The Brisbane was two minutes into her fifteen-minute jump back to Nighdor. The depleted carrier and four destroyers were all that remained of the group that jumped to N-7. The control room was quiet as Becker’s staff reflected on the carnage they’d just witnessed. Genevra Olmeida, the youngest member of the bridge crew, wept softly to herself. Everyone else occupied their posts in stunned silence.
Becker stood alone at the command console, bitter and brooding. Petunia’s death was already weighing heavily on him, and he accepted his own survival begrudgingly. He’d come to the grim realization that the Republic was losing this war, and all he’d accomplished by escaping from N-7 was to delay the inevitable and prolong his own suffering until the release of death was finally granted him. He stared blankly at the console, completely zoned out. He couldn’t even hear the beeping and buzzing of the alarms anymore.
“Captain?” said a muffled voice from far away. It sounded as if someone was trying to talk to him while he was under water. “Captain?” It was Meg. He blinked and shook his head to clear the fog. There was probably some new calamity that he was expected to magically find an answer for.
“What is it?” he snapped.
“The fire in the machinery compartment is still not contained. It’s approaching the fuel lines.”
“Where’s the XO?”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t called in.”
“Cut the fuel supply to the starboard thrusters.”
“I did, but there’s still enough residual fuel in the lines to blow a hole in the side of the ship if it catches fire. If that happens during a jump, the spatial distortion would tear the ship apart.”
“Can’t you purge the lines?”
“Not during a jump. If I jettison the fuel, the lateral thrust could push us out of our jump corridor.”
Becker leaned over his console and gave an exasperated sigh as he tried to summon the energy to solve one more problem. He checked the status board. “All of our DC teams are fully engaged throughout the ship. There’s no one left to send.” He gazed around the room at the people he had left.
“Hackett, Patel, you’re with me,” Becker said. “There’s a DC station down the hall from the machinery room. We should be able to find fire suits and extinguishers. Soo, take the conn.”
Becker ran out of the control room with his makeshift fire department in tow. He turned right and went fifty feet down the wide hallway to a stairwell on the portside end of the conning tower. He took the stairs two at a time down to the lower conning tower level. The forward damage control station was right next to the stairwell. It resembled a small locker room. The door was ajar, and Becker pushed it the rest of the way open and stepped inside. The room was deserted. All of the assigned crew members were already out on calls. Several lockers and cabinets were open, and equipment was scattered haphazardly on the floor.
“It’s been picked over pretty good,” said Hackett.
Becker stepped to the back wall and opened a grey metal locker. “Here’s some fire suits and gloves. Everybody gear up.” He pulled one of the yellow, flame-retardant suits out and started stepping into the leg holes. The others did the same.
“There aren’t any air tanks or masks left, but I found two manual extinguishers,” said Hackett.
“That’ll have to do. You two take the extinguishers. Let’s go.”
They left the DC station and jogged down the corridor toward the starboard side of the conning tower. A hundred feet down on the right was the machinery room hatch. The thick steel door was still open, jutting out into the corridor. Three members of the damage control team were sprawled on the floor outside the hatch, exhausted and gasping for air between coughs. Their faces were black with soot. Discarded helmets and empty fire extinguishers were scattered on the floor around them.
“Where’s the XO?” Becker demanded. The team leader was coughing too violently to talk. She pointed into the compartment. Becker scooped up one of the discarded helmets, plopped it on his head, and went in.
Two narrow walkways flanked on both sides by six-foot-high metal cabinets ran lengthwise down the rectangular room until they disappeared behind a wall of black smoke. The cabinets in the front contained battery cells for the ship’s backup power supply. The back half of the room housed computer servers, communication systems and elevator equipment, all of which was monitored by a team of engineers. The main hatch was the only way in or out of the compartment.
Almost everything in the room was on fire, engulfed in flames that reached all the way to the ceiling and walked across it. The stench of burning insulation from the electrical wiring filled the air. The roar of the fire was deafening, and smoke seemed to be billowing from everywhere at once. Becker’s eyes immediately started burning, and he couldn’t see more than two or three feet in front of him. He took the row to the left and directed Hackett and Patel to take the one on the right. They started using their fire extinguishers to spray foam suppressant on the battery cabinets.
Becker took a few steps down the row. Flames roared at him from a cabinet on his left, and he put one gloved hand up to shield his face from the wave of heat. He reached up and pulled down the plastic face shield on his helmet. He could hear shouts coming from the back of the room over the roar of the fire and alarm klaxons, but couldn’t make out individual voices. He pressed forward a few more feet.
“Mitch?” Becker called out. He couldn’t see anything now. He felt his way blindly toward the back of the room with his gloved hands out in front of him, and nearly tripped over his first officer before he saw him. Mitch Forster was lying on his stomach, trying to crawl his way out of the raging inferno. His face was black with soot and badly burned, and he was dragging another crew member behind him, a young machinery technician named Murphy. She had only been on the ship a few weeks. A battery unit had exploded in her face, and she was covered with burns and unable to see or find her way out of the compartment.
Murphy was limp and barely conscious, but Forster was able to half-drag and half push her toward Becker. “Get her out,” he cried. Becker scooped her up off the floor and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He turned and stumbled back the way he came in. The fire extinguishers were having little effect, and the blaze was continuing to worsen. He heard another whoosh behind him, followed by a loud bang. There wasn’t much time left.
Trying to stay low, Becker made his way along the walkway as fast as he could. His eyes were stinging and watery, so he closed them and tried to walk in a straight line without bumping Murphy into the scorching hot metal of the melting cabinets. He reached the end of the row and found Patel standing by the hatch opening. He handed Murphy over to him and turned around to go back for Mitch.
The smoke and flames were advancing toward the front of the compartment now, and visibility was even worse than before. Becker got down on his hands and knees and crawled down the row. He was disoriented and unsure of how far he’d gone. He reached out with one yellow gloved hand beyond the wall of smoke for the spot where he thought Mitch was lying, but couldn’t feel him. He choked on a plume of smoke and started coughing. The heat from the fire was so intense now that he could feel it through the protective lining of his suit. He crawled a few feet deeper into the room.
He reached out a second time and finally found Mitch. He was still lying prone, and hadn’t moved from his previous spot. A cabinet had fallen over and pinned him underneath it. His right foot and ankle were trapped between the cabinet and the bulkhead. He was desperately pulling on his leg, trying to free it.
“I’ll get you out of here,” Becker shouted. He tried to lift the cabinet, but the battery units inside weighed hundreds of pounds. It wouldn’t budge. He yelled back to the front of the room for the others to come help him, but the roar of the fire swallowed his screams. He could barely hear his own voice.
He grabbed Mitch by the arms and tried to pull him out from under the cabinet, to no avail. He leaned back to put his full weight into it, but lost his grip and fell backwards. He hit his head on another cabinet and fell to the floor.
The force of the blow stunned him. The roar of the fire was suddenly gone, replaced by a high-pitched tone from the ringing in his ears. The room was spinning, and he fought the urge to black out. He rolled over onto his side and shook his head to clear out the cobwebs. He managed to get up onto his knees, choking back the urge to throw up. The smoke was getting thicker. Mitch was only a few feet away, but Becker could barely see him.
Then the sound came rushing back to Becker’s ears like a freight train. The silence was again replaced by the roar of the fire, the alarm klaxons, and the blood-curdling screams of the people still trapped behind the wall of flames and being burned alive. It brought him back into the moment, and he scrambled to his feet. All he could see of Mitch now was one arm reaching out from behind a wall of smoke.
Becker reached out with both hands to grab the sleeves of Mitch’s fire coat. He got a good grip and started pulling. The cabinet moved an inch. That’s when a burst of flames surged forward and threw him backward like a rag doll. He lost his grip on Mitch and fell to the deck a second time. Mitch’s arm dropped limply to the floor. He was no longer moving, and his shouts fell silent.
Enraged, Becker scrambled to his feet again to make a third attempt. He took one step forward, but was suddenly grabbed from behind and held fast. Two arms wrapped around his chest just below the arms and started pulling him backward. “No. No,” Becker screamed in protest as he was dragged out of the burning room and back out into the corridor. A member of the damage control team pushed the hatch shut and turned the rotating valve clockwise to seal the compartment.
Becker broke free and lunged for the door, but Lieutenant Hackett stepped in front of him and blocked his path. The person behind Becker grabbed him a second time and held him in a bearhug. “Sir, he’s gone. You can’t save him,” said Hackett.
“He’s not gone. We’re not sacrificing any more people. Let go of me.” Becker writhed and jerked himself free of all the arms holding him back. He coughed a couple of times, and then whirled around to see who it was who had interfered.
“What the hell are you doing here, Soo?” he shouted. “You’re supposed to be on the bridge.”
“Sir, you and the XO are the only ones with keys to the EVS. If you both die in there, we won’t be able to stop the fire.”
“He’s right, sir,” said Hackett. “Everything is coated in superheated gel from the Alcari warhead. The fire extinguishers are worthless. The only way to put the fire out is to vent the compartment and deprive it of oxygen.”
“No,” said Becker. “I can’t.”
“We don’t have a choice,” said Soo. “If the fire reaches the fuel lines, we’ll lose the ship.”
Becker sagged as the fight drained out of him. His anger had kept him going, but now there was nothing. He was an empty shell. A cold despondency settled over him, a crushing weight of utter hopelessness and despair. “I never imagined that fourth stripe would be so heavy,” he mumbled. “Lamar made it look so easy.” He took a few shaky steps toward the stairwell before breaking into a jog. He knew his duty. He knew his officers were right. There were still hundreds of lives to save on the ship. He searched for some comfort in that and took the stairs two at a time back up to the upper level.
When he reached the control room, it was eerily empty. Only Olmeida and Vernon, a young engineer, were still at their posts. The ship was still in the middle of its jump, evidenced by the flashes of color on the forward camera display.
He sprinted across the room to a seldom-used panel at the front end of the damage control console. It was marked “Emergency Venting System.” He fished in his pocket for his keys and selected a small silver one. He inserted it into the panel and gave it a one-quarter clockwise turn. The panel energized, and three horizontal rows of lights lit up. Beneath each light was a toggle switch under a red plastic cover. All of the lights were green except one. It flashed amber in unison with the electronic tones of the fire alarm coming from the overhead speakers. Above the amber light was a label marked “Mach. Rm.”
Vernon stared up at him in wide-eyed horror as Becker reached for the decompression switch. He flipped the plastic cover up to reveal the toggle switch underneath. He put his index finger on it and hesitated. He couldn’t do it. He tried to muster the strength from some unseen reserve, but it wasn’t there. His strength was gone. He wanted to curl up on the floor and wait for the fuel lines to explode and put him out of his misery. Precious seconds ticked away, and the fire alarm continued to beep incessantly.
“Captain,” he heard Soo call out from the doorway.
Becker squeezed his eyes shut and flipped the switch. The machinery room was one level down, but Becker could hear the whir of the powerful exhaust fans as they kicked on, syphoning all the air out of the compartment and depriving the fire of its fuel. It was all over in a matter of seconds. With no oxygen to sustain it, the fire was immediately extinguished, and the cold vacuum of space instantly cooled the melting cabinets and bulkheads. Everything and everyone still inside the compartment were instantly frozen solid. The light on the panel went from flashing amber to red, and the fire alarm was finally silent.
Becker leaned his shoulder against the panel for support, but it wasn’t enough. He fell to his knees and began rocking back and forth. Tears ran down his face as he pulled his fists up against his chest and screamed.
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