Captain's Duty

The Captain reclined in her cradle, reviewing her status.


Whatever the Mote of Dust had hit, it was big enough to cause serious damage.


No matter. What had happened could not be changed. The Captain was more concerned with the present. Almost all of the passengers and crew were on the lifeboats now. She reviewed the lists that Mote had spat out at her. Two unaccounted for, which was pretty good. And one of those she felt confident she could find - confident enough to leave it until the last lifeboat, at least.


"Dust, dispatch two drones to the hydroponics atrium to look for any survivors."


The impact had wrecked the atrium by throwing everything around, but it was still structurally intact, so hopefully Petty Officer Crane would be found there. He'd always been, by his own admission, an avid herbalist. Enough so that he'd been suspiciously quick to react to a stores alarm more than once. If Crane was anywhere, then the Captain judged he'd be in the atrium trying to rescue something.


The remaining lifeboat could easily handle the three of them, should they find the remains of Kip Yan. She had little hope for finding him alive - a quick glance through the records showed that he was fond of the viewing room, in the prow of the ship. That was gone, as far as she could tell - crushed and twisted in the impact, perhaps even shorn clean off and thrown into the dark vacuum. She had no communication with it at all. The Captain had never lost part of the ship - it was a strange sensation she didn't recognise.


Dust spoke. "Drones have located Petty Officer Crane. Passenger Kip Yan remains lost."


"Bring Crane to me, Dust." She wondered what she was going to say to him. She reviewed the situation.


They were drifting in a slight lateral spin, the prow irreparably damaged or lost, the engines offline after the stress of reacting to the impact forces. They really had done an admirable job, vectoring massive thrust to stop the spin this much. Hull integrity was generally OK towards the rear, but the outer hull was ripped in many places at the front. The spine and superstructure were holding, and power was fine. But they were going nowhere except where their drift took them, and the nearest ship was three days away.


She'd followed standard procedure by evacuating. Lifeboats were already forming their loose protective swarm automatically, drifting near - but not too near - the Mote of Dust as it swung through space. If a settlement or ship was seen, the lifeboats would go to it automatically, to increase survival chances. Neither she nor the ship could change that - the lifeboats made their own decisions.


Cargo was fine if it was something solid and well packed, but she dreaded to think what anything loose would have experienced. No matter - it would be easy to recover later, if it was valuable enough.


Nothing much remained to be done, except deal with Crane.


The Petty Officer arrived, flanked by two much larger drones, and began meekly fumble his excuses. The Captain, suspended high in her cradle of webbing, cables and pipes, cut him off.


"Crane, I have my suspicions as to what you were doing in the atrium, much as I have my suspicions about your involvement with many irregularities in the ship's affairs."


Petty Officer Tom Crane fidgeted nervously, thought about replying, then decided to remain silent.


The Captain continued. "Those suspicions are not why you're here."


The mechanically dull voice of Dust interrupted. "Drones cannot reach the viewing room. I recommend passenger Kip Yan be listed as missing, presumed dead."


"Well, that's what I was keeping you around for, Crane - to help Kip Yan. It seems you may now evacuate, once you've accepted my orders." The Captain paused. "What do you know of Captains, Crane?"


Crane answered, cautiously. "You're bound to the ship."


"No, Crane," the Captain interrupted, "not bound. Linked."


A silence. Crane wondered just how much trouble he was in, to be lectured during an evacuation.


"Is that all you know, Crane?"


"That's about it, Captain. I was always more interested in-"


"Horticulture? Don't make me laugh, Crane! Let me tell you what few people know about Captains. Captains, Crane, go down with their ship."


Crane stood still, not quite understanding what he was being told.


"It's an old wive's tale. There's no rule saying we have to go down with our ship. There's no reason to, except to keep order. The feeling is that the Captain leaving first might panic people."


She paused.


"But in space travel, it's different. It's not some prosaic sailing vessel on seas of old. It requires someone controlling it. An AI can do a lot of the technical stuff, but nobody has yet built an AI that humans are comfortable with having in such a position of power. So we still have a Captain. Someone in charge. When Linking became possible, the Captain was the natural choice - the exact person you'd want to know all about the ship at all times."


A long, spindly mechanical arm folded down from the cradle, presenting a small box to Crane. When Crane didn't take it, the arm began to jab towards him repeatedly.


"That box is now your responsibility. You can look it up if you like. Section 10, Paragraph 32 of the United Nations Spacefaring Charter. That box is now only slightly less valuable than your life, Crane. Regard it as such until you have delivered it. The address is on the bottom."


Crane took the box gingerly.


"What's in it?"


"A letter, Crane. A letter and a lock of hair."


Crane regarded the box, no larger than a loaf of bread. "I won't risk my life for that. Not for a letter and some hair."


"You will, Crane. Or you will be tried for piracy. That is the law. But more importantly, you'll do it for me."


"You!?! Why?"


"Because I can report one of two things in my logs, Crane. I can report that you were grubbing around in the atrium trying to save your private crops and I had to drag you out, or that you were searching valiantly for Kip Yan before I ordered you to leave. Kip Yan is likely dead, so it's my word against yours."


Crane regarded the Captain, tightly bound in the webbing of her cradle above him, and stopped just short of calling her a bitch.


"And you'll do it because I may die, Crane." Her voice had softened. "A Captain is linked to their ship. I started training at the age of five for that. Devices sending messages to my head, telling me I had three arms, four arms, one arm... They mess with your body image. Did you know you have a body image? You know you have two arms, two legs, and you know where they are even when you can't see them. It's an innate thing."


She sighed, a long sigh with a slight mechanical rasping at its end.


"I was one of the first Captains. The idea was that we'd be able to change ships once they were worn out. That didn't work so well. It turns out that sudden changes to your whole body image make you go a bit crazy... It's different to the parlour tricks of our training, having to suddenly live with a whole new body all the time."


Her voice was a whisper now.


"How do you convince a five year old to link with a ship, Crane? I'll tell you how. You lie to them, and then you make it impossible to leave. I'm from the slums of Brazil. But they trawl all the slums of the world, testing children for compatibility. Even if you don't make it, training for a Captaincy is a guaranteed way out. Not just for you, but for your family. They lift the whole family up, educate your brothers and sisters, find a job for your parents. My life was given up so that my family's would be better."


She paused, looking down at Crane from the cradle.


"Crane, I will die with this ship. I'm an original Captain, and this is an original Linked ship. As I said, it's difficult to change ships. That's why the new ones are modular - they add or remove parts over time, and the gradual change is more bearable. But us originals, we're expensive and awkward." She laughed, blackly. "Did you know that of the original eight Linked ships, only two are still active?"


Crane shook his head.


"It's the damnedest thing. The engineers can't figure it out. For some reason, the power systems on these ships are very fragile. Fine in normal service, but when put under strain - like an accident - they tend to blow up. It can't be repeated in any simulations, but you can't deny it's happened to six so far."


The cradle rotated forwards, bringing the Captain's head nearer to Crane's. She spoke in barely a whisper.


"I can't feel my right leg. Well, you'd call it a right leg. And I would have too, when I was five. But in my reports, it's my starboard propulsion unit. And mine is cold, and dead, and the port one isn't much warmer. Do you know how expensive it is to restart a gravity crucible?"


The cradle rotated backwards again as Crane shook his head.


"I'm sure the company will do its best to rebuild me, expensive though it will be. After all, a Linked ship has human rights, so long as the human remains linked. But those power systems have been so very fragile in these situations, Crane. Actually, I think fragile isn't the right word. I think unpredictable might be better. Do you see, Crane?"


Crane looked at the box, then back at the Captain. "I'll deliver this to your family, Captain."


"Thank you, Crane."


Crane turned and walked away, but stopped just past the door. He saw. And he turned back. "You wouldn't care for a, um, herbal remedy, would you Captain?"


"Thank you, Crane."