“Look alive, people!”
Everyone ran in different directions, scattering under the First Officer’s bellows in the corridor connecting the mess with living quarters.
Maxwell said, “I want this ship clean from stem to stern. Not a spot on it! Eat off the floor clean! It needs to be fully prepped to turn around and go back out. We have two hours till port, now get busy!”
The mess hall was scrubbed extra clean, all the utensils washed and stored and the chairs neatly lined up under the tables. All floors in the rooms and corridors were sparkling clean. Everyone emptied out personal storage lockers and placed clothes and other possessions in duffel bags, ready to go.
When they came within 3,600 jumps, or one hour to port, a palpable excitement rippled through the crew. Even though they were returning mostly empty handed, with far less than they had initially hoped for, they were nonetheless returning home. That was cause for excitement.
At long last, the final jump came and they popped into existence in orbit around the planet Lute. Roddy, now fully healed and back in the pilot’s seat, made a few manual adjustments and they were home, ready to disembark. A cheer went up when Lute’s blue and white globe appeared in the ship’s holoscreens.
Raleigh opened the door to his cabin and said to Jillian, “Come on, we’ll go down first. Lute has been in contact with people on the ground about our ‘cargo,’ and there’s no point in you hanging around up here.”
“Where am I going to stay? I don’t have any money for a hotel or anything.”
“We have quarters you can use in Mule Tower.”
“Wow, that’s nice. Rent free?”
“It’s only 50,000 credits a night.”
“That seems kind of steep. I thought you said most people make 12,000 a year.”
He chuckled, remembering her lack of familiarity with money.
He said, “I’m kidding. We do take a rental fee if you stay in the tower, but it can be deducted from future earnings. Until you join us officially, you can stay as my guest free of charge. Come on, let’s go to the departure zone.”
Someone had fetched her luggage on the last stop, and he picked up three of her suitcases, holding two and carrying one under his arm. He also carried a backpack over one shoulder with his own things. That left her with only one small bag to carry.
She followed him down the corridor to the elevator where a pod waited for them. It whisked them to another deck. They exited and walked down to a large door covered in diagonal yellow stripes. Holographic words hanging in the air read “Boarding & Disembarkation.”
Behind them, the elevator doors opened again and Pak and Kim came out carrying the radiation trap containing Raquel Kirkland. They both nodded a greeting at Jillian and Raleigh.
The door opened and Raleigh led them into a foyer area. The door behind them closed and the inner door opened. Inside, a round chamber waited with bioscanners and purification routines.
As humans traveled from one life-bearing planet to another, cross contamination of species became a problem. Early worlds suffered from invasive species traveling over from many light years away and wreaking havoc with local ecologies. In time, the AIs developed a protocol to help prevent such issues. Foreign biomatter was eliminated on the ship before humans were allowed to port down.
The system was not entirely foolproof, but it worked far better than earlier efforts. About the only thing the scanners could not eliminate were microorganisms living inside humans. Some odd diseases could be gestating in human hosts traveling from one planet to another. Fortunately, micro-borne illnesses could easily be dealt with by modern medicine. So far there had not been a repeat of past historical incidents, such as European diseases wiping out large portions of the New World’s population in the Middle Ages.
Raleigh and Jillian and the engineers stood still while the decontamination rays bathed them and the ship’s scanners searched for exobiological traces in their clothing and luggage.
At last a light on the wall turned green and LuteNet said, “Prepare for departure.”
They popped out of the room and appeared in the reception lobby of the Port Ryan Administration Building. A man stepped forward to meet them, a tall swarthy fellow with a black mustache ending in curly tips.
He said, “Ms. Thrall, I am Ambassador Huntington. I’m here to take you home.”