Something felt different about this debriefing. Paul had crashed test craft before, and he'd been through a debrief for all of them. Usually, a handful of engineers and officers sat behind a table and asked the standard litany of questions. How had the craft performed? Were there indications of a problem before it crashed? How could he have prevented the crash? What changes in the craft might have prevented the problem or made it easier to touch down safely? That sort of thing. The gist of it was that they wanted so know what went wrong, when, and what could be done about it in the future. They were pretty informal, and had a cooperative air about them.
Not this time. They told Paul to put on his dress uniform, and review his flight recorder data. That was new. He felt more like he was headed to a court martial than a debriefing. Like he was about to see his career go belly up. He swallowed the lump in his throat.
A woman in a form-fitting blue business suit opened the door.
"They're ready for you now, Commander Garrick."
Paul took a deep breath and sighed, quickly checking his uniform for stray dirt or hair, and stepped into the room.
Admiral Boxleitner pointed at the chair in front of the assembled group. "Have a seat, Commander."
Paul nodded, his shoes making a clop clop noise on the hard stone floor that echoed through the room. He scanned the faces behind the table. He recognized a few of them as engineers on the project. The others looked familiar, but he couldn't place them.
"Recorder," Admiral Boxleitner said, brushing the hair away from her forehead, "This debriefing has begun. Admiral Laura Boxleitner facilitating. Computer, take attendance."
The computer voice noted the name and title of all those present in the room. When the computer got to the people he thought looked familiar, he felt a slight chill. They were all members of the Earth Government Council. They looked familiar because he'd seen them in news reports. What the hell were they doing here at a test flight crash debriefing?
"Paul, I can see by the look on your face that we're making you a little nervous. Let me put you at ease. You're not on trial here, and no one is accusing you of doing anything wrong," Boxleitner said.
"Thank you, Admiral. I take it there's no firing squad waiting outside, then?"
"No," she laughed. "Please tell us about the test flight you just returned from. Computer, append all non-classified records of the test flight to the meeting minutes."
"Yes, Admiral," Paul said, and began telling the story.
He'd been assigned to take a small four-man scout ship out alone. There were concerns about the control system, and some worries that recent changes to the low-speed propulsion system might make the craft unstable in an atmosphere. He'd lauched it into FTL mode when suddenly a shower of sparks came from the control panel. The ship jerked out of FTL and threw him to the bulkhead, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, the air was burning hot. He staggered to the instrument panel and saw that the craft was falling into the atmosphere of a planet. The controls were mostly unresponsive, but he did the best he could to set it own softly on the planet's surface. Softly, in this case, meant that the ship took only minimal damage.
Fortunately, the planet he'd crashed on had a breathable atmosphere. When the hull had cooled down enough that he could touch it, he opened the airlock and stepped outside to survey the damage. The hull seemed intact and the engines looked none the worse for wear. It might even be flown again. He went back inside and tried to activate the communication system, then the distress beacon. Nothing seemed to be working. Was it the malfunction in space? The heat of entry into the planet's atmosphere? The impact of the landing? A combination of all that? He didn't know.
"Excuse me, Commander. A question for the engineering team. Do we know what happened to the controls on the Scouter?"
The young engineer cleared his throat. "Yes, Senator Chalmers. One of the power conduits wasn't built to spec. It overloaded under the drain of FTL travel and caused a short-circuit, burning out the entire control surface."
"Then, there's no way this crash was Commander Garrick's fault?"
"None, sir. It's amazing he's not still stranded there, sir."
"Why is that?"
"Well, I helped design that control system and I don't know if I could have flown the craft the way he did."
Chalmers turned from the engineer to Garrick. "Commander, how DID you get the craft back?"
"Well, sir, I know that any aircraft or spacecraft control system is about electrical or optical signals coming from the cockpit controls out to the sensors, control surfaces, and so forth. The computer survived the crash. I used the schematics to get some idea of what wires and fiber-optic lines reached out to what controls. Then I started looking for other controls that sent the same kind of signals."
The senator raised an eyebrow. "I don't understand."
"Think of it like this. Imagine you're in your kitchen at home and you go to flip on the lights. The switch breaks off into your hand. You want the lights on, and your miles from an electrician. All that switch really does is connect two wires together. You could put on some rubber gloves, tie those wires together, and the lights would come on."
"But you can't fly a spaceship by tying wires together, Commander."
"Exactly. But when I looked around the cockpit, I found other controls that would work. Kind of like swapping out that broken kitchen light switch for the one that turns on the garbage disposal. Same switch, works the same way. All I had to do was wire similar controls to the things I needed in order to fly the ship. I wired the heating controls to the throttle lines, the steering lines to light dimmers, that kind of thing. Eventually, I had enough of the controls working that I could lift off. Once I was in space, I had the computer set a course back for Earth. Then I actually did tie a couple of wires together. A cargo ship spotted me, and the fleet sent a rescue ship."
The senator's mouth hung open, his face blank. "No further questions."
The admiral smiled, "Now you see why we need this guy out there, Ben. He's fearless, ingenious, resourceful."
Chalmers composed himself, and cleared his throat. "Yes, yes."
"Pardon me, admiral," Paul said, swallowing.
She turned to face him. "Yes, Commander?"
"What did you mean when you said you need me 'out there'? Out where?" His forehead wrinkled, and he shifted a bit in the uncomfortable chair.
She smiled. "I'm glad you asked. The reason Senator Chalmers and the others are here is to assess your fitness for command of the Alliance Starship Prospect. I think you've convinced them that you're the man for the job. We need commanders who can think on their feet, who don't crack under pressure, and do what it takes to survive."
The Senator and his aides nodded. "I've seen enough, Laura. You're right. I've gotta get back to DC for a meeting int the morning."
He stood, and his aides did too. He shook the Admiral's hand, then walked around the table and over to Garrick's chair. "Hell of a story, Garrick."
He shook Paul's hand and left the room, aides following close behind. The admiral turned to the engineers and nodded. One of them opened his mouth, as though he intended to ask a question. The admiral shook her head. He bowed his head slightly, picked up his tab and walked out. Garrick and the admiral were alone. When the door clicked shut, she spoke.
"You look confused, Paul." She smiled at him, as if to say it wasn't such a big deal.
"Laura, while we're alone."
"Laura, what just happened? I thought I was about to be court-martialed for messing up the controls on that ship."
She laughed, then her face flushed. "I'm sorry, Paul. I asked you to put on the dress grays because I wanted to be sure you made a good impression on Senator Chalmers. I need his approval to get you the promotion, and to put you in the captain's chair on the Prospect."
"I was planning to retire in a few months. I've tempted fate too many times."
The smile vanished. "Retire? No. I've called in too many favors to get you promoted to Captain, and--"
"Yes. By the regs, I can't put you in charge of the Prospect unless you hold the rank of Captain. As of right now, you do." He sat motionless as she walked around the table, took out a silver collar signifying Garrick's new rank of Captain, and replaced his Commander collar.
"I don't know what to say, Laura. Thank you?"
She smiled. "Close. Say yes. Tell me you'll do it."
Her eyes locked onto his and wouldn't let go.
"No, not 'but'. Tell me yes. Look, Paul, I need you to do this. Whether the rest of the joint chiefs know it, they need you to do it, too. I'll make you a deal. Give me four years on the Prospect. After that, you want out of the fleet, you're out. Hell, I'll throw you a retirement party they'll talk about twenty years from now. I'll even pull strings to get your rank bumped up for the pension."
Paul's mind began to evaluate the options. If he retired in a few months like he'd planned, he'd probably lose the promotion. He'd also tick off the admiral, so he'd probably spend those months scrubbing latrines with a toothbrush. If he took the promotion and the job, he'd have to postpone his retirement a few years. On the other hand, retiring a couple of ranks higher would put his retirement pension close to his salary now. How bad could it be out there, compared with flying experimental ships that shorted out and crash landed?
"Alright, Laura. Four years. Don't ask for a fifth. And you'd better make good on that pension."
She held out her hand. "I will. Congratulations, Captain Garrick. The Prospect is yours. Don't scratch the paint."