“Where’s Hollis?” Laz poked his head through the open iris valve into the ship’s locker, where Ticia was taking inventory.
“I looked it up. It’s in Foreven sector, about twenty-six parsecs spinward and rimward of Regina.” She finished securing the last of four vacc suits into position, then added, “That’s in a straight line. It’s going to take months to get there in this ship.”
The Type S Scout was capable of making jumps of up to two parsecs at a time, and each jump took about one standard week, during which the Curious would be in the featureless void of jumpspace. If they didn’t know each other now, they certainly would before they arrived at their destination. “Foreven, huh? I’ve never been beyond the Imperium before.”
“I don’t know exactly what’s in Bert’s flight plan, but it’s likely we’ll be passing through imperial client states once we leave the Imperium. Still, it is frontier space.”
She turned her attention to the array of weapons locked into place in a rack on the wall opposite the vacc suits. There were two shotguns, a hunting rifle, and a laser carbine. Underneath the rack was a cabinet with drawers. She entered the security code she had set up with CATHI earlier and the top drawer slid open, revealing four semi-automatic pistols and a collection of magazines. “How does the engine room look?”, she asked as she began taking one of the pistols apart.
“All the drives are in pretty good shape, especially for a ship where engineering is an afterthought.” He was referring to the fact that the Type S was typically only crewed with a single pilot.
“Scouts are meticulous about maintenance. I’m sure the drives get spit-polished by engineers every time the Curious docks at a Scout facility.”
Laz watched as Ticia expertly manipulated the parts of the pistol, then reassembled it and started on another. “I guess they’re like marines and their guns; I thought you were navy?”
Ticia turned her gaze to Laz while continuing to strip the pistol down by touch. “I spent a lot of time as a medic aboard troop transports; I picked up a few habits along the way.”
Laz nodded as she turned back to her task. There was a lot more to Ticia Clarke than was evident on the surface. “Well, I’ve looked everything over. I’m going to stow my gear.” He stepped back out into the passageway and headed to his stateroom.
Bert Salazaar sat back in the acceleration couch on the bridge of the Curious. A hologram of a young short-haired, dusky-skinned woman in scout field uniform—essentially a khaki jumpsuit with numerous pockets and places for attaching equipment—stood beside him. Another hologram, this one depicting a starfield with light blue lines connecting stars from one end of the display to the other, floated in front of him at eye level. Beside each connected star was a string of text—the planet’s Universal World Profile, or UWP—denoting basic information regarding the system.
“This is the most efficient route to the Hollis system, Captain” the hologram stated. “Aside from leaving the borders of the Imperium, this route will take us through one system in the Sword Worlds Confederation and four within the Darrian Confederation.”
“So I see. Thanks, CATHI.” Bert studied the map for a moment. He supposed there was no reasonable way to avoid the Sword Worlds, and it was only one system. But according to the readout, Tizon was home to both naval and military bases, a major world within a sometimes hostile nation. He decided they’d spend as little time in-system as possible.
Something else was bothering him, though. “CATHI, superimpose express boat routes.”
“Yes, Captain.” Green lines appeared along with the blue, connecting worlds in a slightly different configuration. The lines stopped at the imperial border, but it was clear that, by using the faster jump-4 rated X-boats, some time could be saved.
“CATHI, upload the flight plan to IISS control, and get me,” he tapped his chronocomp a few times, “get me Senior Administrator Amiera Bustamante on the comlink.”
“Right away, Captain.”
The holographic star map faded away and was shortly replaced with the visage of a woman, middle-aged and looking perhaps a little worn. The scout base administrator smiled nonetheless. “Mr. Salazaar. How may I help you?”
“I’ve just uploaded the flight plan for the Curious Endeavor for your approval.”
“Thank you. I’ll review it and get back to you within the hour. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, actually, there is. When reviewing the route, I noticed that the X-boat system could transport the package as far as Garda-Vilis in a significantly shorter amount of time than it’s going to take the Curious.”
Bustamante nodded, “Yes, Salazaar, the X-boats were considered, but it was decided that, due to the sensitive nature of the message, it was best to minimize the amount of times the package changed hands.” Her smile grew wider, “And your name came up due to your exemplary service record.”
“And my crew?”
“The courier reported their identities to me. They’ve been cleared, as long as you vouch for them. Is that all?”
None of this made any sense to Bert, but he’d been around the Scout Service long enough to know when he wasn’t going to get any more answers. “That’s all. Thank you.” He cut the connection.
Ticia finished securing the ship’s locker, then peered through the open iris valve into the small bridge. Bert was sitting at the navigation workstation, having just finished a conversation by comlink.
“Greetings, Doctor Clarke,” CATHI announced, her holographic avatar turning to face the main passageway.
“Ship’s locker is ship-shape,” Ticia stepped onto the bridge, giving CATHI’s hologram a puzzling glance; the image looked familiar. “That’s not a standard appearance option.”
“Yeah,” Bert replied, “I had a mod installed.”
A sudden look of recognition dawned over Ticia’s face. “What was her name…?”
“Rae,” Bert answered, lowering his eyes, “Damerae Ellin.”
Ticia turned her gaze to Bert. “Why didn’t you change its name, too?” she asked softly.
“Rae’s gone,” Bert stated flatly, looking up again, a pained expression on his wide, honest face. “Where’s Laz?”
Ticia took the hint. “Oh, he said something about going to his cabin and polishing his tools.” She allowed herself a mischievous grin, “You know, young stud like him, about to be cooped up on this little ship for weeks on end.”
As Ticia was finishing, she noticed Bert’s attention drift past her into the passageway beyond. “Greetings, Laz,” CATHI offered.
Ticia turned to face Laz, grin transforming into a smile of feigned innocence as she felt heat creep up from her neck to her face.
“Engines are good to go, Boss,” Laz announced with a smirk for Ticia’s benefit.
“Hi Laz. I was just…” she stammered, “I mean, I can be a little coarse sometimes.” She smiled wider. “In fact, I once brought a marine drill sergeant to tears.”
Laz nodded, then grinned back. “I’ll bet you made more than a few marines cry,” he said.
Bert winced and Ticia opened her mouth to reply, shut it, opened it again, then shut it again. Laz turned and left.
Ticia turned back to Bert. “I like him. Can I keep him?”
All the preparations were made, the ship’s manifest and immediate flight plan—from Regina to Extolay, two parsecs distant—was filed with the Starport Authority, and the Curious’ power plant and drives were on line and ready. Bert sat at the pilot’s console on the bridge while Ticia occupied the navigator’s workstation, perusing a display of information about the Extolay system—she didn’t know the first thing about plotting jump routes between stars; Bert had already handled the majority of that task. She just had nothing to do, and it beat sitting alone in her stateroom. CATHI’s avatar stood between them, and Laz was in the engine room, manning his own workstation.
The overall flight plan for the Curious had been approved by Scout Administrator Bustamante, and they were just waiting for a the go-ahead to lift off and begin the first leg of their journey.
Extolay, according to the UWP and other abbreviated detail displayed next to the holographic globe slowly spinning in the air, orbited a red main-sequence star, with another such star orbiting the primary at a distance of over 150 astronomical units. It was a small planet, with a diameter of only 8793 kilometers, and it didn’t look as if it was a particularly hospitable place to visit. Less hospitable were the government type—impersonal bureaucracy—and relatively high law level, hinting at a jungle of red tape to be traversed if they chose to stop there for any period of time. Ticia hoped they wouldn’t.
“ISS-93615 Curious Endeavor, this is Regina-Credo Down Starport Authority,” came a disinterested voice from the communications panel, “your are clear to lift off and proceed to a safe jump-staging distance. Fly safely.”
“Credo Down, this is ISS-93615, acknowledged,” Bert answered just as impersonally while simultaneously working his hands over the touch-sensitive controls projected on the surface in front of him. Looking through the bridge’s view port, she saw that the Curious was moving upward, the nose rising faster than her stern. She once again found herself thanking whoever had invented the gravitics that prevented them from being tossed around the interior of the ship as it maneuvered.
Outward Bound, by the late Andrew Boulton
She continued to watch as the view became one of only sky, which faded toward a deep indigo as they neared the edge of Regina’s atmosphere. Then Bert steered the ship in a way that she got a beautiful view of the gas giant Asiniboia. Looking over, she saw that he was busy weaving a path to avoid the traffic represented by green chevrons floating on a holographic display above his control panel. And then they turned again, and all she saw were the bright stars filling the black void of space, with the slightly larger red spot of Darida, the far companion to Regina’s duet of white Lusor and the tight-orbiting red dwarf Speck, looming at the far edges of the system.
After nearly thirty minutes, Bert set the ship’s proximity alarms, then turned to Ticia. “It’ll be about twelve hours before we’re at safe jump distance,” he announced.
Ticia got up, “I’m going to the galley. Want me to bring you a cup of caffee?”
Bert smiled up at her. “I’d love a cup.”
She opened the iris valve to exit the bridge, then paused momentarily. “It’s good to be back out here again. Thanks, Bert.” Then she left, closing the valve behind her.
The Curious Endeavor accelerated for just over six hours, spun around 180 degrees, then began decelerating. CATHI got everyone’s attention one hour before the ship was scheduled to come to a full stop, and Bert began finalizing the jump solution that would enable the jump drive to carry them from Regina to the Extolay system. Laz, who had been relaxing in the crew common room with Ticia, got up and returned to the engine room, just to make sure he was available if anything went awry. Things rarely did, but engineers tended to be an overly cautious lot, and more than a few spacers were thankful for their obsession.
CATHI continued to keep them informed of their status until the Curious stopped completely. Bert dimmed the lights aboard the ship—a long-standing tradition among spacers—then announced that he was engaging the jump drive.
The Curious Endeavor began to glow faintly blue as the lanthanum grid beneath her hull was energized. The glow’s intensity quickly increased until she was completely engulfed.
And then she was gone.