Groombridge 34: Deep Space
The journey from Eravapa to Groombridge 34 had taken nearly ten days, despite the fact that it was a distance of only 127 light years as the Thargoid flies. As we flew deeper into Federation territory, the increasing frequency of Federal Navy patrols made it increasingly difficult to get closer to the target system. I zig-zagged Fell From The Top(...) as much as possible through independent systems, steering away from following a direct path to Groombridge 34, to throw off the suspicions of anyone using the services of information brokers to track the movement of my ship and making lengthy stopovers in the starports to make it look like I was negotiating for one-off courier or cargo transportation contracts in region. I even submitted half-hearted tenders for missions that would give me reason for edging closer to the target system, though I had no real intention of taking them up. I simply wanted to create a false data trail that would make it more difficult for Federation spies to deduce the real reason behind my incursion into the heart of Federation space. If the Federal Navy suspected that there was a threat to the capital ship drydock and the half-finished Dreadnought under construction there, the Federal Navy would lock down access to the system in an instant, making any assault impossible. My approach was also complicated by the nature of the weapons I was carrying. Any active police scan on my ship would reveal the true nature of the torpedoes I had primed and ready on their launch pylons, so I had to be wary not to attract attention even in politically neutral, independent systems. The time I was berthed at starports had to be weighed carefully between the risk of having an overly curious customs official investigate my ship during a random walkabout inspection versus the benefit of keeping out of sight of the network of information traders that tracked the passage of ships in and out of systems.
To avoid arousing the suspicions of Federal spies as I infiltrated deeper into the Sol bubble, I continued to play the part of an independent freelancer, spending days bartering for contracts I had no intention of winning, intermixed with frenzied sorties bounty hunting at nav beacons that doubled as combat-training sessions for Karina, giving her detailed descriptions of the tactics I was employing as I took down dozens of pirate vessels. To confuse anyone keeping tabs on my ship's movements and looking for patterns, I occasionally dropped off the grid entirely for up to two days at a time, laying over in uninhabited anarchy systems, safely out of sight on the surface of asteroids or small, uninhabited icy worlds not worthy of the attention of miners. When I felt that the data trail had gone sufficiently cold, I made the final jump from the uninhabited Ross 248 system to the target system, less than twelve light years from Sol, almost at the very heart of the Federation.
Upon arriving in at Groombridge 34 itself, Karina and I had needed to work quickly to avoid detection by the local security forces, plotting and executing an in-system frame shift jump of some 800,000 light seconds to take us out of sight and well beyond the inhabited regions of the binary star system, into the Oort Cloud, a volume cluttered with icy, rocky and metallic bodies that orbited on the fringes of interstellar space. This far out from the core of the binary system we were more likely to encounter Thargoids than a Federation patrol. While some of the interstellar wreckage did have real intrinsic value, these comets-in-waiting were diffusely spread across a volume more than three light years in diameter, so were far too uneconomical to mine, compared with the easier to access and more densely resourced heavy metal rich planets in the system. For most people, the Oort Cloud was little more than an astronomical oddity, a failed planet being slowly nudged by gravitational perturbations a piece at a time into the inner heart of the system, flaring briefly out of obscurity as the intense solar winds transformed the lumps of debris into spectacular comets, before being flung back out into the darkness by the very gravitational forces that had tugged them so fleetingly into the light.
My own reasons for visiting the innermost fringes of the cloud were twofold. Firstly, it was the perfect location for me to tap into the data feeds from the stealthed recon probes monitoring the shipyard without risking discovered by the system security force or a Federal Naval vessel. Secondly, it was the only place in the system where I would be able to find a metal-rich asteroid of the right size and density to cover my infiltration of the facility. It took the better part of a day to find a suitable comet nucleus, an irregular ellipsoid, approximately 400 metres long, 300 metres wide, by 250 metres deep. The iron-rich lump had an average density of seven tonnes per cubic metre, making it easily capable of masking my vessel from active sensor scans, though this high density did pose one very large problem. The asteroid had a mass of almost nine million tonnes, meaning that it would severely damage my frame shift drive during the transit into the vicinity of the shipyard. The asteroid would have been easier to move with the ship's main thrusters, but the sheer distance involved made such an approach impractical. The Federation's ship builders would have been able to finish constructing the battlecruiser years before we ever arrived.
In anticipation of the likelihood that my ship's frame shift drive would take overload damage during the supercruise as I towed in my cover from the Oort Cloud, I had replaced one of Fell From The Top(...)'s cargo racks with a Automatic Field Maintenance Unit. The devices were most commonly used by long range explorers and prospectors operating beyond the bubble of civilised space to repair heat damage to critical subsystems caused by close encounters with solar coronae. Provided that the supercruise transition didn't utterly destroy the frame shift drive (ASTRA had assured me that it wouldn't), the AFMU would be able to restore sufficient life to the FSD module to allow us to escape out of the system. The challenge would be getting close enough to launch an attack on the half-finished battlecruiser and get out again without being detected and destroyed. ASTRA and I had developed a plan, which had simmed out on average with a success rate of just over 50%, more than double that of a direct assault, but it still relied heavily on good timing and no small measure of luck.
I used the smaller of my two beam lasers to carve out a recess in the surface of the asteroid that would partially conceal my ship, letting ASTRA autopilot the ship down into the reshaped crater. Despite having a mass of almost nine million tonnes, the asteroid's gravitational field was so weak, only a few hundred thousandths of a standard g, that ASTRA had to secure the ship to the surface by magnetising the landing struts. The crater walls surrounding the ship were tall enough to prevent the major part of the fuselage from being observed except from directly above, though the nose of the ship had to be left partially exposed not to obstruct the view from the canopy. We would be reliant on picking up threats visually, since we could not afford to risk carrying out active scans during the approach to the shipyard.
With my ship safely concealed, Karina and I retreated to the gallery and my quarters for some food and rest, waiting patiently for the intelligence probes that had been dropped off in the system some days earlier by one of Zemina's other operatives to transmit their hourly microbursts of information. I wanted at least a week's worth of data, tracking naval patrols and other ship activity within the system, to be able to find patterns and establish what the routines were for the shipyard's defence force. It would be another nine hours before I felt we had sufficient intelligence for ASTRA to perform a proper stochastic analysis on the data, that might uncover any potential flaws or windows of opportunity in the shipyard's security protocols. Between meals, Karina spent a few hours on the bridge, running through combat simulations and practicing some of the tactics I'd shown her during the bounty hunting sorties we'd flown on the way. Watching discreetly over her shoulder, I was again impressed with the subtlety of her feel for the flight controls. While they were perhaps not quite good enough yet to chance giving her control of the ship in a real engagement, she appeared to have the spatial awareness and threat assessment instincts that could make her a decent combat pilot. For a moment I almost regretted not being able to have her fly interference as a wingman in a second ship, but even if we did have another vessel at our disposal, it wouldn't have increased our odds of success enough to have been worth the risk. Besides, simulations were one thing, the real stresses of fight-or-die combat were quite another; and I would need Karina's eyes to keep watch for incoming danger during our infiltration of the shipyard. I tried to keep my advice to an absolute minimum, letting her learn from her tactical mistakes and as the hours passed, her decision-making improved to the point where she was able to consistently take down wings of small fighters without losing shields. I resolved to tell ASTRA to up the stakes for her next session by throwing much more resilient targets such as Vultures and Pythons into the mix.
"You're really getting better, Karina." I told her, as I eased myself down into the co-pilot's seat.
"Thank you, master." Karina gave me a brittle smile, her cheeks flushing slightly as she flexed her long, slender fingers on the controls.
"How about a real test? ASTRA, run up combat training package #5." I ordered the AI as I activated the flight controls on the co-pilot seat. "Flying against AIs can teach you the basics, but there's nothing quite like flying up against another person."
"CTP #5 loaded. 1v1 Sidewinder duel." ASTRA intoned happily, resetting the canopy HUD to a side-by-side split screen projection. "Starting simulation in 10 seconds."
"Compared to the Clipper, the Sidey's a tin can powered by balloons, armed with catapults." I told Karina, smiling. "But I've seen great pilots take down Anacondas in one. Admittedly with a little help from the local police, but still."
"3, 2, 1... weapons are free." ASTRA said, releasing the flight controls.
The simulation had us separated by five kilometres, beyond weapons range. The virtual ships we were flying had no frills or extras installed, just stock components, as if they had just come fresh off the production line. I saw Karina engage her afterburners, keen to get into weapons range as soon as possible. The direct approach definitely had its merits, but I reserved the energy in my engine capacitor, throttling up to maximum, but switching my power priorities to weapons and shields, content to let Karina come to me. I resisted the temptation to look across at her or her screen as our virtual ships closed, 4.5km... 4km... 3.5km... and as I anticipated, Karina instantly opened fire as soon as our ships passed the 3km mark. I added another power pip to my shields, increasing their recharge rate, switching off the flight assistance and using the Sidewinder's lateral, ventral and dorsal thrusters to jink randomly, rolling quickly to add a corkscrew motion to the closure manoeuvre, making even more difficult for Karina to hit me at extreme range with fixed weapons.
"Stay still, dammit." I heard Karina mutter, concentrating intensely.
"Don't hold back there, Karina. I won't." I replied, trying not to sound too snide or overconfident. She had managed to knock almost 50% off my shield strength, showing that she was at least competent with fixed weapons.
"Then why aren't you firing?" Karina snapped back, the first signs of stress entering her voice.
"Because I'm waiting for your weapons capacitor to run dry." I told her, using my vertical thrusters to extend the radius of my turn, trying to drop in behind Karina's ship. The weapons fire from her ship became more staccato and intermittent as the power distributor struggled to keep ahead of the energy drain from Karina's constant fire. Now that we were within 1000m of each other, I finally opened up with the Sidewinder's twin fixed pulse lasers. Even laser beams lost intensity with increasing distance, meaning that they became exponentially more effective the closer you used them to the target. Too late, Karina realised her mistake, but by the time she reassigned her power priorities to her weapons, I had stripped away her ship's shields with half a dozen shots in less than ten seconds. Karina showed great imagination with her evasive manoeuvring, but having lost her shields, drained her engines capacitor in her haste to the initial joust and emptied her weapons energy supplies too early by engaging beyond optimum laser range, she had made a series of predictable mistakes that would have been fatal in a real combat situation. Mistakes that were entirely understandable, considering her lack of piloting experience, and ones that killed thousands of new Commanders daily, all across civilised space.
"Fuck." Karina cursed through gritted teeth, realising that she couldn't out-turn my ship, she redirected power away from her weapons to make a break for free space, hoping to regain enough breathing space to recharge her shields and mount another attack. Having reserved the energy in my engines capacitor, I let her gain some distance before engaging my afterburners, tailing her mercilessly, twin concussive reports from my pulse lasers ripping apart the hull of the virtual Sidewinder at point blank range until it disintegrated in a shower of sparks. Karina looked over at me, irritated by her failure. "How did you do that?"
"I'm not telling you yet." I grinned back at her, making her scowl even more. "Come on, let's see how much you learned. ASTRA, reset the program."
"Acknowledged, my lord. Starting in 3, 2, 1... weapons are free."
This time Karina's approach was much more cautious, saving her afterburner energy for a separation manoeuvre. She still opened fire at extreme range as soon as we closed to within 3 kilometres, but was slightly more restrained with her weapons fire, more considered and less profligate. I was still able to dodge a lot of her fire using my strafing thrusters, disabling the flight assistance to allow my velocity vector to drift, increasing the ship's responsiveness through turns. I could see that Karina hadn't discovered the advantages of disabling the flight assistance when fighting equally agile ships yet, and I wonder whether she would be able to figure it out on her own, or whether I would need to tell her. Again, I waited until our ships were within 1000 metres of each other before opening fire, only discharging my weapons when I was certain it would achieve a hit, allowing me to prioritise the shields and engines in my power distribution assignments, reinforcing the protective energy envelope surrounding my ship and giving my Sidewinder a crucial edge in its speed and manoeuvrability compared to Karina's. Karina was still able to score the odd glancing blow to my shields, and they teetered on the verge of collapse just as I started to make headway against the integrity of the exposed hull of Karina's Sidewinder. When I had reduced her ship's hull strength to 60% her nerve broke, boosting away for clear space as her shields began to recharge. The impulse was as understandable as it was fatal. I activated my own afterburners, using the extra momentum to cut off the corner of the turn, dropping in three hundred metres behind her ship. In just a handful of seconds, it was all over. Karina threw up her hands in despair, cursing me vilely in her native tongue.
"The third time's the charm, Karina." I reassured her. "Once more?"
Karina growled, whispering terrible oaths under her breath, but nodded her agreement. This time, Karina mirrored my own approach, saving the energy in her afterburner reservoir and weapons capacitor until we had approached to within one kilometre. It was only my greater experience and better power management that had my ship's shields in better shape following the initial joust: Karina's ship was down to 31% shield strength, whilst my Sidewinder still had 47% shield capacity remaining. This time Karina's nerve didn't buckle, prolonging the engagement and using her strafing thrusters to enter a seemingly never-ending sequence of vertical rolling scissors, our ships trading off velocity for turn rate and vice versa, exchanging hits as our ships twisted and tumbled though space. We circled around each other, like prowling tigers lashing out at any sign of weakness, gradually wearing down our shields into oblivion, the dull ringing of simulated dual laser strikes against fragile hull plating ringing in our ears. Karina refused to back down after her shields failed, continuing to fight and make inroads into my own hull strength, even though her ship's hull was 20% closer to destruction than mine. I had eked out this advantage by diverting the power distribution away from my now useless shield systems to my weapons and engines, making my ship more nimble to avoid Karina's fire and my weapon strikes pack a greater, more frequent punch. Karina cursed again in frustration, but instead of submitting to the inevitable attrition of my pulse laser strikes against her hull, she lit her afterburners, ramming my ship and inflicting catastrophic damage before I had a chance to react.
"Eject, eject, eject..." ASTRA instructed in stereo to us both.
I turned to look across at Karina, unable to stop myself from laughing. "We'll call that one a draw."
"How do you do it, master? Why do you always beat me?" Karina asked, still frustrated.
"You almost had me on that last joust." I reassured her, truthfully. "My flight instructor Jay taught me that a combateer had to remember one thing if they wanted to survive in combat."
"What's that, master?"
"That they should fight as if they were already dead. That you never quit against an equal opponent, no matter what. Survival in a dogfight is rarely a matter of reflexes, talent or what ship you're flying. It's about who wants to live the most. But if you're going to run, run before the shooting starts. Wimping out in the middle of a battle never ends well."
Karina swallowed apprehensively, before nodding, feeling chastened. "Yes, master."
"Don't feel so bad, Karina. You did well. I've had years more practice on the stick than you have." I walked around the central console on the bridge to rest a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "With the proper training, you could be a great pilot."
"Do you really think so, master?" Karina asked, looking up at me with an incredulous look on her face.
"I know so." I bent down to kiss her briefly on the lips, stroking the back of her neck affectionately. "I think I'm going to get some sleep. You should, too. Tomorrow could be a long day."
The pneumatic hiss of the door to my stateroom opening roused me from a fitful, unsatisfying doze. I had fallen asleep at my desk, reviewing the intelligence reports beamed to my ship by the stealthed recon probes distributed throughout the Groombridge 34 system, trying to find openings in the shipyard's defences, even though ASTRA was already busy with her analysis - the outcome of which the AI had promised me by the morning.
"Master Aemon? I can't sleep."
"What's up, Karina?" I asked, still not entirely awake. I blinked, rubbing my tired eyes and sitting upright in my chair. When I able to focus properly I was confronted with the sight of Karina standing just centimetres away from me, naked, save for a pair of nanofibre "geckoskin" deck socks - their powerful van der Waal's forces all that was securing her to the floor in the microgravity surrounding the metallic asteroid we had chosen to harbour the ship.
Karina put her arms around my neck, drawing me towards her, resting my cheek against her breast and holding me tight. "ASTRA says we're probably going to die tomorrow. Is that true?"
"ASTRA ought to keep her fucking mouth shut." I snarled, consoling Karina by hugging her back, my arms encircling her slim waist. "It's a dangerous mission, Karina. The odds of success aren't great."
"So this might be our last night together?"
"I hope not."
"But it might be?"
"Then spend it with me, master. Let me love you." Karina implored, letting her nipples linger enticingly against my lips.
We had not slept together since our liaison at Tomani and though it had been almost two weeks, my attraction to Karina had not diminished. She breathed heavily and rapidly with excitement as I kissed her breasts, carrying her almost effortlessly in the microgravity to my bunk. She welcomed me inside her, riding me fiercely, only objecting when we shifted to a position that wouldn't allow us to maintain eye contact.
"I need to see that it's you, master." she told me.
Later, as we lay arm in arm beneath the covers to stop ourselves from floating around the room in the near zero-g, I lazily stroked Karina's back beneath her long golden hair, my fingertips tracing over the crazed web of paper-thin scar tissue, that looked as if it had been spun by a caffeine-addled spider.
"Master, why do you always touch my scars? Don't you think they make me ugly?"
"They're just a part of what make you you, Karina. Just as much as your eyes, your hair, your legs or your breasts." I told her, making her giggle and squirm as I kissed her back, tracing the tip of my tongue along the pale, hard lash marks. "They can't disguise or distort how beautiful you are as a person."
Karina turned over, hooking her thighs around my waist and putting her arms around my shoulders, drawing me closer to her. "You think I'm beautiful, master?"
I groaned as she drew me inside her, arousing my desire for her again in an instant. "Oh yes, Karina. You're beautiful."
"Then love me, master. Please love me." Karina urged. Our eyes never broke contact, locked in a mutual gaze of exquisite intimacy, communicating our need to each become one half of a complete being that only existed when we shared our bodies and souls. Our climax, when it eventually came, had us clinging to each other, breathless. "Oh, master... I love you."
"I love you too, Karina." I replied, after only the slightest hesitation, though still unsure whether I had simply said it because it seemed like the right thing to say, or because I actually meant it.
"Master, let's not die tomorrow." Karina said, squeezing my shoulders. The intensity of the look in her eyes could have ignited magnesium.
I smiled back down at her, still panting for air. "Yeah, I agree. Dying would be a really bad idea."