Harrison Burman, Acting Able Spacehand, huddled down further in the solar storm observatory. He was still afraid to open the hatch that lead back to Sensors. As far as he knew, he was the only person in the section left alive.
Examine Harrison: almost forty now, a middle-aged spread settling around his middle, hair getting a little gray, probably from an overdose of cosmic radiation. He is not a coward or even uncourageous; after all, he has spent his entire adult life in space, where your first mistake is often your last. But he is not a Navy man, not used to combat, and certainly not used to seeing twenty lives snuffed out in a single instant.
Burman was a Scout, a member of the Imperial Service charged with charting worlds and the spaceways. Seven centuries ago, when the Imperium was still expanding, the Scout service was possibly more important than even the Navy: it was the Scouts who would recontact worlds isolated from the rest of human space for 1500 years, the Scouts who mapped the uncharted regions beyond the old First and Second Imperiums. But now, with the Imperium stable for the past several centuries, the Scout Service's primary purpose is maintaining communications between worlds.
Harrison Burman was a sensor technician and computer programmer. He was good a both jobs; and the Scout Service, with its survey ships and message banks, had need of both his professions. Harrison liked the Scouts, liked the informal nature of its field agents, where "Acting Supervisor" was the most title anybody ever needed, liked working in the frontier regions of space. For a while, he even had a job as the pilot of one of the little one man scout/couriers that carried messages between the worlds; but he couldn't get used to the weeks of loneliness, with no one to talk to but his computer. He preferred working aboard the scout bases scattered throughout the Imperium, charting and consolidating data in an orderly, comfortable environment.
None of which, obviously, was preparation for battle.
The Imperium has trillions of citizens and thousands of worlds. Its resources are nearly inexhaustible; but the nature of space travel and communication strain its abilities to bring all of its resources to bear. The Imperium responds to threats inexorably, but it may be years before a local area receives assistance from the rest of the far-flung empire. Often, they must make do with what they have for the duration of the crisis; for it is not unusual for wars to end before the first reinforcements from the Core regions arrive.
Thus it came to pass that the Navy, always in need of good programmers and sensor techs, in the fourth year of the Fifth Frontier War transformed Scout Harrison Burman, pay grade IS-5, into Acting Able Spacehand Harrison Burman, Sensor Technician, Imperial Interstellar Star Ship Rhylanor.
Burman checked his suit's readouts. He had several more hours of air-then what? Find a Zhodani and surrender? Take a sleeping pill and slumber into asphyxiation? He shuddered.
Would the ship even be in orbit in a few hours?
That at least he could find out. He swung down into the seat of the solar activity observatory. The stubby little turret-like extension of the hull, at the end of a long, elbow shaped tunnel, was heavily shielded from radiation, to allow a person to make first hand observations during a solar storm. Rhylanor hadn't needed it since they had come so far outside the main system.
The main computer was out, but the telescopes were still powered. He began to nudge them into place. He could take some sightings of stars to determine their position. Then, he might be able to see if they were getting closer to the gas giant...there were other ways to determine the orbital radius. At least he'd know if they were going to burn up in a few hours.
He had to keep pushing down the thought that it was the barest coincidence that he was alive. If he hadn't been ordered into the observatory -
It had been during the battle with the Zhodani ships. Several of Rhylanor's sensors were out of action. Lieutenant Laragii had ordered him to the observatory, whose heavily-shielded sensors were still operational, to help coordinate sensor results. He had just shut the hatch when a blinding white light had burst into the room and the radiation sensors had gone off the scale -
Twenty people. The entire sensor section. He couldn't say that he had been close to many of them, but so many at one stroke-What was this?
Centered in his scope was a Zhodani ship. But what kind? He couldn't tell one from the other. He couldn't even tell how long it was...ah, but one of Jasmine's small, rocky moons was beginning to drift behind it - Gamma, her third satellite. He pulled out his handcomp and scribbled some figures. Gamma's diameter was 400 km, her distance from Jasmine was...the scope's magnification was set at...the formulas were all standard. Hmm. The ship wasn't that big at all. Probably a destroyer. He attached a lead from his computer to the telescope and recorded the image. Then he began to search.
He found five more ships, and recorded them all. The last was a bit of a surprise: a captured Imperial Scout Survey craft, probably used as a communications ship for the Zhodani fleet.
Burman leaned back against the side of the shaft that led down to the observatory, strangely satisfied. He always took pleasure from a difficult set of observations.
He felt a faint vibration through his helmet.
This whole region of the ship had been in vacuum since the Zhodani fusion rocket had blasted a hole into sensors section. There was no air to carry sound. But the floor could still carry vibrations.
Somebody was walking around above him.
Sweat broke out on his forehead. Who was it? A Zhodani? He might know that Burman was there, the ex-Scout's own mind betraying him. But what if it were an Imperial? This might be his only chance at rescue.
The only fighting chance he had was to take a look. If his mind had been detected, he was already trapped.
He climbed each agonizing rung of the shaft to the iris hatch at the top and pressed the button to open it. The hatch dilated, like the shutter of a camera, and he poked his head up to floor level.
A figure was silhouetted against the murky bulk of Jasmine visible through the jagged hole in the side of the ship, his back to Burman. It was moving slowly as he watched, poking a long rifle into different corners of the room. Debris was floating about; the ship's artificial gravity must have failed in this area.
The figure's helmet was the form-fitting bug-eyed Zhodani type, not the familiar swept-back style of Imperial combat armor.
Burman slowly hoisted himself out of the observatory shaft and activated his magnetic soles. He hadn't been notice. This trooper must not be psionic. But he was armed and Burman wasn't.
The figure paused by the breach in the hull. Burman considered for a moment, then grabbed a computer pad that was floating near his head and threw it at the Zhodani.
It sailed right past him and through the breach. The trooper, startled, spun around. Burman was facing him, holding a crate of sensor components. He threw it right at the Zhodani's chest.
It knocked the trooper straight through the hole in the wall and he sailed out into space. Burman trudged carefully up to the breach and stared out. The Zhodani was tumbling directly towards Jasmine.
As he watched, the trooper stopped tumbling and began to decelerate. He was using his suit maneuver controls to slow himself down. Too late, Burman's pride at having gotten rid of his opponent turned into despair.
The Zhodani would have a communicator. He could easily call for help.
Some one was pushing past Burman. He jumped aside, throwing his hands up in surrender. The new figure was tall enough to be a Zhodani - no. He was too well-built; Zhodani tend to be slender. And he was wearing Imperial powered armor.
The Imperial raised a huge, ugly-looking weapon to his shoulder. He fitted the butt into a socket on his suit.
The Zhodani had stopped moving and was hanging in space, watching them.
The Imperial fired. A bolt of white-hot plasma shot from the muzzle of the weapon and struck the Zhodani, who seemed to fly apart.
The Imperial removed the gun from its socket. He turned and began to walk for the door. It was all Burman could do to keep up.