Per Aspera, Ad Astra (Chapter 06)


(PREVIOUS)

Chapter Six: FINDING ICARUS

“Good luck Knight.”

And with that, Gagarin Control signed off. The Knight’s Captain sighed, and rubbed his face. It seemed everyone wanted something from him. This was supposed to be a simple job: find the Icarus, retrieve it and its pilot, and return quietly. But it seemed the rumors of the mission had spread well beyond SRS Command, and everyone, from the techs, to station control, was not only fully aware of his mission, but was bound and determined to include their well-wishes. Not that he didn’t appreciate the sentiment. But it did make things weigh a bit heavier on his mind.

The coordinates put the Icarus deep within the Oort Cloud, an area of space usually considered a fly-through zone, as while it contained resources, large-scale exploitation was considered too dangerous to be cost-effective, save for the particularly resource-rich comet. The persistent rumors of pirates making their bases in the cloud didn’t help matters…

Still, the mission was underway, and that was all that mattered at this point. Time to get things moving.

“Mitch, please prepare the FTL for our first jump.”

Since they were on the clock now, the MI was all business. “Acknowledged, deploying drive rings, and preparing for superluminal flight.”

The status lights at the corners of the bridge switched to a soft blue, and the primary viewing screens switched to the FTL configuration. Outside on the hull, several segments of plating over channels in the forward and after thirds of the hull retracted, revealing the stowed drive rings. Silently, they expanded outwards on their retractable pylons, until both rings had reached their full thirty-five meter diameter. Mitch then oriented them on a clear departure corridor, and ignited the four main engines at ten percent, slowly accelerating well away from Gagarin Station.

David was just about to give the order to engage when the proximity alarm whooped.

“Alert! There is a small craft approaching at high velocity. Scanning. Results indicate it is a Patrol Boat class by tonnage, although configuration does not match any standard designs.”

“Is it broadcasting an IFF?”

“ID signal identifies it as the “RV Sphinx” out of “Green Eyrie”… Primary ship registration indicates it’s registered to a “Shielding Wings, LLC”.

Oh great. Mercenaries.

Often seen as no better than pirates, mercenary groups had become a common sight at space colonies out on the edges of known space… To be fair, they often repelled pirates, but some company’s rates made them almost as expensive as recovering from a pirate raid…

“What’s a merc group doing in the Earth-Moon system?”

“Unknown at this time, however, they are hailing us.”

Mentally bracing himself for what would likely be some kind of wheedling sales pitch, David accepted the hail. “This is the DSRV Richard T. Knight, to whom am I speaking?”

The incoming video showed a small, cramped bridge, and an all-mamono crew. The commander’s chair was occupied by a griffon, while the helm and weapons stations were “manned” by what looked like a wyvern and a jabberwock, while the engineering console held a werebat. And at the comms/tactical station…

Dammit.

Mindy waved happily at the human, while her commander began to speak.

“Captain Wilkinson? My name is Hilda Tharsk, commander of this ship, the reaction vessel “Sphinx”. We wish to offer our services on your sacred mission.”

(Because they knew she couldn’t see it, the wyvern and the jabberwock both rolled their eyes.)

Hoping against hope, the human decided to play dumb. “I’m sorry, but what mission might that be?”

“Why, to retrieve the first mamono to travel beyond the light barrier, of course!”

Well that didn’t work. Time to try the direct approach.

“I’m going to be straight with you, Commander Tharsk. This mission was assigned to the Space Rescue Service, and I can assure you that we’re fully equipped to handle pretty much anything that could be waiting for us out in the black.”

David was almost ready to finish the conversation with a polite but firm dismissal, when Mitch began scrolling information up the side of the comm display. Apparently, the colony Green Eyrie was built inside a blown asteroid that had been towed to the area of space near where Komarov Station was being constructed. While they had plenty of mineral resources to offer, they needed credits to import water, radioactives, and other exotics.

While still a small company Shielding Wings had already developed a reputation as a reliable protection detail, and had several vessels of the same model as the Sphinx employed protecting water ice convoys. As David rapidly assimilated the info, the Sphinx’s commander spoke again.

“I can appreciate that, truly. But it is often said that two are better than one, is it not? I am well aware of the SRS’ reputation, but you cannot be everywhere at once. And I strongly suspect SRS Command simply cannot spare more than one vessel for this momentous occasion. Or am I wrong?”

“No, you are correct, Commander. After consideration, it may be to our mutual benefit to work together. The initial report didn’t mention any pirate sightings, but this is the Oort Cloud we’re talking about…”

David could see the werebat at engineering visibly relax at his tentative agreement, and found himself glad that he would be doing some good. “Have you ever worked with an SRS vessel before?”

“No, I cannot say that I have had the pleasure.”

Now, the jabberwock at the weapons station spoke up. “Begging your pardon, Commander, but how much protecting are we going to need to be doing?”

With a brief nod to her subordinate, the griffon addressed David. “Serena brings up a good point, Captain. Our rate is normally predicated at least partially on how much we must supplement our client’s firepower.”

At the word “firepower”, David let a small grin show on his face. “Well Commander, Officer Serena, I’d suggest a slight change in your rate calculations, at least on this mission. The Knight class DSRV is very well equipped, especially for her size.”

As the two shared a look, the Commander indicated for her officer to continue. “I’m not seeing much in the way of external weapons, Captain… We have four sixteen megajoule COIL units with emitters fore and aft, as well as reinforced structural integrity. Our spinal-mount coilgun is the most powerful we could build, at a full gigajoule. I’m sure that will be more than sufficient.”

Now David kept a straight face, and glanced off to one side. “Mitch, show the lady.”

“Acknowledged, Captain.”

Externally, the Knight then deployed her weaponry. The concealed hatches arranged around the fore, aft, and centerline opened, deploying all twelve plasma pulse cannons, while the oval-shaped aperture in the prow of the ship dilated open, and reconfigured into the muzzle of the new particle cannon. The lower hull above and forward of the “scoop” articulated open as well, lowering the railgun assembly, while the fore and aft pairs of x-ray lasers deployed from their port and starboard hatches. Lastly, all four missile batteries elevated from their wells in the ship’s dorsal and ventral flanks.

Taking in the looks of shock on the bridge crew’s faces, David commented simply. “Sometimes saving lives requires an… active defense.”

“When exactly did the SRS start deploying pocket cruisers?” the wyvern at the helm wondered out loud.

The werebat at engineering had that look in her eyes that an engineer gets when presented with a mechanical masterpiece. “It’s so beautiful…”

“Heh, guess I spoke too soon…” the jabberwock commented ruefully.

“Still, your ship is smaller and more nimble, so the protection offer is formally accepted,” David said smoothly. “My MI will send over the standard contract paperwork, and I’ll be happy to fill out any documentation you need for your own records.”

After settling the issue of necessary firepower, The two ship commanders agreed to approach the last known coordinates of the Icarus at slightly over one Light, the consensus being that she’d waited this long, so a few more hours wouldn’t hurt.

The more important concern would be if anyone potentially unsavory had also caught wind of the prototype being located, and intended to either ambush any potential rescue attempt, or salvage the ship for themselves. Jill, the Sphinx’s werebat engineer, had asked the question they were all thinking when that possibility was brought up: “What could pirates even think would be worth stealing off an early FTL prototype?”

Aside from the plutonium that fueled the cryopod’s RTG, and the second RTG that was part of the vessel’s reserve power system, the Icarus carried no fissionables, as she’d been powered by an early “hot bottle” fusion core, versus a more stable Tokamak/stellerator design. After five years, there would still be enough plutonium to build a decent-sized bomb, or several usable warheads for missiles… But that was the only real external concern.

The biggest concerns David had involved accessing the Icarus directly, as it was more than likely that the primary airlock had vacuum welded itself. So the human spent the time going over the ship’s schematics, and determining what kinds of tools would be necessary to open the hull.

All too soon, they arrived at the coordinates, and began to search. The gravitic anomaly was detected almost immediately, and Mitch transmitted an interrogation signal to the Icarus’ onboard computers. Surprisingly, there was one set of processors still running, and as the gravity flux shut down, the old ship deployed three radio beacons, and began to pulse them regularly. From there, it was simple to triangulate on the signal convergence.

And there she was.

This far from the sun, there was very little light to see by, but the emergency beacons lit the darkness with their amber strobes. An incoming transmission pinged off David’s comms, while he was getting spotlights on the derelict. “Captain, we’ll keep an eye on the perimeter while you retrieve the lady.” And with that, the Sphinx peeled off, and vanished into the surrounding darkness.

“OK buddy, this is what they pay us for.” David said, as he got up from the command chair, and headed down to the work bay. Once there, he donned his SRS rescue suit, and attached a maneuver pack, plus a laser ablator/plasma cutter, the rifle-like device attaching easily to the suit’s right-hand service arm. A full-spectrum lighting unit went on the right arm, and after sending a status update to SRS Command, and the human was ready. Once he’d reached the rescue bay lock, he cycled through, and secured himself to one side of the lower bay platform, before initiating the bay opening sequence.

“Deploying salvage bay in pontoon mode.”

In order to protect a rescue operator, most of the entire lower deck of the Knight could extend downwards on powerful armatures, before splitting lengthwise, and forming what looked like a pair of massive pontoons. The open space between them extended all the way into the Knight’s interior rescue deck, the cavernous space fully two decks high, and able to easily hold a craft the size of the Icarus. At least, it could once David removed the remains of the solar arrays, and trimmed the shredded remains of the fore and aft engine bells.

But that was for later.

As he rode the port side pontoon, David began his initial visual inspection of the wreck using his suit’s powerful cameras. Of the three possible methods he’d worked out for retrieving the Icarus’ pilot, David had decided to access the ship directly, and defrost her. This (he hoped) would ease the inevitable jolt she’d have at having been in stasis for over five years…

“Matching target’s rotation.” The main spotlights on the lower bow cut off, and the salvage bay lights shone downwards, as Mitch positioned the Knight several tens of meters “above” the Icarus, and matched its lazy spin. From David’s perspective, it was as if their rotating target had magically slowed to a halt over the span of a couple minutes.

Ideally, David would have connected Mitch to the Icarus’ computers, and had him instruct the vessel to halt the spin on its own, but the garbled diagnostic the MI was able to retrieve had confirmed the prototype had expended all its thruster propellant years ago.

In the lighting from the bay, the craft’s original lines were easy to see, but only faintly, as compared to the ravages the exploding drive rings had wrought. The cobbled-together substitute for the forward ring looked like a piece of junk, but still showed faint swirls of exotic matter circulating – another reason the wreck needed to be safed before taking it aboard.

Once he was sure Mitch had positioned the ships correctly, David closed the debris shield on his helmet, and switched to full camera support. The integrated HUD gave him a projected flight path to the main lock, and with a deep breath, he let go of the platform he’d been standing on, detached his safety line, and began to jet across. “Approaching now.”

Outside of the stark cones of light the Knight cast upon his destination, it was almost like the surrounding dark had a physical weight to it. But then, this was to be expected, and David had trained for exactly this type of recovery. His slow and steady breath was one of the few things he could hear, and the occasional flare from his maneuvering pack was a faint hiss more felt than heard. In a few minutes, he’d arrived, and felt his boots adhere to the Icarus’ ravaged hull with a dull ‘clunk’. From there, he deployed the lighting arm, and his entry tool, then proceeded to slowly clomp across the hull to the midships hatch.

Closer inspection revealed exactly what he’d initially suspected: the stripping of the hull during the initial incident had removed any anticorrosion applications from the hull, and the edges between the hatch and its fitting had corroded together. Fortunately, that was what the tool on his right utility arm was for. Setting the beam to a spread pattern, David hefted the rifle-like device, and pressed the trigger.

The beam was an ultraviolet laser, so even up close, it was nearly invisible. But the effects where it struck the hull and hatch were not, as an actinic flare instantly polarized his camera lenses. Sweeping the beam smoothly down the grooves of the hatch, the laser ablator swiftly ate up the corrosion, and freed the seam, leaving behind a conspicuously clean swath of hull and hatch. He also cleaned the emergency access panel by the primary lock. In a few minutes it was done, and David stowed the device and lighting, before selecting another piece of equipment from his chest utility pack.

This was a high-power battery and microcomputer combo, along with an antenna so Mitch could access it if necessary. Plugging it into the standard receptacle under the access panel, it lit up with three green lights, and the button on its front face glowed blue. Pressing this, the human could feel the hatch mechanism unlock, and then it yawned open. After that, it was a simple matter to enter the hatch, and pull it shut behind him.

The inner lock was cramped with all of his gear, but not overly so. This was almost to be expected, as the Icarus had been a custom build, and MHI had tried to save mass wherever they could. The auxiliary battery he’d attached to the outer access was more than enough to power both lock mechanisms, and there was a throbbing he could feel through his boots as the pumps worked to fill the chamber. Sound came back gradually, but faint, and amplified by his helmet microphones. There was another series of “clunks”, and the inner hatch opened.

It was dark, like the inside of a tomb. And in a semi-morbid way, that was exactly what it was.

But this particular tomb’s occupant would hopefully rise again.

(NEXT)

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