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Faster, Closer, Farther

By Lalo Martins All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

24SE, August 13th

“Are you sure we're not lost?”

“No, sir. It's just a little farther.”

“You can tell me, there's no shame. I mean, even our private storage bay isn't this far from the terminal.”

The pilot chuckled. “Yes, sir. But you're rich and influential. The closer to the terminal, the more expensive it gets.”

“Of course. But easier to find. If you have an engineering shop, you need your customers to find you. And presumably you can pay a little more.”

“But if you have enough reputation that customers will come to you no matter where, you can save a few bucks… no, a lot of bucks, by holing up far from the terminals in one of the agricultural ships. Also, that way there will be more free docking space for the ships you'll work on.”

“I guess… but won't it be harder to find technicians willing to work for you?”

“Not a problem Captain Sandy loses sleep about, sir. She couldn't find people willing to put up with her if her shop had its own tube station.”

“Wait, you mean she works alone?”

“Yes. Well, there's often an apprentice or two… people are willing to suffer a bit if that means learning a lot. But they never stay long.”

“Come on, nobody can be that bad.”

He sighed. “I told you, sir. She may be brilliant, but I don't think she's what you're looking for. Three months stuck in a sardine can with a bunch of other people, I guarantee somebody will get murdered.”

Shen laughed, but his pilot didn't; his face was dead serious. So Shen felt he had to add something.

“Well”, he said, “I guess we'll see.”

The spaceport was a hollow shaft along the ship's axis, about half a kilometer long and two hundred meters wide, opening up to the ship's rear. The original plan for the migration missions was to build enormous ships, capable of carrying the whole population of each mission, plus space for farming; but that had proven materially impractical, and instead, each mission ended up being a fleet of 24 ships — each still insanely large, but feasible. However, that meant transit between ships would be a necessity; especially since it was natural that some would be more urban, and others more agricultural, so food and other materials would have to be shipped around. Thus, each ship was equipped with a spaceport. Right by the space gate, you'd find the control station, and the commercial passenger terminal; high-speed trains ran from three different points to the rear edge of the full-gravity surface. On the opposite end, at the “bottom” of the port, were the cargo docks, with their own, slower cargo lifts going down to the inner surface. Which was, Shen thought, where we're about to end up.

His musings were interrupted by a vicious stream of swearing echoing through the the empty corridors.

“No sir”, said the pilot, “definitely not lost.”

With the help of the rails, they floated to a door on the hubside wall. The pilot rang the intercom.

WHAT?”, asked an angry female voice from the speaker.

“It's Mister Shen's pilot, Captain. I told you we were coming.”

“Well, come later. I don't have time for celebrity meet and greet right now.”

“Mister Shen is a busy man, Captain, and yet he took almost half his day to come meet you. We flew here from Urusburg.”

“Sucks to be you”, said the device on the wall. “Do I sound like the kind of person who cares, though?”

“Miss Sandy”, said Shen.

“Just fuck off”, she answered.

“This is Shen.”

“Still not caring.”

“You mean you're not even a little bit curious why I'd take so much of my valuable time to come here?”

Instead of an answer, there was silence, following by clanging and bumping, and a little later, the door opened.

Sandy was a short woman, with a healthy muscular build and a face you might describe as unremarkable, if you saw just a photo — because in person, that's not a word that would come to mind at all. Shoulder-length dirty-blond hair was tied in a yellow bandana. She had a black and yellow working jumpsuit, pockets and tools all over, which could work as a vacuum suit, if she put on the gloves that hung from her belt, and pulled up and fastened the mesh hoodie. It wasn't a suit you'd want to wear on a real spacewalk, but it did the trick for going out the private airlock to reach the docked ships — which her job required her to do multiple times on an average day. For extended off-atmosphere work, which of course she also did often enough, she had a stronger suit, with a full day of air supply, a radio, and better short-range maneuvering jets. The worksuit, however, had its own, clever maneuvering jets for use in atmosphere — it could release bursts of compressed air from a number of places, and then it would slowly rebuild the reserves automatically.

She floated beyond the doorway looking at them, aligned wrongly from their point of view; sideways, almost upside down.

“Well clearly, like the stereotypes say, you got so rich and influential by being evil incarnate.”

“I prefer to call it ‘knowing how to deal with people’, if you don't mind”, Shen said, with a charming smile.

Sandy shrugged and waved them inside. “Well, I won't be offering refreshments or anything. This is a workshop, not a tea house.”

“That's fine”, he said, moving about more elegantly and efficiently than she expected. He was wearing a business suit (no tie, though, those having fallen out of fashion in the Aurochs fleet), but on top of it he had a maneuvering belt, and seemed experienced enough at operating it. He was, as his name indicated, a man of Asian features, short hair immaculate black despite his 40 years of age, height just below fleet average, a build that said he worked out regularly, and sharp, penetrating black eyes. Sandy knew him by reputation; he had started a number of successful business, apparently keenly connected to the fleet's zeitgeist and what the people needed. With the way the Aurochs people governed themselves, that ended up making him quite influential; at this point, he was welcome in any meeting of pretty much any Executive Department, and actively invited to a few.

And as wonderful as all that sounded, it didn't make her comfortable at all. He could be there on business business, or official business. As far business offers, Sandy got those regularly, having a bit of a reputation as a genius herself; in the years since that started happening, she hadn't yet heard one interesting enough to take her out of her workshop. And official business… as far as she was concerned, that could never be good.

Unless…

“Out with it”, she said.

“As you know, I have two private shuttles”, he began.

“I repaired them.”

“You repair them, yes. My people always take them to you if you're available, I'm told. Why do you think that is?”

She shrugged. “Robert has a crush on me?”

He blushed a little; even as a joke, that was too private for Aurochian standards.

“They tell me you're the best”, he said. “That your hour costs more, but in their words, ‘when she fixes it, it stays fixed’, so we spend less on maintenance in the end.”

“Damn, I have to raise my rates again.”

“And you handle everything in a ship. Electronics, hull, all three kinds of thrusters…”

“Is there a point there somewhere?”

“What about the new fold compressor?”

“Ah, so that's what this is.”

“And?”

“I built a prototype.”

Shen was taken aback. “That shouldn't be possible.”

“Well, according to physics as we understood them a few years ago, the whole thing shouldn't be possible.”

“Yes, but. I mean. We're building a bunch of those ships, and I've seen what the engines cost, and some of the parts are pretty…”

“Yes, yes. I didn't say I built a ship I'd want to fly to Earth in. I said a prototype. A proof of concept. I tested it — with an unmanned probe, of course — and it did what the researchers said it would do.”

He looked at his pilot, who just shrugged.

“Well”, he said, trying to get the conversation back on track, “we're not going to Earth, anyway.”

“Of course. I do read the news. A ship large enough to take about ten people would get there in about a year, but a ship of that size couldn't carry enough supplies for the crew to survive that long. Scaling up the ship stretches the time frame even more, so basically at the current stage of the tech, it's just not doable. The same way the tech doesn't — yet — scale enough so we could just fit our main migration ships with fold compressors, even for smaller ships, the more mass, the slower you can go.”

“Right. It's a funny position to be in, to have this fancy new technology our species has dreamed of for so long, and not know quite what to do with it.”

“I thought we were going to scale up mining”, said the pilot.

“And mine what?”, she asked. “We're between stars. There's nothing to mine here. Sure, if we're passing by a star system, the fold compressor would mean we could mine a lot more than otherwise. But mining ships are a lot of mass, and even more so on their way back, and that means slower… it will be at least five more years before we really have an opportunity to try this.”

“Really? I heard folks were launching by the end of the year.”

“Well yes. Lighter ships, to go ahead and explore the system in question. Survey, mapping, finding the useful stuff. If they establish a fixed base, supplies can be sent regularly, and they can probably operate there until we're close enough to start mining. Wait…” a smile opened up on her face. “Is this what this is about? You're going to try to convince me to go on one of those?”

Shen smiled too. “Would you? I heard you've been living in your workshop for the last few years, so you're used to zero-g. And the associated medical precautions… as you know, they don't work for everybody, but apparently they do for you.”

“Yeah. I'm a little shorter than I would be if I lived in the plains, but otherwise no problem.”

“And it's a lonely job, but you don't seem to have much need of company.”

“Well, I'm no hermit. I do hang with other people when I want to relax.”

“No matter. The scouting mission is indeed on the table, if you want, but it's not what I came here to discuss.”

“I guess getting straight to the point would have been asking too much.”

“Well, depends on the point of view. For me it was a very useful and enlightening conversation.”

“Was it? I'm glad I could entertain.”

“This, what we just did, you could say it was a job interview. I was checking whether I really did want to offer you the position.”

“And?”

“It turns out, we did find something more interesting, and probably more valuable, to do with the fold compressor technology.”

“Still not getting to the point.”

“We're launching three ships, in about six months. We call it the Embassy Project. Each one is going to make contact with one other  migration fleet… the three nearest our vector, which we can reach within the sweet spot of about a hundred days travel.”

“Ooooh.”

“I'm personally in command of the second ship, and now I'm scouting my crew. We're aiming for the Baiji, about 90 days travel, with a crew of nine. Will you be our engineer?”

She pondered for a moment. “Who's that crew?”

“Well, as I said I'll be the mission leader. Then there's an engineer, and one of the researchers who developed the fold compressor. A pilot…”

Sandy looked at the pilot, but he waved his hands defensively. “Not me. There's no way you could convince me to spend almost a year away from my family, let alone about six months stuck in a sardine can with the same eight people.” Shen smiled.

“Also, because the crew is so small, the pilot will double as the navigator. Navigating deep space is different from navigating between the ships of the fleet, so we're looking for an astronomer. Then two cultural curators, because we figured that's the closest thing we have to diplomats. And three military officers just in case, although again, they'll pull double duty — one of them will be also an engineer, and at least two should be able to pilot the ship.”

She nodded and extended her hand. “Sounds legit. I'm in.”

“Oh.” Shen was a little taken aback. “I expected you to ask for some time to think.”

“I had plenty.”

He jetted towards her and shook her hand. “Welcome aboard, then. Can you please authorise the Embassy Project to access your professional data?”

She pulled her data pad from a pocket, and tapped away. Didn't have to be right now, thought Shen, looking around a little awkwardly.

“Say…”, he asked. “One thing I'm curious, if you don't mind. You don't need to tell me, of course, if it's too private.”

“Shoot.”

“Why is it that people call you ‘Captain’? You're neither military or a ship commander…”

She looked in his eyes, with a mischevious smile, gauging his reaction, as she answered; “I have a bit of a reputation on online games. I play as a space pirate.”

“Oh”, he made, uncertain what else he could say.

“That's right”, Sandy laughed. “You just invited a pirate into your crew.”

August 20th

The newly repurposed Embassy Project headquarters was a squat five-floor building in late 19th-Century German style, with lots of large rooms, in an area of Urusburg very near the spaceport train. Sandy and Shen entered one of those rooms, where about fifty people were sitting in benches like a waiting room; the candidates for the mission, there for their interviews.

“How come I get to bypass this process?”, she asked.

“We just didn't get enough engineer candidates. Four in total, and three were deemed unsuitable in the first selection round. So I went recruiting myself. Same for the researchers, as a matter of fact.”

“I see. So these people are all pilots, astronomers, or cultural curators?”

“Plus a few who don't actually have the background in any of those areas but enough interest and knowledge that we think they might be suitable with intensive training.”

He looked around, then moved to an empty corner and addressed the crowd.

“I'd like to thank you all for coming today. Even though some of you won't be chosen today for the first batch of missions, I hope you all remain committed to the idea, and remember, there will be other opportunities. And to those that will be chosen, and especially those in my mission, I hope we can be friends; we have an exceedingly challenging year ahead, but our efforts will begin a new era, of bringing humanity together again, this time across the stars…”

One of the candidates right in front of him got up, at this point, saying, “You'll do no such thing.” He dropped his jacket, revealing a gun and a bomb jacket; other five people around the room — two blocking each of the two doors — followed suit, and aimed their guns at the crowd, to discourage any reaction. “Aurochian culture is obviously better, as proven by the fact that we developed this technology. It's only fair that we keep it to ourselves, and use it to start our own empire!”

“I understand your concerns”, Shen said, “but wouldn't it be better to bring it to public discussion in the usual channels?”

“We tried”, he said, stepping forward and putting the barrel of his gun directly to Shen's head. “But you people and your propaganda machine crushed us to the ground. Well, we will be heard! We'll blow up this facility, and with the loss of most supporters plus a lot of the resources, we'll see if it gets cancelled!”

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