The tall, slender lass strolled out into the meadow and paused in her inspection. Still a few years shy of getting her pilot's license, she had spent most of her life piloting the wreckage of an Adder from the flight deck next to her brother. The Cobra MK III was covered in rust, looked even worse than the Adder – but it still flew.
She had even been able to have it modified, to include upgraded sensors, planetary scanners and other surveying equipment. Granted, they were all obsolete, but they still got the job done. Satisfied, she wasn't going to fall out of space, she called out to her brother "She's ready, James" and waited for her brother to confirm the start of her "highly unofficial" flying lessons.
For as long as she could remember, Cally had wanted to be an explorer. But exploring took know-how, and modern equipment – a lot of it. She would still need to trade for a living, until she got enough credits. But exploring was a dangerous business. She figured that if she could learn the tricks of the trade before it mattered; she at least stood a chance of surviving when it mattered. James her brother, had offered to teach her. Today was her first lesson.
At the private hanger, she saw Kerry, James' gunner, climb aboard the Asp. The Asp was compact diamond-shaped vessel, ideal for exploration and smuggling. It was thus configured more for running away than anything substantial.
James , her brother, was already waiting for her at the Cobra. James spoke up, "Kerry will fly point, in case we run into any difficulty. I doubt we'll encounter anyone, I'm thinking more system malfunction. This Cobra isn't new, after all."
Cally nodded, privately doubting the Asp could do anything useful even in an emergency. But she held her reservations to herself and got onboard the Cobra.
The flight deck was primitive, compared to the Asp's sleek modern interface, but was similar enough that she didn't think it would give her a problem. Cally slid into the pilot's chair, strapped herself in and started running through the preflight check sequence.
James, in the copilot's seat, watched carefully. A couple of times, he reached over and paused Cally, correcting her on a step before letting her continue. Once he was satisfied, he signalled for her to begin the start-up and launch sequence.
The Asp gracefully flew up into the atmosphere, the Cobra following somewhat unsteadily behind. Once clear of the atmosphere, they triggered their jump drives and flew towards Giant's Causeway, a gas giant with seven moons.
The journey was quiet enough and mostly involved Cally adjusting the engines so as to gracefully manoeuvre into position. Occasionally, she would need to tweak the direction but she had learned various tricks of the trade from James on how to set yourself up a point that would give you a clean and easy run on a planet.
Pirateswere a problem in this system. By not going directly in, you could avoid the ones who hovered near the typical lines of approach. You only needed to adjust a few times if you were unsure of what you were approaching or of any moons or asteroids in the vicinity.
Since this was a practice for exploration, Cally tackled it as if it were a complete unknown, much to James' approval and Kerry's annoyance. The less predictable the flying, the easier it would be to lose the Cobra – or crash into it.
They exited jump drive just as the furthest moon out appeared on the scanner.
"Ok, I want you to target the moon and obtain the technical data on it.", James instructed. Cally lined to the ship and activated the planetary scanner. Nothing happened. She thumped the controls. There, the scanner burst into life. Checking her display, it showed pretty much what she had expected, rocky moon, no atmosphere, no mineral concentrations, nothing of interest.
Next, they headed over to an asteroid that was crossing inside the outer moons. This proved a bit more interesting. The scan showed there was metal, but there was something wrong with the signal. She took another pass and concentrated the scanners, boosting the algorithms by twenty percent. A closer examination of the readings revealed what was initially showing up as mineral ore deposits, was actually the ancient wreck of a truly gigantic spaceship, so large it registered even on the Cobra's primitive gear.
Gliding over the debris field, Cally could make out roughly the pattern of the fragments and the trench carved in the asteroid from the ancient collision. Because she wasn't supposed to be flying, she would not be the one credited by the Galactic Archaeological Society if it turned out to be important. Nonetheless, she needed to do a good job of logging everything. The cameras were on, the sensors were still operational, it was looking good.
But what was it? A ship that was very long and relatively narrow, apparently not very good at manoeuvring or with very good sensors, and was travelling at a low enough relative speed as it struck the asteroid for so many of the fragments flying off to be below escape velocity.
Could this be one of the fabled Generation Ships – ships sent out before the advent of faster than light travel? She had heard of them, but had never seen one even in pictures. Very few had. If it was, it needed to be surveyed and recorded but not touched. Approaching a Generation Ship was forbidden by both the Alliance and the Federation, and discouraged by the Empire.
Her brother monitored her slow sweeps over the wreckage. "There's only so much we can do here, this is a job we have to hand over to the experts. You need to move on." She nodded and ran one more pass over the site.
Satisfied at last that she'd found enough outlying debris for the scientists to answer the key questions, she progressed to her third and final training target of this flight, an ice world with a turbulent atmosphere. Since the Cobra was not rated for atmospheric surveys, she was not expected to fly into the atmosphere, just circle above it and log anything interesting. Her ship could detect metal deposits, landing sites and inhabited areas. She wasn't expecting much, but this was typical work for a surveying mission flight, so any real-world experience would help.
Sensors churned away as she orbited. Lots of water. Lots of ice. A landed ship. No debris and the sensors indicated a working identification beacon. She decided to leave them alone, they were either innocent but well-armed miners or bad news and she wasn't inclined to annoy either. Smugglers would often use desolate planets to stash cargo that wasn't selling well right now. She was confident it wasn't a pirate, as they would have disabled the beacon.
The journey back was briefly interrupted by a change of seating, James docking at a Corriolis space station and filing a report on the crash site. For this, he was awarded two hundred credits, more to be paid later if it proved significant. He quickly transferred that to Cally, grinning. "Hey, it was your work!"
She smiled. It was almost nothing, but it was an almost nothing that she had earned. Potentially discovering an unknown wreck of a fabled Generation Ship left her wanting to see what else she could discover and maybe even get the credit and the credits for. She wanted to start her next flying lesson immediately, she was so eager.
They waited until James had cleared the space station, before she practically pulled him out of the seat. Once they had switched positions back and she slowly descended through the atmosphere towards the hanger. Her excitement of her flying lessons before now replaced with the frustration at the mundane, practical nature of reaching the ground intact.
Landing was tricky and she bumped the ship a bit before it came to a complete stop. There was a world of difference between a simulator, a fantasy of flying, and actually being on a real, working, ship in a real, working, gravitational field on a planet with a real, working, weather system that currently included rain and gusty wind.
Still, she was down and safe. The sensors indicated no damage before she ran through the post-flight checklist and powered down.
Breath out. Always a good idea after breathing in. She hadn't realized just how tense she had been.
There was no opportunity to fly again for a couple of months. School and fishing for edible mushroom crabs just weren't as appealing, but unfortunately they were required. When she next got out, though, James was looking odd. "I'll tell you when we get to the Cobra", was all he said.
When they got there, there was a message in the inbox. "Open it", James said.
It was brief and from the Galactic Archaeological Society, specifically from an Admiral Kara. The wreckage was indeed from a Generation Ship. One of the earliest Generation Ships they had any record of. The asteroid had apparently intersected it in deep space. The crew probably never knew it was there until it was too late. A low speed impact from the side.
Because it was prohibited to contact Generation Ships, nobody really knew much about them. The pirates who raided them rarely said much, even when identified. At least, not that was publicly known. When it came to the really early ships, nothing was known at all. They had never been found. It had been assumed that they had all suffered catastrophic failures, but with no wrecks having been found, nobody knew much more than the old legends. This was the first chance anyone had had of finding anything out.
The message ended with a request for a personal meeting with the discoverer aboard the space station at a given time on a specific date. She looked at the ships chronometer, and adjusted for local time – it was two hours from now. Cally almost bit her lip off. On the one hand, she needed to be in on that meeting. On the other hand, unlicensed piloting might cost her her career before it even started..
Then she looked again. The message asked for the discoverer. Not James, who had been registered as pilot and the sender of the information. Official messages always stated names clearly and directly, so that there was no ambiguity. Officialdom being what it was, they invariably assumed that only pilots flew and that nobody filed forms on behalf of another. They already knew it wasn't him, then.
James looked over at Cally, thoughtful. Cally's fear was palpable. Finally, James said "Sometimes you have to take the chance, I'll come with you and if there's a police presence we can leave. Nobody will know who you are."
Cally nodded, not altogether reassured. Still, she needed to do this. James flew the whole trip, as she was too nervous. A pilot with shaky hands tended to end up smeared across the landscape or the side of a space-station.
They got there in plenty of time, scouted round, saw no unusual activity. James snagged drinks for them both at a slightly seedy bar before they wandered into the meeting. Again, she shouldn't really be drinking but her nerves needed help. He pointed out to her a couple of drunk pilots arguing over a bottle marked as highly explosive and highly corrosive. "If they're lucky, only one of them will be in intensive care later on."
"And if they're unlucky?"
"The family will go bankrupt paying for the damage caused if any of that drink spills."
"I admire your choice of distraction", she said dryly.
It was just about time, so they headed over to the conference area. It only took a few minutes to find the right place.
The meeting room had only one gentleman already present. No police, then. He introduced himself as Steed.
"You must be the young lady who discovered the wreckage. We could tell from the footage that it was a relatively inexperienced pilot and therefore not your brother, but I must admit we hadn't suspected anyone quite so young. Still, you've a long and illustrious career ahead of you, if you want it. Starting now, if you'd like."
"Now? Ummm, I must admit I'm a bit confused."
"You were able to get extensive detailed technical information. So much information, in fact, that crash investigators had built a preliminary assessment before anyone got there. The independent cooperative of the twelve systems has a need for explorers who can help in investigations. If you agree, we'll issue you with a pilot's license, backdated to your flight."
"I'm still not sure what you'd want me to do."
"You'd be paid by the government to explore. Occasionally, we'll give you a location to survey. A wreck in space, a wreck on an asteroid, an anomalous unidentified signal, a place nobody has come back from, things like that. We will pay very well."
"That sounds dangerous."
"So is all exploring. So is unlicensed flying. We are willing to make both of these safer."
"Complete repair of your ship, upgraded sensor modules, upgraded power plant. We will donate better weapons once you're assigned something dangerous."
"You must have better pilots out there."
"We do, yes. Known to people not keen on investigations. But acquiring that skill makes you nervous, too nervous to do the surveying you did. And mostly too specialized in flying to have ever learned to survey or explore new environments. Pilots are common, explorers are rare."
Cally glanced at James. His expression was a mix of horror and desire. Completely torn and this wasn't even his dream. It was hers. And, you know what they say, you only live thirty seven point five times. She suspected some stories grew in the telling.
"I'll do it. Where do you want me to go?"
"Right now, you need to go to your private pilot's class. Three levels up, turn left, first door on the right. You'll need a steadier hand."
Cally studied at the class for almost four months, learning basic and advanced flight in space and atmospheres, basic combat and advanced evasion techniques. This last part drummed in just how dangerous some of the work would be.
At the end, she was issued with a license, in a meeting with Steed.
"You gave me a lot of training, you presumably have somewhere you want me to go."
"As a matter of fact, I do. There's a brown dwarf, it's not on the normal maps. We've estimated where it is. You can jump to an estimated position, it's just a little more dangerous. Once there, you estimate how far you're off, and continue until there. We need it mapped."
"Uncontrolled jumps can end in ships being destroyed. That's another reason you're asking me, I'm more expendable."
"I can't deny that. But you will be paid very well on return."
Cally felt a little nervous. She knew full well what she had signed on for – missions too dangerous and likely too unrewarding to risk valuable people, where the authorities could deny everything easily. Likely, a hundred eager youngsters had received a similar talk. She was indeed expendable. Equally, though, missions that might lead to some standing, sufficient credit and adequate hardware for what she wanted to do. She drew a deep breath and counted to three before speaking.
"When do I start?"
Three hours later, she was back in the pilot's seat of her Cobra. James had to go back to his own work and Steed had arranged a shuttle for him. This time, it was just her. A dubiously licensed pilot. True to his word, Steed had upgraded the systems. The sensors were almost modern, the shield generators only a couple of years old, the repairs professional but clearly from salvaged plating. Stuff Steed could afford to lose, but nonetheless a sufficient upgrade to almost call this a decent explorer.
"I hope I know what I'm doing..."
She knew, though, that she was just too curious to back out now.
She ran through the preflight sequence and requested permission to launch. Clearance was almost immediate. Engines up a few notches, thrusters lifted the ship clear of the landing pad, landing gear up, accelerate forwards and a well-rehearsed exit from the space station.
A couple of old-time spacers, watching in a nearby Python, grinned as they watched the unpolished but adequate performance. They drank a toast to new pilots, remembering their rookie years and their equally clumsy first efforts at flying.
She brought up the Galactic map and saw that, yes, a waypoint had been programmed for the middle of nowhere. Everything was ready. She just needed to get clear of the space station, a task that took just three minutes and too long.
"Come on, come on, how long does it take?"
At that moment, the message came in over the communicator that she was now free of the controlled zone around the space-station and that space traffic control was signing off.
Struggling to remember everything James had mentioned about how to improve your odds on jumps starting or ending in deep space, she pointed the ship in what she thought was the right general direction. In a normal hyperspace jump, the computers would ensure you faced the right way. Here, the computers didn't know what that really meant. The error correction software kept deciding the exit point was an error.
She had marked three points on the scanner, based on star maps. She now twisted the Cobra until three stars fell directly under each. Astrogation at its most primitive, but as long as those were the right three stars, this was hopefully good enough to not die horribly. You could never be sure with uncontrolled jumps. She hit the switch to enter hyperspace, listening to the mechanical countdown then felt the sudden jarring forces as they slammed into the craft.
The stars smeared. The ghostly swirl of the region once known as witchspace spun around her, as the instruments totally failed to make sense of the nonsense of hyperspace. Strange forms appeared and vanished. Here is where anything could happen and, if you didn't have a computer controlling things, it probably would.
She didn't. She had to fight the controls every inch of the way, if a unit of distance in hyperspace could be said to equate to the ancient measure. So much as a fraction of a degree off the vortex she had created and she'd slam into different points of real space separated by light-years not inches. And her training was not that extensive.