The shuttle from Tau to the Sol jump gate was so cheap, I had to double check the itinerary, but the fare to Barnard's Star . . . Wow. Back to the bank I went, rifle in one hand and sword in the other. The bank's officers looked worried until I had a look around, shouldered my field-hand (sweet, Malinese work of art) and my eternally beloved sword.
Everywhere I went, people seemed to be carrying everything they had ever owned and then some. I had felt awkward about doing so but seemed to be fitting in just fine.
The teller seemed entirely unsurprised by the audacious sum I was withdrawing, simply doled it out and looked toward the next customer without even asking whether I needed anything else. This is odd.
Nobody even commented on my unusually excessive load of stuff. In fact, most people I saw had as much or more to carry. It looked almost like an evacuation.
At the port, the ticketing clerk simply offered a choice of departure scedules, all at the same astronomical (I wonder why we use that word) price, so I took the first one, not wanting to hang around where Void had been lurking and there was no inn.
This shuttle looked different from the others, perhaps a different model? Certainly not newer. No, I don't think they have figured out how to build them yet. In fact, I did see a door that I know for a fact came off of a Sol-AC shuttle.
I will never forget it, because I did some work on that one after I had flown on it (back when I had a bit weaker stomach and tended to eat more before flying), not knowing that the hypergaussian discharge coil was failing and could have caused the ship to be ripped apart in flight by the unpredictable and highly erratic electromagnetic oscillations in the wormhole. That had been an eye opener during the diagnostic. Even I would never have allowed that ship to pass, no matter what the bribe. All the Portmaster had said when I submitted my report was "That's interesting."
I had the jitters throughout the whole trip, though I did manage to read a book along the way. I kept my bags handy, and, while I did use a few of them, I found the motion sickness remedy to be quite effective. I think everyone appreciated that.
Upon my arrival at the jump gate, whom should I see but Ser Void himself . . . I spotted the inn and scrambled for it as he stood there, seeming lost in thought.
I never expected to find an inn here, but I sure am glad it is. I slipped out a few times to take a sneak peek, and I saw him board a shuttle. It seemed odd that he would have left his own ship somewhere and taken public transportation, but then I always know he is up to no good.
I looked around at the ticket prices, and if I had ever thought any shuttle in Sol system to be overpriced, that day has passed. How do they expect anyone to support these prices? Wow.
I figured I'd better find some work, and would you believe . . . Mr. Cool, right there, with that permanent, smug, self-assured grin on his perfect, air-brushed face. From behind his mirrored glasses he turned and looked at me, already speaking to me as he did so.
"Hey, Simpson, I got a perfect job for you."
"I thought you didn't want me anywhere near your port," I fired right back at him.
"Nah, this one's not at the port, and actually, I think you're the best man for it," he said, sounding so sincere that I almost didn't think he was being a self-righteous, opportunistic, condescending, manipulative . . . Well, I almost believed him.
Had the job been for him, I would have shrugged it off and gone my way, but by the time I managed to get his attention as we walked briskly along, we were in the office of some frumpy woman named Portia Drax (I wonder if she is any relation to the vehicle models I stole from my clients back in Alpha Centauri), and was she ever rude and blunt. She didn't ask how I was, what my experience was, didn't even bother to ask my name or even look up at my face as she handed me a slate with a schedule on it and shoved me along down the corridor to a room full of shabbily-dressed people.
Their eyes were wide as I took approached the lectern, cleared my throat and introduced myself. They all responded much the same as the people at that recovery meeting Ser Moritz invited me to some time ago. I quickly remembered why I haven't been back, not even as a favor to him.
Next thing I knew, I was in front of a class, teaching. Perhaps not teaching, actually, but certainly educating them. Some of these people have never been out of this system. Some have never even left the station . . . all out of fear . . . ignorant, uneducated, misinformed fear.
One of them, I thought, was exceedingly rude and obnoxious with all his babbling while I was talking, and I noticed several of the people were listening to him, not me. I couldn't understand a word he was saying, but I knew it had something to do with me, and when I stepped over to him and asked, he said he was an interpreter. I hadn't thought about that before.
If I believed half the things these poor people have been told, I would never leave my hotel room. If I believed the other half, I would look for a job in the government, thinking I could do some good there and actually help someone. One, who clearly and wisely didn't believe it, said there are many reasons why this place is called the BS Jumpgate. I'm not sure what he might have meant by that, but he seemed sure I did.
Everyone seemed at least a little calmer as they sloppily filed out of the room, replaced by another room full of equally grubby people, maybe a little worse. I feel terrible about this, but I lied to them. I told them how safe interstellar transit is, which is true enough, statistically, but I left out the part about how that safety depends on guys like me, who can be persuaded to let a ship leave port when it really shouldn't.
Not a single one of these people had ever set foot on another station. This jumpgate is all they have ever known, and if you want to hear some backward mythology, you should have been there.
Employment must be scarce here, as so many of these were planning to seek employment in the "lucrative and abundant job market of Alpha Centauri." I know I should have corrected them, but Ms. Drax had stepped into the room, and a brief glance from her suggested I should move on with the discussion. I suppose we can use more ice miners.
I half-fibbed to them about the calm and stability of travel through the wormhole, adding that it was comfortable and safe, even for a fellow like me. That got their attention, and I described my early days of shuttle riding. Some were grossed out, others were laughing so hard I thought they might need medical assistance.
The end result was that they seemed a lot less fearful as they shuffled out of the room and the next class nervously filtered in at my invitation, and my interpreter left, replaced by another.
This time, there was a couple planning romantic getaway, and I recognized one of the station staff from Alpha Centauri Jumpgate. Apparently she got "kicked upstairs," either for screwing up or for failing to "go along to get along." That's no way to get the right people in the right jobs, but oh well. Either this is a required course for her, or she is checking up on me.
I thought I might have some fun with this one, so I opened by asking if anyone know how many people had died in interstellar travel recently. This got them all listening more intently than the other groups, and everyone looked quite relieved when I told them the answer. What I didn't tell them, for obvious reasons, is that the "perfect" safety record could end at any time due to the incompetence and corruption involved in the process of getting people from one station to another.
The next group was something else. I would expect young children to believe in space monsters, transdimensional aliens and people transforming into other things, but these were not children. They insisted that traversing wormholes had a potential to rip a person's body apart from the inside, and I said "Oh, you mean you might puke your guts out like I used to do in local shuttles? . . . Really, when you get there, just drop my name to any shuttle attendant and see what they say."
Many snickered, some guffawed, but they all stopped spouting nonsense until the class doofus commented about a "wormhole monster." I told him that if he saw one, he should get a photographic image of it, and that nobody else had any. I sure hope that is true. I would never have believed in fish until I saw one. Once again, I kept that to myself.
The fifth and final class on my slate was the most difficult bunch of old fogeys I have ever met. They all said the same thing in different ways about ships blowing up. I really had do 'shoot from the hip' on this one, but they seemed at least somewhat satisfied by the time they left.
I really earned my pay that time.
That won't happen again.