Week 5, On to the Spacestation
After spending a year on Helene, our heroes feel that they have done enough to establish background and are ready to take our ship (the disguised pantope shuttle) out for a spin. Helene orbits 36 Ophiuchi A; our first stop is 70 Ophiuchi, which has much the same technical level as Earth. We dock at an orbiting space station, where they are surprised at the small size of our ship -- they ask a couple of times what happened to our mother-ship. We make a desultory check for business opportunities, then press on.
Our next stop is the space station orbiting that frontier planet. News about it hardly existed on Helene; we now know that it is Starbase 10, occasionally called "Portobello," for its commercial atmosphere. The planet, undesirable real estate that it is, has been dubbed "Cheapside."
Starbase 10 is shaped rather like a flying saucer. Three smaller saucers, containing the fancier accommodations and offices, lie in a ring around it, connected to it by gangtubes. "Underneath" the main saucer, a column extends, where ships come to dock.
There are six ships in port when we arrive. Once again, the port authorities are surprised at so tiny a ship. We can barely accommodate a standard docking tube, and in fact they haul us into a cargo bay; they often handle cargo larger than we are.
We are met by a star marshal in a black and silver uniform -- very natty -- a Marshal Petrovitch, who examines our papers, passes them, once again expresses surprise at our small size, and remarks he didn't know Helene was big on new ship designs. "Oh, it wasn't build there. We just go it there."
Cantrel asks if we can carry arms on the station. He explains that, since this is an odd, conspicuous vessel, and small enough to steal easily, it needs guarding. Petrovitch understands the need to guard cargo and acknowledges that our ship could be cargo from a piratical point of view. After a little paperwork, Cantrel gets permits to carry a stunner at all times and a blaster on the docks, in his motel quarters, and in between. (He has taken inexpensive quarters down near the docks, along with Daewen and Tom. Lorelei, Pfusand, Sophie, Chris, and Alag get classier rooms up in the hotels.)
Daewen and Tom go shopping in the stores on the starbase, while Sophie looks for the archaeologists that will be digging around down on Cheapside, but they don't appear to be here yet. Nor is there any news of the hellcows, the unfriendly vegetarian aliens. Cantrel makes a point of standing guard on the ship and thus making the acquaintance of the shift supervisors and other dock staff, leaving them with memories of a big friendly guy who buys rounds of drinks.
After a couple of days, we continue on the Centauri. From there, we'll go to Earth. Centauri has a ground-based spaceport, not an orbital station. We land and Sophie goes out looking for business opportunities again -- small-item trade and courier service. Surprisingly, someone approaches Sophie, not she him. This is a young business-man with something hi-tech to be rushed to Earth. A quick, quiet transit on an unknown courier suits him fine.
He'll want to leave in a couple of days. Cantrel takes the time to research the legal implications of acting as courier for an illegal operation such as smuggling. We wouldn't be VERY liable if we didn't know anything for sure, but we might want to be registered on Earth as bonded couriers.
Cantrel explains to our customers that "we would frown very much on anything that would increase our liability." He offers us ór.5000, which is worth a certain amount of legal anxiety. Sophie asks our customer if we can use this courier run for advertising later. No, but we might get some repeat business from him.
We fill out forms for two days on Centauri, to get registered as couriers and legal traders. When our customer is ready to go, it takes him an hour to get through customs -- he has this little box, see, that he wants no one to look into, and which never leaves him. It takes an inch thickness of legal papers to satisfy the authorities.
Finally, we are all aboard (Victoria and Tyrell keep out of sight in the pantope), and we set off for Earth. It'll take us two days to cover the four light-years.
Half a day out, a light-year from port, the ship quietly tells Tom that another ship is trying to match courses and intercept from several astronomical units away. A close-up look reveals a smallish ship of modern design. Tom informs the others and, after a bit of consultation, starts taking evasive maneuvers. First, we drop into normal state, hoping the other ship will overshoot and lose us. But their piloting is too good and they drop out closer to us than ever. We hop back into hyperstate on a different vector and now we have them further behind us, but still trying to intercept.
Repeated evasions increase our lead to half an hour, but we can't shake them. Finally, Tom decides to simply increases our speed by 20%. This gets us a one-hour lead on the pursuers by the time we reach Earth space. It also probably exceeds the limitations of the current technology but, given the complexities of hyperdrive navigation, our pursuers may not realize that.
Daewen suggests to Cantrel that we might want to guard our customer through customs. Cantrel is agreeable, provided he'll pay for the service. He's quite willing, and offers another ór.5000.
We arrive in Earth space two hours ahead of schedule and call up Dallas spaceport. We transmit our papers to ground control, who remarks, "That must have been one hell of an upgrade!" since our papers show that we first salvaged the ship as a shuttle, but re-registered it as a starship. We agree; it was remarkable.
Control then puts us into a holding pattern. They say it's because we were two hours early, but our customer thinks this might be a delay arranged by our pursuers. This looks more and more likely when we find that Canaveral and New Jersey can't accommodate us either. The customer asks if we can get him a phone call. After a bit of straining, in which the ship rearranges its control panel a couple of times (the customer hardly blinks at this), we get through to the groundside phone system. He then talks to someone in an unknown tongue. But Cantrel is wearing a psionic translator and we're in open psi, so he clearly hears the customer asking for help in finding a cooperative spaceport.
Seattle-Vancouver is open. We go hot-shotting down, startling ground control considerably with our maneuvers, and wind up parked at a small dock in Washington State. We are met by three people in uniform: a star marshal, a customs official, and a spaceport security officer. Now that we are able to report privately, we tell the marshal about the pursuing craft. We then work our way through the customs and immigration paperwork, Cantrel guarding our customer. Eventually, he is met on the other side by three men in five-piece suits, two of the men looking very big and athletic. The third man tells our customer that the pursuers have now come out of hyperdrive and are landing. The four of them vanish away.
We've just seen the edge of someone else's plot.
The next four years pass quickly. In fact, for us, they pass in about a month, mostly aboard the pantope, with daily trips out by one or another crew member to keep our paper trail intact. Next time, it will be 2750, we will have caught up with things and be ready to try infiltrating Starbase 10 and Cheapside.
Copyright © 1998, Jim Burrows. All Rights Reserved.