Note: This is posted “as is”, no editing or proof reading involved, as part of the 30 Shorts In 30 Days project. During April I will be attempting to write and post a new short story everyday.
Go to the top of a high hill, away from any cities, and lay on your back and look at the stars. They’re not just pinpoints of light in the dark of the sky, they’re everywhere. There are so many stars out there that in places they look more like oil spills, shining colours of light in the skies over our heads.
We can lay down and look up at the stars, but we can never really understand how many there are out there, because we can never see them all. But the higher up we can get, the more we can see. And when you’re in space, you’re very high up.
The MHC-1 hung in the air alongside the asteroid, drifting gently in rotation with it as it spun slowly along its path. The main engines were idle and only a dim blue light was showing from the cockpit, all non-essential systems were obviously switched off. Occasionally a small burst of gas would jet from one or two or the stabilising thrusters, keeping the ship steady alongside the asteroid.
Underneath the ship, the cargo ramp extended down and more of the dim blue light filtered out onto the asteroid and covered the space suited figure of a person pushing a large crate towards the ship.
“This is the last of the mining equipment to come back on Clare, d’you want to bring the systems back up now or wait until we’re fully stowed?”
The voice came over the internal ships communications from the figure on the asteroid.
“I’d rather wait Hugh,” Clare replied over the comms. “There’re recent reports of pirates in this sector, would rather keep on silent running until we can run.”
“Not a problem,” Hugh commented as he pushed the crate up the ramp on its big wheels. “Should be stowed in about five minutes.
Each of the Duality Ships carried an emergency mining kit, their main propulsion required the ores and minerals that could be found in most asteroids if fuel ran out between stops. Solar cells covering the cockpit ensured that electricity would never run out, but movement would be very limited without the fuel for the manoeuvring thrusters at least. All pilots were under strict instructions to use the mining kits on the first suitable asteroid if fuel reserves ever fell below ten percent.
“All stowed now Clare,” Hugh informed the crew over the comms. “How’re you getting on with filling the tank Matt?”
“Done and dusted while you were still cleaning up outside,” the voice of Hugh’s co-pilot, and brother, came back. “You gonna get your arse up here so we can get out of here?”
“On my way.”
In the cockpit Matt got out of his bunk and floated into his pilot’s seat, behind him Clare started her pre-flight checks. The cockpits of the Duality Ships were laid out with the two pilot’s seats in the front, with the navigator’s seat directly behind. Behind them, on either side was a single bunk and a table between them, and further back was a small toilet and a food preparation cabinet. The ships could be flown by one pilot on their own while the other members slept or refreshed themselves, but to fly them at speed needed all three crew members.
Hugh floated into the cockpit and turned to seal the airlock, the seals clunked into place and the cargo area depressurised as Hugh made his way into his pilot’s chair and strapped himself in.
“Settled then boys?” Clare asked from behind them.
“Aye ma’am,” both pilots replied in unison.
“Okay then, let’s get out of here. Co-ordinates coming through to your consoles now, no rush, it’s a two day flight and we’ve still got food for five.”
All three crew members took a look above their heads at the stars, a pre-flight ritual that they performed before every flight they took together, a hangover from their childhoods when they would lay together at the top of a hill and look at the stars.
After a few seconds Clare turned her attention back to the three consoles in front of her and distributed the flight instructions from her central console to the ones to either side that replicated, and to a degree controlled, those of each pilot. As Matt and Hugh studied the incoming information, Clare started the procedure on her central screen to bring the ship back to life.
“Systems online,” Matt started.
“And we’re on our way,” Hugh continued.
“New Gaia, here we come.” Clare finished.
The Duality Ships were designed to be capable of being flown by one pilot, but were ideally flown by two. The engines were powerful enough to go a lot faster than the human mind could cope with, the margin of human error was too great to push them to their limits. But with two pilots flying the ship, and a computer to calculate the mean path, the margin of error reduced significantly. The smaller the difference between the movements of the two pilots, the smaller the margin of error, and the faster the ship could be flown.
For several generations Duality Ship pilots had been picked at birth and carefully nurtured to ensure that the space programme had its pick of the best. The best were the very rare twins with their subconscious psychic links. Unfortunately less than one in ten thousand of the populations of the system planets were twins, and until the space programme had started to encourage them to marry amongst themselves the percentage had been dropping rapidly. Now it was just about stable.
Matt and Hugh had been snapped up by the programme in their early teens. The programme officials had seen Matt and Hugh on a regular visit, two identical looking boys with their smaller scrawnier sister Clare. Their home wasn’t on one of the central planets so they had managed to have a large degree of freedom in their childhood. Clare had entered the navigators training programme two years after her brother had entered pilot training, and it was no coincidence that the pilot training took two years longer. The three children had planned from an early age that they would all graduate close together, and that they would all finish their probationary periods together. It was their best chance to steal a ship.
What the programme officials hadn’t realised was that Matt and Hugh weren’t identical twins. They weren’t even twins. Along with their sister, they were triplets. Two pilots and a navigator that were able to think together on a subconscious level meant that they could fly faster than anyone working for the space programme, they could out run any pursuit as they journeyed through the stars of their childhood. Flying a stolen ship did however mean that they couldn’t touch down on any of the central planets, or even trade with them. They had to refuel from the asteroids and get food directly from some of the arable worlds that they came across. They didn’t care though, they were back together and that was all that mattered for now.
“Clare, you might need to wake up.”
A gentle hand on her shoulder emphasised what she heard and she opened her eyes to see Matt standing next to the bunk.
“We’re approaching New Gaia, and there’s a fair bit of debris in the upper orbit.”
Clare moved the covers aside and sat up.
“What sort of debris?”
“We think it’s ship debris,” Hugh called from the cockpit as Matt got back into his chair.
“Ship debris? Great.”
“That’s what we thought,” Matt said.
“So we’re holding a longer range orbit,” Hugh finished.
Clare strapped herself into her navigator’s chair and started to bring information up on her central screen.
“It’s definitely ships. Not dualities thankfully, looks mostly to be old freighters and a couple of fast leisure ships,” Clare informed her brothers, reading aloud from her screen and sliding some of the results across to allow her brothers to see.
“The planet’s taking pot shots?” Hugh asked.
“Wouldn’t have thought so, New Gaia’s a pilgrim planet. They’re a sort of vegetarian hippy community, early settlers that left Earth to form a colony where no animals were farmed or harmed. They shouldn’t even have any planetary defences according to their charter,” Clare explained.
“So pirates picking off the population then d’you think?” Matt asked.
“Doubtful, the population is low tech, they don’t have their own space flight. They trade food and cloth, but no ships of their own.”
“Is it me, or are some of these pleasure crafts carrying rather heavy weaponry?” Hugh asked, sliding the relevant records back to his sister and brother.
“That’s pirates then,” Clare pointed out. “Small, fast leisure craft with heavy weapons to disable ships, and the freighters to come in and take everything away.”
“What’s the plan then?” Matt asked.
Clare cleared her screens and started bringing up new information. “Same as before, there’s nothing on long range. We’re the only ship nearby, we’ve got at least two hours flight window clear. Take us in slowly and direct please, I’ll open up a channel to the Gaians. But be ready to turn and run if needed, something’s blown those ships up.”
Matt and Hugh edged the ship forward, lining it up for a landing approach while Clare opened a communications channel to the planet below.
“New Gaia, this is MHC-1 requesting permission to land and trade, over.”
“Hello MHC-1, this is New Gaia,” came a reply over the speakers in the cockpit. “Your call sign is unrecognised, please state origin and intention, over.”
“New Gaia, this is MHC-1, our origin is freelance traders and our intention is purely to trade. We’ve got a hull full of fuel ores and very little food. Would appreciate being able to land to rectify this, and a few days of real gravity and air wouldn’t go amiss either, over.”
Matt and Hugh looked around at Clare, the Gaians were being very cautious, and there must be a reason for it.
“MHC-1, this is New Gaia, please list all weaponry that you’re carrying, both ships mounted and personal. As you may have noticed we’ve been having some trouble recently, over.”
“New Gaia, this is MHC-1, our ship has no weaponry and our personal arsenal amounts to two tranquiliser pistols and my brother’s sharp wit, over.”
“MHC-1, this is New Gaia, you’re cleared for landing. Please be advised that your ship will be tracked on its descent and will be subject to inspection upon landing. We can’t be too careful at the moment I’m afraid, over.”
“New Gaia, this is MHC-1, no problem with your stipulations there, we’ll see you on the ground,” Clare replied before breaking the connection.
“Was it just me,” Matt started.
“Or are they being overly cautious?” Hugh finished.
“It’s not just you,” Clare replied. “I think they’ve been having quite a bit of trouble recently, more than they’re saying. Would certainly explain some of this debris. We’ll soon find out, take her down boys.”
As the MHC-1 touched down on the landing field the three crew looked out at the fields surrounding it. What were once blast clearance areas, left empty in case of accidents, were now home to spaceship husks. The landing field was surrounded by a ship graveyard, derelicts and parts littered the area.
“Boy,” Matt and Hugh commented in their twin-speak.
“You can say that again. Don’t shut the ship down, keep it ready to lift at the first sign of trouble, I’ll go meet the landing party and see what’s going on,” Clare said as she unstrapped herself from her chair.
“Take care sis,” Matt started.
“And go armed.” Hugh finished.
The brothers watched the landing party approach as their sister went down the cargo ramp to greet them. Six large, heavily armed men and a smaller, very thin man leading them, left the ground cart. Cart was a very good description. From the look of it, until recently it had been an beast pulled cart, but seemed to have been converted to run under its own power using scrap, most likely from the ships that littered the field. Both Matt and Hugh moved their hands to check their tranquiliser pistols were near hand.
The armed guards stayed with the cart on the landing field while the smaller man came forward to talk to Clare. After a couple of minutes Clare turned back to the ship and came back up the ramp accompanied by the man who had been talking to her, Matt and Hugh got out of their pilots seats and unclipped their pistols. The residents of New Gaia may be being cautious, but so too we the brothers.
“Put them away boys,” Clare called from the cargo hold. “Everything’s absolutely fine.”
Matt and Hugh walked through to the hold to join their sister, and got a better look at the man she had been talking to. Dark skinned, short and wiry, with lots of scars visible on his hands and face, and wearing a heavy leather jacket and trousers. Wearing leather, he was definitely not a native of New Gaia.
“Matt, Hugh, this is Wrench. These are my brothers, the pilots,” Clare introduced them.
“Wrench?” Hugh asked.
“My tribe name their children with a birth name, and then with an adult name. Our adult names reflect our skills. I am a mechanic, and I chose the name Wrench.”
“Good to meet you Wrench, how come you’re on Gaia though?” Matt asked. “You don’t look like a native.”
“I’m not, my ship had to make a crash landing here. My people are nomads, we were escaping pirates and while I managed to evade them, my ship was too badly damaged to get far. New Gaia was the nearest inhabited planet so I landed here. Myself and my daughter have been here for four years now, making ourselves useful, working our keep until such a time as we would be able to leave.”
“Wrench here’s responsible for the wrecks, both in orbit and down here. Seems one of the first things he did was create an orbital canon,” Clare explained.
“Your ship was armed?” Hugh asked.
“No, but an engine can also be a weapon. A small, remotely operated control unit and it could catch pirate ships before they attacked, and destroy their controls.”
“Neat,” Matt said.
“Thank you,” Wrench replied. “The locals have appointed me as head of customs, so I can authorise you to trade openly while you’re here. Welcome to New Gaia, I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Wrench left them and went back down the ramp to his escort.
“Clever bloke that,” Matt commented as the three of them went back through to the cockpit.
“So, first stop a hotel,” Clare said as she grabbed her kit bag from a storage locker. “I really want a bath.”
“You’re not the only one,” Hugh replied.
“I think we all do,” Matt finished as they also grabbed their kit bags.
The two brothers and their sister left the ship, closing the ramp and headed towards the space port facility in search of a hot bath and a soft bed.
The space port of New Gaia was the tallest building on the planet and stood four storeys high. Around it, stretching away from the landing field was the town of Mater. Closer to the space port the buildings were mostly two storey, and further away towards the far outskirts they were almost exclusively single storey. It was a lightly populated planet of farmers who lived by the motto of ‘Leave no trace’. All the buildings were off wood, insulated and reinforced with compressed straw. The entire town could be dismantled, and within a few years it would be hard to tell there was even a settlement here. Even the roads were pressed dirt tracks that could be ploughed up again.
Clare and her brothers sat in the hotel bar on the third night of their stay. They had traded three quarters of their fuel ore and had been able to fill their food stores with enough for a prolonged stay in space, and a generous allowance for their stay on planet. A short mining stop at the next suitable asteroid and they’d be set for several months at least.
“Do you mind if we join you?”
The three of them looked up to see Wrench stood next to them with a teenage girl by his side.
“Of course not,” Clare replied. “Please take a seat.”
Wrench and the girl sat down at the table, she was dressed in similar clothes and shared the same dark red skin tones as Wrench.
“This is my daughter, Socket,” Wrench explained. “This is Clare, Matt and Hugh.”
Socket nodded to each as she was introduced.
“How do you find New Gaia?” Wrench asked.
“It’s a bit, er,” Hugh started.
“Dull.” Matt finished.
Wrench laughed and Socket smiled.
“Yeah, it can get to you like that. They’re good folks, they like a simple, quiet life. But, I think it’s time we moved on, so I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“You want a lift somewhere?” Clare asked.
“Something like that, more a ride for a while. Sign on as crew as it were.”
“You did notice it’s a three man ship?” Matt asked.
“Yup. Socket, could you go to the bar and get some beers. I always barter better with a beer,” Wrench asked of his daughter. “I’ve already told you our tribe are nomads, I’ve no idea where they are now, but I’d like to get back to them at some point. Until then, we’ve not really got anything to do. This planet’s safe, I’ve trained a couple of the locals as mechanics, they’re not too bad, and word seems to have got around to leave it alone. The last attack was a year ago. It’s time for us to leave.”
“And you’d like to join us?” Hugh asked.
“For a while.”
“Wrench,” Clare said. “I’m not sure if you’ve guessed, but we don’t actually own our ship.”
“We kinda stole it.” Hugh finished.
“I guessed,” Wrench nodded. “I also checked, the bounty on it’s pretty high. Duality ships aren’t cheap.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Matt asked as Socket returned to the table with a tray of four beers and a glass of fruit juice.
“Absolutely,” Wrench replied. “In fact, that suits us better. You’re less likely to go near the busy shipping routes for a while, at least until you’ve earned enough to pay off your bounty, so we’re more likely to bump into my people that way.”
“We’re still left with the issue that it’s a three person cabin,” Clare pointed out.
“At the moment it is,” Wrench smiled, reaching forward and taking a glass from the table. “This is where I think we can earn our lift. Socket’s almost as good an engineer as I am, better in some respects, we think we can help you improve your ship.”
“Improve a Duality Ship?” Matt asked incredulously.
“Indeed, they’re good, but they could be better.”
“How so?” Clare asked.
“Well, Sprocket’s got some ideas,” Wrench said nodding to his daughter.
“Your cabin is set for two pilots and a navigator, with two bunks. But you’re triplets aren’t you?” Sprocket asked.
“You noticed?” Hugh said.
“Not many people do,” Clare commented.
“What’s your current error margin rating?” Socket asked.
“Twenty percent,” Matt replied smugly.
“Pretty low, very low in fact,” Socket said. “What do you think it would be if it was rigged for three pilots?”
Clare, Matt and Hugh stared at Socket, occasionally looking at Wrench who nodded at them.
“It’s just an idea, one I’ve not been able to try out obviously,” Socket continued. “But if you can get an error margin down to twenty percent with twins, how low could you get it with triplets flying it?”
“I’m not a trained pilot,” Clare pointed out.
“You know the theory though sister,” Matt said.
“You can fly it slow speed when needed,” Hugh finished.
“You two like the sound of this don’t you?” Clare asked of her brothers.
“It’s definitely worth thinking about,” Matt replied.
“Also,” Sprocket continued. “Your fuselage is a standard cargo model, usually way too large unless you’re shipping something massive, which you’re not likely to do out here. Part of it could easily be converted to carry passengers, with some decent enough living quarters. I believe I could fit eight cabins, kitchen and recreation area.”
“Passengers can bring in more money,” Hugh started.
“Than cargo,” Hugh finished.
“How much cargo space would we lose?” Clare asked.
“With a bit of care, you’d still be able to carry the same load that you landed with,” Sprocket answered.
“That’d require extra power though,” Clare mused. “A full cargo load, and the added weight of the passenger compartment, and passengers, that’d burn up a lot more fuel to get on and off planet.”
“I think we can help there too,” Wrench joined in. “You see, you’re running standard cargo engines. Lots of power at low speed, quick burst of high speed. I think we can complement those with a set of passenger engines.”
“A second set of engines?” Matt asked, thinking of the speed they might be able to achieve.
“And the extra weight of them,” Clare brought them back to the reality of the proposal.
“Yes, the extra weight would be noticeable but the power to weight ratio would increase,” Wrench pointed out. “You’d have to refuel more often, or land less, but I think that the benefits far outweigh the costs.”
“As for the costs,” Clare said. “How much would this extra hardware cost us? Your passage in exchange for fixing the ship up, but the equipment you’re talking about doesn’t come cheap. And if we ever want to pay off the bounty on us, we can’t start taking on more debts.”
“That’s the beauty of this,” Wrench replied. “There would be no extra costs. The ships out there have been cannibalised for the planetary defences, but the parts we’re looking at weren’t needed. Everything we’ve just discussed can be found out there.”
“And the planetary officials will allow you to just help yourself?” Clare asked.
“Sure, they’ve already agreed to let us build a working ship so we could set off on our own,” Wrench replied. “This way they’ll probably get to keep more than we would have taken.”
“So, in exchange for letting you sign on as crew for an indeterminate period, you’ll improve and then maintain our ship?” Matt asked.
“Yes,” Wrench answered. “With the improvements we’re talking about, you’ll have a better chance of paying off your bounty before someone collects on it.”
“How long would it take to make these improvements?” Hugh asked. “We were planning on leaving in a couple of days.”
“We could do them in flight,” Sprocket answered. “A couple of days would allow us to find and strip the parts from the derelicts, and load them into your hold. We can then fix things up as we’re flying.”
Clare looked at her bothers for their opinions, Matt raised his eyebrows slightly in a facial shrug, his way of saying ‘Why not?’, Hugh twitched his mouth into a quick smile.
“Wrench, Socket,” Clare said. “Welcome aboard.”