Today's Reading

Lieutenant Swift was hunkered over his control panel in front of the main display. The sailing table was a broad surface where a tracing of the ship's hull and all four masts was dotted with a galaxy of sensor lights meant to give an overall survey of the health of the propulsion system. Liam expertly noted the series of lights up each of the four masts and the sail points strung along each yardarm. There were far too many yellow readings on the projection, and a growing number of reds.

"Sails, XO," he said loudly, clapping a hand on Swift's shoulder. The gesture caught the attention of most people in the room.

Indignant surprise melted into relief as Swift turned to look at him.

"Sir, good. Have you talked some sense into him?"

The comment was much too loud with sailors present. No officer could be seen to question the captain—even if the captain was a buffoon like Silverhawk.

"Don't waste my time with stupid questions!" Liam roared, getting right into Swift's face. "Get this ship battened down and ready for the storm!"

Crewmembers scurried at his command, thankful that the XO's wrath wasn't being directed at them. Another shake of the deck knocked many off balance, but they frantically continued their work. Behind the mass of bodies, the heavy crosspiece of the thrust block groaned dangerously.

Liam turned back to Swift, leaning in close.

"Don't say things like that out loud," he muttered. "Now give me your status."

"Battening down is forty-five percent complete, and security rounds are sixty percent complete. In about four minutes this ship will be as tight as she can be. But that won't solve this."

He gestured broadly at the main sailing table. Liam's eyes followed, noting again the multitude of stress indicators.

"Top mast is already past allowable limits—it could snap at any time. Bottom mast is not far behind. Port and starboard are strained but holding, but if we lose top mast, it'll drag us hard to starboard and put unpredictable stresses on the other three." Swift lowered his voice. "If we don't short those sails, we risk losing all four masts. And port in particular could pierce the hull if it cracks."

Liam looked down at the main panel display for the ship's internal damage-control condition. He recognized the signs of battening down in effect, but didn't have the expertise to pick out individual actions.

"Master Rating," he said to the sailor seated at the display. "Has the bridge been shielded yet?"

"Yes, sir," she replied immediately, continually tapping in changes to the display as reports came in through her headset.

She wore, Liam noted, the shoulder patch of a supply tech, not a propulsor. But she spoke into her headset with a practiced efficiency and manipulated the display controls like she'd designed them.

With the bridge shielded, the captain couldn't physically see the top mast, even if he happened to look up.

"Short-sail the top mast," he ordered Swift. "Enough to get the strain under control but not so much as to leave it with no tension."

Swift was barking orders even as Liam's final words were uttered. Propulsors leaped into action, scrambling up through the access chutes that lined each mast. Far above, Liam knew, they were reeling in sails and tying off loose sheet. The massive thrust block groaned as tension fled from the top mast. Slowly, on the main projection, red indicator lights for the top mast began to switch to yellow. Or at least enough of them did to reduce Liam's worry that he was going to lose a piece of the ship.

"That should do it," Liam said.

"For now," added Swift quietly. "But with three masts still at full sail the imbalance from the top is just going to create new stresses. We need to shorten all masts."

"The captain requires us to get to Passagia with all haste. Short sailing will surely be noticed, even by him."

Swift hung on as the deck rocked again, but Liam could sense his mind churning the problem. The propulsor's eyes flicked between a variety of display boards.

"So what we need," Swift said slowly, "is a way to maintain the bridge's perception that we're at full sail?"

Liam glanced down at the master rating still seated at her display. She probably couldn't hear the conversation with her headset on.

"Ideally, yes," he replied to Swift. "What I really need is for our estimated arrival time to stay ahead of Celebration's."

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