No Fly Zone

tagnone

5

5

7200. UNOV 55 20 20. CC.
7200. UNOV 55 20 20. CC.
7200. UNOV 55 20 20. CC.

Captain Lakatos looked at the CRT screen of the signal demodulator. This was what the unknown ship far away was sending him and the Grovarnos.

7200. UNOV 55 20 20. CC.

The bridge was packed. It was packed with two giant computers and communications systems and environmental controls and other systems with their fuzzy monitors or aircore gauges. It was packed with the waste heat from all his crew members and the computers. And it was packed with the whirring from the magnetic tape and the systems and the air filtration systems. Lakatos couldn't think clearly. Or at all.

Not that he needed to, of course. He knew the transmitted codes by heart.

7200 was the international shorthand for a no-fly zone. The candidates of who-was-telling-him-to-leave were NATO and their gunships, the Soviets and their gunships, the minor independent factions and their gunships, as well as any 18-year old who's never touched grass and their gunships.

UNOV 55 20 20 was the Soviet designation for circular orbits of inclination 55 degrees, and 2000km above the charred, volcanic surface of Io, one of the many Jovian moons and the only one nobody had tried to colonize yet. This was worrying for many reasons.

The main reason was that nobody was supposed to be here. Like a Chinese mother, Io was a harsh mistress that rains lava and hellfire on a good day. Any Russian gunships in Jupiter should be threatening the Europan breakaway colonies or protecting the Metis Habitation Project, rather than patrol an ocean of molten rocks.

Unless the Soviets also knew about the ship that was above Io too.

CC was a request to change orbit. Captain Lakatos considered his options. He could either run or stay.

His crew on the Grovarnos and on the tiny Jupiter-II shuttle are currently searching for the location of the Tim Lan, the ship he'd been sent to fix.

The Tim Lan was on its way to Europa before they ran out of uranium and had to cut their null-g generators and signal for help. They were carrying cargo important and sensitive enough that someone paid the Grovarnos enough real money, and not the worthless banter used on Titan, to forfeit it's monotonous routine of hauling tritium. They were told to ask no questions and if needed, to just get the cargo. Crew expendable.

Yes, that meant that his crew, too, was expendable for Miss Grimmelshausen, the lady who paid him for this job. But his crew had already made it this far. They'd spent weeks and a small fortune in chem fuels coming from Titan, and all they had to do was fix the Tim Lan in the next few hours. Then the Grovareturns to Titan where he would receive his ample payment, equivalent to 14 months of long hauls.

And on the other hand, there was the Soviet navy. Highly disciplined, ruthless, and something he had spent a decade avoiding.

"Captain? How should we respond?" asked Lopez, a Canadian lady. She floated next to the giant oven that was the communications computer.

He imagined if his XO, Einsehen, was here and not commanding the Jupiter-II, the two of them would have a short discussion where Einsehen would argue that they should leave the area before more Soviets showed up in their black, trash-can shaped spacecrafts and overwhelmed them with their numbers like the 11th West German Fleet.

Lakatos would disagree with this imaginary Einsehen's observations. Yes, this Soviet ship could call for backup and overwhelm them, but the Grovarnos was a giant, hulking, unarmored tritium hauler that was outgunned by a dog armed with a butter knife made of Play-doh. The reinforcements don't matter.

Instead, what mattered was the fact that they were a civilian vessel, they were still out of range of the Soviet ray guns, and the Soviet navy doesn't shoot civilians. (At least, Lakatos himself didn't when he was still Red Navy.) They had a few hours to look for the Tim Lan before the Soviets could blow a hole in the Grovarnos.

"Feign ignorance. Miss Rashid, Miss Lopez, keep looking for the Tim Lan's transponder code. And let me know if the Soviets start doing something else." Lakatos looked at the green lines on the giant CRT radar screen, representing the Jupiter-II and the other, unknown Soviet ship much further away. Then he imagined if the Soviets blew a hole right through the screen.

"Sir? We've picked up 7700 from the Tim Lan's transponder. I've pinged them to no response."

Rashid's light Egyptian accent woke Lakatos from his trance. We've picked up 7700, that's good. 7700 meant that there was a general on-board emergency. Lakatos chewed on what he just spoke to himself, and realized how bad it sounded out of context. Lakatos asked Rashid, before he sounded even more questionable in his mind,

"Can we pinpoint where it's coming from?"

"It's coming from approximately heading 220, 35 degrees beneath us."

"Miss Rashid, relay this to Einsehen and tell her to locate the signal. After that, triangulation should be simple."

"I don't think we need to - I've spotted a ship," said Blair, the operator of the optical search systems. (Optical search system might be an overstatement for a telescope aimed at one of the portholes with a camera duct taped to it.)

Lakatos floated his way from his captain's stations over to the telescope, Blair smart enough to move out of the way. The Tim Lan was looking like a pale, stubby aircraft with 4 wings and with fuel tanks and an antenna hastily duct-taped to the sides. The resemblance to aircrafts suggested the Tim Lan was born a NATO, while the ugly fuel tanks told him the Tim Lan rebelled and joined the independents later in life.

Lakatos peered away from the telescope. "Ok. Tell Einsehen that we found the Tim Lan. And set the transponder to communications system error. We should be done before the Soviets try to kick us off."

The Grovarnos screams to the world that it can no longer speak. Lakatos hopes that will buy Einsehen enough time to get their payday and get away.


Between the 57 minutes telling the Soviets the Grovarnos was incapable of speaking and now, Lakatos had time for flashbacks.

The thing nobody expected during the Evacuation of Earth, decades ago, was the traffic of 37 million people escaping Earth. Fragments were bound to hit ships, and Junior Lieutenant Teodor Lakatos was unlucky one day.

2 seconds after the KFS Constantin Parhon got hit, the novelty of a giant hole near the astrogation desks wore off. Of the 2 astrogators, one had transformed into gas, and the other had half of his torso missing and was screaming for his mom before he got sucked out into the black. Lakatos and the crew couldn't help, however, and scrambled for the vac-suits.

The Soviet navy vac-suits were a dark, shiny metallic case with a red star near the heart, as if taunting the cosmos with a giant bullseye. Well, the cosmos responded, and in the 20 seconds it took Teodor Lakatos to don his suit all his crew was dead.

There's probably a smart metaphor about disasters and how everyone on that bridge had died the moment disaster stuck the astrogation team, and everything they did after that was merely dead men acting on borrowed time. Whatever metaphor it was, Lakatos, professional Red Navy sailor until he wasn't, was preoccupied with worrying.

He had this particular flashback, because he was worried about the same thing happening to the Jupiter-II he sent out 85 minutes ago. They should have arrived by now. But they haven't.

Maybe the Jupiter-II was dead, which was a sign that something had probably gone wrong. Explosive decompression was one option. The others were Null-Gravity failure, fission meltdown, carbon monoxide poisoning, or something exotic.

Or maybe they were just delayed. Maybe the null-gravity drives had a burnout forcing the engineers, Yao and Qualities, an extra 15 minutes repairing it.

"Rashid, Lopez, send Einsenhen a message. She's supposed to have arrived onto Tim Lan 25 minutes ago."

"Sure."

Lopez typed up a message into the computer, while Rashid held up her stack of seemingly identical punch cards and pulled one from the stack. The computer whirred to life. Lakatos was grateful they had a computer do the UART translations (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter, a serial communication method. Information is transmitted one bit at a time.) for them.

The halt of the whirring computer pulled Lakatos from his thoughts. Lopez gave the punched card to Rashid, who plugged it into the Tx communication terminal. Bits of data screamed towards the Jupiter-II.

About half a minute later, a particularly strong and funny-shaped beam of light hit the Grovarnos. It took another half-minute to translate from ASCII code, and it was Einsehen talking.

TIM LAN SPOTTED. 5 MINUTES TILL DOCK. WILL UPDATE DURING FIXING

Good, Lakatos thought. They'll fix the ship, come back, and everyone gets paid.

"Captain Lakatos? The Soviet ship has stopped transmitting the signal." A smidge of optimism loosened the knot in Rashid's chest. Drawing closer to the monitor, her chest perked up with the same cadence as someone who got the last loaf after waiting six hours in the breadlines.

This optimism was not shared by Lakatos.

"Get us into a 5000km orbit now."

Kaczmarek, one of the pilots, looked at Lakatos as if Lakatos had just ordered him to execute a puppy. The ship remained stationary.

Having to repeat himself was annoying to Lakatos. "The Soviets not transmitting means they've given up trying to threaten us. They're coming in close to take us in, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we don't want to be sent to Siberia. Especially you, Kaczmarek."

Lakatos knows not of Kaczmarek's tragic backstory, but it clearly involved a strong revulsion of the Siberian Flotilla. Kaczmarek was so motivated, in fact, that he didn't bother to ask Ngai, the other pilot, to calculate what thrust vectors are needed to get them to a 5000km circular orbit.

The gravity, now that the null-gravity was back on, meant Lakatos had to squeeze between the gimbals of the astro-navigational station and the giant CRT screen that was the radar to get to the supercomputer next to the pilot's station. He picked up Ngai's protractor from the now-floor and handed it to Ngai. Ngai took the protractor. Then started drawing on a calculation-filled notepad, occasionally plugging in calculations needed for their orbital correction.

Kaczmarek must have been very driven, because he didn't ask Lakatos some very good questions. Like, how would Einsehen and the others return to the ship if they don't know where we are? Were we in trouble?

"I'm afraid Einsehen will have to figure this out on her own. And yes, we are in trouble."

The giant radar screen showed a contact closing in quickly. Nothing too surprising, if they were going to board a ship as harmless as a quadriplegic flipped the wrong way up, the Soviets would likely deploy a few (or even one) quick interceptors to stop them. Thankfully, those interceptors aren't designed for endurance pursuits, so at their rate they may be able to out-range it.

"Miss Rashid, Miss Lopez, tell Miss Einsehen that we had to move to a 5000km orbit and we'll send more details when we get there. And to go to Europa for a Miss Grimmelshausen if they don't find us."

Whatever Miss Grimmelshausen wanted, the Soviets either wanted or wanted nobody to have it. And they were willing to pull one of their much-needed gunships away from their Jovian possessions or the combat actions around Titania. It better be the decapitated head of Ming the Merciless, personally signed by Flash Gordon himself.

Seriously though, who was paying him? It certainly wouldn't be the Soviets. It can't be NATO, last he heard they still had enough gunships that would have easily destroyed the Soviet craft tracking him. And nobody independent would have the Neds for such a job.

Then Lakatos dug into his memories. How he had vac-suits that automatically jump up to his body, making it possible to fit in 20 seconds. How there were people wearing the badge of an inverted triangle, offering humanitarian aid in the form of seemingly arcane technology shortly after The Evacuation, like plants that could generate 8 times the oxygen. Or how they were claiming to be the creators of the Null-Gravity Generator.

No, it can't be them. They're an organization of what, hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Even smaller than Bucharest Station's crew. How could they have the resources for such an operation?

Wait… they did have access to arcane technology like the plant. Or highly effective, mathematically impossible long-range transmission systems. And were very well prepared for the Earth Day catastrophe.

"It's closing in fast!" Schmidt, the radar officer, has an Austrian accent that only emerges in the direst situations. Clearly, he has similar views on Siberia as Kaczmarek.

Lakatos looked back at Ngai, who was passing a set of thrust vector calculations to Kaczmarek. He'd ask Kaczmarek to go faster, but the queasiness Lakatos felt in his gut, coming from how null-g affected reality the stronger you ran the drives, told Lakatos that Kaczmarek was already running the null-g drive like hot hell on sandpaper. Lakatos felt sympathy for the flight engineers 7 decks under, working right next to the null-g drive.

Lakatos considered stating the obvious to maintain morale. As the thrust vectors shifted and the Grovarnos reoriented itself as quickly as the aging spaceframe allowed it without snapping in half, Lakatos thought it was unnecessary.

He said it anyways.

"We'll be fine, people, keep going! Miss Rashid, Miss Lopez, remove any reference of Miss Grimmelshausen from my previous message if it hasn't been sent yet."

The Soviets only moved in after Einsehen sent her message. Circumventing the Soviet listening systems was easy for Lakatos. But former NATO Lieutenant Einsehen was literally the target audience for Soviet data interceptions. She'd accidentally screwed everyone over.

Teodor Lakatos, this isn't Einsehen's fault. Calm yourself down, Teodor.

Notifying Einsehen over the air would only compromise Miss Grimmelshausen's ability to assist Einsehen and her crew. And, the crew of the Tim Lan would tell Einsehen of Miss Grimmelshausen. Besides, his life was likely once saved by her organization, and sending Soviet agents down her alley as gratitude didn't feel right for some reason.

Ok, let's assume it's those triangle people, RCP… whatever. What could they want with the Tim Lan?

These people, if his memory served him right, collect anomalous artifacts and try to help humanity with it. Since this was a cargo job, the Tim Lan was likely transporting one of these artifacts. Whatever it was, it was worth abandoning the Tim Lan and it's crew over. It better be better than the decapitated head of Ming the Merciless, personally signed by Flash Gordon himself.

Maybe the decapitated head should talk. That's more to the tune of these RPC people.

Or maybe it's something useful. Like a superdome that would significantly increase the potential sizes of Mars' surface cities. Or some kind of ray-gun that makes war so inconceivable that the Sol Wars would grind to a halt.

Or maybe it doesn't really matter.

Anything short of collecting every single blown up chunk of Earth, assembling it like Lego, and putting the Earth's atmosphere back, was tried. And nothing did work. The NATO and the Soviets were still at it, killing each other. Hell, they were at it before the Earth broke.

Whatever these RPC people do, it won't be enough. Just look at what we did to each other when there was enough. Still, they're stupid enough to think someday, it will be enough. And pretend we're not all living off borrowed time.

Lakatos looked back at the radar screen. The single interceptor was still hot on their tails. Another glance at the radar corrected Lakatos' mistake. The radar cross-section is far too big for a single interceptor. This was the gunship itself.

Whatever the Grovarnos had done, made the gunship get in close and personal for the job. Close and personal usually meant the wrong end of a ray-gun.

Siberia suddenly seemed appealing.

Lakatos ruminated for a moment whether to tell Einsehen about the potential anomaly on the ship. The answer was yes. Lakatos then chewed for a much briefer moment whether to tell the Soviets to stop shooting them and stop for a friendly bottle of vodka. This answer was also yes.

"Miss Rashid, Miss Lopez, tell Einsehen that there are potentially anomalous artifacts on the Tim Lan. Like, magical stuff. And tell the Russians we're willing to talk."

"Which message first?"

"The Russians, please."

Lakatos ran towards the UART translator, as if his proximity would improve the computer's efficiency. Maybe whir louder and more intensely.

It did not, but Lopez needed someone to help input the ASCII codes anyways.

What was the transponder code for "please don't shoot us"? Lakatos realized there probably wasn't one, then cursed the International Civil Aviation Organization for a lack of foresight. The 7700 emergency code, like the one used by the Tim Lan, was put through the translator instead.

Seconds later, the punch cards went through. Lakatos ran towards Rashid's station and handed her the cards. Rashid said nothing and plugged them into the card reader, then hammered in some codes that Lakatos would probably understand if he had the time.

But Lakatos didn't have the time, and Einsehen's message was next. No mentioning of Grimmelshausen. Yes mentioning of voodoo magic. Lakatos thought about it for 3 seconds, then realized that the Grovarnos was well within the range of the Soviet gunship's missiles.

An R-27 torpedo from the gunship behind them illuminated the skies of Io. The torpedo flew past the Grovarnos's starboard porthole, off by 3 degrees to the right.

A ray-gun shot disables the flight computers. It is a weapon of terror, meant to intimidate the enemy. An R-27 torpedo blows a hole in the ship. It is a weapon of war, meant to kill the enemy.

Lakatos wondered whether the 7700 code was sent or not. If it wasn't, then Rashid would send it again. If it was, then sending it again wouldn't help. He decided that telling Rashid to send it again was wasted effort.

It was possible that they were still considered hostile because they were running away. Lakatos had moments to do so before another torpedo from the Soviets blew a hole in the Grovarnos.

"Mr. Kaczmarek, cut thrust!"

Surprisingly, Kaczmarek listened to him. Either Kaczmarek believed that Siberia was preferable to transforming into another state of matter, or he was fully focused on Lakatos' commands. Either one worked well for Lakatos.

A short message was better than no message. Something that would remind Einsehen of strange occurrences, even stranger than tumbling in a sealed metal box 200km above the layer of hell called Io. Made possible by a bunch of naive idiots harnessing the power of these strange occurrences.

And if these naive idiots had brought all of humanity this far, rejecting the grim reaper's attempts at putting humanity down, maybe we weren't screwed after all. Lakatos started punching the hexadecimal numbers that corresponded to his message.

52 50 43

Another torpedo fell 2 degrees in front of the Grovarnos. Kaczmarek had borrowed a few extra moments for Lakatos, and for Einsehen to be warned of whatever she may encounter on the Tim Lan. Not a word of fear or collapse came from the rest of the crew.

This isn't the first time they've faced the reaper, simply by the fact that they were alive and that 4 billion humans weren't.

Teodor, don't get distracted in romanticism.

Captain Lakatos was happy to see the computer was as calm as the crew and did it's job even when it narrowly avoided death. A piece of punch card code came out of the computer and Lakatos tossed it at Rashid. She caught the card with one smooth motion and plugged in.

The Tx antenna of the Grovarnos transmitted a series of 1s and 0s that only the laws of physics could translate back to something readable. It transmitted all of what it needed, before a torpedo penetrated the ship from the engines and cargo hold at the bottom up until the deck at the top.

Lakatos saw the giant hole at the top and bottom of the ship. Air was leaking so quickly that he would soon lose consciousness.

It was finally his turn. And this time, Lakatos didn't bother with his vac-suit.

The deaths of his bridge decades ago might have made for a fitting metaphor about how 99% of people were now dead, but the 1% that made it past the initial were still doomed to die and were living on borrowed time.

But Teodor couldn't think of that, as he was too focused on the sheer beauty of the stars, glittering in the void, each a calling and an impossibly rewarding opportunity and an incomprehensibly dangerous hazard. And of Io's yellow husk, fully surrounded by the void after he was sucked out of the Grovarnos.


1 second later, Captain Alia Einsehen received the following message on the communications terminal of the Jupiter-II. The Jupiter-II, build by the RPC Authority, actually integrated the Rx antenna with the UART terminal and ASCII converters. The machine spat out the following on the LCD terminal.

RPC

Einsehen spent a few seconds chewing on the meaning of the message before she saw the destruction of the Grovarnos through her porthole.

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