Sunday, June 26, 2016

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

Stuemeae GG-Y C3429: 257 days out from Conway City

It had taken nearly nine months and over 22,000 hyperspace jumps, but we were finally about to reach the goal of our expedition, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, and the number one place of pilgrimage for a serious galactic explorer, Sagittarius A*. Mya woke me on the final morning of our outbound flight simply by turning up the light intensity in her stateroom and whipping off the covers from the bed.

"Come on, lazybones. Time to get up. Today's going to be a momentous day." Mya said, her voice brimming with enthusiasm I did not share. I groaned wordlessly in protest, lying face down with my head buried under my pillow, naked, save for the rigid, carbon-fibre reinforced splint sock that covered my lower right leg from my ankle up to just below the knee. I had suffered a serious dislocated fracture and multiple hairline fractures in my right tibia during my encounter with the hostile barnacle, and the bone was still not fully healed, though thankfully it was no longer giving me 24 hour a day pain. "Still plenty more heavenly bodies out there to be scanned. Though perhaps I should start with this one?"

Mya impersonated the ticking chimes of a detailed surface scan in progress, her lips nuzzling the back of my neck, kissing me between the shoulder blades and flicking the tip of her tongue along the vertebrae of my spine sensually. I gave a low murmur of approval, my head still buried beneath the pillow as her lips reached my waist. "That's a much nicer way to be woken up..."
"Here's a familiar-looking full moon." Mya's voice was dangerously playful. I felt her hands on my hips, holding me firmly against the mattress. "But maybe I should give it a good probe just to make sure."
"Mya..." was all I managed to say before the insistent motions of her tongue and lips left me moaning, holding onto the bedsheet for fear of floating away. The moment ended abruptly when she spanked me hard across both buttocks, making me lurch upright in shock. "Mya! You are an evil woman, sometimes."
"Time to get up, I said." Mya's smile mocked me with its malicious beauty. "We'll need our flight suits today."
"What, really? You're not planning on going EVA next to a supermassive black hole, are you?" I said as Mya tossed my flight suit next to me on the bed.
"I'm not planning to, no." Mya replied ominously, already halfway into hers, struggling to wriggle her hands and arms all the way down to the suit's gloves.
"Though it might be an unplanned possibility?"
"It's not unknown, I'm afraid." Mya confirmed as she helped me stretch the fabric of the right leg of my heavily-patched flight suit over the top of my splint. "Some less scrupulous 'explorers' bring weapons to Sag A* to convince others to drop their data caches."
"That's insane. Why would a pirate fly all that way?"
"Easy pickings. Especially if you pick on people who can't fight back." Mya shrugged. "Some people are just complete fucking jerks."
"Are you expecting trouble?" I asked, concerned.
"It pays to plan for the worst, but hope for the best." Mya said, providing me with an arm for support as I lumbered to my feet. "Come along, Sir Limpsalot."
"I do wish you'd stop calling me that." I growled. The severity of the break in my right leg had given me a slight limp, but VENUS had assured me that provided I kept exercising to rebuild the strength in the damaged muscle, I should be walking normally again in a few months. I tried to keep my weight off my right foot, so that each footfall didn't send a sharp stab of pain up my leg.
"Descend, sir knight, into your arcane pit." Mya continued mocking me with a put-on, thespian accent, pointing with a melodramatic flourish to the ladder that would take me down a deck to the flight engineer's station on the bridge. Going down the ladder wouldn't be half as problematic as climbing back up again at the end of the day.
"Banished again, huh?" I said sadly, playing my part and reaching for the topmost rung. Mya's hand gripped my shoulder lightly, turning me back to face her.
"But not before receiving a fond farewell from a fair maiden, sir knight." Mya leaned forward to kiss me on the lips. We both let the kiss linger for a good couple of minutes, neither of us feeling terribly inclined to stop. Mya smiled broadly when she released me and I seized the fleeting opportunity to get my own back.
"Where do you propose to find a maiden all the way out here?" I asked innocently. Mya's eyes sparkled with both anger and amusement. I felt the strength sap from my legs as she grabbed me firmly by the crotch of my flight suit.
"Touché, kisama." Mya snickered as I squirmed in her rather less than delicate grip. She gave me another kiss before releasing me. "A maiden would be wasted on you, knave! Better that you knock boots with a worldly-wise wench like me."
"I couldn't agree more." I replied, smirking as I gripped the rails of the ladder between the insteps of my feet and slid down to the engineering deck. A quick survey of the engine room revealed that all of Andromeda's modules were running perfectly. We had only needed to use the field maintenance unit just once, after a hyperjump had popped us out of witchspace unexpectedly in the nexus between three G-type stars separated by just twelve light seconds. The so-called 'canyon run' we had been forced into performing, intersecting the gap separating the photospheres of the two nearest stars, had caused minor overheating damage to the power plant and power distributor and necessitated the use of two of our six heat sinks to prevent the ship's systems more fragile modules from overloading and malfunctioning. The field maintenance unit had done its job perfectly, however, using less than a quarter of the AFMU's component reserves to fully repair all of the Asp Explorer's sub-systems. I settled into my seat, double-checking that my RemLok helmet was secured in the emergency supply rack beneath my operating station's main dashboard. "All systems are ready to go, Mya."
"Outstanding. Lifting off." Mya replied from the bridge's top deck. The ship thrummed with barely contained power, the ventral thrusters kicking up clouds of fine white dust as the Asp eased away from the surface of the moon we had taken refuge on for the night. Andromeda streaked into the sky above, propelled by repeated maximum-g burns from the ship's thrusters. Mya ignited the afterburners every few seconds, not because the gravity from the moon required it - the local gravitational field strength was only 0.35g - but simply because she was excited about reaching the goal of her expedition. Mya sighed in wonder as the scattered glare from the surface of the moon dimmed and receded behind us, letting us see a vista of space completely unlike anything citizens of the Local Bubble would ever see in their lifetimes. "Petr, just look at that."

It was a view relatively few people had seen in the whole of human history. If you were to ask a resident of the Federation, Alliance or Empire what the colour of space was, they would most likely say 'black'. A natural enough response, given that's what most people who live on the great plane of the Milky Way's galactic disk would say, since that would agree with their experience. A starship commander or crewmember with even a modest amount of experience would be quick to point out that not all space is black. Nebulae, the plane of the galactic disk and even other nearby galaxies add vibrant colour to the night sky. This too, would not be surprising. But here, deep within the bulging central core of the Milky Way, space is not black. Far from it. Whichever direction you choose to gaze, there's a star, a nebula, or a cloud of dust. Or a violent accretion disk surrounding a black hole emitting light not just in the visible spectrum, but x-rays and gamma rays, too. In the deep core of the galaxy, space is a whirling kaleidoscope of colour - everything but black.

"My god, that's so beautiful." I breathed, utterly humbled by the scale of what I was seeing. Tens of billions of stars, packed into a sphere only a few hundred light years in diameter. A colossal gravitational engine, binding the larger structure of the galaxy together. It was overwhelming to contemplate the magnitude of the place and reconcile it relative to my own being. I was glad that I had Mya with me to share the experience, as I felt tiny, irrelevant and insignificant. Despite that, I felt honoured to be having the experience at all. "I'm so glad you brought me here, Mya."
"You can't see something like this alone, Petr. What's the point, if you can't share the moment with someone?" Mya asked. "I'm glad you're here, too."
"Shall we see what it looks like from the middle?"
"Hell, yes." Mya aimed Andromeda towards the vector that would take us on our final frame shift jump of our outbound flight. "Sag A*, here we come."

Neither Mya nor I talked as the rumbling maelstrom of compressed higher spatial dimensions shimmered and roiled past the canopy, carrying us the final handful of light years on our journey to the heart of the Milky Way. The eerie winds of witchspace buffeted the ship, stronger here than I had ever known them before. I closed my eyes to mediate for a few seconds as the whole ship vibrated. The frame shift drive span down with its characteristic rhythmical thudding and when I opened my eyes, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

"There it is. The largest lens for at least 2.5 million light years." Mya said, unable to contain her wonder. "I'm glad that thing's not feeding on an accretion disk right now. Otherwise we'd get fried by gamma rays in minutes, at this distance."

We had come out of witchspace some 25 million kilometres from the supermassive black hole. Mya activated the advanced discovery scanner to record definite proof that she had been in the system, and as soon as the 'honk' was completed, she low-waked the ship out of supercruise into realspace to make it less conspicuous, just in case any other ships entered the system.

"The centre of the galaxy." I mused, looking at the way the supermassive black hole twisted the path of the light passing near its event horizon, allowing us to peer around and beyond the immense stellar remnant. "When I left home at 17, I never thought in my wildest dreams that one day I'd end up here."
"Where did you think you'd end up?"
"In a pirate gang, probably. I almost ended up working for Thunda Sue a few years back. Fortunately Baz came along with a better offer and kept me honest. Well, mostly. He certainly gave me a longer life expectancy."
"Lucky for me. Thunda would've eaten you alive within a week."
"Do you know her?" I asked.
"Only by reputation." Mya replied distantly, her attention drawn to the spectacle of the gravitational lens  just a hundred light seconds from the bow of her ship. The light from the stars beyond the black hole twisted and distorted from the parallax as we drifted in a leisurely orbit around the intense gravity well. "Well, Petr. We made it. We're finally here. And what a sight. There's over four million Solar masses in there."
"It's incredible. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like underneath the event horizon."
"Neither can I, but I'm not going to fly the ship inside to find out." Mya said dryly. "But this is it, Petr. The beginning of the long road home. It's a shame we didn't find a neutron star graveyard along the way, but I still reckon we're both making eight figures out of this trip. More than enough to get you that top-spec Type 6."
"We have to make it back, first." I reminded her. "Then I'll think about what I want to spend the money on."
"Nice to know that you've been paying attention." Mya laughed. "No time like the present, I suppose. You'll be happy to know that we're going to take the direct route back. Max range jumps, though if it's unclaimed, we're scanning it."
"Gotta have those first discoveries, right?" I asked, the corners of my mouth creasing into a wry smile.
"Absol-" Mya began to agree before she was cut off by VENUS.
"Low-wake detected. New contact, range - 8 kilometres." the AI reported.
"Uh-oh." Mya said, spooling up the frame shift drive. "VENUS, shields up."
"Acknowledged, Commander. Shield generator online."
"What have we got, Petr?" Mya asked, selecting the newly arrived ship with the targeting computer and twisting Andromeda about to bring the sensors suite to bear.
"Let's see." I opened my left-hand panel to review the contacts board. The ship type alone did not make for encouraging reading. Neither did the vessel's sub-system list. "Fer-de-Lance. You've got to be kidding me..."
"Oh, shit. Either we've got a prime jerk, or someone who insists on travelling in style. So, still a jerk, but not quite so tragic."
"It's a prime jerk." I replied, reading down the list of the heavy fighter's sub-systems. "Two class 2 gimballed pulse lasers. Two class 2 Pack Hound seeker missile racks. Frame shift interdictor. Frame shift wake scanner. Auto Field Maintenance Unit. Chaff and Heat Sink launchers, Point Defence and a couple of shield boosters. And I think he's seen us."
"Petr, start plotting a jump."
"Where to?"
"I don't care, as long as it's over 30 light years from here and we're pointing at it right now. The one thing we do have is a hyperspace range advantage. He'll need to make two jumps for every one of ours. We just need to survive long enough for the frame shift drive to charge up."
"Okay. On it." I started to look for a suitable candidate system from the local navigation list. "Don't you think we should start running? First rule of exploration, right? Run, don't fight?"
"I forgot to tell you the second rule." Mya said, grimly stoic. "Never act like prey until you're certain you are."
"Maybe we should invite him aboard for tea and cake?" I suggested, trying to keep the mood light, even though we were very likely in mortal danger.
"I think he's more of a coffee person. He's deploying hardpoints." Mya observed. "Four pips to engines, two to shields, please Petr."

I adjusted the setting on the power distributor as the Fer-de-Lance approached on an intercept course. The heavy fighter was considerably larger and more powerful than Mya's Asp, though to increase the hyperspace range, the Commander had chosen not to fit a weapon on the ship's Class 4 hardpoint, which at least showed that our luck hadn't entirely deserted us. When the Fer-de-Lance got within three kilometres of Andromeda, its pilot, Vasili Zhukov, activated the vessel's retro thrusters to come to a relative stop, two hundred metres from the cockpit on the nose of our Asp. Both missile launchers and pulse lasers glinted threateningly in the twilight.

"How nice of you not to run." Commander Zhukov said over the ship-to-ship radio, his Imperial accent thick with sardonic delight. "It's always nice to meet a compliant victim- I mean, fellow explorer. Greetings, commander! I hope the day finds you well. If you still want to be breathing tomorrow, I suggest you dump your exploration data."
"Say that I do. What guarantee do we have that you won't simply destroy us anyway?" Mya asked.
"None, of course!" Zhukov laughed. "Especially since I notice you're unarmed. But I never try to deprive myself of a potential source of future income. So what do you say, Commander Kyoka? Are you going to be reasonable, or am I going to have to be unreasonable?"
"I've only got one thing to say to you, Zhukov." Mya's voice dripped with utter contempt. "Shinjimae, you cum-sucking, goat-fucking mutant!"

I was shoved back into the gel-padding of my seat as Mya lit Andromeda's afterburners, the Asp passing just metres over the Fer-de-Lance's canopy in an instant. The main thrusters fired again, driving our ship deep into the blindspot of the Fer-de-Lance's weapons  and towards the empty space beyond as the more massive ship struggled to turn and begin its pursuit. The fighter ignited its own thrusters, using the boost of acceleration to speed up the ship's turn rate. By the time the warning tone filled the bridge to indicate that the Fer-de-Lance was locking on missiles, we had managed to put a gap of 2.5 kilometres between our ships.

"Here's where things start to get interesting." Mya said, starting to barrel roll and juke the Asp through evasive manoeuvres to throw off the tracking of the missile racks and gimballed pulse lasers. "VENUS, chaff now, please."
"Acknowledged, Commander. Under attack. Incoming missiles detected." the AI replied, its voice calm and even. I looked down at the radar to see a swarm of miniature homing missiles surge across the gap between predator and prey. The small Pack Hound missiles were not terribly devastating individually, but Zhukov could launch 24 at a time, trying to overtax our shields with multiple simultaneous hits.
"Petr, do you want to give me a hyperspace vector? Anytime before we're dead would be nice."
"I'm trying - the route planner's taking an age." The sheer density of the stars in the core meant that it took an inordinate amount of time to finish calculations for even short journeys of a few hundred light years.
"Forget the planner. Just pick a system." Mya said as she snap-rolled the Asp, the rapid thwipp from the point defence turret vibrating the hull underneath my seat as it tried to intercept the incoming missiles. "I'm not going to be able to keep him at bay for long."
"Okay, here." I replied, picking a system at random as five vapour trails whipped past the canopy, the tracking systems of the missiles spoofed by Mya's evasive manoeuvres and the interference from the chaff cloud cloaking the vessel. Twelve of the missiles exploded prematurely as they were struck by outgoing plasma bolts from our point defence, but I felt the hull shake as the remaining missiles smashed into our rear shields. "Shields down to 52%!"
"Tell me something I don't know." Mya grimaced, lighting Andromeda's afterburners again and putting the ship through a looping roll to align our velocity vector with the star system I had selected on the star map. "More chaff, VENUS. Engaging frame shift drive."
"Incoming missiles." VENUS reported helpfully. The Fer-de-Lance had a slight speed advantage and was edging closer to Andromeda, the mass of its hull disrupting the ability of our frame shift drive to create a stable witchspace bubble that would allow us to escape. "Frame shift in 55 seconds."

I felt the kick of the Asp's thrusters again, Mya trying desperately to keep the ship mobile enough to evade some of the weapons fire, without straying too far away from our escape vector. The starfield span wildly, jerking leaps from ship's fine control thrusters adding an element of unpredictability to our flight path. I vaguely heard a series of explosions from behind me in the simulated soundscape confirming that at least some of the incoming missiles had been shot down by our point defence fire, but with less distance separating the two ships now, I knew that the automated turret wouldn't be able to get them all. Only three missiles this time were sufficiently bamboozled by Mya's twisting flight path and this time the crash of the missiles was accompanied by the tortured shrieking of metal.

"Shields down! Taking damage! Hull integrity at 84%!" I reported, dismayed. We would need another thirty seconds before the frame shift drive would impel us out of harm's way, and I couldn't see how we would survive even a third of that.
The ship-to-ship radio crackled. "A valiant effort, Kyoka. Drop your data and I'll leave enough of your ship intact for you to get back to port."
"VENUS, rig for silent running. Deploy more chaff and a heat sink." Mya didn't reply to Zhukov, instead giving further orders to our AI. With our first heat sink now depleted, I took the unit offline and activated the reserve heat sink launcher.

With our shields down, only chance now was to keep our thermal signature minimised to prevent the Fer-de-Lance pilot from locking onto Andromeda with his missiles or the gimballed tracking systems of his pulse lasers. The only problem was that the two ships were so close now that it was easy to target us visually. Then there was the fact that the still-charging frame shift drive was generating enough heat to melt our hull from the inside out. Despite our dire situation, I felt a rush of admiration and love for Mya, awed by her determination to escape or go down fighting in the attempt. Zhukov had locked the gimbals on his pulse lasers to counteract the effects of our chaff screen and I saw the twin crimson flashes of destructive light edge closer and closer to our hull, despite Mya's crazed, random jinking and rolling. The laser fire began to find its mark.

"Mya, he's targeting the frame shift drive. Module integrity 90% and falling." I said, my heart sinking. We still needed thirteen seconds before the jump could commence and Zhukov would be able to disable the drive in half that. Not only that, the heat level inside the ship was getting dangerously high. "Reactor running at 140%. Taking heat damage."
"VENUS, deploy another heat sink. Chaff too, while you're at it." Mya said, sounding resigned. "I'm sorry about this, Petr."

I didn't get the chance to reply, everything happened too quickly. Mya saw her opportunity a fraction of second later, noticing the Fer-de-Lance suddenly accelerate closer as Zhukov ignited the vessel's immense main thrusters. Mya yanked the Asp's throttle back full, initiating a crash stop. The Fer-de-Lance barely managed to avoid a collision, the upturned port wingtip of the ship skimming within centimetres of Andromeda's ventral hull. Zhukov was so shocked by the unexpected manoeuvre that the Fer-de-Lance was over two kilometres away before he even began to start turning his ship. Mya reversed the throttle, accelerating back towards our frame shift escape vector. Frost formed on the canopy as VENUS used the heat sink launcher to dump all the excess thermal energy from the Asp's systems into a glowing white ceramic plug that the AI ejected away from the ice cold vessel, which would now be invisible to Zhukov's scanner. I saw the arrowhead silhouette against the glowing background of the galactic core as the Fer-de-Lance began a boost turn to bring our Asp back into the sights of its weapons. I glanced down at my scanner. Zhukov's ship was six kilometres away and only beginning to finish it's turn. The heavy fighter's mass was now a disadvantage, the nose of the ship seemingly reluctant to pitch up towards us. With our frame shift drive now concealed from the Fer-de-Lance's view, Zhukov decided to go for an outright kill, rather than disable our ship.

"Another heat sink, VENUS." Mya ordered as the ship's internal heat capacity rose again towards 90%. Mya applied a final burst of thrust towards our target system, just as the Fer-de-Lance swept back into weapons range.
"Frame shift drive activated." VENUS said, seemingly unconcerned by the incoming horde of blind-fired seeker missiles. "Frame shift in 5..."
Crimson pulses grasped out across the void between us, making the hull behind the cockpit ring like a bell as layers of paint and metal were boiled away. Mya rolled the ship in a random spiral, trying to dance her way through the staccato fire, avoiding taking damage in the same spot twice.
"Hull integrity at 71%!"
The point defence turret spat green fire at the incoming missiles, blotting half of them out of the sky in brief orange explosions. The space around the nose of the ship seemed to coil and wrinkle as the witchspace bubble began to take form.
The ship rocked and there was a terrible, nerve-shredding crack from the canopy as the proximity fuses of the remaining missiles detonated, showering the front of the ship with hypersonic shrapnel. The Fer-de-Lance loomed large as it streaked towards the ship on a collision course, only a few hundred metres away.
"Mya!" I screamed in horror.
I opened my eyes, amazed that the front of the Asp now wasn't embedded in the pointed nose of the Fer-de-Lance. Somehow, we still alive, and the distance between us and Zhukov's ship was about to get very much larger.
"Engage." VENUS said, as if it were just a normal, routine frame shift jump.
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