Their shuttle was a Mitsubishi, and April was surprised to see it looked old. She was accustomed to most things around her looking new, until she expected it without a second thought. Something like a landing shuttle tended to become obsolete before it wore out. It would be cut up and scrapped and the stuff like electronics sent to be hand disassembled for gold and copper, and then the assemblies shredded to an almost confetti fine consistency for recovery.
Their war with North America was a couple years back, but it was probably still forcing extended service from older shuttles. They had pretty well destroyed every small shop in North America that made the components like special tires and Buckey foam shapes. You could throw up an assembly building pretty fast, but getting all the pieces made again wasn’t near as easy. Europe, Russia and Japan had picked up what they could, but half the shuttles in service had been American. She’d helped remove a couple from service rather abruptly herself.
There were two staggered seats to a side, three rows deep, separated by a very narrow aisle. The head was on the left, straight in from the lock, and extra space between the right hand seats and the front bulkhead was the entry from the lock. It made the front right seats the most luxurious, uncrowded with extra foot room, something Gunny appreciated.
Gunny picked the first row aisle seat and planted himself in it, isolating April against the port, but leaving her first access to the lock, not that it meant very much with no pressure suits. Jeff and Heather sat behind, Jeff giving Heather the port seat when asked. Barak took the front port seat on the other side of the aisle. He was looking around with a dubious expression that said he felt the vessel belonged in a museum with stage coaches and steam locomotives.
After she fastened her carry on by her seat she came back up and looked for a manufacturer’s tag near the lock. It wasn’t in the entry, but beside the hatch to the flight deck. Instead of a peel and stick plastic card it was an aluminum plate, riveted to the bulkhead, with the model / date / build all stamped in the blanks. The numbers were placed carefully, but still crooked enough you could tell they’d been done with a hand held stamp and hammer, not a machine engraver.
The vessel was two years older than April. In space ships that was ancient. There was a clean spot on the bulkhead where an older intercom to the flight crew had been removed. The greenish phosphate covering was worn away next to it, where a thousand times a hand had braced there to press the call bar, and the holes were filled in by putting new rivets in them. Above that patch was a new intercom with a twenty five centimeter screen and no switches or visible speaker grill, just the tiny circle of a camera lens, and an audio jack. It displayed a virtual call button in one corner. The crew left it defaulted to off, not sharing a view of the flight stations.
There were shiny spots where the anodizing was worn off around the hatch collar, because a hand or a foot always went to one spot coming through the hatch. Recessed in the hatch ribbing was a small stick on white board, and it had dates and initials for the last time the seal was replaced, or the hinges lubricated and checked for free play.
About a year ago C.J. had written: Last service – retiring, and then after initialing it drew not a smiley face, but a little devil with horns. The three entries after that in a different hand were attributed to D.M., and the center one had a few Japanese characters. April assumed there were more permanent records somewhere, but it was interesting.
The acceleration couch she returned to had seen better days too. The cushion edge where you slid on and off was slumped, and didn’t spring back to its full shape. The plastic caps to the arm rests had the texture worn off until it was shiny. Nothing was unserviceable, and nothing was dirty, but at a glance you knew it wasn’t new, like looking in the door of a ten year old ground car. It also lacked any trace of the distinctive smell of a new ground car or spaceship.
A group of three men were at the lock, so April sat back in her seat to clear the narrow aisle. It felt weird now, to not have the frame of a Singh acceleration compensator close overhead when on the couch. That made her wonder if Jeff had a timeline to sell them for commercial shuttles. She’d have to ask him.
The first fellow in the lock was young with close cut hair and dark spex. He was dressed in belted Khaki pants and a golf shirt. He wore Earthie style cross-trainer shoes, rather than the lighter more flexible versions station dwellers would favor. You couldn’t see his eye movements, but from how he held his head he was scanning the passenger compartment to the back corners. The fellow behind him was older and not typical. He was skinny with long hair formed in a loose braid with loose bits sticking out all messy, bare arms, which was heavily frowned upon in North America now as well as Tonga, and they were covered in bright tattoos, a double social no-no. The man behind him was a clone of the first.
“Excuse me, would you please clear this front row? He said to April and Gunny. I’d like to put my man right by the lock and sit beside him for security purposes.”
“That’s why she’s in that seat,” Gunny informed him. “I’m her security.”
The fellow’s mouth scowled, but made a silent sign to the rearmost, and they turned and went back outside.
“Wow, does that mean they aren’t going to fly if he can’t sit here?” April asked.
“Nah, they are going to go ask the airline to assign seats and force us in the back corner. I’m pretty sure ‘first come first served’ is a hard set company policy, and they will offer to sell them tickets for a later lift if they want to line up early and have the first choice of seats.”
Sure enough, ten minutes later they came back in, carefully didn’t look at Gunny, and went to the rear of the side opposite, putting their charge in the rear port seat. One sat beside him and one in front. The young guys seemed unhappy, but the tattooed man was unruffled.
They acquired an obvious beam dog, who looked horribly hung over, a very well dressed Japanese couple, and a fellow festooned with photo gear wearing a vest with more pockets than it seemed likely he could own enough junk to fill. They were full up, so the photographer took the last seat next to the security guy in the middle row.
In the hushed cabin, you could hear the body guard speak to him. “Our client would appreciate if you refrain from photographing him.”
“That might be a problem, if I knew who the bloody hell he is, Jack.” The fellow scoffed.
“He’s Amos, lead singer for The Ancient Astronauts.” The security man obviously didn’t believe he was unaware of that.
“Oh, then if he’s a public figure, you’re damn silly to think you can say he’s off limits, but I’m not a paparazzi , I won’t waste my battery charge on him. I think my kid listens to them, useless noise as far as I’m concerned.” That pretty much ended any friendly chit chat.
The flight crew came in, an Oriental lady, and a surprisingly small blonde Caucasian man. He had a FedEx hard shell pack under one elbow like a lunch box, plastered with all sorts of blue and green safety color biohazard stickers and not even the normal orange expedited stickers, but the special square stickers instead, that said HOT in big letters on a hot pink background. Somebody paid a fortune to lift that if it was hand delivered to ride in the flight cabin. Just in case you didn’t get the message, it was sealed by a crimped steel band around the whole box, instead of the usual plastic cable tie in the lock loops.
They got things sorted out up front, stowed the hot freight away somewhere, and the number two pilot, the Scandinavian, came back to the hatch and hung on the collar looking them over.
“Jefferson Singh?” he inquired.
“That’s me,” Jeff said waving. The fellow looked at Jeff hard, like he might be joking.
“You are listed on the manifest as a licensed lander pilot. Is that correct?”
“Yes, and my friend April here is an apprentice going for the same ticket.”
“What type are you qualified on?”
“Only for our own first of class shuttle, Dionysus’ Chariot.”
“Your own? You mean it is a Home ported vessel?”
“That too, but we and Ms. Anderson here with us, are the owners also.”
“I always like to know if we have any qualified people flying with us. You aren’t rated for a Mitsubishi D body then?”
“Not at all. I don’t even know what your board looks like. Our ship can do aerobraking like a D body, but we’re able to do powered vertical landings. April and I are both rated for orbit to orbit too.”
“Indeed,” That got a high lifted eyebrow. “Welcome aboard,” he said, which was safe enough and polite. He retreated to the flight cabin and dogged the hatch closed.
“We look too young to him,” Jeff said, not upset, but certain.
“They’re Earth based even if they are spacers,” April pointed out. “There’s still some Earth Think clinging there.” Jeff just nodded agreement.
The lift was normal to the point of boring, the old shuttle worn, but just fine in every mechanical particular that mattered.