He hated emerging from a Fold; the process always left him feeling sick. The journey itself, if distorting the fabric of space using quantum singularities to wrap two distant points together like the cuff and collar of a well-ironed shirt could be called a journey, was quiet, smooth and short. It was the emergence from dimension crushing subterfuge that tricked the body into believing it had been thrust into the middle of a cyclone.
Worse was the momentary disorientation of the ship. Even if the crew could keep their stomachs under control, the navigation systems, engines and other functions needed to relocate themselves, come back up to full power and realise they’d crossed a dozen light years in the time it took to walk the length of the ship.
The shields blinked back on. Vijay sighed; at least they weren’t going to be picked off before they’d had a chance to see who was shooting at them. Not that anyone was. The HUD showed a fire on the deck above the engine, but that was from the source end of their jump. Nothing serious, certainly nothing that might reach the grid shaping the singularity that powered the Folding Engine, officially an Alcubierre drive. The virus to confuse the navigation algorithms used by the hacker at the jump origin had been contained just in time.
Vijay flew his scout ship with just one other crew member, his partner and co-owner Keo. They’d been flying together on other people’s ships for nearly a decade before they’d saved enough for a deposit that allowed them to borrow the rest to buy their own ship.
In the last two years they’d paid off the loan and everything from then on was pure profit. Seeing the galaxy before them without being asked if they were going to make steady interest payments meant they could look to uncharted systems, take risks, may be even go where no one had gone before. The possibilities made them dizzy enough to buy a Jumpgate anchoring kit, research and find a distant star with promising interferometry, and plan to leave the core worlds behind. Give it a few months and they could have their own jumpgate and a potentially unlimited income stream to fund whatever explorations they wanted.
Vijay and Keo each uploaded an image of their consciousness to their favoured memory provider and departed from the colony station at LP 944 020, better known to its nine thousand or so inhabitants as Cold Madras because of its colour, warmth and, last but certainly not least, the terrible food grown in the station’s hydroponic gardens.
The Lagrange points from the station offered routes covering twenty light years to stars with colonies even more tenuous than Cold Madras’. They deliberately chose a route that would bypass the safer and more comprehensively populated stars. The last thing they wanted was people asking where they were going.
The destination star they chose was called HR 5183 and was in the constellation, according to old Earth standards, called Virgo. It had been a huge cloud of mineral rich entities that corporations had steadily been using up for the last thirty years. Reduced from an entire system to a star, a single small planetoid and a cloud of sand sized particles; any rock larger than a pebble had been scooped up and ground down for the minerals that might be lurking within.
When they arrived, having arrived in the surrounding system under their own steam without the aid of the nearest jumpgate, they discovered a crew guarding the Lagrange point for the final leg of their journey. It wasn’t immediately obvious and they ploughed on, oblivious, towards the gravitationally neutral point they needed, only to find ships coming online and converging on their position.
Vijay and Keo’s scout ship, a little EFU gem from a second hand dealer, was not armed, barely shielded and there was no escape pod. Dying would mean waking up back in Cold Madras, broke and without a ship. Though not defended, the scout was fast, so they accelerated as rapidly as their bodies could bear and made for the Lagrange Point.
The bandits were quick, but gradually fell behind. One of them managed to hack the scout’s navigation system, making orientation impossible when they arrived at the jumping off point. Slipping into Folded space without preparation might mean ending up between stars, lost and facing a very slow death from dehydration a dozen light years from anywhere.
Keo had shouted with joy when they finally got into position, Vijay deploying anti-hacking software as fast as he could bring it online to lock down the disruption from the bandits. In the time it took to secure the ship and get themselves oriented, a micro missile hit between the cockpit and the engine just as the ship punched into Folded space. They held their breath in that instant, not sure if the hit was fatal, explosive or simply irritating.
Now they were where they wanted to be, far away from the bandits who’d tried to take them down, Vijay couldn’t shake the lightness of the relief he felt. It made him as dizzy as the arrival made him nauseous.
‘We’re here,’ said Keo breathlessly.
‘Deploy the starter kit then! Let’s not wait around.’
Keo flicked switches and the cargo bay, containing one barrel of materials and another of nanomachines, opened. The barrels drifted out powered by small thrusters. Vijay manoeuvred the ship gently out of the way, allowing the materials to site themselves at the very centre of the Lagrange Point, precisely where they need to be to make a new jump point.
The barrels unsealed one by one and the nano machines from the second sped out in two clouds, one that immediately coated the materials from the first barrel, the other dispersing to collect energy and dust from the space around them.
‘Now we kick back and wait.’ Keo put his feet on the dash, hands clasped behind his head.
A ping caught Vijay’s attention; his mood immediately soured, ‘there’s someone else here already!’
Keo sat upright, ‘There can’t be. We’re the first! None of the charts showed anyone here.’ He whined like a child complaining to his mother about the inevitability of bedtime.
The other ship was big, possibly huge. It’s ident showing it was a destroyer belonging to one of the larger trading companies sanctioned by CIS. It could only be there because it was already being used as a jumping off point for exploration even farther afield.
The two friends looked at one another, not willing to ask the one question that might save their lives – do we leave?
Four ships peeled away from the destroyer as Vijay started to punch in coordinates for the return home, too late realising they’d put their fledgling jump gate right where they, themselves, needed to be in order to make the jump back.
The first flares of missile launches showed on their virtual displays as Vijay turned to Keo and said, ‘Gods, Keo, the hackers weren’t trying to rob us. They were trying to keep us away.’