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“Here we go, again,” I emphasised and followed that with a string of curses.
It was a meteor shower and it looked like there were some big ones. I knew well enough that there was a lot of debris around the perimeter of the Merkal system and it wasn’t the first time I’d had to decouple a tug and go blast them but, after coming all the way from Proxanthus-6 without incident, it was a pain in the rear to have to go to all this trouble so close to home.
I checked my readout again. Some were 30 metres wide so I had no choice, my deflector panels couldn’t handle anything that big.
For those of you unfamiliar with a deep-space ore freighter, it’s a huge container section designed to hold 200,000 to 250,000 tonnes of partially processed metal ore; nothing more than a giant storage bin in reality. It’s a toughened titanium steel double hull with forward-facing angled deflector panels at strategic points along the sides. The panels can bounce off meteors up to 5 metres wide and, if they sometimes take a beating, they are replaceable. A meteor 30 metres wide would rip the panels off and probably smash a hole in the hull causing me to lose ore or worse, knock the container seriously off course.
The “tug”, which isn’t much more than living and storage space for a 2/3 man crew perched atop a big fusion drive, attaches to the lower front of the container so the engine exhaust is underneath where the container has extra heat shielding.
I got my space-suit and put it on and went to the control seat with my helmet in my hand and began punching buttons. I got the tug separated OK and used manoeuvring thrusters to get clear of the container section before I engaged the fusion drive.
I checked my scanners again. At least the meteors were not coming towards me but were crossing my path, so the closing speed was just my speed which gave me more time. I started to pinpoint all the meteors more than 10 metres wide then eliminated from my targeting computer those that would have safely crossed my path before the container’s momentum brought it along. That left eight: five of them, fairly close together, were just about the 10-metre-across size and three more were over 30 metres wide. The small ones I could take out with laser cannon fire, but I’d have to use missiles for the 3 bigger ones.
I powered up the laser and armed 4 missiles, one spare just for emergencies. I’d take out the big ones, swing around and come up and under the 5 smaller ones and blast them.
One of the big ones was closest; I fed the meteor’s coordinates into the missile’s microprocessor, engaged its solid fuel rocket and let it go. I targeted the other two big ones next, sent off two more missiles and then I put the tug on manual control and went after the other five ... might as well enjoy myself a little. I closed in on them and angled my deflectors in case the tug got hit by some small stuff on the way in and then I was curving up and under, so the debris would go up out of the path of my container. I lined the first one up manually and fired and even as I saw it fragment I was altering course to take out the second. I blasted the other three then checked on the missiles and realised that one of them had failed to detonate which meant I still had one of the big meteors to take care off.
I re-engaged the targeting computer, reacquired the meteor and closed in on it. It was a big bastard; more than 50 metres wide and about 300 long, I wouldn’t even dent it with the laser. I armed my 4th missile.
“Where to hit,” I muttered to myself.
The missiles had high-explosive warheads, not nuclear, so I wasn’t going to destroy the thing, just get it out of the way. I picked my spot, underneath and about a third of the way back from the front of the meteor. It was a perfect strike I thought as the meteor split into 3 biggish pieces that flew up out of the path of the approaching container, but I went after two of the three pieces with the laser cannon and reduced them to rubble just because I had started to enjoy myself.
My earlier annoyance now replaced by a sense of achievement and the satisfaction of having blasted something, I headed back to the container. I came in under it, slowing to match speed and then brought the tug up to the clamps. I could have used the computer for docking but I liked to keep my skills up to speed so I did it manually ... enough momentum to dock but not so much that the container would deviate from course. I felt good as I reconnected circuits between tug and container and re-engaged the scanners to give me vision above and behind its huge bulk.
I checked the computer log but nothing had been detected during my absence still, being professional, I did a full scan in every direction just to be on the safe side.
I was now into the Merkal system though still farther out than the planetary orbits: I’d come out of hyperspace yesterday and I’d been decelerating continuously since then.
“Vector four-oh-seven-nine Ajax.”
“We’ll take it from here, Brogan.”
“She’s all yours Control,” I said switching to computer control which effectively turned the orbital docking over to them.
I ran a hand over my face feeling the stubble and moved to my bathroom, attached to the bedroom where I’d slept for nine months. I took off my coverall suit and underwear, stepped into the cleanser unit, shut the door and pressed buttons. I closed my eyes as the warm spray filled the cubicle; I reached blindly for the sponge and began to rub it over my body wiping the antibacterial mist over my skin and giving myself a thorough clean. Not that there were any virulent pathogens aboard Ajax; the only bacteria on the ship were those I hosted, willingly or otherwise.
Emerging clean and nice-smelling, I put on some fresh clothes, pulled my boots back on and crossed the room to a small cabinet for my shave gel. I squeezed some on to my palm and smeared it on my face, rubbing it in to the stubble. I rinsed and dried my hands, put the discarded clothes on a rack, put the rack in the cleanser, closed the unit and switched it on again. I was waiting for the gel to do its thing, which took about eight minutes, so I went to the kitchen/dining room and pressed buttons on the drinks unit and got myself a cup of coffee.
Eight minutes were up so I returned to the bathroom and shaved off the gel and the dissolved stubble with it.
Back in the kitchen again, I sipped my coffee and selected a pack from the freezer unit; chicken tikka masala with rice and vegetables. I removed the lid, put the pack in the microwave, set the timer and pressed the start button. I finished my cup of coffee and went to make another and had just completed that when the beeps sounded. I salvaged my meal, set the pack on the heatproof table next to my coffee and sat down.
The food was good enough; it hit the spot and I was feeling pretty good as I drained my coffee and put both food pack and coffee cup into the garbage disposal.
I returned to my control room to see how we were doing: it was always worthwhile checking, especially early on. There had been a couple of times when, because of some computer program fault, an incoming tug had not been properly aligned on the flight path and had completely missed the space dock and overshot spiralling out of control with the pilot unable to manually override. But no such problems this time: I was synchronized right and could now relax and prepare for docking and a chance to get off the ship after another successful voyage, my thirteenth.
It would be good to set foot on solid ground again. After I disembarked, went through decontamination and passport control, I had two free nights allowed at the orbital hotel ... this was part of the contract, two nights coming in and two going out with a tug. It would be good to have a nice room and watch TV and catch up on all the news and have some fresh food and a few drinks. After that I’d shuttle down to the surface and have a break for a couple of months. I was looking forward to it.
It would be another three hours before the docking procedure: I was still over 1,000,000 kilometres out. I thought I’d watch a movie so I went over to my work desk and selected a cartridge. I settled on my recliner, tilted it to a good angle, pulled the control panel to me and pushed the cartridge home and then powered up the big wall screen and adjusted the sound settings. It was an old movie from 200 years ago, set in the Korean War of the 1950’s, about the pilots of old jet fighters.
The lead actor was a guy called Mitchum and I liked the character he played and the relationship with the woman; she was married so there was no hope of it working out and there was no sex between them, just two kisses. But they were hot for each other and I liked the way they felt and the civilized way they behaved even though it was doomed from the start. I didn’t watch it all, I skipped a chapter here and there but it filled an hour and left me feeling sad and wistful. There were very few humans this far out and I hadn’t even seen a real woman in 2 years and it had been a little longer than that since I’d kissed one.
If a man wanted sex there were always the Merkal females but they had never appealed to me: they were covered with fine, short hair and I found their skin odour strange. It wasn’t particularly offensive, just strange and too far away from the smooth, fragrant skin of a human female. Anyway, best not to think about it; I’d watch some TV, have a few drinks, see some live shows, do some swimming and walking, eat some fresh food. After 2 months or ten weeks I’d be sick of it and I’d sign up to take another tug out to Proxanthus-6 for another ore shipment.
I didn’t mind the solo trips and the mining company preferred single crew, those that could handle being alone. The incidence of single crew going nuts was far lower than the incidence of fights and murder among two or three man crew. I thought the Merkals were just too emotionally unstable. There was some talk years ago that I didn’t like Merkals because I shipped solo and because I didn’t mate with the females; but I had no particular dislike of them, I just liked to fly alone. On the ground I was happy eating Merkal food, watching their shows and going to their bars and after a couple of years the perception of prejudice had faded and I was accepted as just a weird human who didn’t have sex with either males or females.
I was less than an hour out now so I started to get my last things together. I had just two bags; one contained my better clothes, for when I was on shore leave, along with my few ‘treasures’ and it pretty well stayed closed when I was on a voyage. The second bag contained the clothes I wore aboard ship plus the things I used to amuse myself ... portable computer, music/movie/game cartridges and I always took a carton packed with a dozen or so electronic books and magazines which I traded in for a new batch each time I came back to Merkal.
I took a look over at the main panels, satisfied myself I was still on target for docking and there was no need for me to come off computer control and make a course adjustment. I made another cup of coffee and shut off the kitchen equipment. The bathroom, lounge, kitchen and control were clean: I knew they would be completely fumigated and cleaned anyway when I got off, but I’m a tidy guy and I always clean up my own space. I walked all around the living quarters and checked I’d left nothing behind and then I put my two bags and my carton of books and magazines on the trolley and that was it; nothing to do till I docked in about twenty-five minutes. I finished my coffee, tossed the cup into the garbage disposal and went to the toilet for a last pee.
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