The morning light was beginning to stream in through the window as Metzger finished viewing the latest slides. He was ready to say it. They were at least fifty percent confident on one lay line. With such a wide margin, though, that he could only say that it defined a half light year wide swath through space. A loose definition of a line. But it cut through their search area. That narrowed things down a bit.
He heard a noise at the door, and turned to see his captain entering with a bag and a tray of coffees.
“Breakfast,” he announced. “We’ve only about a half hour before we need to get going for the airstrip, so eat up.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Captain, if anything, I should be bringing breakfast to you.”
“Nonsense, Mr. Metzger,” the captain dismissed his protest. “You’re my XO, not my side boy.”
He pulled out croissants and set one in front of Metzger with a coffee. He distributed the same to Ludow, whose eyes remained glued to her screen, scanning through result slides.
Metzger sighed again and pushed away from the screen. “I suppose that’s it then. I’ve done what I can do.”
The captain busied himself with his own croissant and didn’t reply.
Ludow finally looked up. “Oh, hello, sir! Ah. Thank you.”
After sipping and swallowing, the captain finally spoke again. “So, do you have any good news for me? Any narrowing of the field?”
The chief’s mouth was full of coffee, so Metzger fielded the question for her. “Well, sir, we think we may. Only a little though.”
The captain had taken another bite, so he just watched Metzger and waited.
The XO nodded and grabbed a print from the desk. “This is one of the wild shots she took at open space before she stopped shooting. It appears… or at least we’re about 50 percent sure… that she managed to take a picture of Canopus.”
The captain stopped chewing and swallowed. He was giving Metzger an odd, intent stare.
“Yes, sir. It looks almost as if she hit it dead on. As if she was shooting at it.”
Metzger frowned, confused. The captain was taking this news with far more interest than could he could imagine to be reasonable. What had he said?
He noted, “It only gives us one lay line…”
“When she was shooting at nothing… at the end… how many times did she shoot?”
“She fired short bursts in three different directions, sir.”
The captain’s stare became even more intense.
“Which shot is this?” he demanded, with considerable force.
Metzger was a little shocked. His commander often had wider mood swings than the German liked, but this shift was far more sudden than most. “It’s the middle one, sir.”
Ross stared at him with widening eyes.
“Let me see the first one!”
“Here,” he pointed at it on the table, a bit mystified.
“Could that be Sirius, within a light year or so of here?”
“Mm. Could be,” Metzger allowed, beginning to wonder if the captain had used his nerve-ware to fight fatigue for too long. He’d heard of sleep-deprivation symptoms showing up when ‘wared individuals overdid it. “Not easy to say. This is why we are having so much trouble pattern matching, you see. The field of view is small, and the cameras are not intended for astronomical photography. They don’t pick up lower magnitudes well.”
“The third! Where is it?” the captain demanded.
Ludow, who had joined them, indicated it.
“Could that be Sol?”
“Could that be what?” Ludow sounded puzzled.
“Sol! The Sun of Earth! Could it?” He looked from one puzzled expression to the other.
“It’s just too small to be sure,” Metzger ruminated. “I don’t know if we could confirm it. But it’s possible.”
Ross stared at the photographs again. Metzger watched his expression changing, like a joyful breaking dawn.
“Oh that glorious woman!” he declared in a hushed voice.
“Sir?” Metzger’s concerns were approaching alarm.
“That beautiful, beautiful girl!” the captain declared with wonder in his voice.
Metzger and Ludow shared a worried exchange of glances.
“Metzger, Senior Aviator Lee is genius incarnate! I swear I may have to marry the girl!” Ross declared.
Metzger struggled to keep incredulity out of his voice. “Um… sir?”
“I’ve got to go see the commodore!” He grabbed the photo prints and dashed out the door.
Ludow’s noted to Metzger in a careful, neutral tone, “They say mental illness rates run high among warship commanders. All that on-the-job stress.”
The captain came storming back down the hall and stuck his head back in. “For pity’s sake, come with, Metzger! I’m going to need you!” He dashed away again.
As he got to his feet, he worried “I wonder what for?”
“Best man?” Ludow ventured with a chuckle.
# # #
“Commodore, she wasn’t shooting at shadows at all! She wasn’t using her guns!”
The commodore looked across her desk to study the man who had just burst in on her morning tea. She valued emotional hotshots more when they flew smaller platforms like fighter craft. When they commanded something with the broadside of a strike cruiser, they’d better have good cause to get this excited.
“Captain,” she replied with care, “Sesseem gun cameras only take shot when weapons are triggered.”
She could see Ross making an effort to settle himself down. Better. He nodded. “Exactly. We thought she had lost it, shooting at empty space, but it wasn’t the guns she was using in those last shots. She just had to fire them to make the cameras shoot.
“That’s what she was trying to tell me! First star, second star, third star. These are shots of –“
He laid down the first picture. “– Sirius –“
The second. “– Canopus –“
And the third. “– and Sol. Every time she pulled the trigger, she was taking a sextant shot!”
The commodore followed, but saw no value in it. “That’s interesting, but it’s completely useless, Captain. Without her flight data, we have no record of her attitude when she took each shot.”
He nodded and then grinned. “For a normal computerized sextant reading, it’s useless. But she wanted to use the photos for something else. She wanted to do exactly what Ludow has been trying to do! Only, she had better data!”
She saw him shoot a glance at his XO, but the German didn’t look like he understood, either. Ross shook his head and went back to explaining. “Pattern matching the stars in the gun photos is such slow work because we know neither where she took the shot, nor what stars she shot. Then the complexity goes way up because we don’t know what stars are missing from the shots. The cameras aren’t designed to take star pictures, so too many of them drop out. We’re left with nothing but variables in the equation.”
He gestured to the three pictures. “But these! We know what stars they are! The calculations just became thousands of times simpler!”
# # #
Wilkins’s patrol was already beyond low data rate range, but Markova had set up a communications relay using her pursuit squadrons. Her hurried orders to loiter out on the edge of Interstellar and await search coordinates caught them just in time. She also kept Orion on orbit six more hours to allow Metzger and the navigators to continue using Abernathy’s systems to refine the data.
Despite the head start and the better data, the search area was still large, and the LRP hadn’t found anything before the cruiser caught up. Once the sensitive ears of Orion were on hand though, they heard the dead pilot’s beacon within a day.
Space is immense, and even words like ‘close’ must necessarily refer to unimaginably large regions. It took another hour before Wilkins matched velocities with the wreck, and her crew fanned out in search of the capture field.
The triumphant word came crackling over Wilkins’ headphones fifteen minutes later.
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