Ganny Knits a Spaceship

Written by David Gerrold, the Hugo and Nebula award winning author of “The Trouble With Tribbles,” The War Against the Chtorr series, “The Man Who Folded Himself,” and “The Martian Child.”


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Starling and her grandmother operate a way station in the asteroid belt. For decades, Ganny has had a very successful business, using her way station to sling cargo and passenger ships all over the asteroid belt and to most of the planets as well. But now, technological advance and corporate greed are threatening her livelihood and the continued well-being of her grand-daughter.

What’s an old lady to do?

Digging back into her past, Ganny applies an ancient technique to modern materials. She begins to create a spaceship that will enable her and Starling to survive—and even to prosper. How? By knitting it.

All is going well. But once the corporate interests that were plotting to seize her way station realize what she’s up to, they set out to stop her by any means fair or foul.

Mostly foul. Her crew is suborned, murder attempts are launched, financial plots are set underway.

What’s an old lady to do?

Apply a long lifetime’s sagacity and resourcefulness, that’s what. Guided always by her knowledge that revenge is a dish best served old.

Written by the Hugo and Nebula award winning author of “The Trouble With Tribbles,” The War Against the Chtorr series, “The Man Who Folded Himself,” and “The Martian Child.”

“Why do we need a spaceship?” asked Ganny. The question wasn’t rhetorical.

Gampy grunted, sucked some coffee from a bulb, left it hanging in the air while he scratched his ear and rubbed his chin and did his whole performance of being thoughtful. “Because,” he said. And folded his arms.

Ganny did that side-to-side head shake she always did, accompanied with an expression of bemusement that usually decoded as “If that’s the only answer I’m going to get, then I get to live with it.” If Ganny waited long enough, eventually Gampy would explain. But by that time, she’d usually figured it out herself. Either way, Ganny knew better than to push. Wise people, she said, respect each other’s orbits.

She meant that people who live in space live differently than people who live on planets. I’m not talking about the micro-gravity and the sense of confinement and the recycling of air and water and protein, the exercise regimen, and all the implants and augments, like bone-sintering and radiation-nanos and white-blood infusions, and all the other stuff that dirtsiders think about. That’s just mechanics. You live with it.

No, there’s something else. Dirtsiders don’t notice it immediately, but they notice it eventually. And they notice it a lot more intensely than starsiders do because starsiders don’t notice it at all. Starsiders live the way we do because that’s the way we live. But dirtsiders say there’s an emotional distance, a privacy wall, a cocooning. They say it’s because of the isolation and the close proximity and the lack of elsewhere to go. According to dirtsiders, people who live in space are all introverts, socially enclosed, and given to long disturbing periods of self-inflicted privacy. They see it as being shut down. I guess, by comparison with dirtside, maybe that’s true.

I’ve never been dirtside so I have no personal experience of what they’re talking about, but I do watch dirtsider videos from time to time and if that’s a valid reflection of how they think, I really don’t want that experience. They talk too much about nothing in particular. Like, “What did you have for dinner?” and “How was it?” and “How are you feeling?” Like all that stuff is important. I know how I’m feeling, it should be obvious to everyone around me how I’m feeling. Just look at my face, okay? Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m missing something. But from where I am, they look stupid, they talk everything to death like they’re incapable of doing anything on their own. And even if they can do it on their own, they don’t do it until they’ve talked it over with at least six people. All that chatter. What’s it good for?

Ganny says it’s about bonding. They bond differently dirtside. I don’t see why that should make a difference, but apparently it does. Ganny should know. Both Ganny and Gampy were born dirtside. I asked them once if there actually was that big a reality gap and they both had to stop and think. Finally Gampy said, “Ayep.” And after a bit, Ganny added, “There might be more to it than that.” But that was as much as either of them said at the time. So I figured it was one of those things that you have to do for a while before you can understand it. But dirtside isn’t something I want to do. Germs and insects and airborne contaminants? Yick. I guess some people can learn to live with it. And if you’ve never known anything else, then that’s what you call normal. It just looks dirty to me.

But I do know some dirtsiders. We exchange almost every day. They don’t seem to notice the soup they’re swimming in, and I don’t mean the air and water, I mean the cultural soup, the context. But we don’t talk about that much. That’s too much like school. Oh, that’s another thing. Living on the whirligig, everything you learn in school is about survival. Dirtside, you learn all kinds of stuff that doesn’t have much application for anything at all, let alone survival.

But James, my dirtside boyfriend asked—well that’s what I called him, he was never a real in-the-flesh boyfriend, and that was before I broke up with him anyway—James once asked if it wasn’t lonely out here, not having any real friends. I told him I have real friends. I have friends all over the ecliptic and a couple on the long ride. Okay, they’re all web-friends, but I don’t feel alone. How could I? Web-friends are the best kind because you go to them only when you feel like it. They can’t bother you any hour of the night or day like they could if they were right next to you in meatspace.

Okay, so I don’t chat in real-time, but so what? Chatting has a lousy signal-to-noise ratio. It’s mostly pauses while each person thinks about what they really want to say and what they should say instead. It’s easier and more efficient to think things out first and then text it all at once. And when you send it as an email, you not only get to rewrite it a couple times before you click on send, sometimes you can even snatch it back if you have to.

What I mean is that talking is useful, sure, if you’re talking it out to yourself, or writing into a journal, because that’s how you figure out what you really think, but that doesn’t mean you have to inflict that whole linguistic journey of ratiocination on the nearest innocent bystander. Because if you do, then that implies an obligation on your part to listen to them verbalize at length as they work their way through their own fumbling thought processes. Long, boring, tiresome. It’s only interesting if it’s about you, and if it’s about you it’s almost always something you really didn’t want to hear in the first place, like someone’s projection of their personal narrative about you, which is almost always negative and comes with the corresponding implication that because you listened you are now obligated to change yourself. And that’s just silly. If it’s the other person’s narrative, not yours, it’s their responsibility to author it in a way that’s useful to them. What someone else believes, even if it’s about me, is none of my business. I’m not so self-involved that I need to care. There are more important things. The only way information like that is ever useful is when you get it from more than one person because then you’re hearing a common perception, but even then it’s still only a report on the effect you’re having on others. You’re only obligated if you choose to be obligated. And most of the time, I choose not to be. That’s how it is. No, that’s not how I think it is. That’s how it really is. Ganny says I could out-stubborn a cat. I don’t know, I’ve never met a cat. I can out-stubborn a mountain, if that means anything, but that’s a different story. When I say something, I mean it, that’s all.

Never mind. This is about Ganny and Gampy. Whenever Gampy said we should do something, we all knew it wasn’t ever just a casual thought, but that he’d been thinking about it for a few days or weeks, goggling and thinking and probably even arguing with himself. Gampy never said anything unless he’d already decided it needed to be said.

And then, after he’d said it, he knew that Ganny and I and whoever else might be in earshot would go off on our own and ask ourselves why he’d said it and we’d do our own thinking and goggling and thinking some more and probably a lot of arguing with ourselves as well. By the time Gampy’s thoughts had finished echoing in the heads of me and Ganny and anyone else around, most of what we would have said didn’t need to be said at all. Which is fine, because after you’ve lived in space with the same people long enough, you know them so well that you know most of what they’re going to say before they say it and you really don’t need to hear it one more time, so you learn to keep your cake-hole shut unless it’s something that actually needs to be said. Like “You oughta come back in now. Your O-mix is getting a little thin.”

So when Gampy said it, he wasn’t just saying it. He was inviting the rest of us to think about it. Me, Ganny, the blue-crew, and all three of IRMA’s personality-units. The Blue Crew worked three to six months at a time, depending on orbits, personal and ecliptic, alternating with the Red Crew. Some came back, some didn’t, but Ganny and Gampy had a team of mostly-regulars and we didn’t see new faces all that often.

Sunday dinner we always ate in the wheel, where we had real pseudo-gravity and Ganny could cook the old-fashioned way. Usually we had chicken roast, because that was the tradition, but not always. Chicken was just the fastest-growing protein. And most cost-effective. Ganny was a budget-nazi. But we also had goose, duck, swan, ostrich, dodo, pigeon, rabbit, beaver, beef, horse, pork, goat, venison, elk, antelope, moose, mutton, lamb, buffalo, tuna, swordfish, salmon, shark, lobster, shrimp, sea turtle, clam, squid, snake, alligator, rhinoceros, dinosaur, or any of the hundred different hybrid-proteins Ganny was growing in the meat tanks. We also had synthetic sasquatch, bandersnatch, yeti, and tribble. If you can imagine it, someone has probably already gene-tailored it.

The thing about protein farming, you don’t have to worry about flavor too much, because you can add whatever flavor you want long before you start slicing, but you do want to pay attention to muscling, fat content, marbling, and digestibility. All the pieces of the viability equations. And of course, how you exercise the collagen web determines the texture and chewability, which is even more important than flavor. When you get all that balanced, then you either leave it alone, because some people prefer the natural flavor of the meat, or you start adding flavor components, genes, enzymes, hormones, whatever, because other people like their meat pre-spiced—but to Ganny it’s all about cost-effective protein design. So even before the tissue-starters go into the growth tanks, she’s doing targeted gene-splicing and chromosome-braiding and designer-musculature. Starsiders are always looking for better ways to turn CHON into stuff that tastes good, so you have to keep a big library of resources on hand, because you never know when someone is going to invent another new culinary fad, like rhinoceros green burrito or fried buffalo sushi or mango horse fish. On the gig there’s always something that needs harvesting and even though most of it was grown to order, it always worked out that there was enough left over for dinner, sandwiches, stews, and snacks. Ganny said it was quality control. She wouldn’t sell anything she wouldn’t eat herself. Mostly.

Being born on Earth, Ganny and Gampy still had a few dirtside prejudices. Ganny was adamant that she would never grow chimpanzee or any other kind of ape, whale, or dolphin. Also on the list were rat, mouse, squirrel, possum, bat, cat, dog, wolf, hyena, lion, tiger, eagle, vulture, and most other scavengers and predators. No monkeys or elephants either. She did keep all those stem-cells in vitro, in case someone else wanted to buy starters for their own farms, but she wouldn’t grow them for our own consumption. She did give in once on whale and dolphin, just to see, but she wasn’t happy with the amount of water it took to produce a kilo of flesh, even though the water really didn’t go anywhere and we always reclaimed it, but she said the recycling overhead had to be figured in and she felt it was prohibitive. That was what she said anyway. But while she allowed some wiggle room there, she was an absolute wall when it came to chimpanzees and other major primates. “I’m not a cannibal,” she said. “I won’t eat my cousins. Not even metaphorically. Maybe some people will, I won’t.”

Sunday dinner—that was when we did talk to each other. We shared what was important, all the stuff that needed to be said face-to-face. And if nobody said anything, which happened sometimes, because we were all too busy doing the knife-and-fork thing, slicing and stuffing and chewing and swallowing, which was the best acknowledgment of Ganny’s hard work we could give, a lot better than silly verbalizing like, “Mmm, this is good.” Of course it’s good. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be eating it. But if nobody said anything at all, Gampy would start poking. “So, Starling,” Gampy finally said to me, “What did you figure out this week?”

“Railroads,” I said. “Highways. Trucks. Costs of shipping.”

“Mm,” he said around a mouthful of something designed to approximate dinosaur, it still tasted like chicken. He chewed for a bit, swallowed, and finally asked, “And…? ”

“Well, um. If you own the tracks, you have a monopoly, you set your own prices. But if you don’t own the tracks—the roads—then everybody gets to compete, and the market determines the cost of shipping. In the ecliptic, there are no tracks, only orbits. And everybody’s got their own. So it’s like roads. It’s all about intersections. Convenient intersections.”

Gampy looked to Ganny. “See? Told you she’d get it.”

Ganny swallowed politely before answering. “Was there ever any doubt?”

Gampy looked back to me. “Go on.”

“I know we like to say that everybody comes to Rick’s, because sooner or later everybody has to come to a whirligig to slingshot into a new trajectory, but that isn’t true anymore. Not since whatsisname invented the traction drive. Used to be, they’d come for a slingshot, but now they only come if they want to fill their freezers. And that’s only locals now, and only when they need to resupply, and only if they don’t have a farm of their own. In ten years, fifteen, everybody will have tractions. Even cargo pods. So whirligigs are like internal combustion engines. Very useful, but only until people invented something more efficient.”

“Good,” said Gampy. “You might have been a little too optimistic about how quickly everyone will switch to tractors, but I might be wrong too. The human factor is always a monkey wrench.”

“What’s a monkey wrench…?”

“It’s where you raise Jewish monkeys.”

“Never mind, I’ll look it up later.”

“I’m sure you will.” Gampy stuffed another baby potato into his mouth and grinned. That was his answer to almost every question: “Look it up, I’m not going to do all the work here, you’re the one who wants to know.” Gampy said the only thing worse than not knowing how to swim in the data-sea was knowing how and never getting your feet wet for anything more than looking at people trading body fluids. I didn’t understand that one until I was eight, not because I was slow but because orbital physics was a lot more interesting than looking at boys taking off their underwear. Why do they do that anyway? I mean, okay, it’s cute enough, but after a while you have to ask, what’s the point? They all sort of look alike. Are those things really that important?

“So, kiddo,” Gampy poked again. “Is a spaceship cost-effective?”

“Yes and no. I mean, a traction drive isn’t that hard to fabricate. We could even print a couple dozen ourselves. There’s enough open-source matrices on the web, we’d only have to choose one, maybe adapt it for our needs, so it’s mostly a problem of raw materials and energy. And we wouldn’t have any problem fabbing new solar panels, three or four racks and probably a dozen new capacitor farms, so it’s only a problem of raw materials and we can cannibalize most of that from the junkyard. I’m guessing we could do it in 24 months or less. Worst-case scenario is 48 months. If we double up on the fabbers, I bet we could cut the production time to 16 months.”

Ganny looked annoyed. Gampy covered his smile with his napkin. “What’s the no part, punkin?”

“The life support system. We don’t have a hull. Unless you’re planning to cannibalize modules from the whirligig. But you’d never do that because the gig has to maintain a viability score of 350 or more for a crew of 20 and you won’t risk the numbers. I don’t know how big a crew you’re planning for the spaceship, but even a yacht needs a lot of hull space to be self-sufficient.”

“Why do we need to build a self-sufficient ship?” Gampy asked.

I gave him the look. The one that says “Why are you even bothering to ask?” It almost worked. He still gave me the “Come on, answer the question” gesture with his hand.

I took a deep breath, my way of showing him how annoyed I was that I even had to explain. “Because,” I said. And folded my arms.

Gampy laughed. Ganny smiled and said to him, “She’s got you there.”

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Conversations never really ended on the whirligig, they just spun around for a while, evolving, changing, recycling. Some of the conversations eventually flung off into space, forgotten. Others got winched in for closer examination and winched out again when they were no longer relevant. I expected this to be one of those kind of discussions, I should have known better. Gampy never wasted air. Gampy was famous for that.

Actually, Gampy was famous for a lot of things. He and Ganny were sort of like legends. As near as I could tell, everybody in the belt knew them, or at least knew of them.

The way most people know the story, Gampy built the first whirligig. He didn’t, not any more than Henry Ford built the first car, but Gampy built the first one that worked well enough to be profitable. You can look it up. Gampy started the first pipeline. And like the railroads, the pipeline made it possible for people to expand outward to Mars, the belt, and the Jovian moons. And the Saturnalias as well (their name for it, not mine).

The pipeline isn’t really a pipeline with tubes, although I’m sure a lot of dirtsiders think it is. Once, when Ganny was angry about something, she said, “Never underestimate the stupidity of dirtsiders in large groups, except when they’re alone and have to do their own thinking.” And even though I know that there some smart dirtsiders, Ganny says not to depend on it. Anyway, the way the pipeline works, cargo pods come up one of the beanstalks, Ecuador or Brazil or Kenya or mid-Pacific, and also from Mars and Luna too. The pods go all the way out to the ballast rock at the far end of the cable, unless they’re carrying cargo or passengers that can’t stand the gees, and then they go only as far as they can. At just the right moment, the pod lets go of the cable and like a stone released from the end of a sling, it goes hurtling off in whatever direction it was pointing when it let go. Most of the pods go to Luna and Mars. A lot go to the Jovian moons. And a lot go out to the Saturnalias, now that they’re getting serious about colonizing. A few more go out into deep space, those are usually long-distance robot probes. The rest come out to the belt where we catch them with the whirligig.

The whirligig is a beanstalk without a planet attached. You get a length of cable and two rocks, a kilometer is a good length, but you can do it with less—or more if you want. It works on any scale. Gampy says you really want a minimum of three cables for redundant strength, but he eventually used six, which gave him room for expansion.

You start with a cable and a construction harness. Then you catch two rocks—that’s the hard part because it involves wrassling a flying mountain, and that’s a lot of delta-vee, but if you can catch the rocks, or better yet, break one big rock into two pieces, you’re in business. You catch each rock in a big net. You loop one end of your cable around one rock, you loop the other end around the other rock. If you’re smart, like Gampy, you use multiple cables, because no matter how well you plan, you never know what surprises will happen once stress is applied.

Once you’ve got your rocks securely netted and harnessed and attached to the ends of the cables, you give each rock a push, but in opposite directions, a small push at first, just enough to start them orbiting slowly around each other like a bolo. That’s the hard part because big rocks usually have their own opinions about where they want to go. That’s what I mean about out-stubborning a mountain. Which is why as soon as you’ve got them going, you want to get out of the way, because you’ve probably miscalculated and you’re going to have to apply a lot of corrections. That’s why you start out slowly at first.

This is the part they don’t always tell you about in the engineering books. In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is. The physical universe is going to get sloppy and you have to adjust for it. Constantly. Then you start adding more push, more acceleration, until you get your bolo whirling at the rotation you need to catch and sling cargo pods. Keep making corrections until you don’t have to anymore. Wait a few days until they stabilize, then wait a few days more to see if you’ve miscalculated again.

With all that centrifugal force on the rocks, you want to be certain that they’ve finished settling. Sometimes pieces decide to fly off, which is why you want to get above or below the local ecliptic, so you’re not accidentally in the way. You want to make sure that the whole thing isn’t going to suddenly fly apart before you make a commitment. (Gampy says the same thing applies to women too.) Sometimes the stress and strain of applied “space-gravity” destabilizes the inner structure of the rocks, causing them to crack or crumble or simply rearrange themselves in their harnesses, changing their center of gravity and the center of gravity on your bolo. When you’re finally satisfied that the bolo is spinning safely, then you proceed. Then the construction harness crawls back and forth along the cable until it finds the exact center of gravity on the line. That’s where you build your hub, usually a wheel so you can spin it for gee.

Okay, so now you’ve got pumps on both ends of your pipeline. We’re at the top end—one of the top ends. The bottom end is the great big whirligig called the big blue marble. A top end is any whirligig near your intended destination, or at least on the way there. You can sling a lot of stuff back and forth between the two. The tricky part is catching the pods. There are a lot of different ways to do it. The easiest is to hang a big hook at the end of the catching line. The pod then puts out a big loop of cable, as much as a kilometer in diameter, if necessary. If you’re really cautious, you also put a hook on the pod and the gig puts out a lasso as well. The velocity differences at match-up are fairly low, usually less than a few kph. But despite all the course corrections all the way in, you only get one chance at threading the needle. And with cargo pods carrying as much as a half-billion plastic dollars’ worth of cargo at a time, you just don’t take chances. And if the pod is carrying passengers, you really do not want to let them go sailing off into space, especially if the chance of recovery is somewhere south of impossible. Gampy says that having to listen to desperate calls for help fading off into deep space can ruin your whole day.

Gampy’s whirligig outsizes everything else in this part of the belt, ten degrees east and seven degrees west, so we catch all the fastest and heaviest traffic in this slice of the arc. Seventeen degrees. And that’s a lot of arc. That’s because Gampy had the far vision. That’s what Ganny calls it. Far vision is being able to see past tomorrow. A long way past. The way Ganny tells it, Luna got too crowded for Gampy’s taste, so he hiked all the way out to the belt with a big roll of cable on his back, picked out the two biggest rocks he could find, hitched ’em together, and started ’em spinning. Then he ordered more cable. By the time the big space exploration companies got out here, Gampy had a giant spinning spiderweb with eight ballast rocks and sixteen stabilizing engines. Cargo slingshots through here for delivery to the local group or slingshots back and forth between Earth and Jupiter, Earth and Saturn, and occasionally even Earth and Mars, depending on everybody’s orbital positions. Work it out for yourself. When Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the sun, it’s faster to fling it to us and we fling it on. It’s called a double-play. Tinkers to Evers to Chance. I had to look that one up. The allegory isn’t exact, but Gampy’s a history nut, always peppering his conversations with little nuggets for me to find and research. He does it on purpose. It’s the game we’ve played for as long as I can remember. But no matter how sharp I get, he’s still the bear, I’m still the cub.

When a pod gets out here, it doesn’t have to slow down. It only has to arrive at the right speed and the right time so that it momentarily matches trajectory with one of the spinning arms as it comes around. There are a lot of different spinning arms, different lengths, different positions, so there’s a little wiggle room on the final approach, but not much. And IRMA takes over control of the pod on its way in and manages the entire docking maneuver. (If the pod doesn’t let IRMA take control, we don’t catch it. No matter what’s on board.)

After a pod latches on, after the hooks and loops catch, there’s a few moments of load-balancing, because even with all the ballast rocks in place, the whirligig’s center of gravity has shifted and we either have to pump some water around or winch some other pods in or out, or both. IRMA manages that.

Some pods we winch down to the hub—and that requires more load-balancing. Others, we just wait for the next convenient launch window and send them whirling off to their next destination. Gampy says it’s a lot cheaper for the big money to pay us to catch and sling cargo pods than build their own whirligigs. Gampy says that’s how he became one of the first trillionaires in the ecliptic. On paper, anyway.

At any given moment, Gampy had maybe 950 billion dollars’ worth of cargo in transit outward and maybe another 125 billion in value headed back, depending on market value. But depending on where the pods were launched from, depending on whether or not they had to slingshot around something, the outbound journey could take as long as three years. Complicating the matter, pods could only be launched when there was an open catching window for them at whatever point in the future they were scheduled to arrive, so the computations could get tricky.

But belters can’t wait three years for supplies, not even three weeks if it’s air and water they need. So Gampy always bought a lot of stuff on margin against a slice of long-term earnings. What that meant was that technically Gampy owned the cargo until the recipient paid for it. Somewhere, in some dirtside bank, somebody would subtract a few zeroes from one account and add them to another. Out in the belt, nobody starves, nobody suffocates. That’s not just the Starsider ethic, that was Gampy’s rule. “Out here, the equations are as warm as we can make them. Anybody doesn’t like that way of business can go somewhere else.” Except for the longest time there was nowhere else.

Gampy never turned anyone away. If he had it to give, he gave. Only once did he have a problem with one family of belters. They didn’t pay their bills. Even with all the computerized projections and advisories they had available to them, they always knew better, until eventually they mismanaged themselves into a very ambitious bankruptcy, but they kept on anyway. Because Gampy kept resupplying them for a lot longer than he should have. Until finally, it became obvious they were never going to work their way out of their very deep hole. They wouldn’t take any of the little jobs Gampy offered them because they still believed in the big score, the solid-gold asteroid. Those little jobs would have kept them going and Gampy could have recouped some of their debts. But no. They were too proud to take little jobs. So finally, one night, Gampy loaded them up with just enough fuel and almost enough food to get to Mars, and as soon as they were all asleep in their ship, he slung them off to Mars. They made it, but they were really hungry when they arrived. The way Ganny tells it, a lot of other belters started paying their bills on time Real Quickly after that.

Every so often, some dirtsider complains about the amount of product that comes out to the whirligigs, enough to supply a small town for a couple of years, enough to build two or three long-riders. “I thought they’re supposed to be self-sufficient. Why are we still supporting them? That money should be spent on the poor—not on spoiled starsiders.”

But they don’t understand. The whirligig has to be a warehouse. Maybe it’s the way they live, everything is too easy. If you can waddle down to the corner store and pick whatever you want off the shelf, you don’t worry too much about how it got there or where it came from in the first place or what it took to get it there because the next day the shelf is full again. Dirtsiders don’t have to think about where their next breath of air or drink of water is coming from, so they don’t stop to think that the rest of us do. Everyone who lives starside.

But the ones who do understand, the ones on the bottom end of the pipeline, they’re even worse. Because every so often, one of those cute little business-school graduates figures that he can boost his bottom line by raising prices on the belters. Charge a dollar more per cubic liter of oxygen, two bucks processing fee for clean water, decontamination surtax for every item loaded into a cargo pod, no problem. It adds up. What are the belters going to do? Take their business elsewhere? Where? Negotiate a new deal? With whom?

The last time Gampy got one of those “New Fee Schedule” messages he replied with a new fee schedule of his own. “Service fee for new software processing to prevent returning capsules from accidentally falling into the Pacific Ocean or onto a continental landmass.” The service fee was considerable. Enough to offset all the surcharges and processing fees and surtaxes. That was a fun negotiation. It lasted for eleven and a half months. Until a few of the capsules started falling into the Pacific. Including one very expensive capsule with a lot of stuff they really didn’t want to lose. Oops. My bad. I told you we needed to update the software. Then they paid attention. Gampy appointed himself the ad hoc negotiator for all the belters and refused to back down until three planetary authorities agreed to regulate cargo launch costs more honestly. Gampy even wrote in a clause guaranteeing a cost of living margin for all the cargo handlers on the ground as well as the ones in space, so that guaranteed popular support from the important people on both ends of the line. A lot of dirtsiders weren’t very happy about it. They said words like arrogant and blackmail and terrorism and wanted to stop sending us supplies at all. Obviously, they didn’t think that one all the way through.

It wasn’t a great relationship, but it worked. Gampy said it was about power. If you have it, sometimes you have to use it—to remind people that you have it. Otherwise they’ll think you don’t have it. But the whirligigs were important, just too important to the economies of four worlds and a handful of lesser settlements. Nobody could afford to get into a prolonged fight. The alternative was to accelerate things the old-fashioned way, by boosting a lot of fuel into orbit and using half of it to accelerate and the other half to decelerate. And twice as much more if you expected to bring anything or anyone back, because you pay a fuel penalty to boost the mass of your fuel, too. So before the traction drive was invented, the whirligigs were the cheapest way to sling things around the system.

It took a while to get the big traction drives out of the labs, but even before the first tractor ships started shooting around the system, everybody knew that the role of the whirligigs would be changed. Probably diminished. To run a pipeline, you need a sling at both ends, but a tractor can go directly from point to point and usually a lot faster. Cargo doesn’t care how long a trip takes, passengers do.