I’m a keen player of space sim and tradey-fighty game Elite: Dangerous (although personally I don’t do much fighting in it), and at the moment my writing tends to be set, if not in that universe, then one quite similar to it. This one’s pretty blatant, and all based on my clumsy failure to pick up a floating cargo canister…
The closure rate’s good. A nice, steady forty metres per second, with the tumbling canister held rock-steady in the dead centre of the cargo scoop’s holo. I’ve spent a few minutes carefully matching up Banjax’s velocity so that the ship and the can were motionless in relation to each other, before nudging the vernier thrusters to impart a little, tiny forward motion, and bring the canister slowly towards me.
Go sit in a bar wherever beam miners hang out and sooner or later you’ll hear someone complain that no-one ever got round to inventing the tractor beam. It’s been a staple of sci-fi for centuries, along with artificial gravity. It’s the device that lets a ship grab something and pull it in without the pilot having to do any manoeuvring. But the truth is, unless you’re talking about trapping a ship that’s trying to get away, like in the movies, a tractor beam’s basically just an autopilot: in space there’s no functional difference between pulling the object to the ship and taking the ship to the object.
I don’t have an autopilot because they cost an arm and both legs. Besides, I like to do things for myself, and I wouldn’t trust Banjax to make too many decisions for me, because she’s intermittently deranged. So I’m doing my own manoeuvres. I’m really light on the linear thrusters. As light as I can be, that is: sometimes the control stick seems a little over-sensitive, and I can find I’m drifting sideways without realising I’ve applied any pressure at all. The rotational controls suffer the exact opposite problem: it’s incredibly difficult to roll the ship gently, as the stick, well, sticks, until you jerk it aside and set the thrusters firing like mad. I really should get it looked at; but Banjax is old, and a bug fixed here just makes way for four more elsewhere.
In any case, there’s no drift this time. Banjax is steady as a rock and smooth as glass as we float towards the can. Everything’s blue on the holo, showing me that speed and alignment are good.
What should happen is that the can drifts tidily into the scoop’s maw and gets conveyored around and slotted into one of the freight bays.
What actually happens is that the can clangs off the underside of the ship’s nose, and spins off into space.
For frak’s sake.
Why build a precision sensor array and holographic display screen into a ship if all that kit isn’t going to give better results than Mysterious Human Intuition would?
I ping the can. The speed’s not too bad: we haven’t transferred much kinetic energy to it so it’s not exactly racing off into the distance. I can pull the nose round a little bit, nudge the linear thrusters to bring the canister to a stop, and then try it again.
I’m tempted to close my eyes as I make the approach this time. I could write to the manufacturer and tell them: “I can get better results with mind over matter than I can with your sensors.”
And the manufacturer would write back and say, “Haha, yeah. Seriously, though: you’re flying a twenty-year-old ship: would you like to buy a new one? We can offer comedy terms for a part-exchange.”
Besides, it works this time: the can disappears under the nose and I hear the rumbling, whirring sound of the processors pulling it into place and the faint thuds as the clamps lock in.
That’s it. Secure the scoop, point Banjax in the right direction and start spooling up the witch-drive; then it’s a quick jump back and a day’s burn to the station. And then money.
Did that come over a little mercenary? Don’t judge me: I have to eat too, you know. And assuming the hirer makes good, this one canister should feed me and Banjax for a week, with a few credits left over.
Which always makes me a little suspicious. The contract declares this canister as containing ‘important business documents’. My sensors do back that up – but I wonder whose they actually are? I think when I arrive I might adopt the discrete approach when it comes to the Customs patrols.