Presented are my assumptions about what interplanetary space travel between two T0 planets is like In a typical cluster.
You have to be at the terminal several hours before the flight leaves. The offworlders don’t have permission to land their interface vehicle anywhere on the ground, so it has to splash down in international waters. This is good for them because the IV is radioactive, and needs a supply of seawater to extract hydrogen fuel from.
The task of dealing with all business between ship and shore is contracted out to Terminal services, another off-world company. They’ve bought an old commuter ferry from the previous era and turned it into a floating fortress, as if they are constantly afraid of being attacked by disassociationists. A bunch of strangely dressed teenagers (At least they look young by your culture’s standards) with guns who don’t even speak your language. Ironically it’s people like them that make everyone hate offworlders in the first place.
In-processing is done on the ferry as it makes it’s way to the Interface Vehicle floating in international waters. An Interface Vehicle for an Interface Vehicle. Trip is an hour and a half, and they try to keep you busy the whole time. Constantly pushing you through security screening and health checks in an effort to make full use of the time available.
One person in line with you is doing it in handcuffs. He wasn’t with you when you boarded, and you later find out he is a wanted criminal back on the planet you are heading too. They only found out who he was halfway through the trip here, and the locals don’t want him. Terminal’s had him locked in the brig on this boat the whole time and He hasn’t been allowed to touch foot on dry land in over a month. Now he’s finally being extradited.
You also meet a very skinny looking child in a wheelchair, and a well dressed woman who appears to be constantly staring off into space and muttering to herself as if that were perfectly normal. Both offworlders apparently. The rest of the passengers appear to be from either here, or the planet you are headed to judging by their clothes. Halfway through the trip the ship’s crew arrives (by helicopter no less) and gets simply waved through the line, looking even more outlandish than the terminal brats.
When the ferry finally reaches the Interface vehicle, they meet nose to nose in an aquatic parody of orbital docking. On the other end of the ship is a plume of white steam as the closed cycle gas core reactor warms up, cracking seawater to make hydrogen propel lent and using the rest to keep cool. The Interface vehicle’s air-frame is a giant white slab of closed cell foam alloy floating low in the water and marked with color coded lines and alien lettering indicating where and where not to go. You are told that if you step beyond the red lines, you will be exposed to a non-trivial dose of radiation, and a pair of microwave area denial (MAD) turrets at the far end stand ready to remind you should you miss the other warnings. Occasionally they swivel to deter passing seabirds which scream and quickly change direction.
Cargo loading is accomplished through a hatch on the top of the air-frame. You walk up to it and then take a rickety metal staircase down into the cargo bay. A lift also exists to lower cargo containers and small trucks inside, and the crew members (having changed into skintight spacesuits, masks, and hairnets) are busy making sure any materials likely to out-gas in a vacuum are properly protected by what appear to be plastic bags. Through the cargo bay, there is an airlock and a stewardess (you think she’s female, hard to tell with offworlders) shows you to your seats. Inside is pretty much like a commercial airliner, minus the windows. Rows of seats with tray tables and screens in the backs. As the Ferry pulls away and the airlocks seal, a disembodied voice speaking several languages at once explains the emergency procedures. In the event of an emergency, the crew cabin will separate from the cargo bay and reactor module, and attempt to glide to an un-powered landing as far away from the reactor itself. Acceleration should only exceed 2gs in the event of an anomaly, but the shipping line is not responsible for any injuries resulting from not sitting properly.
The takeoff isn’t loud, the entire crew cabin being soundproofed, but things do get vibrate-y. One the screen in front of your seat you can see a visualization of the Interface vehicle’s ascent, and if you pay for a VR headset, you can see what it would look like if the craft was completely transparent, but if you don’t watch either of those, all you will feel is lots of bumping followed by steady pull at your back, a period of slightly less bumping, followed by another period of steady acceleration, and then… weightlessness. The voice tells you can take off your seat-belts, but that they are not responsible for any injury caused by non familiarity to zero gravity. It will take several hours to Rendezvous with the ship, until then, there is a vacuum toilet in the back and various drinks and snacks are available in squeeze tubes. You’ve heard some lines let you buy a spacesuit and offer a little EVA tour during this period, but this seems to depend on local regulations and the whim of the ship’s insurance carrier. This one does not seem to want to risk it.
The tall kid is the first out of his(her?) seat and seems to have no trouble moving around the cabin. You are surprised to realize that they are more than 2 meters tall standing up. Apparently they were born in space and adapted to micro gravity. They need a wheelchair on ‘earth’ but up here they move better than the crew, who all seem to agree that they are absolutely adorable.
The prisoner is still handcuffed to his seat, and the business traveler continues talking to the wall completely unfazed by the miracle of space flight. You also notice one of the Terminal services people riding along, similarly unimpressed. The rest of you experiment with micro gravity with mixed results. The stewardess following closely with motion sickness bags, helping people back to their seats when necessary.
This all continues for several hours, during which the interface vehicle makes a series of even so slight orbital adjustments taking it closer and closer to it’s mothership. After the first hour It dawns on you that the none of the crew members appear to be piloting, and in fact, the interface vehicle does not appear to have any sort of cockpit or provisions for manual control. If you ask this question out loud, the disembodied voice from before will answer, informing you that it flies itself, and that the human crew exist for the benefit of it’s passengers.
If you continue to indulge the machine in conversation, you will learn all sorts of thinks about it’s previous career as a military dropship and it’s relationship with the mothership, which it considers to be something analogous to a human marriage. Growing up on a T0 world you are probably used to machines that talk to you, but those tend to be remotely controlled by a Central server farm. The interface vehicle’s brain is vastly more intelligent, and about the size of your carry on luggage inside it’s armored housing (not counting it’s power supply and cooling system which are about the size of large kitchen appliances).
Eventually you are guided back to your seats and the Interface vehicle’s main engines come on one last time to match speed with the mothership. Any fuel left over r-mass is vented, and the reactor shifts into low power mode, deploying radiators and moderating to a slow trickle of neutrons. The Mothership is still a whole kilometer away, but if you are using the VR goggles, you can see the end of it’s tether hovering just meters away from the now open cargo bay doors.
This Interface vehicle isn’t the only cargo. Clinging tight to the tether are a dozen hexagonal cargo modules, a pair of robotic waldo arms, and the stowed inflatable transhab you will be calling home for the next 2 weeks. The mothership itself is mostly fuel tank and reactor, and has no accommodations for any human passengers.
The crew instruct you to remain in your seats during docking as they get to work securing the Interface Vehicle and setting up the transhab. This is a very tricky part of the flight, and they really don’t want you getting in the way. This doesn’t take very long however, and soon enough, you feel a familiar pull at your feet as the mothership’s engines roar to life with a full G of gravity, pulling both spacecraft out of the equatorial parking orbit and onward to the slipknot.
Now that your feet are safely on the deck, the crew is happy to let you walk around and move from the Interface Vehicle to the transhab via a flexible transparent tube docked with the cargo bay airlock. You can’t see the mothership with the cargo containers and shadow shield in the way, so it looks like you are riding an elevator through space. You are told that some planets have actual space elevators, but that seems unimaginably fantastical to you.
Not that the cruise accommodations are any less fantastical looking. Transparent polymer bubbles separating you from absolute nothingness. You have a great view of the stars, but you and most of the passengers chose to keep the blinds closed. A mortal can only stare at the queen of heaven for so long without being struck blind by her beauty.
The crew accommodations are inside the Interface vehicle, after folding up all of the seats and converting it into a living area. The pre-flight briefing told you that in an emergency, the transhab would be jettisoned and the crew and passengers would have to spend the rest of the trip in the IV with the crew. You suspect they would administer hibernation drugs in that contingency because you cant imagine spending that much time in such a small space. At any rate you are thankful that this rarely happens.
There isn’t much to do during the week-long trip to the slipknot. If you haven’t bought one of those VR headsets earlier in the flight, you’ll probably break down and spring for one now. You imagined it would just be some gimmick, but you are startled to find out that these headsets can also induce the illusion of touch sensations and partly paralyze you so you don’t flail around and hurt yourself while exploring a fully detailed virtual environment. of which the ship’s computer has an elaborate library of.
It’s a bit spooky at first, but you it does not paralyze your facial muscles and clenching your eyelids tightly closed or spread wide will disconnect it. Apparently this games(?) can also be accessed by people with the right cybernetic implants, which is incidentally why the businesswoman from before was talking to the wall. You ask her about it while relaxing in an imaginary beach on some planet with pink oceans and she explains she doesn’t believe in maintaining an arbitrary dissconect between virtual and physical reality. At no point in this conversation does she seem to realize how obnoxious she is to people without implants. She goes on to explain that right now her mind is actually observing and interacting with 4 diffrent environments at once, not counting her physical body. You don’t quite understand how this works, something about neuroplasty, whatever that is. She’s apparently had the implants since she was a child.
After a few days of hard acceleration, the Ship shuts off it’s engines to preform maintenance in zero gravity, and then drifts for a few more days in spin mode, spinning the Interface Vehicle and prime mover at both ends of the cable for artificial gravity. Then the ship begins to decelerate for a few more days until it comes to a complete stop exactly 5 AU directly above the sun’s ‘north’ pole. The ship and preform some more maintenance, run a final diagnostic, and then reel the cable in to 100m for slipstream insertion. The stewardess and preforms some religious ritual with some of the passengers and crew which you don’t participate in, and then everyone is guided back to their seats for the final slipstreaminsertion.
Somehow you were expecting something more flashy, but the actual insertion was a blink and you’ll miss it afar. A ripple like waves on a pond crossing over a reflection rolls across the stars, and once it’s past, everything is different. The star 5 AU below you doesn’t look too different, and you can’t quite spot the planets from here, but the constellations have all changed. You’ve heard the systems in the cluster were all in different galaxies, or maybe even in different universes from each other, but you didn’t really understand what that meant until now. It’s a completely diffrent sky than the one you had been spending the last 7 days getting accustomed too. You wonder if the effect will be as profound once you get to your destination.
The crew preforms even more maintenance in micro-gravity as they calculate their final post insertion position and cool the drives. Once everything is properly reset, the cable is re-extended and the ship’s engines roar to life, bringing gravity back with them.
The second half of the journey is much like the first, A few days of hard acceleration, a few days of spin cruise, and a few days of hard deceleration each providing artificial gravity, with brief periods of microgravity between each, during which the crew preforms any EVA maintenance and the passengers get to bounce around the cabin like idiots. You spend most of the gravity segments in Virtual Reality, and find that one of the simulations is actually declassified footage of battles from the Interface Vehicle’s military career. narrated by the Interface vehicle’s simulated personality itself. You also learn a bit about the Mother ship, although it does not seem to have an anthropomorphic representation like the Interface Vehicle. Preferring to let the Interface vehicle speak for it when necessary.
As the Ship gets closer to it’s destination, it starts shedding cargo. The deceleration burn is intruped several times and the containers strapped to the cable are removed one by one, then swung out and released on trajectories which will take them closer to their final destinations. Some of them will be intercepted by tugs, others have their own Ion drives with folding solar panels, and others can deploy inflatable heat shields for aerocapture. The spacer girl leaves on one of them in a tiny capsule, apparently her family’s ship is in system, and this was just the most convenient place to rendezvous.
The last piece to be detached is the Interface vehicle itself. Unlike the mothership it does not enter orbit but rather preforms a skip re-entry, areobreaking all the way down to the surface. This will mean several hours of sitting in the Interface Vehicle’s passenger cabin with no gravity, followed by a fiery re-entry. Joy.
Aside from attitude control jets, The Interface vehicle expends no propellant on it’s final approach. skipping across the upper atmosphere like a rock to shed it’s interplanetary velocity before plunging through the sky like a fiery comet along a precisely calculated glide-slope.
The authorities of this planet do not employ Terminal Services, preferring to let their royal navy do the job instead. As soon as the Interface vehicle has decelerated to low supersonic, it is intercepted by a pair of jet fighters which proceed to “Escort the visiting alien spacecraft through their sovereign airspace.” The Interface Vehicle seems to find this amusing, and remarks on it’s private channel that it could lose both of them if it quickly dropped to sea level and switched it’s engines to air-breathing mode to preform a low altitude penetration flight like the good old days. It ultimately laments that the G-forces of such a maneuver would probably be too much for it’s passengers.
Rather than an old passenger ferry, the Interface vehicle splashes down next to a gigantic aircraft carrier. Hovercraft and helicopters unload the cargo, and you are escorted to the Carrier’s sickbay by uniformed officers, and given a quick medical checkup. Unlike Terminal services, everything is quick, efficient, and polite, but you get the feeling that all this is somehow intended to intimidate or impress you, and everything here seems so very quaint, even by the standards of your own planet.
As expected, the fugitive is hauled away by military police, but Once you pass inspection, a quick helicopter ride takes you to the nearest airport. Touching down on a concrete tarmac next to subsonic commercial airliners and military transports, your feet touch solid ground for the first time in two weeks.