Far And Further Away

Back again with another story. A Sci-Fi story, set in space. It revolves around one woman and her starships navigational computer system. It’s about 11,300 words long. So without further ado, here is Far And Further Away.

The view beyond the canopy of the Transit class freighter is the same in this part of the galaxy as it is any other. A canvas of black, deeper shade of black than can be found anywhere else, and it’s speckled with tiny white dots. These tiny dots shine and sparkle like diamonds under a light. It’s a sight that Carmen Hollingrey has come to know very well. It doesn’t impress her like it had in her youngest days when she used to look up at the night sky. But that’s to be expected. No one can keep hold of the feelings they held when they were young and truly seeing or studying something for the first time. It just isn’t possible. Still, there is nowhere Carmen would rather be than here.

Space is her refuge. Her space in outer space is what keeps her from feeling claustrophobic and contained. She doesn’t know how most people cope with being tightly packed together on space stations or in cities. None of that is for her. She can make passing, fleeting visits at best to those places, but the thought of living in them day after day causes her anxiety. There’s a chance she might be able to get used to it if she had to, but she doesn’t.

The green eyed woman, the sole organic member of her freighters crew, blinks slowly and shifts her gaze away from the sight beyond the centimetres thick of metal weaved glass, while her flame red hair is tied back in a ponytail. It’s how she almost always has her hair. Mostly it’s for practicality, though she refuses to disregard it’s presence entirely. She likes having long hair. She’s had it since she was a teenager. Before that it had been short and in her opinion, it had never suited her. In fact, she can’t even remember why it had ever been as short as it was. She expects it had something to do with her parents. They were the overbearing sort and in no way agreed with her wish to become a freighter pilot hauling cargo from one planet or system to another. But Carmen had made her decision and though they didn’t view it as an appropriate career path she followed it nonetheless. For people born in the twenty third century they were incredibly old fashioned and believed manual work was beneath a woman. It’s why to this day Carmen doesn’t get along that great with her parents. Though, since she purchased her own ship and started working contracts negotiated using nothing but her own wit, their perspective has shifted a little. They still don’t agree with her life choice; however they cannot say that she has not been successful at it.

Still, none of that matters now as Carmen shifts from side to side in her pilots’ seat to make sure her back hasn’t locked or gone numb from the hours of sitting in one single position. It hasn’t and Carmen is relieved to conclude that, even if her brown jumpsuit with dark green shoulder sections is beginning to irritate her ever so slightly. It’s why in an attempt to take her mind off the irritation she asks the only other member of her crew, NIGEL, “How long until we drop out of FTL?”

The response from the other member of the freighters crew is, “Seven seconds.”

The voice is synthetic but warm. Some find the vocalised nav systems creepy or grating, but Carmen isn’t fazed by its presence in the slightest. In fact, it’s a welcome companion. After all, it makes no mess, generally doesn’t go for idle chit-chat, doesn’t intrude on her space, as it doesn’t have a physical presence, and never, ever tries to get her into bed. That is probably the biggest benefit of all. And Carmen wishes she could say the same about the countless station Dockers and flyboys that she comes across. It’s why each time it happens she can’t help but roll her eyes and why she likes to spend as little time docked as possible.

Instead of bedding down on the stations or in the ports she often instead waits for the cargo to be unloaded and a fresh stock stowed away before making an immediate withdrawal. And that is whether it’s during the day, if she is on a planetary body, or in the dead of night. She can always sleep in space. It isn’t hard once you get used to it. Though, it is chilly even with the onboard heaters her ship has. And there have been times when she’s awoken, mid sleep cycle, to find herself chilled to the bone and able to visibly see her breath. The temperature poses her no danger, at least in the short term, and with the irregularity with which it occurs. Though, it does remind her that she needs to get the heater checked out at some point as it is becoming a more and more common occurrence, and the last thing Carmen wants is too risk the chance that one day the heater doesn’t fire and she sleeps through it never to wake again. In the redheads eyes that would be a depressing and embarrassing way to die.

Suddenly the freighter drops out of FTL. The ship jerks forward as it decelerates sharply. The straps on Carmen’s seat hold her in place, eliminating the possibility of her being chucked forward into the instrument panel ahead of her. She wonders how many, especially in the early days of FTL, failed to ensure these things were adorned. She imagines a lot and can picture both men and women being flung out of their seats, head first, into the instrument cluster. To a point it’s comical and causes a smile to flash across her face. But at the same time must be excruciatingly embarrassing as well as mildly painful. After all, the deceleration from FTL isn’t severe enough for the resulting impact from such a mistake to be fatal. At least that has been the reality during her lifetime, anyway. Whether that has always the case she cannot say and doubts anyone is still alive from the time that they might be able to confirm or deny such things. It’s why she now abandons the thought and instead orders, “NIGEL, give me a full systems check please.”

Carmen’s takes note of how the previously tiny white specks that had been dashes because of the FTL travel have returned to being perfect circles. She then reminds herself that the characterisation of the lights, which are stars, being circles is entirely incorrect. However, from here in this seat, that is exactly how they look. Hell, most of them are probably be long dead, or in a different phase of their life cycle compared to how they are appearing to her now. It’s a sad thought, Carmen thinks, even if she cannot explain why.

“Carmen, I am a navigational system, not an AI.” The synthetic male-esque reply says over the speakers built into every section of the freighter.

Thankfully, the nav system knows better than to speak through all of them at once. It’s a learned behaviour, not an automatic one. When Carmen had first had the system installed in her ship it had been unable to grasp that there was no purpose to have all speakers active at once when it answered because she is the only organic life-form onboard.

It had taken months for Carmen to train the computer system to accept that and during that time she had suffered many headaches and migraines because of the echoing reverb of the synthetic voice throughout the hull of her ship.

“Never said you were, but I know you can do it, so please just get on with it. There’s no need to retread this old ground again.” Carmen says rolling her eyes.

For a non-AI navigation system NIGEL, short for Navigational Interface and Guidance Establishment Logic System, seems to have more personality than many people she’s come across. That’s no surprise to Carmen seeing as many of the people she’s comes across are little more than grunting brutes only able to think a single thought at a time. It’s a cruel approximation of people but one she finds accurate and has seen reinforced many a time.

The view ahead of the freighter is no longer empty space now however, as they are coming up on Platform Six. The massive hulking space station is an orbital silo that is more than three miles in length and a little under a mile wide. It’s shaped like a cylinder with a flat ring encircling it at a little under the half way point between the top and bottom. Its surface is grey but marked by small black splashes where items of debris have impacted its composite hull plating. The impact cause no real damage, other than the black scoring on the metal surface that is visible. If any actual structural damage were to be caused then that entire section of the station would be evacuated, depressurised and repaired. The engineers could carry out repairs while the section is still pressurised, but they wouldn’t. Safety protocols insist a section is vented so that there is a zero likelihood of an explosive decompression occurring, which could result in a loss of life.

Platform Six is Carmen’s next stop on her charter. It’s an installation she visits often. In fact, she visits it weekly, at least at the moment she does anyway. Because of that she has been forced, more than a few times and more than she would have liked, to bed down for the night on the station.

“All systems are well within tolerances.” NIGEL comes back without warning. Not that he needed to give one and even if he did it is not like he was made aware of such a fact. Yet, it is clear, even from his synthetic voice, that he is feigning exhaustion at having to carry out such a task. He isn’t an AI, as he often likes to point out, and yes such things are supposed to be handled by one of the more advanced system but Carmen doesn’t have an AI. This freighter cost her all the money she’d saved up from the jobs she’s been doing over the years before she purchased it. And NIGEL, well he’d cost her a little more than she’d managed to save in the time since the purchase of the freighter.

It’s part of the reason why she’s been doing so many runs. She has to pay off the excess. If she doesn’t she’ll be landed with a massive request for additional payments due to missing deadline for the entire balance to be paid off by. Not that any of that is NIGEL’s problem. After all, he is just a nav system. He is in no way a bespoke product. He’s a part of a product line and one that seldom gets the opportunities he in particular is afforded on her ship. Yet, that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to remark about wishing to be something more. Though, the system isn’t even sure it can wish. Instead, it simply seems to be parroting what he has learned. From whom it cannot say. Though, the most likely conclusion would be Carmen, which seems unlikely as his behavioural patterns seem in no way to line up with hers. It instead seems more likely to be a part of his base programming, yet he can’t quite bring himself to accept that conclusion either. All he knows is that his responses and personality are not a malfunction. Perhaps they should be considered a feature. To make him more personable is possible, though the success of such an achievement he is certain would be immeasurable.

“Thank you NIGEL.” Carmen replies with a relieved look on her face and a curt singular nod of her head.

Just as the redheaded woman finishes offering her thanks she catches sight of a blinking blue light on the console ahead of her. It’s an indication that she is being hailed. It’s what she’d been waiting for. After all, this is all part of a clearly defined protocol that states that all new inbound starships, once they enter the outer perimeter boundary of an installation, are hailed. Safety and security purposes are the defined reasons for its existence and while some pilots might bitch and moan about it, Carmen has no issue with its existence whatsoever. She understands it entirely and the delay it creates, which in her mind isn’t really one at all, is negligible at best.

“Carrier, state your designation.” The male voice on the other end of the now open line demands.

The first time Carmen had been faced with this, years ago now, she’d thought the demand rude. Not long after she’d learned that all operators are drilled on how they have to convey themselves during initial contact with a vessel.

Because of that the opening gambit has to sound demanding and authoritative. If it doesn’t then compliance has a high percentage of not being adhered to and in turn that might, apparently it really is only a might, lead to a loss of cargo, and life. Carmen hadn’t needed to have it explained it; she’d worked that out for herself. After all, stations like Platform Six are in no way lacking defences. They can’t afford to as space is enormous, unfathomably large and unlike planets there are no defensible locations. As a result of that you can be attacked from any angle at any time. Though, most commonly it’s space pirates.

Carmen has never come across any personally. Then again most pirates vessels are short range skiff type amalgams built from the remains of old retired starships no longer fit or able to continue serving their purpose without overly expensive refits that actually make the purchase of a new replacement vessel a cheaper option.

But because space pirates’ ships are cobbled together, they often lack FTL drives, at least working ones. In turn that makes it impossible for them to try and ambush a freighter, like hers, during a jump.

Carmen does expect some have tried. They have to have. Space pirates tend to be reckless. Likely because of the life they have chosen. But even most of them are not crazy enough to attempt an interception during an FTL jump. The reason they don’t is because there is a high chance of both starships colliding and everyone and everything being atomised if one ship is a little as a thousandth of a degree off.

“Mike Six One Four Bravo.” Carmen quickly relays without thinking.

Carmen’s ability to recall and deliver her ships designation has become second nature to her. That’s a side effect of having to recite it as often as she does and Carmen suspects she might sound about as synthetic as NIGEL does as she relays it each time. She never listens to her voice as she blurts out the five short words but can quite easily see that her voice is probably a monotone drone as the words leave her lips.

“Cae, good to have you back. How are you doing?” The male voice on the other end of the transmission says with a now much warmer tone.

Carmen recognises the voice immediately now that it is no longer trying to sound all proper and demanding. Its why she replies, “I’m doing good Kurt, how about you?”

“Good Cae. Good. Permission is for docking at bay eleven.” Kurt advises before a short pause just long enough for the man to take a breath. Following that he asks, “You named your ship yet by the way?”

“Nope. Don’t really see a need to either Kurt. She has a designation.” Carmen replies frankly as she shifts the controls of her freighter so that she can loop around the space station toward bay eleven.

It’s on the far side from the angle she is approaching from. Why she’s been given docking privilege there and not on the side she’s approaching from is beyond her. Kurt would only be doing it if he has to. Operator or not he still has to follow the directives set out by those above him, even if they don’t make sense. He admitted as much once when the pair of them had been drinking together.

Drinking with someone she barely knows is not the norm for Carmen, but she’d felt the need to indulge as it was around the time she’d got her ship. An occasion she felt appropriate to celebrate, even if it was out of character for her and just once. It hadn’t been just the once, but that’s a different set of stories.

“I feel sorry for that freighter of yours. A ship without a name, never heard of such a thing before. Crying shame if you ask me.” Kurt says jokingly.

“I’ll name the ship when designations aren’t the primary form of identification.” Carmen replies able to hear the smile that must be on Kurt’s face right now as he taunts her playfully.

“Ha ha. Yeah, fair.” Kurt says with a hearty laugh before adding, “Sorry Cae, got to go. Duty calls. We should grab a drink or two next time you swing by this way. It’s been a while. He should catch up.”

“Yeah Kurt, we should. I’d like that.” Carmen agrees.

Kurt is one of the few people at any of the stops she makes that she actually gets along with. He isn’t like most of the operators, or Dockers, merchants, engineers, etc you find at these installations. It’s why Carmen likes him. He just wants to talk. Not get her drunk and take her to bed. It’s refreshing to know that all men don’t have a one track mind. Well, at least as far as Carmen knows he hasn’t shown any such indication of being that way. Maybe he’s different with other people, she can’t say. The pair of them always scurry away to the corner of whatever bar they decide to frequent for their night of drinking and banter. Somewhere they won’t be bothered and seems to go completely unnoticed as a result.

“Take it easy Kurt.” Carmen soon adds before flicking the comms switch back to it’s original position, which ends the transmission with an audible click.

Moments later the redheaded woman is banking her freighter in a wide arc around Platform Six until the boxy vessel is lined up with the opening for bay eleven. Two pairs of five metre long vertical black stripes indicate the bays number and are riveted to the hull plating above and below the gaping maw. A transition field serves as the micron thick layer that separates the interior of the space stations docking bay from the vacuum of space.

Carmen has no idea how the field works. Such knowledge and understanding are way beyond her capabilities. What she does know is that anything inorganic, such as a starship, can pass through it. However, if something organic tries on the other hand to slip through then it is met with a sharp shock. The shock serves as a warning only and is incapable of causing any actual damage to whoever might come in contact with it. At the end of the day it’s a safety procedure designed to stop fools and morons from killing themselves. Though, the freighter pilot can well imagine how the necessity for it probably came about. Especially, as station living can be lonely.

Anyone not well versed with living on a space station might find that astounding to hear, seeing as you live within a finite space surrounded with thousands or tens of thousands of people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: