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.
The ship rattled as it broke orbit, everything was stowed properly in the cargo hold, but there was a lot of it.
“More power boys, we’re struggling a little here,” Clare called from her navigator’s seat behind the two pilots.
“Not likely,” Matt replied.
“We’re at full power,” Hugh finished in their twin-speak.
“Then we’re going to have a bumpy ride for a while. You two okay back there?” Clare asked, leaning around to check on the passengers strapped into the two bunks further back in the cockpit.
“We will be,” the middle-aged man in one of the bunks called back.
“Socket, what about you?” Clare asked.
“If breakfast stays down I might be,” the teenaged girl called back.
“Well try and hold onto it, we should be clear soon.”
As the ship broke out of the atmosphere the rattling stopped and the crew relaxed. The father-daughter mechanic team released their straps in the bunks and sat up while Clare went through her systems checks and Matt and Hugh brought the ship around to the bearing for their destination.
“Before we make planet fall again, make sure I’ve fitted those extra engines eh Socket?” The male mechanic moaned.”
“Will do dad, don’t worry about that.”
“Don’t worry you two,” Clare said, getting out of her seat to go to the food preparation area behind the bunks for a glass of water. “With the amount of stuff you’ve filled the hold with, we’re bound to keep you busy. What’s your order of work Wrench?”
“First up is the crew quarters,” the man replied. “I’m not sure I can take another lift off like that.”
“It’ll also free up the most space in the hold,” Socket continued. “No doubt you’ll be wanting to mine some fuel soon, that lift must have burnt a lot.”
“Too much,” Clare replied. “I hope you two have brought along everything you need, because we’ve got just about enough fuel for a month’s space flight, a week if we have to make planet fall.”
“What’s the destination?” Wrench asked, getting a glass of water for himself to help with the nausea that lift off often induced.
“An asteroid field we’ve used occasionally, we need to refuel. I figure you’ll want some time to sort out the upgrades you’ve been planning, and we’ve got enough food for a couple of months. If you can empty that junk out of the hold, we can fill it with ores before heading back to trade it out for more food. So I guess you’ve got a week until we get to the field, and then a couple of weeks while we mine before we have to head back to a planet fully laden. Can you manage that?” Clare asked.
Wrench looked at his daughter, this was their first trip aboard the MHC-1 since signing on two days previously during its planet fall on New Gaia. They had bartered ongoing travel on the ship in exchange for upgrading it and providing ongoing mechanical support. Now they had to put their spanners where their mouths were.
“No problem,” Socket replied with a cheeky smile.
“Sure, we’ve packed so we can work inwards,” Wrench said.
“I have no idea what you talking about, so I’ll leave you to it,” Clare said heading back to her seat in the cockpit.
“A week to get the hold clear enough for the fuel mining?” Socket asked of her father.
“Shouldn’t be a problem, first stage is get the crew compartments in, then move most of the rest into there. We can fit the new engines while they’re mining, and by the time they’re done so should we be,” Wrench replied.
Any long journey can really seem to stretch time. When people are cooped up together nerves can grate, and even the best of friendships can be stretched to breaking point. This was one of the other reasons why twins were preferred as pilots for the Duality Ships, apart from their superior flying skills, with their reduced error margins, it had been found that twins didn’t mind each other’s company over long periods of forced close company. The twin pilots got to choose their navigator, the third member of a Duality Ship’s crew, and often went through four or five different candidates on short runs before they settled on someone they could spend extended periods of time with.
Hugh and Matt got along with their navigator very well. They weren’t twins with a third crew member. Along with Clare they were triplets, a now very rare occurrence, and they were more than happy to spend months on end in each other’s company. The addition of the two new crew members though, making five in a cockpit designed for three, pushed things slightly. Thankfully for all concerned Wrench and Socket only came into the cockpit to refresh their space suits. The cargo hold wasn’t pressurised like the rest of the ship, and they had to wear their suit while they were working in there.
The design of the Duality Ships was considered revolutionary by many standards, not just the two pilot system. One of the highlights of the design was that the fuselages was interchangeable, the cockpit was a self-contained section with its thick skin and rear bulkhead could be detached and reattached from fuselages according to what it was set to transport. The MHC-1 lifted off on its maiden voyage with a cargo fuselage, a huge empty space and large, slow but sturdy engines. This could be swapped over for a passenger fuselage if needed, smaller, sleeker and faster. The need wasn’t likely to arise however as the ship was stolen on its maiden flight. Matt, Hugh and their sister Clare absconded shortly after lift-off and were now trying to raise the bounty on their heads to pay off the cost of the ship before the bounty hunters caught up with them.
Wrench and Socket had been working in the cargo hold since shortly after lift-off, six days when they rarely came into the cabin. They had decided between themselves very early on not to stretch the limits of their hopeful future friendship. If they were going to be on-board for a while, which was likely, then making sure that tensions weren’t pushed was as much a priority as clearing enough space in the hold for the minerals soon to be mined for fuel. They slept in their suits, and ate from the protein tubes, a week of discomfort was a small price to pay, and besides, as a mechanic team they were used to working to tight deadlines in uncomfortable conditions.
The airlock at the rear of the cabin spun open and the two mechanics stepped through from the darkness beyond into the dim blue light of the cockpit. The helmets were already removed from their suits and they both bore big, almost smug smiles.
“Captain,” Wrench greeted Clare.
“We have a captain now?” Matt asked.
“Since when?” Hugh continued.
“Since she was so obviously your boss,” Socket finished for them.
“True,” both Math and Hugh laughed.
“How goes it Wrench?” Clare asked.
“Well, if you’re able to set the ship to float safely for a while, we’re fed up with tube food and would take pleasure in a decent meal, if you’d care to join us?” Wrench replied with a flourishing bow towards the open airlock.
Socket shrugged out of her suit as Clare and her brothers set the ship to float and unstrapped themselves from their chairs, before leading them through the airlock. Four days previously the airlock gave way directly to the cargo hold, now they stepped into a dimly lit corridor. Wrench got out of his suit and following them pressed a console next to the door. Lights came up slowly to show three doors either side of the walkway, with a spiral staircase towards the end.
“Lady and gentlemen,” Wrench said from behind them. “May I introduce you to your new crew quarters. Six cabins, all with en-suite wash basins, toilets and showers. Down the stairs at the end is a similar corridor for your new passenger cabins. Six again, all en-suite.”
Socket opened the door to the first cabin, a bunk lined the far wall, and just inside the door was a shower unit with a built in toilet, next to it against the corridor wall was a small desk and chair.
“Of course, we’ve not decorated any room yet,” Socket said as the other members of the crew looked in. “Or even allocated them, I guess that’s up to you to decide.”
“Wow,” Matt said.
“I’m impressed,” Hugh finished.
“We’ve got twelve rooms like this?” Clare asked.
“Yup, all identical at the moment,” Wrench replied. “But let’s move down to the end,” he gestured.
Socket led the way beyond the stairs, the corridor opened out to the full width of the large cargo fuselage. The space however was filled, to one side was a fully fitted kitchen area, in the middle was a table large enough to seat twelve people, and to the other side was what could only be described as a lounge. Sofas bolted to the floor faced a large video screen on the wall.
“Your new crew quarters,” Socket gestured as people walked in.
“And, just beyond on the far wall is the airlock through to the main cargo hold,” Wrench explained. “This area, like the cockpit, is fully airtight and can be sealed off if needed.”
“And,” Socket continued. “Underneath this area is a separate area for crew and passenger luggage.”
“How much cargo space have we lost?” Clare asked.
“Thirty percent,” Wrench replied. “We were initially looking at twenty five, but the additional amount is more optimum for personal well-being.”
“What?” Hugh and Matt asked together.
“You can relax better with more space,” Socket clarified.
“And now,” Wrench continued. “If you’ll take a seat we’ve topped all this off by cooking a proper meal, served on proper plates, at a proper table.”
“And as a celebration,” Socket said as people took their seats. “We’ve also chilled a bottle of the New Gaian Champagne.”
The meal that followed was full of smiles; good food in good company is one of the best things that anyone can experience. In passing dishes back and forth amongst the diners, conversation ensues and friendships are forged, and after almost a week of self-enforced separation all of the crew were happy to relax.
“So,” Clare said as she helped herself to some more food from one of the platters on the table. “We’ve six crew quarters and five crew, plus the bunks in the cockpit, and six passenger cabins.”
“If you don’t mind,” Wrench interjected. “I’d like to remove the cabin bunks.”
“Oh?” Clare prompted.
“When we do the work on the engines, I’d like to have two additional crew stations in the cockpit to monitor them.”
“You want to monitor the engines?” Matt asked.
“What are you planning to do to them that needs monitoring?” Hugh continued.
“We’re looking to introduce a whole new engine configuration,” Socket answered. “We’d be remiss to not set up proper monitoring stations.”
“Plus,” Wrench added. “With converting the navigators seat to be a third pilot, a back up navigation and comms station wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
“Fine!” Clare said holding up her hand. “You’ve outstripped our expectations with the crew quarters. For these alone you’ve got travel as long as we’re flying. Anything else, I think we can trust you with.”
After months of inflight meals being taken individually, being able to sit around and relax had bought the new crew members a lot of slack.
Fuel mining was a tedious job, not difficult, just tedious. Because the Duality Ships were often expected to go long distances between planet fall and refuelling stops they were all equipped with emergency fuel mining equipment. The minerals that fuelled the engines could be mined from some of the asteroids that floated through space, and the pilots were trained, encouraged and to a degree forced to stop and mine fuel if their reserves ever got low. When you were flying a stolen ship, that was far more often than refuelling on land. The equipment itself was simple, a dozen posts that could be hammered into the surface of the asteroid marking the extent of the mining field, and a small robot digger, a bit like a vacuum cleaner with two very long hoses, that moved around inside the posts, digging up the rock and crushing it to a fine powder before separating it into fuel ore and waste. The fuel ore came through one hose to a waiting container and the waste was pumped through the other hose and dumped outside of the digging area.
The operation had to be overseen by a crew member though, mostly to change the containers when full or make sure that the hoses didn’t get tangled. Hours on end of watching a small robot trundle back and forth in an ever deepening hole, and occasionally moving a hose.
“I’m bored!” Matt moaned through the intercom in his suit.
“And we’re not exactly enthralled by your repeated statement of that,” Clare laughed back at him.
They had been mining now for eight days, normally the amount they were collecting would have taken only four days but with the new quarters they were more than happy to spend a bit longer and have time to relax too. While there was only the two bunks, rest and relaxation was taken on a rota, now the crew had moved more towards a day and night, work and rest pattern. It took longer, but they felt better.
“Matt, pack up and get in now!” Clare shouted over the comms. “Hugh, get your arse up to the deck, we’ve got visitors. Wrench, Socket, I hope you’re inside or close, and this ship had better be ready to fly, we’ve got a light ship heading towards us fast, eta of half an hour on the long range.”
“We can be in in twenty,” Wrench replied.
“You’re going to have to do better than that, we need to pull away in fifteen if we stand a chance of not being followed.”
“Are you sure they’re hostile?” Socket asked.
“They’re fast, they’re direct, and we’re not taking chances,” Clare replied. “Matt, status report?”
“Recalling the ‘bot now, can you get Hugh out to help get the posts in?”
“On my way bro,” Hugh’s voice came over the comms as he ran down the ramp from the cargo hold.
“Wrench, Socket, get in here as soon as you can. Fifteen minutes and we’re prepping for launch, if we leave you behind you’d better hope that you’ve got enough oxygen in your suits until we can safely come back,” Clare warned.
Wrench and socket made it back in before Matt and Hugh had finished getting the mining equipment back on board, but only just, and the rush to get equipment stowed in the now almost empty cargo hold seemed far more fraught than all parties thought it should have been.
“Matt, Hugh, I could really do with some pilots up here!” Clare called over the ship’s speakers.
“On our way!” Matt shouted back as all four ran up to the cockpit before the brothers settled into their pilot chairs and the mechanics took up their positions at the new monitoring posts where the bunks used to be.
“Okay boys, get prepped,” Clare shouted with adrenalin running through her veins. “They’ve not slowed down and close range sensors show external weaponry. It’s definitely pirates, time to prove your flying is a unique as your ego.”
“Navigator,” Wrench called from his chair. “Do we have a clear flight route in any single direction?”
“We can’t out run them Wrench,” Clare replied.
“Repeat navigator, do we have a clear flight route,” Wrench insisted.
“There is one, but I repeat, we can’t outrun them.”
“The new engines are showing as online ma’am,” Socket called from her chair. “Set off in a clear direction and warn those pretty boys of yours that they’re about to shit themselves.”
“Okay, you heard the girl, pretty boys, straight and fast at the co-ordinates I’m sending through now,” Clare called to her brothers as she swiped the information from her central console to the two side consoles that mirrored and controlled the displays her brothers used. “Flight in five, four, three, two and one!”
The MHC-1 pulled away steadily from the asteroid that they had recently been mining and headed towards the clear flight route. No ships, asteroids, planets or suns in the way, they could run at top speed for two days.
“We’re moving,” Matt called back from his pilot’s chair.
“But they’re still gaining.” Hugh finished.
“Are you ready and concentrating?” Wrench shouted from the rear of the cabin.
“If you’ve got something,”
“We can take it.” Matt and Hugh shouted back in their twin-speak.
“Then take this you pretty boys,” Socket murmured as she swiped upwards on her own console.
The new engines kicked in and the ship lurched, bucked, and then ran. The original design of the MHC-1 was a cargo ship with a large fuselage and two large, powerful, but cumbersomely slow engines. While they had been mining fuel however, Wrench and socket had fitted the four passenger class engines they had reclaimed from a derelict on New Gaia where they had signed on. Adding the power of these smaller, faster engines to the grunt of the cargo engines kicked the MHC-1 into speeds that the pilots weren’t expecting. Passenger ships couldn’t run as fast as the engines could power them, the margin of human error in flight was too great, but with a straight line and a need to get away quickly, the short bursts were considered an acceptable risk.
“Fuck,” Matt and Hugh said as the acceleration pushed them back in their chairs.
“And that,” Wrench said as he watched the approaching craft disappear on the screen in front of him. “Is why you’ve got us on board.”
“What was that?” Clare asked as the ship slowed down to a more manageable speed for her brothers to pilot.
“That was your two grunting cargo engines and your four new nippy passenger craft engines all working together to put a bit of distance between us and whoever they were,” Socket replied. “If we can get your pilot error margin down to ten percent from twenty, we should be able to make that sort of speed available to you on a more regular basis.”
“Regular basis?” Matt asked.
“Not until we get better laundry facilities on board.” Hugh finished.