Aftermath (Part 7)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story
     If the stealth device had failed any EM signatures would take about an hour to travel seven and a half astronomical units. Any alert broadcast by the target, perhaps to alert patrols, would take another hour propagate out as far as the Viper. How long it would take for any ships to reach them would depend upon the vessel, but would be at least a day. And without active scanners the first sign of company might be the screech of laser fire on the shields. Or death. The effect of the stealth device on the shields was a worrying unknown.
     A new tenseness gripped the small police vessel. Marchero's abrasive manner receded, but instead was replaced by a tendency to become angered by the slightest incident. Kirrik was supposedly trained to cope with pressure, and as a veteran of all sorts of campaigns he had come under it plenty of times before. Dealing with this kind of unknowing wait, though, began to try him too, and he often mis-read Marchero and heard insults where none were intended.
     Once they tried to put aside differences and discuss a plan, but because neither of them had much of an idea what they were going in to very little was achieved. Marchero produced a probably very inaccurate diagram of the base and they identified a couple of possible landing spots. It wasn't long, though, before they started arguing again. Kirrik was clearly frustrated with the lack of Marchero's knowledge, whereas she was becoming very annoyed with him continuously asking her about things she had already stated she did not know.
     They tried agreeing to avoid each other, but before long Marchero started bickering again. She eventually confessed that she found it less of a strain than sitting around waiting.
     Despite their worries the ship moved closer, unmolested.
     They did, in the event, reach the base safely. A confusion of lights marked its location. They were mostly clustered around one side of a vast, dark mass of the asteroid. Further points of light were ships patrolling the space around the base, or moving to and from nearby platform.
     Sat on the platform was a Python class deep space cruiser, made ugly by the four fuel scoops that had been fitted when it had only been designed for one. It was most likely doing service as a tanker, jumping to a lone, uninhabited system or an outer member of a multiple star group where it could collect Quirium Witchspace fuel without being spotted. Bright lights around the platform edge revealed a multitude of robots crawling in and out of the cargo bay.
     Kirrik was sat in the pilot's seat with Marchero clinging to the bridge ladder, watching the screen. "That's where we had to land," she pointed out, indicating the platform. "AutoShuttles took the cargo."
     "Anything changed since you last saw it?" Kirrik asked her.
     She indicated a structure on the edge of the main complex. "That looks new." As far as could be judged from their current location the new building was a processing station of some kind, perhaps for ice extraction and hydrogen production.
     "Hold on," Kirrik warned suddenly. "There's something coming this way." He nudged the Viper away from the flight path of the approaching ships. They made no move to intercept. Three Copperhead class fighters, barely recognisable in the gloom, swept quietly past.
     "I'm going to put us down on the edge of the base. There's a nice, dark spot where we won't be seen." The Viper started moving again, slowly edging towards the asteroid. Kirrik manoeuvred it away from the concentration of lights on the surface. When he a mere three hundred feet above the asteroid he swung the ship around to approach low from the barren side of the rock. When the first lights appeared over a hill he slowed down even further, now moving no faster than a running man, and dropping down lower until the ship was almost touching the ground. The ship jolted several times as it moved to avoid bumps that were invisible until they were almost crashed in to.
     Landing a ship like the Viper was a tricky business. Designed purely for use in space it usually docked with other ships or space stations, guided to rest by subtle manipulations of gravity generators or docking arms. Touching down in one piece on a high-G planet would be impossible. The comparatively tiny mass of an asteroid would hold it to the surface without it being damaged by its own weight.
     Kirrik managed to bring the ship almost to a stop, and let the feeble hold of the asteroid's gravity do the rest. The landing, when it came, was still uncomfortable. Without any legs to absorb the shock the whole ship was jarred. Marchero lost her grip on the ladder and collapsed on top of Kirrik. Clattering from behind indicated things falling over in the communal area.
     When Marchero had managed to clamber off the swearing Disian Kirrik ran a quick damage check through the ship, but everything appeared to be intact.
     There were two spacesuits secured in a locker in the cabin. Over a millennium of development and the space suit was still an encumbrance. The necessity of self-contained life support, to protect the entire body against the vacuum and intense heat and cold inevitably resulted in a piece of equipment that was a little awkward to use. Emergency systems, such as the RemLok survival mask, could protect against space with an almost invisible film. Similar devices using the same technology were sometimes used by crew making emergency repairs. None of these offered the same degree of protection, and operational time, as a full suit, though.
     Marchero was to leave the ship with Kirrik. Her technological expertise was unknown, and it was felt unwise to leave her alone on board where she might be able to over-ride Kirrik's lockouts. Taking her with him was perhaps an even greater risk. He watched with some concern as she struggled into the suit.
     "How much low-G experience have you had?"
     "A few hours in zero gravity," she replied.
     "Oh." This really should have been brought up earlier. "Zero gravity is nothing like low gravity. Jump too hard and you'll put yourself in orbit here. Not that that would bother me too much, but your body floating around might attract attention."
     She was about to retort when she noticed the grin on his face. "Thanks."
     With the suits on and system checks completed Kirrik hoisted a bag onto his back, and they moved into the Viper's entrance area. Clad in the spacesuits there was barely room for Kirrik to find the controls. With the bridge and communal doors shut tight the air was pumped out. The iris hatch lensed open, and they climbed out of the confines of the Viper.
     Confusing darkness was the initial impression. The ship's monitor had been lightening the scene as much as possible, and even then it appeared near to black. Having just emerged from the bright interior of the Viper their eyes could only make out the stars and the few base lights that were visible over the hill.
     Kirrik stood still on top of their ship, where its artificial gravity still made its presence felt. It was only a few minutes before he was satisfied that he could at least guess at the terrain. Marchero still could not see anything other than the lights.
     Kirrik took from the bag a short, stubby cylinder with a small box on its side.. Pressing a button on it caused it to telescope out until it was about four feet long. He then pulled the box away, revealing a fine filament one end of which was attached to the rod. The box clipped onto ship. The rod went into a power harpoon. Pointing it at the ground Kirrik fired, fixed a suit clip to the filament, and pulled himself off down the slide.
     Marchero followed reluctantly. Left to the asteroid's gravity progress would have painfully slow, if indeed it was sufficient to overcome the friction between the filament and the clip. She could not see the fine wire in front of her, and often flailed around trying to grasp it so as to pull herself along. There was no clear reference point with which to judge distance.
     It may have been because she was moving closer, or her eyes were starting to find some light to make use of, but she began to make out the shape of Kirrik standing at the bottom. With a point to make for she moved forward with greater confidence, and was soon standing beside him at the base.
     The rod Kirrik had fired was stuck firmly into the rock. Both of them undid the suit clips from the wire and re-attached them to the rod. Another button on the exposed end and the box still attached to the Viper came free and was brought back as it reeled in the filament. Kirrik took another cylinder from his bag, this one without a filament box on it. He clipped the box onto it, so the rod in the ground was joined to the new one he had just taken. The new one was fired it towards the hill. The first time the rod returned to him. He aimed a little lower, and fired again. This attempt was successful, and clipping his suit to the filament he moved off.
     Marchero followed slowly, often accidentally pushing herself away from the ground only to be brought up by the attachment to the wire. It was fifteen minutes before she had reached the end, and she slowly sat down on the ground to rest from her exertions. Once again Kirrik released and reeled in the filament, bringing the original rod with it.
     This process was repeated four times before the nearest building was reached. Marchero was exhausted, and Kirrik had to rest for a few moments.
     "See any way in?" he asked Marchero over the suit's very short range radio.
     "Wait a minute, will you?" she replied, leaning against the wall. She stayed there for five minutes while Kirrik examined the side of the building.
     "Over there," he gestured eventually, indicating a marginally darker patch on the wall. Close inspection revealed it to be a window. With no lights on the inside there was no hint as to what lay beyond it.
     The reason there was a window in a place with so little light and so little to look out on was a minor mystery itself. Marchero suggested that it might be an office, as some people found that being able to look out was a psychological boost, even under these conditions. Kirrik cautiously shone a torch through it. There was a room on the other side. Perhaps it had been an office once, but it was bare now.
     Another device from the bag was a probe. Tiny wires burned through the window, sampling the atmosphere on the other side without allowing it to escape.
     "Standard air mixture, nine-ninety millibars pressure, eighteen degrees Celsius temperature," he announced. "We'll go in here."
     The next piece of sophisticated gadgetry was a pouch containing a plasFibre tent. Kirrik sealed it to the window, and they both climbed inside. A small hole drilled through the window let air into the tent until it looked like an over-inflated balloon. Using a high-power laser cutter the window was soon removed, and they scrambled through it into the building. Kirrik fixed the window back in place, sealed the hole, and as a further precaution covered it with another plasFibre layer.
     They removed the suits in the welcome one G environment, folding them into packs that could easily be carried on their backs.
     "Time to find out what's beyond the door," index

Part 8
Story index