A journey of a thousand light-years begins with a vomit bag and bone crunching acceleration.
-Mallory P. Singh, the first human to travel interstellar space 17th Century BSE.
The large government owned freight shuntor carrying Kerin and his two Test Companions levelled off its steep assent up into Shinir's lower thermosphere and turned off the powerful fusion rockets it used to reach atmospheric escape velocity. The shuntor momentarily drifted through low orbit with nothing but the inertia of their climb thrusting them forward. The day/night terminator was visible across the blue haloed horizon, ushering the night face of the planet. They had taken off from the Cefurbo City Airport in the early evening. Their city was a twinkling clot of lights under a tropical storm front as it moved in over the curved night covered surface of the planet behind them.
Kerin's body sagged with relief as the juddering turbulence and compressing gee forces after takeoff eased away and he realised gravity had been replaced with freefall. It would have been more comfortable to go up on a space elevator but they didn't have the time.
All three had been strapped down to their protective seats with safety harnesses inside the shuntor's crew capsule. This Shuntor craft belonged to a class that was one of the largest designs. It was used for hauling priority bulk cargo into orbit and if required across small interplanetary distances. The crew capsule was a cone at the front of the shuntor. The cylindrical walls were padded and laced with freefall safety webbing. All the equipment and internal components was gun metal grey. They say in at the aft end where two rows of passenger seats were flanked with compartments for storage and onboard amenities and a transparent aluminium porthole. At the front were the two pilots in silver flight suits sitting in an open cockpit lined with controls and holoscreens around a forward viewport decorated with overhead display graphics.
"Take a good look at it boys!" the pilot on the left of the side of cockpit called back over his shoulder now that the roar of the Shuntor's engines had subsided. "It'll be a while till you see it again."
"It's only a year long holiday," called out Dorianin.
The co-pilot laughed, "That's the spirit!"
"Yeah," Kerin whispered to himself.
Kerin craned his neck off the chair's soft head brace to observe the dark shadows of his homeworld. The horizon was starting to slowly sink out of view that was now dominated by star fields and orbital traffic. He wasn't sure if the unsettled feeling in gut was nerves or stress from the G-forces but Kerin started to wonder if he'd made the right choice after all.
Melancholy be damned, I'll be back. Kerin decided to put aside his doubts and enjoy the view and feeling of weightlessness.
Gaulin signalled for Kerin's attention. Check this out.
Kerin turned to meet his cousin whose face bore a wide grin. Gaulin pointed to Dorianin who was strapped down next to the opposite view port. He was oblivious to them, peering down at the planet with an expression of childlike wonder. Kerin could hear him quietly singing to himself in another language over the hum of the shuntor systems.
"There's a star man waiting in the sky... he'd like to come and meet us but he thinks he'll blow our minds-"
Gaulin chuckled. "What are you singing?"
Dorianin's concentration was broken. He finally noticed Kerin and Gaulin staring at him with bemusement. A tint of red stained his cheeks in embarrassment.
"Just... never mind," he answered.
"Are you going to be acting this strange for the whole trip?"
"Strange? I'm sorry Gaulin but planet Earth is blue and there's nothing we can do."
Gaulin shot a confused look at Kerin. He shrugged as best he could under the safety restraints.
Kerin didn't mind, none of them had said much since they left the Academy. He had a headache from all the didactic imprints he'd downloaded that afternoon in the archives. The shuntor takeoff hadn't improved that.
The pilots finished conferring with Orbital Control and took a minute to realign the craft's trajectory. Finally the ion thrusters fired. Azure beams of ionised xenon propelled the shuntor at several gees along its slingshot path around the planet while steadily climbing higher towards the exosphere.
The sky was littered with communications and defence satellites. There was the regular sub-orbital traffic common to all industrialised planets: hundreds of various types of shuntors could be observed zipping up and down. In the distance thin strands of composite carbon-nanotube space elevator cables glistened in the sun's light as it stretched from the ocean below to an unseen point it was tethered to far above.
"Did you find anything interesting in your studies of the Mondilach relics Dor?" asked Kerin.
Dorianin's face flickered for a second with an expression Kerin could only describe as guilt. "I put together a small database that should be amble enough reference information for this trip."
He knew Kerin was still suspicious of him but was too diplomatic to prod him further.
"If you ask me all this Mondis business is a load of nonsense," Gaulin insisted.
"Actually," Dorianin piped up, "from I tend to agree with the Heralds' theory of Quloch being an Exodus stop. It matches the clues from the Book of Origins."
"Well I'll go over your stuff later. It's going to be a long trip with all the studying," lamented Kerin.
Half an hour passed into the flight to reach an altitude of one hundred thousand kilometres, in position to approach the orbital spaceport. The shuntor levelled off its assent. Because he was unable to see anything from the porthole Kerin closed his eyes to use his Wetware Interface to access the shuntors forward external sensors. He witnessed the celestial dance of thousands of various sized vessels. They had reached the orbital zone permitted for interstellar starships. Most of the vessels around them were moving towards or away from an object ten thousand kilometres directly ahead that was of them.
Gentlemen, in a moment we'll begin our docking approach for Insulo Tri, announced the pilot through Wetware. It will be smooth sailing from here on, so feel free to float about and gather your belongings together to disembark.
Thank you, Kerin responded then interfaced with the computer to be freed from his seat restraints.
Kerin perceived again perceived what the forward sensors were experiencing. Floating ahead was the vast spaceport complex Insulo Tri. It was a grey torus shaped habitat ring with a diameter of thirty-six kilometres. The simulated natural environment of the habitat interior was a long cylindrical valley with verdant parklands with rivers and lakes as well agricultural and towns that fed and housed the million people who lived there. To artificially create a standard gravity environment the habitat ring rotated on its axis hub once a minute. The central axis hub was a nine kilometre wide disc surrounded by twelve conduit spokes linking it to the habitat ring. On the opposite axis to the spokes thicker vertical pillars a further twenty kilometres long connected the hub with two non-rotating spaceport terminal discs parallel with the habitat ring. Dozens of starship docks surrounded the terminal discs while the fuel depots and other freight and astronautical infrastructure covered the remaining surface area.
Though Shinir could not match its cousins of Avundir and Mengshir in population or as alpha interstellar trading hubs of the region it still received hundreds of starships everyday. Insulo Tri was the third and most modern of the three Insulo spaceports that catered for outsystem commercial passenger shipping. Other minor facilities and asteroid settlements in orbit dealt with interstellar freight, military and domestic interplanetary craft.
Once the pilots received authorisation for their approach vector the shuntor spun between long lines of glittering self propelled beacons that marked a guide way free of space traffic on a perpendicular path towards the shuntor hangers in the central axis hub. At onethousand kilometres from the gaping shuntor hanger the pilots shut down the main ion drive and continued using only the craft's inertia. Thrusters kept their course aligned correctly and slowly began decelerating.
The boys packed light for the journey because they were told that everything they required would be ready for them once they reached Zyraenica. The only luggage they had were cylindrical ship personal bags that were strapped to their backs as they bounced through the hub's low gravity. To Kerin's dismay a small crowd of Insulo Tri locals had gathered at the shuntor hanger lounge to watch them disembarking. He also noticed some reporters amongst them covering their journey.
We're still famous, said Gaulin.
Kerin and Gaulin exchanged tired glances to one another while Dorianin remained chirpy. It had been a long day and they were wearier still from the stresses of the shuntor flight. To make it worse the last recordings of him in his own star system would be hardly inspiring to watch. Before takeoff they had changed into simple grey body hugging flight suits for easier movement in freefall. Kerin's eyes were bloodshot and anchored with dark baggy rings while his hair felt greasy and flapped about with every movement.
You'll love this, said Dorianin. I just ran a Wetware search and we're the third most accessed topic today on the Multinet!
Great, replied Kerin as he surveyed all the anxious faces trying to get his attention as he went passed, we narrowly lost to pornography and Cefurbo Feiboin recording their stupid antics to get on ThreeVee.
Bouncing through the crowd was relatively painless. As expected spaceport officials came and ushered them through security to get their standard biometric scans then proceeded to customs to have their passports registered. They didn't have any large luggage to hand over to the Seven Suns Shipping Line check-in centre so the officials simply gave them their boarding passes on the spot and directed them through the hub interior to the main maglev train station. Their flight was due for boarding in less than three hours so there was no oppotunity to get to the other Maglev stations that went along the axis spokes to visit the habitat ring.
The train that glided along the connecting pillar from the hub to Terminal B arrived just as they did, disgorging a few hundred floating passengers and their luggage before those waiting on the platform could take their places. It took around five minutes to reach the Terminal B station.
Because the spinning would be too much of a nuisance to the docking starships the Terminals did not rotate like the habitat ring. There was complete freefall here as opposed to the puny but still existence gravity of the hub. The boys swam through the air in the train station. It was a bright open chamber with many passages leading in all directions. There were lots of people branching off into different streams. Along the station walls were large black wall panels with information projected in white letters along it. The board on Kerin's left read: ARRIVALS. To his right: DEPARTURES.
He read his own boarding pass, an interactive paper ticket with his travel information and his biometric security details. The boys scanned the Departures board for a match.
"We're looking for a ship called the Kosma Perlo," said Kerin.
"There," called Gaulin pointing halfway down the board. "Flight SSL-461 to Zyraenica... boarding at Gate 101."
"Good," said Kerin relieved. "I want to grab a bite to eat before we board."
The truth was he wanted an excuse to be alone.
"Well we'll go through the promenade on the way then," agreed Dorianin. "I can see if there's anything worth getting in duty-free."
They swam to the middle of the station where they noticed people with special metal plated space shoes stomping onto a travelator lined with magpads as it carried them along down various Terminal passages. Others were gripping onto poles sprouting hand-loops and allowed the conveyor belt to carry them along.
They found the travelator that would take them in the direction of Gate 101 and latched onto the moving hand-loops. In a little while the travelator snaked into the Promenade level. The Promenade was an expansive public space that connected with all the various Gate lounges. It was dedicated to duty-free and tourist shopping, freefall fast food outlets, corporate clubs and other essential amenities for the thousands of travellers who filled it all times. There was even a Montelban department store. Besides the astronautic industry and the bulk of habitat ring population were employed in the running the various tourism and hospitality services.
For Kerin this was his favourite part of travelling. The Promenade was the place to see humanity come together in a chaotic sea of alien appearances and fashions. They passed many businessmen; some had families in tow with children carrying small novelty souvenirs of Shinir's exotic megafauna. He spotted groups of Feiboin who he suspected were pilgrims on their way to Delapan. He could discern around him conversations in many languages: Mondilach, Owago, Gorlp, Bantal and many Tykranese dialects.
They floated free from the travelator once they were about a kilometre down the hall from their Gate. With another two hours to go they decided to split up and have a look around. Dorianin and Gaulin waded across the crowd towards the opulent facaded entrance of Montelban. Kerin decided to find a more private place and relax. He found a small and decent looking spaceport bar and strapped himself to a foldout freefall bar stool towards the back wall so he could avoid the bulk of people from seeing him. The bar was only half full, most people just having a quick snack and drink in between changeover flights.
Kerin took a deep breath and relaxed. It felt good to finally to take a moment to stop and collect his thoughts. He pushed all the niggling doubts and conundrums building. How the fuck will I ever take over an entire planet out in the arse-end of nowhere with a handful of men and limited resources? What about all the Pitharoon? Later. There would be at least a fortnight to study the problems and devise a plan.
"Can I help you?" asked a bubbly waitress in a tight fitting blue corporate uniform. She somersaulted behind the bar counter and propelled herself through the air towards him. He was glad Dorianin wasn't there because he would have made some joke about the effect perpetual bouncing effect freefall had on breasts. "Wait… I recognise you."
Kerin sighed, "Really."
He glanced behind her at the glowing cabinet of pre-packaged space food. None of it looked particularly appetizing and he silently stewed at overinflated the price was just to screw the tourists.
"Just the dehydrated fruit bar please," he settled on without enthusiasm. He glanced down at the drinking apparatus on the counter in front of him. Remembering that drinking from a glass was impossible in space he weighed up whether his thirst was critical enough to bother. There was a thin socket in the centre of an array of icons for varieties of juices, caffeinated and flavoured liquids.
"Do you want to buy a drink too?" asked the waitress.
"Please," Kerin insisted with a smile.
She opened the latch of a dispenser bin and handed over a fresh sterilised silver drinking straw. Kerin plugged it into the socket and selected the icon for an iced tea. He paid for it all through Wetware.
The waitress pushed the fruit bar to float just in front of Kerin. She hovered about expectantly as he crouched over to suck the fluid from the dispenser. He stopped and looked up at her, trying not to appear annoyed.
"Look," he started apprehensively. "I've had a long day… do you mind?"
Disappointed soured her face and then floated off like a storm cloud. Kerin went back to his drink and began to unwrap his stale, bland orange looking snack.
"There you are Kerin."
Kerin froze as the words struck him like a knife. Can people leave me alone for five fucking minutes?
He turned to see Gaulin drift onto the stool next to him.
"What is it?"
"Have you noticed since we left the Cefurbo Academy Dor has been acting very odd?"
"A little bit, why?"
"I just caught him browsing the female jewellery section in Montelban."
Kerin raised an eyebrow in intrigue, "You're joking right?"
Gaulin shook his head, "I'm serious. It looked like he picking out gifts from the catalogue. You don't suppose he's found a girl?"
Kerin had to laugh at that. "It wouldn't surprise me if he's found ten since we've been up here, but gifts? The sun will go nova before Dorianin becomes a romantic. What in the Lohmite's Hell has got into him?"
The Mondilite owned Seven Suns Shipping Line and the Kitzi Line's main rival for interstellar commercial domination, Pan Galactic, leased all the starship docks of Insulo Tri's Terminal B. Gate 101 was near the dividing zone between two corporate Terminal domains.
When the pre-boarding call was announced they made their way casually to the Gate lounge. Several hundred people were starting to queue up near the airlock doors. The lunge had rows of strap in couches that looked out a tall window with a view of the Kosma Perlo in its vacuum dock. It was locked into the dock fuel cables and stabiliser tethers as port maintenance crews inspected to ensure no dangerous micro-impact fractures had formed.
Only a few hundred metres from the Terminal it seemed that the vessel's huge bow navigational deflector was a great eye staring back at them.
Kerin took a moment to observe the starship through the window. The Kosma Perlo was a standard Genetate Type 909 Interstellar Commercial Liner, the workhorse of the Seven Suns long-range passenger fleet for nearly two hundred years. It shared the similar, distinctive configuration as all Mondilite designed starships: a segmented cigar shape. The Kosma Perlo was five hundred metres long and at the widest point at its central segment it was one hundred metres in diameter. The hull was painted white with its name, corporate markings and listed homeport, Avundir, listed on its side.
The airlock doors in the lounge opened showing the way along the skybridge, which suddenly lit up. A port official and a white uniformed Seven Suns staff member manned the desk next to it.
The port official spoke over the intercom: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Flight SSL-461 to Zyraenica is now boarding. First Class and Business Class passengers may now present their boarding passes."
"That's us," Dorianin exclaimed. The others absorbed his excitement.
They went over the desk at the airlock, handed over their boarding passes, which were scanned and returned. They tried their best to ignore the long floating queue of Economy Class passengers, hundreds of eyes watching them.
"Enjoy your flight, Fendi," said the woman behind the scanner politely.
Kerin looked at his two companions as they went through the airlock. "There's no turning back now. The journey begins."