Saturday, June 18, 2016

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

LTT 4961: Conway City

It was an unusual entry on the bulletin board.

WANTED: Companion for expedition to Sagittarius A*
REQUIRED SKILLS: Excellent engineer - must be proficient with Lakon Asp Explorer sub-systems including; frame shift drive, thrusters, power plant and power distributor
DESIREABLE ATTRIBUTES: Good conversationalist, passable cook, easy on the eye
CONTACT: Commander Mya Kyoka - Captain, IV Andromeda

I didn't know the commander by name, but a quick GalNet search revealed that she was an explorer of some repute, a veteran of expeditions to Eta Carinae, the Crab Nebula and the Eagle Nebula, ranked Pioneer by the Pilot's Federation. I was intrigued enough and sufficiently down on my luck to send Commander Kyoka a message requesting an interview. Her response was swift and succinct.

20:00hrs, Perla's Palazzo. See you there.

I'd been flying as First Officer, flight engineer and co-pilot on IV Secret Squirrel, a Lakon T7 Transporter, for the last five months, running Thorium into Conway City. I had gotten on well with the owner-captain of the vessel, Commander Baz Nutkins, but we had been interdicted and badly shot up by a wing of three Imperial Eagles on our last run into LTT 4961. Only the judicious use of four homing mine launchers and the abandonment of a quarter of our cargo of Thorium had allowed us to escape with our lives. Unfortunately, the repair bill for Secret Squirrel had more than wiped out Baz's profit for the run, leaving him perilously close to not being able to cover the cost of his next cargo and the insurance value on his ship. Baz had reluctantly let me go with a stellar personal reference and barely enough money in my credit account to buy a second hand, third rate Adder. With my own standing within the Pilots Federation barely troubling the rank of Combat Novice, I didn't fancy making my own way in the universe quite yet. I didn't enjoy combat, preferring the steady, familiar routine of plying safe trading routes, where the comforting response of a SysSec patrol was only ever a minute or two away. I had never been on a scouting expedition beyond the Federation-Empire-Alliance bubble, but after my encounter with the pirate wing of Imperial Eagles, I was quite taken by the idea of getting away from so-called civilisation for a while.

I arrived early for my interview and was led by one of the uniformly blonde and alluring waitresses to the table that Commander Kyoka had reserved. The explorer had even taken the liberty of pre-ordering a bottle of Primitivo wine, which sat open on our table, along with a note.

Help yourself. I might be late. Mya.

I had ploughed through two-thirds of the bottle before I considered the possibility that Mya had arranged this as a deliberate ploy to soften me up prior to our meeting. It was nearly 20:30 when my potential employer arrived, escorted by yet another of the establishment's gorgeous golden-haired waitresses. Commander Mya Kyoka smiled at me with broad, thin lips as she was bought to the table. I estimated that she was about my height, just shy of 1.9 metres tall, with her long limbs and sleek, wiry figure accentuated by the skin-hugging all-in-one jumpsuit she was wearing. Her bronze hair was lustrous and straight, hanging down almost to her waist, casting shadows over her slender torso thanks to the curve of her chest. Hints of silver at her temples indicated that she was older than her taut, smooth features indicated, with the skin around her brown eyes crinkled from looking into thousands of distant suns. It was hard to estimate her age - women of Asian extraction always seemed utterly ageless to me in their beauty - but I tentatively put her at between fifteen and thirty years my senior. I stood to greet her and we shook hands cordially. I was pleasantly surprised by the firmness of the grip from her long, thin fingers. This was obviously a woman that understood the importance of a businesslike handshake, a consideration that reinforced the almost instant sense of attraction I felt for her.

"Commander Kyoka. Pleased to meet you." I introduced myself with a respectful bow.
"Mister Hudecek, I'm sorry to keep you waiting." Kyoka replied, indicating with her hand that I should retake my seat.
"Please, call me Petr. I'm afraid I didn't leave you much wine." I said, smiling ruefully as I emptied the remains of the bottle into her glass.
"That's alright. Bring us another two bottles and the menus, please." Kyoka instructed the waitress, who retreated quickly to carry out her instructions. "And you can call me Mya, of course. If you're going to be joining me on my trip to Sag A*, we might as well get used to being on first name terms now. So, Petr... what made you apply to my advert?"
"I'm a recently unemployed engineer. And I've never been beyond the bubble, so what better way to do it than in the company of one of the Pilot Federation's most distinguished Pioneers?"
"Well, aren't you a silver-tongued bastard?" Kyoka laughed, before taking a long sip of wine from her glass, sucking in air to make it bubble over her tongue and allow the complex flavours of cherry and vanilla oak to manifest themselves on her palate. "But your reference from Commander Nutkins is exemplary. You're familiar with Lakon Spaceways vessels?"
"I've been flying in them my whole career. Asp Explorer, Type-6, Type-7, Type-9... even the odd Keelback."
"And always as a co-pilot or engineer?"
"That's right." I nodded, wondering where Commander Kyoka's line of questioning was leading us.
"You never fancied going it alone?" she asked, arching her left eyebrow.
"Not really. I'm not one of those guys who dreamed of being combat Elite the first time they ever saw a starship." I said, as I relinquished the waitress of one of her menus.
"So you enjoy the quieter side of life." Kyoka said, nodding her approval to the waitress as she checked the vintage on the pair of new bottles of Primitivo wine.
"You could put it like that, yeah." I replied neutrally, silently wondering whether I was talking myself out of the job.
"That's good. There's no room on an explorer ship for thrill-seekers." Kyoka smiled, swirling the ruby-coloured wine around her glass. "Because if you're fifteen thousand light years from home and you take a stupid risk, no-one will know about it until someone stumbles across the wreckage of your ship."
"I like to think of myself as a problem-solver, not a problem-causer." I reassured my prospective boss with a smile.
"Can you cook?"
"I can do a mean beef goulash and even my mother will admit that I make better burek than she does."
"A minced meat pie with caramelised onions and bell peppers."
"It sounds nice." Kyoka nodded, approvingly.
"I'll cook you one to celebrate when we reach Sagittarius A*."
The explorer giggled and sipped another mouthful of wine. "You're not lacking in self-confidence, are you, Petr? I like that."

We paused briefly to order dinner: Mya opting for beef cannelloni and a fresh spring leaf salad, while I chose the house special calzone del diavolo, a closed pizza filled with ground beef, mozzarella, tomato paste, oregano, mushrooms, roast onions and no less than five varieties of fresh and pickled chilli peppers. Our conversation meandered pleasantly as we ate and our supply of wine gradually dwindled, with Mya proving herself to be an irreverent and interesting dinner partner. As we ordered coffee and dessert to finish off our meal, the topic of conversation inevitably returned to the business of my job interview.

"Have you ever tried a Sag A* run before, Mya?" I asked, tenderly picking away with a teaspoon at the vanilla panna cotta on my dessert plate.
"Twice. But I never made it more than about 14 kylies out each time." Mya nodded as she sipped her espresso. "It's just too far to try going there solo. You need more than an AI to chat to if you're going to come out of a fifty thousand light year round trip with a shred of sanity intact."
"Is it really that bad?"
"You've never been out of the bubble, have you, Petr?"
"No, not really."
"You'll see, Petr. Once you get far enough out, you need to have another person with you to provide some emotional support and stability." Mya said, smiling thinly.
"I presume that's why you asked for a companion who's 'easy on the eye'?" I asked, pointedly.
"How old are you, Petr?" Mya laughed.
"Ah. Young enough to still be an idealist." Mya said, still grinning. "I'm forty-seven. So I'm old enough to know that when you're twelve-thousand light years from the nearest starbase, any port will do in a storm."
"With the greatest of respect, Mya, you're not my type." I replied, uncomfortable with the turn in the conversation.
"Too old for you, kitten? Ah, Petr, my dear... you'll learn. When you're 10 kylies from the bubble your 'type' becomes anything human with a pulse." Mya told me knowingly, her brown eyes glittering.
"Look, Mya... I'm not going to sleep with you. If that's part of the deal to sign on for this expedition, we might as well go our separate ways now." I told her sternly.
"Don't worry, Petr. It's not a precondition. Just a potential bonus." Mya sniggered, covering her mouth demurely. "And I really do need an engineer for an expedition this long. We're looking at a round trip of at least four or five months."
"If I were to come with you, what would I get?"
"A full cut of the profit from the trip. 50% of all revenue from exploration data. Obviously, it's my ship, so I'd get the credit in terms of attribution for any new discoveries, but in terms of money, we take a 50-50 share right down the middle." Mya said, setting aside her empty coffee cup.
"What kind of potential return are you looking at on this trip?"
"Something between twenty and forty million." Mya replied, her eyes shimmering in anticipation. "It depends on whether we're lucky enough to find a neutron star cluster somewhere along the way. But even if we don't, we still should earn more than enough to buy you a top-notch Type-6 and get you established on the trading ladder."
"I had no idea exploring could be that profitable."
"I don't do it for the money."
"Why do you do it, then?"
"To be first." Mya said dreamily, taking her coffee cup in both hands. "There's nothing quite like it, being the first person to ever set foot on a planet, or scoop hydrogen from an untouched star."
"You make it sound almost romantic."
"It is, but it's also dangerous. If your attention slips just for a minute you can end up in big trouble, or dead. There are hundreds of thousands of wrecks out in the big black, all because their commanders didn't stay alert enough. That's why it helps to have a second body on board. Keeps you sharp."
"When are you planning on leaving?"
"In the next day or two. As soon as I find a travelling companion, really. The ship's all prepped, fuelled, serviced and stocked." Mya set down her cup and signalled with an outstretched finger for the attention of one of the waitresses. "Do you fancy it, Petr?"
"I've got nothing better to do." I admitted with a resigned shrug.
"How long will it take you to get your stuff together?" Mya asked, handing her credit chip briefly to our waitress so that she could settle our bill.
"My stuff? Other than the flight suit and a case of spare clothes I have in a locker at the Commanders Lounge, I'm wearing it." I said, chuckling.
"Travelling light, huh? I'll make an explorer out of you yet, Petr." Mya smiled. "We might as well get you settled in right away, then. Grab your flight suit and meet me in Docking Bay 28."
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