Aftermath (Part 6)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story
     The carrier emerged from Witchspace into darkness. Esdi's star stood in bright yellow splendour but provided hardly any illumination. The Viper was held on an external docking clamp, its surfaces just a slightly lighter area masking out the stars behind, and only visible as a silhouette without eyes that had been resting in the dark.
     Marchero and Kirrik were still on the bridge of the carrier, Marchero sat at the navigation station searching for the beacon. The receivers could scan a huge number of channels simultaneously and were incredibly sensitive, but there was no guarantee that they would be looking at the right frequency at the time of the pulse.
     After half an hour Marchero announced "I've found it. Signal strength suggests it's at about eighteen AUs from here."
     "Right, up you get then," Kirrik ordered her.
     "Impatient cat," Marchero chided him. "We leave now and we might never find it again. I need to detect the next two pulses before I can predict the frequency."
     "Well be a bit quicker about it," Kirrik growled. "Can't you make estimates of the next frequency?"
     "Do it then, before I loose patience with you. And if you haven't anything useful to say in the mean time then keep quiet." Marchero chuckled to herself and turned back to the console.
     It was another half hour before two more pulses were detected. Marchero insisted on spending another twenty minutes in order to find the next two so as to be certain she was predicting them correctly. Finally she was satisfied.
     "Right, let's go," she told Kirrik. "And it might be an idea to change speed a bit. We're not close enough to see any movement in the signal position but the pulses are slightly Doppler shifted from their rest positions. Our radial velocity is several hundred kph backwards relative to the beacon."
     They left the bridge, leaving the crew to make the speed adjustments and headed to the airlock between the carrier and the Viper. As they were about to climb through Marchero announced "I'm flying."
     "No chance," Kirrik retorted.
     "Single-pilot craft. There isn't room for both of us in the seat, and that's where I'll need to be to navigate."
     "Fine. You want to stay awake for several days in one go? I can navigate just as well as you. Give me the frequency predictions and stay out my way as much as possible."
     Marchero groped around for some retort to this, but failing to find any grumbled "In you go, cat."
     "Stop calling me 'cat'. One more problem from you and I'll keep you sedated until needed." Marchero scowled back at him.
     The airlock opened through a disconcerting ninety-degree change of gravity, between the carrier and the Viper. Both of them squeezed in to the narrow entrance. Kirrik pressed a button and the iris airlock door closed above them. The space they now stood in was bare save for the airlock and doors leading to the bridge and the living quarters. Kirrik almost shoved Marchero through the latter, and locking the door behind him moved into the bridge.
     Through the bridge door there was a ladder descending to the pilot's chair. The bridge itself was tiny, and would more accurately be described as a cockpit. The bulk of the forward part was taken up with the main monitor. Around the sides were the controls and indicators for rest of the ship's systems, navigation, communications, life support and so on.
     Switching them on turned the bridge from claustrophobic dullness to brightness. The monitor flicked into life, just showing the hull of the carrier marked by flickering lights. Kirrik activated the comms to request launching clearance.
     "Docking clamps released. Move away at twenty kph until you are two hundred metres clear," a robotic voice instructed.
     With barely a shudder the Viper's engines came to life, slowly pushing it away from its mothership. Kirrik spun the Viper until it was facing away from the carrier and nudged it out. Switching the monitor to rear view the dark shape of the carrier's hull gradually receded. About forty seconds later the comm came to life again, this time with a human voice.
     "You're cleared to depart. Good luck!"
     The ship turned again, now pointing towards the source of the nav signals, and hopefully therefore the target base. The ship started to vibrate slightly as the engines came on full power. For Kirrik the acceleration was almost unnoticeable as the artificial gravity changed direction and strength to compensate. Satisfied that the ship was safely on course he activated the stealth device. There was no change to the on-board conditions, and although the instrumentation announced it was working correctly he asked the carrier for confirmation.
     "That's affirmative, no active scanner image. The passive sensors are just picking you up, though. Try throttling back on the engine." Kirrik did so, slowly reducing the power. "You're gone," the carrier announced when the Viper's drive was operating at approximately two-thirds of maximum. "Recommend that you accelerate at maximum power but brake at reduced levels."
     "Acknowledged. There will be no further communications until our return. Over and out."
     Kirrik turned the comms off and flicked the controls to automatic. He had to twist around uncomfortably in the confined space to grasp the ladder to climb out of the cockpit. Pulling himself up and out he went aft to check on the accommodation.
     The Viper was designed to carry ten passengers, but this meant more that the life support was capable of handling them rather than there was enough space. GalCop didn't really mind cramming their prisoners into close proximity. Narrow bunks allowed six of them to sleep at any time, the rest had a small patch of floor to sit on. Their was a separate room for the pilot, but this was not much better. An uncomfortable, narrow bed and very basic washing facilities, but at least it was private. Designed as a short-range "hunter-killer" it was rarely necessary to spend more than two or three days in it.
     Kirrik was not surprised to see that Marchero was not in the communal section, and resigned himself to her complaints when he tried to kick her out of the private cabin. She had locked the door, but the ship's computers had been programmed to give him complete access and the lock was easily overridden.
     Marchero was sat on the bed rummaging through a bag she had brought on board. She looked up when Kirrik entered, clearly unsurprised to see him.
     "Right, now you're going to try to order me out of here, eh?" she said sarcastically.
     "Well, I think I'll stay. I've had enough of being bossed around by you lot."
     "Hah," Kirrik snorted. "What did you expect with your attitude?"
     "You haven't exactly shown much gratitude for my assistance, have you?" She turned her back on him and went back to searching the bag.
     Kirrik started to gesture behind her back, but thought better of it. He walked round the bed until he was in front of her and hauled her to her feet. "The way you act I wouldn't be grateful for anything you did," he snarled into her face.
     "Let go," she shouted at him. She tried to push his arms away but he was much stronger than her.
     "When you've listened to me, and hopefully for once you'll pay attention." Marchero stopped struggling and stared at him with a look bordering on hatred.
     "This is going to be a long trip. It's eight days there and eight back. There isn't much room in this ship to avoid each other. It's almost certainly going to be a dangerous trip, too. If we make it there alive it's going to get worse. Being bloody-minded and confrontational will get us killed. Have the cabin, but in return remember that I'm in charge. If you haven't anything worth saying, shut up." He shoved her back down on the bed, and started to walk out of the room.
     At the door her turned back, and grabbed Marchero's bag.
     "Give it back!" she yelled at him. "What's in there is none of your business!"
     "That's what I want to be certain about."
     Marchero jumped up to snatch back her back, but Kirrik leapt through the door and had hit the close panel before she could reach him. He locked the door under his codes, and ignoring the hammering on the door and the yelling coming from behind it he emptied the bag's contents onto one of the bunks in the communal area.
     The contents consisted of a change of clothes, some washing gear and two information pads. Kirrik eyed them suspiciously but upon examining their contents saw that they contained nothing but a couple of novels, and a surprisingly good taste in literature considering his general opinion of Marchero. As a precaution he hooked the pads up to the Viper's computer to search them more thoroughly for hidden files, but they were clean. He flung everything back in the bag.
     Quickly opening the door, he threw the bag through. "Here," he called into the cabin, and closed the door before Marchero had time to react.
     For the next few days they did their best to avoid each other completely. Kirrik spent most of his waking time on the bridge, Marchero in the cabin. They had spoken only briefly, whilst Marchero told Kirrik the frequency prediction formula for the nav beacon. The tense atmosphere was still there, though, and now the engines had shut down and the ship was coasting the silence exaggerated it.
     It was, however, the boredom of the situation that eventually made them speak again. Unlike Marchero Kirrik had not had the foresight to bring with him anything with which to pass the time. Not surprisingly for a commandeered police vessel the Viper's computers contained very little in the way of entertainment. A little music he didn't like, a film he had already seen and some old police reports to read.
     Tensing himself for another confrontation he knocked on the door. There was quite a delay before it was opened. Marchero stood looking at him suspiciously.
     Kirrik didn't say anything for a few seconds, but eventually blurted out "Look, can I borrow a book?"
     Marchero's expression was one of incredulity for a moment, but then she laughed. "Yeah, OK. If you must." She bent and picked one of the information pads off the floor where they had been lying untidily. "You owe me a favour now," she told him, tossing the pad to Kirrik.
     "I doubt that. Thanks any-" he began, but suddenly an alarm erupted through the ship. "Stay here!" he shouted at her as he ducked through the doorway and almost jumped down into the bridge.
     The monitor was blank except for stars. The scanner showed nothing. But by his right hand another display was flashing a warning message.
     "What's up?" called Marchero from above his head.
     "The stealth device is playing up. I've no idea if we're visible to anything."
     "How far away are we?" she called back down to him.
     "About seven and a half AUs. Nearly time to start slowing down, but if we turn on the engines now I'm fairly sure we'll be detected."
     "What's wrong with it?"
     "Don't know yet, the diagnostics haven't come through."
     There was a nervous minute as the computer attempted to ascertain the damage. Eventually a message scrolled up below the warning.
     Stealth shield interface burnout. Scanner interface offline it informed. Kirrik told Marchero the news.
     "Any more details?" she asked.
     "No, the computer interface to it is down. If we're lucky that's all it will be." He hauled himself up out of the bridge.
     A panel in the back wall of the communal area opened into a crawlway heading into the ship's heart. Kirrik disappeared into it.
     He emerged with a very worried expression on his face.
     "Bad?" Marchero asked him.
     "The shield interface has completely had it."
     "So we're visible?"
     "At seven and half AUs? Not unless they've very long range active scanners. They'll see us when we turn the engines on, though." He lay down on the bunk he had been using, seeming thoroughly despondent.
     "You're giving up?" Marchero exclaimed.
     "No," he sat up and replied. "I'm trying to think." He lay back down whilst Marchero paced the room nervously.
     "Right," he announced all of a sudden. Marchero jumped. "The scanner interface looks fine. I think it was just confused by the demise of the shield one, but I can reset it. The interface isn't down, after all. It's just the wires that had burned through."
     "And your plan?"
     "Hook the scanner interface to the shields as well. We'll just have to hope it can take the strain. The software has backups in the main computer, so it shouldn't be a problem to re-program it. We'll have to loose active scanning, though. It won't be up to modulating that on top of everything else."
     "Any other bad news?" Marchero said. There was a hint of nervousness in her voice.
     "Yes. It probably won't work as efficiently. I'll start braking as soon as I've hooked up the interface, but even at a slower braking rate we may still be seen. We've no way of testing it now."
     "There is," Marchero declared. "I'll take the escape capsule out and check from that."
     "No you won't! Even the motors in that will be detectable without the stealth device. Someone is bound to investigate if they see it pop out of nowhere."
     "Sorry," Marchero muttered.
     "Go down to the bridge. Turn off all scanner functions and wait."
     This time Marchero did what he asked without arguing. Kirrik disappeared back into the equipment level.
     Marchero sat in the cockpit for an hour. The now blank displays might reveal anything were they active - just space, or a group of ships on an intercept course? Eventually Kirrik's voice was faintly heard. "Turn on passive sensors."
     Marchero turned them on quickly. The main monitor jumped back into life. The scanner ellipse illuminated, empty, although that was not a definite sign that you didn't have company when running on passive mode.
     "Start braking," came Kirrik's voice.
     "At what power?" Marchero shouted back.
     "Minimum to get us there, of course!"
     "Which is?"
     "Hang on." Kirrik extricated himself from the equipment level and headed back to the bridge. "Let me do it, then," he called down to her. She climbed out, and Kirrik dropped in. "Fifty-two percent will do from here," he said, after spending a few moments on the computer. The buzz of the engine started again as the Viper started to decelerate to meet the base.
     "Right, that's it," he declared. "If this isn't working they'll know we're here in about an hour."


Esdi is, according to ArcElite, a yellow star. Assuming it's main sequence and similar to the Sun (although the "ravaged by unpredictable solar activity" string doesn't really fit too well) then it should, I think, appear at approximately magnitude -7 from 0.25 light years away. I think this is bright enough to provide a little illumination (I've heard that Venus can cast shadows at its best, -4.7). I suppose I could work out what phase of the Moon gives mag. -7 and see how bright things look, but I really can't be bothered.

I haven't bothered working out flight times and speeds for the Viper's journey to the base, though.

Part 7
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