Ptichka, Mars orbit and Phobos

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Mal Fnord:

"Phobos Control, this is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Zero Two Three, we are inbound from Saturn and are on Mars approach. Requesting orbital insertion window and a rendezvous path for docking at Phobos Station, over."

<<Roger that, Zero Two Three. Be advised, traffic for Phobos is very heavy right now. Settle into a parking orbit 300 kilometers ahead of Phobos until further notice. Sending your insertion data now, over.>>

"Understood, Phobos Control. Let us know when the queue starts to move. Zero Two Three out."

The navicomp chimed as the ATC system fed us all the data we needed to make a safe orbital insertion. Mars always had a lot of traffic - being the closest thing to an inhabitable planet not under the 'danelaw, lots of people had homesteads or camping sites or whatnot on the surface, plus with the terraforming going on you had comet drops and all sorts of other inscrutable tasks going on - and with the Convention at Phobos, things had just gotten messier. We *could* have just bulldozed our way through that mess and gone straight in, the Star has the engine power and the navigational deflectors to do it, but that would be an unfathomable breach of Convention ettiquete.

Once the navicomp had digested our route data, I switched control over to the autopilot. "Okay Ptichka," I said to the console, "get us on our track and hold her steady. I'm going to get a drink, be back in five." The console chirped agreeably and I climbed out of my seat on my way down to the foredeck.

Climbing down from the flight deck I saw the rest of the crew hanging out, as per usual when we were in transit, in the foredeck lounge. The lounge is the only large common room on the ship (aside from the fight deck, but that's not the place to socialize) and as a result we tend to use it a lot. It's a bit cramped when we're running with a full crew, but considering half the Nation lives in converted cars I think we're pretty lucky.

The lounge is also the one place onboard that has a really good view of space. There are no real windows - the only windows are in the windscreen up on the flight deck - but after we glued some high-definition LCD matrix screens to the bay window from an old Airstream trailer and sprayed the whole unholy creation with handwavium, we had a beautiful 270-degree view of whatever was going on outside. It was almost better than the real thing.

"What news from the front, O my captain?"

"I've got good news and bad news," I said as I hit the deck. "The good news is we're on track for Mars orbit, no hitches. The bad news is Phobos has heavy traffic, so we'll probably be stuck waiting to come in for a landing for the rest of the day."

That announcement brought a faint, but heartfelt, groan from everybody. Three weeks out at Saturn had made us appreciate the creature comforts of the inner system. Ptichka is a lovely ship, but sooner or later you get tired of eating, drinking and bathing in nothing but handwavium recycle.

Our chief engineer shrugged philosophically. "Ah well," he said. "At least we'll get a chance to do some rubbernecking."

Which is what we set out to do. Or that's what they set out to do, anyway. I retrieved a root beer from the fridge and climbed back up to the flight deck to oversee the orbital insertion. Ptichka could've handled it without any input from me - that's what she was designed for - but as captain I figured that I should at least be there.

Initial insertion came off without a hitch. We'd started on Mars's night side, bounced our deflectors off the atmosphere for a second or two and settled into a nice looping orbit that would bring us into our parking spot in an hour or so. I sat in my comfortable pilot's chair, sipping on root beer and catching up on my reading while Ptichka did most of the hard work.

As we crossed over into the dayside I noticed we were starting to pick up more traffic. Cars, boats, planes and other cobbled-together spacecraft drifting around us. Through the hatch down to the lounge I could sort of hear the faint sound of snarky comments and laughter as the crew judged each craft on technical and aesthetic merits. I chuckled a bit and went back to my reading.

"HOLY SHIT!" The exclamation came from the lounge, jostling me out of book trance. The sound wasn't alarm, it was more... astonishment. I blinked and thumbed open the intercom.

"Something wrong down there?"

"Mal! Check it out, starboard near the planet!" That was Elena, our resident n00b and offical Person Who Remembers The Sense of Wonder. "I've never seen a ship that big before!"

Curious, I took a glance outside the window, looking in the general direction Elena had said.

I have to admit, I was surprised.

About five clicks away off our starboard wing, moving maybe a few feet per second faster than us (some part of my mind idly wondered what the hell Phobos ATC was doing, grouping us so close like that) so it drifted by majestically instead of flashing past in a blur, was the biggest by-Cthulhu starship I had ever seen.

Ptichka is big as fen ships go, running 40 meters from nose to tail, 20 meters tall and a 25 meter wingspan. This thing had to be a good 150 meters long, with a 30 meter beam. In its previous life it must've been a container ship, with a long, flat foredeck and superstructure that looked like an office building glued to the stern. The old hull had been covered with what looked like armor plating, a forest of new and interesting antennae were mounted on the superstructure and best of all, there was a gigantic weapon mount of some kind attached to the forecastle.

"Look at that!" Elena shouted into the intercom as the megaship sailed past. "Isn't that something?"

"Yeah," I replied. "That is indeed something." I watched the ship go by in silence, looking for a name or registry number I could look up once we were docked at Phobos. I had to get the story out of this one. The ship's stern came into view, two huge impressive-looking engines flanking the superstructure, and between them I could just about make out the ship's name painted on the fantail:




One of the things I truly love is landing Ptichka in front of people who don't expect it.

Now, Ptichka has a very recognizable silhouette from a distance. Most people when they first see her actually think she's one of her more famous cousins. This has worked to our advantage once or twice, spooking folks who think the 'danelaw is approaching and bugging out fast. It's gotten us into a few impromptu firefights, too, but that's a story for another time. Still, the resemblance from a distance is striking; the distinctive black and white markings and double-delta wings are instantly recognizable to anybody familiar with the History of Spaceflight, 1961-2000.

The closer you get, the resemblance starts to fade a bit. Her lines are sharper, her nose a little more pointed, the big engine pods missing from the aft fuselage. Most people who don't know her history think that she's a mockup, a thrown-together copy built by fanboys without a proper reference guide. Which I suppose is true, from a certain point of view. She is a copy, but she's the finest copy 1986 Soviet aerospace technology could build of the finest rocketplane technology 1974 America had to offer.

Yeah, she can be a bit balky at times, and repairing stuff usually means whanging on it with a crescent wrench until it starts working again, but I swear to you that the combination of Soviet hardware and concentrated handwavium that is Ptichka (formerly Buran airframe #1.02) is damned near inde-fucking-structable.

She also makes one hell of an impression upon arrival. We passed into the main hanger deck and the double-takes made the extra five hours hanging out in the entry queue all the more worthwhile. Phobos Control knew us already, so they had a good parking slip already lined up.

We also had a couple of fans waiting for us. For reasons that I will never understand, Ptichka has become something of a minor legend amongst certain fannish fractions. It probably has to do with our successful libertation of the ship from the mundane authorities. Most people use their old cars, buy some junker or kitbash their own hull; actually going out and buying the Last Soviet Space Shuttle tends to attract some notice, even in Fenspace.

Everything from there moved more or less like we expected. We popped the hatch, greeted our adoring public, got ourselves and our shit out and ready to move, and grabbed the next turbolift up the hab levels. Once we'd hit the main level, we spent some of our hard-earned JPL money (plus a little bit of our JPL footage) on accomodations, got our stuff moved into the rooms, then hit the convention space drinks in hand, ready for action.

The first little bit was nothing more than people-watching with a bit of light networking. Saying hi to fen we hadn't seen in a while, talking to folks who knew us or knew Ptichka, generally just taking a look at how the Nation had changed since the last time we'd been in the inner system. On the far pavillion the Pirate faction were busy setting up their recruitment center. Thankfully it looked like station security or the organizers were keeping the various ninja clans far away. The floor was starting to fill up, and stagehands were getting the big central stage ready for our benefactors, the mysterious SOS Brigade.

"So," I muttered to Calc, ship's sysadmin and legal counsel, "we ever figure out who these SOS guys are?"

Calc frowned. "Not exactly. They're Japanese, but they're not affiliated with the Otaking or any of the other major factions." He took a sip of his Martian faux-Glenlivet and continued. "As far as I can tell, they only just out here a few months ago."

"Huh, and they're already calling a Convention?"

"Yeah, and they've got a pretty definite agenda too." I would've replied to this bit, but just as I was about to ask what the SOS agenda was, chief engineer KJ interrupted with more pressing business.

"Hey, isn't that Gristle McThornbody from Fox over there?" Gesturing in the general direction of the press booth, where a pack of mundane newsmuppets (as opposed to the fan newsmuppets, who tended to be, well, actual muppets. But I digress.) were busy jockeying for the best angle of the reception area to serve as background color. There in the thick of it, looking a bit green around the gills from all the gravity shifts between the hangar decks and the main living areas, was the blandly handsome face of the mundanes' finest Space Correspondent.


I handed my drink off to KJ. "Hold this, man. Be right back." I threaded my way through the crowds, getting closer and closer to the press area. As I drifted closer to the booth, I saw that McThornbody's camera light had just went on. Perfect. The booth was surrounded by gawkers, some waving into the cameras, others looking for the world like they wanted bags of popcorn to throw at the reporters. McThornbody was almost in reach, and I could hear him blathering into the camera about the Convention and the far-reaching implications.

Just as he got to the point in his script about "political backlash," I grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. "Oi! McThornbody!" I yelled cheerily as I proceeded to deck him with my free hand live on international TV. "That's for running out on the tab in St. Louis, you prick!"

Naturally, this caused a bit of a disturbance. Between the consternation of McThornbody's fellow reporters, the cheering of my fellow fans and McThornbody's bleating cries on the floor, the press booth suddenly got a *lot* livlier. I took advantage of the confusion to slip back into the crowd and back to my compatriots, who had apparently watched the whole thing unfold judging by the way they were nearly doubled over laughing.

Having settled accounts with the weasel from Fox, (which the overhead monitors were now showing on an endless loop) I turned to my crew and started making plans. "Okay kids, time to go mingle. We probably won't find out what we've been called in for tonight, so go have a good time and we'll meet back here once things start getting underway in earnest tomorrow." I noticed that I was already short a few; our resident married couple had already slipped off, either to one of the station's dance clubs or just back to their room. Meanwhile my tactical officer was diving into the crowd towards the Klingon contingent, bokuto out and ready for some friendly mayhem. "Assuming that you haven't already," I amended with a bit of a smirk.

KJ finished his beer in one gulp, tossed the empty into a handy recycler and turned towards the edge of the throng. "I'm gonna hit up the marketplace," he said. "Maybe see if I can't find some wilderness refueling gear for the lifesystem, or maybe get a Wii to replace the tactical computer while I'm at it."

"Good idea. Be sure to grab an icon for Ptichka while you're at it. You'll need the bribe if you're going to cut her open."

"Yeah, yeah..." KJ vanished into the crowd, heading for the market levels.

Calc looked thoughfully at the convention floor. "I think I'm going to hit up WARGH!" he didn't get the chance to finish his thought, as a gaggle of Senshi cosplayers emerged from the crowd, pounced on him and started dragging him away. Elena boggled. I just sighed and took a sip of my drink.

"Should've seen that one coming," I mused. I don't know what it is about him, but for some reason Calc always attracts this kind of female attention whenever we're in a highly populated area. As funny as these sorts of ambushes usually are, I still had a duty to protect my crew, so I whistled after the retreating Senshi. "OI! You lot, with the lawyer! Hold it a second!"

The cosplayers stopped and gave me a curious look. "Yeah?" demanded the tallest one.

"That guy's part of my crew! I want him returned intact, same species and same gender he was when you found him, y'hear?"

"What about hair color?"

I gave this due consideration. "That's negotiable!"

The cosplayers cheered. Calc might've groaned; I didn't hear it, but he certainly *looked* like he had. The Senshi dragged him away into a side alcove. I dedicated the rest of my drink to his health.

Elena eyed the crowd nervously. "Er, so what should I do?"

"Go mingle. Say hi, talk to 'em about stuff. You're a BNF, regale 'em with your heroic exploits around Saturn, and listen to them regale you with their heroic exploits. You know, the usual. Just keep your head and don't eat, drink, smoke or fuck anything that's more'n five percent handwavium by weight and you'll be fine."

"But I don't know any of these people!"

"Bah, you probably know half of them through the Net, you just don't know what they look like." I gave her a bit of a push into the crowd. "Now g'wan! Scoot! It's a party, so have fun!" She gave me a bit of a dirty look as a group of stormtroopers swept her down towards the bar.

I swear, it's like being a den mother sometimes.

I finished my drink and started pushing my way through the crowd towards the more private bar near the SSX pavillion. Unless I missed my guess, that's where the SMOFs would be gathering, probably to hear the initial proposal from SOS.

That was about the point when all hell broke loose near the entrance.