Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Explorer - Epilogue

LTT 4961: 291 days since departure from Conway City

With Andromeda's hull having both the durability and appearance of a scorched patchwork quilt, Mya had taken an executive decision and decreed that we should bypass all but the most profitable first discoveries and make our way back to Alliance space as quickly as possible. It took us a little over a month to reach the fringes of the Local Bubble and we timed our final run into LTT 4961 to coincide with the early hours of the morning, Galactic Standard Time, when any self-respecting privateer or pirate surely would have drunk themselves into a catatonic, alcohol-induced stupor. The Coriolis starport of Conway City was a welcome sight, its cyan blue lights burning brightly in the umbra cast over the station by the nearby volcanic planet it orbited. The short supercruise jaunt from the nav beacon had passed without incident, and the traffic controller welcomed us back politely when we signalled for permission to dock on pad 28, the very same pad we had left from.

Mya landed the Asp Explorer with just a barely perceptible jolt on the docking pad. I ascended the ladder from my station as Mya had Andromeda withdraw into the hangar bay, where the ship could be repaired and refurbished by the station's expert technicians. I stood behind Mya's right shoulder, holding onto her acceleration chair for support as she ran up the Universal Cartographics interface on the HUD.

"So, how much did we make?" I asked, resisting the temptation to take a seat on the armrest of Mya's chair.
"It'll take a good while yet for UC to download all the data from the discovery scanner." Mya said, resigned to a long wait. "You might as well get changed into something more comfortable. When I've finished the upload I'll take you out and buy you breakfast."

It was almost lunchtime before I heard Mya whoop with joy, her voice echoing all the way from the flight deck into the engineering bay, where I was switching the FSD and power plant into maintenance mode, so that they could be repaired by the station's service crews later that afternoon. I limped back to the bridge as fast as my weakened right leg would allow, to see Mya dancing enthusiastically around her acceleration chair.

"Well?" I raised an eyebrow at her expectantly.
"33.7 million." Mya leapt into my arms, practically knocking me to the deck. "But that's not the best part. I've been promoted to Explorer Elite!"
"Congratulations!" I kissed Mya and let her lead me on a waltz around the ship that ended in her stateroom.
"Screw breakfast. We're going out to celebrate properly." Mya declared, stripping off her flight suit and digging through her wardrobe for something appropriate to wear. "Give me a few minutes to get dressed."

Half an hour later, we were back in Perla's Palazzo, our expedition ending where it had began, nearly ten months ago. To complete the sense of symmetry, both Mya and I were wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and drinking the same wine as we had during that first meeting, though the nature of the conversation was very different. Instead of planning an expedition, we were planning a wedding. Before embarking on our Grand Tour, Mya and I agreed to meet each other's families and hold the ceremony on Mya's home planet, Wicca's World in the Alioth system. I dreaded what kind of reception my parents - both staunch supporters of the Federation - would get at the very heart of the Alliance, but they would have to restrain their political vociferousness if they wanted to attend the wedding. The second reason why the symmetry of the occasion wasn't quite perfect was that by the end of the meal we had drunk five bottles of wine, rather than three, somewhat compromising the possibility that we might be able to do something useful with the rest of the day. Mya paid the bill and we made our way slowly, but unsteadily back to the docking bay. When we got out of the lift from the station's commercial concourse, Mya turned left instead of right.
"Mya? Just how drunk are you?" I asked, tugging her gently to a halt with my arm looped through hers. "Bay 28 isn't that way."
"We're not going to Docking Bay 28." Mya turned her head to fix me with a mischievous gaze, her voice mildly slurred. My internal danger sense immediately started sending out urgent distress calls.
"We're not?" I asked doubtfully, unnerved by Mya's tipsy smile.
"No. We're going to Docking Bay 19." Mya said, taking both my hands in hers and walking backwards to tug me along with her.
"Why? What's in Docking Bay 19?"
"Our ship."
"You had Andromeda moved?"
"I don't understand."
"You will in a minute." Mya told me enigmatically, her smile getting wider and wider across her pretty face. It was the most terrifying thing I'd seen since facing down Zhukov's Fer-de-Lance from point-blank range at Sagittarius A*. "Remember when I told you that grandfather gave me an endowment on my 18th birthday?"
"From his memorial trust fund, yes." I nodded. "To help you kickstart your career. You used it to buy your first ship. An Adder, I believe."
"Well remembered." Mya stopped to give me a quick peck on the cheek in congratulation, before continuing to tug me along the access corridor. "I didn't quite tell you everything, though. That's not the only thing I used the money for."
"This doesn't sound ominous at all."
"I also bought a share in a mining co-op franchise. These things go in and out of business all the time, so a 50% share was quite cheap, but high risk, because it's difficult to tell how profitable a particular ring system is going to be."
"Where was the franchise based?"
"Delkar 7." Mya said, her brown eyes sparkling.
"The biggest source of platinum, palladium and painite in the Alliance." Mya nodded as we came to a stop outside the access hatch to the hangar for Docking Bay 19. "The franchise was... quite profitable."
"How profitable?" I asked dryly.
"See for yourself." Mya stepped back to the bulkhead and opened the airlock to the hangar with a retina and fingerprint scan. I couldn't believe my eyes when the hatch rolled open. I tottered uncertainly into the hangar, dwarfed by the ship inside.
"Oh my god. Mya, this is yours?" I turned back to look at her, my mouth agape. I looked back at the ship and blinked. At over 150 metres long, 62 metres wide and standing 32 metres tall, this immense spearhead of a vessel oozed power, status and solidity. "Mya... just how much are you worth?"
"A tad over 840 million." Mya said casually as she stood at my side and wrapped an arm around my waist. "Just over a quarter of that is tied up in this beauty. She's brand new. Straight out of the Faulcon DeLacy shipyards."
"It was my dream to fly an Anaconda." I smiled, before turning to look at Mya. "There's just one problem... It's pink."
"Desert Sand." Mya corrected.
"Pink." I repeated, adamant.
"When you can afford your own Anaconda, you can pick the damn colour." Mya said warningly. "My ship, my choice of paint job."
"Seriously, though? Pink?" I asked, getting a playful smack across the back of the legs for my trouble.
"I'm not changing it." Mya giggled, kissing my cheek. "How do you fancy the Grand Tour now, Petr?"
"In that? When do we start?" Elated, I kissed Mya back, hugging her tightly in both arms. "Though, umm, doesn't the Anaconda fly best with three?"
"We'll just have to work on a third crew member." Mya replied suggestively, before kissing my lips so passionately that I never wanted it to end.

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Explorer - Chapter Nine

Stuemeae RJ-Q e5-583: 258 days out from Conway City

It was several hours after our miraculous escape from Zhukov at Sagittarius A* before we finally felt safe. Mya put the longer hyperspace legs of Andromeda to good use, performing a sequence of twelve back-to-back, maximum range frame shift jumps taking us three hundred light years out towards the galactic rim, adding doglegs to our route every ninety light years to make it impossible for the pirate explorer to track us or predict with where we might have gone. The frame shift wake from our third jump would have dissipated by the time the shorter ranged Fer-de-Lance would have been able to make the journey, but Mya didn't want to take any chances. Only once we had put tens of millions of star systems between us and Zhukov did Mya redirect our path back towards occupied space. We were nearly twenty-six thousand light years from home, and Andromeda had taken a real battering.

All of the internal systems had taken at least 15% damage from having to make a frame shift jump while silent running, but the frame shift drive was down to 64% integrity and there were hairline fractures across a third of the canopy. The hull was in even worse shape, with more than a dozen minor hull breaches scattered across the spaceframe. The biggest worry was the hole exposing the frame shift drive. Mya set the ship down on the illuminated face of a rocky moon facing its parent gas giant and the B-type star they both orbited so that we could inspect the damage first-hand in the bright, blue-white light. Mya had selected the moon for its particularly low surface gravity of 0.13g, citing that it would help us when trying to install patches on the hull. Mya was waiting for me at the top of the ladder, her RemLok helmet in hand as I hauled myself painfully up, rung after rung, trying not to put any weight on my weaker leg. She helped me out onto the deck and hugged me to her hard, wrapping her arms around me and resting her head against my neck.

"That was a close one." Mya said, reaching up to immerse her fingers in the hair on the back of my head.
"Too close." I agreed, kissing her underneath the ear. "Let's never do that again."
"Yeah. Sag A*'s a place you only need to go to once, anyway. See one supermassive black hole and you've seen them all." Mya joked, kissing me back to relieve the tension and reassure herself that we were indeed still alive. "Sorry I didn't have to the chance to explain about the overshoot manoeuvre, but it was the only way to get him off our tail and not have him trash the FSD."
"That didn't freak me out quite so much as playing chicken in an unarmed, unshielded vessel." I said pointedly.
"It was a judgment call. I was sure his nerve would break first. You don't pirate unarmed ships 26 kylies from occupied space if you're brave." Mya replied, sighing gently as I continued to kiss the smooth skin on the side of her neck.
"Well, we're still alive, so it must have been a good call." I smiled, hugging her tighter. "I love you, Mya."
"I know, Petr. But right now, I think we need to fuck." Mya said, pulling me into her stateroom.

I was woken up much later by Mya languidly stroking my chest as she lay against my left side, looking down at my face with the expression of someone simply happy to be alive to face another day. I gazed back into the depths of her beautiful brown eyes, wondering what she was thinking.

"Hey, what's up?" I asked, letting my arms snake around her slender waist.
"Petr, I think I'm ready for that talk now."
"Which talk?"
"You know, the talk. About us." Mya's smile waned a little. "Petr, I love you."
"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?"
"Because it makes me terrified of losing you, like I almost did yesterday, or when you were injured by the barnacle." Mya explained. "I never thought I was actually capable of loving someone until now."
"What was that you told me about risk versus reward?" I asked wryly. "Do you want to answer the door or not?"
"I do, I really do." Mya said, moulding her lithe body against mine. "But not if you're planning on going your own way when we get back to Conway. I don't think I could take that. What do you want, Petr?"
"Mya, I never expected to love you, not when I signed on for the trip. But I do. I want to be with you every waking second. Marriage, kids, grandkids - the works. And a few hundred thousand more first discoveries on the Universal Cartographics star charts in your name, too." I said, stroking her hair affectionately. "I'd follow you to the end of the Scutum-Centaurus arm and back."
"You really mean that, don't you?" Mya smiled down at me in wonder.
"Of course I do." I assured her, pulling her hips up over mine and gripping the back of her thighs to encourage her to mount me. Mya didn't need any persuading and she gasped as I pressed her down onto me, one hand cupping her shoulder and the other holding her down firmly against me by her buttocks. "I adore you, Mya."
"Oh, Petr." Mya sighed and we kissed as she began to tilt her hips in tiny circular motions, exquisitely slowly. "I want you, too."

We didn't speak again until after we had shared a tumultuous, simultaneous climax that left us clinging to each other, ecstatic and breathless. Shivering, Mya pulled the bedcovers back up over her waist, lying back down on my chest and she rested her head on my shoulder.

"Petr, are you absolutely sure that you want to still fly with me after we get back to Conway?" Mya asked, her eyes still closed as she calmed her breathing.
"100%, yes. Why?"
"This trip was kind of an audition. A test run."
"An audition for what?"
"For two things. Firstly, for you. To see if you had the right kind of temperament to fly with me in the long term, because secondly, I wanted to see if flying with a companion would keep me stable enough to achieve my life's dream."
"And what is that, exactly?"
"After we get back to Conway, my next trip is going to be a long one. I want to do the Grand Tour. And I want you to come with me."
"The Grand Tour?"
"Yeah. Head out to the rim and circumnavigate the galaxy. We'd be gone a long time."
"How long?"
"Ten, twenty years? Or maybe a lifetime. There are hundreds of billions of stars out there."
"You're serious, aren't you?" I asked, looking across at her smooth, placid features as she lay still on my chest.
"Totally, yeah." Mya replied, caressing the back of my neck languorously, opening her eyes to gaze back at me. "Fancy it?"
"I don't have anything better to do." I smiled, leaning my head over to kiss her gently on the lips.

It took us three days to make repairs to the ship, before we felt confident enough that Andromeda would be able to complete the return journey back to the bubble of occupied space. I prioritised our limited field maintenance unit resources on the frame shift drive, fuel scoop, thruster and life support systems, after agreeing with Mya that the other modules on the ship were a luxury, in comparison to these four critical systems, and that they could be left to run at sub-100% integrity levels. The hull repairs were more time consuming. Mya's previous experience had thankfully given her the foresight to include a few hundred kilos of colourless, transparent epoxy resin that could be used to shore up the canopy, filling in and sealing the cracks caused by the shockwave from the Pack Hound missile explosions. It took twenty hours for us to apply the resin where it was needed and let it cure to reinforce the glass. The repairs to the hull were more time consuming and technical. We had enough steel sheeting on board to patch up the minor hull breaches around the cockpit and on the pentagon-shaped keel surrounding the dorsal utility hardpoint. Mya and I worked in tandem to laser weld the plates over the holes left by the shrapnel created by Zhukov's seeker missiles relatively easily, which just left us with the rather more complicated problem of how to reseal the hull plating that had been vaporised over the frame shift drive module. The hole was too large to patch with our remaining sheet steel, which would barely cover half of it. I was about to suggest to Mya that we shouldn't bother trying to plug the gap at all, when I had a moment of inspiration.

"How about we use the meta-alloys?" They were lightweight, strong and easily machined, plus we had four tonnes of them stashed away in the cargo rack of my wrecked SRV. "They're essentially worthless dead weight until we get back to the bubble, so why not make them pay their way?"
"Sure. Go for it." Mya assented with a shrug.

It took until sunset on the second day to find a way of manipulating the meta-alloys with electric fields to get them to assume the right shape to form a large enough sheet that would sufficiently cover the hole in the rear of the Asp's hull. Then it took a whole day to use an electron beam welding torch to convince the meta-alloys to bond with the surrounding plating strongly enough to form an airtight, protective shield over the ship's frame shift drive. The meta-alloy's high melting point was akin to mirrored armour composite, so would provide better protection against thermal weapons than standard hull plating, should we be attacked again on our return to Conway City. In terms of credit value, it was probably the single most expensive hull patch in the entire history of human spaceflight, but the most important thing was that it worked.

We celebrated our success that evening with the burek pie I had promised to make Mya back in LTT 4961 and two bottles of Champagne that Mya had kept hidden away for the entire trip in the one place on the ship I would never dare look for contraband alcohol - her lingerie wardrobe. The next morning, with sore heads and aching bodies, Mya walked me to the ladder well outside the bridge with an arm wrapped lovingly around my waist.

"Come on, kitten. Let's go home."

Bark: Elite: Dangerous - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Explorer - Chapter Eight

Stuemeae GG-Y C3429: 257 days out from Conway City

It had taken nearly nine months and over 22,000 hyperspace jumps, but we were finally about to reach the goal of our expedition, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, and the number one place of pilgrimage for a serious galactic explorer, Sagittarius A*. Mya woke me on the final morning of our outbound flight simply by turning up the light intensity in her stateroom and whipping off the covers from the bed.

"Come on, lazybones. Time to get up. Today's going to be a momentous day." Mya said, her voice brimming with enthusiasm I did not share. I groaned wordlessly in protest, lying face down with my head buried under my pillow, naked, save for the rigid, carbon-fibre reinforced splint sock that covered my lower right leg from my ankle up to just below the knee. I had suffered a serious dislocated fracture and multiple hairline fractures in my right tibia during my encounter with the hostile barnacle, and the bone was still not fully healed, though thankfully it was no longer giving me 24 hour a day pain. "Still plenty more heavenly bodies out there to be scanned. Though perhaps I should start with this one?"

Mya impersonated the ticking chimes of a detailed surface scan in progress, her lips nuzzling the back of my neck, kissing me between the shoulder blades and flicking the tip of her tongue along the vertebrae of my spine sensually. I gave a low murmur of approval, my head still buried beneath the pillow as her lips reached my waist. "That's a much nicer way to be woken up..."
"Here's a familiar-looking full moon." Mya's voice was dangerously playful. I felt her hands on my hips, holding me firmly against the mattress. "But maybe I should give it a good probe just to make sure."
"Mya..." was all I managed to say before the insistent motions of her tongue and lips left me moaning, holding onto the bedsheet for fear of floating away. The moment ended abruptly when she spanked me hard across both buttocks, making me lurch upright in shock. "Mya! You are an evil woman, sometimes."
"Time to get up, I said." Mya's smile mocked me with its malicious beauty. "We'll need our flight suits today."
"What, really? You're not planning on going EVA next to a supermassive black hole, are you?" I said as Mya tossed my flight suit next to me on the bed.
"I'm not planning to, no." Mya replied ominously, already halfway into hers, struggling to wriggle her hands and arms all the way down to the suit's gloves.
"Though it might be an unplanned possibility?"
"It's not unknown, I'm afraid." Mya confirmed as she helped me stretch the fabric of the right leg of my heavily-patched flight suit over the top of my splint. "Some less scrupulous 'explorers' bring weapons to Sag A* to convince others to drop their data caches."
"That's insane. Why would a pirate fly all that way?"
"Easy pickings. Especially if you pick on people who can't fight back." Mya shrugged. "Some people are just complete fucking jerks."
"Are you expecting trouble?" I asked, concerned.
"It pays to plan for the worst, but hope for the best." Mya said, providing me with an arm for support as I lumbered to my feet. "Come along, Sir Limpsalot."
"I do wish you'd stop calling me that." I growled. The severity of the break in my right leg had given me a slight limp, but VENUS had assured me that provided I kept exercising to rebuild the strength in the damaged muscle, I should be walking normally again in a few months. I tried to keep my weight off my right foot, so that each footfall didn't send a sharp stab of pain up my leg.
"Descend, sir knight, into your arcane pit." Mya continued mocking me with a put-on, thespian accent, pointing with a melodramatic flourish to the ladder that would take me down a deck to the flight engineer's station on the bridge. Going down the ladder wouldn't be half as problematic as climbing back up again at the end of the day.
"Banished again, huh?" I said sadly, playing my part and reaching for the topmost rung. Mya's hand gripped my shoulder lightly, turning me back to face her.
"But not before receiving a fond farewell from a fair maiden, sir knight." Mya leaned forward to kiss me on the lips. We both let the kiss linger for a good couple of minutes, neither of us feeling terribly inclined to stop. Mya smiled broadly when she released me and I seized the fleeting opportunity to get my own back.
"Where do you propose to find a maiden all the way out here?" I asked innocently. Mya's eyes sparkled with both anger and amusement. I felt the strength sap from my legs as she grabbed me firmly by the crotch of my flight suit.
"Touché, kisama." Mya snickered as I squirmed in her rather less than delicate grip. She gave me another kiss before releasing me. "A maiden would be wasted on you, knave! Better that you knock boots with a worldly-wise wench like me."
"I couldn't agree more." I replied, smirking as I gripped the rails of the ladder between the insteps of my feet and slid down to the engineering deck. A quick survey of the engine room revealed that all of Andromeda's modules were running perfectly. We had only needed to use the field maintenance unit just once, after a hyperjump had popped us out of witchspace unexpectedly in the nexus between three G-type stars separated by just twelve light seconds. The so-called 'canyon run' we had been forced into performing, intersecting the gap separating the photospheres of the two nearest stars, had caused minor overheating damage to the power plant and power distributor and necessitated the use of two of our six heat sinks to prevent the ship's systems more fragile modules from overloading and malfunctioning. The field maintenance unit had done its job perfectly, however, using less than a quarter of the AFMU's component reserves to fully repair all of the Asp Explorer's sub-systems. I settled into my seat, double-checking that my RemLok helmet was secured in the emergency supply rack beneath my operating station's main dashboard. "All systems are ready to go, Mya."
"Outstanding. Lifting off." Mya replied from the bridge's top deck. The ship thrummed with barely contained power, the ventral thrusters kicking up clouds of fine white dust as the Asp eased away from the surface of the moon we had taken refuge on for the night. Andromeda streaked into the sky above, propelled by repeated maximum-g burns from the ship's thrusters. Mya ignited the afterburners every few seconds, not because the gravity from the moon required it - the local gravitational field strength was only 0.35g - but simply because she was excited about reaching the goal of her expedition. Mya sighed in wonder as the scattered glare from the surface of the moon dimmed and receded behind us, letting us see a vista of space completely unlike anything citizens of the Local Bubble would ever see in their lifetimes. "Petr, just look at that."

It was a view relatively few people had seen in the whole of human history. If you were to ask a resident of the Federation, Alliance or Empire what the colour of space was, they would most likely say 'black'. A natural enough response, given that's what most people who live on the great plane of the Milky Way's galactic disk would say, since that would agree with their experience. A starship commander or crewmember with even a modest amount of experience would be quick to point out that not all space is black. Nebulae, the plane of the galactic disk and even other nearby galaxies add vibrant colour to the night sky. This too, would not be surprising. But here, deep within the bulging central core of the Milky Way, space is not black. Far from it. Whichever direction you choose to gaze, there's a star, a nebula, or a cloud of dust. Or a violent accretion disk surrounding a black hole emitting light not just in the visible spectrum, but x-rays and gamma rays, too. In the deep core of the galaxy, space is a whirling kaleidoscope of colour - everything but black.

"My god, that's so beautiful." I breathed, utterly humbled by the scale of what I was seeing. Tens of billions of stars, packed into a sphere only a few hundred light years in diameter. A colossal gravitational engine, binding the larger structure of the galaxy together. It was overwhelming to contemplate the magnitude of the place and reconcile it relative to my own being. I was glad that I had Mya with me to share the experience, as I felt tiny, irrelevant and insignificant. Despite that, I felt honoured to be having the experience at all. "I'm so glad you brought me here, Mya."
"You can't see something like this alone, Petr. What's the point, if you can't share the moment with someone?" Mya asked. "I'm glad you're here, too."
"Shall we see what it looks like from the middle?"
"Hell, yes." Mya aimed Andromeda towards the vector that would take us on our final frame shift jump of our outbound flight. "Sag A*, here we come."

Neither Mya nor I talked as the rumbling maelstrom of compressed higher spatial dimensions shimmered and roiled past the canopy, carrying us the final handful of light years on our journey to the heart of the Milky Way. The eerie winds of witchspace buffeted the ship, stronger here than I had ever known them before. I closed my eyes to mediate for a few seconds as the whole ship vibrated. The frame shift drive span down with its characteristic rhythmical thudding and when I opened my eyes, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

"There it is. The largest lens for at least 2.5 million light years." Mya said, unable to contain her wonder. "I'm glad that thing's not feeding on an accretion disk right now. Otherwise we'd get fried by gamma rays in minutes, at this distance."

We had come out of witchspace some 25 million kilometres from the supermassive black hole. Mya activated the advanced discovery scanner to record definite proof that she had been in the system, and as soon as the 'honk' was completed, she low-waked the ship out of supercruise into realspace to make it less conspicuous, just in case any other ships entered the system.

"The centre of the galaxy." I mused, looking at the way the supermassive black hole twisted the path of the light passing near its event horizon, allowing us to peer around and beyond the immense stellar remnant. "When I left home at 17, I never thought in my wildest dreams that one day I'd end up here."
"Where did you think you'd end up?"
"In a pirate gang, probably. I almost ended up working for Thunda Sue a few years back. Fortunately Baz came along with a better offer and kept me honest. Well, mostly. He certainly gave me a longer life expectancy."
"Lucky for me. Thunda would've eaten you alive within a week."
"Do you know her?" I asked.
"Only by reputation." Mya replied distantly, her attention drawn to the spectacle of the gravitational lens  just a hundred light seconds from the bow of her ship. The light from the stars beyond the black hole twisted and distorted from the parallax as we drifted in a leisurely orbit around the intense gravity well. "Well, Petr. We made it. We're finally here. And what a sight. There's over four million Solar masses in there."
"It's incredible. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like underneath the event horizon."
"Neither can I, but I'm not going to fly the ship inside to find out." Mya said dryly. "But this is it, Petr. The beginning of the long road home. It's a shame we didn't find a neutron star graveyard along the way, but I still reckon we're both making eight figures out of this trip. More than enough to get you that top-spec Type 6."
"We have to make it back, first." I reminded her. "Then I'll think about what I want to spend the money on."
"Nice to know that you've been paying attention." Mya laughed. "No time like the present, I suppose. You'll be happy to know that we're going to take the direct route back. Max range jumps, though if it's unclaimed, we're scanning it."
"Gotta have those first discoveries, right?" I asked, the corners of my mouth creasing into a wry smile.
"Absol-" Mya began to agree before she was cut off by VENUS.
"Low-wake detected. New contact, range - 8 kilometres." the AI reported.
"Uh-oh." Mya said, spooling up the frame shift drive. "VENUS, shields up."
"Acknowledged, Commander. Shield generator online."
"What have we got, Petr?" Mya asked, selecting the newly arrived ship with the targeting computer and twisting Andromeda about to bring the sensors suite to bear.
"Let's see." I opened my left-hand panel to review the contacts board. The ship type alone did not make for encouraging reading. Neither did the vessel's sub-system list. "Fer-de-Lance. You've got to be kidding me..."
"Oh, shit. Either we've got a prime jerk, or someone who insists on travelling in style. So, still a jerk, but not quite so tragic."
"It's a prime jerk." I replied, reading down the list of the heavy fighter's sub-systems. "Two class 2 gimballed pulse lasers. Two class 2 Pack Hound seeker missile racks. Frame shift interdictor. Frame shift wake scanner. Auto Field Maintenance Unit. Chaff and Heat Sink launchers, Point Defence and a couple of shield boosters. And I think he's seen us."
"Petr, start plotting a jump."
"Where to?"
"I don't care, as long as it's over 30 light years from here and we're pointing at it right now. The one thing we do have is a hyperspace range advantage. He'll need to make two jumps for every one of ours. We just need to survive long enough for the frame shift drive to charge up."
"Okay. On it." I started to look for a suitable candidate system from the local navigation list. "Don't you think we should start running? First rule of exploration, right? Run, don't fight?"
"I forgot to tell you the second rule." Mya said, grimly stoic. "Never act like prey until you're certain you are."
"Maybe we should invite him aboard for tea and cake?" I suggested, trying to keep the mood light, even though we were very likely in mortal danger.
"I think he's more of a coffee person. He's deploying hardpoints." Mya observed. "Four pips to engines, two to shields, please Petr."

I adjusted the setting on the power distributor as the Fer-de-Lance approached on an intercept course. The heavy fighter was considerably larger and more powerful than Mya's Asp, though to increase the hyperspace range, the Commander had chosen not to fit a weapon on the ship's Class 4 hardpoint, which at least showed that our luck hadn't entirely deserted us. When the Fer-de-Lance got within three kilometres of Andromeda, its pilot, Vasili Zhukov, activated the vessel's retro thrusters to come to a relative stop, two hundred metres from the cockpit on the nose of our Asp. Both missile launchers and pulse lasers glinted threateningly in the twilight.

"How nice of you not to run." Commander Zhukov said over the ship-to-ship radio, his Imperial accent thick with sardonic delight. "It's always nice to meet a compliant victim- I mean, fellow explorer. Greetings, commander! I hope the day finds you well. If you still want to be breathing tomorrow, I suggest you dump your exploration data."
"Say that I do. What guarantee do we have that you won't simply destroy us anyway?" Mya asked.
"None, of course!" Zhukov laughed. "Especially since I notice you're unarmed. But I never try to deprive myself of a potential source of future income. So what do you say, Commander Kyoka? Are you going to be reasonable, or am I going to have to be unreasonable?"
"I've only got one thing to say to you, Zhukov." Mya's voice dripped with utter contempt. "Shinjimae, you cum-sucking, goat-fucking mutant!"

I was shoved back into the gel-padding of my seat as Mya lit Andromeda's afterburners, the Asp passing just metres over the Fer-de-Lance's canopy in an instant. The main thrusters fired again, driving our ship deep into the blindspot of the Fer-de-Lance's weapons  and towards the empty space beyond as the more massive ship struggled to turn and begin its pursuit. The fighter ignited its own thrusters, using the boost of acceleration to speed up the ship's turn rate. By the time the warning tone filled the bridge to indicate that the Fer-de-Lance was locking on missiles, we had managed to put a gap of 2.5 kilometres between our ships.

"Here's where things start to get interesting." Mya said, starting to barrel roll and juke the Asp through evasive manoeuvres to throw off the tracking of the missile racks and gimballed pulse lasers. "VENUS, chaff now, please."
"Acknowledged, Commander. Under attack. Incoming missiles detected." the AI replied, its voice calm and even. I looked down at the radar to see a swarm of miniature homing missiles surge across the gap between predator and prey. The small Pack Hound missiles were not terribly devastating individually, but Zhukov could launch 24 at a time, trying to overtax our shields with multiple simultaneous hits.
"Petr, do you want to give me a hyperspace vector? Anytime before we're dead would be nice."
"I'm trying - the route planner's taking an age." The sheer density of the stars in the core meant that it took an inordinate amount of time to finish calculations for even short journeys of a few hundred light years.
"Forget the planner. Just pick a system." Mya said as she snap-rolled the Asp, the rapid thwipp from the point defence turret vibrating the hull underneath my seat as it tried to intercept the incoming missiles. "I'm not going to be able to keep him at bay for long."
"Okay, here." I replied, picking a system at random as five vapour trails whipped past the canopy, the tracking systems of the missiles spoofed by Mya's evasive manoeuvres and the interference from the chaff cloud cloaking the vessel. Twelve of the missiles exploded prematurely as they were struck by outgoing plasma bolts from our point defence, but I felt the hull shake as the remaining missiles smashed into our rear shields. "Shields down to 52%!"
"Tell me something I don't know." Mya grimaced, lighting Andromeda's afterburners again and putting the ship through a looping roll to align our velocity vector with the star system I had selected on the star map. "More chaff, VENUS. Engaging frame shift drive."
"Incoming missiles." VENUS reported helpfully. The Fer-de-Lance had a slight speed advantage and was edging closer to Andromeda, the mass of its hull disrupting the ability of our frame shift drive to create a stable witchspace bubble that would allow us to escape. "Frame shift in 55 seconds."

I felt the kick of the Asp's thrusters again, Mya trying desperately to keep the ship mobile enough to evade some of the weapons fire, without straying too far away from our escape vector. The starfield span wildly, jerking leaps from ship's fine control thrusters adding an element of unpredictability to our flight path. I vaguely heard a series of explosions from behind me in the simulated soundscape confirming that at least some of the incoming missiles had been shot down by our point defence fire, but with less distance separating the two ships now, I knew that the automated turret wouldn't be able to get them all. Only three missiles this time were sufficiently bamboozled by Mya's twisting flight path and this time the crash of the missiles was accompanied by the tortured shrieking of metal.

"Shields down! Taking damage! Hull integrity at 84%!" I reported, dismayed. We would need another thirty seconds before the frame shift drive would impel us out of harm's way, and I couldn't see how we would survive even a third of that.
The ship-to-ship radio crackled. "A valiant effort, Kyoka. Drop your data and I'll leave enough of your ship intact for you to get back to port."
"VENUS, rig for silent running. Deploy more chaff and a heat sink." Mya didn't reply to Zhukov, instead giving further orders to our AI. With our first heat sink now depleted, I took the unit offline and activated the reserve heat sink launcher.

With our shields down, only chance now was to keep our thermal signature minimised to prevent the Fer-de-Lance pilot from locking onto Andromeda with his missiles or the gimballed tracking systems of his pulse lasers. The only problem was that the two ships were so close now that it was easy to target us visually. Then there was the fact that the still-charging frame shift drive was generating enough heat to melt our hull from the inside out. Despite our dire situation, I felt a rush of admiration and love for Mya, awed by her determination to escape or go down fighting in the attempt. Zhukov had locked the gimbals on his pulse lasers to counteract the effects of our chaff screen and I saw the twin crimson flashes of destructive light edge closer and closer to our hull, despite Mya's crazed, random jinking and rolling. The laser fire began to find its mark.

"Mya, he's targeting the frame shift drive. Module integrity 90% and falling." I said, my heart sinking. We still needed thirteen seconds before the jump could commence and Zhukov would be able to disable the drive in half that. Not only that, the heat level inside the ship was getting dangerously high. "Reactor running at 140%. Taking heat damage."
"VENUS, deploy another heat sink. Chaff too, while you're at it." Mya said, sounding resigned. "I'm sorry about this, Petr."

I didn't get the chance to reply, everything happened too quickly. Mya saw her opportunity a fraction of second later, noticing the Fer-de-Lance suddenly accelerate closer as Zhukov ignited the vessel's immense main thrusters. Mya yanked the Asp's throttle back full, initiating a crash stop. The Fer-de-Lance barely managed to avoid a collision, the upturned port wingtip of the ship skimming within centimetres of Andromeda's ventral hull. Zhukov was so shocked by the unexpected manoeuvre that the Fer-de-Lance was over two kilometres away before he even began to start turning his ship. Mya reversed the throttle, accelerating back towards our frame shift escape vector. Frost formed on the canopy as VENUS used the heat sink launcher to dump all the excess thermal energy from the Asp's systems into a glowing white ceramic plug that the AI ejected away from the ice cold vessel, which would now be invisible to Zhukov's scanner. I saw the arrowhead silhouette against the glowing background of the galactic core as the Fer-de-Lance began a boost turn to bring our Asp back into the sights of its weapons. I glanced down at my scanner. Zhukov's ship was six kilometres away and only beginning to finish it's turn. The heavy fighter's mass was now a disadvantage, the nose of the ship seemingly reluctant to pitch up towards us. With our frame shift drive now concealed from the Fer-de-Lance's view, Zhukov decided to go for an outright kill, rather than disable our ship.

"Another heat sink, VENUS." Mya ordered as the ship's internal heat capacity rose again towards 90%. Mya applied a final burst of thrust towards our target system, just as the Fer-de-Lance swept back into weapons range.
"Frame shift drive activated." VENUS said, seemingly unconcerned by the incoming horde of blind-fired seeker missiles. "Frame shift in 5..."
Crimson pulses grasped out across the void between us, making the hull behind the cockpit ring like a bell as layers of paint and metal were boiled away. Mya rolled the ship in a random spiral, trying to dance her way through the staccato fire, avoiding taking damage in the same spot twice.
"Hull integrity at 71%!"
The point defence turret spat green fire at the incoming missiles, blotting half of them out of the sky in brief orange explosions. The space around the nose of the ship seemed to coil and wrinkle as the witchspace bubble began to take form.
The ship rocked and there was a terrible, nerve-shredding crack from the canopy as the proximity fuses of the remaining missiles detonated, showering the front of the ship with hypersonic shrapnel. The Fer-de-Lance loomed large as it streaked towards the ship on a collision course, only a few hundred metres away.
"Mya!" I screamed in horror.
I opened my eyes, amazed that the front of the Asp now wasn't embedded in the pointed nose of the Fer-de-Lance. Somehow, we still alive, and the distance between us and Zhukov's ship was about to get very much larger.
"Engage." VENUS said, as if it were just a normal, routine frame shift jump.