Characters: Cat Rosha, Storm Squadron
The four pilots settled into two Thunderbolts — Cat piloting with Rashid behind her in Storm One, Kriechbaum piloting with Lazaret behind in Storm Three. Cat got comfortable in her seat and turned on her engines. “Everybody ready?” she said, cracking her fingers.
“We’re all set here, boss,” Kriechbaum said through the comm.
“OK then, launch sequence is a go. 5..4..3..2..1. Go!” Cat replied.
The pair of Starfuries dropped from their docking cradles and out into space. As they swooped clear of the pale arrow-shaft body of the Phoenix, Darquin’s voice gave them a fighter pilot send-off over the command channel. “Check six, Storm. See ya soon.”
“Blacklight confirmed activated,” Kriechbaum called. “Going to silent running.”
The two fighters swiftly skimmed away from the Phoenix until the Ranger ship was just another glimmer in the darkness of space. They glided across the sky, searching for reference points before moving on. Cat was starting to amuse herself with the lights on the control board, but she was also making sure she was keeping up with the other ship. Going silent wasn’t all that bad.
For a short while, about midway through the flight, Rashid softly murmured prayers, then went back to studying the sensor data as it came in.
The first thing on their screens was the x-ray binary. Even at a safe distance, it was a large, glowing, writhing mass. Cat looked closely at the binary and started to gather data, as Rashid did the same.
“We are blessed indeed, to be able to see such things so close — although I would not want to be much closer to that star without a lot more shielding,” Rashid said.
“Yes, such a thing of beauty, but so deadly,” Cat replied. “Holding steady.”
“We should be in scanner range of our target area momentarily,” Rashid said.
Cat was semi-hypnotized by the star as she held steady while Rashid collected the data they needed. “Just let me know what you need,” she said softly.
“Doing fine,” Rashid assured her.
Their destination was a quiet contrast of starlight and darkness, devoid of dust or debris. The wraith-like presence of the infrared cloud was the only clutter on their screens.
Kriechbaum spoke up for the first time since launch. “Boss, we’re not getting anything but that mass of infrared. I think we should risk a closer look.”
“Keep out of range of the harmful radiation — you can get closer, but not too close. We left as four, we’ll go back as four,” Cat replied.
“It is a very intense concentration of infrared, but fortunately nothing like that x-ray binary behind us,” Rashid said. “Shall we move in a bit ourselves?”
“Let’s see what we can do,” Cat said she moved forward ever so slightly, making sure she stayed out of the harmful rays. “How are the readings?”
“Picking up some more detail — there is a planet, adjacent to that concentration of infrared,” Rashid reported. “Have a look.”
Rashid sent the image to one of Cat’s data screens. Far from the x-ray binary, closer to the infrared mass, was a small frozen planet. It sat at the edge of the infrared, dangling like a bauble against the darkness.
“Still too far out to determine life signs,” Rashid told her. “In fact, I’m starting to see some additional masses. Moons, perhaps — although very large ones.”
Watching the radiation levels, Cat brought their fighter in closer to the planet. “Can you get any life signs here?”
“Not yet, but there’s several anomalies here,” Rashid said. “This appears to be a full blown star system — but I’m not seeing a star. We’re well out of range of the x-ray binary, so we could go closer in.”
Suddenly the ship began to shake. While the joysticks bucked in gloved hands, Cat tightened her grip to keep it steady. It felt like she was losing control. “OK, I’ll give it a try, hold on to your seat – it’s going to be a little rough. If it gets too bad I’m pulling back out. Take your readings quick,” Cat said.
Cat’s sensors revealed what was buffeting her ship. A thin line of warm gas, apparently full of minor electrical charges, crossed their path — a weak termination shock, the edge of a planetary system.
Then a glimmer billions of miles away appeared on their screens, brilliant and brief.
“What the …” Rashid murmured. “Cat, we need a better look at that. If we go in far enough, we’ll get past the termination shock and the flying should be steady again.”
“But the radiation will get greater as we go in deeper. We could show up on somebody’s scanners even with the cloak,” Cat said. “We’ll go in just enough to get a quick reading, then, we’re out.”
Cat jerked the ship forward and through the termination shock. “Take it quickly. We need to get out of here fast.”