The Coldest Equations Yet
James D. Macdonald
Half-way through the first dog watch on the cruiser Stardust, bound for Mimir, the light on the communications panel that showed an open sub-space carrier wave blossomed. Communications Tech First Class Sylvia Harlin flipped the ‘respond’ switch and leaned closer to the mike: “Stardust. Identify yourself and proceed.”
The IFF on the annunciator below the mike read EDS 3. Harlin looked at the clipboard with Emergency Dispatch Ship pilot assignments. The name penciled in beside EDS3 was Barton, Samuel J. She knew him, a stuck-up prick who slept in pilots’ berthing, ate in the pilots’ mess, and thought he was better than anyone because he was detachment while they were crew.
Barton had left on EDS3 just about an hour before, carrying a load of kala fever serum for Woden. A moment later, voice-comms confirmed the ID. “Barton, EDS 34GII. Emergency. Give me Commander Delhart.”
CT1 Harlin pressed the button to summon the CO into the comm spaces. Whatever Barton had, she thought, it had better be good. Commander Winston Delhart was at supper and he did not take kindly to interruptions. She straightened the collar of her uniform jacket. No sense giving the commander something to yell at her about; he was certain to yell at someone.
A moment later the man himself strode in, glaring at the watch officer, the flight controller, and, most of all, her at the comm desk with the open circuit light and the live mike. She pointed to the mike and said, “Commander, the EDS requests—”
“Barton?” the commander interrupted her. “What’s this about an emergency?” His voice was half-way between a growl and shout.
The subspace wave hummed; the answer only slightly distorted. “A stowaway.”
“A stowaway?” Harlin could see the color rising in Commander Delhart’s face. Some junior officer, somewhere on board, didn’t know it yet but was going to have a bad night. Delhart had a way of working off his temper on his subordinates. “That’s rather unusual—but why the ‘emergency’ call? You discovered him in time, so there should be no appreciable danger, and I presume you’ve informed Ship’s Records so his nearest relatives can be notified.”
Barton had a stick up his ass, everyone on board knew it, and no imagination. But Harlin could tell that the EDS pilot was stressed. “That’s why I had to call you, first. The stowaway is still aboard and the circumstances are so different—”
“Different?” the commander all but roared. “How can they be different? You know you have a limited supply of fuel; you also know the law as well as I do: ‘Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery.’”
“The stowaway is a girl,” came the crackly voice over the speaker.
“What?” Delhart glared at Harlin as if the concept of ‘female’ was her idea.
“She wanted to see her brother. She’s only a kid and she didn’t know what she was really doing.”
The comm watch officer leaned closer to the commander and whispered, “I’m logging this.”
“I see,” Delhart replied, suddenly deflated.
He turned back to the mike connecting control to the EDS. “So you called me in the hope I could do something?” He looked directly at the comm officer with an expression that said he knew he was speaking not to Barton on the little EDS, but to his own eventual Board of Inquiry. “I’m sorry—I can do nothing. This cruiser must maintain its schedule; the life of not one person but the lives of many depend on it. I know how you feel but I’m powerless to help you. You’ll have to go through with it. I’ll have you connected with Ship’s Records.”
Harlin turned the switch patching the EDS to Records, and closed out the comm log on the transmission: time, date, duration, frequency, and signal strength. Delhart looked pointedly at the chronometer on the bulkhead, then took a seat in the command chair. The messenger of the watch brought a cup of coffee. Delhart drank it as if it were a personal enemy. Minutes passed. A half hour. Another look at the chronometer. The commander picked up the internal comm link and turned the dial to Records.
“What’s the status on Barton’s report?” he snapped at the answering voice. A moment of indistinct mumbling from the handset, then, “What do you mean ‘it’s not ready’?”
Delhart pointed at CT1 Harlin and said, “Patch me through to EDS 3.” Harlin set the switches, the light flashed to Carrier Open, and she nodded to the commander.
“Barton.” Commander Delhart’s voice was forceful. Any louder and he wouldn’t need a radio, Harlin thought. “A check with Records shows me you haven’t completed your report.” A pause while the commander looked at the remote readouts showing the EDS’s course and speed, then, “Did you reduce the deceleration?”
Poor son of a bitch isn’t going to have an ass after Delhart gets done chewing it, Harlin thought, feeling sympathy for Barton for the first time on this transit.
“I’m decelerating at point ten,” Barton answered, sounding defensive. “I cut the deceleration at seventeen fifty and the weight is a hundred and ten. I would like to stay at point ten as long as the computers say I can. Will you give them the question?”
Commander Delhart looked like he was being asked to swallow a live toad, but he answered simply enough, “I’ll have that given to the computers.” He pointed to the duty astrogator. “I’ll have the course correction given to you. Ordinarily I would never permit anything like this, but I understand your position. There is nothing I can do, other than what I’ve just done, and you will not deviate from these new instructions. You will complete your report at nineteen ten. Now—here are the course corrections.”
The commander stopped talking while the duty astrogator read the new courses, speeds, burn times and durations. “That’s a five-gee segment there,” the astrogator said after giving the last of the numbers. “Hope you’re up to it.”
“Guess I’ll have to be,” Barton said. “Thanks, good copy.”
Delhart had the last word: “You will resume deceleration at nineteen ten,” and cut the connection. Harlin looked at the bulkhead chrono; it read eighteen ten. This watch had gone straight to crap, she thought. Delhart didn’t look like he was planning to move from the command chair. That meant that the easy give-and-take of conversation on a routine watch in deep space, the reminiscences of leave on the last planet, the endless stream of parrot jokes, didn’t have a chance. The watch section stood, or sat, at attention at their stations, feeling the commander’s eyes on their backs. No one dared to scratch.
Exactly at nineteen ten Delhart pointed to the comm tech. Harlin opened the carrier to EDS3 and switched it to speaker.
“Barton,” Commander Delhart said. “Why haven’t you finished your report to Ship’s Records? I’m tired of your excuses.”
The voice that came across the subspace radio didn’t sound much like the EDS pilot. “Barton? Oh, I’m sorry. He can’t come to the phone right now.” It was a light, musical voice. A female voice.
“Who is this?” Delhart asked. “It’s a serious offense to use official channels for non-essential transmissions.”
“I’m Marilyn Lee Cross,” the voice answered. “You know, the stowaway. Remember me?”
“He decided to walk. I’m sorry, but I didn’t get his identification disk before he left. Ship’s Records will just have to make do.”
“You….” Commander Delhart’s voice sputtered to a stop.
“That’s right. Me. He’s out the airlock. I’m sure his friends will miss him, but, like he told me, the frontier is a dangerous place. He knew the risks.”
Harlin looked around; everyone in the comm space seemed to be frozen in place. Commander Delhart’s face was purple. “You don’t know what you’ve done,” the commander said.
“Actually, I have a pretty fair idea,” the young woman’s voice replied, suddenly businesslike. “I mass fifty kilos. Barton massed at least a hundred. So we have a fifty-kilo margin of safety. Now this is what’s going to happen: You’re going to talk me through landing this thing on Woden. Because if you don’t this nice expensive EDS ship, and all that kala fever serum, is going to be spattered over a thousand square kilometers of dirt. You d0n’t want those six men down there, men who never did anything wrong, to die, do you?”
Harlin hadn’t seen the comm officer leave, but she saw him come back. Lieutenant Commander Charyl Mullin, the executive officer, walked one pace ahead of him. The XO strode to Commander Delhart’s side, saluted, and said, “I relieve you, sir.”
Delhart turned to the XO. “What?”
“I said, ‘I relieve you, sir’.”
“That’s right. It’s mutiny. Now will you go to your quarters on your own, sir, or must I have you escorted?” Harlin noted that the XO had the chief master at arms and two large machinist mates alongside.
Harlin turned back to the comm board. “Wait one.”
“Commander,” the master at arms said, “Come along now, sir. It’s over.”
“We have the security camera record of you putting that young lady on the EDS,” the XO said. “Local records only go back three trips, but on each one you picked up some waif just before liftoff, used and abused her in your cabin ’til about half-way, then let EDS dispose of your indiscretion. When we get to Mimir I’m going to request records going back to the day you took command. After my report goes in maybe someone with more horsepower than me will decide to check your entire active duty career. For…anomalies.”
Commander Delhart opened his mouth as if to speak. The master at arms held up his hand. “No, sir, not a word. Anything that you say may be used against you at your court-martial.”
The XO took the seat beside Harlin and swiveled the mike closer. “Miss Cross? This is Lieutenant Commander Mullin. I’m going to talk you down. First, sit in the command seat.”
“Great. Now you see the large dial on the control panel, top left, numbered from minus fifty to plus fifty, with a knob labeled RSE-TACH below it? Turn that knob until the needle is centered on zero.”
A moment, then, over the subspace, “Got it.”
The XO turned to the duty astrogator. “Keep full real-time eyes on that craft’s trajectory. Any course changes, any burns, I want them in my hand at least eight seconds before I need them.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the astrogator replied.
The XO turned back to the subspace mike. “Great. Now fasten your seat belt. This ride may be a little rough.”
I’ve just re-read “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin and found it as annoying as ever.
First, if their safety margin on fuel load is that narrow, they’re all dead anyway.
Next, I find it very difficult to believe that our hard-as-nails pilot can’t find fifty kilos of material to jettison. How about that closet door? Why’s he need that? Everything in the closet. And that blaster. Doesn’t it have mass? Does he carry potable water? He can live three days without it. Inspection covers. Seats. Whatever piece of gear is supposed to detect stowaways. It’s clearly broken—why not unbolt it and toss it out the airlock?
Assume the ship is pressurized to one atmosphere. Blow half the air out the airlock and gain 16 kilos. Blow two-thirds of it out the airlock and gain 24 kilos. That’s nearly half of what they need. Yeah, that’ll take them to top-of-Everest pressures and everyone will feel lousy, but the cure is returning to full pressure and that’ll happen when they arrive planetside.
The only reason this story works out the way it does is the author’s thumb on the scales. It’s a one-joke story, much like “The Lady Or the Tiger” (another story I find highly annoying, not least because it keeps showing up in school anthologies).