Daily Flash Fiction Challenge 18: Crewing the Spaceways

This is the 18th in a series of 365 Flash Fiction stories I’m writing from 2nd December 2012 until the 1st December 2013. It’s intent is to keep me writing throughout the year, and not just in November. you can find out more about the challenge here.

Crewing the Spaceways, by Jonathan L. Lawrence, 19th December 2012

Word count: 773

Theme: sci fi, star ship, memoirs of a space pirate, the small details, exploring a point, understanding

The story:

“Right, you take the left bank of the cooling systems, I’ll take the right,” the engineer, Chief Rawlings said to his young apprentice.

“What I don’t understand,” the apprentice, John Bernard started.

“What you don’t understand could fill a billion volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannia,and still need an extra forest for more paper,” the engineer said snappily.

“I’m sorry I said anything,” John said, feeling embarrassed. It was his first day on the job, and only his third hour into the shift, and Captain Arsené Frassin had already called duty stations to alert, there was something going on, not that anyone would tell John what. ‘For a pirate ship, sorry privateer ship, they were as tight lipped as any military star ship,’ he thought to himself.

“No go on, but keep your mind on the task, we won’t have time to double check before the shit hits the proverbial fan,” the engineer said, as he closed one of the cooling cylinders, and marked a check on his wrist computer.

“It’s just, why don’t the computers do all this? I never understood why star ships need so much crew,” the apprentice observed.

“Ah, that’s not easy. Computers could do it all, but then we’d be out of a job. Worse, I can’t imagine what there is to do if you have computers and robots do all the work, yet still it’s never that easy. Take this,” he said gesturing into the drawer of the cooling cylinder. John wandered over, “See that there?”

“What?” John asked straining to see.

“There, those little crystals, just a small cluster,” he observed, “But you see once the guns start firing and these cooling systems start supercooling the barrels, these chambers hit minus hundreds of degrees celcius. The tiniest flaw and the cold would spread through this draw into the others, it would freeze up the cooling system, the extreme cold could destroy circuits, freeze the mechanics. The guns would over heat, and then it all goes boom, from one problem or another.”

“Wouldn’t the computer notice?”

“Those few small crystals away from the sensor?No. It would notice the whole thing going wrong, and shut it all down to prevent a catastrophic failure. Shutting it down in the middle of battle could save the ship, and the crew… and I’m all in favour of being saved thank you very much, but, losing a whole bank of guns in battle, that’ll doom you all the same.”

“Just from those small crystals?” John asked, with new found respect for pointless maintenance.

“Probably not, but it does suggest that seal there had a leak last time the guns were fired. Things get rattled round in all kinds of ways, it was probably small, too small for the computer to register a drop in pressure, but next time? So, we swap out the filters,” he pointed back to the wall to wall cabinet at the far end of the room, “That’ll be an eighteen B seal, red label,” he said. John hurried there, and back again.

“Here,” he said handing it over.

“So we swap out this seal, for one that’s perfect,” he held up the box, “See that sticker? That’s the mark that an electron microscope has checked this out and there are zero production flaws. We swap it out, and we remove the zero point zero zero zero zero one percent chance of a failure during the guns being used. It’s something the computer isn’t able to see or predict until the guns are firing. Which is too late. That’s why we’re here, and that’s how it is we earn our shares.”

“I understand,” John said looking at the row upon row of cooling chambers.

“So we check these, look for the tiniest flaws, from ice crystals to the slightest of fraying on the wires, and then we check a myriad of other systems, and then we check to make sure the missiles are perfect, and then if we’ve time we check again, alternating so no one checks their own work if possible. It may only be tiny tiny fractions of a percent risk each one, but this ship has a billion moving and electronic components, and the crew are here to make sure they all work perfectly when the time is right. For that, we each earn one share, for our biggest success two.”

“I’ll get back to checking the cooling chambers,” John said reverently.

“We’ll make an engineer of you yet,” the chief smiled as he finished replacing the seal, and shut the drawer. He moved on to the next, and was gratified to find it in perfect order.


So, because my initial idea for today’s flash fic ran over word count, and I didn’t want to reign it back in, I had to do another. So I choose to take this opportunity to explore an idea, and that’s why do space sci-fi’s have ships that require such large crews?

The most obvious thing that comes to mind is: What would be the point of a story if it didn’t have characters?

While that’s true, it spoils the world you’re creating. I think there can be good reasons, as the engineer explains to the apprentice. It doesn’t matter how advanced things get, unless computers become achieve sentience enough for creative thought, true random extrapolation, and possible the ability to scan the entire molecular make up of a ship, with enough robots of specialisation, and general ability that could act upon detected issues – you need humans.

Of course, humans are the weak link – which is an advantage for the story teller, the ship won’t fail you usually, it’s the human flaw in the equation, a bad tactic here, a missed report there, shots missed, failure in defence, or something really basic like not checking a tertiary cooling system.

No one really notices or cares, would be my guess. I bet others do too, especially when you someone steal the USS Enterprise single handedly, or when three members of the crew get the ship to safety, fire all the guns, the main deflector, and don’t even break a sweat. What do the rest actually do? Yet they all have jobs, and duties, and failures in their jobs and duties do frequently cause huge problems.

So I’m quite proud of this little short story, gave me a chance to revisit the universe of last year’s NaNoWriMo project, and explore this conundrum. Hope you enjoyed.

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