Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - At Great Risk to My Person by Phil Hay
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The Commander of a space battleship explains his side of the story in this seriously funny sci-fi tale from screenwriter Phil Hay.

At Great Risk to My Person

The thing they say about space is that it is quiet. In theory, yes; in fact, never. In a ship, in a suit, there's always something ticking and clicking away. Life support at work. A hiss. A creak. Your own breathing. Frequently, someone complaining.

Another thing they say about space is that it is lonely. That is true. And there's only one thing lonelier than the void.


I moved into the wardroom where my dozen officers waited. I wore my Navy Cross. At important moments I let them see it.

I kept my announcement brief.

"As you may know, the fleet is making for battle in a few days, but we will be staying behind." My words were greeted by a general shuffling, a shifting. A cough, another. Most of their eyes were cast down, avoiding my gaze, which I have been told is intimidating even in light circumstances. Only three looked at me directly; my grim-mouthed she-XO, my grinning Weapons LT, my glowering Chief Engineer.

Generously, I avoided eye contact with the Chief during the next part. "Unfortunately, engineering has failed to bring the ship back up to regs following our skiff accident. We are not, by rule, combat ready. No amount of wishing can make that so. Also by rule, we cannot have a second inspection for another 7 days, so the war will have to go on without us."

I felt the heat of my engineer's glare. Bilious and crude, the Chief was a cursing behemoth of a man and, improbably, a certified mathematical genius. This never failed to impress others, but not me. Had I chosen to apply myself, I think I'd test similarly. I've always been fond of numbers, and they come easily to me, but the intangibles have always been where I shine.

"Sir. The repairs are done," the Chief muttered. Well, spat. Well, practically bellowed.

"This is an announcement, Chief. Not a conversation."

Yes, the inspection team from Fleet had at first given us a clean bill of health. They grinned, complimented the Chief, who was exhausted from working three days to repair the gaping hull-wound left by a skiff collision (the skiff pilot's fault, absurd to expect a cruiser to maneuver in subspace, right of way irrelevant.) Despite my orders to slow down, to take care, the Chief had pulled consecutive shifts with his number one team to repair the damage. While the inspectors marvelled, to me, if his work was by some miracle acceptable, it was despite bad decisions and disregard for process.

I interrupted the inspectors' backslapping of the Chief to point out that some tools had not been replaced prior to the inspection, and a bulkhead door had been temporarily secured with a sort of bungee cord, for ventilation.

The lead inspector nodded. "I am comfortable that my report is accurate and I did not notice those minor items. All you have to do is sign off, Captain, and we can get you back into the game." Then they all smiled, like we all were part of some big low-standards Treehouse Gang.

Their smiles faded as I lit into them. They were all from Fleet Engineering, of course, all watching out for each other and feeling mathematically superior. They all stick together, and that's why no one ever gets a command through Engineering. No one likes them.

"Combat success is a matter of detail," I railed, "I would very much love to sail into battle. I am a Navy Cross recipient, for God's sake. There is nothing I would like better. But we have failed this inspection."

Forced to agree, they shuffled off the ship onto their skiff and gave us what I considered a pointedly wide berth as they departed.

Back in the wardroom, I realized I had said nothing for a longer than expected moment. The shuffling and shifting increased in volume. Like a bunch of insects, this crew. Chuff chuff chuff.

I cleared my throat. "Shore rotations. That is all."

As they stood—raggedly, of course, of course—and I turned to leave, I glanced at the Chief. His mouth moved, no sound. Had I cared to pick out the phrase "chickenshit," I could have ended his once-promising career. But I just kept walking.

The girl Executive Officer whispered something harsh into his ear that seemed to shock him into obedience. The inscrutable LT smiled and smiled.

Back in my quarters, I placed my Cross back in its case. I earned it, only the 78th ever issued, in what has become known fleet-wide as "The Reactor Incident."

To be honest, it's all a bit hazy. My memory was likely affected by the radiation. But the official reports contain all you need to know, and are certainly more reliable than my own memory, given the rads I caught. Listen to them. The witnesses who will say that I entered the reactor freely to attempt a manual shut down. The witnesses who attest to have heard me on the open intercom looking for my stricken mates. The witnesses who found me, nearly dead, reactor stopped before meltdown. Ask them. They'll tell you what has been documented to have happened.

It was my moment. It happened during a particularly bad patch of the last war. It happened while a journo was on board. It was impossible to stem my rise through the Fleet then.

I wish sometimes I remembered more of what happened. But then, it seems unseemly, vain, to try.

The red indicator on my comms table was throbbing at me. XO calling. I ignored her.

The next day I was able to dodge the annoying XO until afternoon, when she finally cornered me in my quarters, to which I had retreated mid-shift for a brief, sharpening nap.

The XO was fairly attractive, but her features were often marred by a pensiveness, a serious nature that discouraged all flirtation and, frankly, bored me. She was quite unlike our (former) Navigator, whose intense, unspoken sexual attraction for me became beyond troublesome. I had once suggested to that Navigator that it might be best for the crew if we were to simply relieve the pressure and get it off the table. So that we could proceed professionally.

"Pressure buildup of any kind in outer space is dangerous," I said, irresistibly. "Everybody knows that."

The Navigator's reaction made it clear that she needed be transferred off with no recommendation. If there's one thing I don't tolerate, it's a lack of humor. It spreads like a fungus through a crew.

And here now was the XO, requesting a transfer of her own.

She was young, first of all, and not an Academy product, instead grubbily commissioned via Officer Candidate School. On top of which was born on some shitty little Relay Colony, social status basically negative minus zero. She came to me highly recommended, though. Her previous performance reviews had in fact been embarrassingly glowing. Reading them over, I thought that perhaps this was responsible for the air of smug superiority I had instantly detected in her. Overpraise is dangerous. Yes, she is promising. But if she thinks she is above my teaching, she will be closed to it.

I felt my first performance review of her was fair: "Satisfactory, ample room for improvement." "Ample" was a benefit-of-the-doubt thing, bumped down from "vast," a bit of a gesture on my part. Because the rest of the fleet suffers from a sort of grade-inflation doesn't mean I have to. She never complained about the scarring review, though I practically challenged her to. She calmly asked me for specific areas in which she could improve. "Attitude," I said, and left the room. I'm not answering for you. You figure it out.

She revealed herself over the ensuing year to be an annoying busybody who was always seeking to streamline and modify. I ignored her barrage of formal requests for action and proposals for consideration. She cared quite a bit for the crew, who seemed to love her, and too much. This became a problem when two of our mates—by the unfortunate names of Stiptic and Chen—were taken off the ship by Fleet MP's as a result of some brawl at the Station that ended with a Marine Officer maimed and the accidental decompression of two sections. If the XO hadn't stumbled onto the scene and managed by sheer dumb luck to seal the area, the casualties could have been many. The mates were in serious, potentially capital, trouble.

The earnest XO had charged me on the bridge, clutching her viz tablet. She had discovered an arcane statute in the Naval Code that would allow us to reclaim the men and try them onboard, the punishment left to my discretion. The statute was applicable due to some bizarrity of where the ship was docked and the birth planet of the maimed Marine frankly too boring to relate here.

She eagerly, proudly showed me the relevant passage. She had already consulted a fleet lawyer, who concurred. We could try them on the ship instead of Admiralty Court, where the punishment would likely be death.

"Would likely be? Or could possibly be?" I asked.

Her thin little lips pursed. "They will hang them, sir."

I sighed. "This is not the time to antagonize the Flag. We do not use up a favor on this."

She was practically vibrating now. "It isn't a favor, sir. It's right there in the Code."

It was time to end it. "I will not look weak to the Admiralty over this. XO, we will need this chit someday. We can't waste it now."

She became quite exercised, but I was done.

Teaching is part of my job.

Now, in my quarters, her implacable eyes probing me, I stared at her transfer request. The XO of our sister ship, the Saratoga, had fallen to some kind of disease, likely venereal, completely incapacitating, contracted illegally. The Saratoga's (female) Captain had personally requested that my XO be transferred as a replacement since, and this was galling, and I quote, "Your ship will be remaining in drydock for the forseeable and can manage." What a bitch.

The Saratoga was a fine cruiser, no doubt, and at times even became the Flag when the Angel Gabriel was on assignment elsewhere. In other words, it was a plum assignment for any officer, despite being run by a shrew.

I threw the request in the trash. And finally, a crack in the armor. XO looked for all the world like she might actually cry.

"Sir, please. Let me go."

"You don't get to run away. You will stay and get better," I said. "I want you to succeed. I hand-select the best. You test well, you rate well. Then you all come here and you fail and fail and fail. You fail me."

Over the next day, as the fleet prepared to leave without us, I ignored repeated comms from CMDR SARATOGA. It was completely inappropriate of the other Captain to push this hard. Likely, lesbianism is at hand here.

Finally, on the bridge, XO watched the task force go, the ships of the line winking out one by one into the Zip, at the other end, the war. When the Saratoga zipped, XO turned wordlessly back to her duties.

Of course I noted the sly, furtive glances from the bridge crew, their miniscule gestures of support for her. Nothing escapes me. They felt trapped into a forced bonhomie with her because of her rank and her showy kindness, held hostage. It is an abuse of power.

In fact, affection is a sign of disrespect in a crew.

As in life, detachment is critical.

We passed the second inspection easily, as of course the tools had been policed up and the offending bungee cord removed. I was in a more forgiving mood, regardless. Now that the task force had left and we were detached, it was clear we would be sent on some mundane convoy duty or something. I tried not to dwell on the failures of my crew that had robbed me, and themselves, of a chance at meaningful combat. I had achieved my command already; they were only hurting themselves.

A few days passed, but the crew had trouble falling back into their shore routines. They were restless; there was no news, official or unofficial, of the attack that had gone on without us.

Headed back to the bridge after a brief meditation break, I thought I heard laughter, group laughter, coming from a repair bay. It grew louder and more insistent as I rounded the corner and encountered a hapless seaman on "sentry" duty. He opened his mouth in terror, too late. I put a finger to my lips. In response, he took off running down the corridor. Kind of a futile maneuver, as there were only 60 souls on board, and I knew his last name started with a B or possibly an R. Undetected, I stood outside the door and watched.

The wiseass Weapons LT and a few of the mates were presenting some kind of impromptu variety show to an audience of officers and crew alike. In the current skit, the LT was playing a character called "Captain Slab of Granite," apparently an actual slab of granite which has somehow attained command of a spacecraft.

A series of crewmen rushed up to the slab, presenting it with various exigencies. ("Sir, the asteroid is approaching! What do we do?") The LT, in character, stood stiff and straight, eyes darting around, silent. Finally, the supplicant interpreted this silence as a decision ("Right! Let it bounce off the hull and look out for the next one!") and rushed off.

And so on:

"Right! Let them tip their hand, and then strike! No? And then let them tip their hand again?"

"Brilliant! Your finger is already up your ass!"

"Yes! Of course! Someone has to guard the shipyard. Forever!"

The crew ate it up, but I found it repetitive, silly. Also, unclear what in fact they were satirizing. Stoicism in the face of danger? Unnatural calm? Natural rock? What? This LT, always mocking, always laughing and shaking his head, always party to some secret joke with himself. Though he was a tremendously gifted shooter, the LT was not a gifted scenarist. D+.

Then, a voice behind me, just loud enough: "Captain."

In an instant, all heads turned, the incompetent sentry was silently cursed two dozen times, volume of personal laughter and sightlines to Captain-in-doorway were calculated, but I stood firm, smiling, showing them that I was at once in on the joke and above it. The voice behind me, again, quieter: "Captain." I turned from the theatre enthusiasts to see my Comms Officer, a nervous kid on the best of days, assessing the situation and finding it a tart citrus.

"Go on then," I said expansively. "We're all here."

And so Comms relayed the contents of the coded message he had just received. The original attack had been delayed. Late intel had changed the Admiralty's mind, the Saratoga's task force judged too small for the job and sent off to picket duty. A new, larger flotilla was arriving out of the Zip tomorrow, to be led by a full dreadnought, the Angel Gabriel herself.

This flotilla would accomplish the mission. We would join them.

I half expected a juvenile cheer from these fools, but they somehow restrained themselves. I could tell that it was only my presence that kept them from panic. My experience, we all knew, was their lifeline now.

As our battle line came out of the Zip, we advanced, ten cruisers screening the carriers and battlewagons, twenty destroyers behind with the troopships, the Angel Gabriel at the center.

Our formation had been carefully calculated to avoid triggering the enemy's sensors. Still, this was the most dangerous time. We could have drifted apart in transit. The Zip was unpredictable.

But it had worked perfectly. The navigation plan, ironically entrusted to that prude Navigator who had, since leaving me, somehow bluffed her way all the way up to Fleet Navigator, was flawless. We engaged cloaking and were virtually invisible, exploiting a quirk intelligence had discovered in the enemy's long-range scanners. We were lethal, undetectable.

And then I saw the flaw in the plan.

Our ship and our ship alone was exposed on the end of the line. The Zip had scrambled the formation. All of our cruisers are virtually identical in mass, and the Zip, in its mystery, sometimes shuffles our places. In this case, it had taken us from the inside of the formation to the outside.

We were now positioned to absorb the worst of the long-range batteries in the event we tripped the enemy's sensors. My tactical specialty is close-in combat—we would be wasted out here and the mission could not afford that. It wasn't prudent to risk it. No, it was a mistake. We had to tuck in.

I instructed the Pilot to move in behind our formation mate, the Ticonderoga. He hesitated, glancing (absurdly!) for a moment at the XO (at the XO!) before acknowledging me. I repeated the order, more firmly.

XO moved toward me. "Sir, that will compromise minimum distance..."

I smiled. "Playing by the book isn't my game." It may have been, "Playing the game isn't in my book." Either met the moment perfectly.

The XO recoiled and shook her head quickly, as if my words were some kind of webby substance she had walked into in a doorway. Taking care to speak quietly, she said something about how our combined mass will light up the enemy scopes, that we have to maintain separation.

Comms cried out, "Tico demands that we keep our distance, sir!"

I knew the Ticonderoga's Captain. Hidebound, inflexible. I knew he would have a problem with this.

"Inform Tico our port shields are malfunctioning and we must exchange positions in the line." A white lie to cut through the red tape of explanation.

We moved in closer, slipping under and toward the far side of the Ticonderoga, concerned only with combat effectiveness, thinking only of the close combat to come.

Our comms lit up again, this time from the Flag. Before they could speak, I belted, "Unsure why Tico is changing positions! Adjusting!" As I could not be distracted with a back-and-forth right now, another white lie served. We completed the maneuver, finished crossing under the Ticonderoga, a touch closer than I had eyeballed.

It was then the enemy's spine guns and particle beams glittered to life across unknowable distances.

We had, apparently, at this point, been detected.

The beams slammed into the Ticonderoga, burning through its shields, carving at it and, very unfortunately, finding a hydrogen reservoir. It erupted, and the ship buckled out then in, then out again, looking on our screens like a panting beast. Then the cruiser twisted apart, its back broken. It took less than 15 seconds.

Sir, they all cried, sir!

Fortunately, the husk of the cruiser was still intact enough to provide cover. In its shadow, we were safe for the moment, safe to observe and think.

Around us the fleet reacted, wheeling off the line, beginning to fire, destroyers walling up in front of the troopships and launching a screen of sand and chaff to disrupt the beams, which blasted in, thick as monorail cars.

I gave no orders. The crew stared at me, they implored me, but I knew any crack in my demeanor would doom us. They would have to call the attack off now, surely, now that we were compromised. We needed to be prepared to Zip again, out of here. Surely that was the next order to come. "How long before Zip is back up?" I asked, and waited.

Then XO began giving orders to maneuver. "Do not maneuver!" I said. Ignoring me, she also ordered weapons up.

"Hold fire!" I roared.

On the scopes, we could see the Angel Gabriel and the battlewagons returning fire, at the very limit of their range. Our line was hit terribly. Ships were collapsing, burning, fragmenting. We certainly would have liked to avoid those long range guns.

XO cried "Sir! We have a target! Sir, we have to engage!" But I sat in clarity, in solemnity, correct.

Weapons LT shouted, "I can hit it, Sir!"

Calmly, firmly, I let them in on my process. "If we fire, we invite return fire. We have to preserve our combat effectiveness for later."

The XO stared at me, enraged, uncomprehending.

"We are an important asset close in." I said.

Then XO turned to the crew and declaimed in her grating, too-loud voice that she was assuming command under yet another article of her beloved, probably masturbated-over Naval Code. I had to laugh. Which I did as the Sergeant-at-Arms, forced to play along, intuiting that I wanted this resolved quickly, leapt forward and put a hand firmly on my shoulder. Fairly eagerly for my taste, but convincing.

Faced with mutiny in the heat of battle, it was then that I made perhaps the best command decision of my career.

I did nothing.

Absurdly locked in my quarters when my ship needed me most, I was strangely serene. I don't know how much time passed. The ship wheeled wildly under me, the gyros struggling, the frame groaning, the artificial G unable to keep up with some violent non-standard maneuver it was being put through.

My calm broke for a moment, worried as I was about my crew's capabilities without me. I kicked the cabin door. My foot erupted in pain, then a sickening vibration that wouldn't end. It was broken, badly, probably in multiple places.

I sunk to the deck and spent a few moments in what may have been a fugue state, losing track of time again. However long it was, suddenly the door was unlocked and bitter-tasting smoke poured into the room. The faithless XO appeared, jamming a respirator toward me. Her hair had come undone, and hung limply out from under a helmet. The helmet had clearly been donned too late, as she was bleeding profusely from a wound somewhere on her scalp, the blood soaking her sleeve and trickling through her fingers. I became briefly fixated on the blood, for some reason. The fake G was fluttering, and the blood dripped and hovered and fell, shook and streamed. I was nauseated.

XO clutched some sort of thick, glowing fluorescent marker in one hand. As she helped me into the corridor, my arm around her shoulders, I saw that she had marked a path behind her, leading back to where she had come from. These glowing streaks were the only thing visible through the acrid smoke. I wasn't aware we even had those things in the kit. Kind of clever.

The ship, I realized, had been abandoned. I pieced together what must have accounted for the strange maneuvering—she had fired the escape capsules and lifeboats back toward the Angel Gabriel, the ship most likely to survive the onslaught, then wrenched our ship around them, using its bulk to protect them. Quite an impressive and difficult move, one that would have been my instinct as well.

We followed the phosphorescent streaks, staggering, not a word. XO was dazed and distant. While pleased she had returned for me, I couldn't help but wonder why she hadn't sent someone in better condition. It would have been the more mature command choice. I'd hate to think this was about credit.

The only sound above the respirator hiss was the disturbing, grunting monologue of the engineer, who indulgently cursed and railed over the open mic, still on station, still trying to keep the ship together as it continued to reel under repeated hits from the beams. Futile, unable to recognize as such.

We needed to hurry. The smoke was starting to overwhelm the respirators, the glowing streaks becoming obscured, many passages blocked by debris. At this worst possible time, I started to have what must have been hallucinations disguised as memories, uncomfortable thoughts. The Reactor. Suddenly I saw things, I remembered things, they must be fabrications, they must be. Through force of will, I beat them back.

Reaching the airlock to the escape bay, we stumbled over the sardonic LT, clad in firefighting gear. Perfect that he had managed to arrange himself in some showy pantomime of heroism—his body holding open the hatch to the escape bay, which had been trying to automatically close and probably should have been closed by now for structural reasons. Perfect, bravo, I see what you did there. I'm sure everyone saw you as they boarded the capsules.

I expected to see him still wearing his patented half grin in death. But no. He just wasn't there anymore.

There was only one single-seat capsule left.

As XO shoved me toward it, I tried to speak, but she refused to look at me. She sunk down to the deck next to the dead LT in what seemed to me a meaningless and sentimental, but forgivable, gesture. Going down with the ship. Well, it's my ship.

"XO," I said, as I climbed into the capsule.

Still she refused to look, to receive any acknowledgement from me whatsoever, to complete the gesture. Frustrating to the last.

But I knew I had taught her well. I was proud, but I risked no delay in shutting the door and launching, not a moment of hesitation or indecision.

The mutiny could not be forgotten. But it could possibly be excused. If not excused, mitigated. She was, after all, a reflection on me. A shadow.

She would be relieved, I think, to know that I would be the one who wrote the commendations. That I would be the one to tell our story.

About the Author

Phil Hay is a screenwriter. He and his partner Matt Manfredi have written films including crazy/beautiful and, most recently, Clash of the Titans. The pair directed the independent film Bug (2002). Upcoming films include The Boys, RIPD, Staycation, and The Invitation. 

He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.