There’s that moment when a ship jumps, and briefly, ever so briefly, leaves normal space, is in two places at once, where it was, and where it’s going. I hate that moment. It always leaves me queasy, disoriented, a tight knot somewhere in my gut that takes a bit to completely untie itself.
I always take a breath and hold it for that moment. I don’t know why. It doesn’t make a jump any easier, doesn’t make my innards any happier.
And it’s a bad trait for the skipper of a gunboat to have, I know.
Ramesh Barzani, at your service, commander of the Coalition Patrol Boat CQ-626. One of maybe 1,000 made since the war began, churned out by factories on nearly all of the Coalition worlds. Which is why it doesn’t merit a name. We’re one of six boats in the 271st Gunboat Flotilla, and we’re about to jump into hostile space, to take a look around, sniff the air — so to speak — take the temperature and a few pictures, enough to update our map, and then jump right back.
The whole assignment shouldn’t take more than two hours. Which is good, since none of these little boats has life support of its own. We have eight hours of heat and air in our spacesuits. We’re not jumping into unknown territory — Coalition ships have mapped the system before, given us coordinates and some idea of what to expect. We’re just updating our intel.
Listen to me, “updating our intel.” I almost sound like I know what I’m doing. I was a shrimp farmer once, on my homeward of Algernon, flying shuttles in my spare time and as a way of helping the family business. It was a nice life, our little lagoon farm, with it’s deep red trees and clear blue water, with my parents and grandparents and brothers and cousins, and we had a solid and loyal clientele for our product — the strange blue shrimp native to Algernon, oddly sweet and salty at the same time, big as a grown man’s fist. We can’t raise enough, we really can’t. And attempts to grow them elsewhere, on other worlds, have all failed. We ship to clients on five of the 29 Worlds of Man, as we know this collection of planets we 500 billion human beings call home.
It was a really nice life. Until the war came. As I said, I was a shuttle pilot, something I picked up in school, because the family business had one to spare and no one to fly it, and I often transported our crop to the flash freezers on Duquesne, the capital city of Algernon, or to ports on a couple of its five moons, so they could be shipped off world. That was enough to get me drafted, five years ago, when the war was already three years going.
The Coalition Star Guard said I was a natural and made me a pilot, first hauling cargo and admirals, and then flying small assault craft into harrowing gunfire, and finally commissioning me an officer to pilot and command gunboats.
The CQ-626 is my gunboat, and has been for nearly six months. It’s a dedicated scout craft, though if need be, we could swap out all the electronics and put in some weapons. It would take two months and it probably wouldn’t be worth it. Besides, the other five ships in our strike group don’t dare go into combat without us, without all our electronic warfare capabilities. Counter-measures. Counter-counter-measures. Long-range sensors and cameras. Defensive weapons to block missiles and evade lasers, tractor beams, and tungsten balls. The 271st is a dedicated scout flotilla, and two of the other gunboats all have sophisticated long-range sensors and high powered computers to crunch data. The other three are simple combat ships, to keep us safe long enough to jump out. We help with the odds, though two of the ships in our squadron are new — replacements from other squadrons chewed up in combat. Replacements for boats we lost in combat.
It’s been a long war.
And it won’t end today.
“All systems check, skipper. Usual three-second delay once we decompress from jump, but we’re ready.”
That was my second-in-command, Natalie Rizvi.
“Everybody make sure your helmets are secured tight! Jumping torques the boat, and sometimes hulls fail. I want everyone alive if there’s a catastrophic failure!”
It was my usual message right before a jump. This boat had jumped nearly 100 times, passed its most recent inspection, and the hull was rated for 300. But you could never tell.
And it was just a gunboat — engines with scanners attached and just enough room for 19 naviks in space suits to move around in — cheaper to build than to repair, with no comforts at all.
I heard a dozen gloved hands knocking on space helmets. We were good to go.
“Let the lead ship know we’re ready,” I said.
There was a squawk of static.
“CQ-626 to leader 271. We are linked and ready.”
“Linked and ready, aye,” came the response from the lead ship, the MV-428.
I sat back and gripped my chair. I looked around at my officers and crew. I took that breath and held it right as the strange bending, that odd sensation of being in two places at once came over me. There was the groaning of metal, the twisting of ceramic and fiber, all the time thinking this little ship was going to twist itself apart before it could find its way back to normal space.
In school, they taught us that an actual jump from one part of space to another lasts no longer than six-tenths of a second. It always seems much longer than that to me. I don’t care what anyone says.
Suddenly, we were buckling, shaking, the ship moving violently side to side. This was not related to the jump, and the motion was so violent it was hard to focus on the panels in front of me.
“Debris field!” said navigator Tropez Gonzalez. “Drive field holding, but we’re hitting a lot of stuff!”
“Debris?” I turned as much as I could — as much as the suit and the web of seat belts holding tight would allow — to Rizvi, who was trying hard to compensate.
“There was nothing about debris in the briefing! These were clean coordinates!”
“But clearly they aren’t!”
There was a flash of static on all our panels, and the ship rocked hard to port.
“Loss of data from the lead ship! It has gone offline!” Gonzalez said.
Rizvi struggled with her display.
“There’s too much debris! I cannot get a clean reading! I don’t even know what we’re in!”
The boat lurched forward hard, and then to starboard. The light dimmed, and suddenly we were pitching and yawing out of control.
“Drive field is down! I’ve lost three-axis control! Trying manual!” It was Navik Specialist Trina Delgado. She was on her first mission with us.
The ship began tumbling and it was all we could do to hold on and work to try and right it. We’d all trained for this, and all of us were trying our best to let that training take over. I was proud of this crew. But I also knew the loss of the drive field meant the loss of our minimal gravity field. At some point, if the tumbling got worse, we’d pass out.
And then there’d be no way to regain control of the ship.
It also meant that we were defenseless. We had minimal shielding anyway, and that was completely dependent on the drive field to function properly. If we hit something….
I tried my best to get a sense on my panel of where we were. Because we didn’t get the three second reorientation time, none of our sensors were able to match the observable star patterns with what they’d been programmed with. We were lost.
There were no windows on this boat. There was no need. We flew and fought on instruments alone.
And then I heard a crack, about two meters behind me, and the ship wrenched in half. The cabin was suddenly full of flying shards of metal, rubber, plastic, ceramic, and carbon fiber. I looked back as best I could to see the rear two-thirds of the ship was gone.
Along with fifteen men and women.
“Abandon ship!” I wasn’t sure anyone could hear me.
I unbuckled myself from my seat, floated up, and noticed that the faceplate of Gonzalez’ helmet was cracked and his face was pale. I grabbed a handhold on the bulkhead and tried shaking Gonzalez, but it was no use. Rapid decompression. I looked for Rizvi, and she was nowhere to be found. Delgado sat motionless in her chair, still buckled in, eyes wide with terror.
“Navik, unbuckle yourself!”
She shook her head slightly.
“Navik, unbuckle yourself! That is an order!”
Her hands fumbled for her buckle. I wanted to help, but there was no handhold, and if I miscalculated, I’d float right out the back of the boat with no hope of returning.
She got it, floated free of her chair, and grabbed my hand.
I hit the emergency propulsion unit on my suit, which gave us four seconds of powered motion, and we cleared the spinning nose of the decapitated gunboat.
And watched it tumble into distance.
“Don’t let go of me. We have about seven more hours of heat and air. Our suits have emergency beacons and a little water. We’ll make it through this. Someone will come and rescue us when we don’t return on time.”
It was impossible to tell, but it looked like the whole 271st was … gone.
She gripped my hand as tightly as she could. She was breathing hard and fast, I could hear it on the radio link. I could also see the inside of her helmet fogging up, with droplets forming around edges. Something was wrong with her space suit, and she was beginning to panic.
“Navik, I need you to calm down. I’m going to activate the beacon on my suit. I need you to do that on yours too.”
She kind of nodded.
I found the instrument pack on my chest and felt for the one raised button. And I pressed it. Delgado fumbled a bit with hers, but got it quickly enough. And that was all we could do. We were at the mercy of fortune now, good or ill.
“I don’t want to die in space,” she said after some minutes of silence.
“No one does, sailor. But we’re not going to die. Not today. Someone will rescue us. I promise.”
She gripped my hand tighter.
“Something’s wrong with my suit. It smells funny in here.”
I pulled her to me and looked at the small panel on her left forearm. Something was wrong with the recycling unit. I ran through a couple of diagnostics, but the answer was always the same.
She wasn’t going to make it seven hours.
“Well, this is a hell of place to have your suit go haywire,” I said.
“Nothing replacing the recycling unit won’t fix. Which we can’t do.”
“So, I’m going to die?”
I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
“It’s okay, skipper,” she said, grasping my hand. “Just don’t leave me.”
“I won’t, navik. I won’t.”
She sang softly to herself for a while, cried a little, and we chatted about home and family, hopes and dreams. Until she passed out about a half hour later.
And then … she slowly let go of my hand. And drifted away.
She hadn’t died alone. But I would. In the cold vacuum of space. I had no idea where I was, where I was going, or if rescue would ever come. I would die here too.
My war would end today.
Every navik in the Star Guard understands this. We all knew it was possible that a day would come when we would never see tomorrow, in which death was the only thing facing us. I never imagined it quite like this, so alone, so empty, so deep in the darkness and so far from anything. Delgado’s name, my name, added to the list of the lost and presumed. More dead, more missing, after eight years of so much death and destruction already.
Eight? No. It’s more like 15, given all that came before.
I thought about a life I’d never return to. A family I’d never see again. A ground I’d never again feel beneath my feet, water I’d never feel on my skin, air I would never inhale or smell again. One more human body and human soul, offered up to a dispassionate and unforgiving cosmos that didn’t even seem to see, much less want, our sacrifice.
How long had it been? I could feel the heat slowly ebbing away, my air slowly becoming musty and heavy. I would suffocate on my own carbon dioxide before I would freeze to death — at least that’s what we’d all been told in our various classrooms and simulations as we learned to board and inhabit and abandon spacecraft.
“Some of you will find out if this is true,” one instructor said. “If you do, please come back and tell us.”
I felt my eyelids getting heavy. I made my peace with the universe, with the pointlessness of it all, and slowly faded. Perhaps someday I would become a shooting star in the sky of some distant world wished upon for good luck and fortune.
And then I thought I saw something.
What are those? Lights? An illusion, a trick played on me by the CO2 bubbling up the crevices of my brain? I slowly surrendered to sleep. I slowly surrendered to death.
But ... I wasn’t dead. I slowly opened my eyes — I could see! I could hear! I could smell! I saw a dull blue-white light that seemed to come from everywhere, and the sound of computers, beeping and purring and squeaking.
And I wasn’t wearing my spacesuit. I was wearing just the undergarment, the pressure jumpsuit, stripped of everything but the essentials. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t — I was restrained. I was lying in what looked to be an infirmary and I was restrained. I was also very, very thirsty.
I tried to speak. But nothing came out of my mouth.
“Careful, there, my good friend,” said a man as he walked over beside my bed, wearing a uniform I’d never seen before.
He was definitely not Coalition.
“You have been in space a long time, breathing rotten recirculated air,” he said. “You are disoriented and dehydrated.”
He shot a little cold water in my mouth from a bottle. It tasted good, and I swallowed.
“Where am I?” I whispered.
“That, my good friend, is easy. I am Medic First Class Baxa Djioff, and you are on board the Alliance Cruiser Lemuria. We rescued you, and now you are a prisoner of war.”