Tuesday, June 21, 2016

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

NGC 6820 Sector KH-V C2-29: 16 days out from Conway City

Mya joined me for breakfast wearing a luminous pink crop top and a miniscule pair of white shorts that left very little to the imagination as to the shape and length of her toned, narrow thighs. We had long since abandoned wearing our flight suits, because as Mya had pointed out towards the end of the first week of our flight, if the life support system on the ship failed, our suits would give us only between ten and thirty minutes at best before we froze or asphyxiated, and we were now so far beyond the edge of the bubble that there was no realistic hope of rescue. I had taken to wearing my casual one-piece jumpsuit and ship boots, but Mya seemed to enjoy torturing me with the nature of her wardrobe. Mya's choice of clothing was minimalist, to say the least. So while she hadn't propositioned me since that first evening we'd met, over the last week I had certainly gained an in depth appreciation for her flawless physical condition. Her outfits had become increasingly daring over the last couple of days, as if challenging me to comment about it, but part of me wondered whether she was doing it to cheer me up, as the last fortnight had been filled by an excruciatingly dull procession of unremarkable red dwarf stars and lifeless systems of dirty iceballs  and the occasional debris ring. When I had expressed to Mya that I wasn't sure how much longer I could stand flying around such desolate systems, she decided to change our route slightly to visit NGC 6820, an emission nebula almost fifty light years across that contained an open cluster of young, blue-white stars. It was a nebula Mya had visited before, so the detour wouldn't earn us any money, but the veteran explorer assured me it would be worth the trip for rather more existential reasons.

"If you've never flown inside a nebula before, you're in for a real treat. It's one of those moments that makes the tedium worthwhile. A bit like watching the sunset on an undiscovered Earth-like."
"I hope you're right, Mya. Otherwise I might start drinking the hyperdrive coolant."
"Don't do that. You'll miss out on another one of the galaxy's best views. Give me another month and I'll be flying in deck socks and perfume." Mya teased, using a foot to stroke the back of one of my calves and making me almost jump through the table.
"Oh, god. Stop it, Mya. I'm finding it hard enough concentrating as it is. It's just as well the cockpit's got two levels." I said, wondering how I really felt about her. I had begun to enjoy her company more and more over the last fortnight. She was a great pilot, remarkably expert on astrophysics and astrobiology, and driven by a curiosity to discover new worlds that might one day host human colonies. Plus she was attractive, inspiring and had an agreeably vicious sense of humour. But the age gap still troubled me.
"Oh, kitten. How long is it going to take before you let me put you out of your misery?" Mya's laugh had a taunting, cruel edge to it.
"I think I better get the thrusters and the frame shift drive online." I stood awkwardly, avoiding the question and trying to ignore Mya's pitying smile as I retreated to the relative safety of the engine room.

An hour later, I had recovered the few remaining shreds of my dignity and I took the seat on the lower deck of the bridge, strapping myself in for a long day of plotting hyperspace jumps and monitoring the vital signs of the ship.
"How are things looking down there, Petr?" Mya asked, unseen in the pilot's seat above my head.
"All systems are good to go, Mya." I replied, taking a deep breath. Mya's orbital burn manoeuvres, I had come to learn, did not lack enthusiasm.
"Excellent." Mya said, using the ventral thrusters to bring Andromeda up to an altitude of three hundred metres before standing the Asp Explorer on its tail, retracting the landing struts and igniting the afterburners. I grunted as I felt my back be pressed into the gel-filled padding of my acceleration-compensation chair with a force of over three times my normal weight. The surface gravity of the rocky moon we had spent the night on was a shade under 0.3g, barely inhibiting the Asp's progress as it rocketed past escape velocity in under a minute. As soon as the ship had cleared the planetoid's mass lock, Mya steered us onto the vector for our next hyperspace jump and activated the Asp's frame shift drive.

The nebula already practically filled the canopy, the diffuse red glow of ionised hydrogen gas glinting from the reflective surfaces in and around the cockpit. Three quick, maximum range jumps brought us within the outer reaches of the nebula itself, revealing the intricacies of the gas and dust clouds as they broiled under the photon pressure of the dozens of young blue stars forming within the denser reaches of the nebula. Another jump took us into the centre of the gas and dust cloud, directly beneath a pillar of dust stretching nearly thirty light years tall, illuminated ethereally by the intense blue light of a giant blue star less than three million years old. The ship's AI, VENUS, polarised and dimmed the canopy to allow us to observe the rolling and bubbling of superheated convection cells coruscating on the photosphere of the star, with flares and prominences the size of planets being accelerated by the star's intense magnetic field tens of thousands of kilometres away from the luminous surface of the immense ball of plasma, stretching and twisting under unimaginable electromagnetic forces before gravity inevitably pulled the fiery filaments back down to the surface of the star.

"Mya, this is incredible." I said, in awe. "It's beautiful. I've never seen anything like it."
"Do you understand now, Petr?" Mya asked over the intercom. "Do you see why we do this?"
"Yeah. I get it. I totally get it." I replied, open mouthed as I watched the young star reclaim the partially ejected mass from another flare.
"In a billion years, all these blue stars will be gone." Mya said, her own voice filled with no small measure of wonder, even though she must have seen tens of thousands of stars from this perspective. "They'll explode in supernovae that will seed the next generation of stars in the region. Smaller, colder stars that might live for fifty or even a hundred billion years. Stars that'll host life long after humanity is a long forgotten footnote in galactic history."
"When you put it like that, it makes all the politics between the Alliance, Federation and Empire seem petty and futile."
"Just another reason to get away from it all, Petr." Mya chuckled. "Being out here helps give you a sense of perspective."

Bright blue-white loops transcribed the shape of the magnetic field beyond the arc of the young, hot star's curved limb. It was fascinating to be able to see the inner workings of the star being projected out into space. I was transfixed by the roiling granulation of convection cells surrounding the cooler, darker patches on the photosphere where the star's magnetic field poked seemingly at random through the surface of the immense blue ball of plasma. Convection cells the size of continents bubbled, boiled, merged and split, darkening as they cooled, constantly changing brightness and colour as the cooler plasma sank to be replaced by the brighter, hotter matter rising from beneath. The process was so organic, it looked like the star was a living, breathing entity. No wonder people talked about the life and death of stars - these immense nuclear furnaces, which produced the atoms and elements that made up every single cell in our bodies. I could have watched it all day, but Mya wanted to get us back on our expedition schedule.

The immediate star systems surrounding nebulae always attracted attention from explorers, precisely because they were so picturesque, meaning that any system within a couple of hundred light years worth scanning had already been surveyed. With morale suitably restored by the nebula's spectacular light show, Mya programmed a route of a dozen maximum range jumps further down towards the junction between the Orion Spur and Perseus arm, eager to make up for lost time and find us some pristine, uncharted systems to explore. According to the ship's clock, which was set to Galactic Standard Time, it was already approaching early evening when we found our first genuinely interesting star system that hadn't already been scanned by a rival explorer. Even Mya groaned when she saw that the ship's advanced discovery scanner had found seventy-two unknown bodies to survey in the system.

"Oh, great." Mya sighed, tiredly. "Petr, let's set down for the night. We'll do a full sweep of the system tomorrow morning. I like the look of some of these gas giants. A couple of them might have water-based or ammonia-based life forms. They're decent money - lots of sought after organic compounds for harvesting."
I glanced at the data from our preliminary discovery scan and found a potential berth. "The second planet looks like a good spot. Rocky, no tectonic activity, no atmosphere to speak of and only 0.5g."
"Fantastic. Find me a landing zone." Mya ordered, steering Andromeda onto an intercept course for the planetoid, the FSD thrumming contentedly, eager to obey, as she brought the throttle up to full speed.
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