Again, let me repeat, this is not a story based on canon law for Fading Suns, Dune, WH40k, Traveller or any other published setting. It is my development that pinches ideas from these sources.
Way out past the edge of solar systems can be found star gates. These are massive rings, some thousands of kilometres in circumference that humans have now discovered and are using, built by an ancient and extinct alien species. These gates connect to one another, giving near instantaneous travel between these places. To use this means of transportation a ship must be equipped with a ‘warp’ drive, and have advanced think-machines that can process the massive amounts of data necessary and be able to interpret the so-called gate-keys that code for the transit. Gate-keys are jealously guarded by the Charioteers’ Guild, a professional engineering and piloting organisation that has the monopoly on reproduction and possession of the keys. Reproduction is all that humans have managed so far – coding new keys has not yet been reverse engineered from the ancient alien examples.
Near each gate the Charioteers’ Guild maintains a permanently crewed station. This is port control. When a ship arrives at the gate it calls port control and asks for transit permission. Control will have had plenty of lead time as the ship would have been seen coming and communications would have been long ago established. The exiting ship will be fitted into the schedule and then will wait the hours or days until it is time to go. When ready, a Pilot from the guild comes aboard carrying the relevant key and any other special equipment or private messages. The ship is then pushed towards the gate by the port authority tugs, and then passes through, out of the universe for a short period of time and then, if all has gone well, back into the universe many light years away.
When the ship arrives in the new system, the new port control makes contact, flash-sends any important data, and one of the escorting tugs that has recorded the flight data is ejected to snap back through the gate to report successful transfer. This usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. If no confirmation arrives back at the exit system after half an hour, emergency procedures begin, locking down the gate and sending investigative drones, then crewed emergency vessels.
Assuming that everything has gone well, and gate accidents are rare but not impossible, the Pilot exits the ship to the port control station, and the ship is free to head in-system. Using local tug boats and thrusters, the ship is manoeuvred away from the gate. This can take hours to days to ensure that when the big engines come on they do not cause any damage. When ready, and courses have been plotted, the ship starts up its fusion-torches and accelerates away. At the half way point to the target planet the torches are extinguished, the ship turns around, and then reignites the engines to decelerate. This accelerate, rotate, decelerate routine can take anything up to six months. The plumes of the deceleration are visible to the target system for this period, filling the skies like comets. There is little to no chance of ‘sneaking up’ on a planet.
For big ships like the Typhoon Maiden (TyMa), a floating trading city, throughout this period communications have been going on with the inhabited places in the new solar system. Merchants will be researching and then reaching out to potential markets in order to buy and sell goods. By the time the ship comes to rest over a planet the wheels of commerce are already spinning and the process of logistics takes over: getting the shuttles to the surface with goods to sell and getting the bought goods back to the ship and stored – all as quickly as possible and certainly ahead of competitors. Anyone still wondering what they are going to do by the time they get into orbit have already missed all the lucrative deals.
The TyMa typically stays in orbit around the main inhabited planet for one to two years, allowing trade not only between the man planet but with any other inhabited bodies. It is rare that a big ship like the TyMa would shuttle around a solar system from planet to planet – instead it makes the small ships come to it. This allows for a lot of trade to be conducted, and for a ship that would probably have a regular circuit of worlds (though possibly taking decades to complete) this allows a certain amount of future planning to occur. “That was a great batch of whisky. When I’m back in ten years I’ll have some of the batch you’re putting down now,” for example.
Also while in orbit there will be movement of people. Some people will want to move off the ship and settle down on a planet. Others will decide they want a taste of travel and will come aboard. Along with the legal and documented transfers there will be the normal deserters from the ship, and stowaways to the ship. Given the size of the TyMa, with its official capacity of 18,000, keeping track of even the legal citizens is hard. This movement of people, especially since the ship is civilian and therefore people are technically free to do anything they want, means that knowledge of occupation is only approximate.
Once all transfers are complete, the ship is manoeuvred out of orbit and transits to the gate. It takes almost the exact same time to get back to the gate as it took to come from the gate, allowing for the differences in orbits that will have occurred in between. But importantly, there are no shortcuts.