Aaron Sandoval chuckled as the rear visiscreen showed ground crews scrambling away from the landing stage on Ganymede as the 'Callisto' lowered itself delicately balanced on it's aft thrusters. They were used to dealing with the new lithium-ion drive squirt bottles that landed on antigravs with minimum of fuss and no residual radiation. Fortunately, the stages had been originally constructed to handle the thrust of atomic converter engines like the 'Callisto's'. Otherwise he would have had to take up a parking orbit and grab a shuttle to the surface.
The crews needn't have worried; the radiation spillover was minimal and was fading even as the tail fins settled on the beryllium surface. A final whine from the gyros and all was quiet save for the squeaking of the contracting drive tubes. Aaron unbuckled his safety harness as the gimbals on the pilot's seat shifted it to the horizontal. He stood up, stretched, yawned and said "Nice landing, Ikky." "Piece of cake, Skipper," a gray metallic ovoid replied, detaching itself from the control module and floating toward him.
"I'm going out for a while, watch the store, okay." "Aye-aye." He knew there would be the usual crowd of gawkers awaiting him when he opened the airlocks outer hatch; ships the size of his seldom made planet fall, usually remaining in orbit for visits or repairs in space docks. This landing was necessary however. Ichabod, the ship's 'puter, needed a forty terabyte increase in his memory capacity in order to reach Mercury where a source of naturally occurring Polonium had been discovered.
The Tri-Planet Government had put out a system wide request for hulls to transport the radioactive mineral to the thermoelectric broadcast power stations orbiting Earth, Mars and Venus which consumed it in vast quantities. Up to now it was artificially produced and expensive and the government was willing to pay handsomely for a steady supply.
The 'Callisto' had been designed as a troop and weapons carrier during the Jovian Wars, but shortly after she was commissioned, a peace treaty was signed and she was declared surplus. Aaron had saved her from the scrap yard on Deimos by paying pennies on the dollar, performing the few repairs necessary and traveling as far as the spaceport on Ganymede where he intended to upgrade Ichabod. It had cost him a sizeable chunk of his inheritance to get the old girl running again, but a few loads of Polonium should replace those funds plus a lot more in short order.
The aft hatch hissed open and as he rode down the mobile stairs, he judged by the dust on the treads they were rarely used. Squirt bottles always landed on their hulls using antigravs, so the 'Callisto' was a true curiosity from the past. There was a crowd awaiting him, gaping at the huge ship and asking questions.
"Does that thing really use atomic motors?" "How old is that monster?" "My grandpa flew one of those in the wars. Do you carry nuclear cannons like his ship?" "How do you land on the tail fins like that?" "You're the only crew?" Aaron politely answered questions for a while, and then headed for Spaceport Ops where he asked where a computer tech could be found and was told to see Mike on Level Five.
Ganymede Spaceport extended over a mile below the asteroids surface and after several pneumolift rides and wrong turnings, Aaron found himself at a door reading 'Brent Data Systems'; he palmed the latch and walked in.
A woman with flaming red hair looked up from a cluttered workbench and smiled. She had emerald green eyes, lips like an opening rosebud and a pert, freckled nose; Aaron felt his heart lurch.
"Did you come here to stare at me or do you need something?" she said in a soft contralto that made him shiver.
"I--Um--Need an upgrade on my ship's 'puter," he stammered, trying to regain his composure. "Ops told me you were the one to see. I didn't expect to see--a woman," he finished, grinning sheepishly.
"The 'Mike' threw you off, huh?" she replied and laughed. "I get that a lot. It's short for Michaela, but that sounds so stuffy. What level of upgrade are you looking for and what model of 'puter is it?" "Forty terabytes and it's a Planck Mk. VII," he replied. "Would you have time to take a look at it?" "That's one of the systems installed in the old Tri-Planet War Fleet models. What are you doing with one of those hulks?" "I plan on using it to transport Polonium ore from Mercury to the thermoelectric power stations. The Tri-Planets are offering top dollar for all they can get." "Polonium, no kidding, that stuff is so hot only robots can handle it and their systems fail after several hundred hours. How do you plan on transporting it?" "The 'Callisto' was designed to protect the troops and weapons it would carry in an attack, so it's hull and compartments are shielded against nucleonic projectors, scrambler beams and snort gun bolts. What the shields can keep out, they'll also keep in. I'll use the compartments to haul the Polonium so there's no chance of radiation leakage." Mike had been placing tools and parts into a knapsack as Aaron talked. She shrugged into it and said "I'm interested, let's go see this museum piece of yours."
"It is a Mk. VII," said Mike admiringly. "I've only seen diagrams and pictures of them. Was it in good condition when you found it?" "They built these 'puters to withstand a glancing shot from a nucleonic projector," Aaron said, patting the dull gray CPU. "All I had to do was energize it's stand-by power core and it came on line just like that." "Does it have a name?" "Ichabod, I call it Ikky. Whoever programmed it must have read Washington Irving; you know, Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman." "They gave these models personalities as I recall," Mike mused, taking a power driver from her knapsack. "Will it mind if I remove it's access panel?" "The Skipper's here, I don't mind," said the ovoid as it floated into the compartment, optical sensors glowing deep blue.
"Ikky, this is Mike, Mike, Ikky. She's here to upgrade your memory capacity for our trip to Mercury." "Nice to meet you Mike," Ikky replied. 'One can't have enough memory I always say." "I'm going to disconnect some of your mnemonic circuits and divert your main power source for a bit to install these new memory boards," Mike explained. "It won't take long." "Have at it," Ikky said, settling on a cabinet, it's voice dwindling to a low hum.
Her fingers flew, deftly fitting the new boards into place, making connections, testing the circuitry and bringing Ikky back on line. She attached the access panel and stood up saying, "That should do it. How do you feel Ikky?" "Ready for duty, ma'm." She began placing her tools in her knapsack saying "Good luck on Mercury, stop by and say hello if you're in the neighborhood again." "Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?" Aaron said, not wanting her to leave so soon.
"I'll have to check my schedule," she replied playfully, "But yes, I would." "How about the Nebula Room, let's say 18:00 hours?" "I'll be there." Aaron watched until she disappeared into the Ops building.
Located in an armorglass dome on the roof of the spaceport, the Nebula Room offered a spectacular view of the universe to it's patrons, but neither Aaron or Mike were looking at it, only each other. They ate in silence, smiling but a bit shy until coffee and dessert were served.
"When did you arrive at this spaceport?" Aaron asked.
"I was born here," was the reply. "Mom and Dad helped build the spaceport. They were married here and decided to stay." "Where are they now?" "Mom needed a heart transplant so they moved to Mars and retired there. I visit them when I can. Dad left me the business and taught me all about computers and cybernetics. I've learned the rest on my own. What's your story?" "I was born on Earth. My folks retired to Luna City since the lower gravity helps my Dad with his arthritis. He refuses to have his joints replaced for some reason." "What did you do on Earth and how did you decide to haul Polonium?" "I was a metallurgist working for Consolidated Mining when the word went out about the find on Mercury. I figured on getting in on the action myself, so I quit my job, used some of my inheritance I received from my late uncle to buy and refit the 'Callisto' and here I am, seeking my fortune." "A regular Forty-Niner you are. All you need is a beard and a burro." They laughed and talked until the restaurant closed and then continued as they walked through the corridors holding hands until they reached the entrance to the pneumolift to the residential levels.
"I ... I better get back to the ship," Aaron said, but not wanting to leave.
"You know..." Mike began, "That circuitry I put in Ikky really needs a field test. Maybe I should..." "Come with me?" Aaron finished, his face breaking into a grin.
"I think that would be a good idea." "It would be great if you came along. I'd enjoy your company." "Maybe you could help me pack?" "Sure, it won't take long at all." "I'll make some calls; I have friends that will keep the shop open." "Let's go then." Mike was packed in no time and they walked hand in hand to the ship.
"Welcome aboard Skipper, Mike," Ikky said when they entered, "All systems go and ready for takeoff." Aaron and Mike entered the control cabin and strapped themselves in.
"Ship 'Callisto' ready for takeoff, port control." Ikky intoned.
"That's a roger, cleared for takeoff," was the reply. "Smooth sailing, 'Callisto'." The ship trembled as it slowly lifted off, pillars of flame pouring from its atomic motors. In seconds they were in free space, headed for Mercury. With Ikky handling the piloting, Aaron and Mike finished preparing the converted troop and equipment compartments to receive loads of Polonium. All shielding was tested and internal hatches were secured. All was in readiness.
Between the orbits of Earth and Venus, the proximity alarm beeped.
"Multiple vessels at one o' clock, skipper," Ikky said.
"Put 'em on the screen," Aaron replied. He and Mike swiveled their control chairs at the main visiscreen, curious as to what these ships were. An amazing sight greeted their eyes.
A formation of six Mk VII squirt bottles was towing an enormous lozenge-shaped space barge using antigrav beams; it looked like minnows swimming with a grouper.
"What in the name of Zoroaster's that?" Mike exclaimed.
"Let's find out," Aaron replied, "Hailing frequency, Ikky." "Aye-aye, link opened." "This is Spacecraft 'Callisto' calling unidentified formation. Who are you and where are you bound, over." "Consolidated Mining Flight One out of Phobos, Callisto," was the reply. "Flight Captain Reynard speaking, is that you, Sandoval?" Aaron frowned and whispered to Mike "It's Grayson Reynard, my old division chief at Consolidated. We called him 'Foxy' because he was always figuring out an angle to make himself look good to top management, including stealing other people's ideas and claiming they were his own, he's a real SOB." "This is Aaron, is that you Foxy?" He winked at Mike and whispered "He always hated that nickname." "This is Grayson Reynard, Mr. Sandoval," was the annoyed reply. "What are you doing in that antique?" "Joyriding around the system, Foxy, what are you doing towing that barge?" "I'm on official business for Consolidated Mining, Mr. Sandoval. That information's classified." "They're on their way to Mercury, skipper," said Ikky, communicating through the send/receive intership circuitry implanted in Aarons mastoid bone. "I've been talking with their control puter. They're going to fill that barge with Polonium and tow it back to the Tri-Planet system. They can stay far enough away from the radiation using the antigrav towing system." "Classified information, huh?" Aaron replied. "Well, I guess that's that. See you around the system Foxy. 'Callisto', out." "Wait a minute," Foxy spluttered. "Where are you going in that monster?" "Sorry, that's classified information," Aaron replied with a chuckle, "'Callisto', out." "That should get his goat," he said to Mike. "Two clicks up on the main drive, Ikky. I don't want him following us." "Aye-aye, skipper." "I don't like him already," Mike said.
Upon arriving at Mercury, Planetary Control guided the 'Callisto' into a parking orbit until it could be loaded. A scout ship arrived, made a cursory examination and pronounced the ship fit to transport the refined, highly radioactive ore. Loading was accomplished by robots from ore barges, which matched the 'Callisto's' orbital speed and filled it's holds.
As the last of the holds were being filled, Reynard's caravan appeared and went into orbit not far from Aaron and Mike. Aaron couldn't resist giving Foxy another poke.
"Callisto' calling Consolidated Mining Flight One, about time you got here, Foxy." There was no response.
"I don't think he wants to talk to us," Mike said with a grin.
"Holds are loaded, ready to cast off, skipper." "Set a course for Mars, Ikky. We'll take our first cargo there." "Mars it is, Aye-aye." The 'Callisto' left orbit and accelerated away while malevolent eyes watched its departure.
The prospect of making a fortune by hauling Polonium spread quickly throughout the Tri-Planet system. Ships of every age, size and description flocked to Mercury and waited to be loaded. Many were rejected for loading by the Planetary Authority for various reasons, but many others returned to the power stations bearing their precious cargo.
The 'Callisto' could carry the greatest tonnage next to Consolidated Mining's barges, so it became a less than friendly competition between them. The 'Callisto' was faster, but the barges could hold more, so over time the other competition fell by the wayside and the two of them were left.
Aaron and Mike had fallen in love and were making plans to get married. They had long since recouped the money Aaron spent on refitting the 'Callisto' and had accumulated a substantial nest egg with which to spend their life together.
Consolidated Mining had attempted to obtain an exclusive hauling contract with the Tri-Planet government, but were turned down as it would constitute a monopoly and was against government policy. Flight Captain Reynard was told by upper management (unofficially) to remedy the situation.
"Aft compartment Five loaded and sealed, skipper," Ikky said. Aaron and Mike entered the control room from the galley where they had been deciding where to go for their honeymoon. Mike wanted to visit the Amazon Rainforest Preserve on Earth, while Aaron liked the idea of spending time in the Resort Dome on Luna with its continual night life.