I finally arrived at Arque, after the long journey from Exioce. All 146 light-years of it.
I know, I know: 146 light-years is no distance to you, dear reader. You’re probably an explorer type – someone who’ll do twenty thousand light-years to Sag A* and back without giving it a thought. Well, that’s just shiny, really, but for me – someone who spends most of her time bouncing back and forth in a thirty light-year bubble around Achenar – the jaunt up to Alliance space is a pretty arduous one.
It went pretty well, actually. I didn’t run into any particular problems on the way, beyond a few Blackbeard-wannabes who thought they’d try their luck at the hapless trader. And to be fair to their judgement, as hapless traders go I must be somewhere amongst the hapless-est. They weren’t far off in their assessment: they underestimated me by just enough to see them collectively turned into a short list of bounty vouchers, which I’ve just cashed in at the Alliance-controlled station Austen Town. But if the pirates thought they were like to scare me, they didn’t do half as good a job as that fair space station itself.
Let me recount.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of the Jane Austen texts. Honestly, I’d be lying if I said I’d done much more than scanned them in Ancient Classics lectures at school, but I do remember being taught that they reflected an era of particular propriety, when everyone was very polite, even to people they hated.
So you might think, with that in mind, that ‘Austen Town Station’ might be a reasonably civilised sort of place.
It started off so well. The docking went well; the trading went well; I cashed in my bounty vouchers. All good, as they say. And just as I was setting up to leave, just running through my preflight while I waited for my departure clearance to come through, things started to get strange. I started picking up a lot of weird, disjointed chatter over the harbour comms: there seemed to be some sort of argument going on, but it was distorted – I couldn’t make out what was being said. After a few minutes I heard the sound of engines, and watched an Orca lift from a pad gatewards of where I was parked, and hover stationary just under the axis line. If you’re not a pilot, or don’t travel regularly, you might not know that ‘loitering’ is something that generally doesn’t go down well with station authorities. Stations – especially rotational ones with their centrifugal pseudo-gravity – tend to be very busy, and traffic controllers get distinctly tetchy with anything that might hold up the smooth flow of ships in and out. You don’t see extended hovers very often.
You especially don’t see two or three ships doing it at once – but by the time I looked again, maybe a minute or two later, there was another Orca and a Lakon Transporter (a Type 6, I think) hovering over pads nearby the first ship. None of them moved for several minutes.
Maybe I’m just naturally jumpy. I started to think things were getting a bit odd; and I don’t like odd. I prefer to be at a reasonably safe distance from odd, if possible. By now I’d got a clearance through the gate on a standard transit profile, had been placed on an automated departure sequence, and I was running through the remaining preflight checks as fast as I could. I had a bad feeling about all this.
At this point I was still hearing garbled wireless transmissions, and although I could make out several voices, I couldn’t tell what was coming from where. My own Signals console seemed to be struggling with a very powerful EM wave coming from somewhere: either a transmitter had got stuck radiating, or someone was doing it deliberately. Which wasn’t a comfortable thought. I wondered whether ATC could hear anything either, and got my answer when the massive signalling lights started blasting out flashes from the arrays around the inside of the gate. CTA orders – for ‘Clear The Area’ – repeated several times told the hovering ships to either land or leave; but the ships remained firmly in place.
I’d got distracted – never a good thing to do once the said auto-launch sequence has been started. I managed to remember what I was doing just in time to plant myself in the left-hand seat before the docking clamps released. The pad gave me a gentle push upwards before dropping back into its resting position, leaving me hovering in much the same position as the mystery ships I’d been watching. Damn it. Well, I wasn’t going to let ATC think I was part of this… whatever it was. I fired the thrusters to push my Cobra up to the axis line, and pushed up to half speed once I was happy I wasn’t going to run into anyone. The CTA pulses were still coming, broadcasting on constant repeat. I was the only one who seemed interested in them, as I aimed my nose firmly at the gate.
It was as I was passing the most gateward of the ships that ATC must have decided they’d had their chance. Directed-energy weapons positioned around the inside of the station began lighting up that first Orca. Its shields went up, but I suspect too much damage had already been done – the shields flickered out almost at once, the hull punched through in half a dozen places, and the ship began to heel over, yawing sharply as it broke up – and, as a matter of fact, only barely missing me gliding by.
I sped up. Technically, I was exceeding the speed limit, but I saw no point taking chances by hanging around where there was weapons fire. I saw the flare of light as station shields went up to protect the inner surface from falling debris; then the laser emitters lit up the other Orca and, a few seconds after that, the Lakon. Those ships were more prepared, but from the flashes I saw reflected off the station walls before I made it through the gate, I don’t think they fared any better than the first.
The electric-blue glow of the gate soft-shields bathed my flight deck for a few moments, and then I was out into the dark – the only light now the stars in front of me and the gentle orange of my holos. I hit the boost and went full burn straight forward: I wanted to be out of the station’s effective tracking range as quickly as possible. I had no idea what it had all been about, just that I didn’t want to be caught up in it, and it was just foul stupid luck that I’d committed to the departure just when I did.
Flicking off the Flight Assist control, I pulled the nose up and over so I could get a look at the station as I barrelled away from it at a barely-adequate speed. It was mostly in shadow behind New Caledonia, so all I could really see were the surface and approach lights, the floating billboards rolling around beside the gate – and one more flash from the harbour mouth. Another ship destroyed? I swung back round and fired up the frameshift, plunging into witchspace a few moments later – if anything more concerned with ‘away from’ than ‘to’.
I reflected as I watched the ghostly dark clouds of hyperspace roiling around me, lit by flashes of that strange, shrouded lightning, away in the murky distance. ‘Austen’ may have been a byword for civility and decorum to the Ancients, but here and now it had come to represent violence and destruction – and, without doubt, a distinct sense of impoliteness that I’m sure the original wouldn’t have approved of at all.