“Main engine cut-off in 3… 2…”
The engines abruptly cease their brute force hoist of Windsong through the upper atmosphere. We’re parabolic. The ship, and the calmer than average weather she climbed through, blessed us with a smooth ride up to low orbit, and we’re now on a free trajectory toward our eventual orbital insertion. Another gyre-long stakeout, at the rate things have been going lately. At least we got good pay last time. It turns out, the only thing you need to do to have any real freedom is throw yourself in harm's way, over and over again.
“Ascent burn complete,” I report.
“Well, that wasn’t too rough at all,” Fletcher comments.
“Next stop, the duty-free!” Tea exclaims.
“Hang on now,” I say, “you’re on the clock, Tea. We’re only stopping over at Port Arsalan to refuel.”
She pouts. “You’re no fun, boss.”
I add with casual curiosity: “Besides, what is it that you are going to buy at the duty-free market that isn’t just going to get assessed and taxed as soon as we go home, anyway?”
“Oh, plenty of stuff, Ash!” She exclaims. “No need to declare so long as it doesn’t leave the ship, right? I’m thinking about picking up a pair of shades for looking suave when we make our next bust. Maybe a new set of pots for the galley. Oh! Sweets from my homeworld. I’m definitely getting some Celad dark chocolate, if they have nothing else worth buying.”
“And you’re going to eat that chocolate by yourself, during our very few breaks, all before we land?”
“You know,” Fletcher interjects, “we have more fuel in the tanks than we usually do at this stage. Depending on how the next prograde burn downrange goes, she might not need the stopover.”
“All thanks to your husband, Fletch,” I say. “I’m not kidding when I tell you that I fell asleep in my quarters and woke up to a note left on the controls saying he’s stopped by, along with a small army of people holding advanced engineering degrees I’ve never heard of, and tuned things up another one or two percent better. This time it was something to do with the fuel injectors. I swear, it’s like we don’t even need to hire service personnel. I don’t know what I do to deserve his charity.”
“It’s my fault,” Fletcher chuckles. The resounding mirth of a middle-aged man muffled in my earpiece is at first grating, but becomes calming in a primal way, and I’m reminded of the few times I heard my father laugh so heartily when I was a child. “I talked. He heard we had a tough go of it last time we went up,” he continues. “Ejtan would rather I not be here, you know. But he feels indebted to you for being the reason we met, and he trusts you to bring me home. So long as we’re getting into shenanigans in the heavens, he’s going to pamper Windsong. He wants the best for all of us.”
“I’m not complaining one bit. I just wish I had more to offer him in return.” I pause for a moment, trying to think of the best way to make a delicate inquiry. “You don’t have to answer, but… what do you even do with your cut, Fletch?” I offer that up to fill the silence, hoping that it wasn’t too probing a question. He can do whatever he wants with his share of our variable compensation. I’m just trying to make casual conversation while double-checking our trajectory against other ships, common satellites, and receiving other statuses.
“Yeah, it’s not like you need the dough,” from Tea.
Fletcher hesitates, but then says: “I… just save most of it. You’re right, Ejtan makes enough crown and credit for the both of us several times over. But I wouldn’t feel right just leeching off of his success. I take pride in my work. Besides, I don’t have any of those advanced degrees that made him a respected entrepreneur. I learned everything I know on the job.”
“Well, whatever your reasons for staying, I’m glad you’re here.”
“You could always give me your cut,” Tea breezes.
Fletcher roars another hardy sort of laugh, deep from his chest. “Do you need shopping money, m’dear?”
“Yes! I can’t both save enough for my own bird and look fashionable at the same time. Our own presentation isn’t nearly good enough.”
“Wait, that’s going to be the whole gimmick of ‘Team Tea’?” I ask. “Saving your stranded ass in gods-know-where and looking good doing it?”
“The ‘looking good,’ anyway. What is the saying they used to have back on Maridea…” she seems to think for a moment. “‘Fashion is armor to survive everyday challenges.’”
“Can this fashion stop a 12-mil round from my rifle?” Fletcher jokes.
“That’s hardly an everyday challenge, Leand—”
“Proximity alert,” the ship’s computer warns over Tea with a blare, without any consideration for conversational etiquette. A bright orange haze appears on my overhead panels. Instinctively, I lunge forward against my harness. The hair on my skin makes a futile attempt to stand on end against the pressure of my flight suit. In a flurry, I call up every relevant display I can. You’ve got to be kidding me, girl.
“The fuck?!” I exclaim, bringing up the near-field overview. “Tea, look alive back there!”
“Fast contact, bearing one-twenty, plus ten, relative. Eighty kilometers CBDR. It wasn’t me, Ash,” she shouts. “The scopes were clear just a second ago!”
I hear the shrill repeating ping that every pilot dreads. My hands clench the controls. The engines don’t have enough time to warm up; we have only milliseconds.
“High transverse return, brace for impact!”
The ship computer makes this monotonous synthetic pulse to aid in spatial awareness when objects on a free trajectory are far too fast and close. It blasts in my ear in a rising, rapid cacophony, and then, just as I think I see some sort of bright glare at the extremity of my visor, the earsplitting warning chimes taper off and become bassier, mimicking the doppler effect of a vehicle passing by on the ground.
“Dun of a witch, what detritus just flew by, Tea?”
“I’m reading an engine signature…”
“What?!” Fletcher explodes, rather uncharacteristically.
“Extrapolate its course forward and back,” I command.
“That can’t be right…” Tea trails. I rarely hear my Flight Intercept Officer sounding perplexed. She normally acts like she’s seen it all.
Tea shares the probable path with one of my less flight-critical multi-purpose displays, and I try to pinch to zoom, until I realize that the course has been plotted zoomed out for a reason.
“A gravity assist around Minerva?” I challenge.
That’s an interrogative with absolutely no sane answer. Minerva is another one of Dowager’s twelve moons, just beyond the homeworld. This ludicrous course projection plunges the bogey directly into Sibyl, nearly normal to her surface.
“Straight into the atmosphere at that angle? Even with magnetic shielding, that’s suicide,” Fletcher comments.
“Fuck this, give me a course correction, Tea. We’re going after it.”
“Whoa, hang on, skip, we aren’t even at apoapsis yet and—” Fletcher starts.
I cut him off. He doesn’t deserve it, but time is short. I can feel the heat of anger in my seething bones, and my voice is raised to the detriment of my poor crew, who only have the irate, virile growl of a pissed off, staccato faux-feminine voice in their earpieces.
“I demand to know what reckless shit-tit of a smuggler would dare buzz this ship.” They both know my indignant rage is justified, and this will be an easy payday if we can successfully interdict.
“Plotted, skip,” Tea says.
“Brace for maneuver,” I warn.
And yes, Tea, I really will have to flip the ship that hard.
“Seed’s dry, skip. Turning off the shielding.”
Windsong bumps about as an additive layer of thin plasma lashes her ventral hull. Having not quite made it to orbital velocity, we didn’t come down so hard this time. But we still have quite a lot of speed to bleed off.
“Right, guys, keep your eyes peeled,” I say.
Turning the ship at hypersonic speeds safely is a slow and frustrating process. Already a hefty ship, Windsong acts lethargically in the upper atmosphere. Our initial search pattern is going to be meandering at best.
The probable course Tea plotted puts us over the uninhabited taiga forests of Aveline, this time just south of the equator. It's open sky way up here of course, but the reports of rolling fog down below could make finding our target tricky, not to mention landing next to it impossible. Damn it.
“Get the ship around, Ash. I need the side-lookers.”
“I’m bleeding speed as fast as I can, Tea.”
“No-fly notice sent,” Fletcher reports. Our territory is marked, for everyone’s safety, and for the security of our own remittances. “Did I do all that right, Tea?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tea impatiently mutters as she watches her data stream from the sensors. “But I’d have preferred a little more grumpiness in your audible warning. Something menacing that will really startle every civvy within several hundred kilometers.”
“I don’t do grumpy, sweetheart.”
“Normally, Tea doesn’t either,” I comment.
“You must be rubbing off on me,” she retorts.
“That flyby spooked the shit out of all of us.”
“Just anxious to do my job, ma’am.”
“Right, well, we are down to Aud four. I should have us over your search coordinates in a few more minutes.”
We’re on edge. All three of us could have just ended unceremoniously moments ago, because some asshole wanted to slip some contraband past customs or avoid his taxes. I concede that I am forced to make the assumption, but I make it with ease.
Much like our previous mark, smugglers are getting more brazen every year with increasing access to the deepest parts of the void. They don’t understand the jeopardy they put everyone else in when they do a kamikaze drop like this. I could honestly care less about whatever it is they’re running. Innocent people have died because the unscrupulous decided the sky belongs to them. Freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum, figuratively or literally. Things can go awry at the edge of Sibyl’s atmosphere quickly, as it did in our war with the Novani, and everyone who flies on the edge of space had better damn understand their responsibilities to others.
We’ve rarely seen a hazardous close shave like that. That kind of recklessness is why we are here. Our job is to keep Sibylean aerospace a safe zone for all legal traffic—as many as twenty thousand planes and ten thousand ships at any given moment—after the many decades of gargantuan effort cleaning up Sibyl’s proximity. Even the normally irresponsible Republicans pitched in back then, because they saw a growing market, and they were liable for obliterating gunships and merchantmen alike in our skies in their ill-fated imperial quest. We broke their orbital blockade only to find ourselves trapped under an impossibly hazardous sky of hypervelocity glass and metal dust, perturbed by Dowager’s proximity, and difficult to predict. It was a prison we assisted our captors in constructing, in our own passionate defense, long after they’d given up and let us go.
Sibyl is growing. Maybe too fast for her own good. She has needs, and she can’t afford another ablation cascade of flotsam hindering travel and trade. If that occurred in the present, with our booming population and reliance on imports, we would begin to starve within just a few short gyres.
With the ship descending to twenty-two kilometers and falling, I take a few moments to breathe mindfully and calm my nerves as I continue to slowly bank Windsong around. We might as well still be in the vacuum up here. The atmosphere outside is little more than a mist flowing over the wings. There’s little bite to the control surfaces. If anyone was to be up here without a suit, their blood would boil. I can still make out the curvature of Sibyl. The fissure between dark maw above and blue-gray marble below is absolutely stunning. Such a stark difference is a jolt to the mind; a reminder that it’s only by the grace of gravity we exist at all.
“Keep us up high, Ash. I’ve no idea where the bastards went. They might even be outside our exclusion zone.”
“Can you really get the resolution you need up here, Tea?”
“No,” bluntly, in return.
“So then, what’s the point?” I ask.
“I can look for irregularities in materials down there with polarimetry. There’s a lot of anisotropic scatter in the wilds, and not a lot when the waves return from metal. So long as we are correct in our supposition that these guys landed in the middle of the forest, and the nature reserves down there really are as pristine as you Sibbies say they are, we might get lucky and get a return.”
“So it at least gives us a place to start,” Fletcher comments.
“How high and slow do we need to be to get a good stripmap?” I ask.
“Keep her up at twenty clicks if you can, sweetie.”
“We’ll stall under Aud 3 at that height, Tea.”
She mutters something I can’t discern.
“Fine, I’ll make it work.”
In a couple of minutes, I’m able to bank Windsong around at a decent enough clip. Our turning circle is still huge—a factor of three too large to be efficiently mapping the terrain below—but we can make our first pass.
“Beginning sweep,” Tea reports.
I reach up to flip on cabin life support and reroute battery charge. And I keep my eyes out for other ships in the vicinity. Lots of traffic, but it is all obeying our no-fly orders.
Windsong whistles while she works. The cabin pressure begins to equalize with what’s outside (not much). Her engines’ incessant anthem becomes a little more full; a little less like that of a distant siren’s, and a little more like that of a full-throated, burly shieldmaiden who drinks with the boys and leads the charge against the opposing house armies.
I’m hoping there will be no conflict this time.
“Nothing from the first strip,” Tea sighs.
“Right, we’ll keep circling.”
“What’s the resolution like, Tea?” Fletcher asks. I think it’s a rhetorical question, because he can see all the data she can.
I bank the ship and start our half-turn, which in finality will be something more like a three-quarters turn and a corrective quarter-turn.
“It’s down to the centimeter scale,” she replies. “But the fog puts a limit on everything. Lidar is useless, even for correlative data. Cross-range resolution from the side radar itself is also not great. And there’s path loss at higher frequencies ‘cause of all the moisture in the air.”
“We didn’t see that ship coming until it was seventy-or-so klicks out, did we?” Fletcher considers aloud.
“If we are to believe Tea,” I say. I can hear her roll her eyes. “But yes, I believe she didn’t see it until it was too close.”
“Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious to you?” he says.
Tea adds, “in the void, the scopes can see a radiator from translunar distances, and a hot engine burn from across the system. Cold metal shards of a decent size from just over the orbital horizon.”
“So, why didn’t we catch this thing? And do we really think that it has landed below? It was plummeting at insane speeds. Who knows if there’s anyone aboard.”
“A drone-operated hot drop wouldn’t be unheard of,” I say.
“It was decelerating slowly. And as fast as it was, I think it was decelerating enough to just barely survive re-entry,” Tea reckons.
There’s a contemplative silence from the crew for a minute as I correct our turn for our second radar sweep.
“Whatever it was, we’re ready for the second strip,” I inform Tea.
“Keep her level, Ash.”
I’m flying Windsong just barely above stall speed. But Tea wouldn’t understand how perilous that is.
“You got it.”
Another pass, then another. Nothing.
“What about the ten centimeter backup?” I offer in exasperation.
“I’m not sure what that’s supposed to see,” Fletcher practically scoffs.
“I’m not either, and I know it’ll be low resolution. But it would be less attenuated by the fog. I think we should try everything before cashing in.”
Tea, who has been uncharacteristically quiet, perks up.
“Wait… yeah… I see where you’re going with that, Ash.”
“You do?” from myself, and Fletcher, simultaneously.
“Yes… yes! Of course! Bring her back around, down to five thousand.”
I prepare to do so, setting a new search pattern for a lower altitude. We only have about thirty minutes left in our no-fly window. At least I will no longer be flying at the edge of a stall.
“Ash, it’s so obvious, I could kiss you!” Tea exclaims.
“Please don’t,” I say.
Windsong powers through the clouds as I watch the clock on our no-fly order tick closer to zero. We can’t renew it; not legally. I don’t know what Tea is plotting back there, but the skies are about to get busy again, so she better find something fast.
“We’re down under five thousand. What do you have in mind, Tea? We’ve only got ten minutes on the clock,” I remind her.
“Also, can I get the forecast for the next gyre?” Fletcher chuckles, referring to Tea’s use of our backup radar, which uses a longer wave and has low resolution. It’s the kind of thing meteorologists use. “Ejtan and I have a sailing date once I get back.”
“Ha-ha, very funny,” she replies. “It’s Sibyl, Fletch. It’s either pissing rain or shitting wind.”
“Tea,” I warn.
“Right. I think the bogey is using radiation-absorbent materials to escape detection. That’s why we didn’t see it until it was on top of us. The backup is a backup for a reason. Our standard sensor suite is geared for imaging or tracking. But there’s this middle range that, if we’re close enough and at the right incidence, might give me some interesting blobs.”
“Well then, carry on. You’ve got eight minutes,” I remind her once again.
I lead Windsong straight on through the misty sheets of altostratus clouds. I feel more comfortable now that we’re low enough for subsonic flight, and that there’s more bite to the control surfaces. I hate using the reaction control system in the atmosphere. Too jerky, and too powerful.
I’ve given Tea a space-filling square search pattern at this altitude, because it seems apropos, and it is much easier for me to bring the ship around at three hundred meters per second than a thousand.
It will be demoralizing if this doesn’t work out. We’ll start the job over from scratch after a refuel and resupply. And for all her eccentricities, I know Tea will become irritable if she can’t find the one that got by her. I sigh deeply into my mask, attempting to shrug off all the ire I felt earlier. Disappointment is part of the job. I know that. But when you care so much about work, down to the visceral level of sentimentality, it can become overwhelming and personal. I make everything personal and internalize failure. I can’t let that be.
“Blob achieved!” Tea shouts with a shrill clamor that makes me wince. “Well, several blobs. But I like this one. This is my favorite blob.”
“Do you have a name for him?” Fletcher asks.
“Bob the Blob,” she says.
“Alright, this is our Bob… blob,” I concede. “Right on time. Our order is set to expire in a minute. Prepare for descent and translation. I need somewhere to park, so get on that for me, will you?”
“I’m excited to meet Bob, Ash!”
I’m not, Tea.