The grid of white Quonset huts and geodetic domes receded into a brown that matched Elon’s coveralls as the Lieutenant piloted his shuttle up – straight up – from the settlement; the lakes were last to go, slipping away as the planet turned and the shuttle lined up in front of the dark blue Corvette orbiting above. He sat in a reclined seat in a half-clear bubble suspended above the empty cylindrical hold, pushed a series of buttons, watched one after the next turn amber, then green; matched velocity, matched altitude, backed slowly into a short protruding cylinder on the front of the boxy orbiting ship. The green light that came from below showed a tight seal, and he climbed down, ducked his head through the hatch, and, three doors later, was in his ship.
Down the dark hall – no lights, and painted in the same blue as the exterior – and ducking through an airtight hatch, he was in his cabin. A buff-colored quarter-circle of a planet filled his window; the dull light outlined his body against the dark blue bulkhead. Under his bunk was a small table; against the wall opposite, a fold-down padded seat; and on the table, a screen showed nothing but a dim green list of ships’ names, dates in, dates out. The seat fastened down with a click and a slow stab at a button brought up a manifest, but no change in the slightly downturned lips. Another stab brought a high twitter from the console.
“Yes sir, Lieutenant.”
“This freight schedule, you’ve run it through the fleet computer.”
“No, sir. They wouldn’t give me time on it. But I think there’s no solution. You know, with so many small ships, regulations say hold them for convoy.”
“The fleet computer was waiting on the Home Squadron, as usual.”
“Yes, sir. But you know, back at Garrison, in training, they used to have us work out escort schedules for the traffic around Carrilon. I worked out a schedule on our computer using some shortcuts I learned; the elevator can easily handle the traffic if we have two runs a day and hold most traffic on the ground until we’re ready to go.”
“And then, Mr. Gustavis, half the time, our planets are undefended.”
“Yes, sir. But the transports can’t stand up to a heavy fighter, much less a Corvette like us.”
“And at Garrison, you modeled against the Imperial & Royal fleet, or maybe the Alliance fleet.”
“Yes sir. And non-human targets sir, although of course that’s just speculative.”
“It’s good training, but it’s fleet training. And we’re not in the fleet. No pirate’s blowing up the hyperspace elevator. The smugglers rely on that just as much as the traders. We’re probably one of five hyperspace-capable ships in the whole system, Mr. Gustavis. Don’t underestimate that.”
“Yes, sir. Five hyperspace-capable Confederation ships, sir.”
“And if you see those Imperial & Royal ships, you call me, Mr. Gustavis. We have LL 928 and LL 949 in this system; they seem to have left their miners on LL 929-A alone since before I came here. After Owen’s World, I’m as paranoid as the next guy, but this system is solidly blue on my map.”
“Yes, sir. So no convoying?”
“If I could get the traders out here to convoy, I would. But that’s why thery’re out here, not back on Carrilon or flying around Apus or Pavo. We work within what they’ll let us do. And we never, ever, leave the ore dumps unsupervised.”
“Yes, sir. But shouldn’t we be in geosynchronous orbit then? To keep a watch over the ore dumps?”
“And let the Imperial & Royal heavy fighters sneak up around the back of the planet? Not if you’re sure they’re here!”
“And tell the Prefect I’ll accept his dinner invitation tomorrow, on the condition that he accompanies me in an inspection of the defense squad. Gough out.”
The second high twitter brought silence, except for the thrum of the gravity drive and the hiss of the high-pressure water over his head, as the toilet flushed or the galley tap ran. The bunk’s shallow padding took him in as the red light from the sun above overflowed the buff shine from the planet below. The long, swept solar cells that stretched like wings from the Corvette caught the sun, the diagonal shadow cutting the narrow captain’s cabin. The missiles hung underneath played a movie in silhouette across the back wall, first the big anti-ship missile, then the two small anti-fighter ones, and then the blast slats closed over the window with a grind and the room turned cool and dark.