Bishop - Middle Ages


Captain Sanders dropped his bulky frame into the pilot’s seat and caught his breath. At 63, he was badly out of shape and those 12 steps leading up to the space tug’s door seemed to get higher each time he took them. Steadying himself, he touched two screens and listened to the automatic preflight check over the tugs audio system.  While the computer stated the operational capacity of his ship, Sanders’ co-pilot came in and settled down.
“Hey, big man, one more day to go, huh?”
Sanders grumbled and busied himself with the tugs controls.
“Now don’t forget the party tomorrow.  Four p.m. at the Sky Lounge, remember?”
Sanders suddenly did. “Yeah, sure.”
He felt the acid burn in his stomach.  Stress and too many corn dogs.  Oh, well, just one more day and he would enjoy a nice retirement. His pension as a tug driver didn’t allow for much, so he would settle down, take up his old passion for fly-fishing and enjoy the quiet life. But first he’d take his retirement bonus and treat Mrs. Sanders to 2 weeks of sun and fun up in Boca 4000.  Having dealt with his lifetime of irregular working hours and night shifts, she deserved as much. He patted his pouch and could almost feel the sun burn his skin.
Vonnemeyer mistook the contentment for hunger and stuck his half-eaten candy bar in Sanders’ face. The pilot glanced sideways and only the smooth voice of the traffic operator kept him from snarling at his co-pilot.
“Tug 42 is cleared for locking sequence.”
Sanders pushed a series of buttons that would guide the tug towards its designated container further down the pad.  He had never cared much for Vonnemeyer.  Sanders thought him too snotty, too careless, like most other Academy dropouts. And , again like most of them, Vonnemeyer had ended up on subspace duty driving tugs or other service craft.
It was just as well he was retiring, Sanders mused.  Another couple of years and human presence would no longer be a necessity for this activity.

Sanders remembered the busy days, when every ship, big or small, had to be tugged down towards the spaceport.  Back then, being a tug driver meant something. They were the physical bond between space and the planets.  Everyone wanted to be like them.  Hell, they even had waiting lists for the open positions. Now the job had the same appeal to people as driving a taxi or a dump truck. When automated landing systems became the standard, only the big ships and freight loaders needed help.  The practical use of hyperspace had brought on the enormous bulk containers, lifted to a point in the sky and assembled there by the tugs, then shot off towards their destination. Expensive ships and crews were no longer needed.

He looked on impassively as computers hooked his ship up, then switched to takeoff mode.  When the operator’s clearance came through, another button blasted off the tug and its load, pushing the pilots deeper in their seats.  Computers guided them up to their release point.

Sanders nearly missed the warning light, announcing the assembly point.  Five minutes later, the computer had parked the tug and its load into their slot, fitting the container precisely in a gap between two others.  Other tugs passed them on their way back.  Theirs was the last one in and Sanders sighed as the green lights came on, signaling the locking of the container.
“Container locked and tug disengaged” the computer announced.
Sanders frowned and tensed.  He hadn’t felt the thump that normally accompanied a tug’s release. He looked over and saw Vonnemeyer holding the candy wrapper he had been studying, only now he was staring out at the container’s hull, 12 feet away.
“Commencing launch countdown,” the computer said. Worry turned to near panic and concentration to a rush of activity.
While Vonnemeyer called the operator to clear the situation, Sanders ran an independent system check and found his tug indeed still tightly locked to its container. By the time Vonnemeyer had the operator to himself, the countdown had gone to 15 seconds and Sanders was frantically doing a manual disengagement procedure. He was two buttons away from completing it when the launcher kicked in.

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