Up Like a Bird
A fenspace story by Dartz
With input from Foxboy, Rob Kelk and the Fenspace collective.
Twenty people stood at the dockside, bracing themselves against the winter chill. Behind them, the grey bulk of a small (former)Naval patrol vessel sat in the water, menacing in the November twilight.
Former convention director of Athacon, Raymond Garret, was standing with them trying to think of something important to say. Most of these people wouldn’t be coming with him. It wasn’t that they couldn’t… there was plenty of space aboard ship… they just didn’t want to come.
Why wouldn’t someone want to go out into space? Some had found jobs they didn’t want to leave, others still wanted to finish their college educations. One of them was just afraid of flying. They’d helped build the ship, they’d even come along for the test flight a few weeks earlier. They just weren’t going to rest of the way.
A more pertinent question; why did he want to go into space?
He thought on that, running through a hundred justifications for the hundred reasons why what they were doing was a Bad Idea. The final conclusion however was staggeringly simple.
It seemed like a cool thing to do at the time.
But now, faced with the awesome reality of actually going up into space…. It still seemed like a cool thing to do. People chatted, some saying goodbye, others already inserting themselves into their own private science-fiction story, talking up their future achievements.
He couldn't turn back if he wanted to, the fifteen of them who were going had begged and borrowed so much money to get that ship built, they'd be paying off the debt for the rest of their lives if they didn't go.
The ship's lights flickered a little as her generators started up. The engineering team were doing their job. Garret tugged at the high collar of his jacket, a deliberate replica of the one Captain Okita wore aboard the Space Battleship Yamato. Captains were supposed to say inspirational stuff before launch, right?
He tried to think of the words... but nothing seemed right.
“Alright,” he said, “We better get going if we want to make it out of the harbour tonight.”
The realisation seemed to final dawn on those who remained on the dockside that once they left, they probably weren't coming back. They said their goodbyes in a much more sombre tone.
“If any of you change your minds and come up sometime in the future, you'll always be welcome aboard. See you around...”
A few agreed with that, suggesting that they might some day in the future, but truthfully he didn't expect any of them to come...except maybe as a tourist. Some people just couldn't jump ship to a new life... to let go of everything mundane about the world and just go for it. Others had their own projects on the boil.
He was the last one up the gangplank, waving all the way. As his feet met steel deck, he felt a thrill run through him.
This was really it. They were really going.
The engine room was loud, hot, cramped and most of all, loud. A maze of pipework, cabling and leijiite analogue gauges shared space with a number of compressors, generators, power transformers, a god-knows-what and a pair of diesel engines each the size of a good lorry. There was barely enough space for the two men and a women who made up half of the engineering department. Each wore the same orange overalls, already stained with oil. A single shoulder patch identified them as Athacon members and gave their rank.
The auxiliary diesel generators coughed and burred as automatic governors opened the throttles to maximum. Generation had to be matched to demand, otherwise the power frequency would change and screw all sorts of things up. When the load went up, the field current in the generator magnetising circuit was increased to supply more current, which required more torque and power from the engines to keep the RPM's steady. It was like balancing on a tightrope.
That was Orla Tubridy's job, the ship’s Second Engineer according to her rank patch and a professed Planetes fan. Brushing a few strands of short blonde hair off her brow, she smiled as she saw that all was well. Power factor was a bit crap, but the generators were old and a bit worn.
“We're at full load!” she reported.
She had to shout over the machinery.
Chief Engineer Seán McKenna answered with a thumbs-up. He hadn't actually heard what she'd said through his ear defenders, but got the jist of it through a combination of lip-reading and the fact that she wasn't waving madly for his attention.
He was taller, a little on the fat side and harboured alternating dreams of being Scotty on the Enterprise, and building his own full-scale Gundam. In his hands was a hastily generated checklist, with a doodle of an RX-72 on one corner and a quick paper calculation of some impedances beside it.
Next item on the check list.
Sed, who took the name from the Unix command, looked up at him, barely hearing the word, before returning his attention to his panel. A pair of bourdon gauges slowly crept up as a brace of compressors whined under the grate beneath his feet. Big diesel engines needed compressed air to start... a lot of it.
He used the fingers on one hand to signal, Two-Zero-Zero.
The Chief noted this. Next item. Follow the checklist. With the other half of the team up helping the deck team, the workload was doubled. Already, Sed had split off back up to the control room to check the servers. He started priming the fuel lines himself. Working your butt off left no time to think about anything other than how you were going to complete the next item on the checklist.
He'd worry about how he felt about space when he got there. For now, the engines had to be started, and he was five minutes behind schedule.
Susan Mullholland was in what had become known as the break room, an area just beneath the bridge that combined a decently equipped galley, with some tables and chairs, a flat screen television and an old leather couch. They’d both been liberated from someones own home.
Susan was technically the Chief mate,usually called the Deck Boss or just Boss, but had managed to break her leg a few days earlier falling from a gangplank. The cast was still heavy on her leg, and she still winced when she had to move.
Well, it had been her own fault, reading from her ledgers rather than paying attention to where she was going.
She had been the Manga society's treasurer, and had been the one responsible for the Sailor Moon shelf in the ship's animé cabinet. If she'd had her way, the crew would've been wearing proper sailor attire to appease the ship... and not the old con-staff t-shirts with custom shoulder patches that'd eventually been settled on.
Susan took a look out the porthole beside her, at the nighttime lights on New Ross town reflecting off the surface of the river Barrow. A few hundred meters ahead on the opposite bank the Dunbrody sailing ship sat in the water.
An irony. How many people had emigrated from this town in the past, never to return? It was an interesting thought. They'd probably gone to somewhere in America, where one of their descendants had managed become famous by being shot in Texas. Now she was emigrating to space...
I'm going into space. I'm actually going into space. She felt a giddy thrill run through her body. By this time tomorrow, she'd be able to look down on this town from orbit.
Buzzing with anticipation, she found it hard to focus. How was someone supposed to check inventory when they were about to go into orbit and do something so insanely amazing as to have been unthinkable even a few months earlier.
Somehow, she managed. A mundane task, to enable the extraordinary.
Garret interrupted her checking.
“We're good,” she said, “I think.”
“Looks like we loaded everything we paid for. Kearney's accounting is pretty creative, I'll give him that.”
A pause. The 'Captain' of the ship took a deep breath.
“We're really doing it, aren't we?”
He nodded, “Yup,”
It was hard not to be giddy when doing something this... cool. And with every passing moment, it became more real. Way back in May, with an almost empty hulk sitting at a dock, and a worse than empty bank account, it seemed impossible that they'd ever finish. Months of planning and preparation and now there they where.
Ready to go.
The deck team were still calling down to their friends on the dock. Most anything that could be stowed and secured had been, they were just waiting for the order to cast off.
The other half of the engineering team were just getting themselves some cold air for a bit, after the heat of the engine room.
The sky above was clear. Someone's space-station was shining as it streaked overhead, chased by twenty or more little sparks.
There were people living on those spots of light.
Tom 'Touji' Carrol lay back on the cold metal deck, watching them pass over. Tomorrow we'll be joining them.
“MV Ciara, Harbourmaster. If ye want to be goin' tonight ye're best getting underway within the next half hour or the channel may be too shallow...over”
Megan tried to pay attention to the radio, but she was half asleep. A three a.m. departure after nearly two sleepless nights was a killer. She yawned, noting the master's recommendation on her notepad. It was half full already, her writing mixed with a number of doodles of the ship, and something that might've been a tornado.
“Harbourmaster MV Ciara, copy that.” she acknowledged, suppressing a yawn until after she'd completed the transmission.
She ran her hands through her short-cut red hair, fighting back the desire to just nestle down on the panel in front of her. She looked around, out the bridge windows at the town beyond.
“I've been doing this all day,” she groaned. And I'm not even... 'fen'.
“So I bet you don't want to get me a weather report for...uh..Mizzen Head then?”
She glared at the ship's pilot/helmsman. Sam Crean just smirked playfully back at her, reclining in his chair. A model of a VF-1 shared space with a ship's compass, some engine readouts and a control yoke with a set of analogue instruments scavenged from an old airliner and added somewhat conspicuously to the panel alongside a pair of radar readouts and a separate terminal for running NAVstar off of a server below decks.
Meg yawned, burying her face in her hands. “Ask me when I'm awake,”
Needing something to keep her awake after she'd finished her inventories, Susan decided she'd cook an unofficial last meal on Earth for the crew.
Captain Garret, still a little uncomfortable with the title forced upon him by the humours of the ship, pulled open the airtight hatch that led down to the engine room.
A blast of heat rushed out to meet him followed by a wall of mechanical noise that threatened to knock him off his feet. Reflexively, he stuck his fingers in his ears to try block out some of it at least.
Descending down the gangway, he passed Sed who was heading in the opposite direction towards the server room. Sed gave him a quick thumbs-up before heading onward. He barely heard the hatch slam shut behind him.
Nobody heard him enter the engine room proper. He tried to whistle for attention but couldn't even hear himself above the noise. Orla noticed him first, slapping McKenna on the shoulder and pointing towards the hatch.
McKenna gave a thumbs up, knowing he wouldn't be heard right. The Captain beckoned him over.
“We're alright!” he yelled despite standing barely three feet from Garret. “Engine's ready to go!”
“Then Start 'em!” Garret ordered.
“What?” Seán raised one of his defenders
“Start the engines!”
“Yeah, they're ready Ray..uh..Captain, want me to start them?”
In truth, he'd heard it right, and just wanted to play that old clichéd joke. Ray laughed halfheartedly.
“We're underway in ten minutes, can you be ready?”
“Sure, Just give me ten more minutes,”
Okay, that was getting a bit old. Placing his hands in his pockets, he looked around at the machinery. Waved tech was painted white, hardtech painted the original green. It was, he estimated, roughly a fifty-fifty mix. If he went aft through a second hatch, into the gearbox and transmission room, it would be all-white, just about everything back there had been replaced.
“Grand so, Keep at it man,.” he didn’t rise to it.
“They’re up on the deck!”
Now that one had been misheard. They should never have stripped out the original control room and used it for storage. Ah well, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Right, right. ”
“Lazy arses!” the engineer laughed. With a laugh and a quick encouragement, the Captain left for the bridge, in a hurry himself. Only a few minutes now.
Seán just returned to his work. Okay so, starting the engines? They'd done this before. First thing's first, fuel lines primed? Yes, he did that himself. Starter air pressure. Fuel line pressure. Fuel pump flow rate. Exhaust baffles. Oil pumps. Coolant pumps. The engine might've been handwaved a little, but it was still essentially the same diesel motor. Was the gearbox declutched? Lurching forward into the dockside would be bad. Embarrassing in a car, potentially lethal on a ship if she was holed in the wrong place.
This was for real this time. No engine start, no going to space tonight. And probably no going to Space ever after that letter he wrote to his parents. Oh well...
He ran through the checklist with Orla, the pair of them scrambling over the machinery to get things set right, then check that they were set right. The generators burred lightly, relieved of some small burden as the compressors shut down.
Alright. Hand on the lever to open the valve to the starter engine. Here goes nothing. He glanced to Orla. Thumbs up was the response. All ready for number one.
The valve stuck for a moment, before finally opening. A couple of hundred atmospheres raced each other through reinforced pipework, pushing through the turbines of the starter before exhausting themselves to a freezing freedom up the funnel.
The starter turbines wailed up to speed, pulling over the engine's crankshaft. One single piston coughed, attempting to fire, followed by another, then another. A thumping rhythm shook the deck as the engine slowly cranked, injectors chattering and spitting pressurised oil into the cylinders.
One cylinder fired, a shudder running through the ship’s structure as a saucer-sized piston was rammed down it's barrel by the detonating diesel oil.
Two more. The pair of them started to believe that yes, the engine was going to start.
Bok! Bok! Bokka bok!
The turbocharger whistled, partially spun up by the irregular firing. The engine shuddered a second time as four more cylinders decided to join their friends. With the air supply cut off, the engine was running on it's own now, barely. Another cylinder coughed and came to life, followed by another, then another building momentum. With a roar from the turbochargers and a clatter of exhaust, the sleeping dinosaur came to life, belching a puffball of black smoke
“It’s alive... It’s ALIVE,” Seán cackled like a mad scientist. The machine shuddered and roared, straining against its mounts.
Orla joined in, though neither of themselves could hear themselves, let alone each other. They were ecstatic, laughing with joy as the second engine slowly spooled itself up. The roar of the engines shook them both inside, vibrations rattling their bones. The ship was truly coming to life around them.
They both finally had time to understand that yes... this was it. With both engines running, they really where on their way.
The ship's executive officer and former Manga society chairperson slept in her cabin, a spread of papers on her desk beneath her. Safety inspections, safety certifications and a hundred other forms required by the Irish Government, the harbourmaster and the local Coast Guard office. All just to leave the dock and sail a few hundred miles off coast.
It'd save us a lot of fuss if we get boarded by the Navy, she had told herself. Even though they'd only be in territorial waters for about an hour or so, it was still better safe than sorry. At her feet under the desk was a safe, containing cans of the handwavium strains used to build the ship. Only herself and the captain had the keys to it.
Between the papers was a Serenity DvD, and a laptop whose screen was frozen on the ending credits of Azumanga Daioh.
The shudder of the engine's starting woke the XO from her sleep. Anne 'CutieKitty' Devlin blinked a little, taking a few seconds to understand why she'd been face down in government forms and stray strands of black hair.
“Crap,” she murmured.
Still half asleep, she sat up... only for the top of her skull to meet the bottom of her bunk.
Rubbing at the back of her head, she wondered why the cabins had to be so damned small. There was enough space for a too-short bunk with some small storage space beneath a folding mattress, a desk under the bunk, a pair fluorescent lights, a mirror, a foldaway sink and not much else.
It was a luxury cabin, compared to some. Luck of the draw rather than because of her position. Others had to share in similar space. One thing was for sure, the fresh paint smell wasn't going to last.
It took her a few more moments to catch onto the fact that the vibrations running up through the deck where the engines.
Groggily, she rubbed at her eyes. She barely heard the knock on the door.
“Come in,” she slurred
She heard the hatch open. “We're getting underway.”
She looked up at Ray through bleary eyes
“Right, right Ra... uh.. Captain.” she said, “Everything's in order... I think I finished it before I conked out,”
“You didn't have to do all that y'know?”
“Yeah... but it's done now. We've done so much work to get to here.”
“We have,” the Captain chuckled. “And we're going tonight,”
Pulling herself out from under the bunk, she jumped to her feet wakening immediately.. “We really are, aren't we?” Deep breath. She looked around her cabin at all the paperwork she'd finished. How many months of work, now coming to an end. “Well, let's get going!”
She was grinning.
Both of them headed to the bridge. I...I
Patrick Kearney, former CEO of National Allied Banks, slept in his cabin. He'd bought his way into the project after finding out about it via a phone call from no-one who suggested it might be a good idea that he give these people enough money to build their ship so they could take him with them.
Well, he'd been looking for a way to escape the inevitable inquiry into the collapse of the Irish banking system. National jurisdictions stopped when space started.
As ship's purser, or self-styled Chief Financial Officer, he'd made sure that people who needed to get paid got paid. Somehow it had all worked out. Even if NAB would have a few more thousand Euro's to explain away to the inquiry board.
He slept because he was nearing sixty, and had spent most of they day calling around creditors, debtors and the financial regulator.
“Captain on bridge!”
Meg still felt awkward doing it. It just plain seemed stupid to snap and salute when Ray entered the bridge, especially since none of the other decks seemed to have to do it. But the ship demanded protocols like that. Otherwise stuff broke.
Why did they have to put the goo in the paint? The weird things didn't start until after they painted the hull with that stuff. And yes it was awkward as hell to salute your fiancé.
Garret glanced around. They weren't the only ones feeling a bit awkward about this. Con-director was one thing but Captain?
“Right... at ease,”
He heard Sam mutter his thanks to God under his breath. Good... best that it's just kept as some act and they don't start actually seeing him as Captain. They were his friends for God's sake.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
In animé this was usually the time for the Captain to give his profound speech, setting out the goals for the mission, the dire consequences for home if they failed, how evil the enemy were and how if they all banded together with guts and effort and honour they would make it through for heroic great justice. They weren't going to space to fight a war.... despite taking what was technically a warship with them.
“Yup,” someone answered him.
His mouth had gone dry.
It was so hard not to start laughing with the thrill of it. He sat in the Captain's chair.. off to the side of the bridge with it's own radar screen and radio set, smiling at his fiancé.
Anne was already outside on the deck, yelling down to the deck crew to cast off, while a smell of rashers, fried egg and toast started to waft up from the break room.
Deckhand and Gunner, Paul Coughlan, didn't need to be told twice. With a bit of help from Tom, he pulled the bow lines aboard.
“Goodbye!” someone called up from the dockside. “Good luck!”
“See ya later!” he answered back with a wave.
It was like the start of Titanic, though on a smaller scale and hopefully without the disaster at the end. Liz, the ship’s doctor by virtue of having once been a second year nursing student, was busy behind him swearing at a windlass which refused to release her shirt-sleeve.
A judder ran through the deck as the engine's revved up. The pilot was tweaking the throttle a little.
“Clear!” he raised his hand, signaling to the bridge.
“Clear!” was the signal from the stern.
“Clear!” from midships.
“All Mooring's clear,” The XO reported from outside..
Captain Garret took a deep breath. Again, everyone was looking right at him.
“Take us out,” he ordered.
In the engine room, Tubridy and McKenna shared a smile as they felt the ship's clutches engage, sending power to the Wave motion drives. The two big diesels revved up hard, gear pumps and turbochargers whining.
The ship began to move.
Kearney snored in his cabin, oblivious.
Susan grinned, hanging on to the pan as the ship began to heel over, pushed hard to turn inside her own length.
The bow came around slowly, Sam being as gentle as possible with the thrusters. A bit more throttle and she'd whip around and probably ground herself on the far bank. Doing that for a second time wouldn't only be embarrassing, it'd be painfully anti-climactic after a long day’s build up.
Easing up gently, he straightened the helm, pointing the bow of the ship due south along the river Barrow. The lights of a few houses speckled the valley ahead, lit otherwise only by the light of a half-moon.
Kandor city was a spot of fire illuminating the darkened half, other moon-cities like sparks thrown off it. A few fenmade space stations scooted across the sky, some brighter than others. Looking up to space, was like looking into a neighbours party across the street. All the fun was waiting for you there, you just had to go for it.
Most of the world seemed to be just pulling the curtains, or yelling across the street at them to keep the noise down.
“Harbourmaster, MV Ciara. We’re underway safely. Thank you for your time.”
Meg was certain her smile was carrying across the radio.
“Ciara Harbourmaster. Farewell and godspeed,”
If only he know where they were really going, he’d probably have called the cops on them.
It was time to join the party.
The video footage appeared on the Internet the next morning, coupled with the opening theme of Space Battleship Yamato because the cameraman had carelessly covered the camera’s mic with his own hand. The video showed the grey patrol vessel turning out of dock, heeling over as the rushing tide pushed against her hull. The Irish tricolour fluttered high on her mast, above the Athacon banner.
The camera zoomed in on the number painted on the ship’s hull. ‘P42’, her former naval registration, then up to the cartoon of the Road Runner on the funnel. The blue-feathered bird was smiling, looking forward to the greatest run of its life.
Two blasts from the horn bade goodbye to the town, still loud and clear despite the bad camerawork and the added soundtrack. They sounded strangely like an over-amplified ‘Meep-Meep’ from the old Road Runner cartoons. A few stray mutts gathering at the dockside. The horn always did that, according to the video’s description.
The camera pulled out again, before aiming next for the ships cannon, mounted in a turret on her bow. Still active thanks to a clerical error before she’d been sold; it was capable of being fired. However, guns were just lumps of machinery without ammunition. The Ciara was carrying none.
The camera remained still as the ship moved on, running down her length before stopping at the two Jaguar speedboats mounted under a pair of cranes on her stern. They looked standard enough, though the top half was hidden under a tarpaulin. The only obvious external difference was the replacement of two propellers with what looked like jet-engine nozzles. They were the only visual clue to anyone that the Ciara had been modified… otherwise she looked much as she had when in service.
The final close-up was of a crewmember in his blue Athacon t-shirt coiling a rope on deck before tying it off. He waved his goodbye to the people on the dock before disappearing into a hatch, closing it behind him.
Unlike some of the more spectacular videos of fen departing, the Ciara didn’t immediately start to lift from the water, or start glowing underneath, or spin around or do anything else remarkable. There were no cops taking pot-shots at her, or zoomies swooping low and launching missiles. She just departed from the quay much as any other ship might, sailing away south out to sea at the head of a white wake.
It was completely and utterly undramatic, save for the mildly inappropriate soundtrack.
When the Ciara had slipped out of sight, the camera panned upward towards the sky for a few moments, catching a view of a low flying airliner and….the video ended.
It cut in again about half an hour later according to the timestamp, this time at the tip of Hook Head, beneath the old lighthouse there. The cameraman had driven from New Ross, to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula, trying to get there ahead of the ship. It was a hell of a drive over pretty dangerous roads to make in half an hour.
It was only himself this time, scanning the sea beyond for any sign of the Ciara.
With her running lights still ablaze, she was hard to miss, even though her shape could barely be made out. It was a poor camera, operating at the extremes of its ability. The ship was gliding through the water with the apparent serenity of a swan. There was no soundtrack this time but that of the wind.
The cameraman watched her steam on out to sea for a good ten minutes, until she was nothing more than a bright spot in his viewfinder, before he turned the camera off for the last time.
The sun was up and shining through the portholes into the break room. Some dishes were piled up in the sink, nobody quite willing to clean them yet. Through that waved glass was a clear, crisp November morning, a light swell rolling along the grey sea.
The Ciara rose slightly, cresting one swell before dipping her bow into the trough. Not a big movement, but noticeable to anyone new to the sea. The horizon rose and fell to its own rhythm, the gentle rolling of the ship slowly rocking John McKenna to sleep.
On the couch in the break room. He’d been so tired, he didn’t even make it to his cabin.
Anne was awake on the bridge, Tom in the engine room, and that was about it. Just about everyone had decided to nab a few hours kip before the big jump up to space. The early morning departure had seemed like a good idea at the time...
For her own part, the Ciara diligently steamed on under her auto-pilot, cruising slowly South. Anne stepped off of the bridge for a moment with a pair of binoculars, looking back at the thin green strip of land that was home.
A few moments later, and it had dipped below the horizon. There was only grey sea, and the pale blue sky above.
“Farewell,” she said.
Then cursed herself for being so melodramatic. She stepped back inside for a moment, checking over radar plots and a few of the gauges. Nothing was redlining, compass heading was where it should be. The computer running the radar was tracking a few fishing boats, an airliner, and something that seemed to be making a beeline right for them.
It was low enough, and travelling at almost two hundred Kph.
She stepped outside one more, aiming her binoculars landward, scanning the sky. When she spotted it, she swore.
A blue, twin-engined turboprop.
At first, he thought it might’ve been the engines he was feeling, buzzing against his hip, stirring him from his slumber. It went away for a second. He nodded back off. It came back, buzzing at his leg like an angry bee.
Seán figured out what it was.
Dammit. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone… somehow by the grace of God and probable handwavium contamination, it had gotten a signal miles offshore.
“Hello,” he slurred, have asleep
The conversation, as heard by the rest of the ship was something like.
“I’m on the ship.”
“Look, we’re going mam, we’re already on our way.”
Pointing out the flaw in the logic.
“It gets good signal offshore”
Another question… one he’d heard many times.
“Because I’d never get a goddamned job back home anyway, nobody’s hiring,”
“Yeah… I know how dangerous... No I didn’t contaminate myself and turn into a freak.”
A smug revelation
“You did WHAT?!”
It was also about that time that Susan started laughing at him.
“Mama’s boy,” she giggled.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said, sinking down into his boots. “Mam found the note I left. She called the Guards,”
“You left a note?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Didn’t feel right leaving them with nothing,”
Susan was opened her mouth to say something. Whatever it was, was forgotten the moment the emergency alarm sounded. It took them a few moments to remember what the klaxon alarm actually meant… it’d been installed for a laugh originally. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I...I
It took ten minutes or more for everyone to get themselves awake, understand what the alarm was, understand that it was a real alarm and not someone mucking around - the XO shouting over the intercom for them to actually move because some Air Corps plane was circling overhead helped with that - and get themselves to what was supposed to be their stations.
They weren’t military people. They just put on a few of the military tropes because it stopped the boat from breaking down.
“What is it?”
Garret rubbed his eyes as he looked over the bridge… his bridge. People were there in body only, their minds were still somewhere between dreams of orbital space, and the real world.
“Air Corps plane,” said Anne. “He’s been circling us for ten minutes now,”
So that’s what that droning sound was, he’d thought it was his head playing tricks on him. He took a quick glance outside, watching it circle at a safe distance; nearly a kilometre at a guess. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that they knew what was going on. How they’d found out was anybody’s guess… but they had.
If the plane was there, chances where the Naval service wasn’t far behind. Kandorcon may have made things easier, but several hundred tons of wavium-modified ship was still a big prison sentence if they didn’t get into orbit right now. Captain Garret was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one to come to that conclusion. The tension level on the bridge had just jumped up a couple of notched.
And so, performing a Picard manoeuvre on his jacket, he made his first true commanders’ decision. He took a microphone in his hands, switching the circuit over to the ship’s intercom. Everyone was going to hear this.
“This is the Captain,” and he sounded oddly like Admiral Adama, “We’re being circled by an Air Corps patrol aircraft. It’s obvious they know we are carrying ‘wavium aboard. We must assume that they have reported our position and that the navy is coming for us. Therefore…”
He smirked. This was kind of fun
“… the order is, rig the ship for takeoff. Secure all outside hatches and openings. Switch to internal life-support. Bring the Wave Motion engines online, we’re going to orbit.”
The next order was to the bridge.
“Bring us about, heading due East. Increase speed to flank. As fast as we can go,”
That felt kind of… good. The pilot pushed the throttles hard forward, feeling a thrill as the engines ramped up to full power. The ship heeled over again as she turned, pushed by her own thrusters until seawater started to lap up against the deck.
The dishes stacked in the sink in the break room crashed to the deck.
Touji chased a can of oil rolling along the deck until he ran straight into something that had once been a gearbox, and was now part of the handwaved wave motion engine that took power from the main engine. Steadying himself, he pulled himself to his feet, putting his hand on a hot exhaust conduit that joined with the main thruster assembly.
With a yelp of pain, he jumped back, landing on his ass, on the solid steel deck. He started to feel a strange prickle on his skin as the drives around him began to charge, a low hum resonating in the pit of his stomach. He could feel the power around him, like standing inside an electric field.
Sam straightened the ship up, heading directly east. The Ciara accelerated far more rapidly than anything weighing seven hundred tonnes had a right to even with the help of some 'wavium in the engines. Her prow rose out of the water as she was pushed forward through the ocean by nearly thirty thousand horsepower. Each swell sent a shock through the hull, bursting across her bow into white foam.
“That’s as fast as we go,” Sam reported, checking the GPS readout. “Wave motion engines will take five minutes to charge for take off,”
“I think we got their attention,” said Meg, focusing on her headset, “They’re on the radio. They’re asking us to state our intentions,”
“Tell them the truth. It won’t cost us anything. ”
Megan paled a little, then shrugged, opening a channel. “Irish 253 this is Space Ship Ciara. We are...uh... we’re trying to take off, over. “
Silence, while the crew waited for a response. The twin-engined fisheries protection aircraft banked low overhead, heading out away for a few moments before turning back. It almost seemed to be thinking…
“Space Ship Ciara, Irish 253. We copy. We will remain on station to monitor and render assistance as necessary. May the Force be with you…”
The aircraft passed low again, rocking its wings as a greeting. The crew on the bridge just looked at each other, stunned at such a… reasonable response. They’d been expecting the aircraft to try fire at them with a machine gun or do something ‘danish.
The pilot must be a Warsie.
An electronic chime announced the charge on the drive, as the ship’s crew rushed to get ready. Hatches were sealed and double checked. Exhaust valves were slammed shut. A hiss and a slight pressure in the sinuses announced the startup of the ship’s own life support.
“Support is internal. Pressure is holding,” the XO read from her monitor. “Emergency bulkheads are sealed. Drive is at fifty percent and rising.”
“Surface contacts,” the Captain read from the script he’d written for himself.
“Two small…somethings… about twenty kilometres out.” Answered his fiancé.
“Nothing but our friend circling above,”
He sat down on his chair, staring out at the sea ahead.
Sam checked his gauges. “I’m at eighty-five percent here. Another minute and we’re good,”
Garret could feel himself shaking. He smiled at his fiancée for a moment before checking over his own radar displays, then a weather report that he’d printed out.
“All stations report ready for take-off,”
He turned to Anne and nodded. Right…. Only a few more seconds. In the engine room, McKenna grinned as he braced himself against the aft bulkhead. Tubridy gripped her console tightly. Sed strapped himself in in the server room.
They could all hear the building hum deep within the ships hull, building into an ominous whine as physics-violating energies spooled up within the drive turbines. Seawater started to boil and cavitate off the blades, sounding like someone was banging on the inside of the prefire chambers with a sledgehammer as the cavitations imploded with the building pressure.
Engines at ninety percent. In the engine room, Seán checked the gauges one last time before disabling the speed governors on both diesels. Freed from restraint, both engines howled beyond their redlines and kept accelerating. The sound shook him to the core, his body feeling like it was trapped inside a jet engine. Exhaust manifolds began to glow a cherry-red with the heat of uncontrolled detonations. A few moments of this would’ve destroyed an unmodified engine, but the waved engines could take it.
They almost felt glad to be free to run as hard as they could. Like race-horses, they loved to gallop.
“WMD Charge: 100” read the display in front of him. Oil pressure gauges and engine temperatures were off-scale high, but nothing was blowing. No smell of burning gasket, or leaking engine oil. Even the oil itself had been ‘waved a little.
Brilliant. Time to go. He felt a static charge run through his body as he sent a text message to the bridge.
::WMD 100. All green.
On the bridge, pilot Sam read it aloud. “Wave Motion Drive at one hundred percent.” He gripped on tight to the throttles, ready for the command.
Captain Garret took one last look around, then gave the order he’d been building up to for six months.
“Right then. Up Ship!”
“Aye Captain!” Sam whooped, pushing the throttles wide open.
The wave motion engines roared like caged dinosaurs, a column of spray ten stories high erupting from beneath the ship, taking the circling plane by surprise. The Ciara leapt forward, lunging up out of the water as he pulled back on the yoke. The grey horizon dipped below the prow until there was only blue sky and white clouds in front.
Acceleration forces pushed everyone back into their chairs, or against whatever bulkhead they were using to brace themselves. The ship’s thrusters boiled a trench in the water beneath her.
Watching from his seat on the circling patrol plane, the Air Corp’s pilot saw all seven hundred tons of the SS Ciara take off at a near forty-five degree angle, riding a column of boiling spray and glowing superheated gas blowing from what seemed to be two large jet engines where her propellers should’ve been. He punched the throttles of his turboprop, trying to keep up with the accelerating ship.
Susan watched aghast out a porthole as the ocean seemed to fall away from beneath her, before catching sight of the chasing aircraft being slowly left behind.
“That’s a thousand feet,” the pilot announced, “Speed. Two hundred kilometres per hour and climbing, Stabiliser wings are extending”. He was trying hard not to laugh with the joy of it.
From just above the waterline, a pair of delta wings, each running for near half the length of the ship and almost twice as wide as she was again, extended. They didn’t provide much lift, but they helped steer and stabilise the ship better than thrust vectoring alone.
Still climbing, the Ciara punched a hole through the clouds, until nothing but blue sky and the infinity of space was above them. For a few brief moments, their homeland appeared above the horizon, a lucky combination of altitude and distance coming together to make it visible as a thin line of green in the distance.
It lingered for a few moments, before dipping below the horizon. The patrol plane gave up a few seconds later. At the limit of it’s range and altitude, it turned back for home.
Ciara kept climbing, accelerating all the time.
Garret stared ahead out of the windows, and started to mutter to himself.
“Saraba chikyuu yo aisuru hito yo”
A strange silence had taken hold throughout the ship… determined but somehow melancholy. Up until the moment they’d taken off, there was still a slim possibility that they could’ve turned around and gone back home.
But now, they were in it for the long haul.
It might well be years before any of them saw their families again… If ever. A hundred thousand feet above the coast of France was a hell of a place to realise this.
Garret was certain that nobody on that ship wanted to turn back. They were going to space…
Ciara continued to climb, finally breaking the sound barrier at two hundred thousand feet. Already above over ninety percent of Earth’s atmosphere, they were still less than a third of the way to space.
Sam called out their altitude and speed, both numbers going up with each iteration. The rarefied air whistled through the ship’s structure. The tricolour still managed to flutter from the mast. Higher and higher, the sky outside started to darken into an odd twilight.
The sun still shone bright and hot above them, even as the sky turned pitch black. Beneath, central Germany was passing, mottled green and grey with white flecks of cloud casting dark shadows on the land beneath.
It was a staggeringly beautiful sight.
A God’s eye view.
The roar of the engines dropped slightly as they throttled back to a cruise. The aim was to get to orbit, not all the way up out into the wild black yonder. McKenna gave a sigh of relief as the values on his gauges came back to within normal levels, engine governors re-engaging themselves.
He figured they must’ve made it after nearly a half hour at full throttle. He clambered up the gangway, making his way up to the break room. The passageways were cramped, narrow and lined with cardboard boxes tied down against handrails.
He pulled himself passed Keith Kennedy cleaning up the mess on the floor under Susan’s loving direction. He was the new guy who’d joined the Manga society after they’d started their project. Most people just called him ‘newbie’ .
He sat himself down, and watched the planet below him. He could see all of Central Asia, as far west as Kazakhistan, as far east as Japan. In front of him, Tibet and western China, below Nepal and India. White clouds streaked across the surface racing underneath the ship mixing with grey clouds of smoke and smog boiling up from factories in central China.
The sun glinted off every single water way, slashed of dark lightning running across the earth below. Japan passed by a few minutes later followed by the wide blue pacific. He looked down on the oceans feeling almost God like. He stared down the throat of a vast white typhoon.
“Oh wow,” he breathed… utterly awestruck.
Everything had been worth it, just for those twenty minutes.
“This is the Captain,” Ray’s voice came over the tannoy, “It’s my pleasure to announce that we have passed the Kármán line. We are officially in Space,”
Seán could hear the cheers… but he just smiled himself. Space… real Neil Armstrong Yuri Gagarin space. Star Trek, Planetes, Gundam space. And nothing between him and it other than a waved glass window.
“Oh wow,” he repeated.
The sun set just past Hawaii, the Pacific ocean far below turning a deep-hued purple, lit only by the moonlight reflecting from the odd cloud. In the distance, a few fenships twinkled, flitting between stations. A big one - he figured it might’ve been Stellvia, but couldn’t be too sure - caught his eye for a moment before it disappeared below the horizon.
The West Coast of the United States came up, the coast of California burning hot with artificial light. Seán thought the could trace out the road network below, ephemeral spiders-webs of light reaching between little bright beads all across the surface.
Anne Devlin watched the sun rise over the East coast, bursting bright like an atomic bomb over the horizon.
“It was worth it all to see this,” she spoke her thoughts.
“Totally,” was Sam’s response.
After Washington, was more ocean, half veiled by cloud and sparkling in the sun. The North Atlantic rushed by, Greenland then Iceland passing just within view.
Ray watched Ireland flash past beneath, followed shortly thereafter by continental Europe. Two hours it had taken them, to go around the world. Six if you counted the time taken to depart New Ross.
Sam put his feet up on the console in front of him, “Alright, that’s our orbit. We’re four hundred kilometres up according to NAVstar. I’ve brought the engines to idle. We’re here,” Silence. “Now what?” he questioned.
It was then that the entire bridge crew realised that despite all the effort taken to actually get up to orbital space, nobody had actually taken time to consider what to do when they’d gotten there. They’d focused so much on what they need to do to launch the thing… they didn’t know what to do afterwards.
“Um…” Megan interrupted the silence, “I think somebody’s trying to radio us… unless there’s someone from Denmark who also has a ship up here, it’s got to be for us.”
“Well,” Garret swallowed. “Who is it?”
Maybe they could suggest somewhere to park up.
Patrick Kearney never realised he’d slept through the entire launch. He woke up, still feeling the ship pitch and roll slightly - as it had the last time he’d been at sea - and glanced out the porthole. Something moving had caught his groggy eye. When understanding dawned on him…he swore blind.
Hanging in space, about fifty metres away, was what looked to be a Monaco yacht, white paint gleaming in sunlight. With no atmosphere to scatter the light, shadows were jet black, causing a contrast that was painful to the human eye.
Not for the last time, he wondered if he shouldn’t have just faced the tribunal.
“‘Navy ship, Navy ship, this is Captain Corcoran of the S.S, Pinafore, come back please,”
An almost-English accent came through the overhead speakers, distorted by the crackle of cosmic radiation, even over such a short distance.
“They think we’re military,” Meg said, “I’m getting a lot of chatter on CB and VHF bands. People are wondering who we are. They can see the guns.”
“Should’ve taken them off,” the captain burred to himself. It was an accident of bureaucracy that they’d even been fitted in the first place, and a pain in the arse to rebuild all the control systems around that main cannon, but at the time it had actually seemed like the easier option. “Alright, I’ll take this,”
He picked up his own mic.
“This is Captain Raymond Garret of the Space Ship Ciara. Um...”, he felt like a bit of an idiot, “...we’re not military. We just happened to buy an old Navy ship that likes to think she’s still a Navy ship,”
“Ah... I see.” The voice in the speaker almost sounded disappointed. “ Salutations, Captain Garret. Please allow me to have the pleasure of being the first to welcome you and your fine crew to Fenspace, sir. ”
He was definitely trying to sound something like a quintessentially polite British gentleman.
“We appreciate the welcome, we’re still trying to find our feet up here and figure out where to go,” he took a look at the tired faces on the bridge, “Maybe somewhere we could rest for a while. You wouldn’t happen to know a good place to park up?”
A short pause.
“Might I suggest you try Stellvia, if you need anything with speed. It’s the busiest open station in orbit and first port of call for many new to space. You can trade for food or air, anything you might possibly need.” Would they have few thousand litres of diesel? One way to find out. “Or if you are of a more adventurous spirit, you might try head out to The Island, more of a ‘Mall of Fenspace’. It’s a bit more of a journey, but it’s quite close this time of year.”
“Copy, Thanks for the suggestion Captain.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, Captain Garret, pray tell me how you came into possession of a Navy ship, and an armed Navy ship at that? You have quite a few people puzzled and more than a little wary. Most fen aren’t so conspicuously armed.”
“She was for sale,” Ray answered with the truth “, and was the biggest ship we could find at the time. I guess we should’ve shopped around a bit.”
A few people aboard the Pinafore seemed to be waving to them... including an elderly couple pressed up against the windows and pointing. Yeah Bar’, I served on a corvette just like that one in dubya dubya two.
“Well, she gets me where I need to go.” Corcoran demurred to English modesty, “Oh, and might I suggest you seek out Helscher’s Guide to Fenspace. It has some useful advice for new arrivals. I do believe it is entitled ‘So you wish to come to Fenspace.” It is worth a gander.”
“Thanks again,” he seemed to be always saying thanks, but he was under no illusions. He was the newbie in this forum. “We’ll look for it,”
Helscher... he was the one who suggested they wave the hull, if he recalled correctly.
“Cheerio Ciara, Pinafore out”
The radio crackled with static. A few more distant voices somewhere out in the black were having a conversation about pressurisation regimes and what somebody did with somebody else’s tail...., mixed with a docking at some small station, a navigation update and a charter boat announcement. Someone else was panicking about the danish military invading, while another was serenading the airwaves with a rehash of ‘Banned from Argo’.
The white ship flared it’s thrusters, banking away slowly for a moment, before rushing off into the black beyond.
“We should’ve bought a bigger boat,” commented Anne.
After thirty seconds, the Pinafore was little more than another spark in the distance. Okay, next command decision from Captain Garret.
“Meg, try hail the Stellvia. See if we can dock and refuel,” he suppressed a yawn, “And maybe get some rest for the night,”
She nodded. “Don’t bury yourself in the part,” she murmured under her breath.
Sam glanced nervously around... unsure if he’d actually be able to dock the ship. He’d never done it before. He decided to keep that fear to himself. Everyone else seemed to figure it out.
“One more thing,” the Captain continued, “We need to figure out what we need, and what we can spare for trade,”
“Stellvia, Stellvia,” Meg broadcast, “This is the S.S. Ciara, over.
“S.S. Ciara, Stellvia Control send over” the station responded surprisingly quickly, in a woman’s voice.
Stellvia loomed large outside the break-room porthole... One orange ring seemingly made out of space-shuttle tanks, with what looked like spokes projecting out from underneath it. Attached to the spokes were at least five different kinds of fenship. A modified Scania truck, A DC3, something that might once have been a trawler, a Space Shuttle and, of all things, Concorde.
“Well,” Engineer McKenna flipped through his notes, “To get up to orbit, we used about twenty five percent of our fuel reserves, or about seventy-five-hundred litres. Of that our generators are burning thirty litres an hour, accounting for two-ten litres. During initial climb, at full throttle, main engines were burning around nine thousand litres an hour”... a gasp from the others present, “which is more than our dockside tests predicted. This dropped to about three hundred litres an hour at cruising power,”
“That’s a big difference,” Anne remarked.
“Yeah, fuel consumption increases exponentially compared to power increase. And we’re still burning fuel with our engines at a powered idle to maintain our orbit. Something’s dragging on the hull.”
The same something that was causing the ship to pitch and roll like she was still floating on the water. Another handwavium quirk, he’d figured.
“Stellvia says they have eight thousand litres of diesel oil available,” said Meg, sitting at the table with her notes of the radio conversation, “Sed mailed them a spreadsheet of our inventory, and they sent back a quote for the diesel and eight hours docking time,”
She handed a copy to Sam, Ray, Seán, Anne, Susan and Patrick Kearney. The banker did some quick mental arithmetic.
“Even after the fuel used to get up and down, it’d be cheaper for us to land and refuel. With the credit they give us for our food supplies, even if we sold everything, we’d still come up short.”
Meg flipped over to the next page. “They also inquired about our ability to take cargo, and what our passenger capability is. And”... she shuddered... “They gave us a quote for ammunition for the main gun, and the two machine guns,”
The Captain blinked... wow. Somebody was watching them. The big cannon was obvious, but the Rheinmetall’s were hard to spot unless you looked really close.
“We have seven spare berths right now,” said Susan, working off the top of her head, “With a bit of rearranging, we might be able to get ten. It won’t be the Pinafore, but they’ll have a bunk. Cargo’ll be whatever we can store on deck if they don’t mind it being in space.”
“Any supplies we can sell?” questioned the Captain.
“They’re giving good rates for our fresh stuff and the Guinness, especially the meat, less so for the tinned and dried stuff. We brought about two months worth of food, I wouldn’t have a problem with parting with half of that, more would make me a little uncomfortable.”
Kearney raised his pen, “If I might say something. I’ve compared the cost to us to buy on the surface, and what they’re paying. If we refuel on the surface, we should be able to run at a profit. We could build up a cash reserve that’d let us have more freedom.”
“Good suggestion,” Ray nodded, “But we’re not thinking long term right now, just the next couple of days or so until we get our bearings,”
“We can’t go home,” stated Anne, harshly. “Sed picked up an RTE news story off the web. Were wanted under Section Eight of the Trafficking in Illicit Substances act. That’s a ten year prison sentence, and you know they’ll do it.”
A short silence.
“Well, we knew that’d happen,” sighed Susan.
The engineer shuffled nervously, pulling back from the table.
Sam spoke up next, “I’ve been running a few tests myself, something’s dragging on us alright. The upside is, it makes the ship handle like she’s still at sea, so docking shouldn’t be too hard.” Famous last words. “The downside is, we have to burn fuel to maintain speed. If we’re going to take on passengers, can we take a charter to somewhere a distance away... we need time to test our engines. I don’t know our top speed yet or fuel range, which confuses NAVstar no end.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Seán chimed in, “We need to get a benchmark for our fuel range,it looks like it’ll be a serious problem,”
“Stellvia did ask us about our cruising speed.” said Meg.
“What was that Island place the Pinafore mentioned?” asked Anne, “Are we focusing too much on Stellvia?”
“You sure we can make it that far with our fuel?” questioned Susan.
“We’re about the same size as that blogger’s ship... uh, Inconvenient Truths I think.” McKenna said, “If we can match her cruising speed, I’m pretty certain we can do it with full tanks, and probably as we are but... I’d rather set off fully loaded.”
The Captain thought for a second. “Right, that settles it. We get some rest and refuel at Stellvia, We’ll try pick up a charter to The Island, and test our engines on the way. We’ll figure out our future there.”
“You’re the Captain,” Meg smiled...half asleep.
What time was it?
The sun was coming up for the third time that day.
They’d had to wait for the Ad Astra to depart. That meant a couple of hours jogging around the station burning more fuel. Captain Garret wondered if that wasn’t deliberate in some way. It was clear he’d been an Eircell customer.
Well, it also gave time to prepare the stuff they were planning to sell off, negotiate a charter rate that’d get them enough cash to pay their fuel bill and in general get all the little gritty administrative and technical things sorted out.
Susan showed why she was called Boss... she had everything stacked and ready to go as close as possible to the starboard airlock, somehow without blocking the passageways so that nobody could get past
The docking procedure itself was surprising painless. The Stellvians had it down to a fine art, especially handling crews new to space and their own ships. It should’ve been a tense moment, but it was hard to build tension when you were half asleep.
Sam gave one more nudge on the maneuvering thrusters, pushing the ship gently towards the dock. A pair of clamps reached out from the station, engaging with standardised locks on the ship’s own airlock. The design was easily found on the web.
With a thunk and a hiss of pressurising air, the final seal was made. Space ship and space station were joined.
Orla found herself in technical command of the ship, presiding over an empty bridge. How annoying to be the one ordered to stay behind, but the others had work to do. She nestled into the Captain’s chair and put her feet up on the console, listening to the chatter on the Maritime band. A small ship, which reminded of the old Star-Trek shuttles for a moment, drifted alongside. It got surprisingly close, enough for Orla to be wondering if they hadn’t had a problem for a few seconds.
The boxy looking shuttle drifted around, a few vaguely feminine figures taking pictures from inside. Orla waved to them. They were just curious about the newbies, probably. It wasn’t like those guns would ever be used anyway. Who needed to be armed in Fenspace?
She yawned and fell asleep.
Captain Garret had a hell of a time getting the airlock to open. The actuators had jammed, turning it from a simple push-a-button and wait job into a three-people-with-crowbars job.
A rush of cold, dry air entered the compartment, mingling with the ship’s own oily atmosphere. Facing them was a young woman, in what seemed to be a sort of uniform.
“Welcome to Stellvia, the Gateway to the Solar System!” she greeted, “My name is Kelly, and I’ll be helping you unload.”
She was answered by a mildly stunned silence.And staring.
Anne started working her hair through her fingers. Ray caught himself staring. Seán forced himself to stare at a warning label. Touji stuck his foot in it.
“Are those things real?”
The bunnygirl’s ears straightened as she scowled. Newbie’s...
“Yes. And so are the ears and tail.. And it’s impolite to stare at the biomods,”
“Sorry,” Touji muttered, “I’ve never seen a real one before”
“Well, the sooner we get this done,” said Susan, “The sooner we get something to eat and get to sleep,”
Boxes of food to unload. Gallons of fuel to be pumped. Passengers and freight were waiting just aboard the station, ready to be loaded, Stellvian administrators having told them they could get passage to The Island aboard the Ciara. They knew how to turn a ship around fast. For them, it was just business.
Through a window, the Earth was small enough to be covered with a thumb, nothing more than a crescent of blue and white.
Welcome to space.