Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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

Ellaiscs GW-D D12-89: 47 days out from Conway City

It had taken six weeks, but I had finally established a happy equilibrium with the dull, steady routines that filled an explorer's days. With Mya's ever-patient guidance, I had learned how to compartmentalise tasks into short bursts of activity, each of which was only a few minutes long. This helped me stay focussed and regularly feel a sense of achievement, staying present in the moment, rather than constantly wondering what was going to be happening over the next few hours, days or even months. Mya's compulsive thoroughness meant that our progress down the Orion Spur had been a lot slower than planned, but now that I was more comfortable with the humbling remoteness and emptiness of the star systems we were surveying, I wasn't in any particular rush for us to reach our goal of reaching the core of the galaxy. I had even come to develop a sense of appreciation for even the most humdrum of solar systems. Even an unremarkable brown dwarf or potato-shaped rocky planetoid the size of a city began to appear beautiful as my understanding of the processes that formed them began to increase. Mya continued to share her seemingly endless knowledge of star and planet formation, explaining in considerable detail why different star types always seemed to have a disproportionate number of gas giant companions, or icy planets that she referred to as 'snowballs'. Mya even appeared able to predict what types of planets would form in a system occupied by a protostar and its primeval accretion disk. We had only encountered one protostar on our journey thus far, and I had found it to be breathtakingly spectacular. Mya had not been especially keen to enter the system, as the accretion disk posed a potential navigation hazard, but the sight of a star still undergoing its initial gravitational collapse, as the vast, rotating disk of gas and dust spanning some two hundred thousand light seconds across coalesced into new planets was awe-inspiring. It would still be tens of millions of years before the planetary bodies finished forming, but it was hard not to be amazed as I watched the birth of a new solar system slowly happening before my eyes.

As well as continuing my education in the finer points of professional galactic exploration techniques, Mya had also sustained her psychological war with her choice of attire. She had escalated her campaign by choosing to only wear lingerie around the ship, and her taste in underwear was nothing short of brazen. After nearly three weeks of it now, I was starting to become inured to the amount of smooth, pale, milky flesh she greeted me with every morning, but I had needed to resort to extended, cold showers for the first few days. Her choice of silken weapon today was no exception - a sheer, floral lace bodystocking in burgundy and black, provocatively cut to leave her sleek flanks exposed from just beneath her breasts to the top of her hips. I wouldn't have been human if I hadn't entertained fantasies of what it would be like to lie with her, entangled in her long arms and legs, but I remained determined to connect with her first on a personal level, rather than a physical one. Mya seemed content enough to continue with a leisurely seduction, and I was less unnerved by her lovely figure than I was by the radiance of her hooded, almond-shaped brown eyes. They seemed to pierce through me, almost as if they knew me better than I did. Every time Mya gave me a look and a smile, it sent a tingle down the length of my spine. Neither of us mentioned the palpable atmosphere of underlying sexual tension between us, preferring to discuss the practicalities our route plan for the day as we breakfasted on slices of buttered toast, washed down by large mugs of smoky black tea with a dash of cream.

"I don't know about you, Petr, but even I'm getting bored of all the red dwarf systems we've passed through recently. I think I'll have VENUS make sure that we get a few more F, G and K types in our route plans for the next week or two."
"At least we picked a nice place to belly up overnight." I said, referring to the sprawling triple system of a white A-type star and its companion pair of two Sol-like G-type stars. The G-type binary had an extensive solar system of nearly a hundred bodies, which had taken us over three hours to map and retrieve details surface scans for. The effort had paid off, as the system had included six dense, metal-rich worlds ripe for mining, two water worlds and nine gas giants, two of which harboured ammonia-based life. We had landed to spend the night on one of the gas giants' moons, the view from the cockpit giving us a spectacular vista across the icy landscape illuminated by the glittering ice ring system of the nearby blue, methane-rich gas giant.
"Yes, we could do with a few more systems like that. We're overdue finding an Earth-like, though. I'm tempted to skip the next couple of hundred light years to a cluster of F's and G's I found on the route planner late last night." Mya said, rapping the table with rapid motions of her fingertips, her long nails clicking on the composite surface.
"What makes you think we'll have better luck there?"
"You usually get more diversity in planet types with mid-range stars. Not all of the mass gets gobbled up by the primary, so there's a decent chance of getting larger rocky planets. F-types have the largest habitable zone, so if you find an Earth-like near one, it's jackpot-time, because you've got a world ready for colonisation or terraforming, but it's not likely to have any native life that might cause problems, because the stars don't hang around long enough on the main sequence for complex life forms to develop. With G and K-types, the habitable zones are a bit smaller, but the main sequence lifetime of the stars is much longer than with the F's, so you can find super-Earths brimming with native life, which can be a good thing, but you do have to be careful about pathogens, especially RNA viruses, which might be lethal to humans. You don't go out wandering on those until you've done a full biome scan."
"How many Earth-likes have you found?"
"I've got a pretty good record. I think I'm up to about forty or fifty, now. Most of them have my name on the star charts, too." Mya added proudly.
"Shall we try and find you another one?" I asked, finishing my tea and stowing the mug in the dishwasher unit behind me.
"Yes, Petr. Let's do that." Mya smiled, making sure I got a delicious view of her cleavage as she stood slowly. She wasn't fooled for an instant when I pretended not to notice, turning away and heading aft to the engine room to prime the power plant, frame shift drive and main thrusters.

Mya had completed all the pre-flight checks by the time I took my seat in the cockpit and I barely had time to strap myself into my chair before she lifted off, the exhaust gases from the thrusters sublimating craters into the carbon dioxide ice beneath the ship, making it appear like Andromeda was floating on a cloud. I grinned when the white vapour blew apart as Mya activated the ship's afterburners, blasting us away from the surface of the small moon. We surveyed fifty-seven systems in the following thirteen hours, and not a single one of them contained a planet larger than a 1000 kilometre-wide ice ball. The next day we did head directly to the F and G-type star cluster with half a dozen maximum range jumps, before seeing whether our luck had improved, scanning and cataloguing all the bodies in a further forty-one systems. Other than for a handful of systems with gas giants, our findings were just as slim and barren as the day before. As we sat doen later that evening for dinner, Mya consoled me with a peck on the cheek. "Mother always warned me there'd be days like these..."
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