The human members of the bridge crew started arguing amongst each other in surprise, and Kirrik was looking thoughtful. Arrachachak rolled his eyes in an overdone expression of amused tolerance.
When the noise eventually died down Kirrik pointed out that Marchero could easily check against the charts. She scowled at him, and then examined the console for a few minutes. Shaking her head in disbelief, Marchero said, "You're right. Sol is forty-five point eight light years from here." More arguing, until Kirrik shouted them down.
"You want to go there? Have you any idea what we might run into?"
There was a sudden silence, until Aeyris spoke. "We're going to have to get some help. The device here looks out of it."
"There's a good chance that there won't be anyone around here who would want to help us."
"Say what you mean," Marchero snapped.
Kirrik glanced at her, irritation in his eyes. "Why haven't we had any contact from your home systems for over three hundred years?" he reminded her.
"The Thargoids are sitting around at our end," Marchero said.
"We don't know what they've been doing in the other direction, though," Kirrik pointed out.
"If we stopped them in the Co-Operative then they will have done so here, too," Aeyris said.
"Who knows? And do you want to risk leading them to a back door into the middle of the Co-Operative? You might not have much loyalty to it, but I'll wager you have less to the Thargoids. They might be able to slip a fleet through that portal, not just the few raiders they can get through our lines at present."
"You're paranoid," Marchero said. Kirrik just shrugged in reply.
"What's so great about coming here, though?" Aeyris asked. "Sure, it's nice to get a link back to Sol, but why all the secrecy and illegal activity?"
"Probably for the technology," Kirrik answered. "Or an opportunity elsewhere. Who knows how the tech here corresponds to ours? Especially since we've had Thargoid trouble to force us to advance."
"Can I remind you," the man who had identified their location interceded, "that we've got more immediate concerns. Like what do we do now?"
"Jump range?" Aeyris asked.
"Twelve l.y.s on the original," Kirrik said. "They were based on the latest Asp engines."
"This one can manage ten," Marchero said, her station clearly displaying the information. "But we've only enough fuel for half that."
"What's within five light years?"
"That one unimpressive star."
"Remote place," Arrachachak commented.
Marchero nodded in agreement. "The easiest inhabited system to reach is rho1 Cancri. Well, according to this," she indicated the map on her console, "there were people living there three hundred years ago."
"How far?" Aeyris asked.
"We'll need to sun-skim Wolf 1421, then jumps of nine and eight and a third light years. There are a couple of other inhabited systems closer in a straight line, but they'll need more jumps to reach."
"What sort of name is rho1 Cancri?" snorted Arrachachak.
The expert glared at him. "These stars were seen from Earth before we even left our planet. The historical reasoning would be lost on you."
"Stop it," Aeyris snapped at them. He turned to Kirrik, and gestured to him.
Kirrik walked over to Aeyris. "We haven't enough supplies to last long enough to get there," he said quietly.
"I know," Kirrik replied. "And so, I imagine, does everyone else."
"The charts are three hundred years out of date, and not very detailed. There aren't many stars without something nearby."
Aeyris frowned. "Back home, that's true. Things could be different here. And even in the Co-Operative nobody would bother with an remote red dwarf with nothing of interest."
"Fine, let's just not mention anything and go for it anyway."
The passage to Wolf 1421 did not take long, and ignoring Co-Operative regulations they brought the ship out of Witchspace dangerously close to the star so as to minimise real-space transit time. Immediately upon exit the bottom half of the viewscreen was filled with a glowing sphere, red around the edges but pure white in the centre where the cameras for the screen had been saturated. Close up even a small, cool star was an impressive object. The view quickly dulled to complete red as it adjusted to the light levels.
Arrachachak steadied the ship so it was at rest relative to the star, and then re-orientated it to skim past as close as the ship could safely go. The Constrictor accelerated, its engines working hard to match the desired course and counteract the gravity of the star. The sphere grew, but moved down out of the view.
Eventually the computer announced that the fuel scoops were operating, gradually filling their Quirium tanks as the scoop's ReQax converters worked on what solar wind they could steal.
It took some time to completely re-fuel, the quiet solar wind providing poor pickings. By then their trajectory had almost carried them past the star, and Arrachachak stopped using the engines. They had already provided enough speed, coupled with that from the gravitational slingshot effect, to ensure they would be thrown clear on a purely ballistic course.
It was as they emerged from the blinding effects of being close to a star that the sensors started to pick up something. A small notification flashed on the view; Kirrik replaced the visual scene to one showing sensor data.
What it showed was a radio signal coming in almost the exact opposite direction to Wolf 1421. It was clearly artificial in origin, although the signal hadn't triggered any automatic response from the ship, and if it contained any message it wasn't obvious.
"Interesting..." noted Aeyris.
"This signal is not used by the Co-Operative," Kirrik said. "It could be a Thargoid code."
"I don't think so. It's too regular to be a message. Perhaps it's a radar."
"Can it see us?" Marchero asked.
"That'll depend upon the receivers. Get a triangulation fix on it as soon as you can," Kirrik told her.
They drifted on for a while longer. Marchero worked on fixing a navigational lock on the signal, whilst everyone else waited.
Eventually Marchero gave up. "Either it's a long way off, or we're moving straight towards it."
Whatever it was it had noticed them. "Incoming message," flashed on the screen. Aeyris looked at Kirrik, who shrugged.
"Calculate the next jump, just in case," Kirrik ordered, then acknowledged the message.
There was no visual, just a voice over the speakers.
"This is Deep Space Listening Post W1421 calling unknown vessel. Please identify." Nothing really unexpected there, apart from the very presence of the post.
"Do we answer?" asked Arrachachak.
"What with?" sneered Marchero. "Who can we say we are? 'Hello, this is a bunch of rogues in a stolen ship which had been illegally built in an unknown yard over a thousand light years away.'"
Kirrik smiled at her, and then repeated what she had said in response to the hail. Marchero responded with a predictable sarcastic comment.
"Why are we bothering at all?" the man who had first guessed at their location said. "We need supplies, we've got nothing much to trade with, apart from bucketloads of piss that the water recycler can't cope with, so why not just take what we need?"
"Great idea, Mychov," Aeyris said. "Let's annoy the locals and attack an installation we know nothing about. Including its defences. Thinking like a pirate isn't a good idea at the moment."
It was four minutes after the sent their reply when they received another transmission. It was fairly simple. "Please identify yourself," it repeated.
"We have no ID."
There was another four minute light-travel delay.
"You will be intercepted by our fighters. We have preliminary scans on you, do not attempt to attack our ships or jump out of this system, an alert will be given throughout the Alliance if you do not comply."
"Seems like we've already annoyed the locals," Mychov commented.
"No offence to you, Arrachachak," Aeyris said, "but we might need Silsi at the helm. Go and find her, will you?"
Arrachachak extracted himself from the controls and left the bridge without protest. Silsi arrived a couple of minutes later. "Arrachachak briefed me," she said. "What are we going to do?"
There was a brief discussion between Aeyris and Kirrik. "We'll go along with them for the time being," Aeyris said. "We're going to have to meet someone eventually."
When Silsi, at the helm controls, managed to identify the incoming fighters, she looked up in surprise. "They're a couple of Vipers!" she said. "I thought we were supposed to be somewhere near Sol!"
"We are," Mychov said. "We must have sold them the design before the Thargoid blockade."
"Well, two Vipers isn't any threat."
"I wouldn't get too cocky," Kirrik warned. "They've had plenty of time to update them." Detailed examination of sensor and scanner information failed to reveal anything conclusive about the offences or defences of the approaching ships.
The Vipers made no hostile moves, but took up station near the Constrictor. When they were stationary one of them hailed the intruder to instruct them to follow them to their base. They moved off slowly, Silsi followed them.
When they were satisfied that the Constrictor was complying with their demands they accelerated faster. They were probably uncertain about how quickly the Viper could move, and didn't feel inclined to ask.
During the journey there was no more direct communication between the Vipers and the Constrictor. When the Vipers changed velocity the did so without any warning, but waited while the Constrictor followed the manoeuvre and returned to station.
At last the listening post came into sight. Compared to a space station it was small, a cylindrical structure with a wide variety of receivers and transmitters at either end. From a spherical section in the centre of the tube two curved arms protruded, to which were attached six more Vipers and a couple of small ships of an unknown design. A larger ship was parked close by. The approach continued silently until they were a bare half a mile away. The Vipers came to a halt, followed by the Constrictor.
Once again they were hailed by the post. "Dock in the main section. Doors will open in thirty seconds."
Aeyris called the rest of his crew over the intercom, suggesting that they arm themselves and take up station to guard the ship's entrance port and the bridge. Back on the view a previously unseen door opened in the central spherical section. Beyond it there was a small docking bay, just large enough for the Constrictor to fit into.
Silsi carefully nudged the ship forward. As it drifted towards the base the Vipers remained in place, so that the Constrictor moved forward between them. Inside the bay there was only the bare essentials of equipment, docking clamps on the floor and ceiling and what was probably a cargo lift tucked in one corner. Against the back there was a tightly closed door.
There was no change in movement when the Constrictor entered the confines of the bay, although a sudden hiss over the speakers suggested passage through a force field.. Silsi fired a brief burst on the manoeuvring thrusters, and they came to a halt. After a few seconds a clang and a shudder echoed through the ship as the docking clamps took hold. Following that there was another shudder, and the ship dropped a little.
"Stay here," Aeyris told the bridge crew, as he and Kirrik left.
They were met near the door by half a dozen armed pirates, ready to cover them if they we greeted with a hostile response. Kirrik walked up to the entrance, then shook his head in annoyance when he saw the bare spot where the door control panel should have been.
"Forgetful," one of the pirates commented.
"Go back to the bridge and get them to open the door if conditions match," Aeyris told the nearest pirate.
When the door opened there was a brief rush of air into the ship. Kirrik looked out to see that the docking clamps were holding them a couple of feet off the ground. And looking up at him were a dozen soldiers.
Finally, did anyone notice another silly reference, this time to The Empire Strikes Back? On the subject of hidden things, somewhere on my site there are a few background stars that are not random dots. If anyone has found them to date they haven't mentioned it! I might even offer a prize if anyone gets it, although the prize is likely to be just a "well done" message somewhere on the main page. Enough ramblings, this doesn't really belong here anyway.