Grep felt her heart racing. This wasn’t the first time they were heading out on a dangerous job, but it still wasn’t easy.
The Cthulhu ships were strong and the team was clear on the technique, but it was still risky. Flying into the vacuum of space to retrieve an oversized delivery pod sounded like a standard operation for the salvage crew. But the pod was experiencing a thruster malfunction and orbiting out f control.
Salvage bots were refusing the work because the odds of a successful capture were below sixty percent. A failed capture would result in collision that would generate even more debris which could easily cost Off Earth Salvage more money than a successful capture would generate.
Tanner insisted on stepping in and going for this job. When they salvaged a cargo pod they owned the contents. So not only were they getting paid to eliminate the threat, they would be able to profit from the contents. A double win.
Grep also knew that as they closed on the cargo pod, the odds for successful salvage would change. Hopefully they would increase and the bots would take over and complete the salvage. If not, Tanner and the other ship commander Lyra would manipulate their navigation systems until they were in synch and the odds improved.
But this was the most difficult time, standing in the salvage bay waiting for the ships to be ready.
“Okay, Grep and Stew are with me. Chance you’re with Lyra. Remember that you don’t want to make contact using a tip. If you attach to this thing with a tip it’s over for you and my problems expand exponentially.” Tanner reminded them.
If the tip of an arm from the Cthulhu ship latched on to a tumbling cargo pod, the body of the ship would wind up whipping through space and wrapping around the pod. Ending in a violent collision. That was how Tanner lost Cthulhu-3 and a veteran commander.
“Tanner I still think we should hold off until it burns off more of it’s fuel.” Maddison, the operations manager checked her tablet.
The bean counter wasn’t going to be out there risking her life, what did she care.
“The sooner we capture it the more we get paid. You know how it works, the longer this thing is out of control the more risk the launch company faces. They can’t finance new projects or conduct any other launches while this is in orbit.” Tanner pointed out the driver for taking this risk.
“Excuse me, Tanner?” A young man approached the small team.
“What?” Tanner asked.
“I was told to let you know that we just received a distress request and granted permission to land.” The young man said.
“I don’t need to be involved in that.” Tanner dismissed the information.
“They said to tell you it was a very old signal and the ship appears to be an antique. They don’t think the salvage bay is a safe place to stand while it’s coming in.” The messenger explained.
“These distress calls are going to ruin our business. Maddison, make a note to bring this up next time we talk to someone from the Planetary Operating Alliance.” Tanner assigned an action item.
“Got it.:” Maddison replied confidently.
“Sir?” The young man checked timidly.
“WHAT!” Tanner replied.
“Shared logs show that this ship was launched before the POA existed.” He explained timidly.
The Planetary Operating Alliance was formed shortly after the first orbital war. It crafted, enforced and adjudicated the rules for all of Earth as well as the growing community orbiting the planet. They were the ones that conceived and enforce the restrictions on returning to the planets surface while one still maintained debt. They also defined the requirements for assisting vessels in distress.
Whenever one ship approached another in space they would share logs to understand compatibility between technology and cargo. The dangers of operating in space required the craft to keep track of localized resources and potential safe places in the event of an accident. It was important to know if you could dock with another ship or if it was only available for umbilical connections.
The fact that this ship was sharing logs meant it’s owner made updates to stay current with the laws. It did not mean that the ship had been retrofitted to modern equipment.
“Fine. Clear the deck. But I want to see the owner as soon as they are docked.” Tanner turned and led the team off the floor of the salvage bay.
Grep felt bad for Tanner. If he didn’t have bad luck he wouldn’t have any at all. They needed to get out and salvage that cargo pod to maximize the reward. But now they had to wait for this crazy old ship to land. For free.
The group turned and looked through a window in the conference room where Tanner led them.
A small ship appeared in the entrance to the salvage bay. It waggled slightly and Grep thought for a second that it may not be under the control of it’s AI pilot.
After a big, dramatic dip of the right side of the craft it spun so that the thrusters were pointing towards the back wall of the salvage bay. It was all very showy and not how an AI was trained to land a ship.
“Do you think that was done by a human?” Grep asked Tanner.
“Sure looked that way. I can’t imagine what that felt like on the inside though.” He smiled his reply.
Once the ship settled on the floor of the salvage bay the room went silent. They were waiting for a door or a ramp to appear. No signs of life were present.
“This is Tanner Nazca and you just landed on my rock. State your name and your emergency.” Tanner was speaking into a communicator along the wall.
“Can’t believe there’s still as Nazca on this rock. I thought for sure Kai was going to find a way to get himself killed.” A tired old voice came back.
“He did, this is his grandson. What is your emergency?” Tanner was not ready to reminisce.
“My oxygen reclaimer quit on me. No way I could have made it to the next station, you saved my life.” The voice explained why they needed help.
“What’s your name?” Tanner asked.
“Wilbur.” The tired old voice did not elaborate.
“Do you have a ramp or a door or any way out of that old bucket?” Tanner’s tone began to soften.
“Is this cave really pressurized? Can’t always trust these old sensors.” Wilbur answered.
“Yes, I’ll come meet you.” Tanner let a small smile creep across his face.
The team filed out of the conference room and made their way to the base of the ship that just landed in the salvage bay.
Several meters about the floor of the bay a door slid open. The rungs of a ladder rose from the skin of the ship.
Up at the door they first saw a boot and then a puffy pant leg. The toe of the boot probed for the top rung. Slowly a complete body emerged and Wilbur carefully made his way down the ladder.
Grep and the others stood in silence. When the man was down the ladder and standing securely on the floor his arms went up over his head and stretched to his right.
The man turned and they could all see his mouth moving through the visor of his helmet. When the man noticed that they were not wearing helmets or suits he smiled broadly and reached to the latches around his neck.
It was a far more complicated system than their modern suits. By the time he unfastened the last latch they could hear a faint hiss of air escape the joint.
“Last time I was here, this cave was smaller than my ship and you could not stand out here and breathe.” Wilbur explained.
He didn’t look old enough to have been in space before the POA was formed. Which would also mean he couldn’t be old enough to have visited Lagrange-4 while Kai was still excavating the salvage bay.
“Your shared logs say you launched before the POA was formed. Is that true?” Tanner challenged.
“Give or take. The ship was assembled before the POA existed. I activated most of the systems on the surface almost a year before launch. Wanted to make sure I could be grandfathered into any rules meant to proceed the orbital pioneers.” He looked like a cat who had swallowed the canary.
“How old are you?” Maddison could not resist asking what they all must have been thinking.
“Late seventies I suspect, what year is it?” Wilbur was not phased.
“2092,” Grep answered quickly.
“Then yep about seventy-six or seventy-seven years old. I’m telling you, last time I was here, Kai had me tether my ship to an anchor out there. Had to do an EVA through a tiny hole and into what must have been the very beginning of this cave.” Wilbur turned to survey the salvage bay.
“And where have you been since?” Grep would have known if there was a ship this old living and working in Earth orbit.
“Out and about. Went to check out Mars and then the asteroid belt. Thought that if Kai could wrangle one of these things then so could I. There’s more than one Lagrange point you know.” Wilbur answered like he had been just down the hall.
“What happened?” Grep hoped there wasn’t an asteroid making it’s way towards them.
“Landing on one of these things that doesn’t already have systems is not easy. I could never find a way to touch down.” Wilbur frowned.
“How did you get supplies?” Grep was fascinated with the old timer.
“We have to get on with our project. You can stay until we get back. I think Grep would like to have dinner with you and pick your brain.” Tanner wanted to move along.
“Appreciated. Is there someone I can see about repairs for my oxygen reclaimer?” Wilbur asked.
“Maddison can help you. We might even have some spares of your vintage.” Tanner nodded to his operations manager.
“Do you have modern currency?” Maddison asked.
“Last time I had any money it was on the chain. Guessing that approach is gone?” Wilbur was referring to the old block-chain currencies.
Maddison looked worryingly at Tanner.
“We’ll figure out payment later. Get his reclaimer fixed and find him a place to relax. We have a cargo pod to go recover.” Tanner shook his head.
For a guy that was so intent on paying off his debt and setting foot on Earth Tanner didn’t seem to care much about getting paid sometimes. It was an odd discrepancy and likely a big part of the reason that he was still in debt.
Grep suddenly realized how minimal the scope of their risk really was. Wilbur and Kai had been out here in space when AI was still learning and making mistakes. They were pioneers and had no safety pods or other ships that could help them in the event of an accident.
It wasn’t that their hearts didn’t beat fast or they weren’t scared. They were probably terrified at times. But they pushed through and made progress. If it wasn’t for humans pushing ahead and trying things that AI’s deemed too risky they might still be bound to the planet below.
Taking risks was part of being human. It was why the AI’s were never going to rule them all. Her heart pounding in her chest wasn’t a warning sign, it was a sign of hope and possibility.
“Let’s do this!” She cheered and marched off toward the Cthulhu ship she was assigned to.