by P.R.Banks

This is a work in progress, by no means finished I flesh out more of this as and when I have the whim and time. I aim for it to be a short to medium length story and have various ideas, background details and other bits jotted down in an ancillary file to try and keep some level of consitancy as I add to it.

I must acknowledge my debt to my betters, in this case one Iain M. Banks, to whom some of these ideas are quite derivative. Although I hope I am not simply plagiarising his work, but actually taking one of the basic ideas and making my own special interpretation of it.

1. (Shuttle Blues)

Bored. Thats what I was. Amazing how one word can cover such a wide variety of feelings and situations, yet still not completely explain it. I wasn't just bored - I was completely and incredibly bored. So bored in fact I had taken to claiming the window seats just behind the maneuvering thruster complex on the port side of the shuttle. Every so often some minor adjustment had to be made to the orbital path we were following and this resulted in a short, and hard to see I might add, bursts of gas being fired.

I had taken to trying to estimate when the next burst would occur and for how long. Sort of a pattern spotting game that kept up the practice on orbital dynamics.

Yes, I was that bored. To make the task more difficult I had only the local computing power of my terminal to help and I wasn't allowed access to the ships sensory data for positioning. So all I had to go on was a known starting point, a known destination point and the approximate knowledge of the kinds of orbits shuttles favour using. It was a testament to the training I had received on orbital mechanics and in-system maneuvering that I was getting about (at a rough guess) one in three of the blasts dead on. The rest of the time I was settling for getting the timing pretty much bang on for when they were occuring but not which thruster or the durations.

Obviously I'd need to do a little refining on the simulation I was using.

The shuttle had seemed amused at what I was doing too. Once, while it had one of what it referred to as "it's minions" bring me lunch, presumably it had caught a glimpse of what was on my old terminal. Namely the orbital mechanics simulation of the shuttle itself. I think it was even more curious given that the model had it's name and a minature representation of it quite clearly displayed along with my calculated orbital path. Well as best as I could calulate it thus far anyway.

The service drone had placed my meal on the table next to the row of three chairs I had declared to be mine and asked what it was. Now first tip for those travelling in system - do not be peevish with your responses to the shuttle. Unfortunately, being annoyed by the interuption, I was. I mean I had just about cracked the firing pattern completely when the drone interupted me and I lost the thought entirely. (I was fairly sure it was using a modified forced orbit for speed.)

So I had looked up slightly peevishly and, trying best to contain my annoyance when I saw who it was, had come out with what I hoped was merely a confused "Oh it's nothing, just something to pass the time..."

"Looked like an orbital simulation to me, you wouldn't be trying to backseat pilot me now, would you?"

"Oh nothing like that at all.", I lied, "just a little homework. You know what it's like training for crew service..." I was hoping this plausible twisting of the truth would satisfy it. To my relief it seemed to.

Second tip for those travelling, never underestimate the intelligence of the AI running the shuttle.

"Oh okay, well don't study too hard. I brought you your lunch of Conch tubers with a salad as requested. Oh and the drink of von Haat beer. Anything else you need? No? Well if you need more food, Long distance comms etc... just yell."

Before I could get a word in edgewise it flew off again with nary a sound. After a slight mental leap it occured to me that was how I had missed it, I had been ignoring the light whispery sounds of the service drones as part of the background noise of the air circulation system working. (Yes on shuttles you can hear the system working, it's one of the many distinctions between shuttles and real ships. Just don't ever tell a shuttle it's not a real ship, they don't like it and you get lousy service for the entire trip.)

Of course if I had been a little more on the ball I would have realised that it already knew what I was doing. All those requests for sensor data and the passive tapping into the thruster control system gave the game away completely. Its mood changed to being miffed because of my deliberate attempt at deception and I spent the next day and a half re-calibrating my model because it had changed the orbital path slightly throwing the thruster firings into a totally new pattern. When I queried it about it it had said something about an unexpected navigational hazard coming up and the need to alter it's path slightly and besides it thought I hadn't been following it's flying anyhow so how did I know?

I hastily backed off the subject and diverted it into giving me some long distance comms bandwidth and sent a few last minute messages back to my friends and family on planet. I also made a few discrete enquires to system traffic control who knew nothing of any new navigational hazards in the region. Typical, shuttles always are touchy about their flying and I think they get bored with the inter-orbital type stuff they are doing mostly. Many a shuttle has had a decided tone of wistfulness when talking to crew bound for an IC (Inter-stellar Craft. In system ships have the dubious designation of SC, or Systems Craft, in front of their class designation and name.) and even more have been the tales of shuttles being down right rude to such passengers.

Well my shuttle was one of the later now. It's service drones would drop my meal in a slightly more rough fashion than anyone elses, would almost never be hanging around nearby when I wanted something and often played slightly stupid when answering my requests. It had even tried encouraging people to try and sit at the viewport and chairs I had picked out. In a display of what, I hoped, was organic solidarity nobody actually followed up on the shuttles gentle suggestions and it couldn't be more direct about it without tiping it's hand - or drone, or whatever.

It was all calculated to annoy of course but to be honest it livened up the trip enough to make the monotony of it go from downright boring to slightly tedious. And given the occcasional amused smile from the other passengers I think they knew exactly what was going on.

Most of them were seasoned crew so I assume they had seen this sort of thing happening before. Usually though they spent alot of their time chatting to each other and catching up with on ship news when the shuttle approached close enough to the IC 'Little Itch' for real time links to start becoming practical. And besides there were only thirty of us on a shuttle designed to handle a hundred so we pretty much rattled around in it with plenty of space. That was how I was able to claim the seats for myself so succesfully...

So by and large the other people on the ship left me alone to persue my own interests and generally try and out annoy the shuttle. The orbital simulation became quickly boring after the shuttle had completely screwed it for me by changing orbits (it was still refusing precise positional information so I couldn't recalibrate my model easily) with my success rate plummeting through the floor such that I was lucky to get even the timing right a third of the time let alone the directional and duration vagaries.

I tried then annoying the ship back by making requests of the on planet networks and then the on ship network in an alternate pattern. The reasoning being that it should at least cause it to have to re-align the antenna complex which should have caused a noticeable delay in request servicing time. (Oh, a whole second or so above the lightspeed lag in theory.) It had me confunded for three hours by answering them without the extra expected lag until I had remembered to check the shuttle design schematics.

There were two antenna complexes.

While I was trying to track down a third in system network to make requests from we started to get within visual range of the ship I was to finish my training on. Well naked eye range I mean. Even from 12 light seconds out the 'Little Itch' was just a dot gleaming in the sky. But the telescope showed glorious detail. The ship was being mated with the asteroid it was going to carry for raw materials during the trip.

Some wit, presumably the 'Little Itch' itself, had burnt stylised representations of shuttles, about eleven of them, on the side of the asteroid. Even worse was that there was some scrap metal scattered on the forward section of the asteroid that looked suspiciously like chunks of a shuttle...

For some reason shuttle to ship communications seemed more flakey than usual. And the ride became slightly more bumpy as the shuttle altered course to avoid another 'navigational hazard', that just happened to slightly screwup the flight paths of at least three other craft trying to dock with the 'Little Itch'. A quick check of previous docking schedules showed this to be a common problem, which did little to encourage me about the 'Little Itch' AI.

2. (Ship life)

Sounds impressive doesn't it? 'The ship I was to finish my training on. ' In reality I was pretty much trained as much as I needed to be and, strictly speaking, we don't need to be trained that much at all. Ships largely run themselves and it is only at their insistance that exploration crew get trained at all. Their arguement is that they don't mind ferrying us 'organics' around in safe systems where help is easily to hand but when they are travelling out on the unsafe frontier they want humans who can cope for themselves in the event of an emergency sufficiently large to warrant a full crew evacuation of the ship.

This sounds reasonable till you realise that the only circumstances warranting the full evacuation of a ship (including the ships personality itself of course) were usually ones that resulted in the obliteration of the ship, and often a healthy chunk of the space around it, that it all seemed slightly... well... pernickity of ships to insist on it.

But insist they did citing moral reasons and the wish to not have innocent spilt conciousnesses on their hands. (Or service drones or whatever else they used for hands. Common phrases have a bad habit of breaking in rather messy ways when it comes to ships.)

Philip R. Banks
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