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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Story By JA Baker[]

A Light In The Darkness
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written September 8th, 2020
Story Era Dark Age Era

The Pathfinder Corps were a breed apart.

Ancient and long forgotten history to most of humanity, to those of us who've spent our entire lives plying the sea of stars, they're, well, part of our mythology.

See, back in the early days, hyperspace travel was still seen as dangerous and unpredictable. And in many ways it was, because they were still working out the bugs, developing many systems and processes that we take somewhat for granted these days. It wasn't unheard of for ships to vanish, explode or suffer catastrophic miss-jumps with those early, cobbled together drives. Even today, we're still learning from Kearny and Fuchida, still uncovering secrets.

But the Pathfinders didn't have time for all that: the wider universe had finally been opened, and they wanted to get out there and explore, be the first humans to bask in the light of distant suns and see strange new worlds with their own eyes. And the then recently formed Terran Alliance needed people willing to strap themselves into untested, barely understood early JumpShips and venture into the far unknown. Thus the Pathfinder Corps was founded, to find and train those men and women willing to risk it all in the bid to be the first to chart the new frontier.

And let me tell you, it wasn't an easy life: those primitive JumpShips were little more than a small pressurized can strapped to the side of a jury-rigged KF drive. Lot of Pathfinders flew solo, to save on supplies so they could stay out longer, go further. They'd be assigned an area to explore, then given a list of dates and systems where, hopefully, a resupply ship would be waiting. There they'd hand off their survey data in exchange for food, fuel and any running repairs they needed, then head out again.

Many Pathfinders died, alone in the cold, unforgiving void. Pressure seals ruptured, reactors overloaded, jump-drives fractured, solar flairs fried systems. They all knew the risk going in, and not one of them balked at the thought of what might happen if things went wrong, if they found themselves stranded, alone, in an uninhabited, unmapped, system, with no way to call for help. To be a Pathfinder was to not only accept death, but to challenge him, to test themselves against the universe itself in the ultimate battle of wills. And, if a lost ship was discovered, tradition dictated that, once the logs were recovered, it was to be placed in a wide solar orbit, a lonely tomb for the brave explorer who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of knowledge.

Some say that Pathfinders were crazy, but I prefer to think of them as exactly what we needed at the time.

Well, times change. Jump-drives are safer, more reliable, and comparatively cheaper to build. Eventually, the Pathfinder Corps was disbanded, deemed no longer needed, and the stories of the brave men and women who first dared to stride the stars became just that, stories. Time passed, and those stories became legends, and legends eventually become myths. But the stories are still told.

We were two jumps out of... somewhere I'm never going to admit to being. Trying to chart a safe routes round a Kurita blockades. We'd picked up three DropShips loaded with Nova Cat civilians fleeing the vengeful DCMS, trying to get to safety with their Spirit Cat kin in the Free Worlds League. Unfortunately, keeping one step ahead of the Dragon meant playing somewhat fast and loose with the safeties, and eventually Lady Luck went and ran out on us. A power surge from a capacitor that I'd told the owners needed replacing a dozen times fried our navigation computer, the backups too, leaving us dead in space with no way of plotting a jump. To add to our troubles, we'd been keeping to uninhabited systems, "off the map", as it where, so the odds of someone passing by before we ran out of food, water or air, were slim.

It was late into the night shift, and I was the only one on duty on the bridge when I picked up a faint signal on the very edge of sensor range. It was so far out, and so faint, I couldn't get more than a transponder number, so I had no way of knowing if it was friendly, neutral or the bastards we were running from, but I didn't have much to loose. Besides, there a certain unwritten rules that all true Spacers live by, and one is that you always respond to a ship in distress, regardless of the circumstances, mostly because you never know when you might find yourself on the wrong end of an SOS.

"Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the merchant ship Antelope." I called out over every frequency the old radio could reach, "We've suffered a catastrophic failure of our navigational systems and require assistance reaching safe harbor."

Then I sat and waited. Light-speed is a bitch like that.

Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime, I got a response. It was faint, transmitting on one of the lesser known secondary channels, and in Morse Code. Yes, it's been well over a thousand years, but any Spacer worth their displacement still knows Morse Code. It has become something of a back-channel, a way to talk to people who you technically shouldn't be without drawing the attention of, well, people who wouldn't understand that those of us born in the void have different opinion when it comes to things like nations or allegiances. We tend to look at another Spacer and see someone who, like us, spends their life battling the true enemy: the uncaring void itself. In comparison to that, something like a flag or a line on a map can seem... petty.

Spacers gossip: What stations have what spare parts in stock, what worlds to avoid if you don't want to have your ship commandeer by a House Unit looking to quickly relocate, ships than have gone missing, things like that. Through the rise and fall of the Star League, four Succession Wars, the Clan Invasion (and yes, even Clan Spacers like to chat), the Jihad and the current insanity, the old Bush Telegraph has remained in operation.

I jotted down the response quickly, and it didn't take me long to realize that they were jump coordinates. I had no way of checking them, but it wasn't like we had much choice in the matter. So I quickly sent back a thank you by the same method, then roused the crew to make a jump as soon as possible. We jumped, and found ourselves in another uninhabited system. And, yet again, on the very edge of sensor range, was a faint transponder. We didn't even need to ask, as we started picking up a faint series of dots and dashes as soon as the emergence pulse faded away. Another set of jump coordinates, again from an unknown sender. Six times we did this, and six times we found a different transponder code hanging on the edge of detection range, and six times we were given a new set of jump coordinates. We could have been jumping in circles for all we knew, but it was enough to give us hope.

The seventh jump took us to the Nadia point of the Avellaneda system, where we found ourselves greeted by a very surprised Sea Fox picket. After convincing them who we were and who we carried, they agreed to allow the DropShips to head in-system. Sent over a repair crew to get our navigational computer repaired. I chatted with the techs as we worked, and they asked about the strange ships that had helped us along our way. I handed their leader a copy of our logs, where we had made a note of every transponder code, hoping that one day we'd be in a position to thank them in person.

Her face when ghostly white as she handed the log back to me. Turned out she was something of a history buff, and recognized the transponder prefixs. They weren't JumpShips or DropShips, but rather navigational beacons. The kind put on derelicts to help avoid collision. More importantly, that specific prefix was one of the oldest ever used, and identified the resting place of a Pathfinder who had given their life in the line of duty.

The End

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