"Nervous?" Bain took his gaze off the control panel with its synchronized flashing lights to look at Lin.
"Why should I be nervous?" She grinned at him, baring her teeth-- a sure sign of strain building up, just a little.
"The last time we went through this Knaught Point--" he began.
"There were Mashrami all over the sector.Nobody has seen or sensed Mashrami near here or the ten contiguous Knaught Points for two years now."Her grin softened and she sighed."It seems like a lifetime ago we were evacuating Lenga."
"Not that long ago."
"If you count time by the new silver in my hair," Lin said, "it's been centuries."
Bain snorted and turned back to watching the lights and the numbers scrolling up his screen. As far as he could tell, Lin didn't have any more silver in her long, black hair than she had the day he met her in Governor Cowrun's office. He had been just a lonely little orphan boy on Lenga and she had been the exotic, slightly exasperated Spacer captain. He was taller, his dark hair wasn't as dusty or as short anymore, and now he was a Spacer, trained as well as born. Not much else had changed, though.
Lin still wore bright colors in a splashing contrast-- today she wore scarlet trousers, her silver mesh boots, azure blouse and a cinnamon and amber checked vest. Her silver and emerald clips held back her long hair, as usual. Bain had learned to dress as brightly as Lin, a massive change from the ragged boy in dusty brown, slightly-too-small clothes. He wore black boots and black vest, sapphire quilted pants and a long, rainbow patchwork shirt that rivaled the colors of the shirt Lin had worn the day he first met her.
"Knaught Point coming up in two hours and twenty-five minutes," Ganfer announced. The ship-brain sounded slightly bored.
"Eager for the jump, O Bucket of Bolts?" Lin asked in a deceptively innocent voice.
"It should be a novel experience to make this jump without Mashrami chasing us and actually know where we are going to appear when we come out on the other side."
"He's nervous," Bain whispered loudly to Lin.
Ganfer chose not to respond. Around them, the quiet of the bridge faded under the clicking and soft peeping sounds of the equipment hard at work. The smell of chocolate from breakfast still lingered in the air, drifting over from the small galley and the booth where they sat to eat.
The last time they had approached the Knaught Point, a Mashrami ship appeared from nowhere to ambush them. In trying to evade them, Lin shifted Sunsinger's course and they had gone through the Knaught Point at just enough of a different angle they arrived in a totally unknown sector of the galaxy-- or a new galaxy, or possibly a new universe. It had taken Lin hours of hard work, replaying the flight recordings so she could backtrack through the Knaught Point at the exactly right angle to return where they had started.
That was the problem with Knaught Points-- a single Knaught Point could take starships to twenty different destinations, depending on the angle of entry.
Lin had indeed brought them back through to their origination point, and got them through again at the correct angle so they resumed their course to the planet Refuge-- and managed to lose the Mashrami who had been waiting for them to come out again.
Plus, Sunsinger had earned a bonus from the Commonwealth Exploration and Survey Authority, for reporting the new Knaught Point destination. Because of the demands of the war and taking care of refugees and then plague victims and simply patrolling known, inhabited territory, no one had been back to explore what Sunsinger had discovered. Now that peace returned to the Commonwealth, exploration also slowly resumed. When Lin learned that her discovery hadn't been explored yet, she volunteered Sunsinger's crew.
Bain was delighted. Exploration had to be a thousand times better than the routine of cargo runs they had been handling for the last six months.
Once they were done exploring the sector reached by that Knaught Point-- which could take months, maybe years, if the star charts didn't match with any known territory no matter how far they roamed-- then Sunsinger would move on to more exploration. It would be decades before the Commonwealth had recovered sufficiently from the Mashrami War to start expanding again, establishing new colonies. That didn't mean the exploration arm of the government couldn't get to work now. The pay was good, better than hauling cargo. It was better than usual because part of the defensive budget for the Commonwealth went into exploration. The best way to avoid a war was to know the territory so well, no enemy could ever sneak up on the Commonwealth unannounced again.
All of which suited Bain and Lin perfectly.
Now, it felt like old home week to Bain, heading back to the second Knaught Point he had ever been through, and the first time he had ever been in territory previously unknown to Humans.
"Well, I think we can relax this time through," Lin said, as she turned back to her screen. "With no Mashrami around, the only thing we have to worry about is Ganfer blowing a few circuit panels."
"How often has that happened?" Bain asked with a chuckle.
"Never," Ganfer said. "My warning systems are too accurate and sensitive to let anything so ridiculously easy to repair slip past."
"There's always a first time," Lin muttered.
Whether because of their conversation or memories of the last time they had approached this Knaught Point, they ran a doubly-intense systems check in the two remaining hours until the transition. Bain got down on the floor and crawled inside every circuit panel, checking connections and power feeds through boards and wires and crystal conduits.
"Ganfer, can you run a power surge through this board? I think one of these chips is cracked." Bain tapped the crystal board with the voltage flow meter cord, so Ganfer could sense which one he meant. Then he slid out so he wouldn't be too close if the board decided to explode.
"Tested," the ship-brain said before Bain could even get his head out from under the console.
"That's impossible. I didn't see anything happen." Bain frowned at the board. Nothing had sparked, no power flow indicator lights had flickered-- and the cracked chip hadn't even jumped or cracked or crackled while he was looking at it. "The whole board is dead, huh?"
"The board is fine."
"That's crazy!" Bain slid back under the console and reached for the board. He jerked the board out of its slot and ran the voltage meter down the triple row of connector bars. Every single one lit a green light.
"What's wrong?" Lin said as she settled down on her knees next to him.
"Ganfer, I want you to test this again when I'm done, all right?"
"Tested," the ship-brain said before Bain could even turn the board over and slide it back into its slot.
Bain held perfectly still. He took a deep breath, then slowly turned his head to look at Lin. She looked at him with wide, somber eyes and her mouth pressed into a thin line of serious, deep thought.
"What does the test show now, Ganfer?" Lin asked, her voice just soft enough Bain knew she was deeply worried.
"The power flow is the same as before; all circuits clear, nothing defective."
"Lin--" Bain couldn't continue. What if something was drastically wrong with Ganfer? What would they do?
No, they would be fine. Lin would know how to cut off the ship-brain's control of the engines and block him from the computer. Lin could handle Sunsinger without Ganfer's help. They would have to turn and head for the closest spaceport and put in for major repairs. That could deplete all of Sunsinger's resources and the good credit rating Lin had built up and maintained since her parents were killed.
"Ganfer, Bain didn't plug the board back into the slot yet," Lin said just a little louder this time.
Silence from the ship-brain. Bain started to crawl out from under the console, but Lin stopped him with her hand on his arm.
"We have a problem," Ganfer said after ten long seconds. "All my systems checks say the board is still plugged in and functioning properly and all power flow is consistent."
"All right. Shut down functions of the three boards on either side of this slot." Lin waited until the green power light dots dimmed at the end of each board. "Bain, unplug one and install the damaged board in its place, but don't say which is which. Take the other boards out-- and keep track of which one goes where, would you?" she added with a grin.
Bain nodded and tried to grin back. The effort made him feel queasy. In a few seconds, he finished that task.
"All right, Ganfer, run a power flow check in each board and connector slot, going from right to left." Lin read off the code numbers of each slot.
There was a click and a red light lit as Ganfer tried to run a power test on each empty slot. When the ship-brain tested the slot with the questionable board in it, the cracked chip let out a rising shriek, then cracked loudly and jumped from its place in the board, spitting sparks. Bain yelped and brought up both hands to cover his face. Lin grabbed him by his ankles and dragged him out from under the console.
"Hurt?" She peeled his arms back from his face and leaned over him. Her own face was pale.
"Just a few spark burns. I should have thought to get out of there," Bain said.
"That board is damaged," Ganfer said.
"Oh, thanks heaps. We couldn't tell. What's the reading on the other slots?" Lin said.
"Slot K-dash-fourteen reads all power flow and functions at normal levels. Fifteen is empty as the other five were."
"Then it's the slot and not you," she said, and let out a long sigh. "We were scared for a few minutes there, Ganfer."
"If this problem escaped my notice so easily, perhaps there is something wrong with my systems and checks," the ship-brain said, sounding a little more mechanical than usual.
That, Bain knew, was as much a warning sign of real trouble as when Lin's voice got very, very soft.
"What would have happened if we went through the Knaught Point and that chip did that?" he had to ask.
"That board..." Lin picked up the broken pieces of crystal chip, then crawled under and pulled the board out of the slot. "That board," she resumed, "doesn't have anything to do with transition through the Knaught Point. However, it has a great deal to do with life support."
"How long hasn't it been functioning?"
"Who knows?" She sighed and lay still for a few moments, then crawled back out from under the console. "Put the boards back in their proper slots, will you?"
As Bain did that, he heard Lin rummaging through the storage bins on the other side of the bridge, between the access to the observation dome and the first empty cubicle. He tried to remember exactly what each board in this particular array did. It embarrassed him that he hadn't remembered this section was dedicated to life support.
"Ganfer, do a C-O spectrum scan through the sciences array and not life support, will you?" Lin said.
"Scanning," the ship-brain responded.
Carbon monoxide? Bain gulped and nearly dropped the last board before sliding it back into its slot. The malfunctioning board and slot took care of air quality? What would have happened if they hadn't done the full systems check and they had gone through the Knaught Point and the air turned bad before they knew what was happening? Ganfer could try to find a planet with a breathable atmosphere, but how long would that take? They could be dead before he was able to get them down and open the hatch to let good air in and revive them. Ganfer could be stranded in a galaxy or star system no one had ever been to before, lost without Lin to pilot Sunsinger through a Knaught Point home.
"Carbon monoxide levels have risen five points above the optimum levels," Ganfer said in the waiting silence.
"Only five?" Lin flashed Bain a relieved grin. "That's good. We have plenty of time to effect repairs."
"How good?" Bain wanted to know.
"Reaction level is ninety points," she said. "Death comes at one-hundred-fifty points."
"How much time do we have?"
"If we don't talk or exert much energy, and we cycle the air from the cargo hold up here, six hours. We can get the defective slot out and the new one anchored into the array in an hour, and that's calculating a lot of mistakes into the procedure."
"What kind of mistakes?" Bain suddenly felt better. This was the Lin he was used to; slightly sarcastic, pretending to be a pessimist, always over-calculating danger and under-calculating advantages.
"Hitting and breaking the board against something, taking too much time to repair it, losing your tools in free-fall and having to jump all over the bridge trying to find them. Those kinds of mistakes."
"Then don't make those mistakes."
"Captains don't make mistakes like that-- apprentices do." Lin floated back over to the console and hauled herself down and into the narrow space. She handed him a new connector slot, swathed in bubble plastic.
"You're going to let me install it?" Bain could have sworn the bridge was chilly only a few seconds ago. Now it felt hot, the air stale in his mouth. Sweat started to collect on his skin, soaked up by his shirt
"No, I'm going to make you install it. There's really nothing to it, and you're worthless as crew if you can't make simple repairs like this."
"But, Lin-- we usually make repairs like this while we're in a port, with all the power down so nothing arcs and I don't blow half the systems in the ship."
"Usually, yes. How do you think I got everything fixed all those years between my parents dying and finally reaching traveled space?" She turned her head and met his gaze and waited.
"I'm scared," Bain finally said.
"Good. Arrogance kills. Fear is a survival mechanism. As long as you feel fear, you know you're still alive. Just don't let it control you."
"How?" He hated it when his voice rose a few steps.
"Concentrate on what needs to be done and be aware of what could go wrong-- but don't let those thoughts come to the front of your mind." Lin started to slide out from under the console. "Put all your focus into your hands and eyes and doing the job. Before you know it, the job is done and your fears haven't had time to get in the way."
That was easy for her to say, Bain silently grumbled. Lin had been through situations like this hundreds of times.
Yes, he realized with a jolt. She had done this hundreds of times, but without her captain to explain it to her and offer advice and stand by to pull her out of trouble. Any time in those years after her parents were killed in the accident and she and Ganfer and Sunsinger were thrown into uncharted space, she could have made a drastic mistake that could have crippled the ship forever, or killed her instantly, or wiped Ganfer's memory banks and left her totally alone. She had to have been paralyzed at those times by her fear and knowing the consequences of doing it wrong, as well as the consequences of not doing the repairs at all.
Of course it was easy for her to say, because she had done it and come through the difficult times.
All right, Bain decided. If Lin could do it alone, he could certainly do it with her watching over him. He slid his first tool out of the little loops in the strap slung across his chest, and turned himself so he could reach the slot a little more easily.
"Ganfer, is the power completely turned off this time?" Bain asked, when he had already loosened three fasteners.
"Completely," the ship-brain answered. "Circuits and breakers and baffles all in place."
"How much time until we reach the Knaught Point?" Lin asked.
"Thirty-two minutes," Ganfer said.
Bain grinned, surprised at how little time had been lost to the discovery of the faulty slot and power feed. He would have thought hours had gone by, not ten minutes at the most. He reached for the fourth fastener and gave it one final turn before sliding it out of its spot. He slid the fasteners into the holding pocket on his tool strap and reached for the top of the crystal board slot. Slowly, wiggling it as gently as possible, he pulled the connector slot out of its place.
"Got it?" Lin asked. Her voice came from close by; she had come down to the floor again and watched him.
Bain handed it to her and turned his light on to inspect the inside. This could be where the fault was; something as simple as a speck of dirt could have come between the connections in the array and shorted out or completely blocked the power flow and the malfunction sensors.
Lin let out a low whistle.
"What?" Bain asked.
"Five melt spots inside, plus a handful of crystal dust. I'd say some of the chips in that board have been flaking. We've been blessed and guarded by Fi'in more than we deserve, to have avoided more trouble than we found. We could have had all the chips shatter or crack, instead of just flaking. Anything look damaged at your end?"
"Nothing." Bain gave the array one more examination with a sweep of his light.
When Bain had the new connector slot into place, he put the damaged crystal board in, to test it. Ganfer immediately found the damage and restricted power flow and pinpointed the crystal that had cracked and snapped out of its prongs.
"Can we function without that particular crystal?" Lin wanted to know.
"As long as we don't spend more than a month in space at a time, there should be no problem," Ganfer said. "There is a fractional reduction in efficiency in the other crystals, but not enough to warrant replacement before six months are gone."
"The flaking." She smiled. "Bain, you did a good job. As usual."
"Thanks." Bain wiped a few last beads of sweat from his forehead. "How much time until we reach the Knaught Point?"
"Twenty-three minutes." She put the damaged connector slot into the bubble plastic its replacement had come from and marked it.
"After this, I think we should slow down and finish our full check."
"Good idea. Slow us to a crawl, Ganfer."