2950-06-21 – Tales from the Service: The Professor’s Anticipation 

News has reached us here that Seventh Fleet has apparently fought a large battle at Sagittarius Gate in the last few days. Since they still hold that system, this seems good news, but we don’t have good data on losses there yet.  

The only other major news here is that the battleship Maribel, which as far as I know is still slated to be sent across the Gap to Seventh Fleet, arrived here at its namesake system recently. The Navy has been showing the ship off to local officials and celebrities, presumably to show off the vast capabilities of this newest battleship in the entire fleet and to put local fears about this world’s safety at ease. I can't see how a ship about to be sent away will put them much at ease, but perhaps the Admiralty intends the next ship in the class to come to Fifth Fleet.

“This is going to work, correct?” 

Rachel Aldershoff scowled down into her controls, where she knew her passenger wouldn’t see it. For at least the twentieth time in five hours, she reminded herself that Professor Courtenay was no spacer, and probably had not left Maribel in many years prior to booking passage aboard her little ship. 

“Probably.” Rachel tried her best to sound chipper rather than frustrated. “There are no guarantees in this sort of work.” 

“Hmm.” Courtenay tapped on the headrest of Rachel’s chair for a few moments. “Well, do let me know if there’s anything I can do.” With that, he turned and headed back down the passage to the lounge.  

As Rubicelle Randy crept closer to Adimari Valis, the professor’s nervousness – or perhaps excitement – was growing, and with it his obvious sense of his helpless situation. Rachel could hardly blame her passenger for feeling useless and knowing that his fate was out of his own hands, but she absolutely intended to blame him for venting his unease by wandering up to the cockpit every few minutes to pose inane questions.  

Sneaking into an Incarnation-occupied system to land on a world wholly under sway of its chip-headed, lockstep legions was stressful enough. Rachel had originally outfitted her ship to evade the notice of the Coreward Frontier’s various overworked, underfunded system authority patrols, lackadaisical militia squadrons, and even the occasional bored crew of a second-line Navy detachment, not to slip un-noticed into actively patrolled warzones. That Incarnation front-line ships seemed to have better sensors than anything else in the Reach was nothing short of discouraging. If the only two major warships in-system weren’t dwindling toward the edge of Matusalemme’s grav shadow, she wouldn’t have attempted to put Professor Courtenay on the ground for any amount of credits. 

As it was, she had to bank on the remaining Incarnation forces having far weaker sensor suites. Of the half-dozen smaller vessels still in planetary orbit with the convoy’s departure, this seemed a safe bet – four were clearly former vessels of the Confederated Navy or its mercenary auxiliaries captured in the battle for the system and put back into service, and the other two were boxy, decrepit-looking transports of some variety. The force was less than the pre-war system defense forces of the large colonies in the region, but Rachel had to wonder as the hours ticked by whether any of them carried the advanced sensors of a proper Incarnation warship. If they did, she and her passenger would never reach the surface, except maybe as a brief meteor shower. 

Getting close enough to enter the atmosphere was only the first problem. When Randy hit the upper atmosphere, its blazing descent would be apparent both on the ground and in orbit. The coordinates Courtenay had given her were for a site near the south pole, so she intended to hide within Adimari Valis’s almost regular displays of aurora australis, but even so, they’d probably have a patrol of strike craft scrambled after them within minutes. There’d be barely enough time to drop the Professor near his destination, then to burn back toward orbit. 

The console pinged, and Rachel glanced over to see that the computer had detected a stream of small launches moving from the planet’s surface to one of the transports and back. The vessels – probably no more than cargo shuttles – were not much bigger than Rubicelle Randy, and they seemed to be moving to and fro from many sites on the ground, so that a wide swath of the sky was dotted with them. 

“Finally a stroke of luck.” Rachel muttered, altering the ship’s course to approach as close to the transport as possible. If the hulk’s sensors were in similar state to its hull, she could probably creep right under its nose without being detected. 

Ninety minutes and three more of the Professor’s interruptions later, Rachel killed the ion drive and synced orbits with the big transport. She had parked on the opposite side of the big ship from the maw of its launch bay, and so far the Incarnation ship still had apparently not noticed her. Watching the stream of shuttles, she tried to estimate how long it took any given vessel to make one round trip. Unfortunately, it seemed to vary; the computer had detected several that had departed and returned in the intervening ninety minutes, but several also had departed and were still groundside. 

So focused on the stream of vessels was Rachel that she didn’t hear her passenger tromp up the passage once more. “My word!” Courtenay pointed past Rachel’s head to the pitted hull barely six hundred meters beyond. “Really, must we be this close? Won’t they see us?” 

“I hope not.” Rachel batted his hand away. “Really not the time, Professor.” 

Courtenay withdrew his hand, but did not return to the lounge. After a brief pause, he cleared his throat. “I think I see. We are going to use those little ships to conceal our landing?” 

Rachel glanced up at him and nodded. “That’s right. But first I need to find the right one.” 

“The right one to follow down?” 

Rachel smiled and shook her head. “I thought you did your research.” Spying a ship returning from the southern hemisphere, she tapped a control below the console and one of the screens changed to the controls for the special operations suite which had cost her more than the rest of the ship put together. “I think that one will do.” 

“Oh?” Courtenay leaned over the back of Rachel’s chair. 

Locking the system onto the rising vehicle, Rachel tapped the control to copy its drive signature. Randy vibrated as various parts of the gravitic drive shifted in their cowlings to achieve a perfect duplicate of the Incarnation shuttle’s signature. A few more taps, and she had queried and duplicated the vessel’s identification transponder. 

“We don’t have to follow him.” Rachel quickly entered a course that would have her ship pass close by the hangar doors, then follow the same course down that the targeted ship had taken on its return flight. “All we have to do is look like him long enough to get down to the dirt.” 

“I see.” Jarvis Courtenay chuckled. “Your reputation appears to have been well-earned, Miss Aldershoff.” 

“Hold the praise until we’re dirtside, Professor.” Rachel’s finger hovered over the button to start their descent, watching her new duplicate line up to enter the hangar. “There’s a damned lot that can stil go very wrong.”