Ball Pool

“Kinglassie Approach, this is Victor Rubicon Three-One-Four-One-Six, inbound at Delta-Three for docking, with information Hotel.”
“Victor Rubicon One-Six, Kinglassie Approach, squawk five-five-seven-one.”
“Squawk five-five-seven-one, Victor Rubicon One-Six.”
“You want me to set that for you, Cait?” asked Banjax.
“Yes, please, Bee.”
“Setting transponder to five-five-seven-one.”
“Victor Rubicon One-Six, lidar contact. Cleared direct to localiser; maintain current speed until established then hold and call for further instructions.”
“Current speed to localiser, then hold and call; Victor Rubicon One-Six.”
Cait watched the station for a few minutes. The tiniest of glittering dots, discernible amongst the background stars only from its minute sideways movement, and the gentle pulse of brightness as the station rotated in the pale sunlight. Beyond, New Buckhaven was little more than a sliver of light; the station was currently orbiting across the planet’s night side, and from here there was little to be seen that revealed the extensive settlement of the little world.
For several minutes, the ship coasted in silence towards the station, which grew steadily larger on the viewscreen. Cait took a moment to appreciate the peace and quiet.
The voice echoed up the corridor, followed by raucous laughter. Cait rolled her eyes. Her two passengers, Xayden and Aikin.  Paying passengers, unfortunately, or she’d have contrived a convincing reason for them to have fallen off the ship on the way here. Even an unconvincing one would have done.
Completely baffling, officer; absolutely no idea how that could possibly have happened. Must’ve left a door open; so sorry.

The two utter stoners were, ostensibly, representatives of a toy and sports equipment company on Azumark. They’d asked her to transport them and a few samples of their products to New Buckhaven, where their firm was attempting to open a new office. Cait quietly doubted their efforts would come to much: the people of New Buckhaven were famously serious in their outlook. Farms were important. Livestock was important. Machinery, ploughing, sowing and harvesting; the cycle of the seasons: these were the things that occupied the minds of the Buckhaveners. Toys weren’t really something that figured very large in the farmsteading worldview.
But it wasn’t her business, she reminded herself. Her business was the 1,200 denarii she was being paid to transport them and the two tonnes of product samples stowed in transit cans in Banjax’s cargo bays. And the extra hundred quid they’d offered her to take their last-minute inventory addition that, despite all appearances, they’d assured her they simply couldn’t leave behind. She could, but they definitely, one-hundred-denarii-worth, couldn’t. It was the first time she’d ever had to make a run with a huge net full of multicoloured plastic balls strapped to the wall in the common room.
“We’re approaching the localiser, Cait,” said Banjax.
“Thanks. Align to the IDS and hold.”
“Will do.”
“Naaah, dude! You ain’t gonna…”
Did she even want to know? Cait asked herself. She decided she probably didn’t. She tapped the panel to bring up the detailed docking display. There was Banjax, sitting in the middle of the screen. Sensor data and shared telemetry from Kinglassie Station ATC populated the display with six other vessels in the area; two moving away on departure routes, three sitting at anchorpoints around the station, and one passing through the gate into the harbour.
“Oh, man, you did not just do that!”
Cait picked up the MC and thumbed the push-to-talk key. She didn’t have to: there were only the three of them on board, and if she could hear her stoners shouting back in the common room, they could certainly hear her. But the MC might remind them to take her seriously for at least a few minutes.
“This is Cait,” she said, and her voice echoed from speakers in the passenger cabins, the kitchen and common room, and the interior hold. “We’re approaching the station, so we may need to manoeuvre under ATC control. Please take a seat and strap in as there may be sudden acceleration forces in any direction. I’ll advise you when we’re secure.”
She listened. There was a moment or two of silence. Then:
“You tell ’em, Captain!”
…followed by more laughter. Cait jabbed the throttle, just for a moment, and heard a satisfying yelp. Xayden, she thought.
“Sorry!” she called insincerely over her shoulder. She brought the ship back to a halt, gently this time, and called ATC again.
“Kinglassie Approach, Victor Rubicon One-Six, at localiser.”
“Victor Rubicon One-Six. Proceed straight in, do not exceed eight-zero metres per second. Cleared to land at Bay Eight.”
“Cleared to land Bay Eight, max speed eighty, Victor Rubicon One-Six.”
“Standard docking, Bee – Bay Eight, if you please.”
“You betcha,” said the ship.  “You might want to hold on.  For some reason I think there might be an overburn in the forward thrusters.  A bit.  Just temporary, nothing to worry about, I’m sure.”

The autothrottle jabbed forward, and Cait felt herself pushed quite sharply back in her seat.  There was a “whoaaahh!” from behind her.  As the ship reached eighty metres per second the acceleration dropped off, and Cait felt herself weightless once again.  She watched the displays as Banjax ran the automated approach, executing tiny vernier boosts here and there to direct momentum and applying gentle thrust to match rotation with that of the station.
A small red ball ricocheted from the viewscreen and bounced off Cait’s left shoulder.  Her body was strapped in, so it couldn’t go far, but her heart made a moderately determined attempt to bail out.
“What the fuck…?!”
She craned her head around, glared down the corridor.  The common room was a swarm of coloured balls, criss-crossing the doorway, back and forth.  A blue one rolled along the corridor ceiling and caught against a bulkhead.
Cait unclipped her harness, pushed herself out of the chair, and kicked off against the flight console, gliding back along the corridor and into the common room.  Xayden was clinging on to the galley table; Aikin, on the far side of the room, held tight to the net which now hung empty from two of the six fixing points it should still have been attached to.  Between them, the room was a bouncing Brownian cloud of coloured plastic balls. Both men – bloody boys, she corrected herself – wore the idiot grins she’d become so very familiar with over the course of the journey.
A ball – another red one – drifted, spinning, towards Cait’s face.  She batted it away.
“Did you fu…” She took a breath.  “Did you gentlemen hear the bit where I said ‘strap yourselves in’?  I’m assuming you can’t have done.”
Aikin and Xayden managed to straighten their faces for a moment or two.  Xayden broke first, and they collapsed into giggles.
“Oh, this is a funny?” Cait demanded. “We’re doing funny here, are we?  I told you to strap in because this bit’s dangerous.  You understand?  This is the bit where gravity’s all over the place and you could quite easily do yourselves damage if you don’t do as you’re damn well told.  Quite aside from now having loose objects bouncing around my fucking ship, which is now having to carry out the docking on its own, unmonitored – neither of which conditions I’m particularly fond of.  We’ve got about three minutes before we hit the station – and I hope I mean that figuratively, but I wouldn’t know, of course, since I’m not at the controls watching, because I’m having to be here shouting at you bastards. Now would you rather I carried on shouting, or would you prefer I went back to fly the bastard ship?  Sorry, Banjax.”
“That’s okay, Cait.  No harm done, I’m sure.  Don’t go troubling yourself over my feelings, or anything,” said Banjax.
“Oh, for…  Well, you two?  You want me to shout, or fly?”
Aikin got himself under control.
“Um,” he said.  “Fly?”
“Good answer!  That’s what I’d rather be doing, too.  Now get over there to the seats, strap yourselves in, and keep the fuck quiet.  I don’t want to hear another word before we land; and when we land, the only word I’ll want to hear from both of you is ‘Goodbye’.  Am I clear?”
She hung in the doorway, watching as the two boys awkwardly pushed themselves over to the seating area.  She had to credit them, a little, for the ease with which they appeared to have adapted to microgravity, since as far as she knew both of them were lifelong corporate office dwellers – albeit evidently in a very accepting work environment.  She still had no real idea how big their company was.  Honestly, she wouldn’t have been surprised to find it was just the two of them.  Still, that they’d shown no sign of illness or discomfort during the micro-g portions of the flight, and even after an hour of near-weightlessness, they still had the energy and humour to arse around making a mess of her ship… She found she was far more impressed than she wanted to be with the immature, boneheaded, irresponsible ass-hats.
She waited until her most hazardous cargo had been safely strapped into two seats, before she reached up and batted a passing ball – a green one – at the two insufferable grins. Pushing herself back along the corridor, she turned to face the viewscreen as she emerged onto the flight deck.  The station loomed, but nothing seemed out of place.  Guide lights strobed their welcoming lines towards the harbour mouth.
“We all right, Bee?” she asked, settling herself back into the left-hand seat.

“We’re good,” the ship replied.  “We should clear the threshold within a minute.  We still have time to space them, if you want to.  It’d only take a mo.  And I bet the station wouldn’t notice.  Probably.”


“Go on.”

“No. Money.”

“Fine.  But I want you to know I’ve had more exciting pilots.”

The ship passed through the harbour gate and into the bay.  Banjax smoothly rolled over to put their assigned pad beneath them and began a gentle descent, lateral thrusters flaring in short bursts to match the pad’s sideways movement as the station rotated around them. With about fifty metres to go, she heard a clattering sound from the common room, and a thud, as might be made, she guessed, by a human body drifting sharply into something in a rapidly increasing centripetal down-force despite having been told to stay strapped the hell in. She shook her head, and sighed.

A few moments later, the landing gear made contact with the deck, grapples locked and the ship settled into place.  Cait unclipped her harness again, stood gingerly, and flexed arm and leg muscles in the flimsy half-gravity.  Better than nothing.  Turning, she made her way back to the common room, the floor of which was by now strewn with fallen balls, and one toy company representative. She glared at her two passengers, as Aikin scrambled to put himself back in the harness.  The temptation to let loose and tear both of them into tiny strips was tempered by 1,300 small mitigating factors.

“Just to labour the point,” she said, “That could have been worth a Flight Safety Citation.  I could be pushing for Wilfully Endangering a Ship in Flight; you understand?”  The two toy-peddlers adopted a sheepish manner.

“I’m not going to, though.  The gods alone know why.  But I’m not.”  Although, she thought, the massive bureaucracy involved might possibly have something to do with it… 

“What I am going to do is ask you, please, to collect up your balls and bugger off.  I’ll expect to see payment within the hour.  I’ll make arrangements with the ground crew to unload the rest; it’ll be waiting airside for you in the next forty minutes.”

The stoners actually seemed to be grasping the situation.  They kept their eyes from her face, and Aikin, she swore, actually shuffled his feet a little.

“‘Kay,” said Xayden, his voice, finally, subdued.  “Thank you.”

Cait nodded, and began to turn away.

“We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight,” added Banjax.  “And we hope you’ll consider us for any future transport needs.”

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