|The Winter system, at the edge of the Empire.|
The Gentry-class space liner Lady Caroline accelerated smoothly on its way, departing the planet Winter on course to the hyperspace limit from which it could safely jump the five light-years distance to the planet Dumas. The ship was small, as liners went in the space lanes of the Talaveran Empire. A long tube, rounded at either end, the Lady Caroline offered a selective passenger list and quiet comforts. Ships of her class were the choice of those who wanted to travel in comfort and not be disturbed.
Third Officer Ivan Dittmer made his way along the narrow access corridor that ran the length of Lady Caroline's port side. It was cramped but it was the quickest way to get to Engineering. The basso hum of the fusion plant was louder here than in the passenger staterooms on the other side of the bulkhead but Dittmer preferred it to tiptoeing around staring at the ceiling to avoid upsetting the privacy-conscious passengers with unwanted eye contact.
He came to a section of the corridor where the ceiling was lower, as it passed underneath where one of the ship's lifeboats was housed. As he ducked his head, Dittmer noticed a large tool case against the exterior bulkhead. One of the maintenance crew must have left it here, he thought as he picked it up so that he could give it to the chief. Whoever owned the toolbox would get a stiff reprimand from the demanding engineer.
The officer never made it to Engineering. He vanished in a ferocious explosion that engulfed the ship's stern. The blast wave tore down the corridor into the engineering compartment, spewing debris across controls and crew. Thrusters died as the debris smashed into control stations. Lady Caroline shook from bow to stern as the explosion threw her into a wobbling roll to starboard. The ship's power plant failed, and the emergency backup power was a fraction of a second slow. For an instant the internal artificial gravity vanished; crew, passengers and everything not bolted down were thrown against the starboard bulkheads as the ship rolled around them, tumbling people about like loose change in an unbalanced clothes drier. Even when the power returned the damage left parts of the ship with little or no internal gravity so people and furniture continued to be tossed about. Damage alarms wailed in every compartment as Lady Caroline tumbled helplessly through space.
Meanwhile, Marek Kedasi slouched in the navigator’s chair on the bridge of The Nth Degree, bored beyond belief. He stared around the 'bridge', which was too grand of a term for this small ship. The Nth Degree was the personal transport of Dr. Jackson Selker, retired professor of propulsion engineering at the State University of the Thrainian Confederation. Dr. Selker, Marek and the rest of the crew of friends were touring the Confederation and the Empire. They had been travelling for half a year now, and this part of normal space flight always bored him. Once they cleared jump space and set course for the system main world, there wasn't much to do until it was time to land. He glanced over at his friend Tarrant Sai, relaxing at the helm a few yards away. Noting Marek's bored expression, Tarrant grinned. “I still don't get why you find this part so boring. You never know when a navigational hazard may materialize & you'll have to tell me how to get around it.”
“Come on, Tarrant. That was one lousy little marker buoy that you managed to miss anyway. That was what, six months ago?”
“Seven. Still hasn’t gotten old.”
Maybe I should pay attention, then I'll be the one to laugh when you screw up.”
They stared grimly at one another for a while, then both leaned back and laughed. Marek hauled himself to his feet. “All right, how about I head down to the kitchen and grab us a snack. Think you can keep from flying into a gas giant without me?”
Tarrant waved a hand in dismissal, but before Marek reached the hatch, a yellow light on his navigation panel began to flash, and a caution tone sounded. “Something on the radar?” Tarrant asked. He stepped across to the navigation panel as Marek took his seat again. Hoping for something interesting, Marek activated the holographic display. A civilian liner, one the sensors had detected over an hour ago, had suddenly changed course. Intrigued, Marek ran back the sensor log and played it again. The liner had been traveling a straight course at a nice steady acceleration of two gravities since they had detected it, but several minutes ago it abruptly turned 40 degrees and cut its thrusters. What was their captain thinking? "Hey Tarrant, what do you make of this?" Marek said.
Tarrant had seen all manner of odd piloting decisions in an eight year career as a Navy pilot and four years as a civilian. This one worried him. "There's something wrong with this," he murmured. He glanced up as the communicator suddenly hissed to life.
"<wheeeet>. . .all vessels. This is Lady Caroline. Code 99! We have collided with an asteroid and taken heavy damage. <brrrzzk> <hrrsssh> are out of control. Code 99!"
The international signal for “ship in distress” sent Tarrant dashing back to his chair. He called over his shoulder, "Marek, get me a least time course to match vectors, then let them know we're coming. And try to raise the Winter spaceport!" Marek he called out "already on it!" as his hands flew over his control board. Tarrant brought The Nth Degree to full power standby. He stabbed the intercom with his thumb. "Engineering, this is Tarrant. Anya, are you there?"
The story continues here.
The story continues here.