Monday, June 20, 2016

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

Blu Thua DY-H B23-2: 2 days out from Conway City

Even though we were less than two thousand light years - or to use explorers' parlance, two kylies - out from LTT 4961, the trip had already proved to be educational. Exploring, it turned out, was a lot more technical than just pointing your ship at the galactic core and honking your discovery scanner every time you made a hyperspace jump.

We had left Conway City in the early morning, making two dozen back-to-back jumps in rapid succession, using the full extent of Andromeda's thirty-two light year jump range to get out of the bubble of occupied space as quickly as possible. Mya explained that the likelihood of encountering another vessel was exceptionally low by the time you were a few hundred light years past the fringes of Alliance space, hence why the vast majority of serious explorer commanders considered weaponry to be nothing more than dead mass. Mya said it was more valuable to have the extra few light years in jump capability than the supposed security weaponry provided. I remained to be convinced. I didn't like the idea of flying an unarmed vessel, but it was Mya's ship, so I had no choice other than to defer to her judgment.

Mya had talked me through the importance of route planning over breakfast, using a data tablet to show me the path we would be flying to Sag A*. Rather than made a direct run for the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, we would follow the Orion Spur down to where it met with the Sagittarius Arm and track it back all the way around to the base of the Perseus arm, before travelling up the central bar to Sagittarius A* itself. The partial circumnavigation of the galaxy would add several months and at least an extra thirty kylies to our trip, but Mya assured me that it would be worth it. Not only would a less direct path yield extra income from first discoveries, but it also meant that we wouldn't have to make a potentially risky traverse between the Orion Spur and the Scutum-Centaurus arm, where the density of scoopable stars was thin.

I had been surprised when Mya had set us a target of just one thousand light years per day, but I was now beginning to understand - at the end of our second day of exploration - why even that seemingly modest target was ambitious. The real money in exploration didn't come from scanning stars. It came from getting detailed surface scans of the planets in the star systems, and Mya was nothing if not thorough. As soon as we had reached the relative safety of unnamed systems six hundred light years outside of the bubble, Mya had us switch from maximum range frame shift jumps to maximum fuel efficiency, taking in every single possible star system on our route. This alone would have made travelling 1000 light years per day difficult, but Mya insisted that every single planet and moon in every system required a detailed scan, too. For particularly small planetoids and satellites, this entailed getting within a few light seconds of the body. This was particularly galling when we encountered a large binary system where the second star and its attendant planets might be half a million light seconds from the system primary. At least the Asp Explorer was nimble and responsive enough in supercruise to make these long sojourns across star systems seem effortless.

Mya herself proved to be an exceptional pilot. Her spatial awareness was so good that was able to time her approaches for detailed planetary scans to the second, gracefully arcing the ship in seamless gravitational slingshot trajectories around each star system. There was a real joy in her flying, skimming over the top of thick atmospheres surrounding volcanic, metal-rich worlds and even doing terrifying canyon runs through sheer crevasses on tiny, low gravity icy bodies. With no pirates to worry about, exploring wasn't as stressful as cargo running could be, but it did require total concentration for extended periods. Every few hours I left my seat on the co-pilot's deck to run diagnostics in the engine room, simply to change my scene. Mya occasionally let me fly the ship whenever she needed a bathroom break or something to eat, but I was impressed by her dedication and stamina, often flying for five hours at a time without ever leaving her acceleration chair.

I was pleased to see that she was self-aware enough to know her limits, though. Mya restricted each day's flying time to fourteen hours, ensuring that both we and the ship never became overtaxed. She also landed the ship each night on a planet or moon with a gravity of between 0.3g and 0.6g, explaining that she never slept properly in microgravity and that it was safer to leave the ship on standby overnight out of sight on a planetary surface. It also meant that we wouldn't waste fuel by leaving the ship's thrusters online to keep us in orbit. Running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere was an explorer's recurring worst nightmare, one that prompted Mya to top up the fuel tank every time we encountered a scoopable star, even if it was already practically full. The other advantage of setting the ship down at night was that it made our evening meal so much easier to prepare and eat.

The ship's galley was barely large enough for the both of us, with the small, fold-away table doubling as a food preparation area. The only seats were flimsy-looking benches that extruded from the bulkhead at the touch of a button, another hint of the ship's origins as a military scout vessel, where the priority was on space and mass saving, rather than creature comforts. It gave our shared mealtimes a forced sense of intimacy, our knees practically touching under the table. I was tired enough not to really pay attention to what I was eating. It had come out of the microwave hot and the textures in my mouth indicated that it contained enough protein and carbohydrate to keep me fuelled for the next twelve hours, which was all I really cared about at that point. A chilled glass of white wine would have been preferable to the icy cold water Mya had served me with, but this was another one of those occasions where I had to respect her rules. I tried to restrain myself from simply gorging the food down as quickly as I could shovel it off the plate, remembering that I had to keep my table manners. Mya ate with ladylike delicacy, despite the fact that she must have been even more drained than I was, having flown the ship almost non-stop all day. She even managed to find the energy from somewhere to initiate conversation.

"How are you finding it so far, Petr?"
"Relentless. There's always something to do, isn't there? Plot the next jump, refuel the ship, honk the system to find unknowns, target the next body for surface scanning, fly the ship and repeat, repeat, repeat."
"And there's always something that can go badly wrong if you take your eye off the ball for a few seconds. Don't forget that." Mya reminded me with a humourless smile.
"I wasn't sure I believed you when you said that back at Conway City. Now I do."
"Good. Space is a hostile and utterly unforgiving environment. The second you stop respecting it or fearing the consequences of a mistake... that's when it'll kill you."
"It makes me wonder why so many people choose to fly so far out of the bubble with no safety net. At least if you get shot down in an occupied system there's a decent chance you'll get picked up by SysSec before your RemLok runs out."
"There isn't just one reason. I told you why I do it. I like to be the first person to breathe the air, feel the ground beneath my feet, or see the sunset. There are over two hundred billion stars in this galaxy, Petr. I'll never be able to visit more than a tiny fraction of them, even if I lived to five hundred years old, but I want to see as many as I can. And I want future generations to know that it was Mya Kyoka who was there first."
"What other reasons are there?"
"The spirit of adventure. Some people do it to get away from civilisation and others do it because they've got nowhere else to go. A few explorers even head out without the intention of ever coming back. When I was your age I remember hearing a story about an Imperial governor and a Naval officer who nuked a Senator's residence over a personal quarrel before disappearing out of the bubble. No-one heard from them again. Hell of a way to go into exile."
"We are going back, right?"
"We don't get paid, otherwise. And I don't get my legacy of first discoveries in the Universal Cartographics database, either." Mya laughed.
"Legacy? That's a grand word. You make it sound like a memorial, rather than a job."
"It is, in a way. Exploring can be a lonely profession. Most of us die alone, thousands of light years from home."
"You don't see yourself settling down on a nice, sunny Earth-like somewhere?"
"I doubt it. There's always somewhere new out there, waiting to be found. How about you?"
"I come from a big family. Mother's always trying to find a nice girl to get me married to. But I'm not ready to put down roots quite yet."
"Let me give you a piece of advice, kitten. Don't wait too long. Otherwise you might find it never happens." Mya said, patting my hand affectionately before easing herself off her bench and stretching her back to unwind the knots caused by a long day in the pilot's chair. "Can I leave you to wash up? I need to get out of this flight suit and shower before I go to bed."
"I'll deal with it. Sleep well, Mya."
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