LTT 4961: Conway City
It was approaching midnight by the time I had collected my flight suit, packed it into the carry case containing my other clothing and made my way to Docking Bay 28. Mya buzzed me through the airlock into the hangar and I took my first look at the ship that would be my home for the coming months. A generously-minded person would have described the Asp Explorer as 'vintage', but the word that sprang foremost into my mind was 'dilapidated'. The once pristine ice white hull was covered with scorch marks from close encounters with solar coronae and even closer encounters with laser fire, and several of the hull plates had been dented by multi-cannon hits.
"This ship doesn't need an engineer. It needs a priest." I said to myself, quietly appalled.
At least the canopy on the split-level cockpit looked intact. Mya waved at me from the pilot's seat on the top deck before disappearing aft into the main body of the ship. I walked underneath the hull to the rear of the vessel to the loading ramp between the pair of enormous main thruster nacelles. A closer inspection of the thruster modules was more reassuring than the overall appearance of the ship. The thrusters were brand new - the latest model off the Lakon Spaceways production line. I heard footsteps as Mya descended the ramp.
"Don't let the state of the paintwork fool you, Petr. I've got nearly twenty-five million credits invested in Andromeda." Mya said, pre-empting any disparaging comments I might have about the state of her ship.
"Twenty-five mil, and you couldn't afford a new paint job?"
"Explorer's camouflage, my kitten. What better way to fool a dim-witted pirate into thinking you're flying a worthless tramp freighter, when you're actually hauling around a data package worth eight figures?" Mya said, reaching up to stroke one of the landing struts of her ship fondly.
"I've always found that homing mines can be quite persuasive." I observed dryly.
"Bah! Waste of hull mass." Mya replied, waving a hand dismissively. "There are only two things I don't allow on my ship. Weapons and alcohol. I've been exploring for twenty years, and I've never needed so much as a pulse laser."
"So why the Point Defence Turret?" I asked, nodding at the utility hardpoint beneath the cockpit.
"Sometimes the last hundred light years or so back to the bubble can be hairy." Mya explained. "If some talentless, lazy mutant with a missile rack wants you to dump your exploration data, you better have decent thrusters and point defence. Explorers don't fight. We run. We run very fast indeed."
"Fair enough. But that doesn't explain why you won't allow booze on your ship."
"I would have thought that was obvious, my dear Petr. If you're two months away from the nearest starport, you don't want a pilot with a hangover the size of a Class V gas giant flying you into the nearest T Tauri star, wondering why the fuel scoop isn't working."
"Uh, yeah. I guess I can see why that would be a problem. Well, I'm sure my liver could do with a good rest for a few months, anyway."
"Come on, let me show you around my pride and joy." Mya beckoned me aboard, leading the way up the ramp. "A word of warning though. Just don't try what one of my previous engineers did when he got thirsty. He tried distilling ethanol from hyperdrive coolant. He ended up so out of it I had to leave him on an airless rock a hundred light years shy of Eta Carinae."
The tour of the ship was brief and to the point. I already knew the internal layout of an Asp Explorer intimately, having served on one during an ill-fated three months as co-pilot and engineer to a Commander who had proved to be the galaxy's worst Onion Head smuggler. Mya hadn't been exaggerating about the money she had invested in her ship. Despite the Asp's decrepit external appearance, Andromeda's hull was packed with top-of-the-line equipment, designed for mass-saving or heat efficiency. While unarmed, the ship was not utterly defenceless, being equipped with two thermal signature minimizing heat sink launchers, plus a chaff launcher to disrupt automated weapons tracking, in addition to the point defence turret. Lightweight D-rated life support and sensor units helped maximise the Asp's considerable jump range, while the Class 3 A-rated shield generator provided adequate protection from pirates and mishaps during planetary landings. The Class 6 fuel scoop - itself worth more than the hull value of the ship - was capable of processing three quarters of a tonne of ionised hydrogen from a stellar atmosphere per second, meaning that we would be unlikely to hanging around long enough to get a sun tan while refuelling the ship. An eight tonne cargo rack was crammed with all the supplies and consumables we would need for the trip, including food and drink packed in stasis pods, allowing us to cook meals from scratch in the ship's tiny galley for the duration of the trip. Perhaps wisely, Mya had also procured a supply of ready meals that could be warmed in the ship's microwave or sous vide heater, for those occasions when we were too tired or lazy to cook. Finally, Mya had given over two of the ship's internal compartments to an SRV hanger (complete with two brand new Scarab SRVs) and an automatic field maintenance unit. Hopefully, we wouldn't need the latter, but it was a prudent investment of some 2.6 million credits - insurance against the unforeseeable. After showing me around the bridge, galley and engine room, Mya led me to my quarters.
"I'm afraid the co-pilot's stateroom is a little on the barren side." Mya said as she opened the hatch to my quarters. Inside was a basic bunk bed with acceleration compensation strapping, a wardrobe integrated into the far bulkhead, a desk-mounted terminal connected to the ship's computer and AI, with fully gel-padded acceleration chair, identical to the models found on the two-tier bridge.
"It's fine. I've slept in worse." I assured her, opening my carry case and hanging up my flight suit in the wardrobe.
"If you ever get lonely, I'm just across the way." Mya opened the hatch opposite mine. Her quarters were larger and far more opulent, with a large, comfortable-looking bed that could easily host four. The decor was tasteful and feminine, in vibrant pastel colours and with a recurrent floral and avian motif. I recognised the broad-winged Japanese cranes from their shape, crimson red skullcap and black and white plumage: a bird that was reputed to be symbolic for its stamina, longevity and as an omen of luck and fidelity - an appropriate symbol for an explorer.
"Thanks Mya, but I'm sure I'll be fine here."
"Are you sure you don't want to just get it over and done with right now?" Mya asked, smiling as her brown eyes looked me up and down like an expert butcher preparing to cut a flank of beef. "It'll save a lot of angst later on."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but you're old enough to be my mother."
"And the average lifespan these days, all things being equal, is about three hundred and fifty. What's twenty-three years between friends?" Mya asked, smiling to show her sharp, immaculately white teeth.
"Up until about two months ago, a lifetime." I replied, gulping with trepidation. Perhaps my judgment was being swayed by the bottle and a half of wine I'd drunk earlier in the evening, but I grudgingly had to admit that her proposition was not entirely unwelcome. While she was nearly twice my age, Mya certainly wasn't unattractive. Even so, I stood my ground waiting patiently in silence for Mya to take the hint, not willing to take the risk of throwing away the opportunity for a profitable trip before it had even started.
"Okay, kitten." Mya's smile didn't fade, and she regarded me warmly, perhaps even admiringly. "Set your alarm for 06:00. We need to leave the bubble before the local pirate crews sleep off their hangovers."