Authors' note: rather than confuse you with an in-joke, we'll tell you now that the name "Zhang" is pronounced "Jong." Honestly. That's what our friend Zhang Hui claims.
The outmost of six gas giants orbited Larsen's Star at a distance of nearly thirty-eight AU, virtually the last viable orbit for a G0-IV star. This far out cryogenic conditions gave the planet's atmosphere a blue-green hue with only faint banding. The planet measured 65,000 kilometers in diameter, too small for more than a few cyclonic storms or upwellings. There were a dozen small moons, but on two above 100km in diameter. The target, called Blue Moon because of its coloring, had a diameter of 6400 km and orbited its primary at a distance of 580,000km. The probe supposedly orbited Blue Moon.
Grendelsbane came out of micro-Jump.
"We're over six million kilometers from the target," Second Mate Cheng Hua announced after studying her instruments. "Radiation levels aren't too bad this far out. The innermost moons are getting a good dose, though. Nothing to concern us."
Smith performed his calculations. "Just under twenty hours travel time, Captain."
Lubbock flicked the intercom switch. "Captain to Engine Room. Are the engines powered up?"
"We'll have full power in five minutes, Captain," Chief Garcia answered.
"Good. Signal the Bridge when they're ready. Captain out." Lubbock turned to his First Mate. "Moe, plot the course and align us with the attitude jets. When the engines are ready, punch us up to one gravity acceleration. Then set the alarm for twenty minutes prior to Turn-Around."
Five minutes later the Grendelsbane was roaring towards an interception with Blue Moon. Lubbock checked the duty roster.
"I have the watch. I'll see you in four hours, Moe." Smith and Cheng unfastened their seat belts and departed the control room.
Nine and a half hours later:
"What's your favorite bounce band?" Cheng Hua asked technician April Rayne.
Lubbock seated himself at their table and laid out his microwaved meal. Isabelle Nguyen and technician Jackson Stevens were also at the table. Stevens was reading from a book-pad while munching a sandwich. Nguyen had just come from cleaning passenger cabins with the able assistance of Arghaz Grurrdzarg. The Vargr now assisted Engineer Sprey with sundry maintenance tasks. Lubbock had to admit that the Vargr appeared tireless and worked just as hard as Sprey, almost as if the two of them were in competition.
"My favorite bounce band?" Rayne seemed to consider the question before answering. "I'd have to say The Rubber Band. Yours?"
"I prefer Rasputin's Beard."
"Yeah, they're pretty good."
"Who's Rasputin?" Nguyen asked.
"Wasn't he an African god-king?" Rayne answered.
"You're thinking of Ra-Safari," Cheng said.
"Oh, yeah. But it was Ras-Tafari."
"Whatever. Rasputin was an astrologer for the wife of a pre-spaceflight emperor on old Terra. I think it was the emperor Reagan. The one who had a pet chimp named Bozo."
"He was from California, so it must have been the Second Mexican Empire."
"Sheesh. You must have aced your history exams in school."
Cheng smiled and shrugged. "I don't like to brag, but ancient history was always my good subject. Aside from math."
Nguyen turned to Stevens. "Whatcha reading?"
"A novel by the Mezotechnic Era author and artist David Sim. He's one of the few writers of note from that period whose work is still relevant today."
"And Erica Jong," Rayne added.
"Erica Zhang?" Rayne repeated. "She must have been Han on her father's side. Which makes sense, since the Han produced the greatest writers in ancient times."
"No, it was the Europeans," Stevens countered. "Shakespeare, for example. Or the Hellenic playwrights."
"Or Anton Chekhov," said Rayne.
"What do you think, Captain?" Cheng asked.
Lubbock lowered his fork. All I know about the Ancients is that they came down out of the trees to be hunters and tool-makers. They later invented agriculture which led to every other advance, like mathematics and machinery. They learned to build spaceships. That, in a nutshell, is what our ancestors did. Anything else is trivial when compared to that. It doesn't matter who painted the Cistern Chapel -- "
"Sistine Chapel. If it hadn't been for a bunch of primates climbing down out of the trees to invent agriculture it wouldn't have happened. We wouldn't be sitting here if not for those nameless and unsung ancestors."
Cheng raised her cup of green tea. "A toast to them, the nameless inventors of farming and their legacy of farmer's daughter jokes."
Lubbock grinned and raised his glass of tisane. "Hear, hear!"
"Well then, Captain. I guess you're the wrong person to ask for a monologue on a comparison of the sonnets of Shakespeare and Penelope Tiem," Stevens ventured.
"Speaking of Tiem," Lubbock said, "I served on a subsidized freighter named Penelope Tiem. You'd think a ship named after the foremost contemporary poet would have seen several romantic adventures, but mostly we hauled processed ore to the factories at New Newcity in the binary system of Fuxi-Nuwa, and brought back silk and bamboo to Larsen's Star. Pretty dull."
"Except for shore leaves," Cheng suggested. "You must have had a good time in New Newcity judging by what I saw of off-duty spacers and their antics when I was a kid. I remember watching my aunt busting drunken spacehands over the head with a cricket bat and tossing them out of her bar. I was about nine at the time."
"You hung around bars at the age of nine?" Rayne asked, astonished.
"I didn't 'hang around.' I worked for my aunt as a cocktail waitress and scut worker."
"My folks ran a steak house," Lubbock said. "Pop figured the family wouldn't eat up the profits if we were selling beef. One of our neighbors had the same idea. He was Moslem, so his diner specialized in pork buns. Most of his customers were Han and Nihon. His family, though, wouldn't touch the stuff."
"Our First Mate is like than," Nguyen said with a frown. "I do wonders with pork, but he won't touch it because god would be cross with him. And I have to take the beef out of the beef teriyaki I give the Captain."
"I love your substitute-beef teriyaki, Isabelle."
"Then why are you eating a ready-make curry instead of letting me make your lunch?"
"You weren't here, and I'm not one to make my subordinates drop whatever they're doing to wait on me."
"Thank you, Captain. In a crew of six officers and one Able-bodied Spacehand (and one new Apprentice), I appreciate every consideration from any of you officers."
"It's always wise to be considerate to the cook," Cheng noted. "Belly aches are such a bother."
A two-tone whistle sounded over the ship's speakers, followed my Mohammed Smith's voice. "Attention, crew! Coming up on Turn-Around. All crew to posts. And thank you for flying Grendelsbane Spacelines."
"A real comedian," snorted Nguyen as the crew members rose from their places.
"You over-estimate his talent," Cheng retorted as she followed Lubbock to the access hatch.
Once on the Bridge, Lubbock and Cheng buckled into their seats and scanned their consoles. The Captain confirmed the course.
"Fifteen minutes to Turn-Around," the First Mate announced.
"Roger that. Captain to Engine Room. Fifteen minutes to engine shutdown."
"Fifteen minutes to engine shutdown. Aye, sir," Garcia replied.
"Three million kilometers to target," Cheng announced. "Too far to get a reading on the probe, but the 'scope shows a point of light moving across the face of the moon. Must be it."
"Nice to know it's still there," the Captain said with a wry smile. He checked his navigational computer once again. Still on course.
"Ten minutes to engine shutdown."
"Now, that's odd," Cheng muttered.
Lubbock twisted around in his seat. Cheng's workstation was to the left and behind Smith's. "What's odd?"
"There are two points of light moving across the face of the moon. Looks like two objects orbiting Blue Moon."
"Might be a stray asteroid," Smith suggested.
"They might both be asteroids, then, and we can't even see the probe yet."
"No sense worrying about it," Lubbock said. "We're still too far away for instrument scanning. When we get within two hundred forty thousand klicks we'll use the AESA on them."
"One minute to engine shutdown," Garcia announced over the intercom. "Cutting power to port and starboard engines on my mark.... Now."
The low throb that permeated the ship suddenly ceased. After a full day of this background noise, it was suddenly noticeable by its absence. "First Mate: pivot the ship one-eight-zero degrees."
"Roger. Pivoting the ship one-eight-zero degrees."
The Grendelsbane turned slowly at the gentle nudging of its attitude jets. Lubbock stole a glance at the shifting of the star patterns in his window before focusing on his piloting readout. As the cross hairs came up on 180 he ordered All-Stop.
"All-Stop, aye," Smith answered, and cut the attitude jets.
"Captain to Engine Room: Commence engine ignition."
"Roger. Engines on."
The low throb was back in the deck beneath Lubbock's feet. The ship was now braking at 1-G. Another 9.84 hours and three million kilometers to target. "Back to watch schedule, folks. You've got the duty, Hua."
Smith gave up his seat to Cheng. "Well, Moe, I've got four hours before my watch begins," Lubbock said as he rose. "Care for a game of backgammon?"
The call over the intercom brought Vishnu Lubbock out of the shower, water still glistening on his dark skin. "Captain, here. What's up, Bridge?"
"We're within lidar range on the AESA, Captain." Smith's voice, and he sounded worried. "I'm getting a reading that suggests one of the objects is a Scout-slash-Courier class ship. Possibly a Seeker."
"Balls on a heifer!"
"Shall I attempt contact, sir?"
"Not yet. Wait 'til I get there. Inform Farb, though." Hayao Farb, the tech team leader, was not going to be pleased. There were many reasons for a Seeker to be at this precise point in space and time, not the least of which was an attempt to hijack the probe. He thought it over as he rapidly dried himself, then hit the intercom button.
"Captain to Bridge. Let's assume a cautionary position. Send Isabelle and one of the engineers to fire control stations, but don't alarm our passengers. Tell the gunners not to power up their weapons, though -- not until we know what's up with the Seeker." And may my namesake preserve us all.