“So that gives us,” the captain did some quick calculations in his head, “Just under two minutes to live.”
Josh nodded, his wide face grim, “That’s what I get, sir.”
Captain Amory Pershing looked up at the main display. A cutaway view of the ship showed one engine pulsing an angry red. He took a deep breath, then turned to the pilot, “Tandy, I’m going to need some options.”
She blinked up at him, “Options?”
“We’re not going to make it to Bhont, and I’m not going to let us coast through space for the rest of our lives. If we’ve got a minute and a half of propulsion, I want it pointing us toward somewhere livable.”
“Sir.” The pilot nodded and turned back to her station.
The captain turned back to his engineer, “Get the prisoner and bring him up here.”
The stocky man blinked up at him, “The stowaway? Uh, look, captain, if we can squeeze a bit more thrust out of that engine by losing some weight, I know how we can get rid of about 80 kilos.”
The captain’s stare was icy, “Don’t think I hadn’t considered it. But it wouldn’t buy us as much as a second in thrust, and he’s more useful to us alive.” He turned away and started walking over to the navigation station. Over his shoulder, he said, “Just bring him up here. The bridge is shielded. It’s the safest place to be in a crash.”
As Josh nodded and left the bridge, Amory put a hand on Tandy’s shoulder, “Anything nearby?”
She shrugged a bit, “I’ve got three solid bodies with a period similar to Earth. There’s one that seems habitable, but it’s not mapped. Can’t tell if there’s life there or not.”
Captain Pershing stroked his chin, “Lots of seeder ships never reported back. Something could have crashed out here.”
“So you don’t think it’s got life?” An air vent near the captain’s station burst off it’s hinges and shot a gout of flame into the room, singeing the console. Amory looked at it, wide-eyed. The engine heat was igniting oxygen storage tanks.
He shook his head, “Doesn’t matter. If it’s got air, land and water, we aim for it. Can we hit it?”
Tandy took a deep breath, “Ah, just barely. We’d be coasting the last million miles or so. After that, it’s navigation thrusters only.” She squinted at the screen and shook her head a bit, “Yeah, I’d say I could hit it, cap.”
“Fine. Get us there.” He stepped away from the nav console, looking back at the cutaway of the engine. A thousand different checks were performed every time they set foot on the ship. But there were a million ways the trip could go wrong. Something had the engine sucking in it’s own exhaust, causing a brutal feedback loop. He didn’t know how to repair it without a lift and a team that could dig into the engine. All he knew was that it would go critical in a little over a minute.
Amory turned to the entrance as he heard feet stomping up the stairs. Josh’s baritone voice snarled, “I don’t care what you think you’re owed. In my book, you’re just dead weight.”
The captain pointed to the thin man as he entered, head held high, “Mr. Moore. I’m going to need to detain you here for the duration of the trip.”
The tall man nodded and let his shackles sizzle as he shrugged his shoulder, “I’m honored, Captain. My previous berth was not quite up to my standard.”
Josh came up behind him and shoved the thin man into the room, “Go on, stowaway. You’re lucky I don’t toss you out the airlock.”
The captain pointed to the communications station, “Put him there.”
Josh pushed him again, and the thin man sniffed, “The in-flight entertainment has much to be desired as well. So far, it seems to be limited to klaxons and sirens.”
Amory walked over to Josh, “How long does it take to shut the engine down?”
Josh shrugged, “If we do it properly, spinning down and everything, about a minute and a half.” The ship bucked suddenly, throwing Amory and Josh to the floor. Tandy threw her arms around her station, and the stowaway hung on by his manacles.
Shaking his head as he looked up, Josh said, “All the same, I could just yank the power couplings, and we’d lose thrust in less than a second.”
Amory got to his knees and nodded, “Right. You get down to the engine room and wait for my signal.”
Josh stood slowly, then turned back to the Captain, “Wait. This is the safest room on the ship, and right before the engine goes critical, you want me standing next to it while you put him -” he jabbed a finger at the stowaway, “up here where it’s safe? How is that fair.”
The captain glared at him, “I don’t trust him to shut the engine down in time. I don’t trust him with our lives. In thirty seconds, I don’t want him down there deciding he has the power over us.”
“Yeah, but -”
“Go!” the Captain roared.
Josh frowned, but then hurried down the corridor. From the navigation station, the stowaway asked, “Is it really that bad, Captain?”
Amory looked at him for a long moment, then checked the time over the main screen. “My count is fifteen seconds. Tandy, we on course?”
“Yes sir. I mean, I’m pretty sure that, with maneuvering thrusters I could get us to -”
“Fine.” He stabbed at a button on his console, “Josh, we’re on course, and we’ve got ten seconds. Shut it down.”
Josh’s voice came crackling through the speaker, “Roger.”
The captain took a breath and closed his eyes as the ship shuddered. Either the engine would overheat and explode, or they would be left adrift in deep space. It all came down to their numbers and timing.
A deep, powerful thrum that had been building up over several days suddenly died away. The whole ship seemed to sigh and relax as the forward thrust dropped away. Amory let his breath out in a whoosh. He opened his mouth in a forced yawn, trying to deal with the change in pressure. The lights dimmed, then came up at half-power. Amory turned to Tandy, “Make sure we’re on emergency power rations until we can charge the banks back up. Without the engine, it’s going to take a lot longer to recharge.”
Josh stepped onto the bridge, “So, we’re not dead then. There’s that.”
The captain nodded, “Thank you Mr. Kemuel. Now, if you could dislodge our interloper from the communications station, we need to see if we can get any broadband signal before we fall off the trade route entirely.” They both looked at the stowaway who was fearfully gripping the communications station with both arms.
He stared up at them, a haunted look in his eyes, “Okay. Look. Changed my mind. Want to go home.”