A few weeks of trouble-free cruising was enough for Jack to settle into his routine and truly feel master of his ship. His words of advice to Hugo were eagerly accepted, his instructions to the two passengers were followed without question. He rocked his seat gently back and forth for hours, watching the subtly shifting pattern of stars in the forward simulator, and below it the countdown to another engine stop.
ES24 T-30 … 29 … 28 …
He called for Hugo to help with the charts but there was no answer. He was probably sleeping. Two weeks on the job and he was already getting lazy, Jack thought. The countdown ended and the screen switched to visual - and it was completely blank. He leaned forward and strained his eyes, wondering if the simulator has crashed, but the black of space was deeper and more beautiful than the simulator‘s, and he realized he was looking into the void. He leaned over the console anxiously scanning the window for stars or even the wisps of the Milky Way. His eyes adjusted and he could now see a few faint, lonely suns and beyond them an abyss that could only be intergalactic space. They must be on the very edge of the galactic plane and facing away from it, he thought. Perhaps the inertial guidance had been off a little and the Beluga had slowly, imperceptibly spun and headed in the wrong direction. Worse, the singularity might have become unstable in a way that the ship’s controls could not even detect, in which case they could literally be anywhere. There was a single, loud bleep and a message flashed on the console.
unable to fix position from primary field camera
Hugo came into the cockpit and looked briefly through the front port.
“Cockup ?”, he asked.
“It’s time for us to earn our pay now, Hugo.”
Hugo showed no sign of anxiety and seemed ready to face their predicament in a positive frame of mind. Jack, feeling hot and trembling slightly, decided to let him work out where the hell they were.
“OK then, we have a gross navigation error and I will spend the next couple of hours going through the Singularity Control Logs for any sign of a problem with the core. Although nothing has been reported on the console. I want you to use Astrometrics and get a fix from extragalactic sources, or perhaps stars if we can identify enough of them. Hopefully it will give us a location to within a billion kilometers. That will be enough for another jump.”
Hugo went to the back of the cockpit and put his head fully into the dome of the panoramic virtual viewfinder. He spoke to Jack with a strange reverberation coming off the curved glass.
“We have a good view of the Magellanic Clouds. I can use the lab telescope and get a high rez of that. We have some software to measure parallax from the stars in the Magellanic Clouds. It can‘t fail. Whereas if we try to use stars in the galactic plane, and misidentify one, the fix would be totally wrong, and we can’t afford a mistake in this situation. Just give me an hour and I‘ll get back to you.”
Hugo started to type furiously at a console in the minilab while Irwin poked his head tentatively through the cockpit door, looking mildly irritated.
“I could not help overhearing your conversation. I would like a report please on any changes to the schedule. If there is any prospect of delay you must send a message ahead, or Greenshoot may interpret our late arrival as a sign of disrespect. Are you clear on the absolute importance of this, Jack ?”
“I thought you were asleep”, Jack replied.
“Are you going to send a message or not ?”, Irwin said impatiently.
“We’re not going to use the engine core to facilitate your polite diplomatic conversations when the damn thing is out of control and throwing us in the wrong damn direction.”
Irwin seemed outraged by this reply, but Jack had become used to the many facial expressions Irwin had mastered to express displeasure and indignation, and set to work again on the main console hoping Irwin would go back to his cabin.
“I will be generous in this case and assume that the deep space communications are unavailable for technical reasons. Please keep me updated though.”
With this Irwin left, and a tense, quiet hour passed as light from the neighbouring galaxies was gathered by the ship’s telescope. Jack came over to Hugo’s terminal to see a beautiful image forming with some reference points superimposed.
“That’s it, Jack, we’ve got ten parallax reference points. Loading into navigation …”
Hugo made the final keystroke with a flourish.
“Shit !”, Hugo shouted.
“What it is, Hugo ?”
Image resolution too low, came the message from the computer.
Now Hugo was visibly sweating and shook his head at the screen.
“This procedure, it’s straight from the S4 manual. How can it not work ?”
“I have an idea why”, Jack replied. “When they reassigned the ship from exploration to transport they raided the instrument set.”
Jack returned to his console and perused the maintenance logs.
“Yep. A certain engineer JH24 - I bet that’s Josh Hamley - took the telescope imager and installed it on the Pingo. He gave us a standard surveying chip instead. They saved a few bucks I guess. Hugo, do you have any further suggestions ?”
“I’ll reconfigure the software. It must be able to give us a location from those reference points. Just not with the precision we were expecting.”
Hugo, visibly energized by the challenge, typed loud and fast at his console. Jack looked at the blank forward screen and tried to remain calm.
“I’ve got something, Jack. A location within half a light-year.”
“A light-year ?”, Jack shouted. “Fuck this !”
“We are not as far from Greenshoot as I thought. In fact that would be the nearest spaceport. We overshot it on the last jump and went out of the galactic plane. But there’s another problem. We are in uncharted space.”
We are in uncharted space. Jack hadn’t heard that for a while. He had worked on a charting ship, the name of which he couldn’t even remember, in his early years with the Fleet, a cramped smelly little vessel not unlike the Beluga. The principle of flight without charts was simple enough. Do not jump beyond the range of your sensors. They had to check for dust, dark pools, black holes, and planetoids, any of which could destroy the Beluga’s singularity in an explosion that would briefly outshine the nearby stars.
“Let’s plot a course back into the galactic plane“, Hugo said, “with autopiloted four hundred billion kilometer jumps. We will reach some charted space in about fifty days. Then we can plot a new course to Greenshoot.”
Jack readied himself to explain to Irwin that they were stuck here for months. Then there was another loud interrupt beep from his console. He spun round wondering what else could go wrong.
distress signal received - single occupant escape capsule
“I don’t believe this“, Jack said, “someone sending us a distress call. It‘s a radio message, a weak one. The pod is from a ship called Virtis. The only record of a ship of that name … well it's pre-war !”
“He’s been out there a heck of a long time then”, said Hugo. “The range is about fifty billion kilometers.”
Jack had to make a decision now. It was mandatory for a fleet ship to respond to a distress signal, but not if the receiver was himself in distress. He thought about the pilot stranded out there. It was unlikely anyone would find him again, not this far from established routes. He felt something for that poor frozen bastard.
“Let’s go pick him up”, Jack said.