“They momentarily dropped out of trans-light speed to get a fix on us,” K’silk said aloud. “They know we are in pursuit. But it matters little. We will have more than enough time to catch them once they round the star, and before they reach the planet. Prepare to alter course. We will move between the planet and the star, and await their appearance on the other side.”
The Raian helm officer complied, and the L’t’meriad changed course slightly. As the Mary approached the far side of the Abignon star, its speed increasing rapidly under the influence of the star’s gravity, the Raians angled for the near side.
“Sensors to full,” K’silk ordered. “Report as soon as the freighter appears on the far side of the star.”
Kestral, sitting at the ops station, watched as Mark’s hands fairly danced over the helm controls. They were rapidly approaching the Abignon star, and the ship was beginning to develop minor creaks and vibrations… signs that the star’s gravity was beginning to take its toll.
“It’s gettin’ awful loud back here!” Sarander’s voice crackled out of the intercom. “How are we doin’ up there?”
“Walk in the park,” Mark muttered aloud, without looking up from his work. He had donned his goggles, and his hands were ebony blurs over the pilot’s console.
“We’re good,” Kestral responded to the intercom. “Stand by at the pod. We’re five minutes to launch.”
Kestral turned to Mark, who shrugged. “A lot of bucking. Nothing serious so far. Mary’s flying like a dream. Considering the circumstances.”
Kestral nodded and turned back to ops. On her board, the Mary’s position was marked as it approached the star. The projection of the Raian ship was also there, and it terminated at about the point at which the Mary would disappear behind the star. She knew the Raians were familiar with the Oan sundance maneuver, and their standard operating procedure would be to swing about the near side of the star and await their appearance on the other side.
She had no way to confirm that, however. Their plan hinged on the Raians being predictable. And if the Raians followed them around the star, they would be busted.
“Three minutes to orbital insertion,” Kestral announced calmly.
“The Oan freighter is now behind the star,” the Raian officer announced.
“Reduce speed to 90% of light,” K’silk ordered. “Stand by on all external sensors.”
“Orbital insertion… now,” Mark announced.
He had to raise his voice a bit. Mary was now bucking hard and vibrating noisily, and Mark was clearly struggling. The ship could only survive if it walked a tightrope course at precisely the right velocity, and the solar wind and gravitational torque made it difficult to maintain that course and speed. Kestral roved her eyes about the bridge, at the deck and bulkheads, as if she could see through them and visually gauge the amount of punishment being put on her ship.
“Sarander! Heat up the pod!” Kestral called into the intercom. “Stand by for release!”
“Eighty seconds to sundance climb!” Mark called out.
“We’re ready!” came Sarander’s voice.
Kestral watched the seconds tick by, as she watched the indicators on the ops panel climb. Torque, temperature, gravity and inertial balance, power consumption, all were approaching redline values. And they hadn’t even begun their maneuver yet. It would be close.
“Sarander,” she called out. “I have pod release control… get clear!” She followed their progress on her board, her fingers poised over the controls. “Releasing in five… four… three… two… one… now!”
On the starboard side of the cargo bay, Sarander stood by the blast hatch for the emergency escape pod, Tirri nearby at a cargo console, watching. As Kestral’s voice came over the intercom, they heard the telltale sounds of releases snapping open and outer shields popping loose. Then came a loud gong, like a monstrous bell being struck against the hull, and a flash from the single tiny port of the blast hatch. Mary barely felt the nudge in her side, but Sarander could feel the recoil caused by the pod being blown out of the side of the ship.
“Sarander to bridge!” he called out. “Pod away!”
“I have it!” Kestral answered, her fingers working over her board. “I read it’s decoy signature, operating as planned. Pod is assuming solar slingshot trajectory,” she said for Mark’s benefit. “Ten seconds to climb.”
“We’re ready,” Mark replied. “Standing by.”
Again, Kestral ticked off the seconds on her board. “Execute climb in four… three… two… one… now!”
“Hang on!” Mark cried as his fingers danced over the controls. At once, the ship groaned, and Kestral felt at least thrice her weight push down upon her. Mark struggled to keep his hands steady as he worked, something Kestral could appreciate, considering she was holding on to the sides of the ops console with both hands. Somewhere behind them, a faint sound could be heard, rising in crescendo and insistence… it was Mary’s engines, screaming in exertion.
In the cargo bay, crates started shifting about, pulling against the restraining webbing that held most of them in place. The few that were not appropriately tied down, began to slide towards the stern of the ship, some of them catching on some obstruction on the deck and tumbling loudly away. Tirri took turns watching her board, and the crates around her, while Sarander hung onto a wall strut near the now-departed escape pod’s empty bay. His neck craned upward as he listened to the ship’s engines wailing away, but he dared not try to reach them during their climb… a slip would mean a twenty-meter fall, into the stern bulkheads. He was helpless to do anything but wait for perihelion.
On the bridge, Kestral and Mark now had the distinct feeling that they were lying on their backs… the gravity and inertial balancers had been overwhelmed by the force of their climb and the gravity of the star. Mary still protested, now about being stood on her tail along with her other complaints. But Kestral could see that other readings were starting to recover, the ship winning the fight against the star as she pulled directly away from it.
“Perihelion in twenty seconds,” Mark stated. “Are we still on plan A?”
“Yes, we are,” Kestral nodded. “Fifty degree port rotation upon perihelion, and re-insertion at nineteen degrees.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
Kestral and Mark exchanged glances, and after a moment, smiled at each other. They did not have to speak between them: They were both feeling the exhilaration that came from pushing the envelope of possibility, and working as a team to overcome all obstacles; the singular feeling they’d both had, on occasion, as Rangers.
Then, the Mary seemed to lose all momentum. Mark quickly turned back to his console, rapidly tapping out course adjustments. Kestral could not be sure, but she had the distinct impression that Mark had executed a backwards loop and a barrel roll, bringing Mary about to face the Abignon star. For a moment, the ship felt perfectly weightless. Almost all motion and vibration ceased, and the sudden loss of background noise left them feeling cut off from external sensation, much like being at the eye of a hurricane.
The moment the ship began to lighten, Sarander detached himself from the support strut and heaved at the nearest access ladder. He could already feel the ship’s gravity shifting from stern, back to normal… and soon, he knew, to the bow. “Tirri!” he shouted as he climbed. “Those loose crates are coming back!”
Tirri swiveled her head at the pile of heavy crates astern, which were already shifting their weight at the lessening of gravity, and which were poised to tumble directly into the cargo console where she stood. The feathers on the nape of her neck stood on end. “Oh, crap,” she muttered.