Home in Time for Cake

Captain Sydlak glanced in the mirror to make sure every thread and decoration in her uniform was crisp and perfect before going to greet her passengers. Her Majesty’s Post and Courier Service expected every detail to be shipshape and Captain Sydlak was proud of her ship and crew.

She twitched her cap firmly into place and made her way down the short passage. Jovillar, the ship’s steward, was already there with the latest manifest.

“Only six passengers this trip, Captain,” Jovillar reported.

“Welcome to the HMS Whitechapel,” Captain Sydlak greeted each passenger as they boarded. “Our next stop is Faraway Station. Steward Jovillar will help you with your luggage.” The last passenger smiled nervously, clutching a very large teddy bear.

“How sweet!” Sydlak exclaimed, hoping to put the woman at ease.

“It’s for my daughter,” the woman explained. “Her birthday is tomorrow. I promised her I would be there.”

“We’ll be certain of it,” the Captain reassured her. “The Royal Post and Courier pride ourselves on getting our passengers and cargo to their destinations safely and on time.”

Jovillar directed the woman towards the passenger cabins and Captain Sydlak closed and dogged the hatch.

“Is the cargo stowed?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Freight and mail.”

“How is the weather report?”

“A little stormy, but well within parameters.” Jovillar handed her pad to Sydlak, who checked the gravity forecast herself.

Human expansion beyond the Sol system was thought impossible for centuries, simply because it was impossible for any ship to carry enough fuel to power itself from one star to another. That had changed after discovering standing gravity waves in the dark regions between the stars. A ship could sail on the slope of one of these waves, traveling enormous distances while using almost no fuel. Humans had taken advantage of these waves to establish colonies at any habitable system served by a local transfer point, a gravitational eddy that allowed ships to change from one wave slope to another.

In Sydlak’s grandmother’s day, Faraway Station had been the outer limit of humanity’s reach. Today the bustling metropolis was a commercial and administrative hub for the Terran Empire. “Faraway Station: In the middle of absolutely everywhere,” as the joke went.

The Whitechapel undocked right on schedule. A pilot boat ushered it out to the transfer point to catch the local current. Captain Sydlak stood at the conn and tapped the controls to spread and trim Whitechapel’s etheric sails.

“Any final messages from Croesus?”

“Yes, ma’am. They’ve sent us a severe weather alert.”

“Are we still within parameters?”

“Guidance says to proceed with caution.”

“Understood.”

Once the ship was within the current, it would be on its own. No known communication system could travel faster than a courier ship, which is why even in the 27th century interstellar mail was delivered the old-fashioned way, on paper.

Considering the weather report, Captain Sydlak set the sensors to maximum scan and trimmed the etheric sail to proceed cautiously along the current. The Whitechapel wouldn’t be breaking any speed records this run, but it was better to arrive at all. Ships had been lost when tossed from a current by squalls into deep interstellar space, where even the most powerful cry for aid wouldn’t reach a receiver for years, if ever. The transition into the current was smooth and even.

The crew went about their tasks with quiet competence. For herself, Captain Sydlak pulled up the long-range gravometric scanners and tried to make sense of the readings. There were sharp oscillations, varying in both intensity and direction. The ship’s art-grav compensated for the chop, although Sydlak imagined she could feel the vibration through the decking.

“Navigation, adjust course,” the captain ordered. “I want the bow planes pointed into the currents as much as possible until this passes.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Jovillar arrived with a pot of fresh tea. “Any troubles?” Sydlak asked.

“All our little chicks bedded down right and tight,” the steward replied. “Only the one nervous passenger; Elizabeth Mullis, the woman with the teddy bear. She’s concerned that this storm might delay us.”

“I remember. Her daughter has a birthday.”

“I told her worse case she’d still be there in time for cake.”

An alarm blared just before the Whitechapel lurched. The teapot went smash against a console as the entire crew grabbed instinctively for a hand hold.

“Status report!” Sydlak barked.

“We’ve been hit by a squall, Captain!”

“Damage?”

“Checking— we’re listing. The starboard main array is damaged.”

“Reef the portside sails— try to get us balanced again.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Captain Sydlak checked the gravometrics, trying to make sense of the currents. It was chaos out there. The ship shuddered again as turbulence twisted her hull and sails. If it got worse, it could break the Whitechapel’s keel.

“Nav, shore up your bearing to port.” Captain Sydlak tapped the controls to furl the mizzen sail array, leaving just enough to provide a bare minimum of headway. The Whitechapel stopped juking as the pressure on the long masts and spars eased off.

Jovillar was mopping up the spilled tea. “Leave that,” Captain Sydlak told her. “Check on the passengers. They’re your main priority. And leave your comms open. Engineering! What’s our damage?”

“Half of the starboard main spars have collapsed and are dragging. Worse, it looks like they’ve scored the hull on the way down.”

“Are we breached?”

“Not yet. It looks like the inner pressure hull is holding, but I don’t like the way the rigging is banging on her. We’ll have to cut it free, and even then I wouldn’t want to face another squall.”

“Copy that. As quickly as you can, get the main spars cut free and get everybody into e-suits.” She opened a link to Jovillar. “We’ve got a potential hull breach. As gently as you can, get all the passengers into e-suits. Then herd them into the galley in case we have to put them into life pods.” Resorting to life pods would be bad. They were fine for in-system travel, but in cold interstellar space it was just a slower way to die.

After donning her own e-suit, Sydlak flipped through each of the comm channels to get a sense of what was happening. The voices from Engineering were on-task and urgent, but not panicky. The bridge crew were the same. On the guest channel, used by the passenger e-suits, she heard the Steward’s friendly, personable voice reviewing the standard emergency protocols. No panic or worry on that channel.

The ship lurched again, a movement of the deck plates so subtle only her long time crew would even notice.

“Engineering, how is ejecting that wreckage going?”

“It’s away, Captain. But we have another problem.”

“Which is?”

“Best I show you.”

Sydlak made her way aft. On the way she peeked into the galley. Jovillar had organized chairs in a circle, and the seated passengers were rhythmically patting their knees and clapping their hands. Flipping to the guest channel, Sydlak heard, “The minister’s cat is a happy cat.”

Good. Jovillar had them playing parlor games. Only one passenger wasn’t playing— she sat to the side, clutching a large teddy bear and rocking back and forth.

Without missing a beat, Jovillar met Sydlak’s eyes. Sydlak indicated the lone figure, and Jovillar nodded; she was on it.

The engineer pulled Sydlak over to one side and turned off his mike. “I thought this shouldn’t go out over the comm. Have you been feeling her wobble?”

“I thought that was drag from the damaged mast.”

“So did I at first. But it’s worse. Whitechapel’s getting tossed around so much that the art-grav can barely keep up.”

“Is there risk of failure?”

“There’s always risk.” Like most of his ilk, the engineer was quietly fatalistic. “If it does fail, we won’t notice. We’ll go splat so hard you’d think they painted the bulkheads red.”

“How’s the hull?”

“Holding for now. It would be best if we dogged shut the interior pressure hatches, but I can’t spare a man right now.”

“I’ll see to it on my way back.” It would restrict movement within the ship, but would mitigate the risk of a hull breach. She crept through the corridor, manually closing and locking each of the pressure doors.

Hours later, Captain Sydlak finally allowed herself a few minutes alone in her cabin to take a deep breath. The ship was safe— calm skies in the wake of the most severe storm she had ever experienced. She was exhausted, as was her crew, but there was still patching an mending to be done before putting in at Faraway Station.

She stripped off her sweaty clothes. She craved a hot shower and a nap, but had to be satisfied with wiping off the sweat with a warm wash cloth and donning a clean, crisp uniform before returning to the bridge to deal with damage reports.

“Excuse me, Captain?”

“Jovillar. How are our passengers?”

“One of them is missing.”

“What?”

“Do you remember Ms. Mullis, the one with the teddy bear? She’s not in her quarters, nor in any of the life pods. I’ve pinged the locator on her e-suit, but it doesn’t respond. None of the rest of the crew have seen her, either.”

“She was in the galley with the rest of you.”

“Yes, Captain. I was sure she was all right, but when the all clear was sounded and I started getting them out of their e-suits, I realized I hadn’t seen her for quite some time.”

“She couldn’t have gotten far with the internal hatches sealed.”

“I know. I’ve searched everywhere I can think of, but I can’t find her.”

“All right. Keep searching, and I’ll alert Engineering in case she wandered into an access tube or crawl space. How are the others?”

“Just fine. I’ve given them our revised schedule, and they’re already congratulating each other on their bravery. It’ll be something to tell their kiddies about.”

“Let’s keep them confined to quarters for the time being. Give them a few meal packs and full access to the social and entertainment channels. Let them think their adventure isn’t quite finished yet.”

The missing passenger had still not been located by the time the Whitechapel was towed into Faraway Station’s repair yards. Captain Sydlak went to make her report in person to the Postmaster. She was not looking forward to this conversation.

Her Majesty’s Post and Courier Service kept an office in every station and outpost in human-controlled space. Sometimes it was little more than a corner of whatever crude watering hole a colony had to offer. On Faraway Station it was part of a grand esplanade that included a memorial garden in honor of ships and crew who had been lost.

Postmaster Poczajski met her on the terrace in front of the office. “Captain Sydlak,” he said, “You are to be commended for your actions bringing the Whitechapel safely into port.”

“Thank you, sir. However, there are matters to discuss. Perhaps we should go inside?”

Instead he gestured towards the memorial garden. “I read your preliminary report about Elizabeth Mullis. I believe she has family here on Faraway Station?”

“Yes sir, a daughter. That poor kid— she’s always going to remember her birthday as the day her mother died.”

“No doubt that’s true.”

“Sir, I feel responsible. I’d like to be the one to inform the family.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Poczajksi gestured to the largest memorial in the garden. “Are you familiar with the story of HMS Manticore?”

“Of course.”

“Lost forty years ago, all hands and passengers. In a storm very like the one the Whitechapel survived.” He stopped to contemplate the names and holographic images engraved on the wall. “This memorial serves to remind us that there are things we do not control.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I looked Ms. Mullis up in the manifest, of course. I learned some interesting things about her.”

“Sir, if we could…”

“Quite right. I’m stalling. But not for long.” He nodded at a new arrival in the garden, a middle-aged woman holding a bundle. She looked vaguely familiar.

“Ms. Hope Mullis, I presume?”

“Yes, Postmaster. I brought it for you.”

Postmaster Poczajksi turned back to Sydlak “I told you I found Elizabeth Mullis’ name on the manifest, but I neglected to explain which manifest.” He nodded at the memorial.

“My mother was a passenger on the Manticore,” Hope Mullis explained. “She was coming home for my birthday. I was so excited to see her, and then we got the news. But I know she never stopped trying to get home to me. I found this on my doorstep a few hours ago.” She held the bundle out towards Sydlak. It was an e-suit, with the Whitechapel logo inked onto the breast.

“It happens every time there’s a gravity storm on my birthday, you see.”

 

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