Last Exit Before the Final Frontier

Last Exit Before the Final Frontier

by Jeffery D. Kooistra

Illustration by Vincent Di Fate

When I’m off duty, I like to go up on Carver’s Peak and watch the really big ships come in. I remember the last time I saw Ashley’s Charm, all five kilometers of her, slowly being brought in by the tugs to the huge interstellar spaceport here on Cameron. As I watched her gain size against the background of diamond-bright stars, she slowly turned as the tugs oriented her for parking orbit insertion, and the doors of the thousands of individual spacecraft berths came visible.

I looked at my watch. Two more hours.

In two more hours, I’d be back on duty, and as a senior port loadmaster, I’d be responsible for assigning transport slots to the multitude of individual ships that had come from deep down the well of the Solar System—from Earth, from Mars, the inner asteroid belt, and the satellite systems of the gas giants—craft bearing families intent on leaving this star system to vault into the vastness of the Universe and build a life out there under the light of other suns.

One of those ships coming up from Earth—Luna actually—would be carrying my Mom and Dad and little sister. They’d be arriving on Cameron later in the day, and I’d assign their ship a berth on Ashley’s Charm.

And the arguments would start again as they tried to get me to go with them.

Cameron happens to be the largest minor planet in the outer asteroid belt close enough to the inner edge of the Hague Limit to serve as a port for the transport starships. Her size is not only important to provide enough room for adequate facilities to service the now dozens of ships that arrive and depart from her each week, but also to provide the psychological sense that she is, in fact, a world, with myriad diversions for the travelers to partake of just before beginning the long trek through interstellar space. She has two sister worlds, also ports, spaced around the System. But Cameron is the best and biggest.

One of the consequences of the invention of the hyperdrive was the growing kinship of the people of the interstellar age with those of the days of sailing ships. Maximum speed in hyperspace is two light-years per month, so it takes more than two months to get to the nearest star, and most of the interesting worlds are at least a six month’s journey away.

Hyperphysics is an interesting thing. One suitable hyperwarp engine can lift even a ship the size of Ashley’s Charm into hyperspace with a rather small amount of energy, but only outside the Hague Limit, which for the Sun is 57.4 astronomical units out. Inside the Hague Limit, two hyperwarp engines can be employed in resonance to provide a marvelous sublight drive, and personal spaceships for trips around the Solar System become more and more common each day.

For economic reasons, people like to take their spaceships with them when they get the itch to head out for the stars. For economic reasons dictated by hyperphysics, it’s a lot cheaper to build huge interstellar transport ships to travel from Hague Limit to Hague Limit than from star to star.

Though on duty when my parents’ ship came in, I was able to take a late lunch and meet them at their spaceport berth. I knew Mom and Dad had gotten a new ship last year, but this was my first chance to see it. Their previous ship had been twenty years old when they bought it, but it had served to take my sister and me all over the Solar System. It wasn’t until I’d gotten out on my own and moved to Cameron that I actually spent two consecutive years of my life without visiting another world.

I had to admit that the folks had picked a nice ship. Big one, too, compared to most of the jobs I was used to slotting onto the transports. A Capitol Products System Sailor, the ship was forty meters long and ten across at the widest, which would leave it with habitable space about the same as a three-bedroom apartment. Miss Michiko was emblazoned across the bow. She was perfect for jaunts around the planets, but a bit close for trips with travel times between stops reaching into months. Hence, the big transports for the long journeys.

The ship came in smoothly, settled, and I saw Dad wave to me from the pilot bubble. It was only a few minutes more until the hatch slid up and Mom barreled out and launched herself at me. “Joey! Joey!” she said, trying to smother me in a hug. “I’m so glad to see you!” She pulled back. “What’s that on your face? You’re not growing a beard, are you?” She hugged me again. “Your father and I have missed you so much.”

“Well, me too,” I heard, and saw my little sister Penny coming down the ramp wearing a stylish blue jumpsuit. I hadn’t seen her in person in almost five years. She was fifteen when I left. Her hair was still long; she was a little taller but had much more of an hourglass figure than the last time I’d seen her. Baby sister was a woman now.

It was Penny’s turn for a hug and we held each other like—well, like we’d never held each other. (I think I gave her a punch on the shoulder when I’d moved out.) She gave me a kiss on the cheek then whispered, “I need to talk to you alone.” I only had time to nod that I understood before Dad came out.

Dad looked great. Why shouldn’t he? He was about to do what he’d always wanted—head out for the stars and begin to see the Universe. The Solar System just wasn’t big enough for him. Penny and I had learned that very, very early in life. Big and rangy, with the bushy beard I’d never seen him without, the man weighed in at a hundred kilos and hadn’t gained nor lost one during my lifetime. He had his hand thrust out, but when I reached for it he slapped my hand away and threw his arms around me. “None of that, boy. God, it’s good to see you. So, you want to come along?”

I was ready for that. “Can’t. My plants will die,” I said. “Besides, I’d have to give two-weeks notice and you’ll be gone by then.”

“Ho ho, always with the jokes,” Dad said. “But we’ll be here a couple of days, Son. I am going to try to talk you into coming. Besides, don’t you want to be with your sister again? You haven’t seen her in years. She’s growing up without you.”

Though Mom and Dad had been out to Cameron a few times since I’d left home, Penny had always been at school or, later, on an archeological dig (her passion). But I didn’t miss that Dad had said “growing up.” Grown up, Dad, I thought. Grown.

“Are you going to take us around, Joey?” Mom asked.

“Afraid not, Mom,” I said. “I have to go back to work. I took a late lunch as it is just to come see you in.”

“That’s a shame,” Dad said. “When will you be finished?”

“About three hours from now. Tack on another hour for me to get presentable and I’ll come find you all back here then. In the meantime, I’ll walk with you down to Information and you can take your pick of what you’d like to see, or maybe get something to eat. This place is quite the cosmic Las Vegas.”

“I remember,” Dad said.

“Well, I don’t,” Penny said, and as we emerged from the corridor to the central information square, she ran ahead to one of the casino alcoves.

I left Mom and Dad there and returned to work. Shannon’s Virtue, sister ship to Ashley’s Charm, was being loaded today.

The big ships are rather easy to load. They’re so large that the mass of any individual ship along for the ride is practically negligible, at least from a safety standpoint. But the proper arrangement of several thousand ships into an efficient mass distribution can still, over the course of a voyage, save the company a couple million credits in operating costs. More than enough to pay loadmasters like me and still have, well, a couple of million credits left over. (My salary was practically negligible, too.)

The rest of my shift went quickly. I rather liked my job. I’d started on Cameron as a pilot, flying other people’s ships into their assigned berths on the liners. But I’m a climber, and first chance I took the test and made it to assistant loadmaster. As a senior loadmaster, I was only one rung on the ladder away from having my own office.

I don’t know if Mom and Dad ever understood me. For them, every horizon crossed just egged them on to go and cross the next one. Sure, Dad’s trading company had made us a wealthy family, and helped to quench some of his thirst for traveling, but once he’d retired as president, he and Mom were going to be on the go for the rest of their lives.

I like the sea of space just as much as they did, but I’m perfectly content to stop on an island just offshore within sight of the mainland, and make a life for myself there.

No way was I going to go with my parents.

Just like on the big starship transports, visitors to Cameron have the option of either staying at a room at the spaceport or staying in their ships and using them as apartments. In fact, almost everyone willing to make a star journey buys a ship big enough to serve as home along the way. Although a family-sized spaceship isn’t large enough to spend half-a-year in if you can’t go outside, on board the big liners they’re just right to serve as home when you have a portable world five kilometers long to walk around in.

When I got to the berth, Dad showed me around his new ship. “See? Master bedroom right here for your mother and ...

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