Distance No Object
“Thanks Aitken, you really helped the cause with these trips.”
Said the tall, uniformed kid before me as he handed me a digital pad to read. We stood at the back of a nondescript hanger on a typical Orbis station in Federal held space.
“I don’t care about your cause kid. If you Feds what to go about killing each other that’s fine by me.”
I looked over the figures on the pad and handed it back to him. Once wear and tear and fuel costs had been paid I should make a nice little profit, I grunted in small satisfaction.
“Everything looks in order kid, you got the right amount transferred to my account, that’s a cause I can get behind.”
A smile that made him look as if he had just stepped off a propaganda poster crossed his face.
“Sure Aitken, sure. You know you could have made it one trip if you had just left the fuel limpets here.”
“Sorry kid, those limpets only leave that ship through the firing tubes or if I sell it. I don’t see that in the near future.”
‘I don’t understand guys like you.” The smile coming back to his boyish face as he slowly shook his head. Lifting of his military style cap the close cropped blond hair looked stark in comparison . “You talk all tough and claim you only do work for credits, but when some dumb pilot forgets to fuel up, you guys drop everything and hare off to help.”
It was my turn to shake my head as I turned and headed toward the Diamondback Explorer that sat in the hanger.
“I really don’t understand it myself kid but somethings are worth more than credits.”
With that I opened the door, flashed a mock salute and stepped into the FRS Cooper. The thoughts in my mind were of pilots watching their life support slowly wind down or facing the choice of self destruction. No one deserved that, not even some dumb idealist kid who had no idea what he had gotten himself into.
I eased my way into a chair that had taken hours of flight before it contoured itself into one of the most comfortable things in the universe and started flicking switches in the usual preflight routine. As the trio of engines started to warm up, I opened up the Galnet in the hope of finding my next job. A loud siren and a rhythmic flashing red light told me that the next job had found me. RATSIGNAL.
“Dispatch to all Fuel Rats, CASE RED, I repeat CASE Red. All available Rats report to me. Rat Dispatch out.”
I shrugged my shoulders, lets get out of this floating tin can before I get in touch with Rat Dispatch. I recognized the voice and knew he’d be handling them in a curt, crisp and unflappable manner.
“FRS Cooper you are cleared for departure.” The smooth tones of the station controller informed me.
Short sharp bursts to the vertical thrusters, landing gear up , 10% power to main thrusters and I’m heading for the mail slot. A T9 raises off to my left as I cruise past at 95m/s, ahead of me an Adder pierces the mist around the mail slot and vanishes into space. As the Adder disappears, to the right of where it had been, a Cobra MkIII appears and dives toward it’s landing pad. Grayish fog and bright light absorbs me before spitting me, inside Cooper, out into the cold, unforgiving void that is Space.
Red text flashes up on my HUD “Clear of No Fire Zone.” I ease the throttle to max. and turn to the communications module.
“Aitken to Rat Dispatch, come in Surly.”
A grim unshaven face with an artificial eye swims into view.
“Hey Aitken, you volunteering for this one uh? Well it should suit you.” He paused, taking in the sights around me before nodding and continuing. “You might want something a little bigger than the Cooper. I’m sending you the details now.”
On an inset panel beside Surly Badgers face, mission information started to appear. Glancing at the information I started to reply to Surly. “Just how much bigger are we tal…..Oh my world, your kidding.”
“Ah I see you got to the Sector and distance.” A roguish, nearly evil grin cracks the stubble on his face.
“Yeah Plieleae TZ-R A86-3 a mere 18,600ly from my present location. Cmdr Monchiko has run his tanks dry.” I spluttered out as my eyes grew wider.
“Oh it only gets better Aitken, he has limited oxygen left, he’s gone cold and should be able to wait a little while for rescue.”
“I presume you have roped other victims, sorry I mean pilots to your diabolical plan Mr. Badger?”
“ Yup, Borg9 and a new guy Alex Traut are already in the “black” and heading there now, I just need one more for back up in case something goes wrong. Which it shouldn’t.” He growled as if to tell me not to ruin his well placed organizations.
“You know me better than that Surly. Yeah, I’m in. I’m about 170ly from the December, I should be leaving within the hour.”
“Like I said, you’re basically insurance, heck the other two have a thousand lys or two start but you might catch them in that Conda of yours. Keep me posted about you departure. Until then Dispatch out.”
Not one for idle chatter that Surly I though as a made the 5 jumps to get to the system the FRS December was docked in. As I entered the toast rack the memory of meeting Badger for the first time drifted into my mind. A nondescript hanger on a typical rotating station in Imperial held space. The tough looking Imp pilot was telling me of idea he had thought of while flying to Hutton Orbital. When I said I was interested, he gave me a channel to monitor and said he’d be in touch. I honestly never expected to hear from the guy again. Man was I wrong, over the next coming months the Fuel Rats as he called them, went from strength to strength and seemed to be busier and more in numbers, everyday.
As the elevator descended to take the Cooper to it’s berth I ran the shutdown procedures. I finished just as the movement stopped and I looked out to see a huge scuffed black hull in front of me. The Anaconda, FRS December. I would love to say it is my pride and joy but that would be a lie. It’s a ship, a necessary tool I require that allows me to make a living, and sometimes have fun.
As I walked under the massive blunt black nose of the December, the chief station engineer came down the passenger stairway.
“Hey Chief, I need to blast off as soon a possible, you got an ETA on the repairs and upgrades?”
The balding, heavy set man smiled and shook his head in the way engineers for generations must have been doing. With a sharp intake of breath he gave me his tale of woe.
“Well Cmdr, we’ve nearly finished the routine stuff, but that new fuel scoop you wanted us to fit will take another hour or two. Sorry but I had to send a couple of my guys to work on a transporter that came in a little shot up.”
“I get it Chief, too much to do with not enough hands to help. Well a couple of hours will allow me to restock limpets and contact the people I need to. Not ideal but it could be worse.” I said wryly trying not to antagonize the overworked space mechanic. Last thing I needed was a grumpy engineer working on a ship I was about to pilot out into space.
“Thanks Cmdr. We’ll be as quick as we can.” With that he turned and walked toward where his number two was working on the stubborn fuel scoop.
In the mean time I contacted Badger and told him of my delay. As was usual it seemed to bother him not a jot. Chuckling I sent communications requests to Borg9 and Alex so that we could at least message each other about our progress. Checking all systems and other items I managed to increase the jump range a little and then waited.
I was going over the systems for the third time when the chief eased his bulk into a vacant chair on the bridge.
“We’re tightening the last of the placement bolts now Aitken, then you’re good to go. Watch out for pirates, although it has been quiet around here of late.”
I thanked the Chief and started to warm up the December, jumping from the DBX to the Conda in so short a time reminded me that they were completely different ships. The Explorer was light, nimble, able to turn with the grace of a dancer. The Conda on the other hand was as subtle as a kick in the groin. Big, heavy and seemed to take hours to turn. If it wasn’t for the jump range and new scoop I might have stuck with the Cooper for this mission but Monchiko was expecting help sooner, rather than later. The race was against the clock and not Rat against Rat but even in a life or death situation Fuel Rats always try to have fun in rescues.
Jump, wooooooosh, thunck. Scan, twiddlie, twiddlie, BARRRPPPP. “Fuel scooping”, glug, glug, rattle. Better get used to that I thought, I will be hearing it a lot and often too.
Quick check of the Galmap and I see two green dots many, many light years ahead. “You’re back up, insurance.” I tell myself. After the first 1000 lys and no pirates I fall into a pattern I remember from other trips into the “black”. With that pattern comes the inevitable thought and desire for speed. The hang back idea is jettisoned out the airlock like a ton of bad fish.
Misjudging a scooping point leads to the use of heat sinks and some damage. I wince internally when I think about the harassed Chief and the extra work I just gave him. Another check of the Galmap shows Borg9 stationary, probably resting and so I pass him and continue the easy routine.
The communication speakers crackle to life as I hear from Alex for the first time, who is still over a thousand lights years ahead of me. He suggests we each find quite systems and catch some rest. I look at the trip time counter and realize I/we have been jumping for six hours or so. I agree and estimate we have about another three hours of jumping ahead. Alex confirms my thoughts and we retire in our respective ship.
Six hours later, it feels like six minutes. I enter the galley, pour some coffee and grab a bite to eat. As the mighty engines fire up I check the Galmap to see that the other rescuers are well ahead of me again. “No worries, you are supposed to be the back up.” Again that thought reminds me. With another gulp the caffeine kicks in just as the frame ship drive kicks in for the December. Jump, honk, can’t scoop that one. Jump, honk, can’t scoop that one. Jump, honk, can’t scoop that one. Throttle to zero and re-plot for one of the OBAFGKM stars. Done. Jump, honk, scoop. Jump, honk, can’t scoop that one. Jump, honk, can’t scoop that one. “Reserve tank dry”, Betty informs me. Oh crud. Throttle to zero and re-plot, “Main fuel tank at low limit.” I know, I know Betty, why do you think I redirected us. Waiting for my nerves to calm down I check the distance and see I only have one more route to plot before reaching the target system. As I zoom the map out I expect to see at least one of my fellow Rats waiting in-system for me. Nothing. “Dang,” the thought hits me and calms the rest of my nerves “Anu was right about that scoop being good, damn good.” I hit the comms switch to speak to Alex and am told he and Borg9 had slowed down as their was plenty of time. A smirk crosses my face as I remember the “real explorer’s” lists I have read.
Another five jumps and the last scoop-able star before the target system is reached. “Fuel scooping complete” Betty blandly informs me.
“In system. Use this signal as your target Cmdrs.” I transmit in the hope to make their route plotting a little easier. As I wait I ran an advanced scan, in fact I had done it absentmindedly. It had become second nature after the rescue dash. Opening the system map I feel a despair fall over me. It’s a desolate place, a L class star gives off it’s weak light, five or six rocky planets orbit it like diseased flies. A horrible place to die. I start looking for Monchiko as Alex jumps in. Nothing on scanners, nothing coming through comms. Are we too late? Has our mad dash to help been to slow?
Borg9 comes in system and we slowly move out into a search pattern. A crackle like, barely audible static moans from the bridge speakers. “….ats………50………..tar…..re…..”
“Did you guys hear that?” I nearly roar into the comms microphone. Two negatives come back to me.
“Moving in a little deeper. I’m sure I heard something.”
“Aitken, I heard something then, he’s still here.” Alex informs me with joy in his voice.
I move the December with Alex and Borg9 in their Asps coming behind. The back up, insurance briefing totally forgotten in deep space.
“Fuel Rats I am 500,000 Light seconds from star, please respond.”
“Aitken to Monchiko, if you can hear me deploy your wing beacon and we’ll home in on it.”
All three ships put max power to engines and begin the last mad dash.
“Borg9 to wing, beacon spotted on scanner, 473,000 ls ahead.”
In each ship target selectors click on the dim light blue signal on their scanners.
And then it’s gone.
“If you are still there and can hear me Monchiko, your beacon timed out, please reactivate.” Please no, please, do not let him die, when rescue is so close.
“Monchiko to Fuel Rats, oxygen down to 10 mins. Thank you for the effort.”
“Sit tight commander, it’ll be close but we can pull this off.”
It may be a bigger ship but the Conda has engines to match it’s bulk the gap between it and the pursuing Asps increases. It eats lights seconds as it arrows toward the beacon marker.
And then it’s gone. Again.
Nearly shouting into the mic. but with a calm as possible tone, the request for reactivation is sent.
There, it’s glowing brightly, begging for a ship to pass near so it can pull that ship out of supercruise. 200,000. 190,000. If this countdown gets annoying tell me to stop. 180,000. 170,000.
And then it’s gone.
“One more time my friend. If you can hear me, the beacon, one more time.”
“Beacon activated.” I hear Bettys voice as the space around me starts to dissolve, with a whip like crack the December bursts back into real space. Disoriented I stare at the scanner as a blue rectangle appears on the edge in front of me. “Programming limpet” Bettys dispassionate voice informs me. Peewooosh, “refueling in progress.” deep breath, two new rectangles pop onto the scanner. “Programming limpet” Peewooosh, “Refueling in progress.”
“We made it Aitken, Borg9. It was nip and tuck but we got here.”
Both Asps release limpets and the third Asp gobbles them up hungry for the fuel they contain.
I watch as one by one each Asp maneuvers to their exit vectors and jump out.
Now, lets plot that route back home.