It was their last trip to Eris, the last out of too many, this year. They hadn't been further in-system than Caelestis in more than six months, and the last trip further in had only been to Ceres. Caelestis had been their port of call in this massive transport scheme Apsis had hired them for. Periastron, their handler – an obvious code name – had suggested legit work for once. Running errands for the Syndicate wasn't always a great way to make friends or avoid FedPol.
The work had been mostly fine, if boring. Transporting foodstuffs and equipment to the colony on Eris wasn't a high-octane risky job with high stakes and good pay … Periastron had let them continue to use Angelica for the job, which had, finally, confirmed their suspicion of the Apsis-link. John looked out the view port as he eased Angelica towards the docking tower. He could hear Liam and Mikhail getting ready to move out the cargo. What a place to settle John thought as the lights turned blue to confirm the atmo-seal. They had docked.
Aphelion wasn't much to look at, it probably never would be. It was a large bubble city with extra reinforced ceiling, couldn't be too careful in the Kuiper-belt, this resulted in even less light getting through. John and the crew had quickly unloaded their cargo and had been allowed to enter the colony proper, for the first time. It is after all New Year's eve they had been told, and there was going to be a party. There was going to be fireworks and a ceremonial send-off of three communications and research satellites. People were merry and drinks were free.
Large signs and holograms lit up the various quarters, sound blasted from hidden speakers. All sensory input overloaded with slogans for the genius behind the Cepheus-program.
The preparations had been going on for decades. Soon Eris would be too far away to reliably and efficiently receive visitors. They were now prepared for more than 400 years of relative isolation. By this it was understood that help would be too far away to be meaningful in case of an immediate crisis, but new colonists could arrive, supplies would still be shuttled, and military patrols would still swing by at times. Advances in technology would or could change this of course, but the minds behind this venture did not count on the mega corporations and governments of the conflicted solar system to maintain what counted as peace these days. The relative stability humanity had suffered the last century was not something to strive towards.
The airlock shut, the transport's life-support sucked up all the remaining air in the chamber. Something like a shudder could be felt as the ship was released from the docking clamps. The job was done, the last of the packages delivered. John eased the freighter away from the docking tower and manoeuvred the ship away from Eris; he started calculating a route to the Jovian system it was about time to get paid. From below he could hear their engineer working on the damaged gravitic drive; it had been acting up lately. It was a risky run if he couldn't hold it together. But then everything was risky these days, even with a working gravitic drive. Mikhail and Liam could be heard chatting in the galley – they looked forward to get paid again. Apsis had better pay up this time John thought as he settled on a route to Jupiter.
The journey would take a week, most likely more, perhaps less. It was a long trek. It was their last from Eris.
The engines of Angelica coughed and hummed as the gravitic drive generated all the G's it could muster, the shields flickered ominously as the ship accelerated towards Uranus' orbit, aiming for Saturn's orbit to save time and fuel and shoot from Saturn towards Jupiter about halfway through the journey. Out here not many dangers lurked, beyond meteor showers and the like.
It is a long journey, lots could go wrong and this engine isn't cooperating. Steve the mechanic moved his toolkit closer as he got working on the redundancy power couplings – a risky endeavor at this speed, but the risk of them not working was far more lethal, if something else went wrong.
The Angelica was coming up on Saturn. Almost 7 days into the journey, they were only about a day and a half or so from Jupiter. This area of space was still mostly void of life and human presence, except for the research stations on Titan. It should be silent, except maybe for the odd hail from a researcher of the aforementioned installations. Yet, John could pick up readings on the sensors originating from a source closer to the gas giant than Titan, among the innermost moons of Saturn.
The law was clear, any SOS or out of the ordinary signals and transmissions must be investigated. Not only for the "good of your fellow humans," but also for the profit of your employer. John started the deceleration procedure. Hopefully this wouldn't set them back too much… he could already hear the groans from his companions as they realised that the universe had conspired against them. Again.
The Angelica had slowed down from their top speed, a healthy 0.025c, close to 7500 km/s, to 700 km/s and still decelerating towards the source of the signal, they would be there soon, time to get the crew ready. He called out "Get up here, we're within reasonable range, I'm going to start up the scanners." With the flick of a switch two displays lit up, he aimed towards the source and started the scanners.
At this distance there were limitations with their old sensor suit, but chance were they could identify it and figure out whether they could or should move on, or stop to investigate. His hopes weren't high. It could be desperate pirates, fanatical pseudo-luddites in search of food, Belter rebels or a syndicate raiding party. It could also be an old derelict vessel ripe for scavenging, which could mean extra cash … or it could be someone in need of help, some desperate scientist kid in a stolen shuttle from Titan. Either way it meant losing fuel and time …
Focused on the scanning he could hear the others making their way into the cockpit, Mikhail and Liam had been around for a while, but the new guy … Steve? He was useful, but chatty and … worse, sociable. The smell of canned food followed them. Food. In the cockpit. The sensors pinged …