Ship’s Captain Lut Nansen awoke from a dreamless nap. He was still in the pilot’s chair of the shuttlecraft.
No … I haven’t spoken with my brother for years. He never listened to me.
No … that’s not right either. I haven’t seen my son since he was six. He was so difficult to deal with. And so was his mother, by then.
On the floor around him were a few empty packets of food concentrate he didn’t remember eating.
He looked around. Yes, he was alone. He now remembered that part clearly.
Now that the rush of terror had dissipated, the other events of three days earlier were coming back to him and fitting into place. It had begun with an urgent beeping from the engineering status board on the Maher‘s bridge.
Commander Rahil Sidorova trotted over to the wall panel and muted the alert. “Captain, systems are showing a thermal spike in Reactor Three.”
“Captain to Chief Engineer.”
“Something’s wrong with the second-stage dampener,” came the rushed reply. “We’re assessing it.”
The engineering panel resumed its one-note melody of warning, and Sidorova thumbed it off again.
“Assess it quickly,” Nansen ordered. “And keep this line open.”
Everyone on the bridge could hear the agitated mutterings and questions and cursings of the engineering crew as they worked to understand the problem.
Again, the wall panel sounded its alarm. The first officer looked at the new reading.
“Captain, I recommend we prepare to jettison the reactor,” Sidorova said.
Three giant fusion reactors were yoked at the end of a kilometer-long boom, away from the spherical main hull of the ship. Explosive charges would sever the connection to the failing reactor; the other two would provide thrust to get as far away from an explosion as possible.
“No, Commander,” Nansen said. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”
Nansen tried to remember why he had said that. Rahil’s suggestion was straight out of the manual. He had practiced this very possibility in a command simulator many times, and arming the jettison charges was the proper response to the emergency.
Why did I say not to arm them? Did I believe the engineers would fix the problem? Argyros was a good engineer. But why did I not take the proper precaution?
“Captain,” Argyros yelled through the intercom, “nothing we’re doing is having any effect. I’m going to evacuate the section. Get ready to jettison the reactor.”
“Remain at your post, Argyros,” Nansen said firmly. “I’m sure you can fix the problem.”
“No, Captain! We can’t do anything with it. We’ve … Horace! Get everyone out of here! Captain, we’ve tried everything we can. The physical controls in the dampener have failed. We can’t route around them.”
“Argyros, listen to me,” Nansen said. “We are taking this ship home in one piece. You and your engineers will remain at your posts and correct the problem.” Silence. “Argyros! Respond!” But the engineer had fled.
The engineering status board voiced its concern again, this time with a steady sound like that of an electrocardiograph when a patient dies. Sidorova ignored it and ran back to her command status board. She quickly instructed the computer to arm the jettison charges for Reactor Three.
A loud alarm wailed through the Maher, letting everyone know of the danger and the hoped-for cure.
“What are you doing?” Nansen shouted.
“Trying to save the ship,” she responded, and she keyed the final instruction. Nearly a kilometer away, powerful explosives broke the superstructure and a final one provided some thrust to move the failing reactor away from the ship.
“Karnes!” Sidorova yelled. “Evasive at best thrust.”
The helmsman called for all the power the remaining reactors could give and angled the ship away from the damaged reactor, now a free-floating bomb.
“You have no right to do this!” Nansen yelled. “You are relieved!”
Sidorova paid no attention, and the bridge officers were perfectly happy to follow the orders of someone who was trying to keep them alive.
Sidorova watched a tactical display, showing the positions of the ship and the discarded reactor. They were slowly separating, and Reactor Three’s internal sensors were still sending data. Sidorova watched until a particular reading reached a critical point.
“Thrust off!” she ordered, and Karnes shut down the drive. “Turn us into it.”
With the little chemical maneuvering thrusters mounted on the long boom, Karnes turned the Maher so that the huge three-meter-thick meteorite shield that protected the main hull would catch most of the blast. There would be no shock wave as such, not in space, but there was going to be plenty of radiation when the reactor blew.
She was a good officer. She would have made ship’s captain someday. I would have seen to it.
Nansen looked down at his uniform. Two golden oak leaves cradled his badge of rank, letting all know that he was not merely a captain but a ship’s captain – someone trained and authorized to command a deep space ship. Only the best of the best were given such responsibility and honor. At present, they numbered eleven.
She did everything I should have done. Why didn’t I do it?
The reactor exploded.
The distance was still increasing between the ship and the point of explosion, but not quickly enough. A wave of superheated gas and radiation slammed into the ship, imparting a little more velocity and shaking it up.
“Radiation alarms in aft engineering sections, Commander!” a junior officer reported. “Main hull still reporting radiation secure.”
The engineering status panel started beeping again, and the same young officer, Jaad, ran over to silence it. “Fluctuations in both remaining reactors.”
Sidorova punched the intercom button. “Bridge to Chief Engineer. Shut down Reactors One and Two.”
“I’m on it!” he yelled back. “I think we can get a safe shutdown.”
“Commander,” Jaad said, now looking at another console, “the force of the blast has weakened several of the beams connecting the shield to the hull.”
Sidorova transferred the information to the main viewer. Fifteen thick beams kept the shield attached to the hull it protected. Eight of them were outlined in red, indicating potential failure.
“Computer,” she said, “map critical stress points.”
A jagged portion of the main hull lit up in yellow; that was the area that could be pulled away by the mass of the shield when the support beams gave out. She hit the intercom’s public address button.
“All hands, attention. This is the first officer. Evacuate sections one through five all decks. Repeat: evacuate sections one through five all decks.”
Nansen came back to life. “Do you see what you’ve done to my ship? You’ve destroyed it! You’re to blame!” he screamed at Sidorova. He rounded on the other officers. “If you’d followed my orders, this wouldn’t have happened. You’ve mutinied. It’s all your fault. You’re mutineers! I could have saved us!”
He ran to the elevator and disappeared. The car took him down through the main hull to the hangar bay. He ran to the nearest ship and powered it up.
Outside, the hangar bay went dark as the reactors shut down. Emergency lights came on, not quite illuminating the bay. Nansen realized that he had lost primary power for leaving the ship. He accessed the Maher‘s main computer through the shuttle’s interface.
“Computer, this is Ship’s Captain Lut Nansen. Reroute power to launch bay one.”
“The only power available in this section is being used for life support,” the computer replied.
“Use it. Authorization Nansen 14182.”
The computer obeyed the override and pulled the power from life support. The launch bay in front of the shuttle lit up. Nansen activated the winch that pulled the shuttle into place. The door slammed shut behind the little ship and the launch door yawned beneath it. Nansen dropped out and went to full power, blasting away from his crippled deep space ship.
He sat with that thought for several minutes.
When my ship and crew needed me the most, I failed them and then I ran.
He checked his position and heading. The nearest base was over three months away. He hadn’t considered that when he left the Maher. The shuttle’s power and air wouldn’t last that long. He could look forward to freezing to death or suffocating, whichever came first.
I passed all the tests to become a ship’s captain. When I faced the real test, I folded. And I ran. I’m a coward. I’m a fool.
Nansen entered some commands into the console.
I ran from my responsibilities at home. I ran from my responsibilities as a parent. And I fooled everyone, including myself, into thinking I was a leader.
He bypassed the computer’s protests at his orders, and it accepted the suicidal directives.
Just one thing left to run away from.
“Reading debris, some of it organic,” Jaad said. “It’s the shuttlecraft, Captain. No doubt about it.”
It had taken nearly a week, but thanks to a lot of hard work and some inventive engineering strategies, the Maher was up and running again, on course for Earth and proper repairs and a new reactor.
The ship already had a new captain; Fleet Command had given Commander Siderova a field commission as ship’s captain. Her uniform now sported golden oak leaves cradling a captain’s insignia. The Maher‘s crew followed her orders confidently.
“Keep us out of the debris field, Mr. Karnes,” she said. “Remain on course for home.” And she studied the latest report from sick bay, dismissing the minor navigational hazard from her mind. She’d spared Captain Nansen enough thought recently.