Far And Further Away

Minutes pass before the silence in the cockpit of the freighter is broken. And it is NIGEL who breaks it as he queries, “Why are you tense?”

It’s uncharacteristic of NIGEL to ask such a thing, and at any other time Carmen would likely just brush it off. However, after all that has happened she has started to wonder if everything that has occurred is the result of the navigational computer system and not the result of a series of unfortunate events. After all, it is the only other occupant of her freighter, even if it isn’t sentient, like an AI, or organic in nature, like she is.

“I’m not. I just want to get this cargo offloaded is all. We’ve had enough delays as it is, and I don’t want to go breaching any charter terms.”

The redhead isn’t lying, but her mind is starting to weave a web of possibilities that she isn’t sure she wants to dwell on. A web that suggests that everything that has happened since leaving Platform Six is down to NIGEL. If that is true then she could be in danger.

Then all of a sudden the starship drops out of FTL. Carmen is thrown forward in her seat but held, for the second time, by her harness as she demands, “What is going on?”

“We have been pulled out of FTL.” NIGEL advises sounding almost as confused as she feels as her head spins much more violently than it did the last time.

“What do you mean we got pulled out of FTL?” Carmen questions accusingly.

She waits but the more seconds that tick by the clearer it becomes that she isn’t about to get an answer from the nav system anytime soon. It’s why she slips out of her harness and then climbs to her feet to stare out the canopy. At first all she finds is the black canvas dotted with tiny pinpricks of light. That is until her eyes come to settle on something else entirely. At first she is sure her eyes must be deceiving her. It’s why she blinks rapidly several times hoping to clear what has to be a delusion.

However, she finds that the sight before her really is of a black, scorched world that is sat off to her left. The sight chills her and a shudder ripples across her back from one shoulder to another, chilling her as it goes.

Carmen knows for a fact that no planetary body in any of the systems of known space look like this. Her only thought is that they have jumped way too far beyond the boundaries of human occupied territory. She can’t say how far but it must be a long way seeing as humanity inhabits some four thousands systems around the original Sol system it was born into.

That however, does not explain how the navigational data is showing them having been above Sunfire Three before this jump and that is why the redhead finally feels it prudent to ask, “Where are we NIGEL?”

The silence continues for a bit. This time Carmen is sure it isn’t a forced silence due to lack of knowledge but a check, double and perhaps triple, of their current location. Its possible even NIGEL has reservations regarding the positional data in his memory banks.

Ultimately NIGEL announces, “We are above Ion Prime.”

Carmen shakes her head. It can’t be. That is not possible. She knows for a fact that such a thing cannot be right. Ion Prime, like Sunfire Three, is a major world. Though, unlike Sunfire Three, it is a much more developed and established world. In fact, it’s one of the central hubs for this section of space and is home to billions upon billions of souls.

That’s why Carmen swiftly demands, “Check again.”

Barely two seconds pass before NIGEL again relays, “We are in orbit above Ion Prime.”

His voice, unlike a human’s would be, is no more insistent than it was the first time it announced their location.

“We can’t be. This is a scorched rock. Ion Prime is a hub world with billions of citizens. Run a scan. Run every scan.” Carmen blurts barely able to contain her emotions which are a mixture of confusion, anger and fear.

The redheaded pilot of the freighter says nothing else as she simply stares out the canopy at the scorched ball of rock below. She is waiting for NIGEL to relay whatever it is he has, or has not seems more likely, found from the scans. She could do it herself and part of her is still screaming at her for not doing so, seeing as there is still a part of her that holds a belief that NIGEL could be the cause of this. Such a possibility has shrunk in her estimation as there are just too many unanswered questions for her to feel safe in chalking it up to a nav system malfunction, malicious or not. Plus, she is going to need NIGEL if she has any hope of ever wanting to get home. However far home, familiar star systems, might be from her current location.

When NIGEL speaks again Carmen almost leaps out of her skin as he breaks the silence and relays, “All stellar data confirms without doubt that we are above Ion Prime. However, scans indicate that the planetary body below us has been in its current state for some forty million years.”

Carmen refuses to believe it, which is why she asks, “How can that be possible?”

“Unknown.” Is the one word response NIGEL gives in reply.

The answer to her question is about as unhelpful as is possible for a response to be and offers the redhead no comfort whatsoever. That is why she orders following a short period of contemplation, “Plot and make a jump back to Sunfire Three.”

The redhead sounds confused and desperate but she doesn’t’ care anymore. She has to know if returning to the verdant world they had arrived at before is a feat they can repeat again. If not then the nav data is completely corrupted. On the other hand if they can… Carmen doesn’t know what it means, but feels she has to see what the outcome is nonetheless.

“Why? The course has been set for our next destination, Cloister Bay. Sunfire Three’s cargo has already been offloaded. As such there is no acceptable reason to return to Sunfire Three unless we are carrying cargo for such a destination.” NIGEL replies with a much longer and detailed explanation than Carmen had been expecting.

Not that his response, overly long as it is, does anything to change how the woman reacts as her temper erupts. She’s kept herself in check this long, but with everything that’s happened she can do it no longer and so spits angrily, “Either you calculate the jump or I will.”

“Odds of error from a human calculation are sixty three percent.”

“I don’t care.” Carmen says defiantly with a scowl on her face to emphasise her point. The words having been spoken through gritted teeth that the redhead continues to resist the urge to grind together as she waits in silence for the nav systems reply.

If it refuses Carmen is deadly serious, she will manually plot the jump and execute it if she must and though the likelihood of failure is high, she will do it without hesitation. And if the nav system hopes to call her bluff it will quickly learn how serious she really is.

Finally NIGEL speaks. More than three minutes have passed. But it utters sounding resigned, “Jump is set for return to Sunfire Three.”

Carmen’s scowl breaks. It’s not at all the response she had been expecting. In fact, she is pretty sure she wasn’t expecting a response at all. But with one given she slips back into her pilots’ seat and the harness mounted to it replying, “Thank you NIGEL.”

There is no further response from the nav system in the moments before Carmen hits the FTL drive activation and then listens as the engines spool up. As they continue to climb in energy production the freighter turns a hundred and sixty three degrees and then with the FTL drives at full capacity the starship lunges forward and into FTL.

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