“Control, this is Starstream Flight. We are in position over the South Pole, orbit is nominal, standing by at your convenience.” Bourne switched his comm channel over to the squadron frequency. “Look sharp, Bubbles. There’s a whole lot of ice down there and we gotta make sure it doesn’t do anything scary.”
“What do we do if the glaciers get uppity? It’s not like the both of us can do a whole lot if a continent decides it’s pissed at us.” Bubbles sounded a little out of sorts. Bourne couldn’t blame him, given that the two of them were floating in space less than a week ago and the medics let them leave sick bay just yesterday.
The other three survivors of Starstream squadron were still there.
“How’s your new wings working for you, boss?” Bubbles interrupted Bourne’s oncoming brooding session with his unexpected question. “Since all nanofactured stuff is built using the same master file I figured our 28s would be the same as the last ones but I swear the controls on this thing are less responsive.”
“That’s because these are right out of the vats,” Bourne said. “The Principia‘s fighters were pulled from a couple of decommissioned escort cruisers that were headed back to the spacedocks to get scrapped. They’d been flown a bit before we got them. It loosens up the hardware mechanisms and lets the navigation software build up some predictive algorithms. That’s what you’re sensing. I went through a couple of OF-21s during the war and it was the same every time.”
There was a long moment of silence as they cruised lazily over Earth’s southern oceans. “I didn’t know you got shot down, Captain.”
“One out of every five Newtonian pilots in the war lost at least one set of wings.” The reality of that was even worse than the statistic implied. The opening days of the Second Galilean War had taken a horrible toll on Newton’s interceptor pilots as they worked around the clock to repel wave after wave of small Galilean gunboats and fighters trying to wipe out Newton’s ground defenses. Some days as much as twenty percent of fighter craft that sortied got shot down. “Just be glad that vacuum suits are better armored now than they were at the start of the war.”
“Yeah, I hear you. I had a Type 33 flight suit when I was in flight school.” Bubbles laughed. “I felt like I was going up into space in my underwear.”
“Did you fly in combat?” He knew, he’d read all his squadron’s files, but there wasn’t much to do on this kind of overwatch mission and Bourne didn’t want his wingmate dwelling on their previous outing.
“No. I got issued an OF-25 and put in a squadron guarding the space docks once I got my commission. I was there six months then we signed the armistice.” He made a couple of popping mouth sounds. “It is what it is.”
“You didn’t miss much,” Bourne said. “We had all the waypoints through the Galilean rings nailed down by that point. There wasn’t much work for interceptors in the last six months of the war, we’d already done all the nasty stuff.”
“Were you a part of the Ring Campaign?”
“What was it like?”
It was like spending hours and hours sitting in a fighter hidden in a small crater on a midsized asteroid orbiting a gas giant waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, they would ambush passing Galilean warships. Newtonians getting to play the space pirate on occasion was a delicious reversal of the usual roles played by their respective planets. However even those encounters were more trouble than they were worth. You had to constantly split your attention between your flight canopy and your instruments, trying not to clip a piece of rock large enough to compromise your fighter’s hull and leave you sucking vacuum.
More than once Bourne had watched good men die after losing their wings because flight conditions made it impossible for anyone to get close enough to assist them in time. If he ever had to fly another combat mission in a planetary ring it would be too soon. Yet with that said, he’d only flown a dozen of them himself. Most of his time on deployment over Galileo was spent on combat space patrols outside his carrier ship. “It wasn’t that different from now. We just had older fighters.”
“Right.” Bubbles didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“What do you know about this naval traffic objective they gave us?” Bourne asked more to fill time and keep his mind active than out of a desire to hear about ocean going transports.
“Just that the brass think the Earthlings are moving something down there and they want us to phone in anything in the cargo transport size we happen to see.” A light on Bourne’s control board flickered and he twitched a couple of commands, bringing up telemetry that Control was collecting from various elements of the fleet and piping in to them. “Personally I don’t see much interesting down there. Word on the decks is they’re trying to isolate where UNIGOV is sourcing their materials for the nanotech they’re using. Lots of rare earths in the kinds of generators you need to project a field that far.”
“Where are they expecting them to come from?”
“Disputed, although smart money says Africa or Asia. The old land surveys say a lot of the neat stuff is in the mountainous parts of those continents.” A finger sized red dot appeared on Bourne’s display, presumably following a path Bubbles was tracing for him, presumably pointing at mineral deposits or somesuch.
“That’s very practical.” Bourne frowned and set his fighter in a very slow spin around its forward axis. Earth gradually filled up his canopy as the top of his fighter rotated to face straight ‘down’ then vanished back beneath him as he completed the spin. It was a situational awareness habit he’d picked up during the Ring Campaign. He hadn’t been flying in situations where that kind of 360’360 awareness was necessary in a while but he still performed the maneuver on occasion just to hang on to the habit. “How in touch with the word on the deck are you, anyway, Bubbles?”
“I am the word on the deck, Captain.” He sounded almost hurt. “Why do you ask?”
“How do we know what’s in the mountains down there? Is it something brought back by the surface teams or what?”
“It’s all from the archives, Leader. I guess the colonists took a full copy of the planetary geological surveys with them when they left. Not sure why.”
“Probably in a historical archive somewhere.” Bourne let his roll bring him all the way around to face towards the planet again then killed the momentum. “Do you think it would be in the historical archives or somewhere else?”
“I… dunno. Is it important?”
“Don’t ask me. I need to look at the data to tell for sure.”
“Hold on, let me call up Hannah.”
“Does this go official if you loop in your latest Comms girl?”
“What makes you think Hannah works in Comms?”
“Bubbles. Focus on the task at hand.”
Bubbles sighed. “If I ask really nicely and say it needs to be a secret between us she probably won’t tell anyone. Why not go through official channels?”
“I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m after a white whale. I’d rather not get grounded.”
“We’re down a ship over a hostile planet six months from home. I don’t think anyone’s eager to pull qualified fighter pilots off duty.”
“Maybe. Can Hannah get us info on the sea lanes, as well? I want to know what shipping’s looked like since we got here.”
“Well I can tell you that one now. We don’t have any data on what Earth’s shipping lanes looked like until three days ago.”
“What?” Bourne yanked his attention away from his flight canopy and down to his mic. Not that Bubbles could see him through that. “How is it possible that none of it got tracked?”
“The AI discarded all records of vehicle traffic on bodies of water after twenty four hours. No one caught the oversight until the Admiral decided to track cargo ships.”
Bourne fought the urge to smack his forehead, his helmet would take the hit anyway. The biggest pitfall of working with an AI assist was how deeply it ingrained preconceptions into the feedback it brought you. Of the Triad Worlds and Roddenberry, only Roddenberry had more than 20% of its surface covered in water and even then, not by much. Large scale transport by ocean or river had never been practical there. Most water going vessels were private recreational vehicles with the occasional survey or maintenance ship mixed in. As a result, military AI just ignored stuff it saw in bodies of water to save on storage space and processing power.
A perfectly fine and normal approach to the waterways of the Triad Worlds. A glaring oversight on Earth.
“Okay, fine,” he muttered. “It probably wasn’t relevant anyway.”
“What?” Bubbles was curious now, probably looking for a new bit of gossip to share with his girl in Communications.
“I just noticed a freighter moving north from Antarctica. I know the polar regions of Earth were left alone for a lot of reasons in the pre-Departure era but if UNIGOV changed that policy after they took over and wanted sneak some resources past us now they might try taking them from the continent that was covered in ice when we left. It’s not a place we’d naturally expect them to get supplies from.”
“Well, you got one thing in your favor,” Bubbles said, sounding a little skeptical. “There wasn’t any extensive survey done of the continent’s mineral resources before the Departure. Something about the snow and ice. But, in spite of the concerns about the climate both then and now, it doesn’t look like the ice has gotten much thinner in the years between.”
“Still. With the right nanotech and a big enough power plant and mag generators you could mine straight through the frozen layers of the ground. I’m pretty sure there’s places they do just that on Diana.”
“Maybe.” Bubbles’s skepticism deepened. “Be that as it may, I’m going to guess it doesn’t matter to us right now. That transport could be down there for any reason. It looks like it’s bound for Australia and, according to the records, that’s where most of the research outposts on Antarctica source their supplies so it may just be a food run or something.”
“Awful big coincidence, our being out here right as they make a run to the grocers.” Bourne drummed his fingers on his control panel, trying to decide on a move.
“Why don’t you just call it in? We could have the Principia or the Spiner go over the place with a hires EMG scan and see if there’s any power signatures indicative of a big power plant down there.”
Bourne began carefully maneuvering his fighter’s nose, where all the good scanners were, down towards the planet while keeping his orbital trajectory more or less the same. “The problem with only having two ships with good scanners on them is everyone wants them to look at something. I suspect the Admiral will want more before he details one of his best eyes to stare at giant chunks of ice for the next couple of hours.”
He was glad to see that Bubbles was matching his maneuvers with equal precision. “Probably. How do we get it for him?”
“Thinking.” For a long moment Bourne was silent as he considered some ideas and then ran numbers through his nav AI. Then he replayed Starstream’s last attempt to land on planet. Finally, he compared some numbers from the botched mission’s after action reports to the numbers his AI was giving him. “Tell me, Bubbles, have you ever gone water skiing?”