2946-06-09 - Tales from the Inbox: KR-122

"Quetzalli to unidentified ship, transmit identity and state your business." Nirav tried to sound as authoritative as possible. With Quetzalli's transmission laser locked onto the oncoming vessel and boosted to full power, he had no doubt the transmission had gotten someone’s attention. 

As soon as he released the transmit control, a timer began to count down the seconds until his transmission had reached its target. With no information on the ship except the size and range of a blip on his display, Nirav could do little but wait for a reply. 

On the other side of the plot, a cluster of much larger markers represented the rest of the convoy and its hired escorts – little Quetzalli was the last ship in line. Nirav, the only member of Quetzalli's compliment on duty in the middle of the third shift, didn’t want to wake the others – after all, he knew they were all sleeping. 

"On duty” was a rather generous name for what Nirav was doing, and he knew it. He had no idea how to fly the ship; he was on the command deck solely to answer the comms and wake the others in an emergency. With the ship’s helm slaved to the convoy control network through all its star-drive hops and local-space maneuvers, Nirav spent most of his duty hours playing games on the console. 

Newer ships’ computers could field comms inquiries automatically and even detect emergencies, but Quetzalli had been purchased in a hurry and on a tight budget. Its crew module, only one hundred square meters of deck space divided into seven cramped compartments, had been designed with a small family in mind, and it was an uncomfortably small home for five adults, none of them habitual spacers. The novelty of interstellar travel had worn off in the first week, and by the second, restless tempers had flared, and by the third, they’d cooled again into a collective lukewarm apathy. For Nirav, everything had settled into a dull routine of bland meals and sleep, duty shifts and empty hours in the lounge. 

Of course, now there was a new ship on the nav plot, creeping up to the convoy in interstellar space. With no stars within fifteen ly, the stranger could not be a chance meeting. Nirav suspected it was a straggler, another small ship like Quetzalli which had suffered a misjump or fallen behind, but he also remembered stories he’d read back on Earth about the spacer outlaws who supposedly infested the Coreward Frontier. Might a single small pirate ship try its luck against the convoy’s superannuated Navy escorts? 

The timer on the console ticked over to zero, then turned yellow and began counting back up, indicating that Nirav’s transmission had reached its target. After the same amount of time elapsed, the timer turned green. Most spacers probably didn’t need the computer to remind them of the limitations of light-speed on radio waves, but Nirav was glad of the help. 

Two seconds after the numbers turned green, a response came in. “This is KR-122, Lagounov speaking.” The voice was a woman’s, nasal and bearing an accent Nirav didn’t recognize. “Returning to formation.” 

Nirav decided he’d been right about the ship being a straggler. Though dominated by three huge liners, the convoy had dozens of smaller, older ships like Quetzalli, and any of them might suffer a misjump due to a calibration error or equipment fault, landing far outside the intended arrival area.  

After several seconds, though, Nirav realized that the incoming ship still had no information tag on his display. This meant KR-122 had no functioning identification transponder. The inspector from the Navy escort squadron had buried his rhetorical boot in the posterior of Quetzalli’s little crew back at Centauri for failing to keep their transponder in good order for just this reason. If a ship did happen to mis-jump, the slaved autopilot would automatically try to return to formation at high speed, but only with a working transponder would the Navy know not to fire on the straggler. KR-122 would be in danger of being fired upon – or of a severe tongue-lashing from a frigate’s skipper – if the escorts detected it. 

KR-122, you’d better get back on convoy control and fix your transponder before someone else notices.” Nirav hoped Lagounov would get the message in time to address the issue. Their ship was probably no larger or better crewed than his own and would need all the time they could get to find out what was wrong with their transponder. 

Such a failure might have gone unnoticed for hours in the first week of the convoy, when the escorts spent all their time charging after self-styled hotshot free-spirits who resented the Navy’s firm convoying regulations and calmly explaining to inexperienced new spacers how to undo the results of ignorant button-pushing. In the third week, however, everything had settled down, and the Navy was only too happy to make examples of anyone who made trouble – Lagounov and her ship risked being run down by one of the escorts’ gunships and towed to an unfriendly rendezvous with the convoy commander. 

On the display, KR-122 inched closer to the formation. Ample time had elapsed for his opposite number to receive his warning, yet the ship did not change its course or activate its transponder. Any moment, the powerful sensor systems on larger ships farther up the formation would pick up Lagounov’s ship. Nirav sighed, instructing the ship’s lone comms laser to point at the nearest Navy ship. He pitied Lagounov, who was probably just as out of her depth at the controls as he was himself, but rules were rules, and Nirav didn’t want to give the Navy any reason to blame Quetzalli for protecting KR-122. 

Lagounov finally sent a reply, just as the console announced that it had a solution to transmit to the convoy commander’s frigate. “Quetzalli, how do I do that?” The woman’s voice, though calm, carried a hint of uncertainty. 

Nirav sighed, then instructed the laser to spin all the way back around to send to the straggler again. “Can’t help you with repairs, KR-122.” He sent. I have no idea what you’re flying.” He barely had any idea what he was flying, but he wouldn’t admit that on an open channel. 

“Who am I talking to?” This time, the signal delay was noticeably smaller; KR-122 was getting closer. 

Nirav glanced over to verify that his ship’s transponder was still working, and that, as the ostensible commander for the rest of the shift, his name was being broadcast in addition to the ship’s name and identification codes. Could Lagounov not see the identification signal? Once again, he set his transmitter to seek out the Navy escort. They would deal with Lagounov and her confusion. 

Nirav’s console flickered wildly, then its display surface darkened. As he pounded his fist on its side, the command compartment’s lights died as well. The hum of the atmospherics cut out seconds later, and Nirav felt himself drifting away from the crash-padding of the pilot’s seat. He froze in panic, imagining himself and his compatriots drifting silently in interstellar space until the air ran out. 

Just as he recovered and started trying to remember where the manual alarm control was, Nirav heard the atmospherics whir to life once more. A moment later, the lights came on and he fell ten centimeters into the chair as the gravitic systems reasserted themselves. 

“What the hell was that, Nirav!” McCreary, the only person on Quetzalli with prior experience in interstellar travel, suddenly filled the doorway behind the pilot’s station. He hadn’t even bothered to throw on a shirt after jumping out of bed, and evidently microgravity didn’t cause him any problems. 

“Uh. I don’t really-”  

The older man pushed past Nirav to jab at the restarted displays. Nirav tried to stay out of McCreary’s way, but he didn’t think what had happened was his fault. Quetzalli had experienced a few electrical problems when they’d first bought it, but they had fixed most of them. Evidently, one had slipped through. 

The nav plot came back on, one of the last consoles to reassert itself. Nirav glanced at it and immediately noticed something missing. “She’s gone.” 

“Who’s gone?” McCreary glanced at the plot only briefly while he scanned through the ship’s system statistics too fast for Nirav to read. 

“There was a ship here.” Nirav poked his finger into the ghostly constellation of lights hovering over the nav panel to the place the missing ship had been. “A straggler called KR-122.” Had the ship suffered a power failure too? What could cause two nearby ships to have such problems at the same moment? 

“Not our problem right now.” McCreary pointed toward the hatch. “This one’s not your fault, Nirav. Run down to the patch panel by your quarters and check those power feeds. I’ll monitor from here.” 

Nirav started to protest – he thought someone should raise the alarm so the Navy could go find KR-122 – but then he looked closer at the nav plot and saw that even the radar blip he’d first noticed had disappeared. Wondering if he'd fallen asleep on duty and dreamed the whole episode, he nodded and left to follow McCreary’s instructions. 

Today's story was submitted by Nirav R. Nirav is a relatively new member of the Cosmic Backgrounds community, and the community of spacers generally – in fact, he asserted in his message that he'd lived on Earth his whole life until this past October, when his employer went bankrupt. Rather than chance the job market on Earth in today's economy, Nirav banded together with four of his old coworkers to buy a battered but still jump-capable starship, the Quetzalli, which they pointed toward Maribel and the Coreward Frontier.

I can find no record that a ship designated KR-122 was present in this convoy when it left Herakles. Was the intruder a brazen pirate? A ship which couldn't afford to pay the convoying fee? A dying vessel trying desperately to keep up? Was she a ghost ship, or some form of convoluted espionage from the Hegemony? Audio recordings of the transmissions were provided with Nirav's submission, so it seems unlikely that he made it up.

We here at Cosmic Background wish Nirav and his four compatriots all the best in their travels, and hope they find what they are looking for at the Frontier. Perhaps, if they encounter this vessel again, they will allow us to publish the rest of this story. Similarly, if someone knows KR-122 and would be able to supply Lagounov's side of this story, I would be happy to publish it.