My ship was all strange and new. I did not have time to examine it closely - I wanted to get out of this bedamned system as quickly as I could. I went forward and started bringing systems on line. Nar'Bon checked the outside one last time and came aboard.
First thing I did was check the security log. Russell stared over my shoulder as I examined the records. I changed them to Earther so that he could read them - if anyone would pick up a problem, he would.
Everything seemed fine. The ship had been accessed many times during the first week it had been here, then the work had finished and the Markab had died. Since then the logs only showed routine cycling of systems and various self tests. I moved to my pilot's seat and began running preflight systems checks. Na'Tal's cheery voice greeted me as I started powering up systems. "Hey, Na'Tiel, I've been waiting for ages! Are we going now?"
The Human was checking more records and interrupted. "Captain - you should see this."
He showed me and the Pak'ma'ra a blip in the environmental systems. About four days ago, the lifesupport system had cycled up for around six hours, then resumed its normal self-checking test pattern, awaiting life to support. Oxygen had been consumed and the carbon dioxide scrubbers had been turned on automatically, indicating that a being or beings had been on my ship. We looked at each other.
Next thing I did was disable the transponder and shut down the comms.
Russell worked like a slave, trying to figure out what had been done to the ship's computer systems. The logs of the recyc system clearly indicated that the scrubbers had had to work at a much higher rate for around six hours four days ago, yet there were no logs of anyone accessing the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal. Either the access logs or the recyc system must have been tampered with. Apart from that, they had covered their tracks too well even for Russell to pick up. They simply must have forgotten to wipe those records.
Everything was ready to go, but I did not want to lay in a course or even disengage from the dock until I knew what was wrong with the systems.
Suddenly the Pak'ma'ra burst out with, "Are there any differences between the old back-up system files and the current ones?"
The Human just looked at him. "Why didn't I think of that?" He sounded aggrieved. His hands flew over the control console as he brought up system logs. "Look, here - these configuration files are different sizes. So are these files here. I reckon that if I replace the new ones with the old ones installed by our Markab friends, then we should be fine. I'll keep a copy of these new ones just to see what mischief they would have made."
Finally my ship was ready to fly again. As soon as the Human gave the ok, I nudged my ship out of the dock and started the eight hour burn to the jumpgate.
About an hour into the burn, I noticed two ships pushing up out of Markab's gravity well. We were too far ahead for my ship's underpowered scanners to pick up any id, but they were moving quickly. I plotted the intercepts. If they were who I feared they were, I wanted to get to the jumpgate first. The navcomp came up with the data. We would reach the jumpgate just ahead of them if I pushed my ship harder, which would then give us less fuel to manoeuver with once we actually reached hyperspace and the exit jumpgate. I also had to anticipate passage through an asteroid field. With my current luck, we would find an active nest of rocks blocking our path.
I ran a few more calculations. If I did a maximal burn, then we would run out of fuel somewhere in hyperspace. If I conserved the amount needed for a safe trip through hyperspace and the other side, they would be almost upon us.
I checked the options available to us from the Markab hyperspace beacon. Pak'ma did not sound very attractive. Been there, done that. There was a long hyperspace trip to another obscure world, and a much shorter trip, only 24 hours or so to an Earther controlled transit point. The Earthers were well known for sticking their noses in where they weren't wanted, but occasionally they were actually welcome, and this time, I would welcome them happily if it would save my ship and my sorry hide.
Russell informed me that the programs installed by our new friends would have shut the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal down about an hour out of Markab. Minimal power to life support and no power to any other systems. We would have been, umm, how did he term it? Sitting cats. No, ducks. Sitting ducks. I don't know how the phrase was derived but I understood its meaning all too well. They had expected us to not notice their alterations. They showed a surprising amount of arrogance in that presumption.
The ships behind us did not coast as I had hoped they would. Their burn continued. I replotted the intercepts. It was getting very close - they would probably catch my ship before the jumpgate if they continued. These weren't any scavengers pushing their ships this hard. These had to be the Redeemed.
I prayed to G'Quan, but he seemed to have abandoned me in recent times. Maybe I had abandoned him. I needed guidance and wisdom. It would have been good to be able to relax, to understand the situation and approach it more rationally, but that was Na'Tal's role, and he was dead, though living inside me. All I could do was fear that they would destroy my poor ship and I would die without even a chance to say goodbye to my loved ones, or even to let them know where I was. I checked and rechecked the intercepts, and with every passing moment the situation grew more grim.
Our only chance was that we could lose them in the asteroid field. The chunks of rock swimming around there were reported to be high in metals and might disguise my ship.
I had Russell run some very detailed scans of the part of the asteroid field that we were approaching with the idea that he could create a program to calculate the vectors of the asteroids. If we could find a dead area of space, we may be able to hide. I did not like the idea of hiding, but I couldn't outrun them, and I had nothing with which to fight, so it was either hide or die. The latter is not an option.
Within ten minutes, the Human had a result for me. By this time, we were in the outer edges of the asteroid belt. He showed me the layout of my course. If we entered on this vector and changed to that one, we should, with a few gentle nudges of thrusters, end up in this region of the asteroid field here, where we were predicted to have around 24 hours of clear space. By that stage, the orbit of the asteroids would bring us very close to the jumpgate.
I cut the engines - this would save both our precious fuel and reduce our signature. I also shut down all systems that weren't absolutely vital. Russell had better've gotten the scan right because we were going in on passive scanners, and were effectively mostly blind.
Touches of the thrusters brought us around to the first approach vector. Hopefully the Redeemed would presume that I had stayed on this vector. Then a few small adjustments to our course brought us back to the region of space that Russell said would keep us safe for a while. I sidled the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal as close as I dared to a large and apparently stable asteroid. If we were lucky, the asteroid would hide us. This course would eventually bring us close enough to the jumpgate that we could do a brief burn and escape. Well, that was the plan.
There we sat and waited for hours. I composed letters to Ja'Hut, or at least his contact on Babylon 5, and one, much harder in some ways, to So'Kath. How do you apologise to your beloved for not sending any messages well over a standard month when you said you'd be no more than three standard weeks? How do you apologise to a three year old for missing her pouching day? I agonised in front of my terminal in my room for hours. Not even the diplomatic Na'Tal could come up with any suggestions.
Thinking is not my forte. I am a creature of action. I know this. To escape the misery of thinking, I spent some hours in furious action in the central corridor or my ship. I pushed my body through every zero-G manoeuver I knew, and still no inspiration came to me. I was still struggling with my letter when the Human's voice called me to the flight deck.
"Captain, you had better come and look at this. Quickly."
I leapt up the stairs in a single bound. Zero-G could be great fun on occasion. Russell indicated the passive scanners. "May I suggest that we have to make a small manoeuver?"
The passives were picking up the Redeemed ships. They were continuing the search pattern they had set up hours ago. They had not yet detected us, but were most assuredly close enough to detect any thruster activity. Much more worrying was the blip that the Human indicated. "This asteroid is a rogue - it is not travelling with this group. I didn't detect it in the initial scan. I only included asteroids in a certain volume of space, based on the maximum distance one asteroid might travel in the time we had to stay here. As you can see, this rock is travelling much faster than this local grouping."
I turned my full attention to him. "We're going to have to make a course correction, Captain." The Human took a look at me and his assuredness fell away. "It's not my fault that I didn't pick it up. I factored in various variables, but not rogue asteroids." He was practically wailing at me.
"I didn't say it was your fault. I was just wondering what to do. Thrusters will bring their attention, which quite likely means death. No course adjustment means being splatted against that rock by another rock. Even if we do adjust course and manage to keep out of sight of the Redeemed, then we will have to leave this area anyway because this asteroid and that asteroid will have lots of baby asteroids when they impact."
I alerted the Pak'ma'ra and Nar'Bon that I was going to make a few adjustments to our position and that it might be a good idea to get their vacsuits on, if they weren't already wearing them. Ever so gently, I encouraged the Na'Ka'Ri'Tal to leave its once safe haven. We drifted quietly through the empty space and moved behind another asteroid as the rogue rammed into our previous haven.
The passive scanners were having difficulty picking up the location of the Enemy. Readings were very scratchy, but then cleared as the newly formed small asteroids tumbled away. I could see the Redeemed ships again. "Oh, no. By G'Quan, no!" First one, then the other of the Redeemed ships abruptly stopped their search pattern and began moving directly towards our position.
There was nothing to do but make a run for it. We were almost as close to the jumpgate as we would ever get in the asteroid field. We should be able to beat the Redeemed ships there simply because had been drifting towards the jumpgate whilst they were headed in almost exactly the wrong direction and going there fast. I brought full systems back on line, then keyed the engines up to maximum burn. The Na'Ka'Ri'Tal fled between the asteroids and leapt for freedom.
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