The following is an excerpt from "Krakken and Phoenix: vol. II of the Titan Run Trilogy," currently available for Kindle eBook PreOrder, available in Paperback from Amazon on November 1, 2020.
002 | PHOENIX
Months into her shakedown cruise near Martian space the pride of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Explorers’ fleet, the BPOE Phoenix, glided silently through the night, all systems humming. One of the perks of having remained so close to home base for their shakedown cruise was the regular shipments of fresh stores for the galley. Captain Dalton Simmons, always one for creative efficiency, enjoyed the frequent opportunity to test his crew's docking skills. That these restocking missions also kept them on real food was just a side benefit he had insisted, no matter how hard Commander Stephanie Grove, his executive officer, had stared at him in disbelief.
"Seriously, captain," she had said while standing next to him as they watched the latest cargo ship pull alongside the Phoenix from the viewport in his office.
"I am very serious, Commander," he replied while barely suppressing a smile as he turned his head to look at her.
His persistence paid off and he was ultimately rewarded with first a sigh of resignation and then a small smile from Grove, who had held eye contact with him.
"I think," she replied, "that all that time spent planet-side has made you lose your taste for protein packs."
"Are you implying that I've gone soft, XO?" he asked, all humor vanishing from his face.
"Not at all, sir," the XO replied as her spine reflexively stiffened, "but I would humbly advise that the captain may not want to overuse his privilege. Others in the fleet might begin to wonder."
"You been talking to Nillson's XO again?" Simmons asked as he moved to sit at his desk.
He folded his hands together on top of the desk as he sat, sighing at the thought of his rival, Captain Wanda Nillson of the BPOE Cumberland.
"Captain Nillson’s XO Lieutenant Commander Rice and I have only been discussing official BPOE business, captain," she reported.
"Though Cathy – Lieutenant Commander Rice, that is – did say that Captain Nillson passes along her compliments. ‘The Phoenix is a fine ship’, I was instructed to pass along."
"She would say that," Simmons replied with disgust.
"She's needling me on purpose because she knows I'm about to break her speed records. She'll demand they put an asterisk next to the record because the Phoenix is a new ship and not some twenty-year-old comet-counter like the Cumberland."
"I had no idea you and Captain Nillson shared such a rivalry," Grove replied.
"BPOE wilderness training," Simmons explained. "I still don't understand why trainees have to spend a month in the Martian desert when all of our service is in space, but Wanda and I were a team. She turned everything into a competition. Who could conserve the most rations, who could grow the largest mushroom, who could go for the longest hike conserving the most oxygen…"
The look that had overtaken Commander Grove's face made Simmons close his own mouth.
With a wave of his hand he said, "Anyway, Captain Nillson and I have had a sometimes-friendly rivalry ever since then. The fact that she made captain three years before me is something she has not let me forget. I'm going to enjoy breaking her record."
"And when will we have the opportunity to do that, sir?" Grove asked.
As they felt the Phoenix's docking clamps take hold of the resupply ship, Simmons said, "Not long after this final resupply. We received new orders an hour or so ago. According to BPOE command, the Phoenix has been properly shaken down, and we are to make for Jupiter space to chart some weirdness in the orbits of the Trojan asteroids after a brief stopover at Mars for some crew transfers and a refuel."
"Very good, sir," Grove replied.
"And yes, Commander; it appears that I'll be enjoying protein packs again soon enough," Simmons said, finishing his XO's thought.
"As you say, captain," she replied, with the tiniest of smiles on her normally calm face. "Shall I make preparations?"
"Let’s have one last good meal before we head out. Gonzo is joining me this evening for dinner, would you care to make it three?" Simmons offered.
"Yes sir, I'll be there," Grove said with just noticeable hesitation.
"I'll make sure Gonzo behaves," the captain said reassuringly.
"PC Rodriguez and I are both adults, captain," she stated.
"As you say, Commander," he replied neutrally.
The Phoenix’s three senior officers gathered in the captain’s mess that evening as planned.
"You mean it's back to protein packs after this meal?" Gonzo asked between forkfuls of his freshly prepared dinner of squab with Brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes.
"Not quite that quickly, Gonzo. You know damned well that we have stores laid in for months. What do you think this is, some mining ship?" Simmons retorted, though he felt a small twinge from his attempt at humor.
Commander Grove had not noticed it, but Gonzo had. The captain and his Propulsion Chief had served together for years, and it was only the grace of Fleet Command and Gonzo's insistence that he preferred working on generators to telling people what to do that had kept him from the captain's chair before his old friend. Gonzo had been Simmons’ first and only choice for PC of the Phoenix, and given how things had turned out on the home front, Dalton was very relieved to have his old friend there with him; as much for the psychological support as for his talent with keeping ships together.
But notice the twinge Gonzo did. Good friend that he was, he smoothly changed the subject, but not without first getting in a dig at his sparring partner, the XO.
He said, "Fair enough, captain. I know that some people can't wait to get back to their plastic bags of mush for nutrition, but I'm happy to eat real food – or an approximation thereof – for as long as possible.”
"Anyway," the PC continued while continuing to shovel food into his mouth twice as fast as his dining companions.
When challenged on his eating speed Gonzo would always reply 'You never know when something is going to break, so we propulsion-types have to eat quickly to make sure we don't pass out from hunger while saving everyone else's lives.'
People would usually nod slowly and walk away at that point, leaving the man to his food.
"Where in the Jovian Trojans are we headed, exactly? That's a pretty large chunk of space. It's like telling us we're headed that-a-way," Gonzo said while waving his non-fork hand in no specific direction.
"Six-two-four Hektor is our specific destination," Simmons said. Gonzo’s performance had done its trick and the captain was back in the room with them and not on a mining ship somewhere between Mars and Saturn.
"If I remember correctly, " Grove said, having chosen to ignore Gonzo’s bait, "Six-two-four Hektor was the first Trojan asteroid known to have its own orbiting satellite."
"And now it's picked up another, and Fleet Tracking wants us to head out and make direct observations of the area to do the math on where it came from, and if the cause of Six-two-four Hektor beta is going to present any hazards to navigation," Simmons confirmed.
"The life of the explorer!" Gonzo toasted.
Captain Simmons and Commander Grove raised their own glasses reflexively, but they did not return Gonzo’s sentiment.
"It's a good chance for us to start contributing to the fleet," Simmons pointed out.
Grove nodded in agreement, adding "This isn't your first space assignment, Chief, so I have no idea what you were expecting."
"Just some good red-Martian-blooded adventure," Gonzo replied.
"Or at least some pirate interdiction," he added as he took a sip from his glass.
"Phoenix will get her turn at the pirates, don't you worry. Let's just make sure our new ship is up to the challenge. The last thing I want is for the artificial gravity to fail when we're in the middle of a high-G burn trying to run down some pirates," Simmons said.
"I did promise my family that I'd retire without having my internal organs unnecessarily turned to goo," Gonzo observed.
"To not having one's organs turned to goo," Simmons toasted, earning a lopsided grin from his old friend and barely concealed disgust from Grove.
"Captain," she said, "can we please change the –"
An alarm sounded, cutting her off. A voice called for general quarters from the ship’s intercom, signaling for the crew to report to their damage control and battle stations.
Grove had intended to put her glass on the table and stand up to investigate why they were at general quarters without the captain or XO being notified first. Instead her glass bounced off the table and floated off at an angle from her hand as the liquid sloshed around inside, breaking off in small globules. Grove herself was launched into the air and bounced off the ceiling. She swore briefly as her microG training took over and she oriented herself to the room's control panel.
"What the Hell is going on, XO?" Simmons barked as he tried in vain with Gonzo’s assistance to corral the bits of potato and other remains of their dinner before they threatened to clog the ventilation system.
"Finding out sir," Grove replied as she slammed the intercom button with the palm of her hand and herself barked, "Control Deck, XO: What the Hell is going on?"
"XO, Control Deck," Came Lieutenant Stane's voice, "Lieutenant Gray in Propulsion is reporting that the artificial gravity system went offline approximately thirty seconds ago."
"We're aware of that, Lieutenant," Simmons said as he floated through the room, capturing the escaped bits of their dinner in a plastic bag, "Does Lieutenant Gray know why?"
"She's working on that, sir, she reported that they were already tracing down the fault," Stane relayed.
"Understood, Lieutenant. Stand down from General Quarters and sound the MicroG alert. Let's get everything strapped down. Hold us steady. Wouldn't want anyone's organs turning to goo due to a previously scheduled high-G maneuver," Simmons smirked at Gonzo as he said this last bit.
"Aye, sir, Control Deck out," Stane said, closing the circuit.
"Gonzo," Simmons started to say.
Before he could finish, Gonzo looked over his shoulder and said "Already on my way, captain. You'll have your gravity back ASAP." he had already been at the door to the captain's mess.
"Stephanie, please report to the Control Deck and take over for Lieutenant Stane. I'd rather he were focused on his own duties at the moment rather than trying to coordinate this quite literal mess," Simmons said to his XO.
"Aye, captain," she replied.
"And Stephanie, please have a crewperson report here to clean up this mess. I need to change into a fresh uniform before I report to the Control Deck," He said, indicating the stains already setting into the fabric of his uniform.
"Aye, captain," she replied again, this time doing her best impression of a stone as she resisted the urge to crack a smile at the image of her normally composed captain floating in a halo of food wearing a stained uniform with a plastic bag in his hand.
Instead, she launched herself out of the captain's mess and into the general mess hall, barking the order.
"I need a crewperson in the captain's mess with a foodvac and cleaning kit now! Move!" she shouted above the din of the off-duty crew who were replicating a large-scale version of the food-capturing performance that Grove had just left behind in the captain’s mess.
When the crew person arrived moments later, they found the captain inverted and securing the last large piece of food in plastic. Simmons acknowledged the crew person and then excused himself to get changed.
Thankfully for Dalton's pride, the crew was too busy dealing with the loss of the grav plating to notice the large stains on his uniform. He, however, noticed their efficiency and attention to their duty as they went about securing the ship.
Once back in his quarters, he opened a comms circuit to the Propulsion Deck.
"Chief," Dalton said loudly as he shrugged out of his soiled tunic, "where's my gravity?"
"Chief Rodriguez is personally effecting the repairs now, sir," Lieutenant Gray's voice reported, "He estimates that gravity will be back online within the minute."
Sliding the new uniform tunic over his shoulders, Dalton replied, "Thank you, Lieutenant, Simmons out."
Dalton flung himself across his quarters, the muscle memory from years of service in microG serving him well as his left hand grabbed the mid-level handhold as his right hand flipped the comm circuit to the Control Deck. The entire maneuver had taken seconds and he had secured his zipper while in flight.
"Control Deck this is the captain. Sound General Quarters again and advise everyone they have thirty seconds to secure any floating materials and themselves to the deck. Simmons out."
"Aye, sir," Commander Grove replied over the circuit.
Simmons closed the comms circuit and oriented himself to the deck. His feet were planted firmly and his knees bent in the grav-restoration protocol he had helped develop while they were building this ship. He only hoped that nothing expensive had been left unsecured.
Just as the thought passed, he felt a gradual pull in the direction of the deck and suddenly down was down again and he no longer had to engage his core muscles to remain in the standing position. It was then that he heard a crash coming from the head.
"Well shit," he said to the empty room.
That noise could only have been the shaving mug that Hugh had given him on a past anniversary. Every tour in microG Dalton had always worried it would crash into something, and now that he had a ship with grav plating he had forgotten all about it. Now it was very likely in pieces all over the deck of his head. He would have cleaned it up himself, but instead called for maintenance to do the task, with special instructions to secure all the pieces. Maybe he could glue it back together.
Dalton opened the door to his head and confirmed that it had been the mug. He knelt and began to pick up the larger shards. Tears began to well up in his eyes and he closed his hand around the shards he had gathered. A sharp edge pierced the skin of a finger and he shook his hand, dropping the pieces back to the floor as he swore.
Muttering another curse, he stuck the injured finger in his mouth and walked back into the living area of his quarters to retrieve his dermal regen stick. He jammed the device into a pocket before stepping through the hatch back into the corridor, leaving the broken mug to be cleaned up later.
Dalton would have cleaned up the mess right away, but he needed to get to the Control Deck to check their status. Chewing up the corridor with his long strides, he toyed with the idea of having Gonzo turn off the grav plating again – temporarily – so he could just hurl himself down the corridors like in the old days.
Old days! It was just two years ago that we all served in microG! Only months for some of the crew, he thought.
For their part, the crew appeared to be relieved that the gravity was working again, so Simmons filed away his thoughts with the intent of having the XO run some more grav plating failure drills.
After a short trip on the lift he strode through the hatch onto the Control Deck and took in the room as he approached the center of the deck.
As she pushed herself from the captain's chair Grove said, "Captain on deck."
"Captain," she continued while standing next to his chair, "as you have noticed artificial gravity has been restored. PC Rodriguez reports that the issue was with some wiring that couldn't handle the electric load."
"Dammit," Simmons said, "I told them that we shouldn't go with the lowest bidder on the support systems for the grav plating." He turned to his comms officer and said, "Ensign Stevens, get me Propulsion."
"Aye, sir, circuit open," reported Stevens.
"Gonzo, what's the verdict?" Simmons asked.
"Well, captain," Gonzo replied from invisible speakers, "whoever was responsible for building this tub used substandard wiring for the grav plating power distribution coming off the generators. When Lieutenant Gray ran a scheduled load test the wiring just gave out. Luckily, I made sure to lay in spare parts before we left Mars orbit, including top-grade wire.”
"I've installed a bypass for now and my team will have the new permanent wiring installed in an hour," he concluded.
"The person or persons superiors who were responsible for our unscheduled drill notwithstanding, we're lucky to have a competent PC. Next time dinner's on me," Simmons replied.
"Ah, but captain," Gonzo began, and Simmons could feel the coming insubordination through the bulkheads of the ship.
"Thank you, PC. Control Deck out," Simmons said, cutting Gonzo off before he could get himself in trouble.
Ensign Stevens cut the circuit and confirmed it verbally.
"And thank you, ensign," Simmons said as he slumped ever so slightly into his chair, finally remembering his injured finger.
"The worst thing is," he said as he tried to subtly favor the finger, "I never got to finish my dinner.”
“XO, it seems that our emergency is over for now, I'll be in my quarters with a protein pack and a bulb of water. You have the ship," Simmons said as he stood and returned to the lift.
"Aye, sir," Grove responded, "I have the ship. And captain, I recommend the tuna salad. This batch is quite good."
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