Sunday, June 26, 2016

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

Stuemeae RJ-Q e5-583: 258 days out from Conway City

It was several hours after our miraculous escape from Zhukov at Sagittarius A* before we finally felt safe. Mya put the longer hyperspace legs of Andromeda to good use, performing a sequence of twelve back-to-back, maximum range frame shift jumps taking us three hundred light years out towards the galactic rim, adding doglegs to our route every ninety light years to make it impossible for the pirate explorer to track us or predict with where we might have gone. The frame shift wake from our third jump would have dissipated by the time the shorter ranged Fer-de-Lance would have been able to make the journey, but Mya didn't want to take any chances. Only once we had put tens of millions of star systems between us and Zhukov did Mya redirect our path back towards occupied space. We were nearly twenty-six thousand light years from home, and Andromeda had taken a real battering.

All of the internal systems had taken at least 15% damage from having to make a frame shift jump while silent running, but the frame shift drive was down to 64% integrity and there were hairline fractures across a third of the canopy. The hull was in even worse shape, with more than a dozen minor hull breaches scattered across the spaceframe. The biggest worry was the hole exposing the frame shift drive. Mya set the ship down on the illuminated face of a rocky moon facing its parent gas giant and the B-type star they both orbited so that we could inspect the damage first-hand in the bright, blue-white light. Mya had selected the moon for its particularly low surface gravity of 0.13g, citing that it would help us when trying to install patches on the hull. Mya was waiting for me at the top of the ladder, her RemLok helmet in hand as I hauled myself painfully up, rung after rung, trying not to put any weight on my weaker leg. She helped me out onto the deck and hugged me to her hard, wrapping her arms around me and resting her head against my neck.

"That was a close one." Mya said, reaching up to immerse her fingers in the hair on the back of my head.
"Too close." I agreed, kissing her underneath the ear. "Let's never do that again."
"Yeah. Sag A*'s a place you only need to go to once, anyway. See one supermassive black hole and you've seen them all." Mya joked, kissing me back to relieve the tension and reassure herself that we were indeed still alive. "Sorry I didn't have to the chance to explain about the overshoot manoeuvre, but it was the only way to get him off our tail and not have him trash the FSD."
"That didn't freak me out quite so much as playing chicken in an unarmed, unshielded vessel." I said pointedly.
"It was a judgment call. I was sure his nerve would break first. You don't pirate unarmed ships 26 kylies from occupied space if you're brave." Mya replied, sighing gently as I continued to kiss the smooth skin on the side of her neck.
"Well, we're still alive, so it must have been a good call." I smiled, hugging her tighter. "I love you, Mya."
"I know, Petr. But right now, I think we need to fuck." Mya said, pulling me into her stateroom.

I was woken up much later by Mya languidly stroking my chest as she lay against my left side, looking down at my face with the expression of someone simply happy to be alive to face another day. I gazed back into the depths of her beautiful brown eyes, wondering what she was thinking.

"Hey, what's up?" I asked, letting my arms snake around her slender waist.
"Petr, I think I'm ready for that talk now."
"Which talk?"
"You know, the talk. About us." Mya's smile waned a little. "Petr, I love you."
"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?"
"Because it makes me terrified of losing you, like I almost did yesterday, or when you were injured by the barnacle." Mya explained. "I never thought I was actually capable of loving someone until now."
"What was that you told me about risk versus reward?" I asked wryly. "Do you want to answer the door or not?"
"I do, I really do." Mya said, moulding her lithe body against mine. "But not if you're planning on going your own way when we get back to Conway. I don't think I could take that. What do you want, Petr?"
"Mya, I never expected to love you, not when I signed on for the trip. But I do. I want to be with you every waking second. Marriage, kids, grandkids - the works. And a few hundred thousand more first discoveries on the Universal Cartographics star charts in your name, too." I said, stroking her hair affectionately. "I'd follow you to the end of the Scutum-Centaurus arm and back."
"You really mean that, don't you?" Mya smiled down at me in wonder.
"Of course I do." I assured her, pulling her hips up over mine and gripping the back of her thighs to encourage her to mount me. Mya didn't need any persuading and she gasped as I pressed her down onto me, one hand cupping her shoulder and the other holding her down firmly against me by her buttocks. "I adore you, Mya."
"Oh, Petr." Mya sighed and we kissed as she began to tilt her hips in tiny circular motions, exquisitely slowly. "I want you, too."

We didn't speak again until after we had shared a tumultuous, simultaneous climax that left us clinging to each other, ecstatic and breathless. Shivering, Mya pulled the bedcovers back up over her waist, lying back down on my chest and she rested her head on my shoulder.

"Petr, are you absolutely sure that you want to still fly with me after we get back to Conway?" Mya asked, her eyes still closed as she calmed her breathing.
"100%, yes. Why?"
"This trip was kind of an audition. A test run."
"An audition for what?"
"For two things. Firstly, for you. To see if you had the right kind of temperament to fly with me in the long term, because secondly, I wanted to see if flying with a companion would keep me stable enough to achieve my life's dream."
"And what is that, exactly?"
"After we get back to Conway, my next trip is going to be a long one. I want to do the Grand Tour. And I want you to come with me."
"The Grand Tour?"
"Yeah. Head out to the rim and circumnavigate the galaxy. We'd be gone a long time."
"How long?"
"Ten, twenty years? Or maybe a lifetime. There are hundreds of billions of stars out there."
"You're serious, aren't you?" I asked, looking across at her smooth, placid features as she lay still on my chest.
"Totally, yeah." Mya replied, caressing the back of my neck languorously, opening her eyes to gaze back at me. "Fancy it?"
"I don't have anything better to do." I smiled, leaning my head over to kiss her gently on the lips.

It took us three days to make repairs to the ship, before we felt confident enough that Andromeda would be able to complete the return journey back to the bubble of occupied space. I prioritised our limited field maintenance unit resources on the frame shift drive, fuel scoop, thruster and life support systems, after agreeing with Mya that the other modules on the ship were a luxury, in comparison to these four critical systems, and that they could be left to run at sub-100% integrity levels. The hull repairs were more time consuming. Mya's previous experience had thankfully given her the foresight to include a few hundred kilos of colourless, transparent epoxy resin that could be used to shore up the canopy, filling in and sealing the cracks caused by the shockwave from the Pack Hound missile explosions. It took twenty hours for us to apply the resin where it was needed and let it cure to reinforce the glass. The repairs to the hull were more time consuming and technical. We had enough steel sheeting on board to patch up the minor hull breaches around the cockpit and on the pentagon-shaped keel surrounding the dorsal utility hardpoint. Mya and I worked in tandem to laser weld the plates over the holes left by the shrapnel created by Zhukov's seeker missiles relatively easily, which just left us with the rather more complicated problem of how to reseal the hull plating that had been vaporised over the frame shift drive module. The hole was too large to patch with our remaining sheet steel, which would barely cover half of it. I was about to suggest to Mya that we shouldn't bother trying to plug the gap at all, when I had a moment of inspiration.

"How about we use the meta-alloys?" They were lightweight, strong and easily machined, plus we had four tonnes of them stashed away in the cargo rack of my wrecked SRV. "They're essentially worthless dead weight until we get back to the bubble, so why not make them pay their way?"
"Sure. Go for it." Mya assented with a shrug.

It took until sunset on the second day to find a way of manipulating the meta-alloys with electric fields to get them to assume the right shape to form a large enough sheet that would sufficiently cover the hole in the rear of the Asp's hull. Then it took a whole day to use an electron beam welding torch to convince the meta-alloys to bond with the surrounding plating strongly enough to form an airtight, protective shield over the ship's frame shift drive. The meta-alloy's high melting point was akin to mirrored armour composite, so would provide better protection against thermal weapons than standard hull plating, should we be attacked again on our return to Conway City. In terms of credit value, it was probably the single most expensive hull patch in the entire history of human spaceflight, but the most important thing was that it worked.

We celebrated our success that evening with the burek pie I had promised to make Mya back in LTT 4961 and two bottles of Champagne that Mya had kept hidden away for the entire trip in the one place on the ship I would never dare look for contraband alcohol - her lingerie wardrobe. The next morning, with sore heads and aching bodies, Mya walked me to the ladder well outside the bridge with an arm wrapped lovingly around my waist.

"Come on, kitten. Let's go home."
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