The Depth of Darkness, Part 1

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Chapter 4

Stuart was rigged up in his flight suit and standing at the base of the access ramp into his ship, the Benevolent. She was his pride and his one-and-only. Most pilots developed an almost unhealthy love and dedication for their ships, and he was no different. He clasped River’s arm one last time in farewell, forearm to forearm, the hands gripping just below the crook of the inner elbow. It was the traditional greeting from their homeland back on Earth.

His friend had his usual soppy expression on his face. Stuart had to stifle a laugh. “OK, Riv, I need to be on my way. Good luck.”

“Good luck to you, too,” echoed his friend.

As Stuart stood looking at his friend he heard a burst of energy from the engines of the Benevolent and the whine of the fission reactor deep in the bowels of the hull. He still needed to speak with his friend, but his time was up and he needed to be on his way.



“We need to speak. When I’m done with this trip. I’ll come back here.” The engines were getting louder, and the overhead buzzer below the ramp began to make the customary warning alarm that the ramp would need to be closed soon.

“What is it?”

“Can’t talk now, need to go. See you,” he shouted over the noise of the engines. “You need to get into the airlock, the outer doors will be opening soon.”

River nodded and ran for the inner airlock doors that were beginning to slowly close. His friend made it in enough time. He quickly rushed up the ramp while it was lifting to seal up with the hull of his ship. Inside the Benevolent the volume levels were far more bearable, the loud whining noise audible from the outside instead was just a rhythmic rumble.

While the Benevolent was a large ship, she was by no means expansive and luxurious. Ultimately she was designed to reach one end of the solar system quickly and without much fuss. Her job was as a high priority courier and as a deep space exploration vessel. Travelling from Titan to Ganymede could almost be named a typical assignment. Only the trip would not be as simple as that. Jupiter was exactly ninety degrees behind Saturn on its orbit, adjacent to the sun. Stuart was going to have to plot a course that would require avoiding many space objects and the sun itself, not just a straight line. Most of the flight would be on autopilot, with the crew in stasis. And even then the flight would take three months.

Stuart made his way into the cockpit and settled himself at the pilot’s chair. His co-pilot was in the engine room seeing to other things. Stuart was needed for the take-off in here; this part he could handle with his eyes closed. He searched the viewing ports for the face of his friend and found it above the airlock doors, a level above. The cockpit was lower than the viewing port, but Stuart was still afforded a good view due to the high visibility of the Benevolent’s insect inspired shape.

He was overcome with a strange feeling that he could not place, and he was anxious to understand what it meant or if it was just his own tendency for anxiety.

The airlock overhead opened finally and the remaining air that had not been sucked out by the station’s recycling and preservation systems was forcibly sucked out into the vacuum. The gravitational core of RF601 still held on to the Benevolent firmly, however. Stuart would have to initiate lift-off himself and that was a good thing; it allowed him to control their exit safely through the airlock, rather than to drift out into space and clip an immovable structure of any sort.

He shook his feelings off and began the take-off sequence.

The insect-like ship shuddered as the jets applied their energy to the deck and began to fight the gravitational field of the space station. The airlock had opened and all the breathable air had already disappeared. The deck was cleared of all techs and soon the heat from the jets would make the berthing dangerous to anything living in it.

So bloody simple, thought River. Force is Mass and Acceleration, I can see it happening right in front of me.

A wash of energy turned to visible heat flowed over the metal decking, the still-present gravity making the sight familiar. Suddenly the ship lifted up, suspended above the decking for a moment and then began to rise higher and higher. River tore his gaze from the heat energy and searched the cockpit viewports in an attempt to spot his friend piloting the craft. But the transparisteel was tinted the same gunmetal grey as the actual armoured plates and so he couldn’t see him. Soon enough the ship had cleared the outer airlock. In a reverse of his steps two days prior, River turned to look out of the other windows to see the ship activate its primary propulsion and blast off. It quickly dwindled into insignificance.

“Travel safely,” he said quietly. It was then that it dawned on him.

Stuart couldn’t help but smile at the sensation of leaving the gravitational pull of the space station and then the feeling of weightlessness taking over. He checked his aft camera and watched the Saucer grow smaller as the distance grew. He eased back on the throttle control; the change in power was unnoticeable. He reached out for the switch that would activate the announcement system.

“I am activating the Benevolent’s artificial gravitation systems in five, four, three, two, one.” He flipped the switch and felt his body being drawn into the seat as the gravity increased. According to protocol he should have followed his announcement with a second one that stated that the crew could begin their preparations for the long-distance flight, but his crew had been working together for enough time that these tasks were well rehearsed. Where possible he had implemented a buddy system and in most pairings the teams could almost work in synchronicity without words. A valuable trait when communications were down and without molecules to carry sound.

He began the process of plotting his route through the solar system. It was a quick process, with the navigation systems completing most of the calculations necessary to account for the movement of space objects. The trick would be any floating debris that they may encounter. The Benevolent was equipped with magnetic deflection fields that would assist with protecting against any smaller debris, but for anything of significant size the automated cannon defences would need to be called into action. Human intervention during the deeper stages of space flight would be too slow in coming. Recovery from stasis was not a quick process and disorientation was normal.

Stuart swung himself from his chair and walked into the common area of the ship. It was the one area where all meetings took place, whether for mess, strategy or combat readiness. Their stasis chambers were just below the common area in the medical bay. The Benevolent was mostly a single deck ship; only in the middle was she high enough to allow for a second deck.

“Crew,” he began, waiting for the clamour to settle. “This will be a long one, three months in stasis and then we arrive just outside a hotspot. As you all know the HEC GSOL war is in full force, and why Command is sending us in there I don’t know yet. I am told the instructions will be released to us when we come out of sub-light speed.”

“Another suicide mission?” asked his chief tech, Ed Turner, a man as grizzled and cynical as was ever born into this universe.

“We don’t know that yet, Ed,” answered his chief med tech, Dav Sensler, his thick grey moustache making it look like he delivered his response with a big smile. In truth Dav was constantly smiling. An oddity considering the gloom he had experienced in his life as a doctor on board a military-classed space vessel.

“Any hints as to what is going to be expected of us?” asked the junior med tech, Kim van den Bout. She was still the innocent type, starry-eyed and young.

“No hints, Kim,” chuckled Stuart. “HEC Command isn’t in the habit of giving anything away. All there is to it is for us to stay sharp and expect the unexpected. I’ve set the navi-computer to drop us out of sub-light a week ahead of schedule.”

“A week!” exclaimed Ed, interrupting Stuart.
“Yes, a week. In the scheme of things, Ed, a week is nothing. But it will give us plenty of time to get over our stasis disorientation and be alert to any kind of attack. You might be keen on a tough fight, but I’d sooner not take my chances. Don’t forget, a three month stasis is far longer than any of us usually has to endure.”

Ed nodded in agreement, thinking the details through.

Kim looked up from her fingernail examination, a thought evidently etched across her forehead. “Captain, do you suspect the fighting to be thick around Ganymede? Where are most of the engagements being fought?”

“Hard to tell.” Stuart paused, thinking. “I haven’t been following the reports too closely, but as I understand it most of the fighting is happening in the asteroid belt. HEC and GSOL are vying for the most profitable mining ’roids.”

“So we should be quite far from it all?” she asked again.

“We can’t assume zero danger,” answered Ed for Stuart. “GSOL will always have patrols so near their home, and Ganymede is almost the same size as Mother Earth.”

“OK, enough debating for now. We will be accelerating to sub-light in roughly,” Stuart paused to examine his watch, “forty minutes. We all have our jobs.” He looked over his crew; a number had concerned expressions but had not voiced the not-so- hidden thoughts. Jack Hayward, his Combat Officer, especially looked concerned. “I suggest we get to it,” he finished. With that the room sprang into life, as each of his twenty crew members jumped to their well rehearsed tasks. As Jack stood to walk past him, Stuart grabbed his arm. Jack stiffened noticeably and slowly turned his eyes on Stuart. Not for the first time did Stuart have to suppress a shiver at the icy blue, cold eyes as they bored right through him. The stare was made significantly worse by the always angry red scar that formed a second, tightly pressed set of lips across Jack’s throat.

“Captain?” Jack said the words carefully.

“I’m just as concerned as you are, Jack.”

“Yes, sir, you should be. Benevolent may be fast, but she is lightly armoured and even more lightly weaponed, and she’s not as manoeuvrable as you might think.”

“At the first sign of danger, we get the hell out of there.”

“Sir, may I be frank and speak freely?”

“Why do I think I might regret this? But yes, speak freely.”

“You have history with these Hessr. Will you keep your head clear when it comes down to it?”

“I will, Jack.”

“Just so you know – if you don’t, I won’t hesitate to do what needs doing.”

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