Luhman 16A, the brown dwarf around which revolved Crete, reposed in the sky like a rusty coin on the black interstellar bitumen.
Moszkowski tapped Marley on the shoulder and pointed through the viewscreen.
Marley saw him pointing to the brightest star in the Cretan sky. “Alpha Centauri. Have you been there Professor?”
“Twice. I’m a Real Centauri fan you know.”
Marley didn’t expect the sober professor to follow football.
“I was there for the 2983 final against Sporting Sirius. The Sirians haven’t won the Orion Arm Championship in 300 years, and if it wasn’t for that last minute header by Cordoba…” Moszkowski started coughing.
Marley hadn’t been born, but he’d heard about Cordoba. He was known as Ironhead, and he literally had an iron-plated skull. Few players in the Championship League were absent of any genetic, psychedelic or materials enhancement. That’s what the audience loved.
“I followed Knossos United for a while,” said Marley.
“Go Knossos!” said Zeen. He performed a little sideways up-and-down maneuver with the Thundercat’s wings.
“I was going to point out,” said Moszkowski, “That a few arc seconds to the right of Alpha Centauri, that yellow star-”
“Is Sol,” Marley and Zeen said together.
“Have you been there?” Marley enquired further.
Moszkowski suppressed a cough. “Of course not. Who has?”
“Who would want to?” said Zeen. “Half the place is uninhabitable, and if you thought Crete was authoritarian, Earth is something else entirely.”
Marley had increasingly learnt that the blue marble orb so romantically portrayed in movies was neither romantic, nor blue from the surface. The endless grey clouds were mostly smog. On some days you couldn’t pinpoint the sun’s location in the sky. Some of the clouds dropped acid rain which corroded robot and human skin alike. The inhabitable areas were ruled by wealthy barons who could afford the expensive breathing apparatuses for themselves and their fluffy dogs.
As they cruised through the mesosphere the pressures on the craft eased. The edge of the ship’s radar displayed their target destination and began blinking.
The vast space station rose into their field of view as Zeen banked left before realigning and turning on docking-assist. He leaned back in his chair and admired the soaring structure that was the Cretan Eye.
A flashing red dot appeared on the radar next to the Eye.
This was followed by a request to accept an incoming transmission. Zeen moved his headphone mic towards his mouth. “Zeen Crawdex of Thundercat M30, registration alpha-omega 3332.”
“Proceed to docking Bay 29.”
“I’ve booked Bay 5.”
The voice said, a little more sternly, “Proceed to docking bay 29.”
“I pay good money for Bay 5. I’ve rented it for five months.”
“Today you must proceed to Bay 29. End transmission.”
Zeen slapped himself in the head.
Two specks of light emerged from behind the Cretan Eye, performing an acrobatic loop before making their way directly to the Thundercat. They emerged on the radar soon after.
Zeen looked sternly at the dashboard.
The two astro-scooters pulled alongside each flank of the hull. Fitted to each scooter was the torso of an all-purpose law-enforcement droid.
They escorted the Thundercat as Zeen sullenly performed the small adjustments necessary to direct it towards Bay 29. The Cretan Eye’s docking platforms were located in the centre of the torus-shaped space station. Aligning the craft with the station’s rotation was practically automatic for a Thundercat M30 class.
They floated almost silently through the entrance. The hexagonal gateway to the bays closed behind them like a puzzle reforming. Marley felt a thud below his feet as the three landing pads emerged from their housings.
The auxiliary engines powered down and ejected a big cloud of smoke and dust as they discharged the matter that had accumulated during flight. One of the police escorts was unfortunate, or incompetent enough, to be piloting his scooter under the left wing. The contents of the auxiliary nozzle’s discharge completely covered his craft.
“Serves him right.” Zeen tried to suppress a smile. He undid his shoulder straps, smacked the dashboard, and headed to the hatchway. “Remember your gravitation belts.”
Gravitation belts didn’t actually provide gravity, they simulated it in the presence of magnetically charged floor plates.
The docking bays were housed in a hexagonal spheroid two hundred metres in diameter. Straying from the walkways was not a good idea. Gravitation belts had a limited range. Anyone who lost their footing floated up into the docking bay chamber and would have to wait for a line to be flung their way. This was known as fishing, and was quite embarrassing for the person being fished.
The police scooters hovered on the platform of Bay 29. As they approached, extendable legs descended from the scooters’ undersides. Their ionic engines powered down.
With the folding of a few more flaps, the traffic enforcement droids transformed into humanoids. They were now at least one metre taller than the tallest human, a height designed to intimidate.
One of the droids retrieved a shimmy from a side panel and started wiping the soot off his companion. “Zeen Crawdex of Thundercat M30, registration alpha-omega 3332?”
Zeen stepped forward.
“In accordance with Cretan Anti-noise Ordinance 156, we are required to check the underside of your craft.”
“What the fook?”
“In accordance with the Intergalactic Prudence Board’s language purification dictum, you are issued with a 200 credit fine.”
This seemed to confuse the droid. It may well have been remotely controlled by a human on Crete. But this was beside the point. Zeen had been fined for foul language and his craft was about to be checked for illegal mods.
“This Thundercat is in the same condition as purchased.”
“All vehicles sold on Crete comply with Anti-noise Ordinance 156. Please consult your dealer for more information.”
The enforcement droids marched to the underside of the Thundercat and began recording footage of the craft’s fuselage.
“I got this on Knossos,” Zeen whispered to Marley and Moszkowksi.
“Does your sister have one too?” asked Marley.
“This was hers. Look, you two go on ahead. I’ll deal with this. After that, I have a pair of shoes to collect.” He turned around, slightly red-faced.
Marley and Moszkowski headed for Elevator D, one of five elevators that operated from the central docking bay to the rim.
“What a golden boy,” said Marley, “Comes all the way up here for a pair of shoes.”
“An expensive pair of shoes,” said Moszkowski.