Read an Excerpt
The control room aboard COESS liner Carlsbad differed from that of a military warship in that the weapons alcove was one of the smaller sections. COESS liners were armed just heavily enough to make a pirate ship think twice, supposing there was one lurking along its customary circuit of colony worlds, those claimed by COESS, the Confederation of English-Speaking States. A pirate ship was a doubtful proposition, though. The few real pirates operated farther out where planets were just being settled and defenses were haphazard at best.
Travis Callahan, Carlsbad's XO had plenty of room to work but at the moment he was gazing at one of the star-speckled screens being displayed in the control room. He was doing so more to keep his temper in check than anything else. A clandestine look at his last performance evaluation had him seething inside and blind to any data that might be gleaned from the array of stars. The screen was only a representation, not a real-time view of the area Carlsbad was passing through but it kept his gaze away from Captain Gordon, even though he was very much aware of his superior. The captain was sitting sharp-eyed and alert in his customary spot and surveying his domain like an old rooster incapable of doing much other than look mean and quarrelsome. The perpetual frown he wore spoiled his otherwise handsome face. The rooster analogy isn't really apt, Travis thought. Samuel Gordon isn't that old and he's noting every move I make. He's just possessive of his position and doesn't intend to help me or anyone else advance with COESS Lines for fear of being replaced as captain by an underling one day.
Travisthought his fear was silly because a good part of the reason the man had advanced to captain in the first place was due to an uncle on the COESS board of directors. He had enough influential backing that he never need worry. Nevertheless Gordon's fear was there, an impediment to his hope of one day captaining the Carlsbad or another of the big liners. He had just about lost hope of Gordon ever giving him or anyone else in the line of command more than a satisfactory performance rating. Even so, he was convinced he'd become a captain one way or another, even if he had to outlive his contrary superior to do it. Still, he couldn't help but brood sometimes. But then he'd shake his head, tell himself the universe wasn't fair and go on doing his job as best he could with Gordon hovering in the control room sixteen hours a day. The man was a control freak besides being scared. Travis was concerned that one day he'd crack completely and do harm to himself and his ship.
"Relax, Travis," Gordon said sharply, startling him out of his muse. "You look as if you've lost your last friend. If you intend to run a ship one day instead of staying an executive officer, you have to project a sense of confidence."
"Yes, sir," Travis said obediently but inside he fumed with resentment. How in hell was he supposed to project confidence when the bastard insisted on doing everything himself or looking over the shoulder of whomever was on duty? He never let anyone get hands-on experience in running the ship, not that he thought he needed it all that much himself. It was mostly a matter of coordinating other persons' actions such as Sissy Coffeehouse, the astrogator or James Terrell, the chief engineer. But it would be nice to pull a duty shift once without the nitpicking or without having the captain minutely check every single thing he did backward and forward and often as not remonstrate with him over issues a neophyte cadet wouldn't have quarreled with. And to think he was stuck with the man indefinitely unless his request for a transfer went through. That was unlikely since Gordon had to approve it and anyway, headquarters didn't usually grant a crossways transfer until three circuits of a run had been completed. He was only on his second on this one as XO, a total of a year and a half, although it felt as if he'd been working for Gordon forever. It was a situation made for brooding and lately Travis had been doing a lot of it. Or working out his frustration with Cathy Meekins in the privacy of her stateroom in bouts of sex that let him forget the captain for a while.
He even felt bad about that. Cathy was nice enough but she wasn't overly ambitious and seemed content to spend her career on this one ship on the same run. She even hinted a while back that they should do it together since she wasn't in the line of command. He didn't feel that way at all and tried to discourage her from such speculation. At the same time the situation with her and with Captain Gordon wasn't quite bad enough to make him quit and start over in a different field. In fact, he was getting almighty tired of her and probably she was of him, lately. It was possible to start over, he knew. He had the money for prolong treatment and new worlds were being opened for immigration all the time. He was in good physical condition and not bad looking even if his rust-colored hair did insist on adhering to its ingrained genetic disposition to grow in that odd color and with an uncontrollable cowlick. Some days he thought a new beginning might be the answer. A new life on a new world, but ... hell, he liked spacing, traveling and learning about new places, especially since his transfer from Bongo and promotion to executive officer of Carlsbad. Remaining in one place would probably prove too confining. If it just weren't for the man sitting across from him...
Travis continued with the routine transfer of watch duties while the captain followed his every move. He deliberately took his time about it, working off some of his frustration by going slow when he knew Gordon wanted to leave. He knew the man would stay until he was finished, no matter how long it took. On the other hand, if he delayed too long it might goad Gordon into giving him a worse evaluation next time. He sighed silently and completed the routine then took the control room clipboard from Gordon.
"Thank you, XO," the captain said. "You have control."
"Yes, sir," Travis answered as cheerfully as he could. He followed Gordon with his eyes until he was gone and the hatch sealed behind him.
"You shouldn't irritate him like that, Travis," Sissy said. She smiled faintly, knowing almost exactly what he was thinking.
"Yeah, I know but damn it, I get so ... frustrated sometimes. One of these days..."
"One of these days he'll be retired and you'll have a ship of your own. In the meantime, shall we take a new set of sights?"
He glanced at the chronometer. "Yep, it's about time. Mind if I line up the numbers for you?"
"Sure. I love watching you screw up."
"Hah. No way." He began downloading data from the astronomical compensator that converted sights taken during the microseconds they were in normal space into data curves. Those in turn were translated to numerical assumptions that told them how closely aligned to their predetermined course they were.
But a few minutes later he began to wonder about Sissy's remark. Maybe he had screwed up. He stared at the figures representing the latest astrogational sights and compared them to the previous ones. They deviated and it wasn't by a small factor, either. In fact, they weren't even close. He glanced over at the main screen. It told him nothing since he wasn't an astronomer and it changed every few seconds anyway. But the figures...
"Sissy! Take a look here!" he said, trying to keep his voice down to a normal volume.
"What is it?" She leaned over his shoulder and read the numbers from the flat screen at the astrogation desk, needing only seconds to see what had taken him minutes to discern.
"Holy shit!" she said under her breath. "Someone's playing a joke on us. Or you really did screw up!"
"I promise I didn't do anything wrong, Sissy."
She glanced at the main screen and gasped. "Move over!" She pushed him away and slid into the vacant seat as he stood up. She began taking the sights over again from scratch.
Travis glanced around the control room. So far no one else had noticed. Johannsen, the weapons officer had picked up a reader once the captain departed and had his nose practically buried in it. James Terrell had left an apprentice engineering officer on watch and the youngster was across the room reading gauges and playing with figures from the engine room. They were as good as alone. He looked over Sissy's shoulder just as she had been doing to him a minute earlier and hoped whatever had gone wrong was simply a glitch in a recorder and not a problem with the drive. Or not something he had done wrong, although he didn't know how that could be. He hadn't done anything other than record figures. And the way she had gasped and turned pale when she looked at the main screen...
Sissy quickly killed his wish for it to be a recording problem.
"Jimmy!" she said loudly to get the attention of the apprentice engineer.
"Huh?" He looked up from where he had been observing energy fluctuations from the main impeller on a series of gauges and comparing them to optimum. It was an exacting task and he had been totally lost in it.
"Get Chief Terrell up here! No, call him and have him check the inconstant readings first and then come up."
"What's wrong, Sissy?"
"Goddamn it, just do like I asked!"
His young face flamed red but he did as he was told. A moment later he looked back at Sissy.
"He's on his way. He said nothing is wrong down there. What is it?"
"I don't know. Travis, you'd better get the captain back up here, too." Her voice was calmer when she spoke, as if accepting the situation. In the same tone of voice but softly, she said to Travis, "We're way off course. It must have happened right after our last readings, but ... damn it, the computer should have alerted us immediately. And who pays attention to the damn screen while we're in and out of inconstant space?"
"I'll call the electronics officer," Travis said. "Maybe there's a reason for it failing to sound an alarm. Not that it will matter now, but it may in the future." He busied himself for a few minutes talking to Timothy Effers, the man who was responsible for the ship's computers and in conjunction with the chief engineer, all the ship's electronic nerves. Ordinarily Effers had little to do. The main computer was almost all solid state with little to go wrong, but some of the ancillary systems occasionally went awry.
"Anything?" Sissy asked, taking in both Travis and Jimmy. She was stymied. She knew they were way off course but was unable to do anything about it immediately. Once the desired destination was locked into the guiding quantum inconstants controlling the impellers, it required a tedious and time-consuming process to institute a change. Once underway between gravity wells, spaceships weren't supposed to drift off course. No, they weren't supposed to go wildly off course the way they had done. God knows where we are by now, she thought. And any change now would have to be done carefully or it might compound the problem beyond salvation. It was almost certainly past the stage where any corrections could be made, but she didn't dare try anything without the chief engineer and captain present and without knowing exactly what was wrong. She felt her pulse racing and hoped the way she felt wasn't reflected in her face or her actions. She was scared, really scared for the first time in her life.
James Terrell entered the control room. He was a short blocky man with a dour disposition but exacting in his work and intolerant of mistakes. He strode directly to where Sissy was still examining her figures and bringing up a presumed plot of their changed course.
"Show me," he said with no preliminaries.
"Here. It must have started right after the last readings because those were right to five decimal places. Then the next check showed this." She presented the figures. "And here's the best plot I can gauge from the changed parameters. I doubt very seriously if it's anywhere close to right, though."
"Good God and Satan take us!" He wasn't an astrogator but by bent of his position had to know something about it. "Jimmy! Have you done anything?"
"What in hell ... Sissy, the impellers are working perfectly. It's got to be in the computer controlling the quantum inconstants. Didn't the alarm sound when we went off course?"
"No, and that's what's so strange. I didn't dare try to do anything until we knew where the problem lies."
"Is Tim on the way?" she asked Travis.
"He told me he's running activity checks and would notify us as soon as he finished."
As if the statement had activated the com, it began flashing for attention. He answered it.
"Control. XO here."
"Where's the captain?"
"On the way. What do you have?"
"One whole bank of the fourth quadrant computer boards are fried. I don't know why. And that's affected the two adjacent quadrants. The inconstant factors governed by the computer have spun way out of control and God knows where we are now! You'd better try to shut down before ... no, hold on..."
A sound of muttered voices filled the silence in the control room as electronics techs talked back and forth then Timothy Effers came back. His voice was beginning to shake. "Yeah, that's all we can do. Shut down as soon as you can and hope to God we don't come out in the Andromeda Galaxy ... or worse."