Imperial Space, Science Fiction, Short Story

Hephaestus Fallen

So, this is one of those stories I can’t believe I still have kicking around on my hard drive.

For the record, this is a thirteen thousand word story, set wholly in my Imperial Space universe, with a Hotchkiss/Leopold drive and transitions and the Orgalins who confederated with Concordia in the war that’s the centerpiece of Trigger Man.

Which is all fine and good, until you realize this story was written in 1991. Now, the setting made some changes between now and then. Transitions and N-Space and the H/L drive don’t work, in the current setting, quite like they do here. And the story itself isn’t the most polished I’ve produced — which implies that I’ve learned a thing or two about pacing and storytelling in the last sixteen years, which seems reasonable to me. I mean, this story is older than some of the regular readers of Banter Latte. That’s kind of humbling.

I’ve also learned a few things about science, engineering (small things, but things), and the willing sense of disbelief since then. And I’ve learned a ton of things about spelling since then. I swear to God, I did a complete round of spellchecking when I decided to put this story up, but I can’t possibly have found every last crime against nature and the dictionary, so please remember I was young and incapable, apparently, of reading what I just wrote.

Still, as an artifact of a time when the Imperial Space setting was still called (I swear to God, and embrace my shame) the “Terraesteller Empire,” and as a bit of my life given form once again, I’m happy enough to see this return to the light of day.

And, while I hope you take this story with six or seven grains of salt, I also hope you enjoy it.

Here’s Hephaestus Fallen.

*** *** *** ***

The two engineers were busy servicing and repairing the Hotchkiss/Leopold drive. The drive itself was over fifteen meters in height, but it was the small magnetic coils that surrounded the drive and produced the magnetic field that needed the most work. The magnetic field was necessary to prevent the superhot plasma from escaping the drive, and very possibly destroying the Hephaestus itself. Imperial Naval Subleftenant Gordon Erb was busy with the painstaking job of removing any defective magnalite coils and replacing them. The life or death of the ship could depend on a single six centimeter loop of wire.

Above, C.P.O. Godfrey was running diagnostic scans. These scans caused magnetic waves from one polarity extreme to the other to flow through the drive. Anomalies were detected, and the disturbing coils serviced. The entire process took quite a lot of time, but had to be done.

Godfrey even managed to stop grumbling about the lack of manpower for the job, much to Erb’s relief. Erb wasn’t any happier about it, but there was no one else to service the giant drive. What other engineers were left on the Hephaestus were busy attempting to repair or jury-rig the defensive, life support, and propulsion systems on the battlecruiser. The Engineering section had been hard hit, and many of the Engineers had been placed in cold storage, to be shipped to their homeworlds.

“Sir, I mark coil 662-21B! That seems to be the last!”

“Right, Chief. Hang on!” Erb hauled himself up the ladder to the middle gangway on the drive, and shuffled over twelve meters. Reaching panel 662, he pressed the codekey to the release module. A soft, persistent beep — about once a half-second — indicated the magnetic lock on the panel had released. He swung the panel up, locking it in place on the panel above it. He then looked at the rows and rows of silvery wire.

Erb could actually see the wire in question. It had bent out of kilter, and was no longer the perfect loop it had to be. It had bent into the wire on its left, and would obviously distort the magnetic envelope. Clucking to himself, Erb drew micro forceps out of his coverall and removed the offending wire. He slipped it into a pouch in the coveralls — magnalite could be and was recycled — and put in a fresh wire. To be safe, he also removed the wire the damaged one was bent into, and slipped its replacement into place. Satisfied, he brought the cover panel back down, and resealed it.

“How’s it look, Chief?” he shouted back to his assistant.

“Hang on, sir!” Godfrey ran the test program again. The different polarities of magnetic energy rippled in a kaleidoscope of color along the display. After thirty seconds, green lights rippled across the display.

“All clear, sir!” Godfrey yelled, obviously relieved.

Erb sighed a satisfied sigh. “Right! I’ll go report status to the Captain. You report to Subleftenant Giordano and see what she needs.

“Aye!” The C.P.O. descended the ladder from his console, and headed out the hatch to the fore part of the ship. Erb himself took more time, stopping to cajole coffee from the synthesizer. It tasted chalky — but with the damage to the ship’s essential systems, one didn’t complain about the poor quality of the reprocessing equipment. He sipped again, and began the long climb to the command deck.

Subleftenant Erb walked onto the auxiliary bridge of the I.B.C. Hephaestus. The bridge was a mess of cables and cobbled together equipment, which Erb’s trained eye sorted through, to check which systems were online. Sadly, painfully few of them were. Further, there was only a skeleton crew manning it: a Comm Officer running ship’s sensors, ship’s internal communications, and working on damaged computer programs; a Weapons Officer relaying reports and running diagnostic tests on the battle cruiser’s weapons systems, while half-shouting into a commlink, trying to get some of the Hephaestus‘s formidable arsenal on-line, and a Pilot, who was punching out various potential routes the ship could take in various situations, both in realspace and in n-space. The routes were academic — Hephaestus would have to get back her reaction drive before she could think about moving in realspace. Right now, they had a few navigational thrusters, which at full acceleration would have the net effect of nudging the ship to the side. The thrusters’ combat usefulness was negligible.

The pilot was also coordinating the entire ship’s repair efforts; she was the ship’s commanding officer.

Erb waited respectfully for Captain Bailey to finish her immediate work. He knew she was getting a flood of reports in all the time, and was working on piecing her first de facto command back together. A Leftenant Commander in rank, Annabelle Bailey had been ship’s first pilot when the Captain and First officer had both been killed-in-action, along with most of the bridge team. Suddenly realizing she was the ranking officer, she had ordered a fast barrage of missiles — which did little more than cover them as she punched in a precarious course and made emergency Transition into n-space. The Transition itself had been very rough, and nearly shattered the damaged ship, but the Hephaestus had nursed itself to an uninhabited star system, to jury-rig repairs and get back to Imperial Armed Forces Command.

Bailey turned in her chair. Her usually bright face was lined with worry marks, and her eyes had the bloodshot look of sleeplessness. “All right, Erb, what have you got for me.”

“Believe it or not, Captain, I have good news. The Hotchkiss/Leopold drive shows all green. As soon as the ship is clear for Transition, we can get out of here.”

“Oh!” Bailey said, an increasingly-rare smile lighting her face as she looked visibly relieved. “Wonderful, Subleftenant! That’s the first positive news I’ve heard today! How are our power stores coming?”

“Well, I don’t believe they’ve made much progress in restoring many more solar collectors — but even at twenty-three point four percent normal collection, we should have garnered at least fourteen percent power. A Transition to I.A.F.C. will take a minimum of thirty-one percent power, and it would drain the reserve at least thirty points, so we’ll probably want to wait and build up to forty or fifty percent, for a safety margin.”

“I concur. Good work, Subleftenant.”

Erb nodded.

“I want you to take over as position of Chief Engineer.”

Erb was brought short, startled. A few seconds later, his shock gave way to bewilderment. “But…ma’am, Giordano has the edge on me — she’s been in the service longer, and she’s been an officer longer!”

“I am aware of that, Erb. I have discussed this with Giordano, Godfrey, and Michaels. All three agree with my original thought — you should head the section.”

“But…why?”

Bailey sighed and looked irritated. “Because Giordano is more comfortable and better qualified to take a plan set down by a Chief and apply it to the individual sections. She’ll make a good deputy Chief. Beyond that — because I’ve told you to and in this mess of circuitry and crumpled bulkheads, I don’t have time to explain myself. To be honest, I don’t feel much like a captain — but that’s the job I have to do.

“So do your job and let me get back to mine. Report back to Engineering, and collect progress reports.”

“Aye, ma’am.” Ears burning, Erb left. Of course the captain didn’t have time to explain everything to him! It didn’t matter why — the job was his now.

Chief Engineer. That meant his primary mission in life right now was to get the Hephaestus working and to do his damnedest to keep her that way. Before, he simply did what he was told — delegating authority and responsibilities to others, but not in charge of the whole picture. Now he answered directly to the Captain, and all ship’s systems were his responsibility.

He didn’t like that.

He climbed down the ladders that lead to the middecks. He then walked the long decks to the Engineering section. He was slightly winded when he made it to the aft sections of the ship, and he sat down at one of the working consoles gladly. He resolved to put a team on repairing the internal lifts.

He then belayed that internal decision. The Hephaestus needed consistent air, heat, power, and hopefully even movement. She did not need to make her crew comfortable. He punched the ship’s status onto the console’s central display, cursing at the delays in the overtaxed computer core.

As the schematic finally came up, both of the other displays came to life. Reports from the various engineering teams were coming in, now. Obviously, the Captain had appraised the team heads of the new situation. Erb swallowed hard. It was time to go to work.

The Orgalin Confederation existed on the fringe of Imperial Space. While they were not at an official state of war with the Empire, they were certainly not in a state of peace. Every year, a number of incidents occurred…every year, the Empire repelled the forces and occasionally struck precautionary blows back.

This year, the Hephaestus was one of the incidents.

The Imperial Battle Cruiser Hephaestus was one of the Imperial Navy’s top-of-the-line ships. The Hephaestus possessed a formidable number of weapons from L-cannon through Particle Accelerators, and could single-handedly repel any number of attacks.

However, the Orgalins attacked by surprise, while the Hephaestus was on maneuvers near Excalibur. The attacking force — consisting of five frigates led by a Light Cruiser — was obviously on some kind of military exercise against Excalibur, and didn’t expect anything more than planetary defenses. In this way, when the attackers came out of n-space, both the hunters and the prey were caught by surprise.

The Orgalins, having entered the system prepared for battle, recovered first and opened fire on the Hephaestus. Plasma bolts had slammed into the Battlecrusier, causing substantial damage to the ship before it could in any way fight back.

Erb had been in the foremost compartment of engineering when the attack began. Thus, he missed the hit which killed more than half the ship’s engineers, including Chief Engineer Sai. When he scrambled back, he was immediately pressed into emergency damage control procedures. He spent the entire engagement giving orders to his subordinates, while fire and radiation leaked in from all sides.

Therefore, he wasn’t aware of Captain Bankert’s brave counterattack. He certainly wasn’t aware that the Hephaestus had destroyed one of the frigates and had seriously damaged another before the bridge was hit. All he had been aware of was the desperate demands for power from the bridge, the sudden loss of the primary reactor, the fallback onto the battery reserve, and the sudden lurch of the ship into Transition — a rough Transition indeed. Erb had been thrown twenty feet and slammed into a bulkhead, while the ship’s very superstructure buckled in many places.

Erb had been knocked unconscious — though in that he was actually more fortunate than many. There had been another series of casualties in the battle and in the Transition.

The Hephaestus was on reserve power, and was badly damaged. there was no possible way to maintain an n-space presence long enough to make it to another Imperial world. The best they could do was Star System N-443-5477-2b, a blue star system with no planets, just the debris that surrounds any young star. There it floated — its solar collection units attempting to recharge the reserve power, while its crew tried desperately to put the ship back together.

Out of a crew of six hundred and twelve, ninety-eight people were still alive. The engineering section had dropped from two hundred and six to thirty-four. Thirty-four men that Gordon Erb was now in charge of.

He scanned through the reports. Life Support, though still damaged, definitely worked now, providing air and heat to all decks. The commissary was undamaged but almost completely unstaffed — a science specialist whose lab was obliterated was manning it, keeping the system running. The protein rich soy that was processed into food for the ship was in ample supply, even if the food was bad. No one complained. Four men in Outgear had managed to put two more Solar Collectors online, bringing collection units to thirty four point six percent normal. Power was at fifteen point four, and three forward firing L-cannons had been put back on-line.

The bad news was: the ship’s sophisticated sensor array was so much junk; the main power reactor was so hopelessly damaged, its remains had been salvaged in hopes of getting one of the two secondary reactors online; the duralite superstructure was badly damaged, both from the battle and the bad Transition into n-space; almost all of the powerful ship-to-ship weapons were either damaged or had no control systems to speak of (one of the main fire control computers had been hit by the electromagnetic fringe surrounding a plasma bolt); and the few engineers left were overworked to the point of exhaustion.

That of course didn’t even count the fact that any minute now, an Orgalin ship or two, following up on the (hopefully failed) attack on Excalibur, might pop out of n-space to finish off the Hephaestus. After all, any navigational computer could tell that Star System N-443-5477-2b was the only thing the damaged Hephaestus could have possibly reached on their last heading.

Erb thought for a while. If an Orgalin should appear, limited mobility, power, and only a few lasers would never hold it off. However, there was just so much thirty-odd men could do, no matter who might be showing up. And, with no replacement parts, there was no way to get several of the ship’s systems even marginally operational again. If they wanted to survive, they would have to get the ship ready for a long haul to an Imperial world — I.A.F.C., preferably, but “any old port,” as the ancient saying went.

All right, then. Priority had to go to preparing the ship for n-space. Up until that moment, the captain had been repairing anything and everything, simply because she wasn’t an engineer and didn’t have time to make more than general priorities. Well, now it was his job, and he was going to prepare the ship to escape.

He pressed the comm unit and entered in the code for Subleftenant Giordano. After the computer delay, Giordano’s somewhat scrambled voice came through.

“Yes sir?”

“Sir? This must be an emergency, Three-card! No matter what the jury-rigged Chain of Command says, call me Gordo, okay?”

“Whatever, Gordo. Look, is this official or a social call? I don’t have time for it if you don’t have orders for me.”

“You’re in luck, Three-card. Pull people off anything that they may be doing. Get them onto the superstructure and any defensive screens we might still have. Shut down Life Support to any deck that isn’t expressly being used. If you can arrange to have the ladders we need pressurized and heated, great. If not, get our crowd into Outgear. Press any people who don’t have specific jobs elsewhere on the ship into Engineering. If they complain, tell ’em to take it up with me. We’ve all been in shock, but we don’t have time to sit and do nothing. Got all that?”

“Think so. You really want us off weapons?”

“You have a problem with that?” Erb shuddered. Was he already screwing up?

“No way — anything of a higher grade than L-cannon is a waste of time and of power. But Ensign Ibanz won’t like it one bit. He’s been yelling at us to get the high grade stuff, like plasma cannon, back on-line.”

“Forget that — it’s too much of a waste of power.”

“Yeah, but Ibanz is X.O. He could get antsy.”

“Let him. If he wants those power sieves on-line, let’m do it himself. The Hephaestus won’t be fighting any more battles.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Giordano sounded plainly relieved, even if her ‘aye aye’ had a touch of sarcasm to it.

“So get to work on that superstructure. It’ll take a miracle to get it capable of surviving Transition, but its that or take up some serious religion, cause we won’t be here long.”

“Religion might be a good idea anyway. See ya!” The circuit cleared.

Orders to subordinates didn’t have to apply to commanders. While the rest of the crews started work on Erb’s orders, Erb himself pulled on Outgear and went to work on the portside secondary reactor. He figured that if even one of the auxiliary power systems could be put online, it would be an amazing boost. The liquid methane that the ship used as fuel was still in plentiful supply — but without a reactor to use it, it was nothing more than ballast. The official opinions of Giordano, Godfrey, and he himself were that all three units were not worth trying to save. Ensign Michaels thought the portside was possible to get running on a temporary basis, but that it wasn’t feasible with the supplies they had on hand.

There was no doubt the reactor would be an incredible boost, so he went to work on it. Maybe there was something salvageable on it. Besides, he wanted to let Giordano handle setting up the work details and program, rather than step in and make a mess out of everything they had already done. In an hour or two, he would head to the work sites, find out what was going on, and go where he was most needed.

After a while, his suit radio bleeped for attention. He worked the chin switch. The circuit connected instantly, owing to the Outgear’s independent processor.

“Erb, this is Ibanz. What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Actually, sir, I’m trying to reestablish ship’s power.” Erb didn’t need this. Between his exhaustion and the radiation he had been exposed to during the battle, he felt a thousand years old already.

“Why did you countermand my orders to get the weapons back on-line?”

Erb suppressed a curse. Ibanz was a royal pain. He had been a Starman First Class when he was selected for Officer’s Training — Lord only knew how he had survived it! He was one of those officers who spent more time polishing the rank insignia on his uniform than he did working with his men. But, he was the only surviving Line Officer besides Bailey, and therefore had to be Executive Officer (as well as Weapons Officer). “Because, sir, there would be no way to restore sufficient fighting capacity to even successfully engage a pirate raider. Even if we could get one of the Plasma cannon or Fusion beams on-line, we would need a reserve of twenty percent power — more than we have now, I should mention — just to fire it. Because of this–”

“That’s enough. If we get attacked, we’re sitting ducks!”

“Yes sir, we are. And if every vacbreather on this ship did nothing but weapons repair for a week and a half, we still would be. The Hephaestus is incapable of fighting, and will not become capable without a layover of several months. This is assuming that I.N.C. doesn’t decide to decommission her.” What was Ibanz’s problem? Even he should understand the kind of shape they were in.

“That’s enough of that kind of talk, Mister! You will reassign men to the weapons systems immediately!”

“No sir, I will not. If the captain orders me to, I will under protest, but I would remind the Executive Officer–”

The communications circuit cut off loudly. Erb smiled. He rather enjoyed doing that. There was little enough to enjoy, these days.

“Hey! You in the tin can!”

Erb turned around — a considerable feat in Outgear. A man in the tans of an Imperial Marine was standing nearby. Despite his fatigue, Erb grinned at him and waved.

“Whaddya want, Drew?”

“Giordano sent me down to you — in case you needed an extremely unskilled pair of hands, or someone to get you coffee. Want coffee? Before my commission I was an orderly to a colonel — I’m really good at cajoling reasonable pseudocoffee out of balky processors.”

“I’d love coffee. Cream, if you can convince it that cream doesn’t taste like motor oil.”

“Hey, convincing’s my specialty. It was my service branch as a Corporal.” Force Commander Drew Paradis turned and cheerfully began to punch buttons on the reprocesser. Drew had been the commander of the Imperial Marine contingent on board, before the attack. He was on his way to a staff meeting when the attack hit. By the time he had made it back to his men, the compartment they had been in had been sealed off due to depressurization. He took the loss of his command as well as could be expected, and had spent the rest of his time trying to bolster the spirits of other crew members.

Still, it was odd giving orders to an officer with the equivalent rank of a Leftenant Commander in the Navy.

A few minutes later, garbed in Outgear, Drew brought the coffee over. He had placed it in a zero gee tube, designed to lock directly into the Outgear’s modular system. Erb locked it in, and sipped at it.

“Amazing — it tastes like a distant relative of coffee!”

“Yeah, it’s a gift. Why are we in Outgear? This area hot?”

“Well, it shouldn’t be, but when you’re working with a reactor, better safe than day-glow.”

“Does this thing use fission?”

“No, clean fusion and matter/antimatter. But emergency antimatter decomposition and dispersal can give off radiation.”

“Oh. Any hope of fixing it?”

Erb sighed. “No, but don’t tell it that, okay?” He bent back over the unit, removing mangled parts. He placed these parts off to one side, to be sorted through later. Some of them could probably be repaired or salvaged for new parts. Others were totally destroyed — the plasma charge had sent a highly magnetized stream of ions through all the power plants. Only the magnalite surrounding the Hotchkiss/Leopold drive — which warped the ions around, not in, the core — protected the unit that permitted them interstellar travel.

Enlisting Paradis as a gopher and heavy lifter, Erb managed to clear most of the damaged parts out of the portside reactor.

What was left was perhaps a tenth of a complete reactor. “Looks pretty small, doesn’t it?” Erb said, slightly sarcastically.

“Nah, she’s a little beat up, but she’ll put out twice the output of any other reactor in her class! Really! Just sign the dotted line and pay me, oh, £200,000 for her and I will personally guarantee service for up to five years…unless you try and use her.”

“You should sell real estate.”

“Nah, Hellava lot more fun going in with a platoon and taking it. What now, chief?”

“Now we give up this ridiculous project and go help the others shore up the superstructure.”

Mess call was almost depressing. A room designed to hold two hundred now held the entire ship’s compliment, with over half the hall to spare. People looked tired, even washed out.

Erb had been running high — trying to let the near-impossible task of repairing the Hephaestus occupy all his thoughts, so that he didn’t have to think of the hundreds of people he’d never bump into in the hall. But sitting, eating reprocessed soy disguised poorly as ham he could not escape the ghosts of messhall mates. He briefly remembered lunchtime sing-alongs Captain Bankert had led. It was a fun diversion from ship’s routine. His overall condition wasn’t helped by a mild nausea — he had had his daily antiradiation treatments just before eating. The combinations made his appetite less than overwhelming.

The chair next to his was abruptly pulled out, and the Captain sat next to him. “I’m not intruding, am I?”

Startled, Erb tried to find his tongue. “Uh — no, of course not, Captain.”

“Just for the moment, Gordo, try not to call me that, all right? I feel outclassed.”

“No problem, Ma’am. I know just how you feel.”

“I’m sure. How’s Paradis as scrub engineer?”

“He’s stronger than anyone else in my section and you only have to show him twice, so I’d say he’s pretty good. He’s certainly better than the scientists — most of them know the theory three times better than any of us, but can barely burn a steady line with a torch. What’s more, they have a tendency to argue — their ideas are okay, but they don’t factor in time, equipment, manpower or the needs of the rest of the ship.” Erb shoved a forkful of ‘peas’ into his mouth.

“Well, you’re several up on me. I keep almost calling a staff meeting, only to remember I have no staff to speak of.” She sipped a light green liquid, wincing. “Gordo, Ibanz says you’re giving him trouble.”

“Damn right I am, ‘Belle. You put me in charge of Engineering, so I’ve put priority on power systems and the superstructure. He’s of the opinion we need weapons systems to fight off attackers.”

“That makes some sense.”

“Oh yes. It makes perfect sense. It would also make perfect sense that this star system have an Imperial Naval Base with shipyard, but that isn’t going to happen, is it? We have no conduits or control systems, nor do we have any means of getting them. If we managed, say, to get a Plasma Cannon on line, it’d wipe out all of our accumulated power in one shot. The only way we can win a battle right now is to run like Hell, but unless we can keep the ship from being crushed, even that isn’t an option.” He wiped his eyes, tiredly.

“I see. How long?”

Erb wiped his eyes. “Three days, maybe. If it’s possible at all.”

“Three days. Damn — that may be too long.”

“Agreed.” Erb ate a few more bites, conscious of the quiet between the two of them.

Bailey broke the silence, finally. “I’ve been preprogramming a number of Transition vectors, and with a little luck, we’ll have the power to be ready for one of them. Then, when it’s safe, we can just go straight into Transition.”

“We won’t be able to maneuver.”

“No problem. These vectors are all along our drift path. The problem with that is we have only limited windows to play with, assuming our power ratios allow us to use them.”

“No problem,” Erb said, without great enthusiasm, “within the next forty hours, we should build our way to thirty-five percent. By the time the superstructure is ready, we’ll have fifty percent, easily.”

“You seem pretty washed out. How’s decontamination going.”

“A lot of needles and less than pleasant attentions by a nurse who’s overworked as he’s the last medical specialist on board.” Erb drank the rest of the glop served as ‘coffee’. “How you taking it?”

“Well, I didn’t take much radiation. I’m just overtired. Not to mention nightmares.”

“Yeah. Well, I have to check the progress on shoring up Alpha Four hull, and then I’m going to catch some sleep.” Erb pushed his chair back and rose. Just saying the word ‘sleep’ made him want to curl up on the deck and snooze, but he knew he had work to do.

“Erb.”

“Mm?” Erb closed his eyes against the harsh photorch light being shined on him. It had taken him a while to get to sleep in the unfamiliar bed — his own bunkroom had been rendered uninhabitable during the attack. He didn’t really mind, as the ghosts who would also have slept in that room would have made it unbearable.

“Erb! Wake up!” Paradis sounded upset.

“Wha? Drew? What the Hell are you doing here?” Irritation flushed through Erb. He needed this sleep desperately, if he was going to be any good at all.

“Shut up and answer me, without asking questions of your own. How secure are the power and control feeds for Gamma-two deck’s life support?”

“Huh? Drew, what are–”

“Answer me!” The Marine’s face was obscured by the photorch shining in Erb’s face, but Erb imagined it was contorted in anger. All of a sudden, Erb was afraid of the Marine.

“They’re highly secure. We even have backups there, as quite a bit of the crew sleeps on that deck. You know, sleep, what I was trying to do?” Erb’s annoyance was mostly bravado at this point. Had Paradis cracked? Could a radiation-sick engineer survive against an Imperial Marine, even long enough to get help?

“If it failed, would it fail in just a few rooms, or on the entire deck?”

“What? The deck. Internal climate controls are hardwired — they can’t disrupt. Even if they did, they’d set off an alarm in the room, which the damage to the ship wouldn’t affect.”

“There’s no way a single room’s life support can quit?”

“No. The systems designed to prevent it — even now.” Erb was downright scared now, and not of the Marine. “Drew, why are you asking me this?”

“The Captain’s dead. The life support in her room failed, and she suffocated in carbon dioxide.”

Erb felt cold. “What? Dead?”

“Yes. Is it possible it was an accident?”

Erb thought long and hard. Possible? Of course. No system was perfect. But all of the sensors failed? All of the backups failed? And in only one room?

“No. It’s not possible.”

“Well then.” Drew snapped off the photorch, letting the inky darkness swallow them. “We have a murderer on board.”

It didn’t take long to find the sabotage. Paradis and Erb had worked their way to the Computer Core, where Giordano had been finishing up diagnostics. The three of them checked the log of the Life Support computers. Commands had been sent specifically shutting the flow of oxygen into room Gamma two hundred and one off. Annabelle Bailey had been murdered.

The list of suspects numbered exactly one.

“I don’t understand,” Giordano said. All the animation was gone from her face. “Doesn’t Ibanz realize we’d catch him? Hell, his ID’s logged in this.”

“I don’t think he’s that connected to reality,” Paradis answered, speaking low and evenly. The easy-going Marine’s entire body was tense, like he might explode at any second.

“So what now? Arrest him for mutiny?” Giordano didn’t sound very convincing.

“Right now?” Erb asked. The fatigue and illness brought on by radiation and overwork had given way to a cold, hard lump in the pit of his stomach. “Right now, I do what I should have done when I discovered I was Chief Engineer. I lock the Life Support computer with a personal passcode.” He turned to the computer core, and started typing. “I’ll let you two and Michaels know what it is. If anyone else tries to change things, they’ll be locked out.”

“All right, Gordo. What then?”

“Then? I don’t know. Ibanz is the Captain.”

What?” Paradis was outraged. “He’s a murderer!”

“He’s the only line officer still alive.”

“So what! You don’t put a psychopath in command!”

“Rome did.”

Paradis set his mouth into a hard, cruel line. “This isn’t Rome.”

Erb rubbed his forehead. His head was throbbing. “I know. There are ninety-eight people on board the Hephaestus. All they know is the Captain’s dead, which makes the Executive Officer Captain. If we put Ibanz out of command, that’s mutiny.”

“Mutiny can sometimes be a good thing.” Giordano’s voice sounded distant, like a ghost’s. Her own radiation sickness, though not as severe as Erb’s, had left her ill prepared for yet another shock.

“We’re also ignoring the fact that Ibanz himself is a mutineer,” Paradis said, less passionately. Bringing up mutiny brought the Marine’s strict training back to the forefront.

“Yeah. He’s also the only Astrogater left.” Giordano sounded bitter.

Erb scratched his nose. “We don’t need an Astrogator. The captain preprogrammed a bunch of Transition vectors. As soon as we get the superstructure ready and some power in the reserve, we can go.”

“Yeah, if Captain Ibanz lets us work on the superstructure.”

“Look, right now we need legitimate authority for people to follow. Maybe the shock of command will bring Ibanz to his senses.”

“Give me a break,” Paradis said, his anger cool and controlled. “Erb, forget about the chain of command and the Imperial Codex of Military Justice and Regulation. Think about the ninety-seven people on board.” Paradis let that hang, and let Erb think about the ninety-eighth crew member.

“I am,” he said, after a minute. “I think anarchy would see them all dead before the Orgs ever show up.”

There was another quiet pause.

“Well,” said Paradis. “Let’s find out.”

The command deck was mostly deserted. The communications officer — Subleftenant Phillips — was still at his post on the auxiliary bridge. Without a word, he gestured to the cubical that served as Flag Office, then went — rather listlessly — back to work.

“I’d…better go to my section,” Giordano said. “There may have been…um….new orders.”

Erb nodded, and she went. He and Paradis stepped into the Flag Office.

Ibanz was there. He had a command pin affixed to his deep blue uniform coat, and looked remarkably well-groomed. The hours of toil that had been etched into his face the day before were replaced with an almost unnatural calm.

“Ah, Leftenant. Good to see you. And you too, Force Commander, of course.”

“Er, Subleftenant, sir.”

“Brevet Leftenant, of course. By God, Erb, you’ve been pushing against the wall for two days, now. What’s more, you’ve taken your new responsibilities and run with them. If I have any say about it, a promotion in gold will accompany our return to dock.”

Erb felt unreal. “Uh, thank you, sir.”

“Not at all. I’ve taken the liberty of sending a few orders through Michaels. Not to step on your toes, of course. No, I’ll keep out of your bailiwick. But you were asleep, so I thought it best to speak to your relief.”

“Of course, sir.” Erb looked at Paradis, feeling helpless. The Marine’s anger had been replaced by confusion.

“He’s got three teams on the Plasma Guns. They’re really the only punch we’ll be able to get, I’m sure. After all, the Hephaestus has seen better days. But of course I don’t need to tell the Engineer that.”

“No, of course not, sir. Three teams?” Michaels would have had to pull most of the real engineers off the superstructure, to do the more exacting weapons work. That would leave the remaining crewmembers without direction.

“Why, yes. Do you have a better plan?” Ibanz leaned forward, looking interested. Not disturbed, per se, but attentive.

“Um. Well, sir…I had a priority on superstructure before–”

“Yes, but the ship’s mission is a military one. I thought it best to be ready to carry that out.”

Erb felt lost. Then, a idea struck him. “Yes, but sir! Our superstructure can’t take more than, oh, two hits right now without crumpling. We couldn’t possibly survive a fight without shoring it up. We wouldn’t have time to fire.”

Ibanz folded his hands together and leaned his elbow on his desk. He rested his chin on his hands, with his index fingers extended. He thought for a few seconds.

“That’s your considered opinion?”

“Yes.”

Ibanz frowned, and looked pointedly at Erb. It took Erb a moment to read the mild irritation’s cause. He spoke quickly. “Yes, Captain.”

As quickly as the irritation had come, it cleared, and Ibanz grinned. “Well then, put some people back on it. I know you understand the ship’s needs.”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Good. You know Captain Bankert would have been proud of this ship.”

“Yes sir.”

“Captain Bailey too. God rest her soul.” Ibanz looked genuinely mournful, though he didn’t lose his decorum. Erb looked at Paradis.

Paradis didn’t look like he knew any answers either.

“Still, we’ll have time to mourn when our mission’s done.” He rose from his seat and stepped over. Erb let Ibanz shake his hand. “Go to it, son,” he said, smiling in an encouraging way. He then shook Paradis’ hand and showed them out.

The two stood, staring at the closed door. Erb glanced at the bridge. It was still destroyed, all right. In the closed room, it had all seemed too unreal. Phillips was ignoring them, as he continued to work. Obviously, the degeneration of morale had begun.

Neither man spoke until they got into the hall. “Drew,” Erb said, almost whispering.

“Yeah?”

“Do you check me on what just happened?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think he remembers killing Bailey.”

“Yeah.” Paradis was barely responding.

“Damn it, Drew!” Erb shouted, grabbing the Marine shoulder and pushing him into the bulkhead. “Don’t just say yeah! What’s going on?”

“Oh, I thought that was obvious.” Paradis looked oddly calm, though his eyes burned into Erb’s. “Ibanz has gone totally insane.”

The next eight hours proved Paradis more than correct. Where the ship was in grave danger before, fear and need had inspired great effort. Captain Bailey had helped that. Erb knew that Captain Ibanz’s authority was empty — he was a mutineer and a murderer. But the crew didn’t know that. Both Paradis and Giordano eventually had agreed with Erb’s thought that only the illusion of the chain of command would keep the Hephaestus from falling into despair and anarchy.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way at all.

With the new Captain’s go ahead, Erb was able to pull most of the real engineers off of weapons. He knew they were too valuable in keeping the superstructure repair going smoothly. He left Ensign Michaels in charge of the token Plasma Cannon refit, along with several of the scientists. Erb’s thought was the science specialists would be happier working in the more esoteric fields anyway. Morale quickly picked back up, especially after Erb reinforced his orders on Outgear (so no one else would be a victim of ‘failed life support,’ which worried many people). The work kept the crew’s mind off of the tragedies that had befallen them, especially the most recent.

That is, until 13:05.

Phillips patched in an ‘all-hands’ circuit. “Mess call! All crewmen are to report to the Beta Mess Hall for lunch, by Captain’s order.” Phillips still sounded lifeless.

Erb patched in a comm circuit. “Hey, Phillips,” he said. “You don’t mean everybody, right? I mean, we’re still going to stagger things to keep the construction going.”

“The Captain says everyone. He says that while normally there would be a skeleton crew standing watch, given the circumstances he doesn’t feel it necessary.”

“That’s crazy! Put me through to him!”

“The Captain has orders not to be disturbed.” Phillip’s near monotone was chilling. He sounded drugged.

Erb looked around himself. The crew he was with — busy welding support ribs and columns up — was already sort of dispersing, and shutting down equipment.

“Hey,” he shouted, “you guys feel you can take off whenever you want? Come on now!”

There were murmured apologies, and the crewmen snapped to. Confident the Outgear would hide his expression, Erb smiled grimly. He still had their respect. “All right then. helmets and gauntlets off — we’ll eat in the rest of the gear. It’ll keep us from smelling what’s under the metal suits.” There was a chuckle at that. “Dismissed!”

He heard Giordano and Michaels coordinate their teams over the comm, and the remaining petty officers reinforcing it. Good enough. If he worked hard enough, no matter how crazy their Captain was the crew would be content.

They marched off to the mess hall. The normal groups sat down together, and a low murmur filled the room. Erb forgot what precise order he had given the processor by the time he sat down — the food on the plate certainly didn’t offer any clues. Rather than sitting alone, he sat at the end of one of the fuller tables. He felt he might be more useful if it became necessary.

The captain walked in. No, he sauntered in. Ibanz still had that dress parade attitude, coupled with an easygoing-but-military manner he had to get from watching old Officer Among the Stars episodes. He looked fresh, and unhurried.

He looked mildly surprised when nobody got to their feet, but he let it go. Erb could only imagine he was emulating Captain Bankert’s habits. He could almost here the Captain speak. “For God’s sake! All that jumping around spoils my appetite, much less yours!”

The pain of the Captain’s loss struck home, then. It struck in a way Erb had been too numb to feel. He stared at his food…most of it gray — that must be a beet or something….

Erb’s head snapped up. Panic or something closely related beat in his heart as he looked frantically around the room. Everywhere, there were shock-filled faces, mournful expressions, with more than a little surliness. Just by his mannerisms, Ibanz had brought the entire crew face-to-face with their loss. Erb thought frantically for a way to save it — start making afternoon work plans or something….

And then Ibanz started circulating through the room, talking to people. Erb realized it didn’t matter where he had sat. He was powerless to do anything. Ibanz was still living in his Captain’s Fantasy — that unnerving parody of normal ship’s routine. “‘Afternoon Delarosa. Enjoying your lunch? Heard from home lately?” And P.O. Delarosa would stare, giving odd responses and trying to understand his C.O.’s endeavors. Then he was with Corbin — “Corbin, how are things going? Good, good. I trust you’re keeping up your fencing class? No? Hm. Well, I certainly hope you’ll reconsider. There’s a lot of interest, I believe. A lot of interest indeed….”

Erb wasn’t sure when Paradis had taken to following the Captain around, but there he was. Three steps away and standing ramrod straight, making the Captain’s ravings look like a weird ceremony. Erb was too…fascinated to pay much attention. Fascinated and horrified. When the two started walking towards him, the fear crawled out of his stomach and down his limbs in waves.

“Ah, Leftenant. How are the projects going?”

“Um…well, sir. Well. The power reserves are up to twenty-eight point six, the last time I checked. Once the superstructure is shored up, um, we’ll be ready for Transition…if that’s what the Captain wishes.” He didn’t want to convince Ibanz to not consider Transition. It was like walking a tightrope.

“Transition? Mm. Yes. Captain Bailey had a number of preprogrammed Transition vectors, I noticed. Good windows of opportunity, eh?”

“Oh…yes Captain.” Erb felt hope flare up.

“Yes, well, keep up the good work, Leftenant.” He moved on. Paradis started to move, but Erb waved him over.

Before he could speak to the Marine, though, the Captain shouted to the crew. “Lads,” he said, the way Captain Bankert always had. “Isn’t the lunchtime mess our singing time?”

No. He couldn’t. Erb felt all his hopes deflate. This could be the last straw for the crew.

Ibanz started to sing No More Port Life for Me, an old favorite. If he noticed he was the only one singing, he didn’t let on. Erb looked around, at all the people hearing a full room sing along with Captain Bankert. He saw the people listen to ghosts.

S.F.C. Belson was the first to start crying. He started with slightly shaking shoulders, but soon gave great, heaving sobs into his processed food. The tears and grief flooded through the room like wildfire. Other crewmen scowled, and looked ready to fight. Angered whispers were picking up speed.

“Drew,” Erb urgently prison whispered, “what the Hell are you doing with him?”

Paradis spoke in a carefully neutral voice. Not a dead voice, like Phillips, but a neutral one. “The Captain felt it a good idea for the two commanding officers to be seen together, as a sign of solidarity.”

“What? You’re the only Marine left!” The moment he said it, Erb regretted his words. Paradis had never mentioned the pain he had felt. “Oh, God, I’m sorry–”

“Forget it.” Paradis sounded like himself again, though. “Look, he wants me on the bridge — staff meeting type stuff. You’d better be ready to be called, too.”

“I keep almost calling a staff meeting, only to remember I have no staff to speak of.” Erb’s personal pain resurged, but he suppressed it. “Right. Do you think he’ll go with Transition?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. Let’s be ready for it.”

The work went well enough. Erb discovered that his need to hold ship’s morale together had actually increased the speed that they did things. He also directed Michaels to deliberately stretch out the repair and reactivation of the Plasma Cannons, to forestall any suspicions. The meal-time travesties continued, as did the Captain’s walk-through inspections of the work. Erb wasn’t sure if Ibanz’s apparent delusions were bothering people nearly so much as his unwillingness to pitch in. He didn’t seem like he cared. He did keep Paradis on the bridge, but Drew took the opportunity to keep in contact with Erb, and keep him appraised.

Other than that, Erb tried to keep people’s minds off of the Captain, and onto their work. It only sort of worked. At his daily antiradiation treatment, that same horrible day, he sat in his normal queue, waiting for the nurse to reach him.

Porter, a senior petty officer, was ahead of Erb in line, as always. He wasn’t joking, today. Instead, his pale skin seemed even worse than before, and his bloodshot eyes looked sunken into his head. “Hey, Gordo,” he said, sullenly.

Erb nodded hello, and sat in one of the chairs. He was chilly, today. He wondered if the illness was spreading or if the air conditioning were just on too high. “Gordo,” Porter said, “I thought we were off weapons.”

Erb shrugged. “So did I.”

Ibanz, huh.” Porter said the Captain’s name like a curse.

Erb shrugged again. He was so tired, he wasn’t sure he could keep up the facade.

“There’s a rumor he killed Bailey. I believe it. The skin’s cracked.”

“Don’t call the Captain a skin,” another Petty Officer, Thompson, said. Thompson herself sounded bitter, though.

“I’ll call him what I damn well please!” Porter’s anger flashed to the surface, like a bullet from a gun. “It’s not like he’s gonna notice.”

“Porter!” C.P.O. Godfrey snapped, just coming in to get in line. Erb felt vague relief at the Chief’s presence, though he was still pretty numb. “Lose the attitude!”

“Lose the attitude? Christ almighty, Chief! We’re all gonna die out here and you want me to lose my attitude?!”

“Hey!” Erb’s lethargy burned off, as grief and outrage forced through his fatigue. He whirled on Porter and stood, giving the impression of strength he didn’t really have. “You listen to me, Porter! We’re not going to die! We’re going to survive and get home, if I have to kill you to do it!”

“What?” Porter jumped to his feet, fists up. He swayed, a bit unsteady, and slumped back down, breaking into a cold sweat.

Erb’s anger drained from him, leaving him empty. “Porter, come on. You all right?”

Porter laughed mirthlessly. “Oh yeah, sir. I’m peachy. I can’t even punch you out, I’m so tired.”

“Yeah, well, thank God for that.” Erb slumped back down too.

“Gordo, you won’t have to kill me to get us home, promise.”

“That’s better,” Godfrey said. “We need to stick together, especially now.”

“You mean, now that Bailey’s dead and Ibanz is messed in the brain?” Porter’s sarcasm was dulled by fatigue.

“Yeah, I mean that,” said Godfrey. Erb was too used to fear to be chilled, when he realized the C.P.O. did mean it.

They were going to make it.

It was twenty-six hours after Bailey’s death when Erb realized both the superstructure and the power stores would be ready for the first preprogrammed Transition vector. Oh, the power would be cutting it close — it looked like they would be at thirty-five point six for it. It would be enough, though, if he could convince the Captain to get them into Transition. If they survived the Transition itself, they’d be home free!

Well, they’d be home free if the Orgs didn’t show up first. It was sheerest luck a follow-up hadn’t occurred. Perhaps they were still tied up at Excalibur.

Erb called Giordano on the comm. “Three-Card, it looks good. I’m going to go hammer the Captain. You get people into position and secured. In thirty-seven minutes, with a little luck, we’ll be in n-space heading for Clarke.”

“If Ibanz lets us.”

“Right. I’ll see what I can do.” Erb killed the comm, and headed up the ladders for the Bridge.

It looked pretty much the same. Phillips, still on (or over) edge, was at his post, relaying communications lethargically. The Captain, rather than being in the cubicle, was sitting in the command chair — a ridiculously military figure among wreckage. Paradis was standing behind him, and was giving glib responses.

“Chief Engineer Erb reporting, sir,” Erb said, snapping a salute. Saluting while underway was against regulations, but it seemed to please the Captain.

“Ah yes. Erb. Tell me, Leftenant, what’s the ship’s status?”

“Power stores are thirty-five point five, and will be thirty-five point six by the first Transition window.”

“Transition…?”

“Yes sir,” said Paradis. Paradis sounded military, but his face betrayed his contempt. “Transition for Clarke system, six n-space days. As we were discussing before, standard Imperial Navy procedure, in the event of an underway change of command, is to report to the nearest Imperial Naval Base.”

“Oh yes. Yes. As I recall, Captain Bailey seemed to be flouting that regulation. Still, I suppose we can’t know her motivations.”

Phillips turned and glared at Ibanz, his eyes burning with hatred. The sudden change startled Erb. Did Phillips know? He was a computer operator — the evidence was still there.

“Uh, yes sir. So, shall we, um, prepare for Transition?”

“Didn’t I just order that? Really, Erb, you must keep my orders straight, I won’t be repeating myself for your benefit.” Ibanz sounded mildly chiding.

“Uh, yes sir, sorry sir.” Erb pushed over to the pilot’s station. “Phillips,” he said urgently, “contact the crew, have the engineers monitor the Hotchkiss/Leopold drive, and get everyone else secured for Transition.”

Phillips didn’t respond. Erb leaned over and poked him, hard, and slipped back into his seat. “All right, already,” Phillips mumbled, and started working controls.

Erb punched up the navigation menu and brought up the preprogrammed vector. He loaded it into the navigational computer, and cursed as it dragged on. Finally, the red telltale flashed green. The ‘Time to Window’ indicator read 22:38. Erb watched it count down. 22:37…22:36…22:35….

The ‘Window Length’ indicator read 17.233. They had seventeen seconds to initiate Transition to make the window, before the system flushed the drive. “Phillips, patch me to Giordano.”

After a few seconds, Giordano’s voice crackled to life. “All set, Gordo.”

“Good, start warming the drive up. Be careful how you do it — I want no power wasted.”

“Me? Waste power? You’ve got the wrong person, boss.”

Erb grinned. They had done it. He busied himself with prechecks, while keeping an eye on the porthole, in case Orgs showed up now (of all times). Not that they could fight them, but nervousness was getting to him.

Five minutes to. “Giordano, activate drive.”

“Activated.”

“Power it up and hold for initiation.”

Giordano started to carry his orders out. Erb watched the power level drop. Thirty…twenty-five…seventeen….

It leveled at six point eight. The drive worked by surging accumulated power at the beginning, literally shoving a ship into n-space. After that, the trip lasted however long that surge had put it in for. As of three minutes, forty-five seconds, the power needed for the trip to Clarke was ready for Transition.

Each second seemed to take an hour. There was nothing to do now but wait. Erb’s heart pounded faster and faster….

00:10…00:09…00:08…. It had worked, they had held the crew together long enough. 00:03…00:02…00:01….

There was a beep, and the ‘Window Length’ indicator started to count down. 16…15…14…. Erb slapped the initiate button, and braced himself.

Nothing happened.

He slapped it again. And again. 9…8…7…. Time was racing now. He looked over the board franticly. “Captain’s Override” blinked on and off. 4 seconds now. “Ibanz!” Erb shouted desperately, “Initiate!”

There was a claxon, and five days accumulated power was shunted away, into cold space.

“Right, stand down,” said Ibanz, rising. “A good drill, Leftenant.”

Erb felt hollow. “Drill?” he whispered.

“Of course. When we’re ready to go, we will be ready. I see that now. Now then, I need you to collect reports from your C.P.O.’s on the crew’s reactions and efforts. Now that the superstructure’s ready, crash priority should go to the Plasma Cannon array.

“You…idiot!!!” Erb stood, fury replacing his horror. “You psychopathic idiot!!! That power was our only way out of here! We’ll never accumulate enough to initiate Transition before the last window!”

“Oh, bother, I’ll compute new Astrogation. Right after we clean up those Orgalin ships, when they arrive.”

“We can’t clean anything up! The ship’s wrecked, the power’s gone! We’re dead in space, you bloody skin!”

“Language, Leftenant. Now then, you have your orders. Right, Force Commander? He has his orders.”

“Yes Captain,” Paradis said, and shot Ibanz in the back.

Shipboard weaponry has to be very exacting. A slugthrower or L-pulse weapon might penetrate a plastisteel porthole and depressurize a deck. Oh, it was unlikely, but they had to be sure. The answer was a plastic fragmentation pistol. Metal coated plastic was accelerated magnetically to the end of the pistol barrel, where it fragmented into tiny, high velocity pieces. The pieces couldn’t penetrate hull or porthole. They couldn’t even penetrate Outgear. But Ibanz didn’t wear Outgear. The fragments penetrated uniform cloth and flesh all too well.

“Is he….”

“Dead?” Paradis sounded cynical. “No. Paralyzed, maybe. But he can talk. And with a little effort, we can make him astrogate.”

“It won’t matter.” Anger turned to hopeless despair. “The Orgs’ll show up long before we regain power. Unless, of course, Excalibur Planetary Defenses took all their ships out.”

“Inconceivable. So now what?”

“I don’t know. We die.” Saying it didn’t make facing it any easier.

“Well then.” Paradis sat on the arm of the chair. “At least Bailey’s murderer got taken down.”

Erb felt horrible. Shooting a man? Mutiny? That was a victory? He rubbed his face. It was hot — maybe a fever.

“Ibanz killed Annabelle?”

Phillip’s question startled Erb. He had forgotten the Comm officer was even there. “Yeah. He did.”

“Oh.” Phillips sounded almost mouse-like.

Erb was rubbing his burning eyes — he had been staring at the displays without blinking, he had been so frantic — so he missed Phillips lunging across the room. The noise alerted him in time to see Phillips slam his weight into the unconscious Ibanz, thrashing and choking him, shouting incoherent obscenities. Paradis reacted before Erb could, launching himself forward and dragging the sobbing, flailing officer off of the mad captain. He held Phillips until the communications officer had broken down completely, sobbing and shaking his head. Paradis whispered to the man, holding him in a rough embrace, until Phillips fell into a tortured stupor. Then he set the man gently into a chair.

“I guess as long as he thought it was an accident, he could hold himself together,” Erb muttered.

“Right.” Paradis checked Ibanz. “Dying,” he muttered. “Phillips broke his neck.”

“Another death.”

“Right. We’d better call the crew together — explain everything.”

“For what? Better to just crack the air seals and end it quick.”

“Oh no you don’t!!!” Paradis leapt from the kneeling crouch he had used to check Ibanz. “Erb, like it or not, you’re in command now. Don’t you dare give in! If we had taken Ibanz out two days ago, we’d be in n-space now.”

“I’m not a line officer.”

“You’re the closest we’ve got. You held people together when he was in command. Now you’re in command.”

“But I….” Erb stopped. Bailey’s voice echoed in his head one more time: “…because I’ve told you to and in this mess of circuitry and crumpled bulkheads, I don’t have time to explain myself. To be honest, I don’t feel much like a captain — but that’s the job I have to do. So do your job and let me get back to mine.”

She was right. He was right too. Erb pushed over to the communications board — stepping around Phillips, and punched up Giordano.

What the Hell happened? Did that damn–”

“Not now, Giordano. Get everyone to the mess hall, for a meeting. No Outgear. Pull chairs into a circle for them.”

“Forget it! Gordo, I couldn’t get these people to run out of a burning building. We’re talking a complete–”

“Find a way, Giordano. You’re Executive Officer.”

“What? Ibanz–”

“Is dead. I’m in command.”

There was a pause. “You are?” She chuckled. “I’ll be damned. All right, I’ll get them up there. We might as well write our post mortem together.” She cut the circuit.

“Let’s go,” said Paradis, standing.

“Wait,” he said. “Captains enter the room last.”

“What?” Paradis looked scared. “Erb….”

“I’m not wigged out! If I appear to be a captain, they’ll listen to me more than if I look like a scared engineer!” Erb pleaded with his eyes. Trust me, he wanted to say.

“Yeah…okay. Should we wake up Phillips?”

“Not yet. Let’s clean the garbage out.”

“Right.”

Erb, rumpled, smelly, and exhausted, walked into the room. Ninety-four people were sitting in a circle. Some of them looked like they had been in fights. Erb noticed someone had closed a sectional wall, making the room much smaller. That was a good idea — it should have been done immediately after the initial attack.. However, the smaller room looked positively filled with angry people. That made Erb a bit nervous.

“All right,” he said, as clearly as he could. “Here’s the scoop.” He paused then. What should he tell them? The truth? How much?

“Go on,” Porter said, blood on his face. “We all know we’re dead.”

“Don’t say that–” Erb began.

“Why not?

“Shut up, Porter!” That was another person. Erb wasn’t sure who.

“You shut up!”

People slammed to their feet, and pushed for each other. Others tried to hold them back, but they only succeeded in getting people angrier. It looked like the entire room would break into a brawl. Paradis started to jockey, trying to figure how to defuse it.

Sit down!” The voice seemed to slam into the crowd, like a hammer on a nail. Tempers deflated, mostly out of shock. Erb was mildly surprised to realize he was the one who shouted. “There’s no good fighting. If we die, we die, but let’s die together!”

People began to take their seats again, though anger still simmered through the room.

“That’s better. All right. Here it is. Ibanz is dead. He decided to hold a little live drill, which cost us most of our power. It’ll take four or five days to build it back up. We have eight preprogrammed Transition vectors left, over the next three days. That means we’ll have power for Transition, without any vectors to go by, and no Astrogater.

“Right about now, I’m open to suggestions. When I say that, I mean I am open to reasonable comments or ideas concerning our situation. I do not want to hear arguments, anger, insults or tears.” Erb glanced around the room fiercely. ‘Let them hate me,’ he thought to himself, ‘but let them try.’

“What about a power reactor?” That was Walters, a scientist. “Can we get one back online?”

“No — we have about a tenth of a reactor left in good parts. Paradis and I already went over it.”

“What about the Plasma Guns?” asked Michaels.

“Michaels, we’re off weapons. Unlike our dear departed friend, I’m not psychotic.”

“No,” said Michaels, “I mean, what about their parts? The guns are still mostly operational, and they do roughly similar functions.”

“What?” Erb stared at Michaels, while turning the possibilities over in his head.

“Right,” said Godfrey, “and a lot of Fusion Guns and the Particle Accelerators have salvageable parts, too.”

“We have more than a little nuclear ordinance sitting in our bay, waiting for launchers that’ll never be cleared.” That was Paradis, also looking thoughtful.

“Those are fission,” said Walters.

“But there are similar parts in them. Things we can use.” Giordano had an excited look in her eyes.

“All right,” Erb said, slapping his hands together. “Giordano, segment the crew into teams, and get them stripping all salvageable parts from the weapons systems. Bring those parts to Engineering, where we’ll be trying to get the portside auxiliary reactor online. People will eat in five man shifts — same with antirad treatments. We have roughly two days to get the reactor going, if we want to get out of here.”

“What if the Orgalins show up?” That was Jenkins, a Midshipman on cruise. She looked frightened, though she had acquitted herself well throughout the earlier ordeals.

“If the Orgs show up, we hope our dead ship doesn’t trigger their sensors. If it does, we’ll be dead so fast it doesn’t matter.” Erb clapped his hands together again. “Move it! Oh — and anyone programming the systems for coffee — better double the stimulants in it! It’s gonna be one of those nights!”

When Erb heard the laughter, he knew they had surmounted one crisis.

Nip and tuck, file to size. Make it fit and make it work. Erb knew the parts they were getting weren’t quite the parts they needed. The question was, could you take a pile of the wrong machinery and make it function correctly?

Some problems were easier than others. The hardwired control centers which regulated the reactors were garbage, but the necessary programming was stored in the computer core. If they slaved the computer to the reactor, it would regulate it long enough to build their power stores up, and then they could go off line, resetting the computers to load the navigational programs. He set a few people to configuring that.

Erb himself had to stay with the reactor project. He, Giordano, Michaels and maybe Godfrey were the only people who know how to repair it. Michaels he did without, having him instead work on stripping weapons of their usable parts. He would send the parts down to the engine room, where the senior engineers would try and fit them in. Every so often, Godfrey would head out with a list of ‘must-haves.’ They left it to Michaels to figure out when and where. The parts they got back weren’t quite what they asked for, but could be made to work.

With four vectors still ahead of them, they started the reactor. Then, after putting the fire out, hey then ran checks to see what went wrong. With two vectors left, they tried again.

The power curve advanced up, ever so slowly, until it reached seventeen point eight percent nominal production. There it leveled off, with too many warning telltales in the yellow already. However, since the solar accumulators alone only accounted for naught point eight production, the boost was incredible. At this new rate, they would go up point five an hour.

That point five an hour took them past one of the vectors, leaving them seven hours before the last one. Erb took the overtaxed reactor offline at fifty-one point three percent power. More than enough.

He then took an antiradiation treatment, and a nap. He had been thirty-nine hours without sleep.

Erb was roughly awakened. “Come on, Gordo,” Paradis growled. “Up and at ’em. Emergency!” The photorch glare and rude awakening brought back bad memories, but Erb shoved them away.

“What is it? Do you enjoy waking me up in the middle of the night? The captain can’t of been killed, since I’m the captain.

“Phillips was on the bridge. He saw flares about ten degrees away from the system star. He thinks they were n-space departures.”

Erb sat bolt upright. “How long to the window?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

“Damn. Come on, let’s get to the bridge.”

Phillips and Giordano were on the bridge, which was uncharacteristically darkened. They both had IR viewfinder goggles, and were trying to home in on any movement.

It was a pretty poor sensor system.

“Erb, what should we do?” Phillips seemed to have recovered his spirits, somewhat, in the last few days. He seemed more worried now than anything else.

“Shut everything down but the computer. If we don’t radiate any power signals, it might be quite a while before they find us. I hope.” Erb was worried. He wasn’t really a commander — he was an engineer. His only advantage was understanding the way their sensors worked.

If the ships did find them, it was over. If they maneuvered the ship off of it’s drifting course, they’d lose their window. The only arsenal they had were those L-Cannons — since the light pulse weapons didn’t have any equipment they could patch into the reactor.

“What about the crew?”

“Get the real engineers up and into the engine room. Get everyone else into their bunks and have them wait. Everyone in Outgear, so we can kill life support. And for God’s sake hurry.” Erb sank into the captain’s chair. He was having some trouble seeing straight. His nerves was pretty well shot, and he was exhausted. “Hey, Drew. Before we shut down, cajole some of that near-coffee for me.”

“Right.” Paradis stepped into the Flag Office, where there was a mini-processor.

Erb shivered, looking at that office. He could swear it reeked of Ibanz. Then, he pushed up and waved Phillips to the emergency Outgear locker, while Giordano kept watch. The two of them helps each other into their gear, just in time for Paradis to clip the coffee tube to Erb’s suit. Phillips went and started checking the crew’s status.

“Giordano, Paradis, suit up.” Erb shook himself inside the armor, turning an air jet onto his face by remote.

“Crew’s secured,” said Phillips. He sounded worried.

“Good. Kill life support.” The gravity cut suddenly, which Erb hadn’t been prepared for. He lurched, floating away from the deck.

“Hey, boss,” said Paradis, attaching an IR spotter to his helmet, “try to keep your feet on the ground, okay?”

“Right,” Erb muttered, pushing himself back down with a micro blast of compressed nitrogen. He then keyed the electromagnets in his boots, and he clacked to the floor. Pulling his own IR filter/spotter from his Outgear’s toolkit, he locked it into place and scanned space for heat traces. The solar disk was automatically screened out, of course, though that polarizing likely screened the Orgalin ships from sight, as well.

Erb wished he knew how close they were. They had no way to measure how far the flares had been from the Hephaestus. Even at a ten G acceleration, the Orgs might be days away if they didn’t find them on sensor. If they did find them, a micro jump through n-space would get them to attack range in seconds.

“Gordo,” said Giordano, “you’d better load up the program. We’ll keep an eye out for them.”

“Right.” Erb pulled himself into the pilot’s chair, and activated the program. That maddening delay seemed worse, if anything, but then the displays came on.

He couldn’t read them. The IR filter, still screening out the star’s light, had obscured it. “Guys, I’ve got to pull my IR,” he said.

“Don’t,” said Phillips. “There’s an optic cable you can plug into your helmet. It’ll throw the displays up inside. It’ll even give you a Virtual picture of where your controls are.”

“Oh.” Erb flushed. It was silly to be embarrassed — he wasn’t really a pilot — but silly described him well. With some fumbling, he got the cable connected.

Sixteen minutes thirty seconds, and a twenty two second window. It didn’t feel like a half-hour had passed since Paradis woke him up, but how could he tell.

Please, he prayed reverently, don’t find us for another seventeen minutes!

“I better get down to Engineering,” Giordano said. “I’ll start warming up the drive and running preflights.”

“Right — be careful. The ship’s dark.”

“Hey, what are suit Photorchs for?” She clicked hers on and jetted for the door.

Erb started to run prechecks himself. He noted the power curve dropping slightly, as the plant started absorbing power. The magnetic field that protected the drive — could the Orgs read that? Normally, probably not, but the damaged Superstructure wasn’t as effective a shield against such intrusion any more. It couldn’t be helped, so Erb tried not to worry about it.

“Found him!” Paradis shouted.

“How far?” Erb’s heart pounded.

“Do I look like I have a range finder? The suit’s range beacon can’t penetrate the plastisteel screen.”

“If it could, they’d pick it up anyway,” said Phillips. “It looks like a couple corvettes. Nothing we’d normally be worried about. But if they’re close enough for me to see what they are–”

“They’re too damn close. Right.” Erb glanced at the display. 09:48…09:47…09:46….

“Looks like they’re heading this way.”

“I’m not sure I needed to know that.” Erb took a big gulp of coffee. his hands were shaking inside the gauntlets. He felt nauseous. Was it the rad illness? He hadn’t gotten the treatments he should have, these last few days, though the nurse said he was doing fine….

“If Ibanz had only initiated,” Paradis muttered.

“If none of us had joined the military, we wouldn’t be here today,” Erb snapped. Might have beens were not the solution. “Get down and belt in, you two.”

They did. Erb waited, and waited. At 04:58, they started main buildup of power. The power levels dropped to twenty-two point three, and held.

“One of the corvettes is swinging around. Gods, they must be within fourteen megameters!”

“Damn!” Fourteen megameters was far too close. They had spotted the power buildup, and were pushing for attack. If they could close to five megameters, they’d be in Plasma cannon range — and a P-shot would affect their vectors. They’d blow the window.

“Should I charge the L-Cannons?” Phillips asked.

Erb snorted. “If you want. We don’t have sensors to target with, nor crews to maneuver them, though.”

“Oh. What can we do?” Phillips sounded scared.

“Pray.” Paradis was calm, almost sounding amused. For a second, Erb resented the Marine’s composure. He choked the instinct down — of course Paradis had been in firefights before. He had experience with such utter helplessness.

The indicator flicked to 00:59. It was a race, now. Erb heard a rush in his ears, as he placed his hand over the Initiation key.

“What are those flares?” Paradis asked. Erb fought the instinct to look at what he meant.

“Microparticles being torched. They must be firing L-Cannon at us.” Phillips had panic in his voice.

“No big deal,” Erb barked. “Light pulses won’t change our vector, and there’s not much they can damage with those things.” They were within ten megameters, though, and accelerating. The Orgs knew they had to hit the Hephaestus before it could escape — they could read the sensor readings.

00:18…00:17…00:16….

Plasma!

“No!!”

“He missed! He missed! It’s okay!”

00:09…00:08…00:07…. Out of the corner of his eye, Erb could see the missed shot flare past the porthole. They must be nervous too, he thought.

He heard a beep. The ‘Window Length’ indicator hit twenty-one, and counted down. He slapped the key–

“Captain’s Override”

“Do it!” shouted Phillips, panicked, while Erb stared at the screen, frozen.

“My God!” Erb shouted. They’d left the override on!! 14…13…12….
He wrenched up, and got slammed into his seat by the belt. Savagely, he tore at it. 8…7…6…. Throwing himself away, he was snapped around by the cord connected to his helmet. He pushed forward. No way to know how long. He was sailing in a straight line in the weightless room. He released the nitrogen jets to push him to the chair, swinging his arm blindly at the armrest.

With a horrendous pitch, and the sound of rending metal, Erb was slammed bodily into the captain’s chair. The chair ripped free from the deck, and both he and it slammed through the cubicle door and into the back bulkhead. The world spun and, with a sense of deja vu, Erb lost consciousness.

When his eyes opened and he saw he was in the infirmary, when the nausea started to rise in him and his head throbbed, when the nurse pushed him back down and Giordano started listing the damages done when they initiated Transition, when all of this happened and more, Erb knew that finally, everything was going to be all right.

1 thought on “Hephaestus Fallen”

  1. A few notes, in the light of day.

    If I ever clean this story up and realign it to fit Imperial Space more closely — a huge if, mind — clearly one of the survivors on board should be Bradley McCourt. I doubt he’d become the viewpoint character, however.

    Force Commander Drew Paradis is based in large part on a friend of mine who I went to High School and College with. Andrew Paradis did indeed join the United States Marine Corps, just in time to see service in the first Gulf War.

    Last I knew Andrew was married, with children, was doing graduate level work in Physics, and was in the process of building his own full sized harpsichord. I have a depressing tendency to befriend polygots.

    Other friends of mine inspired at least the names of Captain Bankert and C.P.O. Godfrey.

    If I were to seriously consider revision, I’d want to cut at least 4,000 words from this. And I’d redo Ibanz’s insanity — it’s too ham handed for my tastes. Oh, and I’d work to make the actual situation a little more plausible. I’m not sure how I’d manage to justify having multiple transition points in an essentially straight line that the Hephaestus just happens to fly through, but it’s possible that it’s at most two T-points, the entry point and the exit point, and what the Hephaestus is passing through are outlying windows into using the point.

    Of course, I suppose there’s a reason this intervening system doesn’t see much traffic, despite being between Planet Excalibur and a significant enough planetary system that it’s a sure fire ‘we’re saved’ when they arrive, and not a ‘the Orgalin follow them through the T-point and kill them three weeks later.’

    Meh. Why do I get the feeling I’m the only one who cares about the mechanics of transition points?

    Like

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