This is a story about bravery, steel resolve in a crisis, and putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Originally published in Beyond Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, Issue #19, 1991. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Ma’s was always pretty loud on Friday nights with all the spacers partying and getting drunk. I don’t know why they liked to hang out there—the rest of the week, the place was pretty quiet, a place where you could take your kids for the night out. But when Friday rolled around, you could be sure whiskered and grizzled faces would far outnumber the smooth-skinned ones. Sometimes a parent would come in with kids in tow, but usually they’d end up towing them right back out, tsk-tsking as they left.
The spacers were a wild group. They would come in and swap outrageous stories late into the night, each one crazier than the last one, drinking heavily. By closing time, the story tellers no longer even made a pretense of realism—they were too drunk. The listeners were also too drunk to know the difference.
On one typical Friday night, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Douglas, regular customers, were telling the stories. It was still early, and alcohol had not yet had its effect. Roberts was a grizzled space warrior, with tattoos on his arm and an earring in one ear, his long black beard speckled with white. He held a beer in one hand and a pipe in the other, and between stories blew smoke rings to the ceiling. He had a curious way of talking out of the corner of his mouth in such a whispery voice that even those sitting next to him had to strain to hear.
“The bravest thing I ever saw happened about twenty years ago, back when Betelgeuse went supernova,” Roberts was saying. “It happened on the Centauri-Betelgeuse run. A Captain Swattling was taking a cargo of textiles and cosmetics to Betelgeuse when he heard the reports of its impending doom. The scientists predicted the disaster only a few hours before the actual whammo!, so as you probably know, most of the Betelgeusians got killed. Few had warning, and those that did, well, transporting a colony of a hundred thousand or so just can’t be done on the few hours warning they had.”
“Swattling only saw that he stood to lose a fortune if he didn’t get his goods to their market, and get paid in cash. So when he heard on the radio about the coming disaster, he didn’t tell his crew, and went right up to Harvey’s world, the one that held the bulk of the system’s people, and delivered his cargo. He stayed just long enough to collect payment in cash, and then got out of there just in the nick of time, as Betelgeuse blew up. In fact, he wouldn’t have made it except that the explosion was almost a half hour later than predicted. He knew the predicted time—but stayed anyway.”
The group gathered at his table gave their approval to the story, banging their glasses on the table, but Douglas banged his fist on the table as hard as he could, getting everybody’s attention. Shaking his head, he took a huge guzzle of his beer, and leaned back in his chair. His bright red hair and sharp features gave him a devilish look. Unlike Roberts, his voice boomed out, so all could hear.
“Now that Captain Swattling may have been brave, but he wasn’t half as brave as a Major Longsby I once knew,” he began. He was about to continue when he was interrupted by the appearance of an old woman, none other than the owner of Ma’s, known as Ma to most, but as Grandma to those closest to her.
She looked older than the planets her customers explored, with pockmarks and wrinkles on her face to match any planet’s mountains. Her voice was old and ragged, but to the spacemen, she was like a motherly patron. There were rumors that she had been a spacewoman at one time, but for as long as anyone could remember she had owned and operated Ma’s. She often made appearances on Friday night, and was well liked.
“You’re probably about to tell everyone how Longsby saved the fleet back in ’29 by attacking the Leviton horde single-handed,” she said. “Let me tell you a story, one that hasn’t been told twenty-seven times, about another man who was braver than either Swattling or Longsby.” She sat down at the table and lighted a cigarette. The others in the room moved closer to hear. When Ma told her yarns, everybody listened.
“You all know how our planet New Earth got settled by sleeper ship about fifty years ago, back around 2120,” Ma began. “What you probably don’t know is how close the first group of settlers—all ten thousand of them—came to getting killed.”
“Does this have something to do with Alpha Centauri going nova when the ship arrived here?” Douglas demanded. “We all know about that. It was saved by its shielding.”
“That’s true,” Ma said. She fixed him with a stare. “But then you must also know that they were caught off guard, with shielding down, and the ship was badly damaged as a result. How was it able to crawl away?”
“I assume they still had engine power left, and just flew off,” Douglas answered.
“They didn’t and couldn’t,” Ma said.
“Then how did they survive?” Douglas asked.
Ma leaned back in her chair and seemed to float back in time. She put her hands behind her head, a dreamy look on her face.
“Back around the turn of the century, before faster-than-light travel, sleeper ships were used for long journeys,” she began. “The passengers and unneeded crew would go into suspended animation, called deep sleep. This made long journeys possible, if inconvenient.
“The problem was, how could you get a large colony group to consent to make such a long journey, leaving friends and Earth behind, when there was no way of knowing what they would find at journey’s end? They couldn’t see far enough with old-style telescopes to tell if nearby stars like Alpha Centauri A had planets. They couldn’t see New Earth from Earth.
“But when they developed the neutrino telescope, all that changed. They could see all the way to the Alpha Centauri system and its three suns. They could see New Earth and make detailed maps of its surface, and even take readings on its atmosphere. They learned New Earth was habitable without ever leaving Earth.
“A huge ship was made, the Colossus, and ten thousand settlers were picked from millions of volunteers. With New Earth discovered, it seemed like everybody wanted to go. Soon the settlers were ready to go, led by Captain Davis.
“The voyage took nearly twenty years, using the old-style energy converters. Superficially, the converters were similar to what we use now, but not nearly as efficient. While we get almost one hundred percent energy conversion, they got only a fraction. It was still a lot of energy—matter carries quite a wallop, as you know. And for fuel they could use anything. Water, gold, guinea pigs, it didn’t matter. As it was, they kept a supply of rocks in a closet just outside the engine room, and whenever they needed some, they’d wheel it in on a cart.
“There was an Ensign Donovan on the ship. He was an assistant engineer, but had never been out of Earth orbit before—a real greenhorn, as they used to call them. He was tall, blond, and had the heart of every woman on the ship beating at twice normal in his presence. His blue eyes sent tingles down their spines. The passengers hadn’t been put to sleep yet, and every single woman on the ship, crew or passenger, was after him. It all ended with him getting engaged after a month to marry an Ensign from the bridge crew, also on her first deep space mission.” Ma stopped for a moment, staring off into space.
“Well, what happened?” Roberts asked.
Ma looked up as if startled. Then she continued. “Ensign Samantha Nelson was her name. They planned to get married as soon as they reached New Earth.
“They reached it in 2120, as you know from our school textbooks, passing by Alpha Centauri C on the way. They had no way of knowing that it would pick that time to go nova. What an incredible coincidence it was, and how disastrous it could have been!
“Donovan was alone on engine room duty when it happened. His fiancÃ©, along with Captain Davis, was on the bridge, while the rest of the crew was either in their quarters or in deep sleep. When the first heat waves hit them, the three of them didn’t know what was happening.
“They had been caught off guard with shielding down, and the Colossus was badly damaged. The hull was ruptured, turning much of the ship into a vacuum. The sleeping rooms, where the passengers and most of the crew were in deep sleep, were sealed off, or most of the ten thousand and would have died right then. The bridge, deep inside the ship, escaped damage and stayed airtight, as did the crewman’s quarters. But Donovan was trapped in engineering, in the energy conversion room, surrounded on all sides by vacuum. It was miraculous, but nobody was hurt, which is why the near disaster wasn’t played up by the press.”
Roberts, who had been quietly listening, spoke up now in his quiet voice. “Since everyone was saved, what is this brave thing you spoke of?”
“I’ll get to it,” Ma replied. “Remember—no one got killed right then, but they’re still sitting in the middle of a nova, and shielding back in those days wasn’t as good as it is now.
“Captain Davis got the shielding up as fast as he could, and damages were kept to a minimum. The engines were undamaged, and so it seemed all they had to do was start them up and go. But it didn’t work out that way.
“The shields were now working at full power, and couldn’t keep it up much longer. They were using power at an incredible rate. Pretty soon they had just enough power to keep the shields up for just a few more minutes. If they used any for the engines in an attempt to leave, the shields would collapse, and the ship would be incinerated. But if they didn’t, the shields would still go down in minutes and the ship would still burn up.”
“But why didn’t they just put more mass in the energy converter?” Douglas asked.
“That’s the crazy part,” Ma answered. “As large as the ship was, all they needed to escape was about a hundred pounds of mass. And Donovan was already trapped in the energy conversion room, where the mass was put in. Only, the stones that were kept for fuel were all stored in a closet just outside the room, separated by a vacuum, with no way to get at them.”
“But any mass would do!” Douglas exclaimed. “He could put anything in—a few chairs, for instance.”
“The chairs in the room were bolted to the floor, and believe me, Donovan tried to pull them up, but failed. He also threw in his clothes. He even urinated into the converter. But it just wasn’t enough. He was in a small room, and there just wasn’t anything with enough mass. We know all this because he stayed on the intercom with Samantha most of the time. And then he suddenly signed off, and we didn’t hear from him on the intercom again. And he wouldn’t answer calls.”
“So you’re saying the Colossus and all aboard were killed by the nova, and that we’re all descended from ghosts, right?” Roberts asked.
“Wrong,” Ma said. “Donovan saved the ship. He found enough mass to put into the converter, and Captain Davis flew the ship away, without any apparent casualties.”
“What did Donovan do?” Roberts asked.
“At first, no one knew,” Ma replied. “If they had, the press would nave made big news about it, and Donovan would have been famous. As it was, they were unable to find Donovan for a time afterwards, and the first settlement on New Earth was already pretty well established by the time they figured out what had happened.
“They had energy readings throughout the nova, and when they got around to analyzing them, they calculated how much mass Donovan had put into the energy converter. Somehow he had scrounged up 175 pounds of mass.”
“Where did it come from?” Douglas asked.
“Donovan weighed 175 pounds,” Ma answered, her voice cracking.
No one said anything for a moment. Then the occupants became aware of a sobbing sound. Ma was crying.
“Come now, Ma, it happened a long time ago,” Roberts said soothingly. “It shouldn’t bother you. I mean, it’s not like you lost a friend or relative, you know.”
“But it is!” Ma said, her voice shaking. Tears ran down her craggy face. She got up and walked away slowly. At the doorway, she stopped and turned around, putting her hands on each side of it for support. She looked back. “You bastards. I’ve lived here fifty years, and you don’t even know my name. I am Samantha Nelson!”