Whoever he was, he made good sandwiches. Having the entire ship’s stores to draw on must have helped. Where he got the mustard was a mystery, though. The officers’ mess, maybe. It was the good stuff, the best Jerry had ever had. The beer was excellent, as well, and, while technically on duty, Jerry had no qualms about having one beer with lunch. Under the circumstances.
He tried not to notice he couldn’t read the writing on the labels. Bigger issues.
“All right. I’m fed and I’ve had a chance to think about things.”
“Both of these are ideal,” Kent replied.
“I’m willing to—provisionally—accept help in putting my ship back into commission.”
“Hodgkin’s Choice,” Jerry grumbled.
“It means I don’t have a choice.”
“I thought it was ‘Hobson’s Choice’?”
“Is it? I don’t think so. I’ve never heard it as ‘Hobson’s’.”
“Maybe it’s just my planet. Go on.”
“I need to evaluate my ship’s condition and sort out what needs to be done. You say you’ve got people already working on it?”
“Yes?” Kent replied.
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“The ship—excuse me, your ship—is being repaired. There’s still a lot to do, but it’s in safe condition, not about to explode or melt down or decompress. Decompress any further, I should say.”
“How can I be sure of that?”
“My daughter is roaming around it unsupervised.”
Jerry blinked and sat back. It was a telling argument.
“I’ll take it as a fact, for now,” he decided. “I still need a damage report.”
“Sure. I think…” Kent said, trailing off, looking into the distance. “Yes, there’s pressure in corridors all the way to the bridge. Phoebe is up there, looking it over. I’m sure she would be delighted to have someone show her how to call up a damage display.”
Jerry would have been much more comfortable if Kent had worn a helmet while consulting… whatever he consulted. As it was, he pulled the information out of thinner-than-usual air, not off a helmet’s heads-up display.
“Fine, then.” Jerry put his own helmet back on and gathered up his gloves. “Come along.”
“With respect, Skipper, I need to get down to Engineering.”
“There are three fusion plants in Engineering and only one is working. We’re going to need power.”
“All right. What channel are you on?”
“Um. Hang on a second.” Kent put his own helmet on and spoke inside it for a moment. After a brief interval, Jerry heard his voice. “How about now?”
“I hear you. Intership comm works?”
“Yes. It only just came on-line.”
“Everywhere in the ship?”
“That’s strangely convenient.”
“Isn’t it, though?”
Jerry sighed. Being in command wasn’t living up to his expectations.
“Whatever. Go ahead and look over Engineering. I’ll see what I can see from the bridge. Keep me apprised.”
“Aye aye, Skipper!”
Kent hustled off and Jerry plodded up to the bridge, thinking hard. True, he was now in command of a derelict ship, but he suspected it was only because nobody else wanted to be.
Or, much more worrying, because he was allowed to be.
The girl, Phoebe, sat in the Captain’s chair and gleefully shifted through various displays on the main screen. The computer shouldn’t have responded to her voice, but maybe it was damaged. No, that couldn’t be right. To bypass the security functions would require damage sufficient to destroy the computer.
Jerry shook his head and grumbled. NCO’s hate mysteries. So do people feeling the weight of an unsupported command.
“Hiya, Skipper!” piped Phoebe. She sprang out of the chair and saluted, sort of. It was a weird sort of gesture. One arm came up, bent at the elbow, and her flat, extended hand brushed a fingertip against the edge of her eyebrow. Still, she was only a kid. Jerry took it in the spirit intended and returned it properly: hand flat, palm down, forearm level across the body, fingertips brushing the opposite shoulder. Phoebe copied him immediately.
“Anything to report?” he asked, humoring her. He eyed the Captain’s chair and spent a long tenth of a second considering whether or not to sit down.
Jerry bit back a response about NCOs and the title “sir.” He was—after a brief hesitation—the man sitting in the Captain’s chair. He was in command of a damaged battleship. He was a “sir” and there was no getting around the fact.
“You’ve been on the bridge and the computer is responding to you,” he observed, ignoring for the moment the horrendous breach of security it implied. “You’ve looked the ship over. Report.”
“Oh! Yes sir! Uh, we’ve got one fusion plant on-line. One isn’t in too bad a shape, so it should be up today. The third one’s awful wopperjawed, so it’ll be a while. Artificial gravity is on, mostly. Some places aren’t really places anymore, so they can’t have gravity. A lot of the ship is pressurized, but it’s all broken up.”
“How do you mean?”
“There’s places with air you can’t get to because of places without air. Pockets? We’re patching up the hull as quick as we can so we can pressurize everything—it’ll be easier to get everywhere, but there’s a lot of holes, some of ’em humongous!”
“Any other survivors?”
“Not that the screens show,” she answered, sadly.
“Figured that. Weapon status?”
“The biggest gun isn’t working, yet. There’s two turrets working, for sure, but maybe there are a couple like yours—they work, but they’re cut off. There’s a lot of stuff the bridge can’t see until more of the internal stuff is fixed.”
“Fair enough. Any idea what Kent is doing in Engineering?”
“There’s no telling, but I’d guess he’s helping with the fusion stuff. It’ll take a lot of power to fix.”
“No doubt. Engine status?”
Jerry opened his mouth to say something and changed his mind. “Broken” was simple, succinct, and accurate. A more detailed report from an engineer wouldn’t have helped.
“Any estimates on how long they’ll take to fix?”
“Uh…” Phoebe looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. I don’t understand this kind of warp drive.”
“’This kind’?” Jerry echoed.
“You’ve got warp thingies all over the ship, not two big nacelles.”
“Those are warp nodes. The main warp unit runs along the central axis of the ship. The nodes near the hull stabilize and contour to the warp field. They also generate defensive warp fields to divert incoming attacks.”
In theory, he added, to himself.
“So, things coming at us enter an area of warped space and are deflected?”
“It’s not really a deflection so much as a movement through nonstandard spacetime. That’s why we call it a warp field, honey.”
“But projectiles and stuff look like they’re deflected?” Phoebe persisted.
Jerry sighed. Explaining warp mechanics to a child, especially when he didn’t understand the particulars too well, might call for a bit of inaccuracy.
“Yes, you can look at it like that. We’re actually presenting a much narrower profile to any incoming fire. We’re not forty meters across the beam, we’re two—or less—and a much harder target. We’re squashed into a smaller space, sort of, so it’s like we’re a lot farther away, from a targeting perspective, although the actual transit distance and flight time of projectiles doesn’t change.”
“Good. I was wondering. So the ship warps space around it to travel at FTL speeds without actually violating relativity, which is why it’s got big engines. The more thrust it can apply, the faster it goes whether you’re using the warp functions or not. Yes?”
“Uh… yes. I thought you didn’t know much about warp fields?”
“Oh, I know how they work, just not how you’re using them. This is an educational field trip. Pop is all about letting me get practical, hands-on experience. Says it’s good for building character.”
“Right. Yeah. I’m sure it is.”
“Why do you use lasers?” she continued, now abuzz with questions. “The damage was more of the kinetic variety, so the other guys shot you through your warp field. How did that happen? Does your warp field affect the lasers? Or does it matter, since it affects space itself?”
Jerry leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. Maybe, if he wished really hard, he could be back in his damaged turret and about to black out from oxygen deprivation.
Phoebe poked him.
“Are you gonna answer me?”
Okay, he wasn’t in the turret.
Jerry sat up straighter and marshaled his thoughts.
“Look, kid, here’s what you need to know. The Ziran—the alien race we’re at war with—uses hyperdrives to pop out of and back into normal space. They appear and disappear, but can sometimes be tracked. We use warp drive, so we fly around, effectively faster than light, but we’re not quite as fast as their hyperdrives.
“On the plus side, we can change course if we have to; they’re stuck on course until they arrive. Our drives have the bonus of being shield generators, too. By warping space around our ships, we have a much lower profile to incoming projectiles. We look like we’re squished almost flat, whichever way you look at us, so it’s harder—not impossible, obviously, but harder—to score a hit.
“The Ziran race uses hypervelocity weapons because they haven’t made some energy-weapon technology breakthroughs we have. I don’t know exactly what they are,” he added, forestalling Phoebe. “I’m a gunner, not a materials science engineer. I tear down a gun and replace parts. Doesn’t mean I know the chemistry of the gel inside a secondary exciter. Okay?”
“Now, we could build railguns. Between the electromotive force and some artificial gravity assist, we could probably build something similar to the Ziran launchers. Problem is, throwing a slug at that velocity is going to have recoil.”
“But the ship is way more massive—”
“And it’s in a warp field. Every little push is amplified by some awful factor. So a slug leaving the ship at any material fraction of the speed of light is going to kick the ship the other way. The warp field will amplify the kick into a shove, and every other gunner will hate you for ruining their aim. Got it?”
“Got it. Lasers don’t have recoil, right?”
“Technically? Yes, they do. Even in a warp field and massively magnified, their recoil is still almost negligible. It doesn’t throw us off course, but it makes for some uncertainty about hitting a target during a firefight.”
“Sounds like you can tear the aliens to bits.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
“Why not? Lasers go faster and your warp shields make you a hard target.”
“Because the Ziran FTL drives don’t require thrust as we understand it. A warp field multiplies your speed. Their hyperdrives pitch you up out of this dimension, you sail through it like a diamondball, and you eventually land back in this dimension, hopefully at your destination. We run through space; they jump over it.”
“How does that change anything?”
“Their method of FTL means the thrust-to-weight ratio isn’t much of a factor. They can be slow, lumbering blocks of armor in normal space and still go zipping around the galaxy. We can’t. A Ziran ship of the line takes a lot of laser hits before it starts to regret being slow and easy to hit. I blew up a transport with one bolt, but that was because they weren’t expecting it and allowed me to pick my shot. Battleships never land, but transports do. They have to care about normal-space power-to-weight ratios if they expect to land on a planet, so they aren’t nearly as well armored.”
“I see.” Phoebe pondered. “You said you could build railguns with artificial gravity assist?”
“Sure. Same technology as the deck plates. We use gravity fields for drive systems, too. The whole ship ‘falls’ in the direction we want to accelerate. It’s not very efficient, though, over such a large area. The reaction drives have a much tighter focus.”
“They’re kind of like old-fashioned ion drives, in some ways. It’s kind of like a railgun for atoms. Through warp fields, magnetic acceleration, and gravity-manipulation, we accelerate atomic nuclei to relativistic velocities. The nuclei are going so fast, they actually gain mass, which does good things for our reaction mass efficiency.”
“But then you’d have a… a plasma stream coming out of the ship! Wouldn’t you?”
“Good thinking. Yes, we do, when we’re accelerating hard. Mostly, we rely on gravity drives for maneuvering.”
“Can you focus this plasma stream?”
“I’m sure we can, but I’m not an engineer. If it was practical, they’d have done it. The reaction drive is a major section of ship, not something small enough to swing around like a laser turret. If something gets close enough, though, any reaction drive powerful enough to be at all useful is also a weapon.”
“I see your point. How about your gravity field technology?”
“What about it?”
“Why not fluctuate it?”
“Because it would mess with our inner ears and we’d all be nauseous in minutes.”
“No, I mean, why not use it as a weapon?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’ve got warp fields. Aim one at the enemy to effectively bring him closer. Aim a gravity projector at him and shake him apart.”
“First, a warp field doesn’t have that kind of range. There’s a reason the ship is built around the main warp node. Even then, we have a dozen more scattered along the inner facing of the hull to keep the field stable for the whole ship.
“Second, applying gravity to someone’s ship won’t hurt it. We could drag it closer—that’s how our tractor beam works—but it’s gravity. It would drag everything closer at the same time. Fluctuating it wouldn’t shake the ship to bits, either. It wouldn’t rattle Zirans around inside because when the ship gets dragged left, they get dragged left, too, and at the same rate as the ship. Nobody even notices. It’s kind of like being in orbit. If you’re being gravity-grabbed, you’re in free fall, you and your ship together, so you don’t notice.”
Phoebe nodded, grasping the concept. Her expression said she wasn’t convinced there wasn’t a way to make it work.
“How are the sensors?” Jerry asked, hoping to distract her by asking questions of his own.
“Oh, those are getting better! There’s not much to see, though.”
“Computer. Local area. On screen.”
The screen remained as it was, displaying a star field.
“Skipper?” Phoebe asked.
“What is it?”
“The computer’s down.”
“How can that be? I saw you operating—”
“We kinda brought our own,” Phoebe admitted. She cleared her throat. “Uh… computer? Please show the Skipper the local area.”
The main screen flickered, shifted into apparent depth, and displayed a holographic representation of the ship and the surrounding space. For several seconds, it was simply the ship. The view zoomed out, shrinking the scale. After two minutes, the scale showed everything within one light-minute, over ten million miles.
“That’s enough,” Jerry decided. “Notify me if anything comes within that range. Long-range sensors still down?”
“Yes,” Phoebe answered. “They use the space-warp type of thing the engines do, right? Like the shields?”
“Yes, although in a different way.”
“Giant lenses to increase your scan resolution?” she guessed.
“Yes, that’s one way. They can also detect other things more directly,” he pointed out. Before she could ask, he went on with, “How are the damage control teams doing? Just in general, I mean. Any problems?”
“Nope. Everything is coming together. By the way, can we go see a nebula? I’ve seen them through telescopes, but I’d like to see one up close.”
“No, you wouldn’t. They’re huge. The closer you get, the less of them you can see. Besides, they don’t look like much to the naked eye. You need multi-spectra cameras to get a good look.”
“I meant through the ship’s screens.”
“Oh. Yeah, probably worth it. I understand we’re going to do some roaming around as… as engine tests. Maybe.”
“Yay!” Phoebe clapped her hands. “When we get the big gun back online, can I zap an asteroid?”
Jerry sighed. Then it occurred to him: The main gun would be back online, but it would require a weapons test. He’d never fired the big boy. It wouldn’t hurt to fire it a couple of times, just to make sure nothing burned out.
“Sure. If not, we’ll crater a moon.”
Jerry sat in the Captain’s quarters—now his quarters—and watched as his ship pulled itself together. He hadn’t thought to move his personal effects, but that Kent guy had done it for him.
“You’re in command, Captain. You get the quarters.”
“I’m not a captain.”
“You’re in command of a ship of the line, not some dinghy with an outboard motor,” Kent reasoned. “You can be skipper of a raft, but not a battleship. You’re the Captain.”
Jerry wanted to argue the point, but there was no way to do so. By his own reasoning, he was in command. By the sheer tonnage of his command, he was Captain.
And “tonnage” was the right word. His command weighed heavy on him.
Part of it was his total lack of understanding. There was no crew. There was no shouting in the corridors, no running back and forth, no triple shifts, no chatter of communications, no sizzle of welding, no screaming of power cutters. There was only the quiet hum of the life support and the steady glow of the overhead. If he stayed out of the damaged areas, he could persuade himself the ship was fully functional.
Sometimes, he went into the damaged areas to see what was going on. It didn’t help. He didn’t see anyone working, not even Kent, but every day, more damage disappeared. The most he ever saw Kent do was, apparently, inspect some damage and scratch some strange symbols on the borders of the broken places. Presumably, someone would come along, read the notes in whatever language it was, and follow instructions.
Jerry couldn’t shake the feeling there was someone, somewhere, doing a lot of work. There was no one aboard, but the feeling persisted. It sure wasn’t the kid. She bounced around the place, sticking her nose everywhere. Occasionally, she could be found hauling a roll of metal foil, a coil of wire, or trailing along behind her father.
Despite this total lack of effort, over the course of days—not months, not even weeks, but days—the damage control schematics changed, bit by bit, from blinking red to solid red to orange to yellow to green. Black areas of the ship flickered to life as repairs to power and communications brought them back into the ship’s network.
At the end of the initial battle, the tertiary fusion plant was the only one still working, since the primary and secondary plants were damaged in the battle. The lightly-damaged primary reactor was the first thing to come back on-line. Once it made first light, whoever or whatever fixed it had attention to spare for the rest of the ship. The badly-damaged secondary plant joined it a few hours later, coming on-line about the same time the primary warp coil in the center of the ship.
Repairing a damaged fusion plant was an in-port job. Repairing a primary warp coil was, too. At least, it should have been…
Another thing Jerry didn’t like was the power load distribution. Power from the tertiary plant kept critical systems running, as it was designed to do. Alone, it made his ship operational, but couldn’t power all the systems necessary for combat. On the other hand, in its former condition, the ship couldn’t use all the power from it, anyway.
The primary and secondary reactors—each capable of powering the Birmingham in a full-on firefight—came on-line, ran slowly up through their pre-ignition stages, ignited, stabilized, and promptly went to full power. Torrents of energy came pouring out of them and did nothing at all. There was nothing for them to power. The weapons were still off-line, the warp system was down—two of the warp nodes were flat-out gone, which was a bigger problem than Jerry liked to think about—the thrust engines weren’t engaged… there simply wasn’t anything for the power to do. And yet, it had to be doing something, going somewhere. Energy doesn’t just vanish. Where did it go? What was it powering?
It was baffling. It was frustrating, because it was his ship, he was responsible, and he didn’t understand what was going on.
Jerry went down to Engineering to take a look. He wasn’t an engineer, but he had more than a little damage control training. He entered the primary reactor control room and took a look around.
The place was pristine.
Six weeks in spacedock could have done it. Round-the-clock repair crews in a hurry could have simply pulled the primary reactor, disconnected the control wiring runs, yanked half the hypercouple arrays and the whole control room before sliding new ones in. Even so, there would still be bootprints on the decking and something disgusting on the brightwork. In-port repair guys loved to leave a mess for high-movers to clean up.
This was… eerie. It wasn’t a reactor control room. It was a mock-up, a museum piece, a holo layout from Better Space and Starships. You got this sort of thing when the Fleet Admiral took reporters on an inspection tour of the first of the class to roll out of an orbital shipyard. Even then, it would be a quiet place, running on minimum power. The primary engineering room looked like a display.
Jerry could easily have believed it was if it weren’t for the dull, head-spinning hum of the containment fields. To feel it, the reactor had to be not only at full power, but at full emergency power, running hotter than the cores of suns inside the space-compression fields, pushing the hypercouples to the edge of their failure temperature.
Yet, despite this, the indicators were all in the green. High in the green, near the yellow margin, but green. There were no alarms, no warning lights. Checking the readouts, he noticed the rate of hydrogen consumption was surprisingly low, which didn’t make any sense. If the hydrogen was low, how was it still producing so much power?
The spectrum lines indicated the impossible. According to them, the fusion wasn’t stopping with hydrogen. Heavier elements were being fused, as well, squeezing even more power out for every gram of fuel.
Jerry tapped the screen as though it would change the data. It stubbornly insisted the entire fusion cycle, all the way up to iron, was still going on.
In accord with Naval tradition, he asked the standard rhetorical question—quietly, under his breath—before he stomped up the passageway, still in his suit.
Life support and artificial gravity were at a hundred percent, or so he was told. The suit gave him a feeling of security while it also gave him intense annoyance at wearing it. He felt more than a little ambivalent about it. It was stupid to keep wearing it, but he couldn’t bring himself to trust his ship enough to take it off. Too much was going on he didn’t understand.
A multi-wheeled robot, about the size of three motorcycles abreast, hummed down the passageway. The back had a cargo section, like a pickup truck, and held a head-high stack of long, metal ingots. The front was a dome with camera lenses and three arms. It approached to within a meter and halted, beeping politely and flashing a deep yellow light.
Jerry stood aside, pressing himself against a bulkhead. The robot trundled past him. As it did so, he felt the surge as the artificial gravity decreased, then increased again. The robot was rolling along in a low-gravity area, enabling it to carry a heavier load.
This was a chilling thought. Such precise control of the artificial gravity was certainly possible, but it was extremely sophisticated and expensive. Some of the fancier civilian vessels—yachts—might go for it, but no military vessel could afford the expense, power, or equipment space for such fripperies.
Yet, there it was.
Hang on just one damn minute. There’s a robot on my ship.
All right, fine. Kent brought it. There was something said about AI systems. Fine. Maybe there are several robots and I just haven’t looked hard enough to see them. What was this one doing with a few tons of metal?
Wait. Where did it get a few tons of metal?
Jerry looked back the way the robot had come, then looked at the retreating robot. The source would be hard to track down, but the robot would eventually go back for more.
He asked the same traditional question, somewhat louder and with a more declarative emphasis, before following the robot. It led him through a series of bulkheads into a zero-pressure area. It approached a place with structural damage, extended a clawed loading arm from the turret-like bulge, lifted a long block of metal, and pressed it against the edge of an open breach.
The block stuck there, as though magnetic. Another block was pressed into service, stuck on the end of the first block, as though joining two magnets. This formed, in time, a line of metal across the breach. Another line of blocks ran up and down, crossing the first. From the robot’s cargo bed, it drew out of a roll of metallic foil, spread it over each quadrant of the hole, replaced what was left, and went back the way it came.
It wasn’t much of a repair, Jerry decided, but it was a start. Was it expected to hold pressure? Surely not. Yet, on second look, the foil wasn’t as thin as he had originally thought. It looked thicker, more durable than it had when the robot was applying it.
He touched it gently, with a gauntleted hand. It was stiff. He knocked on it with one finger. It didn’t yield. He placed one hand flat on it and knocked on it, somewhat harder. It rang like sheet metal, not foil.
Jerry got a lot of use out of traditional Navy language.
At that moment, he noticed the robot was nowhere to be seen. He chased back the way he came and caught up to it, still trundling along at a slow walk. The gravity plates did not react to it, this time.
The robot entered one of the previously-vented cargo areas. It parked under a an open box. Servos lowered the box into the bed of robot, paused, and the robot lurched. The box rose again and the robot rolled away, the bed full of metal again.
Jerry let it go. He examined the box. It was a simple rectangle, open at the top and bottom. It was suspended from the overhead by a gear and chain arrangement.
There was nothing to indicate where the metal came from.
As he pondered over this, a second robot came in, repeated the process, and slowly rolled away. Jerry examined the box again. Still no sign of where the metal had come from.
Fulminating exactly like a confused sailor, Jerry returned to the bridge to watch the damage control station gradually turn green.