KASMA MAGAZINE

Hull Breach

By Robert Drake

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Sculptured metal rose petals abloom against a desert night. That's what happens to the hull when a starship generator blows. It's the pressure, not the heat. Superheated plasma locked up inside of a metal box. Doesn't leave much for salvage. Doesn't leave much for history either.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Engine Room: Nuclear generator running at 25% efficiency. Backup power remains operational, but crew effectiveness has been affected. Chief Engineer reports damage to the capacitor cells. Repairs ongoing.

Medical Bay: Stocked and manned. No report.

Science Bay: Stocked and manned. No report.

Steward Department: Water and food quality shows signs of deterioration due to limited filtering and refrigeration. I have ordered increased limits on usage. Filtration systems have been scheduled for routine maintenance as soon as power systems are restored.

Crew: Full staff, no incidents.

*****

Always a tough gig to get salvage rights. Old naval law still stands, but military ships get special treatment. The Earth Stations have jurisdiction, but this was a colonial ship. Took a good month of bickering to get them to admit it. They tried to pass this off as debris from an old g-sat, but it's pretty tough to confuse a thousand tons of ship-grade bulk from a flimsy weather sat. It's always a hassle for the good stuff. Always.

*****

[Captain's Log]

To: Commander -- Frigate UCS: Dostoyevsky -- Highest Priority

Message: You are granted the Glory of History. Good Luck and God Bless.

Footer: Sender Confirmation -- United Colonial Admiralty Office --Red Level Encryption

*****

Blown apart like this, the ship looks like a decapitated hornet. The communication antennae must have broken off and the rotating thorax hull is spewing guts all over space -- cargo mostly, a few bodies. In place of a proper stinger, there's the busted engine room and a trio of deuterium based nuclear pulse generators. An emergency generator is still flickering -- dead insect spasms in space.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Fifteen minutes ago I received a communication from the Admiralty Office, high priority. War has been declared. I confirmed the message personally. This ship has been chosen for the assault on Earth. I pray that I am worthy of this command. Good Luck and God Bless.

*****

The trick to snapping salvage out of the ether is to let the wreck come to you. Trying to grab up all the little pieces is a loser's game. It takes forever, drives the pilots mad, and inevitably winds up breaking the grapple arm. A wreck like this, so close to Earth, has a natural drift. With a little bit of preparation you can throw out a net and let the big pieces slide in like boats coming up to a dock.

The shards of glass are useless, but the Earth Wreck Core wants this one in full -- that means an extra few hours playing go fish. Pretty tedious, but they'll pay for the effort. We still haven't found the Captain's quarters in this mess, but it's worth double.

*****

[Captain's Log]

This frigate's interplanetary nuclear missiles are enough to meet the minimum requirements for Glory of History, but we have no secondary life support systems, no anti-pursuit defenses, no capability for ship-to-ship operations. Worse, this ship is running under limited generator capacity until repairs can be completed. The crew is tired and stressed, officers included. I have chosen not to tell my XO or Chief Engineer our orders until we are closer to Terminus hour. I need everyone working at their best and without distraction.

*****

A few good jobs like this and I'll be out for the year. Makes a dead crew look like a feast sometimes. Cruel stuff, but it's tough feeling much of anything this long off the home rock. We all want to go home. It doesn't matter how many times we do this, the crew always gets spooked seeing a blown ship. There's never any blood, ever. Sterile as syringe. Unnatural through and through.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Chief Engineer reports no improvement. A coolant leak has delayed progress another two hours. The Chief warned me that our current speed puts this ship under risk for an energy surge. I have chosen to proceed on course. Does our duty outweigh the risk to this ship and its crew?

*****

We're lucky to even be here. The Mars colonies made a mess of the permits. First they flagged our ship license and pulled us in for a thruster inspection. A week later they ran my 2nd mate off the boat for a moon-land conviction ten years ago. Rough handling for some routine metal. More to the show, I'm sure. The politicians can't seem to forgive anyone an honest job. I swear the damn colonists must not get enough air on their stations. Minds all wrapped up tighter than a bulkhead airlock. Makes you wonder what exactly happened to this ship?

*****

[Captain's Log]

As a young ensign, I served aboard the UEC St. Michael as aide-de-cabin to Captain Stewart. Between organizing the daily mail and playing gatekeeper to the senior officers, I maintained the captain's quarters and stateroom. The St. Michael was a smaller ship than this, but the quarters were the same -- polished glass, gray felt cushions, metal furniture with the sleek, inky lines of sculpture.

After hours, I would skulk back to a hot-bunk in the Ensign Bay, a rattling janitor's closet near the water boiler. Ratta-tatta, ratta-tatta. All night, every night a thousand gallons of recycled water supplied another shift of crewmen their allotted six minutes of lukewarm shower-time. Surely, with space at such a premium, another twenty bunks would serve better than not one but two rooms of oak cluster decadence?

As Captain, I've got my own stateroom, my own quarters. Reading my orders time and time again, I now understand why.

*****

We haven't found a transponder or a name plate, but the published navigation manifests don't show any ships in the area. This ship was either off course or off the books. I've set up sentry drones to watch for rogue scavengers...or wreck saboteurs. Can't be too careful.

*****

[Captain's Log]

During my round, Sharper, the messman, asked me if I was feeling alright. I blamed the engineers for disturbing my sleep with their repairs in the aft bays. He just left some warmed milk by the door.

The crew must respect my authority, but privately I distrust the validity of my orders. I am a fifth generation naval captain, 2nd generation space navy. I have spent thirty years in the service and six years in command. I have learned to trust my instincts.

*****

I've been told the missiles on this wreck are deactivated. I don't believe a word of it. Twenty-four inter-planetary nuclear projectiles. There's enough gunpowder here to turn the moon into an asteroid belt.

The colonies are having conniptions. No surprise. Earth isn't exactly going to ship these fireworks home. A smart captain would let them fly into the sun, save everyone the lung capacity, but it won't work like that either. No. They'll be a show trial like there always is. A few ministers of defense will lose their jobs. A few colonial chancellors will leave for the deep frontier -- not that there is one. Bloody business. Not comfortable. Not for any of us.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Small, loud, and god-damned annoying. That's how Admiral Maddox described Scripture Class frigates. Designed for escort, research, and secondary support. We are sprightly, but the crew is not trained for sustained combat operations. At best we specialize in ambush -- bombardment is well beyond our scope. Why would a frigate with an old, tired captain be chosen to lead the attack on Earth? It is the wrong ship for the wrong job.

I protest, but there has been no mistake. A cruiser or battleship would immediately trigger Earth's defenses. A lone frigate, even with our dread arsenal, is too small to provoke more than a token jeering by the controllers of Earth Station 1 or the United Earth Transport league. A small hornet to end the world. That is what we have become.

*****

Even with missiles in tow, wreck salvage is about as boring as it gets. Lots of sitting, lots of squinting into the stars, lots of letting the computer handle it. I could check the dials, but what would I do if I saw a problem? Like frozen fish in a can. That's all we are up here. Plowing through a wreck you can see what that really means.

We're all mad, us starmen. We blast through space like we're god-damned heroes or something. We suffer from recycled air and 'gastronomic routine,' as the steward calls the daily grub, but there is more to our suffering than metallic exhaust and morgue-candle lighting. No matter how many lifetimes we stay up here we can never make an Earth out of moon dust. Nothing but frozen fish in a can.

*****

[Captain's Log]

As captain, I am blessed with a great deal of time to myself. My rank absolves me of a daily schedule, but my grave duties demand my solitude. I cannot fraternize, I cannot tyrannize, and I cannot bore myself in routine.

In return, I do not have to share a bathroom.

There is a disconnect to space. It seeps in with every breath and overwhelms the body as the poison is released back. The disjointedness comes not with a sense of nostalgia or even loneliness, but rather of shame.

It is a maddening sensation. It would treasonous if it were not so abjectly primal. I can know my duty, but my stomach plays devil's advocate with my bowels. It is a physical illness, this self-loathing. My joints ache and my brow sweats. I dream of tuberculosis and delirium.

We all suffer it after a few years, to varying degrees. Many are overwhelmed almost instantly, their bodies decaying like plants in a closet. Most show enough fortitude to survive between ports of call. I have always been resilient, but that does mean that I am immune, only that I have clarity of purpose.

Alas, it is not mine to reason why my orders have been given. As Captain, I must fulfill them and nothing more. The Colonies expect we shall all do our duty. I shall not fail them.

*****

Pulling in a pristine science bay is one of the rare gems of the salvage world. Jokes about joining the lightyear club aside, to a crew, the science bay is usually a forgotten closet that wastes space and brings obnoxious tech-heads onboard. To a salvage artist, the science bay is a gold mine. The memory core is usually worth a few thousand credits on materials alone and any decent science lab has a chemical bay more valuable than the ship itself. A vial of siphoned tritium can pay a crew for a year if we're lucky enough to find one.

Colonist ships aren't usually well stocked, but this lab looks to be in good condition. You can tell by the scarring on the hull whether or not the vats remained intact. A starship has just enough of Earth onboard to create some pretty nasty reactions when the wrong things mix together. No sign of contamination so far. Cheers to that.

*****

[Captain's Log]

I have a young crew. Will they do their duty? Thus far, I have been impressed by the four new crewmen who joined at our last port of call: Edmund, Hogan, Pierce, Sholstein.

Pierce and Sholstein are officers, new yes, but already indoctrinated. They know the rules, they know the score, they know their place. I expected nothing less.

Hogan is assistant navigator, promoted from the UCS Flaubert. I was concerned Hogan would prove inadequate -- Captain Rennslauer has not always had a reputation for running a tight ship. In this, my worries have proven unfounded. Chief Hogan has taken to his responsibilities quickly. He is a wizard with the communication arrays and a damn fine crewman.

Edmund is Chief's Clerk to NCO Wesley. He has passed all of his physical, psychological, and professional examinations well within expected parameters and his service has been without blemish, but I still feel a degree of unease in allowing such a young man to serve aboard a warship.

17 years old. He joined the naval service immediately following pre-collegiate. He has his entire life ahead of him -- he should be dancing with girls not prepping interplanetary warheads for a suicide mission.

I am responsible for this young man. His life is in my hands. I have been entrusted with his safety yet my duties force me to ignore this burden in order to take on heavier concerns. It is not fair to send him on this mission. This ship could function without a Chief's Clerk. Is this man to die because of a bureaucratic dice roll?

Is not this inhumanity why we left Earth? Is not this why we are now tasked with destroying Earth? The horror of Death is that that we will never have the opportunity to atone. We will die before we can apologize to existence itself. The maddening guilt of space is that we do not deserve infinity.

*****

What would the colonists do if we swiped this cargo without stopping at customs? If I got this stuff down to Earth it'd be damn near impossible to track. A few resellers and we'd both be lost in the red tape and a few thousand credits richer for the effort. Earth is playing this one close. I'll stay by the book as long as they do, but I sometimes wonder why we let the colonists make all the rules.

*****

[Captain's Log]

The cure for guilt is purpose.

As Colonists, we are the future of humanity. Our differences with Earth are political, but they are impossible to articulate. On Earth they change the terms faster than we can write them. Egalitarianism has been branded as bureaucracy, exploration is now entrepreneurism. Art deco is baroque, country is big band. They have replaced society with a self-propagating artistic rendition of culture. Civilization took up human accomplishment, but left without bringing humanity along. Now there is nothing left.

We forsook our homes in order to become a new humanity dedicated to the preservation of humanity. That is our burden, but that is also our privilege. We have become human in ways that Earth never allowed.

They say they hate us for our ingratitude, our intransigence in paying debts. It is a lie. What we have, we have built ourselves and for it they scorn us as rebellious adolescents. They loathe us because they loathe themselves. The Colonies are home to Colonists, not vessels for property, marketing, and faceless economy.

There is no Colonist alive who would not return to Earth if it could be rendered pristine. This ship has been ordered to wipe away the filth and debauchery. Perhaps, in time we may all go home. Perhaps that is why the high command gave us the Glory of History? We have purpose. We have history with us. May our names be written in the stars forever.

*****

Cargo fished in. Navigation arrays bundled together. Science Bay snapped up. The ice-technicians are still prepping the engine room debris for safe transport. We just have to find the captain's cabin. It's here somewhere. Even blown engines leave some things intact. I'm really hoping we can find the Captain's log. I'd love to know what this ship was doing here. Call it professional curiosity.

*****

[Captain's Log]

'God Bless.' Archaic language in the Colonies, not as much on Earth. Glory of History. That is what they want. 10 billion dead within 16 hours. That is the command.

I'm planning on telling my officers in two hours. What do I say? How do I give an order like this? How can I prove that this is not a test, not a drill, not another Admiral gone Alexander on us.

I wish I could be assured that we will have justice in our immortality. It must be understood that we are justified in what we do, that is most important. As Captain, I am responsible for my crew. I cannot allow them to be damned by ignorance or juvenile revisionism. I should write a million words if it would spare them the slightest ignominy for what we do. There must be justice for us.

Earth has brought this upon themselves. They have forced my hand. They have given me no mercy to offer them. Every missile launched at Mars, every detained Ambassador, every impounded transport, they are responsible. A few petty freedoms and we would be brothers. Why did they make us their enemy? Why do they demand our hatred? Why must I order my men to surrender themselves to genocide?

The engine is rattling the entire ship. It feels like the entire crew is pounding on my door, demanding answers, drumming along my beating heart. By God, what do I tell the men?

*****

Imagine what these bastards could have done if they'd managed to launch these missiles. 9 to 12 billion deaths. That's what you'd get. Most would be crushed by the initial shockwave. Their organs would shatter like so much glass. Those just beyond would be incinerated out of existence. Even more would find themselves shredded by debris, suffocating in the noxious atmosphere, or irradiated into nonexistence. The survivors would get it worst of all. Suffocation, starvation, blindness, cancer. A few folks at the poles might survive, not much else.

*****

[Captain's Log]

I admit, I do not hate Earthlings. Not in the slightest. Perhaps, I have been a military man too long. I have spent too much time defending my people without thought that perhaps war would be required to liberate us.

I am calm, but I am not serene. I am trained, but I am not ready. I am proud of nothing that we do today. New York, London, Tokyo. Moscow, Paris, Cairo. Twenty-four targets in all. I have been to most of them -- the product of my naval training.

Thirty years ago I lived in San Francisco. I had a room near the bay, a small coffin in the basement of a fishmonger. The room rattled at night. I used to dream about bluefin breaking free from the ice. Struggling to read by scent alone, I went through my books. All the math, all the history. I had no mind for it. I have not the slightest idea why they accepted me into the Space training.

Later I was shipped to Soule, Sydney, Vladivostok, Kuala Lumpur, a thousand other cities. Arrival, study, test, departure. After a week they all ran together. I could name them, but I know nothing about them. I remember only exhaustion.

We were being starved even as we ate a thousand delicacies. We traveled the world by losing our citizenship to anywhere. Many envied us, our free tour of the world. The more sympathetic saw us paraded from paradise to slum to megalopolis, a worldwind tour of the Earth that we were tasked to protect and doomed to see only in glimpses.

They were all wrong. The truth was in our stomachs. Between the food and a thousand variations of jet lag, our bodies were thrown against their chemical and psychological tolerances. It was crash-testing for organs. More peopled dropped out from liver failure than fatigue.

These days, there are not many of us old Earth Captains left. I am not sure my youngest officers have even been to Earth. Our admirals have surely forgotten it themselves.

*****

I wish I knew why this wreck is here. Did the colonists really try to sneak this ship past Earth Post 1? What the hell were the colonists playing at? Were they trying to start a war?

Colonists are fools. Nothing but cyberpunk misfits and cowboy rebels. Earth spent trillions paying for the technology: starships, life support systems, colonization units. Now that the bill has come due these 'colonists' have the gall to play us as tyrants. Who the hell do they think they are? Colonies were a bad decision from the start. We should have known that we'd only recruit bands of tech-chic artistes and effete hooligans incapable of any real responsibility or dedication.

This wreckage looks like an engine breach or a scuttle job. Something went wrong. Something interrupted their plans. What were they doing here?

*****

[Captain's Log]

I have still said nothing to my crew. It is impossible. I have prepared a message for central command instead.

Central Command -- Admiralty, From UCS Dostevyesky

Confirmation request regarding GOH. Immediate response please. Have reason to believe mistakes in transmission. Frigate to launch genocide? Immediate response please.

Footer: Sender Confirmation -- Captain UCS Doestevyesky --Red Level Encryption

It is a violation of protocol, but there is nothing else for me to do. We cannot go through with this. We cannot be the hand of genocide. The men who destroyed Earth, we should be damned for all eternity. I cannot.

*****

We've got the Captain's quarters. When the coolant valves shattered, the cabin was squeezed up and out of the ship like a pea from a pod. We found the remains a few kilometers away drifting like a museum in space. I've never been so excited to see an old captain's log before.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Still no response from home. Nothing. We must make our own decisions. What then? Are we bound to our fate?

I could surrender the ship to Earth.

No.

Even if Earth has not destroyed our home, they are still butchers. Thirty thousand deaths the day they blew up Mars 1. That is why we resigned our commissions and joined the UCS. That is why we became Colonists.

If I am to surrender, than I shall do so to my own people. I will bring this ship home. I will dock at Mars 2 and take the shuttle to my home. My wife will cry as the soldiers come. My son will not understand. Chancellor Golgov will convict me of treason, but I shall have served as honorably. The people will sing our names and cheer as the noose drops.

And maybe the Colonies no longer exist. If so, than we shall become a new colony. Either way, I must prepare a statement for the crew. I cannot give my plan away else they are complicit. It must be an order and they must believe it to be important. It is for humanity that I betray them.

*****

The wreck is cleared. The appraiser lists some twenty thousand credits in equipment. After fees, we won't see half of that, but we haven't yet opened the science bay. Either way, today was a good haul. We're still decrypting the log, another hour left. Clean up takes forever, the book of safety procedures is some fifty thousand words, but we've got plenty of time.

*****

[Captain's Log]

I don't want to be a traitor. I don't want my name blackened until the end of time. Must I kill billions? Is that what must happen? There is still time for that.

The orders are clear. One word and these missiles will enter Earth's atmosphere. Having punctured Earth's womb, they will begin a slow, casual descent toward their targets. The trajectory is meant to mimic commercial air flight. The missiles will even broadcast recognizable call signs in order to limit what little chance Earth's defenses have of intercepting them...

What am I supposed to do?

Imagine a man in a room with a button. The button will cause a genocide, but the man is instead told that the button will guarantee peace. If the man presses the button, can he be called a moral man?

What if the button's effect could easily be determined? Even though the man has been assured that he must press the button in order to attain grace, is he responsible for genocide since he could have easily determined his own culpability? Is there absolution in ignorance?

What can a moral man do?

He has two options. He can either press the button or commit suicide. He can either damn himself with cowardice or damn himself in infamy. He has been placed in a situation in which he cannot survive.

Existence has no morality. It has no sense of fairness or justice. It has no obligation toward its inhabitants. We strive against it, that is our highest aspiration, but the game is rigged. Existence is a noose. The harder we struggle the more we suffocate. Does that make the struggle immoral or does that make struggle the only moral?

I miss Earth. I miss home.

*****

Most salvage crews drop a flare and fly away as fast as possible. Myself, I like to take a moment. A crew of men died here. We are gravekeepers in a way. We have a responsibility to those that die in space. There are so many these days...

The log is decrypted. I'm not sure I should even read it. Do I want to know what the colonists were planning? At best, it was nothing but a tragic accident. At worst, they died attacking Earth. Do I really want to know?

I mostly just want to go home.

*****

[Captain's Log]

Press the button or scuttle the ship. Those are the options. It is my decision to make. I wish the engine room would stop rattling. I can't think. Damn them. Damn them all.

*****

Colonist ship incoming. Impatient for the custom's report, I imagine. Why else would they be here? Either way, there's not enough time to finish my report. Wreckage Log closed.

*****

[Captain's Log]

The UCS Flaubert was destroyed. We've been spotted by the salvage crew cleaning the wreck. I have ordered all hands to battle-stations. Earth has made this decision for us. A dead crew must be avenged. Purpose. By God, we have purpose.

Good Luck and God Bless.


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