Senator Alan K Simpson
“What’s the name of that ship again?”
“It’s the Star ShipJohn W Campbell Jr, Sir. It’s a long-hauler making the Saturn loop.”
Captain Matthew Martin had never heard of the Campbellbefore.
“She’s adrift and has no power,” said Michaelson. “Sensors aren’t reporting any life signs.”
Martin had always liked Michaelson. The young crewman was good at his job. And he needed a good crew today. He had known it ever since he got orders from Fleet to intercept the ship. Michaelson had recommended having missiles locked and ready as they approached. That wasn’t standard protocol when an Earth vessel approached another Earth vessel. Maybe if the other ship had been from Mars or Luna. But here, near Jupiter, they were too far away from the open rebellion closer to Earth.
“Keep those missiles tucked away in their tubes. Let’s not show our teeth just yet. Remember, we’re all one big happy family out here,” said Captain Martin.
Martin looked over the shoulder of his navigator, Lieutenant Helen Constance, who was monitoring the data on her screen. He knew it was her first time past the asteroid belt. He had been out here many times before but he remembered his first time. She was probably nervous and excited, even though her icy demeanor never showed it.
It was good to be way out here again, away from the politics and chaos closer to Earth. Although the conflict with Mars and Luna was supposed to be over, there was still a lot going on. Earth had subdued the rebellions, allegedly bringing them back into the fold. It had only taken ten months and three dozen ships of Earth’s Inner Fleet to get them to settle down. That and sending most of their leaders into exile on mining asteroids out past Saturn. Not a shot had been fired. But Martin knew it was only a matter of time before things flared up again.
Nine souls served on his ship, an ancient frigate named the Simpson, after a long dead Senator from Wyoming. Although the Simpsonwas a relic itself. The crew only called it the Simpsonwhen they were filling out reports, but onboard, the crew affectionately called their ship the Homer, after a character in an even more ancient cartoon show that had been making a comeback lately on SpaceNet.
Even though his ship was a privateer, Martin had secured a Letter of Marque from Earth so they could do what needed to be done out here. It gave him all the leeway he needed to hunt and capture any Martian or Lunar ship that caused him a problem. While Earth kept her fleet close to home in order to protect the planet, ships like his protected their interests further out.
Lt. Constance was second in command. Martin had picked her out of all of the other candidates from her class. She had graduated from the Academy in the class of ’74. Earth had just cut back on the Fleet’s budget, in spite of the unrest from the inner planets. Martin wondered if there were any senators from Wyoming that had something to do with that. In any event, there were a lot of candidates to choose from for the XO job. The Fleet wasn’t hiring, but many Earth privateers like his were. Martin only had to interview a few candidates to know she was the best. And so far, it seemed he had chosen well. She had been the one to lead the boarding party onto a loaded Martian merchantman near Venus a couple months ago while the rebellion was still going on. The captured ship had been turned over to the Earth Fleet Station on Ceres. The auction would take place next year, and there would be millions of credits once the ship was sold, inflating all their bank accounts.
And now they were closing in on another ship, a large, black hulk, floating in space against the stars. Maybe this would be another lucrative salvage job. At least Martin hoped so.
“Bring us alongside. Where did this ship come from again?” asked Martin.
Constance pulled up the John W. Campbell’sflight plan. “They made the standard run to Saturn with stops at Titan and Rhea. They were heading back to Earth with a stop at Europa. Normal for a long hauler.”
“Were they carrying anything unusual?”
“Nothing that’s listed. Standard supplies for the colonies.”
Martin looked through the view screen at the Campbell. “It’s a mighty big ship. Looks kind of ominous dead in the water like that.” He added, under his breath, “Sometimes Captains don’t list everything in their cargo holds.”
“Can we take her for our own?” asked Constance. “I mean, Sir, they’re adrift. There’s no power over there and no communication.”
“We might be able to make a salvage claim. But that’s a grim thing you’re asking. Either they’re all dead over there or they had to abandon ship. I’m thinking the worst because none of the hatches for the escape pods are open.”
“I’ve checked…pods are all still aboard,” said Constance, looking at her scans.
“Are you up for another boarding?” asked Martin.
“Sure,” answered Constance, not showing a hint of hesitation.
“I’m sure you’ll want to use the same five crewmen as last time.”
“Sure,” she said again. “You pick good people. People like me.”
Martin glanced over. She wasn’t smiling but merely checking her scans one more time. He liked that Constance was so sure of herself. But he was old enough to know that her confidence might get her into trouble. “There could be a ship full of dead bodies over there. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yes. And I think my boarding party could handle it as well.”
“Okay. We’re getting ready to dock so we’ll both know pretty soon.”
Michaelson continued to pilot the ship closer to Campbell. When all of the displays were lined up on his screen, he said, “Ready to dock, Sir. Would you like me to complete the mooring?”
Martin said, “Proceed…”
The words had just come out of his mouth when Michaelson cut him off. ‘Sir! Their power just came on. My sensors show their primary reactor coming online as well!”
“What? How can that be?”
“I’m showing the same thing,” said Constance. “Also, their engines are starting to engage.”
“Back us off. Now,” said Martin to Michaelson. “Someone must be alive over there after all. How could they get their engines started that fast?”
Neither Michaelson nor Constance gave him an answer. It wasn’t possible, was it? Whatever had happened, it was dangerous. Very dangerous. If the other ship fired up engines while they were only meters away…
Martin looked through the viewport and then down at his own sensors. “Reverse full! Get us out of here as quick as you can! Her reactor is heating up much too fast. It looks like she’s getting ready to blow!”
Michaelson did as he was told and the Simpsonbegan to back away quickly. The Campbellshrank in the Simpson’sview screen. But not fast enough. Martin knew that if the other ship exploded at this distance it would destroy his ship as well. “Give me everything you’ve got,” he said.
“Yes, Sir,” said Michaelson. “We’re already at one hundred twenty percent…one hundred twenty-five…one hundred thirty…”
The Simpsonwas an ancient ship and Martin knew it couldn’t take much more. He had a choice between the devil in front or the devil inside.
“How much longer before she explodes?” asked Martin.
She looked at her readings. “Thirty seconds.”
“Distance?” asked Martin.
Michaelson said, “One hundred kilometers.”
Were they still too close? How had all of this happened? Martin wasn’t the kind of Captain who took chances with the lives of his crew.
The Campbellwas now just a speck on the view screen.
“One and fifty kilometers.”
“Ten seconds. Nine. Eight…”
Martin said, “More speed!”
“Five, four, three, two…one…”
The explosion filled the view screen and the bridge was bathed in piercing light. Martin raised his hands to his eyes to shield them. Or maybe it was to protect him from the explosion. The Simpsonshook as if tossed across a dance floor by a bad partner. Loose objects flew around the bridge. Martin could smell hot electronics. He thought that at any moment the hull would breach, leading to annihilation for them all. But the hull didn’t breach. Within a few moments, the Simpsonstopped shaking and objects clattered to the deck. Everyone took deep breaths, and there were nervous giggles of relief all across the bridge.
The old battlewagon had held together. They had gotten far enough away from the Campbelland they were all still alive.
“Status?” asked Martin.
Constance scanned the data filling her monitor. “Our paint is burnt, but we’re unharmed. No systems damaged.”
“Nice job,” said Martin to the crew. The smell of sweat hung heavy in the air.
“Slow to a dead stop,” said Martin.
Martin scratched his unruly, red beard. What had happened? Campbellhad shown no life signs and no power when they approached. Somehow the crew had fired up the reactor. Cold-started the engines. And destroyed their ship within minutes of being dead in the water. Martin didn’t know what to think. Nothing made sense. “Where was the last contact made with the Campbell?”
“Europa, the Swedish tending station there. Two weeks ago…”
Constance paused mid-sentence and her mouth dropped open.
“What?” asked Martin.
“Sir put the view screen on full magnification,” she said.
“Why?” asked Martin.
“I think you should see this, Sir.”
Martin punched some buttons on his console and gaped. There on the view screen, floating in space like a smooth asteroid, seemingly intact, was the Campbell.
“That’s impossible,” muttered the captain. Because it was.
Wayne Faust has been a full-time music and comedy performer for over 40 years, playing in 40 states and overseas in England, Scotland, and Holland. His funny songs have been heard on the radio all over the world and on the Internet. While on the road, he writes science-fiction and has over 40 stories published in various places, including Norway, Australia, and South Africa. He’s published two full length books, “Thirty Years Without A Real Job,” a fast-moving and entertaining memoir of his life in show business, and “12 Parables,” a collection of short stories.
You can find more than you’ll ever need to know about Wayne on his website at www.waynefaust.com.
Charles Eugene Anderson
Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a poet, painter, baker, runner, hospital volunteer, and writer who lives in Colorado. He spends most of his days with his pup, Champ. Chuck is a husband and father, and he has a weakness for muscle cars. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow.press