Dear Eric,

I know it’s been a week, and I promised a rundown on what the moons of Zeus looked like. The captain promised us a tour.

That didn’t happen. One morning, by ship’s reckoning, alarms started blaring. Our chaperone went from compartment to compartment, ordering us recruits to shelter in place. That could only mean one of two things: Hull breach or a reactor problem.

I don’t know how much experience you have with living near reactors, but I made the interstellar trek to Bromdar, then one to Amargosa. Industrial equipment on Bromdar frequently had dedicated reactors if they didn’t draw from planetary heat or the sun. And living on the orbital station for a year was basically like living on a spaceship.

All those things used fusion. Reactor problem? Turn it off, fix the problem, turn it on. That last part usually happened with a lot of swearing. Fusion is a wonderful energy source, but as my mother said when she was alive, it’s a pain in the ass to start up unexpectedly.

But the Alyssa Carson was powered by fission. Atom splitting. Take a highly toxic, incredibly radioactive substance and break it down into two or more new highly toxic, radioactive substances. Fission cores need a lot of cooling and are still a problem if they’re taken offline. There’s a reason they’re illegal for land use on most worlds now.

“What do you know about this, dirt muncher?” asked Cassandra, one of Diana’s crew. Dark as me, her Metisian lilt was a bit more pronounced. Someone said the accent came from a place called Jamaica, not from Ireland.

“First off,” I sniffed at her, trying to sound as pretentious as Diana, “I’m not a farmer. And if you ever meet a farmer, you’d better bow in respect. They’re why you don’t have gray-skinned aliens marching down your streets and burning your parents to ash.”

“Davra, please!” She had that same wide-eyed look I probably had when the Gelt soldiers captured me. Or when you and I saw the underside of that mushroom cloud in Riverside.

So I sat up in my bunk and leaned my arms on my knees. Only now do I realize that’s how Suicide would sit when she listened to one of us when we were scared. “The ship’s powered by an atomic pile. Remember that?”

“I didn’t pay attention.”

I stood, almost at attention. Later, I realized I mimicked Colonel Quan and Colonel Jovann in my stance, back straight with hands on my hips. “Then you better pay attention if you want to serve on a Navy ship. My friend JT is an admiral’s son and co-owns a farm with a Polygamy War vet. He says if you don’t know your ship, you’re dead before the wormhole opens.”

JT never said that, but it was the best way to sum up his father’s and Colonel Quan’s war stories.

“The ship’s power by fission,” I continued, now sounding like I was teaching a class. “Mid-World-War-Era technology. Plutonium and uranium. Ever handle those with your bare hands?”

“My mother has the most beautiful plutonium jewelry,” said Cassandra.

“When did she die of cancer?”

She shut up.

“If there’s a reactor problem,” I said, “the fuel’s out of balance. Which means they lost control of the reaction powering the ship.”

By now, the other girls, and not just Diana’s crew, focused on me.

Diana chimed in. “My dad says you just turn a reactor off and on again.”

“That’s fusion,” I said. “They only use fission in space. Usually just in weapons because explosions are about the only thing it’s good for. But someone built this ship, named it for a Martian pioneer, and decided putting uranium and plutonium together was cheaper. If we survive this…”

Ever see a collective gasp, Eric? It’s… breathtaking. Pun intended.

“…the ship’s owners will discover just how expensive a toxic power plant is.”

“You sound like an engineer, dirt muncher,” said Diana.

“My mother was an engineer,” I said. “My father worked on space stations most of his civilian life. And I saw two fusion bombs go off up close and personal. I don’t recommend it, by the way. Watch the newsreels from the Second and Third World Wars. At least you can enter the blast zone within twenty-four hours with a clean fusion bomb.”

The bosun’s chime sounded. “Now hear this. We are jettisoning the reactor and going to battery power. We have sent a distress call and will transfer all recruits to a Navy transport when it arrives.”

“Batteries?” Diana sounded like her wrist chip would be put in safe mode for a week.

I couldn’t help myself. “Honey, I had to cook my food over a wood fire for a year. And eat Gelt food. Battery power would have been wonderful when I was out in the field.”

Wish I were there,


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