Not the closest shave.​ A Rat Story

If you want to know how it is like when you meet a really tight rescue as a Fuel Rat, read on.
This is a paws-on, real Life Of A Rat story brought to us by Lee N Tien.

“In position,” the second rat reports to the dispatcher. I glance to my radar, he is showing some distance astern, slightly off my starboard. Quick check confirms him to be ten thousand light seconds away on the dot, as per dispatcher’s instructions. Now we are waiting for the third rat to arrive.
Somewhere in here, in the dark empty nothing far away from the closest star is a stranded ship with no fuel and hardly any oxygen remaining ...
... drifting aimless and powerless, her commander’s safe in the escape capsule, rendering the ship dark and unreachable to our scanners.

This is the fourth call I am going out for today, and probably ten times that for the Fuel Rats since morning began earlier today at Wollheim Vision station, where our dispatcher’s control room is located. So far all my cases today had been simple ones, regular “go out, drop in, fuel up” sort of deals. Nothing fancy. It’s been not a busy day overall for the Fuel Rats, and now the day is entering the usual lull between rescues. Until this case came in - the stranded ship already being rather short on oxygen, with the ship’s exact location in the system unknown. At least we only have one call to deal with... we are a bit short on available rats at this particular moment, it seems.

I was the first of the two rats who had initially volunteered for the rescue to arrive into the system and had been providing dispatch with eyes on location. Confirming directions and suchlike while dispatch was questioning our client on where they could have been before they had run out of fuel. In what direction they had been going, at what distance from the star their fuel had dried up, even if the star was the colour I was reporting, as all this had to be questioned and confirmed. Our client had drifted away from the star in supercruise while they stepped away from controls for just a minute or two or a hundred… ending up too far for us to locate them easily.
Dispatcher already made them exit their escape capsule and re-enter bridge once, to broadcast their position for me and the second rat in system. Granting us the direction and the distance from the star, but spending almost a minute of their rapidly dwindling oxygen supply in the process before they could retreat back into the safety of the escape capsule. Now we have less than a minute of reserves to work with.

I am pretty confident in my positioning. However, no matter how sure a rat is in their position, one can never assume anything on rescues. Especially when the time is so tight. We’ll have one attempt. A short one at that. So, dispatch called for us to be ten thousand light seconds apart to cover larger distance, just in case. Always a good call – one of us will be closest. And a third rat had volunteered and now is on their way to make sure we get the best coverage.

Would we have more time to work with, positioning would not present such a problem. If we are short in our distance, we just go further, if our initial vector was off, we’d just triangulate off each other and get the new vector and distance to our client that way. But that requires time. Which we seem to have misplaced somewhere… again.

Hence dispatcher asking us to check our distances and vectors once more… I do as instructed. Target the star, check that it is most definitely directly astern, with the third rat on their way right between me and the star, double check the distance, compare it with my logs. And the second rat, who took their own vector, was only a tad off my course, confirming that I had kept my heading true - or that the both of us had messed up somehow. We triple check everything again. All checks out so far.

“Affirmative position,” we report one after another. Both of us had done hundreds of rescues, although I hadn’t been very active recently, unlike him. Our third rat passed their training only yesterday. But I had observed the test, and she is a promising rat for sure, and quite a character, an excitable lass, full of vigour and a flight-assist-off enthusiast to boot, she’ll be fine as long as she follows the Fuel Rats standard operating procedures.
“In position,” she reports a minute later. We all check our respective distances, while dispatcher continues briefing the client, making sure they know where they are going through the ship, what systems they are using. Dispatch is nervous – they are checking everything again and repeating every instruction to the client twice. Been there done that. My home planet has a saying – measure seven times, cut once. At least this client is quick on the uptake and so far had been on the ball with carrying out the instructions. Void knows how often that is not the case…

We all fully reset our systems, clear ship logs, warm up again. All check our communication connection with the client. Last thing we want is a system glitch or a communication system’s error interfering with the only chance we got to rescue our client in time.
“Rats ready?” asks dispatch.
“Ready,” I pipe back, together with others.
“Client ready?”
“Ready!” – I hear them say. Full of hope. Full of apprehension…
“GO GO GO! Rats, client’s on their way, heads up, we are rolling!”

I breathe in. My body tenses up. I have no control over it – happens every time. Eyes fixed on the communication panel, fingers are touching the buttons I’ll need to accept the direct comms-link with the client’s ship to wing up and then to target their beacon. Seconds trickle away. It takes up to fifteen seconds to exit one’s escape capsule and make it to the bridge. Add a few more to establish the wing link and light up the beacon … C’mooon ...

Ping! My hands react immediately, wing established. I see the beacon slightly off downwards, further than I had hoped, adjust course, full throttle. My trusty old ship moans then purrs in response. Activate Navigation lock, while reporting “Twenty four clicks” to the dispatch. I know I’m the closest one, the beacon is in the opposite direction from other rats. At this distance from the star, I will reach the beacon in about ten seconds. Add a few more for the ship to actually exit supercruise ...

“Twenty seconds!” - this time I hear fear in the client’s voice. Right now they are probably floating next to the comms-panel, ready to kick off and dash back to the escape capsule as their ship shuts down – this time for good …
“The help is on the way, they will be with you soon” – dispatcher’s voice is calm and full of confidence. But I had dispatched Code Reds myself. Many times. I know how we are trained and drilled to sound calm and confident, even if we are climbing a wall in sheer rat panic. How often I sat in the control room myself, arms clamped together, just repeating under my breath with the mike off “cmon-cmon-cmon-cmon” over and over, staring at the screen, willing the rats to get there in time …

We are, however, limited by our technology. Our ships can go only that fast. No matter how much I want right now to exit my ship and push, that won’t help as much as I’d hope. So, we shave off every second we can with the pilot factor, our movements made almost entirely of near-instant reflexes and pure muscle memory.
“Ten seconds!” – fear is replaced by panic. There is still a sliver of hope, but not much.
Supercruise alarm goes off, stars blur. I pre-throttle down, all poised for action… my consciousness doesn’t even have time to register when I finally exit the supercruise, my fingers already pushing the buttons needed. A fraction of a second to target the client’s drifting ship and limpets away! I watch them blast off, bright blue cone of light behind every barrel of pure rocket fuel. Their destination less than half a mile away on my port-side. And they are fast. Get there, little ones!

Second rat is in, their large ship appearing a short distance away, limpets detaching almost immediately and joining mine in their mad dash to the stricken vessel. This rat pilots a fuel-tanker, able to refuel even the largest ship in one go. A stream of limpets continues flowing out, way more than we need – his hand probably just froze as he squeezed, too focused on the limpets flying to notice …
“Six seconds ...” – this time I hear resignation. They are almost done… they are almost on their way to the escape capsule, to lose the ship but save their life … The hope is no more.

The third rat drops in, her nimble ship boosting in a crazy flight-assist-off pirouette towards the client. Dangerous. Her mike is off – she is probably screaming something obscene … Her ship is firing limpets closest to the target of all of us, but my own limpets are almost on top of it now …
“Transferring fuel,” my on-board computer tells me.
It takes about a second for the fuel to reach the ship's systems. They say that when we are full of adrenalin our perception of time changes. This is a very long second. We had lost clients with limpets already attached…

“Fuel transferred” – says the computer. I sit there for one more second … The client’s wing-link is still powered up …
“Client refuelled,” I breathe out. The tension fades, replaced by adrenalin shaking. A second later the same report comes from other rats as well.
“I’m alive! With two seconds left!” – ah, the amazement in the voice, the lost hope still fulfilling …
“Glad we were able to help. Thank you for contacting us. Please stay with your rats for a …” – dispatcher’s voice is still as calm as ever. But I bet their hands are shaking as much as mine.

The second rat is slowly moving away, while the third one is pirouetting around his ship, still without a flight-assist. Both firing chaff to celebrate success. Show offs. At least they are not close to the client – otherwise I’d have to intervene … I stretch, take a few more breaths, switch my comms-panel to direct wing communication.

“Hello there, commander! That was a close one! How had you managed to get into such a twist?“ – I begin my debriefing of the client.
This was not the closest shave the Fuel Rats ever had. But close enough for us today.
What a day for me. WHAT a day for the client! Just a regular day for the Fuel Rats Mischief …

We have fuel, you don’t. Any questions?
Categories: Rat Tales
Your browser must support cookies to be able to vote.

No comments

The author does not allow comments to this entry