Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 2

A day later the light was blinking noticeably faster, and the screen underneath it ticked over with the results of the sensor's mass spectrometry. A small craft, much smaller than their own, but following a near identical course and at much greater speed. The craft had halved the distance between them. McLean had strewn his lanky frame sideways across the angular pilot's seat, legs flopping over one arm of the chair and his back perched awkwardly against the other. He really was too big to be sitting like this both in size and years, and quite frankly, he thought, it would be more comfortable to just sit up. He did not move, but instead reached across to the old tape player stuck to the edge of the control panel and pressed play. Johnny Cash lilted out of the tinny speaker and McLean shut his eyes. He cared little for this "anomaly" but just wanted to arrive at the Rally Point in peace, and hopefully stay there for a time, in peace. Then he would eventually return home an International Hero, and all would be well.

The faint crackling on the ship's speaker was at first barely audible above The Man In Black's sombre tones. Steadily the signal it grew stronger however and the static became fainter, and as Folsom Prison Blues drew to a close McLean could not deny that they were being hailed.

Laconically he beeped back once - ready and willing to receive a message. Ordinarily, a man sixteen months into a trip with only three others for company would be craving another voice, another companion, or at the very least be desperately curious. McLean was reticent; this would be some kind of unwanted intrusion, invading upon his serenity. Of course it would probably be a Chinese craft, and then the interruption would be short and likely violent. But, accepted McLean, what was to be done about that?

"WSC Long Distance Relationship, Long Distance Relationship, do you read me?" came the faint distorted voice. Not a Chinese voice after all, but a long Texan drawl. McLean's heart actually sank and the gears in his brain started to grind.

"This is she," was the reply. A long pause.

"This is the WSC One Child Policy, approximately two million miles distant," crackled the voice. The ship relayed the encrypted handshake codes and signalled success. The identification checked out.

"I know how far away you are, thank you." Silence. Perhaps they had been expecting someone a little more verbose this far away from home. McLean pondered through the silence, however. What was another Western Space Coalition ship doing out here? These missions didn't just happen without years of planning, billions of dollars. As the silence dragged on and on over the radio waves, McLean furrowed his brow and considered. What the hell were these cowboys doing tearing up space behind him? "Repeat your name and ident please?" he finally muttered, almost to himself.

"Yup this is the WSC
One Child Policy and I'm her Commander, Rusty Bryant." Rusty? Figures.

"And Rusty, what exactly are you doing all the way out here, if you don't mind me asking?" queried McLean. There was a brief pause.

"Well I assumed you knew that Commander McLean," came the measured reply. A ripple of doubt swelled through McLean's thoughts.

"Enlighten me."

"Well we're the test flight for the ion reactor!" exclaimed Bryant suddenly and jubilantly, "They set you off way back when, and then a coupla months back they set us off! We're in a big race!" Yeah, except no-one told this crew we were under starter's orders, thought McLean.

"And what of this race?" he shot back. Ion reactor?

"Well, either way the WSC beats the Chinese - either you get there and we don't get there at all, or we get there faster!"

Oh great, a Texan with a death wish. This would explain how they could be going quite so fast, and appear to still be accelerating. McLean wondered exactly what kind of speeds ship with an ion reactor was capable of reaching. It was a technology he knew a very little about - the theory, at least - but he never thought it would come to fruition during his lifetime, let alone during his trip. His trip! He was supposed
to be the first one to Jupiter, not this disembodied Stetson.

The theory of the ion reactor was simple - Heat up argon or something similar with some science and make an ion beam (The details had always escaped him), heat the beam up to a million degrees or thereabouts and you have an engine that can accelerate forever. Simple. Simple in theory but apparently devilishly hard to make work in practice. But someone somewhere had done it, in secret, and here we are. An impossible engine capable of unbelievable speeds, and McLean had the honour of being the one to be overtaken by it. The peace of his private pilgrimage rudely cut short by a nuclear bomb with a Texan strapped on the front.

"And what's with the name anyway?" McLean was genuinely curious now but he was greeted with static as his only reply. "Hey! The name?" he inquired as he thumbed the Transmit key back and forth. However, slowly the gain died down and the static resolved to a gentle fuzz. He stared at the communicator for a minute or so, willing it to reply, but it steadfastly refused. Eventually he flicked off the speaker and trudged back to his bunk.

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