“What are the planetary radiation levels?”
“20% of the acceptable level Captain. Increasing by 1% every 30 minutes sir.”
That gave me 40 hours to decide a course of action, organize my ship and crew, and execute the plan.
“How far away is our nearest allied ship?”
“25 parsecs sir. Moving at full speed, they would get here in 45 hours.”
Too long. They wouldn’t make it in time to help us before radiation on the planet’s surface reached critical.
After receiving the distress signal, we had made contact to let them know we were on route and they should organize themselves for evacuation.
“Are the colonists ready for evacuation?”
“They estimate they will be in ten hours sir.”
“What is the population?”
I didn’t need them to do the math. Instantaneous Long-Distance Transport, or ILDT, had been my focus of study at the academy. To use the technology for that many people would take at least 38 hours, that wouldn’t cut it.
Casualties are a part of every rescue mission, that was rule number one of leadership training at the academy. It fell under the heading, “Accepted Standards” in our Rescue Mission Handbook.
So, it was no surprise the shock my crew displayed when I made it clear that any solutions that relied on that ratio were unacceptable.
It was a day when I placed the trust of my crew on the line. I placed my career on the line. All because of something my youngest daughter said to me the prior evening.
An acceptable casualty ratio quoted from our Rescue Mission Handbook is 5% of ship capacity.
I currently had before me a crew of 200, and a colony of 3,000 in need of planetary evacuation. At my disposal was a ship with a capacity of 2,000.
By the book, my acceptable total casualties for this mission were 160 people. 160 living, breathing, hopeful souls. That was well over 75% of my crew.
That didn’t include the ones that I couldn’t fit on the ship. Which would bring my casualties up to 1,200.
I handpicked this crew, many of them students I had tracked from their application to the academy and recruited as soon as they were approved for practical internships.
Some of their parents were my friends, some of them had grown up with my own children. Heck, one of them was my own child. I couldn’t ask them to give up their place on the ship, to save a stranger, could I?
Some of them might not survive our mission as it was, but at this point they believed they had a fighting chance.
My fists tightened on the rail dividing the bridge. It separated my personal workstation, from the bridge crew.
“Who taught you to hold such a high standard?” I remembered the conversation with Telia from the night before.
“You did, dad. You taught us kids that when the Designer entered the void to seal it and save our universe, he did it out of love for us.
“If he loves us that much, who are we to give anything less than our best?”
Our fight about her failed thesis paper was electric. She had challenged the Casualty Ratios dictated by the Medical Officer Handbook they supplied to doctoral students at the academy.
My neck was flushed red. What would my colleagues think of this? What kind of Space Colonization Captain has a daughter that flunked out of the academy?
Why had she chosen such a controversial topic for her thesis? Why had she refused to change it even as her professors argued with her?
Why did she have to be right?
Her simple, albeit naive, worldview was not wrong. The truth remained.
As humans our number one priority should be aligned with that of the Designer.
Our number one priority should always be caring for our neighbours.
That was the truth I wrestled with as my crew communicated the ratios and offered potential solutions.
All of them failed to think outside the box, because the Handbook had provided them an out. It was time for me to correct that error.
“Enough, I don’t want to hear any more solutions that allow less than 100% evacuation and safety for crew and colonists.”
There was silence on the bridge. Fourteen pairs of eyes stared at me, as if I were an alien with three heads.
“But captain. The capacity of our ship is only 2,000.” My first officer argued.
“I understand that Commander. But there are children, and parents, and friends and spouses down there that expect us to not leave their loved ones behind.”
They all turned sidelong glances at their crew mates. Had their captain lost it? Had I, after decades of space travel succumbed to mania?
“What is it that limits our ship to holding only 2,000 people?” I prompted them.
“Food and water supplies.” Someone replied.
“Do we have enough to last us until more ships come to our aid?”
“The Atmospheric Control System, we are only compliant under 2 people per 100 square feet captain.” Somebody else offered.
“That’s system compliance, how many people is it actually capable of keeping alive for the hours it may take additional help to reach us?”
“The system is capable of providing enough oxygen for 2000 average humans for a week. At our present reserves.”
“So, what does that mean if we add an additional 1200 people?”
“We could survive a few days in space.”
“Excellent. ” I said.
“Excuse me captain, but if we have to land to evacuate all those people, our engines can’t break atmosphere with the additional weight.”
“What’s your solution Commander?” I asked.
He looked stunned. Then he recovered.
“We will have to find ways to decrease our weight?”
“Yes. Starting with what contributes the most weight without furthering our objective.”
One of the youngest bridge members, a quiet lad that often hesitated to speak was chewing on his lip.
“Do you have an idea you would like to share ensign?”
“Yes sir.” He said, “if we stripped the ship of anything purely aesthetic, we would increase capacity by 10%.”
“Great, begin a list of parts and components that can be removed.”
My first officer choked. “But Captain, the ship isn’t herself without her appearance.”
I looked him in the eye. “Wrong, Commander, the ship isn’t herself without her crew and her mission.”
“Captain, if I may?” The bridge engineering liaison interjected; his hand raised.
“If we only need to last in orbit until help comes, we do not need our energy cells, and after the engine core they are the heaviest components on the ship.”
I pinched my chin and narrowed my eyes. “Lieutenant, how many energy cells would it take to maintain essential life support in space?”
“25% sir, for 3200 passengers. But we would have to get rid of 90% of them to break atmosphere, sir.”
My eyebrows snapped together. “What else could help us break atmosphere?”
The bridge was silent. Two pilots were arguing in whispers. “Ladies.” I barked to break up the heated discussion. The women were inseparable, pilot and co-pilot since the beginning of their academy flight training.
“We apologize sir.”
“Did you want to share.”
Waters glared at Gilmore. “Sir, Gilmore has suggested that when we reach the upper stratosphere, we jettison the engine core and use the propulsion to clear us from the planet’s orbit.”
I turned to Gilmore, “Is it doable?”
“Yes sir, I am no engineer but by flight theory it would work. It was the way original space explorers launched their ships.”
“Work with engineering to make a plan.”
Again, my first officer was ready to combust. “Sir, we would be a floating derelict.”
“But everyone would be alive Commander.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “What if the first ship to reach us is hostile instead, sir?”
I gritted my teeth because he was right. There was no point in saving the colonists from the planet just to have them captured by slavers or killed by Guerilla ships once in space.
Commander Grennwich looked like he had the mind to stand insist I was wrong, instead I saw the idea spark on his face. He turned to the Engineering Liaison. “Lieutenant, once the engine is gone, can we keep a few extra energy cells?”
“Enough to power the shields at full strength and operate the dorsal cannon?”
“Yes sir, I believe so.”
“We will work on it together,” he said.
I was still holding my breath, but there was a chance we would make it out of this. I stood back and watched my crew at work. Waters guided the ship down to the planet’s surface while Gilmore consulted with engineering for the launch plan.
Grennwich worked on calculations with the ensigns and Liaison officers. They could have mutinied. They could have considered my new standards unreasonable and refused to comply. Instead, they had risen to the challenge.
“I couldn’t believe it, Telia, they embraced the mission, no matter how unreasonable it seemed compared to the accepted standards.”
“If the mission is worthy, they will every time dad.”
Tears welled in my eyes. “It wasn’t a perfect rescue though. One of the Elders from the colony had a heart attack during take-off.”
Telia’s eyes shone with compassion.
“His daughter told me his last words were, ‘thank the Captain for caring enough to risk it all’.”
“Dad, if you hadn’t cared, if you hadn’t taken that risk, his daughter may not have been able to relay that message to you. There were 1,000 people that would have been left on the planet.”
“I can’t say I completed my mission perfectly though.”
“No, but you can say you cared. And you can say you did your best. That’s all that counts.”
I laughed as tears splashed onto my desk. “When did you get so wise?”
She answered, “After a patient died in my care dad, and I was told I had done everything by the book. But I knew, I was distracted by my own selfish ambitions and I hadn’t been focused on caring for the person in front of me.”
I sobbed. Sobbed that my daughter had learned such a difficult lesson. I smiled through the tears because she dealt with it better than most would. She had chosen to grow, to take responsibility, to focus on the next patient with a new determination.
My crew never looked at me the same after that day. One of my bridge crew submitted his request for transfer, citing that I had acted recklessly. The rest of them, however, looked at me with new respect.
And I saw them with new trust because I knew, they understood the mission, and they embraced it.
This one is for my dad. He gave me my first laptop, on which I wrote my first novel-length story. He always reads my emails and my stories (despite his disinterest in reading) and he always texts me to say he loved it and is proud of me. After my email about connection, he texted me and said his story was about this: “I want to make other people’s stories mine…”
You guys, it is by making other people’s stories our own that we learn to connect.
Comment below and share your story with me. Or email me:
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