few seconds the crowds around himself and Rain were so thick they found themselves pushed together and herded back into the central area of the cave. Questions, answers; they would have them. He had to answer some of them at least.

Michael raised his arms and waited for the quiet. “I give you your leader… Will you accept her?”

The cave reverberated with the shouts of yes.

“It’s finished then,” Michael said softly. He said it softly on purpose to hold their attention for a moment longer. “Before the celebration begins I will explain why it had to be now. When Jerrica and her guard team leaves I will be going with them to Base One. I will leave tonight with them, and I do not know if I will return. My wish will be to return, but that old dog age is nipping at my heels and so who knows, maybe I will reach the warmth of the sea and wish to stay there.” He waited for the laughter to die down. “You need a leader now: A leader that can take you to the next place our people need to be. The same place we have all worked to attain, togetherness, healing, advancement. A man or a woman grows, or they die. This settlement is the same way. We forgot that back in the wars. I have remembered it now. Rain has never forgotten it,” his voice fell even lower. “Something I only wish I could claim. Something I am proud to see living within her.” He met as many eyes as he could.

“God willing I will see you all again,” Michael told them. He turned and embraced Rain as her tears fell and then his eyes fell on Jerrica where she awaited him. He kissed Rain’s eyelids, told her he loved her; wished her all the best there could be and then he joined Jerrica. A moment later they were making their way through the tunnel to the eastern side of the mountain where the guard had their own quarters: The laughter and cheers of congratulation falling away behind them.

“You surprised me,” Jerrica said as they walked.

“I surprised me,” Michael agreed.

The guard was comprised of ten all in all. He found that impressive. The first group he himself had formed had been only four. And what they had then was nothing compared to what they had now. Weapons, vehicles, armor and more bags of tricks, some Michael was sure he himself didn’t fully understand the implications of.

They turned from the main tunnel way into a wide open area filled with large transports and bustling with activity.

“We are ready…” Jerrica faltered; unsure how to address him. For so long she had addressed him as leader, father when she had been younger, she didn’t know what to do now that he had turned his reigns of leadership over so quickly.

“Father will do,” he told her as her face colored.

“Father,” Jerrica said. “We need to get going.”

Michael took a last look around the huge area. “Been a long road,” Michael said huskily. He followed Jerrica to one of the huge transports. He stepped inside: The door drew down and sealed with a hiss of air: A few seconds later a huge carbon panel parted; opening the cavernous space to the outdoors and the transport rolled silently out into the swirling snow…

ONE: Star Dancer

ONE

Earth Date: 2196 – 08 -25 – 16:21:43

Moon Base 14: United Planet Technologies

Intra Flight Systems: Star Dancer

Michael Watson

Michael Watson, Mike to his friends purchased Star Dancer right after college and began intra system runs shortly after that. He could remember his great-grandfather, gone now for more than forty years, talking about what he had, had for opportunities right out of high school. That would be laughable now. Mike’s parents had, had his life mapped out from the age of two. Life Mapping was and is a serious thing, Mike didn’t know anyone that didn’t have their lives mapped out now from birth or before.

School was not complete without college. You could not be licensed to work the counters of a Planet Burger unless you had two years of college. His own career had taken four years of Specialty College as well as geared trade school from the first grade on. When other first graders were learning about monetary systems and world level banking, he had been learning about Solar Wind Drives and Hydrogen Propulsion units.

The grades, one through twelve, start at age three and last on average seven years. Some fall behind, some spring ahead, but by ten years of age most are ready for focused education and he was no exception. He began his specialized training; four years, four more years of global military service after that with an option for six more which he had deferred and he was pretty sure he made his instructors very happy by doing so, and so at the old age of eighteen Mike had signed a twenty year funding commitment for Star Dancer. At the time he was sure he would never dig himself out of thirty million credits of debt, but for the last two years he had been watching credits build in his accounts.

Today he was docking at UPT on Moon Fourteen to pick up a four year re-supply for a prison colony at Mars Twenty-Seven: Some kind of Tech drop for Colony One; and two panel pre-fab labs for IO’s base six.

Moon Base Fourteen is United Planet Technologies’ own base. There is not much else there; a small cafeteria, some lounges for through travelers, each progressively worse than the last: The best being Vic’s, and Vic’s was the only official bar, the other two were simply overlooked. That could happen at a base that was not really a base at all but a company town.

Mike had, had the tour before and short of taking on a small fed crew, and maybe a new navigator to replace the one he had been without for the last seventeen months he would be here only long enough to fuel, be unloaded and then reloaded: Once the ship was re-supplied he would be off; there would be no downtime in the next twenty-four hours.

The crew was a fed security and transport crew. In other words a federal crew that would accompany him to all three of the offloads, do all the offloading and on loading. He would be coming back to Moon Base Fourteen with a full load of finished products bound for Earth and they would pack it all, all he had to do was bring it back. They also provided security for himself and the Star Dancer crew. In nearly twenty years of intra cruising he had never had a single security issue for them to defend him from.

On the last stop, IO, he would lose the crew. That would leave him alone for the return trip unless they turned up a dead head crew for the return trip. He would also be required to transport any returning paroled inmates: Terminated or retired employees or UPT employees that required transport: Bar those possibilities; unless he signed a navigator today he would be coming back alone and so far out of twenty possible candidates he had, had only five show up, and out of the five three had turned him down. He had turned the other two down. He told himself that if he were a betting man the odds were that he would be riding alone this return trip.

A return trip alone did not mean he would be returning empty. No transport was ever left empty. There were always shipments heading back to Earth, short hops to other Moon Bases, Mars and twice he had done several runs between IO and Mars without going back to Earth. In any case of in-system transport he was required to have a security crew. If it was a straight run back to the Moon or Earth then the shipment was loaded, locked and sealed and he could run back with no security crew. If a parolee was scheduled for the ride back then a security team was required, even if there was no other reason for their presence. He had rarely transported parolees, once or twice that he could recall. He almost always offloaded, reloaded Earth-bound cargo, loaded up supplies and a dead head crew, usually a mixed security and worker crew and headed back within a day or two.

He eased Star Dancer into dock. Most Captains go with the auto-nav, but he had heard too many horror stories about out of phase computers, last second power surges and more to trust his ship to the machines. He would do it himself. He had known how to do it since third grade in the flight sims: Microsoft had the best federally approved space-flight sims and Mike’s parents had made sure he got the best.

He gave his reverse thrusters a quick slap with his palm at three hundred feet out and watched the ships lock coupler drift home with nothing more than a small frame vibration when all systems went green on lock-in. He keyed his overhead.

“Central, I’m locked on 6B… Standing by for station personnel, over…”

“Green on my board, Dancer… Unlocking for loads… You have company standing by, Dancer.”

“Oh yeah?” That was a surprise.

“Uh… Lounge seven… Navigator?”

“Oh, okay, right… Send him right up, and thank you.”

“Uh, her.”

“Her?”

“Oh yeah… Pretty sure unless I’m blind.” He chuckled.

“Huh… Supposed to be…” He punched the name up on his scheduling screen. “Pete Stanovich.”

“Uh huh… Short for Petra no doubt… Petra Stanovich… See you must have heard the Pete part and not the tra part.” He chuckled again.

“Someone screwed up… It’s entered as Pete in the com. Okay send her up then and thanks.”

“Coming at you… Base out.”

Mike clicked off and sighed. This meant number twenty-one was most likely a wash too. Most women who interviewed for the job were not interested once they realized it was an intra-galaxy, or system cruiser and one that was considered a dinosaur of a ship. About all he did have to offer were transferable credits for Federal space-work. Because he had not deactivated his military time he had what was called time for time credit. A perk because he had done his four in the service and kept his six active. That meant that technically the feds could still pick him up for that six any time they wanted to. In exchange it meant that he could offer his employees who were fresh out of military service time for time credit. A young navigator would have to be fresh out of military service, or within their benefit time window, thus making them eligible for the time. The time would count directly as military experience in advanced navigation; a big plus, but maybe not worth the two year minimum hitch they would have to do on his ship.

Even so it was a good perk and the past three navigators he had hired were immediately picked up for star cruiser service at the end of their contracts. It was both his ace in the hole and his queen of spades.

He unbuckled thought about it and then keyed his Com-Link

“Unlocked, central and could you delay my visitor by twenty?”

“Be at least that… Problem?”

“No… That’ll work…”

“Okay, Mike… You have Baylor as Sec-Chief… A crew of twenty security. Three max level prisoner transports and four tech level grads bound for IO. That’s it… Out.”

Mike keyed his Com-Link as an answer; flicked the unlock switches for the cargo holds, electronically signed his security certificate to allow off loading and loading and headed for the showers and fresh clothes. He may as well make the best impression that he could, he reasoned.

Earth Date: 2296 – 08 – 25 16:27:14

Moon Base Fourteen: Visitor Lounge seven

United Planet Technologies:

Petra Stanovich

She could see the bar through the glass wall; she supposed that was the idea, but the last thing she needed before the interview was a drink.

This would be her fourth interview: Each interview had started out good and then spiraled downward. She supposed her job broker was doing the best he could though. She had no real experience. Her parents had used all of their remaining influence to get her into the military after two years of training school. She had worked out of field for the last two years, a bad mistake. You became obsolete fast as a navigator. She had been considering using her six on the back and going back into the military side of the feds. There would be plenty of navigators and pilot positions there. The out of field work had really put her in a bad position, but even though military service could save her situation, if she went to the military side of the feds she could forget about ever having a civilian career.

The only good thing about this particular position was that it was a time for time position. It would count as military time; restart her clock and qualify her for something better down the line. The overhead speaker suddenly came to life with a loud buzzing that made her react by clasping her hands over her ears.

“Remain where you are… Attention: Remain where you are. Federal transport crews are moving through your area with dangerous cargo. It is in your best interest to avoid all movement as motion sensing units may determine that you are a threat to security”… The speakers went dead for a few seconds and then began repeating the warning again. She watched as doors slid open in the middle of an el-bank and a security crew stepped from  the el, weapons at the ready sweeping the area, stopping on Petra, turning and motioning to the el’s other occupants.

Three chained and cuffed inmates stepped out, herded by three other security staff. Hands cuffed to a set of chains that encircled their waists, leg chains that hobbled them to a short, shuffling stride. The security team surrounded them and herded them into long tunnels that lead to a transport shuttle. She watched as the inmates shuffled slowly down the hallway and into the shuttle. Shortly after that the overhead speakers went back to some sort of electronic music that had been there all along: She hadn’t even noticed it.

She turned her mind back to the upcoming job interview and what it could mean to her as she watched the shuttle do several slow burns, revolve slightly out of dock and angle toward the Star Dancer. She had not given any thought to the fact that criminals would be traveling on the ship. It was something she hadn’t known. She entertained the thought briefly: She supposed they would be locked well away from the rest of the crew; and then turned her mind back to the job interview. Military time, she thought weighing the pros and cons again.

Time for time would not take away from her on-the-back time; it added to her military experience instead: So her two years became four years, and two more became six. In that sense it was a good opportunity, but nothing else about this position looked good at all.

She had watched the Star Dancer dock: A twenty-eight year old intra cruiser: Straight cargo. She was shaped like a giant box with rounded corners. The propulsion units, hydrogen drives and living quarters sat atop the box; rounded, slightly flattened spheres looking as though they had been added as an afterthought. She watched the shuttle dock at one of two dozen docking stations laid out along the side of Star Dancer: A slight bump that she remembered from school and that would be it: The auto couplers would engage; draw the ship in and couple the station ship and shuttle together.

Each station contained an el entrance, vid-screens and controls for docking; coupling. Each docking required prior approval or the auto couplers, affected by a powerful magnetic field would not engage, the locks would not cycle and the shuttle would touch, bump slightly and then continue backwards slipping out of the gravitational pull of the mag-field.

She wondered about the intra class cruiser now, ‘How many of these were left in service?’‘Two?’ … ‘Three?‘ … A quick check of her wrist pad showed her just how wrong she was. There were over ten thousand Intra-Class cruisers of this configuration in service right now. That was mind boggling. She had assumed that the heavy Star-Cruisers were what dominated the heavens, but she was wrong. The same link gave her the data for that configuration: Only slightly more than four thousand and out of that number only one hundred twenty-eight were licensed as Star Cruisers, the rest were Galaxy-Cruisers, short run re-supply craft and drone craft for quantum travel. The antiquated intra cruisers far outnumbered the galaxy class cruisers of the official Federal fleets. Maybe the whole thing could be a plus, she thought.

She watched the huge transparent outer wall. The shuttle that she had watched dock had been joined by three others: Looking as though they had been there since the ship had left dry-dock. She saw loading was already taking place on the cruiser. Two hatches were open, and company workers in full radiation suits could be seen inside the cargo bays. Rows of lights lit the space: It yawned open like a cavern far into the interior of the ship; so far that she could not see the end of the space.

All the approaching shuttles and even the workers seemed to be moving in slow motion. Space did that. It seemed to take forever for something to actually happen: A shuttle to close the distance to a dock facility; a worker to push off and then maneuver with suit thrusters to their next work station.

On the other hand, she realized that she had stopped watching twice, chasing thoughts in her head and when she had turned back so much had happened that she was surprised. More support shuttles towing cargo barges had shown up: Teams of workers riding on the open barges for their short trip to their work stations. The whole ship was crawling with workers: Inspectors, mechanics and repair persons. Seen from this perspective it made the Intra-Cruiser appear to be a very important ship after all. Petra shook her head. It was still thirty year old technology. If she were offered the job and she hoped she was she would stay no more than the required two years to get her career back on track… Nothing more, if she did stay longer the technology curve would pass her by. That was the last thing she needed, she would have absolutely nothing left to fall back on and that was bad. That was how the prison colonies were populated.

The prison colonies had started with the undesirables: Murderers, rapists, predators that were deemed unfit for society: As the colonies grew the feds moved on down the criminal line to fill them: Multiple offenders, thieves and other criminals. Finally, the prisons on Earth were emptied and all prisoners were re-located off planet.

That had happened in part because the real estate on Earth had suddenly been deemed too expensive to use for housing them. Yes, correctional services were still a cash cow, but it was simply moved off planet. Earth’s citizens did not want their criminals living among them. The colonies on Mars, IO, Europa and Venus were perfect for penal colonies. All of the first off-Moon colonies had been built by prisoners.

It had worked perfectly and long before the massive death tolls and horrid conditions came to light the Feds had perfected living condition requirements and buildings that could withstand life in those places. What was past was past, those that write history shape history they say and it had been that way, she knew.

The changes and colonies had come at the expense of some ninety-two thousand inmates and political prisoners. Earth’s citizens turned away their blind eyes; happy that those prisoners were not a blight upon the Earth itself; walking among them in some cases. Glad to risk lives that were not their own for progress.

It left a bad taste in Petra’s mouth, but her own position was not much better. Last year both of her parents had been killed in a random terrorist attack on their building. It happened about twice a month somewhere in the world. There were so many factions opposed to the unified Federal Global Government.

Truth be told, she didn’t like it herself. It scared her in its impersonal approach to life and death, human rights. Two years before it had become a world class felony to be found homeless: Picked up and convicted the offenders were deported off-world to one of the penal colonies. An unspecified sentence which was a black mark forever and then usually an offer of half pay to work at some back water colony base, or new base construction project with little or no law once the sentence was finished. And if you didn’t accept that good luck finding some quick way back to Earth; and you wouldn’t be given much chance to do that either. You would be declared insolvent within days unless you had means and tossed into jail where the process would start all over again.

The new law affected her because she was not yet a viable worker and the government had seized all of her parent’s property and assets for unpaid Life Taxes: Poor planning on their parts. She was essentially homeless; living on her two year service benefit. That benefit entitled her to government housing, education and job placement: Meals, as well as a small monthly credit allowance, but it was not indefinite. It would continue for three years, four if she applied for the extension: Time was running out.

Of course, worse come to worse she would re-enlist before she would allow herself to slip into an illegal existence and be shipped off to some penal colony. It was still far from a happy existence for her. Better if she were offered this job: No she corrected; she needed to get this job.

She turned her attention back to the intra cruiser and saw that the first two shuttles had arrived in the first cargo hold and were off loading. If she were on that ship it would be her job to monitor that off-loading and re-loading as it occurred. Even now she would be doing her pre-flight checks as she did it. She would probably be thinking about her first off-planet trip. She had never seen Mars, Venus or IO except in video clips and sims.

Her concentration was broken when she heard her name announced over the loud speaker system in the lounge: She got up; gathered her case and headed for converse four as instructed. It was easy enough to find. Ten minutes later she was strapped into a battered dock shuttle on her way to Star Dancer.

Earth Date 2096-08-25 16:52:58

Star Dancer

Michael

He got a good look at Petra as he flagged her through the air-locks: All fresh air; your basic space bug-Earth bug delousing unit. People had at one time believed that space was sterile. A few serious contaminations early in the century had stopped that. Of course the delousing process rendered you sterile. It was the same, male or female. The price you paid, so you banked your eggs or your sperm and didn’t give it any more thought. Space travel, constant radioactive exposure, caused all sorts of birth defects. It only made sense.

She was tall, blue-black hair, high cheekbones: Russian. The hair had to be dyed, but it suited her face which was hard edged and a little angular. Something past pretty, but less than beautiful… Maybe, he decided.

He had read her information over twice as he had waited for transport. He had also picked up the lounge seven video feed, matching the description with what he saw so he better understood who he was looking at. He had initially gone by the name to conjure a description in his head. He had been far off to say the least.

He knew she was on thin ice: About a year left on her military benefits and she would be declared homeless; probably insolvent shortly after that. Her only choices were military services or a foot in the door somewhere. Mike had no doubt she would use the job as a stepping stone, but it would set up his operations with Star Dancer for the next two years and he needed the stability back.

Top ten percent of her classes: Short on military experience, only a two year plan. Fluent in twelve languages, double the average. She had no political advantages so she had no opportunities in the corporate world. She needed him it seemed as much as he needed her.

He buzzed her through the last lock. Flushed the air and then keyed his Com-Link.

“I’ve sent the El for you. It’s a slow go traveling three hundred decks, but it’s programmed to bring you to the bridge. I’ll see you in about twenty minutes, Miss Stanovich.”

She turned her dark eyes to the camera. “Thank you.”

Star Dancer Bridge

17:13:22

Michael

“Full gravity?” Petra asked as she stepped from the El.

He had met her at the elevator door and they were walking the curved and window ported outer hallway that ringed the central area.

“It’s magnetic and yes it’s full-time… Does it feel like Earth?”

“Very much so… I didn’t think an intra…” She colored.

He laughed. “Don’t worry about it; you won’t hurt my feelings. I know, fresh out of service you must have seen technology that makes this old bucket look its age.”

She smiled, but her face was still flushed.

“Really… I do understand and don’t worry… The field is a perk. The feds installed it. They ship some gravity sensitive stuff, there’s a small cargo space directly above us and really sensitive ‘Destroy if captured’ stuff in security safes on the main deck. One deck down is the exercise suite. Two decks down we have Fed living quarters. Federal troops every trip out. So… We get gravity full time.” He smiled at her again and she smiled back.

“It’s not perfect though. The mag field takes a little getting used to. It’s never bothered me though,” he finished abruptly; realizing that he had just run on longer than he needed or had intended to.

“What does it do?” She asked. “Side effects?”

“Space sickness… Upset stomach: Two of my navigators and one of the Fed crew… It lasted a few days and then they got their space legs. “He laughed.

“You said exercise equipment?”

“Another perk: I carry full crews out bound every trip and I almost always come back with a dead-head crew too. They’re supposed to use it, but they rarely do. They tend to socialize together on their own deck. There’s a small inner-deck El that connects us. The exercise deck is state of the art: Weight machines, treadmills, elliptical, stationary bikes… It’s nice.”

“But shouldn’t they check in with you?” She seemed surprised.

Mike shook his head and shrugged. “Technically I am their captain, but in actuality they couldn’t care less. They’re company men and women: Fed military or company security; civilian transfers, in-contract replacement personnel. They take their orders from the company or the on-ship assigned security chief. As long as they don’t interfere with the running of my ship we operate independently. You’re used to chain of command…?”

She nodded.

“Nothing like that here: We’re like neighboring countries, my own crew stays here and the Fed crews stay there. I can’t recall a time when I have met more than two or three of a crew at any given time. The security chief is Robert Baylor. He’s been assigned to me for the last…” He looked thoughtful. “Something like twelve years. I meet with him before we begin each trip, in fact he was just up here a few hours ago. I might see one or less of his crew during a trip and of course my crew consists of me and a navigator that’s it.” He shrugged once again. “That’s the reality of intra cruising.”

“You transport inmates?” Petra asked.

“Sometimes,” Mike agreed. “I have some outbound this trip. I’ll never see them… Would never know they are there except Baylor briefs me on them. When we reach Twenty Seven, which is the Mars max prison colony they’ll be off loaded. When we finish up there might be some parolees to transport back.”

“The parolees are up here with us?” Petra asked.

“No, never. The only ones up here with us are members of my crew. That consists of me and thee if you take the job. They will house with the feds… Same goes for any hitch; just a name for anything Earth bound that has a pulse. That is all Fed responsibility.”

She nodded and followed him onto the bridge.

The bridge on an Intra-Cruiser is a very small area. It is at the front of the pod with a wrap-around viewing port and a large viewing screen between the seats that could be switched to multiple feeds or single feeds anywhere on or off ship. Contrary to popular belief, even Mike’s own until the fourth grade; there wasn’t always anything of great interest to see in space at any given time.

Most of the wall space was taken up with smaller flat panel displays hooked into ship systems. There were three console units with chairs directly facing the continuous port and center screen.

“You would be here with me most of the time.” Mike waved his hand to include the entire room. “Take your pick of seating, any console can be configured the way you want it to be. Sit down give a shot it’s pretty straight forward.”

She sat; pulled the overhead monitor down and had the navigation screens up in just a few moments. She studied them for a few seconds. “Looks easy enough.”

“It is… Believe me; you’ll be bored most of the time. Off duty there’s the gym. You’ll house with me on our own deck. The rooms are small, just a built in rack and lockers, drawers. There are four racks in each room, three rooms, so in theory I have the sleep space for twelve people. You can pick the room you want. I just spread out my vast collection of junk on the other racks in mine. Ship to Earth is always open; just keep in mind we’re on the backbone of the communications structure, so limited priority. It usually hits the stream in an hour or two. We have personal view-screens in the room and personal logs ship wide. Vids, music, eBooks… You automatically have full educational credits and full access to anything Fed. Anything you want to study; download it and you’ll get credits for it, it will cost you nothing… A Fed perk…  There are so many ways to fill the time.”

“When would I have to decide?”

Mike looked at one of the wall monitors and the time stamp that ran along the bottom. “You have about four hours from now. That will give me time to re-configure rations, get your licensing in order, passport, extra fuel supplies… Or, you could think it over this trip and I’ll be back in thirteen months, give or take… That’s my average round trip.”

“So… So you’re offering me the job?” she asked. She was a little wide eyed.

“Absolutely… You’re qualified… Listen, let’s face it you’re overqualified. I’d be damn lucky to get you. The only thing I’d ask of you is the standard two year contract.” She started to speak, but he held up his hands.

“You can’t hurt my feelings. Two years as we both know is the maximum benefit time for you and it will give you the time to look around. It is an incredible world out there. You won’t believe all the contacts and people you’ll meet. It will give you some real time to breathe… Think about what you really want to do. I’ve got some good contacts I could point you at.”

“You would do that for me?”

“Absolutely… You do right by me and I’ll be happy to do right by you.”

“Okay.” She looked around the room. “My stuff is in a locker off Lounge 7.”

It took him a second. “Oh, you meant okay as in you’ll take it, the job?”

“She smiled. “Sorry. Guess I forgot to add yes I’ll take the job.”

“No, no I’m a little slow.” He turned back to his monitor and pulled up the re-stocking charts. “Any particular wants or needs? We eat pretty standard stuff, reconstituted ready meals, but the Fed contracts load us up with all kinds of stuff. Perks again, but they are well stocked here at Fourteen… Real coffee… Media… Whatever.” He continued through the screens and began to recalculate the fuel requirements.

Earth Date 2196-08-25 00:03:51

Moon Base fourteen

United Planet Technologies

Intra cruiser: Star Dancer

Mike ran down the lists as Petra pulled them up on her screens and checked them off: Flawless, he thought as he watched her.

“It looks good, Michael.”

“It is good, Petra… Take it out.” He picked up his mug of coffee, the first real coffee he had, had in a while. It sure beat synthetics. He felt the vibration as she threw the dock lock switches and expertly palmed the thrusters. Star Dancer did a slow, nearly perfect half turn and then Petra did a longer burn to put them into the ten mile safety limit before she could engage the hydrogen engines.

Mike watched Moon Base Fourteen fall slowly behind them on the main monitor and then continued watching as Petra went through the pre hydrogen drive check lists. He had done it so long by himself that he almost felt guilty sitting back and letting her take care of it. Nevertheless it felt good and he was looking forward to the company.

“Ten plus zero zero one,” Petra said.

“Kick ’em,” he told her.

She grinned at him and then reached forward and engaged the drives.

Mike sat back and watched the red mileage numerals begin to move faster and then he turned his attention to his own checks: Cargo, decks, company crews. A few minutes later he was done and he sat back and watched as Petra finished her calculations and sent them to his screen to check and approve. She began to program her side navigation console.

Moon Base Fourteen was gone. The moon itself was a distant smear of dull gray next to the big blue ball. Sometimes there were things to look at in space.

He sat back and relaxed into his chair and thumbed his Log-Link.

“Intra-Cruiser Star Dancer forty-five minutes and twenty-eight seconds out of Moon Base Fourteen. Present Michael Watson chief operating officer, Petra Stanovich navigation officer. We have at present twenty-eight Fed crew and transportees under Commander Bob Baylor, see contract FQHPX2879 for an individual manifest. In the advent of boarding protocols, be aware there are Fed inmates included in the manifest and deck sub-zero-two is in a state of lock-down for the voyage per Commander Baylor. See rule 2a, sub section twelve concerning any contact situation that may occur.

“Mars Prison Colony Twenty-Seven will be our first stop, a re-supply, see manifest 97715. Mars One tech drop, see Fed contract 771926f, our second stop. IO six, last drop, pre-fab building shipment under science contract 279916bx… Watson out.”

He picked up his mug and sipped at his coffee while Petra did her own log. He had a navigator for the next two years; after that maybe he would bite the bullet and spring for a Star Cruiser. He thought about it. He just might do it. Maybe it was time for a change. Maybe he could even run it by Petra and see how it sounded to another set of ears. Maybe it would even interest her.

It made him feel good; maybe he had simply fallen into a rut over the past seventeen months. He was surprised how good the bridge felt with someone else on it. He sipped at his coffee and watched the Earth grow smaller as they picked up speed.



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