Delivering the Commonwealth

Five: The Break

I went off duty at 1600 hours and went immediately to the officer’s mess. I wasn’t hungry, but I knew that it was the place where I was likeliest to find the most people. Sure enough, there were a number of department heads and other off-duty folks gathering there, engaged in conversation, sipping drinks or eating from trays of snacks and other treats prepared by the food services. The atmosphere of the place felt lighter than at any time since we’d departed Sharon System.

“Killian,” one of them called out. It was Lt. Aiden Patel-Smith from Environmental. “Come join us,” he continued, waving me over. As I approached, he turned to his table mates. “Do you all know Jared Killian, Chief of Security?”

“Hi,” I said. “Jared.”

“Killian,” Patel-Smith continued, “This is Ensign Zara Okafor-Brown, Ensign Mariam Andersson-Li, and Lieutenant Javier Nguyen. Zara and Mariam work with me in environmental; Javi’s in reclamation.” 

“Good to meet you all,” I said. Patel-Smith slid an order pad my way, and I made a selection for a beer. I had been so concerned with making the right impression on this mission that I hadn’t had so much as a sip of alcohol since Dominic’s bar on New Sydney. But there was an air of relaxation now aboard ship, and it felt good to indulge in a little rest and recreation.

“How do you all like working in environmental and reclamation?” I asked my new companions.

“It’s terrific, right mates?” responded Patel-Smith with a broad grin. “I mean, what could compare with the excitement of monitoring humidity levels and temperature? I mean, that’s cutting-edge fleet stuff right there!” Patel-Smith and his colleagues all laughed.

“It can’t be all that bad, can it?” I asked, a little uncomfortable with the fact that I had a great job aboard ship. 

“Nah, I’m just joshing. It’s good work. It doesn’t get that exciting, but, to be honest, if things were to get exciting in environmental, we’d all be in trouble.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s mostly the humidity and temperature stuff, but you’d be surprised how much the right oxygen–nitrogen mix can contribute to better brain function, how the right temps aid in sleep and physical restoration—all of which can be interesting enough. But if things were to get really interesting, it’d be because there’d been some kind of contamination in the air or water supply—cesium, uranium, polonium, shit like that.”

“Does that happen often?” I asked, incredulous that I’d been aboard a ship that might have been dealing with toxins more than I’d realized.

“Nah, man. Exceedingly rare. And you’d definitely know it if it happened. The alarm system would go nuts and before you knew it, you’d be in an environmental suit running for a life pod or an airlock. So, you can see why we prefer our work to be boring. No need to feel guilty that you’re the one with the fancy job and title, hanging around with the captain all day,” Patel-Smith said, again grinning widely. 

 “Are you bridge crew?” Okafor-Brown asked in an accent I wouldn’t have been able to place but for my encounter with Chollie at Dominic’s: one of the Farmark accents.

“Yes,” I replied. “There are four other members of my team who rotate shifts on the bridge.”

Nguyen followed up. “What’s it like?” This felt like an odd question for a fleet officer to ask, but then it dawned on me: these were other repurposed civilians like me. Experts in various fields serving on this expedition to allow seasoned fleet officers to stay behind in defense of the League. 

“It’s good. Probably not that much more exciting than any other duty station. I mean, it’s not like we’re encountering anyone out here or having to make any combat decisions.”

Patel-Smith chimed in. “I heard you were a part of that business today with the shuttle delivery. Sending the chief of security on a shuttle repair mission seems like overkill. What really happened?”

There wasn’t anything classified about what had happened earlier, and certainly, there would be rumors and whispers. I had the facts and the truth of the matter; I could help keep the record straight.  

“The Void got to one of our crew,” I said. “Snapped and decided to take himself out—perhaps along with a good part of the Brunswick.”

“Abe’s God,” Patel-Smith responded. “It’s as bad as I thought.”

“What do you mean?” I responded.

Patel-Smith looked around the table before continuing. “We were all just talking about it before you got here. Everyone is stressed out. Mariam was saying how she was surprised that someone hadn’t snapped already. I was saying that the ship felt like a powder keg.”

“Yeh,” said Anderson-Li in a thick southern Fairhaven accent. “We weh juss naw sayeen hai teense uht eez.” My brain took a second to catch up: We were just now saying how tense it is. This is why I always have to put the captions on when I watch movies from Fairhaven.

“Grateful for the break,” Nguyen followed. “I think it’ll help.”

That made me smile. The captain’s plan was working. You could feel it even among these four crew mates—a chance to catch your breath, a respite from the relentless drive across an unforgiving and uncaring void of space toward a destination we were not even sure would be worth going to once we got there.

A floater drifted over with my drink in a bulb with a straw—even with gravitic plating on, you didn’t want to take your chances when it came to liquids. I took the bulb in my hand and uncapped the straw.

“To the captain,” I offered, raising my drink.

“The captain!” they all responded, raising their own. That also made me smile. 

“To Farmark,” offered Patel-Smith.

“And to chorging the bastards what did this to it,” continued Okafor-Brown.

“Hear, hear!” we all responded in a chorus.

The toasts went on for enough time for us all to have drained our drinks and require another round. When the floaters arrived with the next round, the conversation turned a little more sober, even if we were trending in the opposite direction.

“Do you think we’ll find anyone?” Anderson-Li asked. I wasn’t sure if she was asking the table or just me, but given the fact that it was unlikely that she hadn’t ever talked to her friends about this topic, I decided to answer first just in case.

“I do,” I responded. “It’s not possible that a union of nearly two hundred worlds just disappeared. Someone’s gotta be there.”

“Why haven’t they ever come looking for us?” she continued.

That’s the question—the one that haunts all the citizens of the League. Why did they abandon us to a lonely frontier?

“I guess we’ll find out when we get there,” I answered, though that was only half a consolation. Somewhere deep down I understood that it was wishful thinking. Maybe they were all gone; maybe our Pioneer ancestors had gotten out just in time. 

I had heard reports that, before the invasion, there were some people on Farmark who believed that the Commonwealth was a hoax—that it had never existed. They believed that our ancestors all had come from Farmark and only created the lie of the Commonwealth for some unspecified, nefarious purpose. Any objective look at the claim would demonstrate how ridiculous it was, but still: it wasn’t like the Commonwealth had shown up to disprove it.

“If we get there,” Nguyen started, “How far do you think we’ll get to go?”

“What do you mean?” asked Patel-Smith.

“Do you think we’ll get to go all the way to Earth?” Nguyen continued.

“Nah,” responded Patel-Smith. “We probably won’t get any farther than Sigma Librae—that was the frontier world closest to us when the colonists left. I imagine we won’t even get that far; that’s probably a few systems inland at this point.” Of course, inland made no sense literally, but even after all these centuries in space, we’d never come up with a better way of describing a system that wasn’t on the frontier.

“Plus,” I chimed in, “Last time anyone checked, Earth is at the center of the Commonwealth—that’s a lot of extra traveling we’d have to do. Especially when the Navy will no doubt be able to respond to our request in Sigma Librae. Messenger drones with laser comms can communicate much faster than ships having to travel and refuel along the way.”

“I was hoping we’d get to Earth,” Nguyen said, a little dejectedly. 

“How come?” asked Okafur-Brown.

“How come?” responded Nguyen somewhat incredulously. “You don’t want to visit the home planet of the human race? To see ancient cities? To see if any of the children’s stories about Earth are true?”

“I dunno,” responded Okafur-Brown. “I’ve gone this far without seeing it.”

“Spoken like a true Farmarker!” cried Patel-Smith. “We don’t need no nothin’ what y’all are offerin.’ We’s doin’ just fine on our own.”

“Is that supposed to be a Farmark accent, or are you having some kind of stroke, Newby?” Okafur-Brown replied with the somewhat derogatory term for a New Sydney resident.

Patel-Smith laughed, and then Okafur-Brown. And the tone of the evening shifted back from serious to jovial.

There would be a few more visits by the floaters with more drinks before the evening was over and I headed back to my cabin, trying to remind myself to drink a lot of water and take some anti-inflammatories before going to sleep. I didn’t want to be hungover when the captain gave her address.

But at the moment, even with the knowledge that I’d probably overdone it a little bit, I was happy. I had had a good night with some people I’d not known before, and the camaraderie was enough to elevate our spirits. 

I lay down on my bed and set the wall display to a nighttime view of the Reinmann Forest on New Sydney. I barely managed to whisper the words “to the captain!” before passing out completely.

Mercifully, the water and anti-inflammatories did their trick and when my alarm went off the following morning, I felt no worse for wear. I showered, dressed, and ate quickly. I was excited to get to the bridge this morning. I’d have a front-row seat for the captain’s address.

I walked onto the bridge at 0759 hours and saw Filipov-Ibañez, Flores, Thorsten, and Delacruz already there. I wasn’t the only one excited to begin the shift.

I approached the overnight security officer to relieve him. 

“Anything unusual?” I asked him—an ensign named Upshur.

“No, sir. Pretty quiet. We did have some trouble with the SecLink to the Brunswick. I made a note in the log and sent a message to their comms officer.

“What trouble?”

“Just some latency issues. Our logs were taking a while to sync. I figured their network was probably overburdened with the extra data from the R&R—videos, music, you know. Plus, I’m sure they were gearing up to make sure the captain’s speech would go off without a hitch.”

“But the security comms aren’t a part of the general network,” I said. “Overuse of one shouldn’t affect the other at all.”

“The Brunswick is an older ship, sir. We don’t know how things might be jerry-rigged over there.”

“Yeah…” I said, not entirely convinced. “Anyway, I relieve you.”

“I stand relieved,” Upshur responded. “Have a good shift and enjoy the speech, sir.”

I nodded in response but my mind was still on this small communications issue; something about it just didn’t seem right.

Every time we downjumped, the Deliverance and the Brunswick synced our security logs and other reports. This was so that we could do any data cross-correlation and use each other’s systems as benchmarks. If we saw a small uptick in crew member brawls, for instance, we could compare that data with the Brunswick’s and see if we were both experiencing a similar trend or if there might be something limited to one or the other vessel. At most, the info swap took a second. Two kilometers in vacuum might as well be instantaneous at the speed of light—there shouldn’t be any latency.

I spent the better part of the next hour trying to figure this out. I started looking through the transmission logs and noticed the same thing over and over—the Brunswick’s security comms were slow like they were being overtaxed with something. I began to scan through the logs from the previous day to see if the Brunswick had scheduled any repairs or systems maintenance that could account for the delay. Nothing on the schedule. What could they be up to?

“What’s that, lieutenant?” asked Commander Delacruz. Apparently, I’d been thinking out loud again.

“Overnight reported a latency in the communications with Brunswick’s security net. I’m having a hard time accounting for it.”

Delacruz looked like I was beginning to feel—concerned, but unsure why. He turned to Flores. “Lieutenant, are we performing any maintenance on our end that could account for the latency?”

Flores responded immediately: “No, sir. I ran a full diagnostic suite yesterday before the break. Most of our systems were on standby all night.”

“Raise the Brunswick, lieutenant,” Delacruz said.

“Aye, sir.” Flores began working her magic on her console, but very quickly her expression told us something was amiss. “Sir, I can’t raise them. The open channel doesn’t seem to be receiving. I’ve tried hailing them, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I can’t tell if they’re not receiving us or if they’re ignoring us.”

“Surely they’re not trying to avoid my speech,” came the captain’s voice from the entry hatch. Captain Kavanagh entered the bridge in a good mood that was quickly derailed by the expressions she saw on the faces of her officers. “Report.”

Delacruz stepped toward her. “Lt. Killian investigated a latency reported overnight in the SecLink communications with the Brunswick. He has been unable to determine the source. Lt. Flores attempted to raise the Brunswick on both the standard open channel and through standard hails and has been unsuccessful.”

“What the devil are they up to over there?” The captain responded. “Lt. Flores, keep hailing them.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Lt. Killian, can you access any of their security net from here?”

“I can transmit data to a buffer that appears to receive it, but any time I try to handshake with their system, the connection stalls.”

“All of these systems are supposed to be redundant,” the captain fumed. “There’s no excuse for this. This expedition can’t succeed if our tech—”

“Captain!” shouted Flores. “I’m receiving a transmission from the Brunswick! It’s audio-only,”

“On speakers,” replied the captain, but before Flores could comply, a static hiss came from every speaker on the bridge.

“Captain, they’re broadcasting to the entire ship. They’ve logged into our comms.”

“What the—”

Members of the Doomed Expedition—came the voice over the speakers—I know you were all expecting to hear from our illustrious fleet captain with words of encouragement for us in this dark time. We have decided to dispense with this charade.

“Cut that transmission, now!”

“I’m trying, captain,” came Flores’ anxious response. “I don’t have control over our internal comms. I’m not even sure how they’re doing it.”

I could see the panic in Flores’ eyes: it wasn’t just a matter of an unwanted broadcast, it was the hacking of a vital system. I immediately initiated system firewall countermeasures. This was a specially designed suite of programs that built a cascading firewall. Even if someone had hacked into a vital system, this would create a firewall within the system to prevent it from being fully compromised. Suddenly my board lit up with alerts—systems throughout the ship were being hacked. My firewall cascades were sealing off engineering and life-support systems and holding the line in the comms and other systems that had already been penetrated.

Members of the Doomed Expedition. Surely, by now, you have realized that our mission is a fraud. We were sent on this mission to give the illusion of doing something to the peoples of the League. It is a lie. Nothing can be done. We were never going to find the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is gone. The League will soon follow in its footsteps. 

“Who is that?” the captain asked angrily.

“That’s Jaxon Kimura-García,” I replied, stunned. “That the Brunswick’s chief of security.”

“Abe’s God,” muttered Filipov-Ibañez at tactical. “That means…”

“That means Mr. Killian’s network latency isn’t an accident,” finished the captain. “Flores, do whatever you can to get through to anyone else on that ship.”

Everything we have been told is a lie. Everything we have been asked to do is an act of futility.

Flores turned back to her console, hands flying across the display, desperately trying to get any kind of alternate communications stream going. Filipov-Ibañez, too, was hard at work trying to get any information about our sister ship from his sensors. Next to me, Hannover ran through his operations overview, checking to see that important systems were still functioning properly—many of which were doing so only because of the cascading firewalls.

We refuse to go along with this pointless quest, jumping from one extinction headlong into another one. We will be masters of our fate.

“Mr. Thorsten,” said Delacruz. “I need you to move us away from that vessel. Full impulse.”

“Aye, commander.”

We will not be puppets dancing on the strings of the powerful to mollify the masses.

For my part, I continued trying to log onto the Brunswick’s security network, though I knew by now that this was fruitless. When the security chief is the one who goes rogue, the entire security apparatus is lost. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t make any headway accessing the Brunswick’s SecNet.

If death be our fate then it shall be at our hands, not the consequence of a cruel and uncaring cosmos fed by guileless fools.

“Crike,” muttered Hannover. “Who is this arsehole?”

“He’s about to be a mass murderer,” said Filipov-Ibañez. “Captain, I am detecting a surge in neutrino emissions coming from the Brunswick’s engine core.

“Good God,” said the captain, rising from her chair. “They’re going to blow the hyperdrive.”

“Flores,” followed Delacruz, “Any luck getting through to anyone over there?”

“No, commander,” replied a visibly distressed Flores.

“It’s okay, lieutenant,” said the captain the the maternal tone she adopted from time to time with the younger officers. “Keep trying.”

We will not let the void wear us down through attrition. We make of ourselves an offering of our own free will!

I was having no luck getting access to any of Brunswick’s systems, even with my security overrides. All of the critical systems had been walled off, their command codes rewritten. Then it occurred to me. “I think I have something.”

Delacruz came over to my station. “What’ve you got, lieutenant?”

“A non-critical system. I can access it. One sec.”


“Stand by.” My hands danced over my console as I identified a system weakness and sought to exploit it. There it was, just as I’d hoped. “Environmental control.”

“How are you going to shut down the reactor breach with environmental control?” Delacruz asked.

“I’m not,” I responded dourly. “I’m just going to try to save as many of them as I can.”

Hear us, O Doomed Expedition! Know that your deaths today will save countless years of suffering in the cold, empty loneliness of space! Our futile quest is at an end. Today, we reach our destination.

There it was in front of me: the environmental status interface. I entered a few lines of data into the database.

“What are you doing, lieutenant? Report!” the captain not-quite barked.

“I’m tricking the environmental systems into believing there’s been a polonium leak.” I pressed send.

Though we could not hear it, at that moment, all around the Brunswick, section bulkheads were slamming closed. Decks were being sealed off. Escape pod moorings were unlocked. And klaxons were blaring: “Fatal environmental failure! All hands abandon ship! All hands, abandon ship! Fatal environmental failure!”

Today we—what is this? What is this nonsense? Another lie from those who would keep you enslaved for the purpose of spectacle! This trick will not delay the inevitable—we claim our victory!

We watched on the viewscreen as dozens of life pods separated from the Brunswick, jetting away in all directions from the vessel.

“Thorsten? Status,” said Delacruz, turning toward the helmsman.

“We’re ten kilometers away. I don’t know if that’s far enough to—”

Just then the screen was filled with a blinding white light, and though the display itself was incapable of emitting enough light to actually harm a viewer, we were nevertheless relieved when the display filters cut in and reduced the terrifying glare.

There was no shockwave. No pounding on the hull, except for small pieces of what had once been the Brunswick hull colliding with us at high velocity. We all sat there stunned as we watched the remnants of a proud starship of the League break apart. 

The captain slumped into her chair. I saw her saying something to herself—like she was counting down. Then, in a moment she was back on her feet, fully in command.

“Filipov-Ibañez, scan that wreckage. Are there any survivors?”

“I am picking up a couple dozen life pods. And there is one section of the Brunswick that is more or less intact. Decks 30 and aft. The bulkheads appear to be holding.

“Flores,” the captain said, turning to communications. “Get ahold of those life pods and give them coordinates to rendezvous with us. Mr. Thorsten, move us back to within two klicks of the blast site.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Mr. Hannover,” the captain continued. “Get every shuttle we’ve got out there looking for survivors. I also want a search-and-rescue team to board what’s left of the Brunswick and try to find anyone who’s still aboard.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Mr. Killian,” she said, turning toward me. “I want you to walk me through your thinking.”

“Y-yes, captain,” I stammered. I don’t know why I was suddenly more terrified than I had been during the crisis itself. Maybe it was just all catching up with me. This had been a miserable two days for us—a near suicide with a shipment of antimatter and now a mass suicide and murder by blowing up a starship’s matter–antimatter reactor.

“I had been trying to access every security system I could to initiate an emergency shutdown of the reactors, both fusion and matter–antimatter. Nothing I tried was working. Kimura-García had anticipated almost every avenue that could be used to stop the overload. But once I realized that, I realized that there might be something else I could do—if not to save the ship then to save the people.”

“Why did you tell the Brunswick’s environmental system that it had a polonium leak?”

“I knew that that was one of the environmental contaminants that would initiate an automatic evacuation and containment order, and increase the likelihood of crew members donning spacesuits that would offer radiation protection. Any other attempt to seal the bulkheads or initiate life pod ejection would have been blocked by Kimura-García and his confederates, but I thought that this might be a low-level enough system not to have been sabotaged. After all, how much trouble can a bunch of humidity and temperature controls be to your plot to overload the reactors?”

“Good work, Lieutenant,” the captain replied. “You continue to impress me with the range of your expertise.”

“It’s partly your doing, captain,” I responded, causing the captain’s face to screw up in a puzzled expression. “You gave us the night off yesterday, and I just happened to wind up socializing with a bunch of environmental and reclamation folks last night in the officers’ lounge. It’s amazing the random bits of knowledge you can get over a few beers.”

The captain stared at me for a second, not entirely sure whether I was putting her on or not. But then she smiled—a kind of knowing smile that I was not entirely sure was meant for me to understand. “I thank you, anyway, Lieutenant. You helped to save a lot of people.”

Over the next several hours, we focused on the recovery efforts and tried not to focus on the fact that however many people we had rescued from the catastrophe, the numbers were far too few.

At 1600 hours, we were replaced by the second shift, but we weren’t quite off duty yet. The captain summoned Commander Delacruz, Lt. Cmdr. Hannover, Dr. Kwok-Tranh, and me to the main briefing room two decks up. 

This briefing room was the largest of those on this deck and was outfitted with the same flexdisplay bulkheads the bridge sported. Right now they were configured to look like the walls of an old library, full of leather-bound books. In the center was an oval-shaped conference table with a flexdisplay surface. Most of it was set to display a wood surface, but the section in front of the captain was scrolling tables of data. It didn’t take much to figure that she was looking at the lists of the dead and missing.

The captain looked up from her display as the rest of us walked in. I was never sure of how old she was—we tended to guess early forties—but however old she was, she looked ten years older than she had this morning. “Please, sit,” she said wearily.

We took our places around the table, personalized displays appearing on the flexdisplay in front of us. Each of us had access now to the same scrolling list of names. It was almost too much.

“Commander Delacruz,” the captain said, looking at her first officer. On cue, he began to report.

“We have successfully rescued twenty-eight members of the Brunswick crew from life pods and an additional twenty-five from the remaining section of the Brunswick itself. That puts the dead and missing at forty-six. Most of the refugees have been put in temporary accommodations in the cargo bays. As lacking in creature comforts as the bays are, they also allow a large number of Brunswick personnel to bunk together—the solidarity and camaraderie may be a benefit to them in this time.”

Dr. Kwok-Tranh picked up from Delacruz and continued. “There are about two dozen seriously injured, some with radiation exposure, who have been transported to sickbay for treatment and another dozen with injuries that my staff are treating on-site in the cargo bay.”

Lt. Cmdr. Hannover chimed in. “From an operations standpoint, the destruction of the Brunswick has brought us both gains and losses. For one thing, we no longer have to share our antimatter stores with another vessel. If we desire, the antimatter we have in the cargo container can be used to take us further into Commonwealth space than we had initially planned. If it should be that the border systems are no longer functioning, that option will allow us to travel further than would ordinarily be possible.”

There was a discomfort around the room as we sought to reconcile the obvious tension between the loss of so many comrades and the idea that there could be any benefit to us in terms of shared resources. We knew it was true; that didn’t make it any easier. Hannover continued.

“But now we have fifty-three more mouths to feed, fifty-three more people taxing our environmental and life-support systems. Fifty-three more people contributing to the waste heat that we’ll have to shed. I’ve already spoken to personnel in hydroponics, stores, and environmental. Everyone is optimistic that the Deliverance will be able to handle it, but no one could give me a guarantee.”

Delacruz added, “In addition to the extra rations we will need, there’s also the additional mass of the added crew.” 

“How much mass?” asked the captain.

Delacruz paused and looked away. “Too little.”

That was the paradox, wasn’t it? Too many mouths to feed, too much added weight, and yet not nearly as much as anyone would have wanted or been willing to bear. We would all have gladly triple-bunked or hot-bunked if it meant more survivors from the Brunswick.

Delacruz continued: “But enough that we will have to recalculate our hyperspace routes and, of course, the acceleration and deceleration times for in-system maneuvers.”

“How long before we can resume jumps?” the captain responded.

Hannover responded, “I’d say it’s another day at least before we have an accurate inventory, I mean—”

“It’s alright, Commander,” the captain interjected. “We’re all lacking the right words at the moment.”

“Speaking of which, captain,” said Kwok-Tranh, “Are you still planning on giving your address?”

“Have you—” the captain began before catching herself—we were all pretty sure lost your mind would have been the next words out of her mouth. She took a breath. “I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject, Doctor.”

If Kwok-Tranh had picked up on the subtext of the captain’s question she didn’t let on. She continued without hesitation. “It’s important that you do. Obviously, it can’t be the same speech, but I think something is required rather than the usual ISG statement of condolence at the loss of a crew member.” I was unfamiliar with such a statement but knew that it was probably like most institutional statements, full of pleasant-sounding platitudes that don’t really say anything. “If anything,” Kwok-Tranh continued, “now the crew and the survivors of the Brunswick need to be reminded of the mission more than ever. It might be the best way to help them grieve and to provide them with a way to focus that grief.”

The captain considered this. She got up and walked to the flexdisplay on the nearest bulkead. She placed her hand on the surface and said simply, “Full external.” Immediately, the view shifted from the old library shelves to the image of the space surrounding the Deliverance at that moment. There was a moment of vertigo for the rest of us when our brains told us, quite beyond reason, that our conference room had been instantaneously transported to deep space. Looking down at the still-visible deck and conference table helped to alleviate the mental confusion.

“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” said the captain after a moment or two staring into the starry depths. “And so deadly at the same time. When someone like Rishard Trayner lets space get to him and tries to blow up a shuttle full of antimatter, we think that he’s the anomaly. But maybe he’s the normal one.”

“Captain…” began Kwok-Tranh.

“Lissa, let me finish. I promise—you don’t have to worry about me.”

Dr. Kwok-Tranh sat back in her chair and nodded. The captain continued.

“We don’t belong out here. We belong on a planet with plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere, with fresh water in the ground, and with mass pulling us down toward the surface. Out here we have to bring all our air and water with us, we have to use acceleration, gravity plating, or mag boots just to stop from drifting into the ceiling. It’s not natural that we should be out here. It’s understandable that a rational person, exposed to this environment for any period of time should let it get to them. I sometimes forget that. I’ve been in space so long that I have to stop and remind myself of its emptiness, its hostility to us.” 

She turned to back to face us.

“The ISG was so desperate to launch this expedition and so short-staffed because of the losses at Farmark that we had to fill so many of our positions with civilians. Sometimes”—she turned to me—“we luck out. But we forgot that there’s more to being a successful fleet officer than being good at your specialization—you have to be able to come to terms with space itself. That’s something it takes career personnel years to do. I was shortsighted not to have recognized that it would be so much harder for our civilian recruits. By the time it occurred to me to give a speech to the fleet, it was already too late.”

She turned once again and stared at the display. The rest of us sat in silence, pondering what she’d said.

It was Delacruz who broke the silence. “Juliana,” he began, exercising that rare privilege that only the closest of first officers can get away with when addressing their commanding officers. “This isn’t on you alone. No one in the fleet gave that much thought to it. The ISG screened people for task competency, not long-range mission compatibility. The whole League was—is—in crisis mode. Please, don’t take this all upon yourself.”

Captain Kavanagh turned back toward us and paused another moment. She leaned forward and put her hands on the table; when she spoke, she wasn’t angry or combative—more resigned. “I’m the captain, Husayn. It’s my job to take it upon myself.” Then: “I’ll give that speech, doctor. You’re right that it can’t be the same one. But I think now I know which one it has to be.”

She drew herself up and tugged on her tunic, straightening it out. Suddenly, it was as if the captain had exorcised herself from having been possessed by a melancholy demon; an entirely different captain stood before us again. 

“Mr. Hannover, I’ll expect a report on supply distribution and resource management by 0800 tomorrow morning. Mr. Killian, I want a full roster of the complement aboard from the Brunswick along with a complete list of all civilian recruits among both crews. I’d like you to work with Dr. Kwok-Tranh and the ship’s counselors to organize group therapy for our civilian and fleet members. Make sure they understand that it’s mandatory.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Mr. Delacruz, inform the crew that their captain will be issuing an address later this evening. I’ll give it in the theater and attendees are welcome and encouraged, but it’ll be broadcast ship-wide, too.”

“Aye, captain.”

“Thank you, all, for your work today. This is the darkest day of our expedition, and I am committed to making sure that it remain the darkest day. I am convinced I have the very crew I need to make that happen. Dismissed.”

We arose as a body and walked out of the briefing room. As we approached the lift, I took Commander Delacruz aside.

“Commander,” I said. “I need you to help me understand what happened in there. The captain seemed tired, then angry, then lost, then pensive, and then herself again. Despite what she said to Dr. Kwok-Tranh, should we be worried?”

Delacruz smiled and put his hand on my shoulder, half conspiratorially, half as if he were talking down to a child. “Lieutenant, you had the rare privilege of seeing the captain’s humanity on display in a way that most crew never get to see. You should count yourself doubly lucky: lucky that you are considered part of the group that the captain trusts the most to be herself with, and lucky that you have a captain who understands that strength is not in being unaffected by what happens to you, it’s in being affected but going forward anyway. I’ve served with my share of captains, and the ones who like to project the tough-guy-nothing-fazes-me image are always the ones who break first under pressure. It’s the captains like Captain Kavanagh who allow themselves to feel what their crews are feeling but manage to forge ahead anyway—those are the great ones. Those are the captains I’d sail with to the farthest reaches of space.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked toward the lift. 

I remained for a few moments more thinking about what I’d just heard. For most of the voyage, I had considered myself as one who’d adapted to fleet life pretty easily. But in that moment, I came to understand that there was still so much I had to learn about what it meant to be an officer and what it meant to serve in the ISG.

There was still so much I did not know. But there were some things I now knew more clearly than ever: I was in the right place and I was with the right crew. The more I considered this, the more I understood Delacruz’s statement about good captains. 

I snapped out of my reverie and headed for the lift. I, too, would sail with Juliana Kavanagh to the farthest reaches of space, but before that, I had a lot of work to do to make sure we’d get there in one piece.