Sampler: Galactic Pathfinder: Paradise Alley

 

There’s no medium to carry sound waves, there is no sound. In the cold, dead emptiness of space, no one can hear you scream.

What are they doing here?

Pilot and explorer Lieutenant Commander Matt Heller aboard the Union of Planets Geological Survey carrier John Wesley Powell is on a five-year mission exploring the Orion Arm. He and his shipmates are the first humans to venture this far from home, daring all.

On a solo mission in the Brynne Barrens, an immense, mysterious, cosmic void, Matt receives an unexpected message: “Straight ahead, only five light-years—Paradise Alley Shipyard, Emporium, and Rec Center.”

His universal translator sits idle. The message is in English.

Brian W. Dowsley

Sampler: Galactic Pathfinder: Paradise Alley

Engineer Second Class Jeff Blair’s head pounded and his stomach churned. Both legs twitched. His entire five-foot-ten body ached. He wanted to throw up but feared his skull would explode. All this from a single glass of champagne? That’s all he remembered.

What did I do yesterday?

Lying on his back, he explored with one hand, running it across the top of his bed. No not a bed. Too hard. Cracking open an eye, someone stabbed it with an ice pick. The overhead lights blazed. Prone on his stateroom’s deck, he was suffering the worst hangover of his life. One of his shipmates must have dumped him here.

How embarrassing.

Slowly, his head cleared. Things started coming back.

Main control, bridge. Light off station-keeping thrusters. Secure main engines.”

“Light off station-keeping thrusters. Secure main engines. Main control, aye.” Jeff smiled and sighed, “We’re here.”

The ship’s engineering control room was a pristine, bright compartment—fifty feet wide by twenty deep. The walls were packed with analog gauges, digital readouts, buttons, switches, handles, and keyboards. It took a lot of sophisticated machinery to safely transit deep space.

“Roger that,” said Engineer Third Class Wilmna “Willie” Terries, a stocky, no-nonsense, redheaded woman. Flipping a couple switches and inspecting a readout, she reported, “Thrusters activated and tested. Control sent to the bridge.”

“Thrusters activated and tested. Control sent to the bridge, aye.” Jeff turned to a panel and pulled a handle from its recessed position. Twisting it ninety degrees, he pushed it back in, then watched a screen as main engines went through their step-by-step, automated run-down. Satisfied all was well, he reported, “Bridge, main control. Station-keeping thrusters on-line under bridge control. Main engines secured.”

Most of this reporting was pro forma. The chief engineer, Engineer First Class Ford McClaskill, monitored it all from his workstation on the bridge.

Station-keeping thrusters on line under bridge control. Main engines secured. Bridge, aye.”

After a long trek, HS Andromeda had arrived. Jeff wasn’t sure where that was and didn’t particularly care—he was an engineer. Spacers, like seamen of old, lived and labored in an unforgiving environment. The only thing that kept them alive were the ships they inhabited. And the only thing that kept those ships running were engineers like himself, toiling alone in space, working without a safety net. What a heady experience.

Jeff hadn’t understood space’s powerful attraction to a romantic like himself. He did now. It wasn’t the pay—which was damn good—it was something else.

He and Jillian planned to marry. He’d proposed; he’d never been more nervous in his life. She accepted, tears spilling past her beautiful smile. They couldn’t be happier, wedding arrangements were made, the big day approached. Then she asked him what he planned to do once his current assignment was over. He explained his dreams of becoming a chief engineer, then ultimately getting a command of his own. “You’ll return to space?” she asked incredulously. He’d never considered doing anything else. The discussion didn’t last long. “Space or me,” she declared.“You can’t have both.”

Well . . . here he was. To a man like himself, space was a demanding mistress. More than that, she was an enchanting seductress. Jeff chuckled and shook his head. That was close.

No, he hadn’t paid attention to where Andromeda was or what route they’d taken. He hadn’t been interested. Engineering was his life. That would change during their return voyage. Having passed his first-class exams, he was slated for a chief engineer slot. After that, he hoped for a captaincy.  Between now and then, there was a lot to learn—shiphandling, stellar navigation, cargo stowage. The captain agreed to his cross-training if all went well on their outbound leg and he demonstrated potential to occupy the big chair. In that spirit, the chief engineer took a hands-off, command-by-negation approach to running his department and gave Jeff all the slack he needed to prove—or hang—himself.

Left to his own devices, Jeff didn’t respond to the myriad of inevitable problems and emergencies common to long passages. He anticipated them. The voyage proceeded perfectly and the captain expressed her confidence in him. Ten years of concerted labor . . . it was coming together. Jeff was ecstatic.

All hands, this is the captain.” Her rich voice resonated throughout the ship. “We are in a parking orbit. Underway watches are secured. Offloading will commence at 0800 tomorrow. Zero eight hundred—eight in the morning to the uninitiated. “Stand down. Alpha-delta-two-eight in twenty. Ship’s mess.” Jeff and Willie turned to one another and grinned.

Alpha-delta-two-eight was the age-old maritime signal meaning “splice the mainbrace.” In days of yore, braces were the lines used to control the angle of square-rigged yards on large sailing ships. If the longest, most crucial brace—the mainbrace—broke, it had to be repaired—spliced—right away. That could be a very difficult, demanding, and dangerous job. When complete, the sailors involved were given a ration of rum. Over the years as sails were replaced by engines, “splice the mainbrace” came to mean the hard work was complete—it was time to celebrate. Break out the booze.

Jeff and Willie left main control by its forward-facing, starboard-side door and entered a passageway. There were three open archways to the left leading to the ship’s recreation center, mess, and galley. To the right were three stateroom doors, an air lock, and another stateroom door. The chief engineer’s residence was the farthest aft, then Jeff’s, then Willie’s. The first mate’s was the most forward. The passageway ended at a door leading to the bridge. Jeff opened the entrance to his quarters. “I want to clean up. See you in a few.” He chuckled. “Splice the mainbrace, indeed.”

The ship’s mess was no-frills. It measured twenty feet by twenty with archways to port and starboard leading to fore-and-aft passageways, forward for access to the galley, and aft to the rec center. Bulkhead space was filled with cabinetry—base units with working surfaces below, wall units above. Centered in the room was a round table surrounded by eight chairs. Stark perhaps, but elegant. Table, chairs, and cabinets all appeared oaken and polished to a hard shine. None were wooden, of course. Wood was a rare commodity aboard ships. Wood burns.

The room was filled to capacity. Jeff and Willie stood next to Chief Engineer McClaskill—a short, muscular man with curly, black hair and ruddy skin. Two deck officers, the second and third mates, leaned against either side of the archway leading aft: tall, thin Ted Messina, and short, overweight Art Peterson. A Mutt and Jeff combination if ever there was one. Captain Ruth Walker, a striking, tall, bald woman, stood behind the forward-most chair. She was joined by the first mate, an average-sized black man with kinky, gray hair, cut high and tight: Hamid Ali. He presented her a bottle of champagne. The final occupant, Jack Harcourt, was a six-foot-two man with a sharp, angular face. He was gaunt, nearly emaciated. He didn’t smile much. He was supercargo, not part of the crew. He rode herd over the ship’s consignment.

Harcourt distributed stemmed champagne flutes and stepped back to give the captain unobstructed, center stage. “No speeches, people,” she said, “other than well done.” With that, she thumbed the cork from the bottle’s neck. Pop! Foam spewed as the cork ricocheted off two bulkheads and came to rest between Jeff’s feet. Everyone cheered. “Step right up, folks. Don’t be shy.”

One at a time, the captain filled everyone’s glasses, then her own. Lifting it, she said, “To the best crew, . . .” directing her gaze to Harcourt, she added, “plus one, a captain could ask for.” All raised their flutes and downed their contents. “Number One, we’re going to need more champagne.”

“I’m on it, captain.”

Jeff lined up for a refill.

That’s all he remembered.

*

Jeff rolled onto his stomach, then waited a moment while the room quit reeling. Ten years, ten damned years, and I probably blew it. If I made a fool of myself in front of everyone, especially the captain, I’ll be lucky to get a chief engineer’s slot after this run. Might as well kiss a ship of my own goodbye. Damn, damn, damn!

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud, pulsating buzz. Overlaying the alarm, a tinny voice said, “Warning! Pressure not equalized! Warning! Pressure not equalized! Decompression in ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven, . . .”

Jeff lifted to his hands and knees, hangover forgotten, brain clearing. What?

six, five, four, . . .”

This wasn’t his stateroom. This was the air lock.

three, two, one.

The outer hatch slid aside.

Jeff shrieked as his world erupted. Hands and knees flew off the deck as the air lock explosively decompressed. Hurtled forward, his left shoulder slammed into the hatch as it retracted, shattering his collar bone. He didn’t feel it. Neither did he feel the moisture covering his eyes and tongue boil. Nor his body swell like a stuffed sausage. Whirling into vacuum, outcry saved his lungs from rupturing.

But where there’s no medium to carry sound waves, there is no sound.

In the cold, dead emptiness of space, no one can hear you scream.

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