"Passengers and crew be advised," the robotic voice of the ship's computer clipped over the loudspeaker in feminine tones. "Passengers and crew be advised. We have arrived at coordinates A dash four dash three two nine, and are currently docking with IS3 Golden Claw registered ship number six three two six zed zed." The computer continued, stumbling mechanically over the specifics like coordinates and ship's name. A soft blue light flashed in the suddenly empty walkways of the starship to remind passengers and crew alike that, while all was within normal operational parameters, the ship's normal operations had been temporarily suspended. "Docking procedures are estimated to be complete in twenty-five minutes," the computer continued. "Docking procedures will be complete in twenty-five minutes, In thirty-five minutes, we will permit passengers to disembark."
Kate Markand stood rigidly at the passenger airlock, letting the flickering blue light wash over her face as she waited eagerly for the docking procedures to finish. She towed her own luggage, a simple all-black case on rugged wheels that made it impossible to guess at her social standing. Her appearance gave no clue at all to her background, save for the crisp pantsuit she wore in the habit of those who have spent any length of time in an interstellar trading office. Kate's suits were black like those of many women of her age, to show deference to her widowhood, but Kate had had hers sharply tailored with long sleek lines and a smartly nipped waist. It was this second detail that made it easier to deal with the young boys that seemed to be running so many of the Trade Alliances and shipping companies these days. When she took the extra effort to make it clear that she was not yet an old woman, they were less likely to mistake her for one when they encountered her. If not for her tension, this sharp-featured woman with sparkling amber eyes and faintly graying hair would be completely unremarkable. Only the captain of the class four passenger liner had known by looking at her that she was the matriarch of that Markand family, founders and leaders of the Markand Interstellar Shipping & Trading Alliance Company (as publicly traded under IPSEx code MIST).
Kate was very fond of Markus Hart. They'd been friends for over a decade, and more than friends since she traveled back from Luna a year ago. The man was a paragon of diligence, discretion, and passion. She regretted that there hadn't been time or privacy this trip for one of their usual evenings together of wine and conversation, even though this was her tenth trip aboard the IS3 Rodger's Jollies. This was no pleasure cruise. MIST Alliance was the one officially footing the bill for this four week jaunt to Luna and back, and officially, she was traveling with the same amenities as the company's lowest shipping agent to permit as much anonymity as possible. Besides, she, like everyone else, had been preoccupied with the hearing itself. Hell, Kate, along with nearly everyone else in the 12 Quadrants was still preoccupied with the United Systems Alliance Ethical Committee's policy hearing. Someone would be watching her, as if she had any actual inside knowledge on their decision. Markus had made one effort to vouch for the discretion of his crew as he pleaded her to join him for dinner one night on the voyage out, but Kate drew his attention to a particular advert running along the side of several newstreams. It encouraged anyone with "legitimate information on any party of any company participating in the USAEC hearing" to call a heavily compensated tipline for one of the streams. Several ads like this had been running since MIST Alliance had announced that they would cooperate with the USAEC and share their ships' records.
"You can vouch for a lot of things, Markus," she'd chided as gently as she could, "but you simply cannot compete with the trillions of credits the streams are offering. Just this once, I need you to treat me like any other starship captain treats a standard corporate passenger."
"As if they're completely beneath his notice," he said sadly before conceding to spend the entire four week voyage well away from her. Even though MIST Alliance did not count the Rodger's Jollies among its scant handful of passenger ships, this would be a bad time, perhaps the worst time, for some newstream to run a story about the improprieties of the Widow Markand. The press would find some way to accuse her of nepotism if they knew Markus was her friend, and they'd pillory her if it could even be hinted that they were lovers. The knowledge had pained her the entire trip, a sharp stone of worry that would prick her whenever she thought of him. She'd distracted herself in alternate turns by reading over ships' reports and rebuking herself for acting like a lovestruck teenager.
Markus had probably been just as concerned about the potential damage to his image, Kate thought with a faint pang. It would have been impossible to maintain his position as captain of a passenger liner with a story about a romantic relationship with a passenger. Not when that passenger was two decades his junior. She fiddled with her luggage, rhythmically clicking the button that powered the device's gravity assist on and off. Well, that was the cost of being matriarch of the most powerful trading family in the quadrant. Sometimes you had to put the privacy and well being of your thousands of employees above the well-being of your friendships. The ship's lights shifted from a flashing blue to a steady green, drawing Kate's attention back to the present moment. She would make it up to Markus next time. For now, she was nearly home.
She exhaled heavily as the airlock hissed open before her sharply tapping foot and inhaled slowly, savoring the taste the first breath of her own ship's air in weeks. Without notice or farewell, Kate strode past the cargomen at the lock and the handful of other disembarking passengers. A low murmur followed her out through the airlock. It was the most remarkable thing she had done the entire trip.
A dozen paces to the right, out of the sight of anyone aboard the Rodger's Jollies, there stood her Second, Mara, her several times grand niece through her sister Dorthee, may she rest in peace. Just entering her thirties, Mara had a seemingly boundless amount of energy and perfectly pin straight black hair. Kate had never worked up the nerve to ask if it was that way naturally, the hair or the energy. The girl smiled broadly at seeing Kate as she approached.
"Glad to see you had safe travel, Maman," Mara always addressed her by the traditional title for the company's matriarch, derived from the French of the Old World. The word meant "mother" and Kate rather liked it, for what was she if not a mother to all of her company crew?
"Pleasantly dull, my dear girl," Kate nodded with a smile and continued her stride down the corridor with her luggage in tow. Mara fell into step with her quick pace and Kate's smile broadened a little. "I'm glad to see we still know how things are done here aboard the Golden Claw."
"Yes, Maman," Mara nodded, sending a wave of hair over her face that revealed a wry smile as it cascaded away again. "But it's been quite dull here as well."
Kate raised an eyebrow. "No members of the Free Media trying to infiltrate our ranks to discover our company secrets?"
"The standard screening caught one who came in for initial interviews last week, Maman. But our sources say that nearly all of the currently active press agents are involved with the USA Ethics Council hearing."
"Should I be concerned that I've been followed home?"
"Can't say for sure just yet, Maman. I'll feel a good deal safer when we're alone in your quarters, but I think it unlikely anyone would waste their time trying to get close to you here aboard the Golden Claw. Our security has your privacy as in hand as always."
"If it were any other ship, Mara, that remark would not be a comfort to me. Keep that in mind when speaking to people who bunk elsewhere."
The two women had been walking in an empty corridor, acknowledged by the one or two crew members going about their business with only a quickening of step and a sharpening of their posture. But now they had reached the beginnings of the ship proper, where the galley and entertainment areas were. Crew members nodded as they walked past. The small cluster that had been loitering outside the entrance to the gym halted their conversation and saluted her. Kate slowed her pace and glanced around. Several other crew members had saluted as well. Kate smiled broadly again and stopped walking. She'd nearly forgotten to do justice to the traditional ceremony of captain's return.
"Good evening crew of the Golden Claw," she said in loud, sharply enunciated tones, her captain's voice. "Your captain has returned to the ship and finds it in good order. Normal duty shifts will resume at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow morning. If any of you have concerns or questions, at that time I may be reached once again through the standard established lines of communications."
The crew held their salutes. Some of them were beaming at her. It always did a crew good to have their captain at home again. Kate scanned the gathered shipmates for signs of unease or tension as she turned to Mara and whispered, “Have I missed anything, dear girl?”
“No, Maman. I think most of them just want you to know they’re happy to see you back safely.”
“Very well,” Kate spoke to the crew once more. “I find no need to further stand on ceremony. Ladies and gentlemen, you are at ease. Carry on."
With that, Kate and Mara moved on toward the captain's quarters in silence as the crew parted before them like a wave. A few crew members saluted again and Kate acknowledged them with a brief nod. Few captains would have enjoyed the nearly three mile walk from the docking section at the far aft of the ship to the quarters all the way forward. They would have used one of the shiplines that crisscrossed the ship from stem to stern at midlevel. But Kate relished the parade of a captain's homecoming, the claiming of her ship with footsteps. And it heartened a crew to see their captain return home. It raised the ship's spirits to see the captain stepping back into stride with ship's business.
As the main orbital ship serving the planet Markanos, the Golden Claw had quite a bit of ship's business, even if you didn't bother to include the duties of running the MIST Alliance. This is why she relied so heavily upon her Second, her deuxieme, and why it was absolutely necessary that the girl had a Captain's license. Kate may have been the Captain of Record aboard the Golden Claw, and she did make the big decisions and set ship's policy. But it was Mara who really took care of the ship's day to day operations. Kate looked Mara over as they strode through berthing in silence. The girl looked tired, Kate thought before chastising herself. She's thirty now, time to stop calling her a mere girl. She's grown up into her prime before your very eyes, Katelin Markand. And she's very nearly too old to be stuck in this job anymore.
The crowd in the corridor thinned as they passed through berthing into ship's main. Only a few members of her crew passed them by, scurrying about from one department to another as they kept the ship working smoothly. Kate relished seeing her crew busy at their posts. They were an efficient bunch, but she'd had more than two decades to find the best way to run things, which was to let them run themselves for the most part. What other use did a competent crew have?
"Do we need to stop by the bridge, Mara?" Kate asked with a hopeful jump in her chest, though she wasn't sure what answer she was hoping for. As much as she wanted to check in with the First Mate and other bridge officers, she was also suddenly desperate to wash away the oily dust that clung to her after her trip. Passenger liners had far too many people for their size for Kate's tastes. While a cargo ship, like the one the Golden Claw was based upon, was filled with the dry dust of packaging- wood, paper, and steel, Kate was painfully aware that the dust on a passenger liner was mostly made of tiny, greasy flakes of human skin. She'd ordered the Markand liners to install double the usual amount of bio-scrubbers more than a decade ago to accommodate this, and the demand for tickets aboard Markand liners had soared astronomically. It was one of the first lessons in business, demand follows necessity, and Kate tried to never forget it. She made a mental note to write a letter to Markus and suggest he take a closer look at how things were going in environmental.
"No, Maman. Some of the officers will probably ping you around fourteen-thirty or so to see if you'd like to have dinner with them, but they have the day well in hand."
“Excellent,” Kate breathed with a sigh. “I believe I’ll shower, and if I could ask you to call out to the mess for some tea while I do that, and then I do believe I’ll be ready to carry out some ship’s business for the day.”
“It’s mostly only catch up, Maman.”
“As it should be. We have a good crew here.” Kate watched the few crew members in the corridor puff up their chests with pride at her passing remark. She beamed again as they passed through the bridge. Just a few more steps, old girl, Kate grumbled to herself.
“Did you say something, Maman?” Mara looked at her with sudden concern.
“Only that I’m beginning to reach the age where spending four weeks as a lazy passenger catches up to you,” Kate replied.
They had finally reached the door to her quarters. Kate palmed the biometric lock that opened the triple-layered airlock. Most assumed that this was for the captain’s protection in the event of an emergency. Only a handful of people knew that the captains quarters was a ship unto itself, capable of detaching from the Golden Claw, and speeding off into the galaxy. The door opened onto the upper floor of the captain’s living quarters, and the two crossed the threshold into a small room that would be called a foyer in a normal house. Kate set her luggage down against the wall and hung her jacket on a hook. As she crossed through the lushly carpeted sitting room to the liftpole, Mara called out to her.
“Shall I just have the entire bag sent down to the laundry again, Maman?”
Kate paused for a moment to think. “No, take out the black bag from the upper compartment, bring it down to my office, and send the rest down for cleaning. Thank you, Mara.”
Kate stepped onto the grey pad of the liftpole, gripped the pole, and the pad carried her gently downwards to the lower floor. She paced past the small kitchenette and her private office and into her bedroom. Kicking her shoes in the direction of her closet, she stuffed her clothes into the laundry chute, and headed into the shower.
Twenty minutes of hot water later, Captain Kate Markand emerged from her bedroom dressed in wide dark slacks and her captain’s jacket, looking less like a tired traveller and much more like the matriarch of one of the largest trading empires in all the twelve quadrants of Knownspace. Mara was in the kitchenette, assembling a tray of tea, toast, sandwiches and little pastries from the mess.
“Would you care to eat first, Maman?”
“No, Mara, let’s take the tray into the office. Make sure there’s two place settings there. I’ll pour us each a cuppa and we’ll get on with what I’ve missed for the sake of bureaucracy.”
Mara scurried into the office behind her and Kate settled into the softly padded chair at her desk with a sigh. “I am so happy to be home, dear girl.”
“The ship’s missed you rather a lot as well,” Mara hesitated in her speech as she set the tray down on the desk before Kate.
“Well, out with it, Mara,” Kate said, looking sternly at her.
“Permission to speak freely, Maman?”
“I would prefer if you always spoke freely when we are alone in my quarters. I’d hope you know that by now, Mara.”
“Yes, Maman. It’s just that with the anticipation over how the Ethics Committee hearing will determine the status of the Free Traders, well, the crew’s been a bit jumpy is all.”
“Jumpy? How so?”
“The first week you were gone, one of the docking crewmen denied entry to an executive in the upper offices--”
“A Markand executive?” Kate cut her off.
“No, Maman. It was the Chief Shipping Officer of Territories United-”
Kate exhaled in relief, and turned her attention back to the tray and pouring tea. “Territories United is an organization that neither holds offices in our orbital ship, nor elected to participate in the ethics hearing. The ship’s official status beyond Section A is closed to the public for the duration of the ethics hearing. I take it the Chief Shipping Officer was only denied entrance because no one had requested the presence of the Chief Shipping Officer in any office.That’s not jumpy. That’s our crew doing their job. We live in tense times, Mara. There’s a bit of tension to be expected.”
“I agree, Maman. The only reason I mention the incident is because of this message that was sent to the ship for you.” Mara tapped at the touchscreen on the desk for a moment before she turned the screen toward the captain. She had called up a message addressed directly to her, the Captain of the Golden Claw, written in official Komon.
“Mara, have you been logging into my account on the system in my absence?”
“No, Maman. Territories United sent this message as general message to the ship.”
“How many aboard the ship received it?”
“Anyone who logged on to the system that day. So, every crew member and anyone in the offices who’s here often enough to create a dedicated account in our system.”
Kate exhaled her breath in a hiss between her teeth as she read the message:
A1010 KAPTANE KATELIN MARKAND,
IT HAS KOM TO OR EERS THAT WON OF OR NUMBUR WAS TURND FROM YOR SHIP IN HIS TIME OF NEED. THIS ATTAK ON FREE TRADE WILL NOT BE IGNORD BY OR GROOP.
ALL TRADE SHIPS UNDER TERRITOREES UNITED HAV THE RITE TO REFUSE TRADE OR ADE TO ANEE MARKAND SHIP THEY MEET IN THE BLAK. WE DOO NOT SPEEK FOR OR MEMBURS. WE ONLEE GIV WARNING.
LEEDER-EELEKT, TERRITOREES UNITED
“What meaningless piddle!” Kate gasped. “No one will refuse to trade with us on this basis alone. And the idea that any Free Trader would refuse to give aid to one of our damaged ships is ridiculous when you remember that the rewards for preventing a claim of salvage are enough to buy half a freighter.”
“I agree, Maman,” Mara said in dulcet, soothing tones. “But it did spook a few of the executives upstairs. Almost half of them went planetside.”
Kate chuckled, “They’ll be back once they’ve spent their fifteen days worth of vacation time.”
“I expect a few will return now that you’re here to take charge of the situation again.”
“You’re probably quite right. The crew disregarded this by and large? Is that correct, Mara?”
“I’d say it’s a fair split down the middle. A lot of the greenlings aboard are a bit afraid of what might happen to the smaller ships on short jaunts. Some of them think they might be raided.”
“Not part of the Territories United directive. I assume we’ve held a few section meetings to straighten out that misconception?”
“Then I would chalk the rest up to greenlings being in their first year. Most of them are afraid of everything until they get their first promotion.”
“It’s probably safe to assume that morale will find its equilibrium again now that you’re back at the helm.”
Kate nodded and sipped at her tea for a moment. “Any other messages that weren’t sent to my official address?”
“Just one, Maman. In English.”
“Don’t tell me that it was sent as a general message too.”
“No, just an announcement to the ship’s office from IS3 Homestead.”
“That’s right,” Kate breathed with a smile. “The oldest Fuzay is due at the Academy in a few weeks. How long until they dock with us?”
“Within seventy-two hours, Maman. Captain and First Mate Fuzay have requested an appointment to discuss some unusual crewing arrangements.”
“What kind of unusual crewing arrangements?”
“They didn’t specify aside from that it was related to the shuttle pods.”
Kate nodded in understanding. Mara cocked her head to one side, unable to follow along with the captain’s thoughts.
“It makes sense when you remember that Evlin will be at the Academy herself this time next year.”
“Oh, may as well get the prerequisites out of the way first. Clever bunch, those Fuzays. They’ll easily make twice as much money next year.”
“That’s my favorite great-grand-daughter for you.”
“Don’t let anyone else hear you say that, Maman.”
“All hands report to docking stations,” Roo chirped into the loudspeaker. “We are docking with IS3 Golden Claw in one hour. All hands report to docking stations for lockdown.”
Kalvin swiveled in his console seat to sneer at his sister. “You don’t need to say that, Roo! There are only six of us and aren’t we all here?”
“No,” Roo whined, thrusting a finger at the map of the ship displayed on her console. “Robbie is still in his pod. I bet he’s still sleeping again, just like when we docked at Belmar! Somebody needed to wake him up!”
Val Fuzay, who served as both their mother and captain aboard the ship, chuckled softly from her chair behind them. “It’s okay, Roo. Robbie is taking all his luggage down to the cargo hold with your father. And, Kalvin, ship protocol dictates that a one hour warning must be given to the crew to give them ample time to prepare for safe docking. Roo does have to say it.”
Roo stuck out her tongue as Kalvin sulkily turned back to his station. His little sister had been completely insufferable since Mom and Dad had granted her full rank aboard the ship and computer access codes the year before. For someone who still didn’t have console layouts memorized yet, she sure was a know-it-all. At least Robbie would be cleaning out the pod and he’d be able to have it all to himself in a day or two. No more sharing a bathroom with everyone else on the ship. And soon, he’d be able to take the pod on trading missions of his very own. Then Kalvin would be captain and no one would be able to tell him what to do, or what announcements protocol demanded.
“All secure on the cargo level!” Dad’s voice over the radio jolted Kalvin from his fantasy.
“Well done, dear. With twenty-five minutes to spare.” Mom smiled, leaning over Roo’s console to use the radio.
“I told you I wouldn’t need the whole hour.”
“We do things by the book on this ship, First Officer Alek Fuzay.”
Roo and Kalvin looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Mom was using her captain’s voice again, which meant Dad was about to be in serious trouble.
“Aye, Captain Fuzay.”
“Now quit testing protocol and come on up here to relieve the Junior Communications Officer.”
“I’ll be up in five minutes with Robbie.”
She switched the radio off and leaned away from Roo who stared after her with a sullen pout. “Why do I need to be relieved? We’re almost there.”
“Because adjusting our ship’s time to be synchronous with the time aboard the Golden Claw gave you double duty yesterday.”
“I’m capable of pulling my own weight,” Roo almost cried. “Everyone else had double duty yesterday, too!”
“Everyone else is not eleven years old and subject to the laws governing the Age of Responsibility.”
“I might be too young to serve full duty, but I’m not falling asleep at my post like Kalvin is!” A last resort as Roo sulked behind crossed arms.
Val swiveled to her left to see her youngest son leaning heavily on one hand, teetering back and forth over his console as his eyelids fluttered slightly. She smiled at her daughter. Roo was a sharp eye and a quick student. Eleven years old and the child was already chafing at the limits of what the system, even on an accelerated track, permitted her to learn. Alek and she needed to do something about that.
“Your brother just stood a fourteen hour watch, but you make a good point, Roo,” she conceded, leaning back over her daughter to the radio again. “Evlin, please come to the bridge to relieve the Junior Navigator.”
“On my way, Captain.”
Robbie, Evlin, and their father arrived on the bridge at the same time. Evlin squeezed Roo’s shoulders on her way to the navigation console.
“I’ll stand down, but do I have to leave the bridge?” Roo asked as she stepped away from her station. “Please, Captain Mommy. I just want to see the Golden Claw on approach.’
She had fully intended to tell her two smallest children to go to bed, but Val found her heart melting at the use of the old pet name. “Alright, Roo, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go down to the galley and pull back the shutters on the big windowport and fix everybody lunch? You can still be on duty and you can still watch the ship’s approach. Would that be more to your liking, young lady?”
Roo squealed with delight and, forgetting her mother’s preference for formality on the bridge for a moment, hugged her mother warmly.
“Kalvin, you may retire to your quarters or accompany your sister to the galley. But I think we both know you need a good nap.”
Kalvin nodded at his mother sleepily from the station and lifted himself heavily out of the chair. “G’night, crew,” he yawned as he shuffled out the door without looking back. Roo gave her mother another hug before heading out the door herself.
“We have good kids, Captain Wife,” Alek said to Val as he watched his daughter skip down the corridor.
“Thanks, First Officer Papa,” Evlin giggled devilishly.
“You would think two people could enjoy a private moment on a fully-staffed ship’s bridge,” Val giggled, making them all laugh at the ridiculousness of their ship’s close quarters.
“You know, we’re not fully staffed,” Robbie said after a moment, bringing the room to sudden, uncomfortable silence.“Even without me leaving, we’re running one crew member under ship’s minimum by special exemption.”
“He’s right, dear,” Alek began.
“I agree with you both,” Val conceded so suddenly that the others’ jaws dropped in surprise.
“Stars, Mom, you’re not even going to put up a fight?” Evlin gasped.
“What’s there to argue with? If we want to avoid breaking regulations, we’re going to have to take on some new crew while we’re here at Home Office.”
“How many crew did you think we’d be taking on, Captain?” Alek asked with some hesitation.
“Oh no,” Val said slowly. “I believe it’s the First Officer’s job to figure out just how many crewmembers our little operation can afford. I only get to interview them.”
“Is that so, Captain Wife?”
“Oh, indeed, First Officer, that is absolutely so.”
It had taken Roo almost six minutes to figure out how to open the big metal panels that covered the windowport in the dining hall. Five of those minutes had been required to find its particular control panel among all the other panels that controlled the various things like lights and ventilation systems that were scattered about the galley. Roo had assumed, incorrectly, that the control panel would be located near the windowport itself. But the panel was actually located next to the serving counter at the center of the galley. When she took some time to think about it, Roo realized this was a far better arrangement than what had come obviously to her. In a fully-staffed ship, someone would be at the serving counter nearly all the time, or at least very close by. The serving counter was only fifteen steps from the galley-style kitchen, while the windowport was much, much further.
“That’s just like Mom,” she muttered to herself as she fiddled with the controls and the metal slabs began to slide apart. “She would send me on an errand like this to prove to me that I don’t know the best way all the time. I wonder how long it would take her to tune up the ship engines. It only takes me twenty-five minutes if I skip the regulation computer check. But that takes two hours all by itself.”
Roo’s grumbling petered out as the soft illumination of starlight overtook the galley. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the yellow gleam of a larger, dimmer star. No, not a star, that had to be the Golden Claw. She squinted, willing it to be larger. It seemed like a greasy yellow smudge on the windowport. Smaller than her hand, it seemed impossible that they’d be able to begin docking procedures with the tiny object in only a half an hour.
“Might as well make everybody lunch,” Roo muttered and turned her back on the stars. Inside the kitchen, Roo pulled her mother’s wicker picnic basket down from the pantry shelves. This was the traditional vessel for lunches at bridge stations aboard the Homestead. She opened the walk-in refrigerator and pulled out a few packets of cold cuts and a dish of chicken salad her father had made the night before. In the pantry she found some sliced bread and a basket full of rolls. It only took a minute to put together a dozen sandwiches, wrapping each one neatly in a square of wax paper and placing it in the basket. She returned the cold cuts and salad to the walk-in and turned her attention to sides. In the dehumidified section, she found some fresh vegetables, a few carrots, peppers and bunch of celery. She chopped them into thin strips and laid the veggie sticks in a plastic container. This went into the basket too, alongside a smaller container of dip. Some dried fruit and packets of potato chips rounded out the meal nicely. She grabbed a rack of water bottles from the fridge, and taking the basket in hand, she turned toward the windowport for the first time since she’d gotten it open.
In the middle of the field of stars, like a golden slice cut out of the black, was the Golden Claw. Now that they were nearly within docking range, the actual scale of the ship began to make its impact. Roo had known intellectually that it was three miles long, but she’d never seen anything three miles long before. They weren’t quite close enough to make out the ship’s individual windowports, but she suspected that the especially bright gleam at the ship’s pointed front end was a rather large one.
Roo put the basket down on the counter and sprinted to the windowport. She pressed her hands to the cool glass. The windowport wasn’t made of actual glass. It was a thirty-inch thick pane of transparent nanopolymer, the individual particles of which were so small that the surface felt smooth like glass. And with the cold vacuum of space behind it, it always felt cold like glass. Unlike glass, it was a true solid, highly flexible and able to withstand drastic temperature changes without shattering. Roo stared at the orbital ship and tried to guess where each departmental section was located aboard. Cargo was almost always at the bottom of a ship. The bridge would be located somewhere near the front, but she’d heard that the opulent captains quarters were all the way at the very front with the fabulous windowport. Obviously docking and some of cargo were at the aft of the ship. She could almost make out the tiny individual shuttles and zippers, the tiny ships capable of traveling at incredible speeds, parked on the massive semi-circular landing pad. The Homestead wasn’t a large ship as cargo vessels went, but it was far too large for the landing pad, so they’d be performing the tricky operation of sidling up to the Golden Claw and connecting two airlocks together with a gigantic semi-flexible hose. She wondered if she would be able to see the docking corridor attach to their ship from the galley.
“Attention crew. Attention crew.” Roo’s musings were interrupted by the booming of her father’s voice through the loudspeaker. “We have entered final approach. All on-duty crew are requested to make their way to the bridge at this time.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice.” Roo tapped the button at the serving station to close the windowport, gathered up the picnic lunch, and scurried up to the bridge.
The actual procedure of docking turned out to be pretty boring for the majority of the crew of the Homestead. They moved their ship into position about six hundred-thousand yards from the ship’s aft docking pad and radioed in for permission to dock. The crew of the Golden Claw acknowledged their request and asked them to wait a few minutes for the cargo chief to finish another operation. Mom had Roo unpack the picnic lunch and they began to eat.
“Chicken salad?” Evlin gagged as she took a bite of one of the sandwiches. “Roo, you have to label the sandwiches so people know what they’re eating. I thought I was grabbing sliced turkey.”
“You know that’s the only mistake she made,” Robbie spoke up for his littlest sister. “That’s a hell of a lot better than you or I did on the first bridge lunch we packed alone.”
Roo smirked with satisfaction as the radio buzzed to life again. “IS3 Homestead this is the chief cargoman of the IS3 Golden Claw. We are ready to receive you. Are you ready to maneuver?”
“Good morning, Tom,” Mom said with a grin. “Hope the family is well. We are IS3 Homestead ready to maneuver into docking position.”
“Very well all around, Captain Fuzay. We are sending the coordinates to your computer now. We’ll be loading you into docking port number two six zero zero.”
Captain Val jumped a little in her seat. “That’s at the midline almost all the way forward. What did we do to rate such star treatment?”
“Nothing special but come home, you prodigal rascals,” the cargomaster chuckled. “There’s a whole crew of Markand scallywags who are glad to see you back safely at home office while we wait for a decision on these Free Trade Alliances.”
“I see you got the message from Territories United, too,” Dad sniffed. Roo stared at him. She’d never seen her father dismiss a polite salutation like that before, not even when trading with hostile ships.
“There’s not a soul with a Markand account in the database here at headquarters that didn’t.”
“I was afraid of that,” Mom murmured, leaning forward in her seat again. “You know it doesn’t mean anything, Tom. No one will refuse to help our ships. You closed your ship to the public and the whole twelve quadrants are aware of it.”
“I know, I know,” Tom grumbled. “But it makes me jumpy just the same. It’s only one step from here to them authorizing open raids on us.”
“Which doesn’t mean any captain out there has the actual grit to strike at us, Tom.”
“You’re right, Val. You’re always right about these things,” the gruff man paused a moment. “Your navigator is free to maneuver.”
“Aye, Cargomaster,” Robbie said, and the Golden Claw began to loom fearsomely close in the bridge windowport. Now Roo could see the individual windowports on the ship’s hull. She tried to count them, but they passed by in a blur as Robbie turned the ship, pointing their nose back toward the blackness of space. Roo swooned and the blood drained from her face as the ship seemed to pitch and reel before her.
“Put your head between your knees and close your eyes, Ensign,” her mother’s voice called to her through the rushing sound of the vertigo. Roo did as she was told and the feeling subsided. She let out an enormous sigh and her family chuckled around her.
“It’s alright, Roo,” Evlin tried to stifle her laughter as she spoke. “I threw up all over the windowport on my first docking on the bridge.”
“You’ll be okay, now,” Robbie said. “Captain, IS3 Homestead is in position and ready to accept docking arms from IS3 Golden Claw for docking port two six zero zero.”
“Thank you, Officer. IS3 Golden Claw, this is Captain Val Fuzay of the IS3 Homestead. We are ready for docking procedure.”
“Alright, Homestead,” the Cargo Chief returned. “Sit back, relax, and we’ll take it from here. You should be clear to disembark in about twelve minutes.”
There was a small thump as the docking clamps latched on and a mechanical whine as the Golden Claw began towing them in. Captain Val stood from her seat and stretched leisurely for a moment. After a few small pops from her spine, she sighed and said, “Finish your lunches, crew. I’ll announce ship’s leave as soon as we’re fully docked.”