Thursday, 9 July 2015

The escort home

A favourite pastime of explorers is the canyon run, something that seems to draw us like moths to a flame. The rules are simple enough to comprehend and, with a data bank full of exploration data, the risk can also be high. There are brave and smart ways to run the canyon. But many more stupid ones as well. A few are even unlucky.

Find a binary star system where the two stars are close together. Very close together. Tweak your heat management to start as low as possible, line up for the gap in between and then try to push through. The fuel scoop will engage but that's the least of your worries. The heat rises and rises while you slow down in the gravity well of both stars, making it feel like wading through molasses.

The only sweet thing is when you get out the other side both intact and without damage. You feel like you want to get out and push the ship to safety: to a point where radiative heat works in your favour to take away the heat instead of heavily piling on more.

It always helps to have something to aim for. Trying to kill your friends isn't one of them though.

750 light years from civilised space.

Before embarking on this journey I used to think all humanity occupied a huge volume of space. Now I'm not so sure. Ingenuity means that there are many systems where we can live and work, although the edges are pretty rough. After this trip I know can jump across human space in around half an hour.

We're very densely packed in and that feels so very small now.

I'd like to say that the hands grasping the throttle and joystick are steady, but that wouldn't be true. The last time I saw another human being was in the cockpit of another ship at Sagittarius A* over two weeks ago. For this last leg of the voyage I bring friends with me though, and that'll make all the difference.

Friends in combat ships and prepared to take on any trouble that shows an interest in this much exploration data. I'm glad they're going to be there as I'm feeling more fragile now than at any time out there beyond the human bubble of space.

The elements are somewhat more predictable after all, and don't bear a grudge either.

The first challenge however is meeting up just outside the bubble, and a likely candidate system pops up: my choice of HIP 71462, and it just so happened to have an inconvenient and tight binary star formation. For me its passing through the Lupus Dark Regions to get there and I'm third to arrive. Dropping out of witchspace and it's damn good to see two combat capable ships from the wing waiting for me: a Vulture and a Cobra.

Old habits die hard and, after completing a quarter orbit of the nearest sun while checking my heat levels, can't help but dive my ship through the gap between the stars. Peaking at 97% and then falling away that will be the last canyon run for me before docking.

We dance around the stars like fireflies: bright pinpoints of light in space. There's a short wait while our last companion reaches the meeting point.

The Python's exit from witchspace travels visibly on the scanner over the last few thousand light seconds as the ships slows down and comes to a virtual stop. The jump exit point has bisected the binary stars dangerously, and that ship now nestles deeply in between them trying to push itself out. Involuntarily running hot and even hotter with nowhere to dump waste heat from the jump, and much more flooding in.

The hairs stand up on the back of my neck as the comms comes to life squawking temperature readings. " least the fuelscooping is done!" There's a pause that just runs on longer than it should and then the ship emerges, accelerating away: "Ah... just a bit of heat damage, it's minor and no problem."

That was downright unlucky. That's a wry smile on my part though: he's been calm under fire and a complete professional about the whole thing.

Dropping back into normal space we all form up to take a look at each other's ships. The Python looks fine, though for the rest of the journey I'm pretty much convinced that I can see or hear bits falling off from heat stress.

You know its time to start moving on when pilots flying fast, agile and well shielded ships take it upon themselves to zip around and in-between those that are still parked up.

I've previously run escort for a returning explorer and now that favour is kindly being returned, and so we plan the remainder of the journey based on what we learnt the last time. The Diamondback has the largest jump range of all and could easily outrun the escort, so a more practical wing formation is needed.

We pick up on the strategy that we used last time to good effect with 4 vessels: the lead ship with the shortest jump range plans the route and jumps onward first. Then the escorted ship, and finally followed by the 2 remaining. It means that there was always a ship in the system to assist and cover, and the 1-1-2 formation made sure this was always true.

Post-op review refined it down to a 1-2-1 diamond backed formation giving more ships with the escorted. We learn and refine.

A python pilot's concern: does my wake look big in this?

Practice and preparation count for a very great deal, and escorting valuable goods across occupied space carries its own kinds of tension. A destination recommended by a fellow explorer was our target: the Dohkwithi system has an Alliance Orbis station within only a few tens of light seconds from the sun, minimizing risk all round.

We set out knowing where we had to go and what we had to do.

So I wasn't quite sure how to feel when it was strangely quiet and uneventful, and went down without a single hitch.

Every ship that we saw showed a masterful disinterest in what was going on. Everyone went about their business and declined to stick their nose into ours. Exactly what was wanted and hoped for. But I still can't help but feel that I would have liked to give my bodyguards something to point their trigger fingers at.

Arriving in Dohkwithi we formed up around the station and took group photos of the safe return. Immense relief on my part now safely at the end of this journey, and grateful for the support of friends.

Then for something that no-one else could help me with. I had to remember how to dock.

For the moment there is exploration data to unload, around 2200 systems worth. A quick scan through GalNet to catch up shows that I might just have found my next calling. A coded message perhaps, but if so then not very subtle.

Now how might they have known I was back?

With thanks to CMDR Sturmwaffel (Python), CMDR Paws (Vulture), and CMDR Unrealization (Cobra) for providing escort and fine company back into (un)civilized space. Also to those who joined us in TeamSpeak for the journey on the way (you know who you are).