My 8-year-old daughter is taking an IEW writing class as a supplement to her homeschool curriculum. For this her most recent assignment, she was supposed to re-write a story from a selection of Aesop’s Fables according to her own design. In addition, she was supposed to get one of her parents to do the same assignment, to help rusty old out of school folks remember what it’s like to go through the process of writing.
I might have rubbed my hands with glee at that point. “Oooh! A writing assignment? SIGN ME UP.”
My wife was only too relieved to hand this one over to me.
My daughter chose the following story as her subject for the rewrite:
The Good King’s Feast
A good and great king once sent letters to all parts of his kingdom to say that on his birthday he was going to give a feast and a purse full of money to all the poorest persons who would come. So from all parts came poor folks who wanted to share in the king’s good gifts. They came from east, and west, and north, and south. One poor blind man was going slowly along the road, feeling his way, -tap! tap! tap!, with his stick; but of course, as he could not see, he could not go fast, and he feared that he would not be able to reach the palace in time. At last he fell against a lame man. The lame man could only creep a step or two at a time. The lame man was also trying to get to the palace to share in the good king’s gifts. So the blind man said to the lame one, “If you will climb on to my back, you can tell me which way to walk, because you can see, and I can walk fast, so that we may both be in time after all.” And so they did. The king was so pleased when he heard how they had come, that he gave each of them twice as much as he gave to anyone else.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to write my three paragraphs. I knew right away I would be turning it into a science fiction story. (Shocker, I know.) I didn’t expect to pound out over 3,000 words.
Now that I have, I’m glad I did. This is a universe that I’ve only just started sketching out, but I like it, and I think I may want to revisit it in a longer story. Until then, I hope you enjoy my 3rd-grade writing assignment: Rendezvous With the King’s Ransom.
The announcement had gone out fleet-wide. The King’s Ransom – the capital ship that served as the central governing body and manufacturing center for the flotilla – was offering supplemental provisions to those ships with the greatest demonstrable need. For the past year, the 334 ships of the Earth Memorial Federation had been flying through space occupied by a race known as the Senfari, who made up for what they lacked in technological sophistication with numbers and sheer brutality.
The resource ships that perpetually probed for usable materials had been able to land only sporadically, and then only on moons and planets so barren as to offer little of substance. Everything worth exploring already hosted Senfari colonies and bases, and they had proven fiercely territorial. Consequently, many of the ships in the fleet were running dangerously low on critical supplies. Without the necessary maintenance on their environmental recyclers, and low on the basic protein substrate that could be printed into rations, many smaller ship crews faced imminent starvation or life support failure. With resources so limited, the offer of emergency supplies could not have been an easy one for the Federation leadership, but it was, quite literally, a lifesaver.
The Lightfoot was a small, corvette-class cruiser with a crew of seven. Lightly armed and armored, it had been badly damaged during the most recent battle with the Senfari. A direct hit from railgun fire had punctured the hull through-and-through. Though the hull breaches were patched with emergency nano-sealant before all the atmosphere had escaped, the penetrating round had bored through and completely destroyed the ship’s navigational computer. Astrogation had become impossible. Both short and long-range sensors, including proximity detectors, were out. Autopilot wasn’t even an option. In a word, Lightfoot was flying blind.
In Lightfoot’s current condition, it was far too dangerous to fly in close proximity to the other ships of the fleet. Any drift or piloting error could prove fatal, and the exterior cameras gave an incomplete view of the immediate vicinity, providing very little sense of perspective for piloting. Left with no other choice, the Lightfoot hung back behind the rest of the pack, whoever was at the conn forced to make visual course corrections through the use of the viewscreen just to keep the ship from being separated from the larger group. In this region of space, the consequences of falling too far behind had become clear. The Senfari had the mentality of pack animals, always looking for the weakest in the herd.
Captain Taphorn – known by his crew as Tap – knew that no ship in the flotilla was more in need of the promised supplies than the Lightfoot. But there was simply no safe way to navigate to The King’s Ransom, let alone dock with her. The odds of a collision flying on visual only were just too great. He was considering making a request for an escort – something he wasn’t sure the Ransom would be able to provide – when his comm panel chimed. He touched the screen and listened as the speaker flared to life.
“Attention all ships, attention all ships. This is Captain McFadden of the Faraday, requesting emergency assistance. We took some point defense fire to our engines during that last skirmish. We’ve been nursing them along, but the whole system just decided to give up the ghost. We are dead in the water. I repeat, dead in the water. Our inertial drift is wonky, and we won’t be able to stay with the fleet for long.”
As he listened, Tap couldn’t believe his luck. He quickly pressed the transmit button on his communication panel and waited for the “clear line” tone. Then he spoke.
“Hey there, Captain McFadden, this is Captain Taphorn of the Lightfoot. We’re already at the rear of the group, and it’s no trouble for us to help you out. Request a private transmission on my channel,” he thumbed the button to tightbeam the passcode to the other ship, “so we can discuss details. No need to clog up federation air traffic with our chatter.”
“Acknowledged.” Came the reply. A moment later, the panel’s tightbeam indicator lit up, and Tap entered his passcode to allow the encoded transmission.
“Tap, you old dog! Thanks for the help. We’re sweating bullets over here.” Taphorn smiled, then keyed his mic for a return message.
“Charlie, I’d love to say this was purely altruistic, but we’ve got some problems of our own, and I was thinking maybe we could help each other out and nobody’d be the wiser. Everybody’s got problems. Can’t stand to burden them with mine.”
“What kind of problems?” McFadden’s voice had taken on a suspicious edge.
“The kind of problems that involve a navigation computer with a 75 centimeter hole in it, courtesy of an alloy slug just passing through at roughly 18 times the speed of sound.”
A low whistle came over the speaker.
“Yeah. I see where you’re going with this. We’re a lame duck with an operational nav package, you’re flying blind with fully functioning engines. And I’m guessing you need some of those supplies – repairs at the very least – just as badly as we do.” McFadden had always been pretty quick on the uptake.
“Roger that. Care for a game of piggy back? We’ll have to do some manual adjustments, but I think we can manage. Might be a bit rough, but we could fly in close on visual and just fire up the docking clamps. Let good old fashioned electromagnetism do the rest?” Tap knew it was a bit risky, but he figured it was worth a shot. It sure beat the alternative.
“I’m game.” McFadden’s response sounded cheerful. What other choice did they have?
The two ship captains talked a bit more, plotting out details and calculating trajectories the old fashioned way. With their plans at last made, Tap maneuvered the Lightfoot as close as he dared to the Faraday, then fired up the docking clamps. The big electromagnets buzzed to life, pulling the ships inextricably toward each other through the cold, airless vacuum of space. A deafening clang resonated through the ships’ hulls, but the starboard camera on the Lightfoot had a clear view. They had connected somewhat lopsidedly, but the clamps were solidly attached.
Tap grabbed Gutierrez, the Lightfoot’s mechanic, and the two suited up. They cycled through the airlock and made for the exterior maintenance hatch. It had been a while since Tap had been outside, and he felt his breath catch as his eyes drank in the endless, glittering ocean of stars. It was one thing seeing them on a viewscreen. It was quite another when the only thing between you and them was a layer or two of clear polycarbonate. It was a sight he never tired of, but he had a job to do.
He and Gutierrez made their way across the surface of the ship, and he took mental notes on the pockmarks and singed areas on the ship’s armor as he passed over it, looking for any section in urgent need of repair. The Senfari were relentless. Their standard weapons systems were a real but not extreme threat to the superior defensive tech of the Federation. Their ships were small – the Senfari themselves were biologically diminutive, no bigger, in fact, than a human child – but they liked to swarm, and enough Senfari in the aggregate were like ants swarming a hornet. That was how they had come into the possession of a rail gun. They had overwhelmed a Federation frigate that had strayed too far from formation during a firefight. It’d be a while before they figured out how to manufacture one of their own, but the little buggers were quick on the uptake when it came to assimilating captured tech.
At last they reached the access panel, and Gutierrez retrieved a large spindle of data cable from a pouch attached to a clip on his suit. He took one end and plugged it into Lightfoot’s diagnostic system, securing it with several heavy-duty built-in clips. He gave a thumbs up to Tap, and the two men released their boot magnets, allowing them to float free of the hull. The captain and his crewmate fired a jet of compressed air in near-perfect synchronicity, launching themselves toward the Faraday‘s own maintenance panel as the gossamer ribbon of polymer-coated fiber optic wire unspooled behind them like a crimson spider web. The Faraday was a slightly older, larger ship, but it was in the same class as the Lightfoot and its important bits were all in roughly the same places. This made the task of finding the Faraday‘s access panel and splicing the two ships’ networks quick work for Gutierrez. Under ordinary circumstances, the exterior network ports were used for diagnostic tests when a ship was docked and under maintenance. In an emergency situation like this, however, the ship computers could be daisy-chained, allowing the combination of functions and access to each other’s systems. It was a little-known feature, but Gutierrez was a complete nerd about his ship. He had assured Tap that the possibility of a hacker gaining control of a ship remotely was too great a risk to build in wireless access, so this was the only way.
Tap made a fist and hammered twice on the hull of the Faraday to let McFadden know they were done. For his part, McFadden drifted into view in the nearest porthole and flashed a grin and his own thumbs-up to the spacewalkers outside.
Back on the Lightfoot, Tap strapped himself into the captain’s chair and woke up the comms panel.
“Ms. Kim?” He cast a glance at his first officer, who was manning the helm, and mouthed the words “open channel” with a glance down at the comms array. “Grant Captain McFadden access to our thrust package.”
“Aye sir.” She responded. Her fingers danced over the touchscreen controls, resulting in a red warning chyron and a loud, forbidding tone. She confirmed the prompt, then looked back to her captain.
“Access granted.” She reported.
“Thank you Ms. Kim.” Tap said. “You catch that Charlie?”
“Aye.” Came the voice over the comm link. “Integrating our systems now. Be up in a jiffy.”
Not a moment too soon. Thought Tap. We had less than two days’ supplies in the hold.
Suddenly, the familiar sense of microgravity acceleration came over him, and he found himself heavier in his seat as the muted hum of the Lightfoot‘s thrusters became audible.
“We are en route to The King’s Ransom.” McFadden said over the link. “ETA: seven minutes, 22 seconds.”
The trip seemed remarkably long with the building anticipation that was mounting amongst the small crew. Tap kept a channel open, allowing his people to talk openly from their stations throughout the Lightfoot as they rode like passengers in their own ship toward the Ransom. Everyone was at least as excited at having the opportunity to roam the agricultural deck of the massive ship and quite literally stop and smell the flowers as they were to meet with President Robard and receive the promised supplies. They’d been living on artificially recycled air for months, and the thought of breathing real, humid, fragrant air that came from actual photosynthesis was making them almost giddy.
The comm panel beeped, and Tap touched the screen with three fingers to acknowledge.
“McFadden here. We’re commencing docking procedures now. Could get a little bumpy since we’re locked together asymmetrically. Brace yourselves.”
“Roger that.” Tap said.
He had no sooner signed off than he was jolted violently forward in his seat. A long, low shrieking sound filled the cabin, and the whole ship shuddered like it was going through convulsions. Tap knew that Faraday was mounted on Lightfoot’s back, which left him imagining his paint job all over the deck of The King’s Ransom as the docking magnets beneath the skid plates tried to compensate for the unexpected mass and momentum of the two ships joined awkwardly like Siamese twins. At last, the bucking and groaning of the hull stopped, and the sensation of momentum ceased. Tap slammed his hand down on the comm panel.
“Charlie! Would it have been too much trouble to deploy our landing gear?”
“Sorry about that, Tap.” McFadden’s voice sounded only mildly apologetic. “Lightfoot‘s firewall wouldn’t let us access that system, and I thought it’d be better to get our awkward z-axis rotation under control and land this abomination we’ve made than slamming through the inner hull of The King’s Ransom and killing untold numbers of innocent people on the transport deck. Might not get our supplies then. Some people are sensitive about things like that.”
Tap threw a dark look at Kim, who held out her hands, fingers splayed in a gesture that might have been an apology, but looked more like surrender. He saw guilt in her eyes, but she had followed orders perfectly. Too perfectly, he supposed, since she done only what he asked for and nothing more, which was why the firewall had been overlooked. It was obvious that that didn’t sit well with her. She liked to anticipate issues and solve them before they became problems, not be blindsided by them after the fact. He suddenly felt bad about the look he’d given her.
“Well, the blame rests with me then. I should have made sure that you were clear to access any necessary systems.” He shrugged at Kim and flashed a wry grin. “Still, I’m thinking you need to go halfsies with me on a new paint job.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure to get right on that, just as soon as we finish up this never-ending pilgrimage through space.”
“Fair enough.” Tap said. He ran a hand through his mop of tousled black hair and squeezed the headache that was forming at the base of his skull. At least they had landed in one piece.
His crew finished their post-flight check, then exited the ship. President Robard met them outside, his hard eyes appraising the damage to his skid deck.
“Would someone care to tell me what happened here?” He asked, without bothering with the formalities of introduction. Tap shifted, then drew himself to attention and saluted. Beside and behind him, McFadden and the two crews followed suit.
“Mister president.” Tap barked. “It’s an honor, sir.”
“At ease, soldiers.” Robard said, scowling. “I’m entirely serious. Someone needs to explain this mess.” He gestured at the entangled ships with a broad sweep of his arm. Tap relaxed, but only slightly, then glanced briefly to his right to see McFadden staring straight ahead. He sighed. He and Charlie were the same rank, but he had seniority when it came to years of service, and McFadden would be looking for just about any excuse to defer here. Tap cleared his throat.
“Sir, when we heard the offer, about the supplies that is, both of us,” He tipped his head in Charlie’s direction, “that is, Captain McFadden and I, we both knew we needed that assistance.” He paused, unsure of how best to explain what came next. Most likely, they had violated a dozen or more protocols that he couldn’t even remember. Officer’s school had been a very long time ago.
“Yes. Go on.”
“Well sir, both the Lightfood and the Faraday were pretty banged up during the last battle with the Senfari. We had lost nav, and Faraday’s engines gave out right around the time the message about the supplies was broadcast to the fleet. With one flying blind, and the other one lame, we decided the only way we were going to get the help we needed and survive was to combine our strengths and get here together.”
President Robard’s face was an expressionless mask. He cocked his head slightly, eyes narrowing, considering the man before him. Then he turned and walked over to the ships. He ran hand along the docking clamps where the two ships were joined together. A smile spread slowly across his face.
“Amelie?” He asked.
“Yes, mister president?” A young woman wearing the presidential livery hurried to his side, terminal at the ready.
“See to it that each of these ships is fully repaired. It may take some time to print the parts, but that can’t be helped.”
“Yes, mister president.” She began typing on her terminal screen.
“And have an announcement made. I am giving each of these ships twice the requisition that we provided to the others.”
“Twice, sir? But…”
Robard waved away her argument with a gesture of his hand.
“Yes. Twice. These men,” he said, turning on his heel to face the two captains once again, “have demonstrated something today. They have exhibited the sort of teamwork, creativity, and problem solving that this flotilla desperately needs. They should be an inspiration to all of us.”
His eyes were leveled at Tap now. They were hard eyes, steel gray, brimming with resolve. But they were not unkind.
“We are a people without a homeworld. We are flying through enemy space. If these men had not acted quickly, we would certainly have lost the Faraday, and we might well have lost the Lightfoot if it had fallen any further behind. The Senfari love to pick off stragglers. The losses of these two ships would be far more grievous to our efforts than a few extra supplies.”
“We cannot afford to lose a single ship. We cannot afford to fail, whatever the risk, to come to each other’s aid. Our federation, this flying archipelago of ships, is incredibly fragile. If we lose the bond between us, the Senfari will tear us apart.”
The young staffer had been typing furiously, but she paused as she considered the president’s words.
“I’ll see to it that it is all done as you say, sir.”
“Thank you, Amelie.”
“Now,” Said President Robard, the hint of a smile still on his lips broadening to a wide grin as he stepped between the two captains and clapped them on the shoulders, “I believe it’s time to feast.”