Iro’s mother pressed the button on the comm panel for the bridge. “Captain?”
“Serah, is that you?” Captain Fiwagoa’s voice came across the comm panel with a hiss of static accompanying it. It had been a while since they’d used it, and it was possible some of the wires were degrading. Iro would have to have a look at it soon, and hope he could find some replacement wire. One more thing they were starting to run low on.
“Yes, captain. What’s going on?” Iro’s mother glanced at him, frowning. He couldn’t decide what that meant, but he felt nerves tingle through his stomach. When she turned away, Iro set about cleaning the bowls just for something to do.
The radio was silent for a few seconds. Then it hissed again and Captain Fiwagoa’s voice came through. “We’ve got a contact, Serah. It’s big, metallic.” He fell quiet, but the radio still hissed with static so he was still transmitting. Iro heard a few rushed voices in the background. The bridge of the Courage sounded busy. “It’s a titan, Serah. We’ve found a new titan.”
Iro dropped the bowl he was cleaning and turned to find his mother staring at him, her eyes wide. A new titan meant hope. Hope for the fleet, for survival. His gut churned. On one hand, it was everything they needed. On the other, nothing would change for him. Only the Hoppers would get to go aboard the titan.
His mother was trembling as she pushed the button on the comm panel once again. “How far away, captain?” She sighed, her breath catching in her throat.
“We’ll get to eat real food again, mom,” he said. It wasn’t the most important thing about finding a new titan, but it was the first to come to his mind. He’d work a hundred double shifts for the bite of an apple again.
Serah let go of the button and grinned at Iro. He grinned back.
“Is that your son, Serah?” The captain’s voice had gone cold.
“Yes, captain.” Iro’s mother frowned at him again.
“Send him away. I have an urgent communication coming from Admiral Nmayer for command staff only. And tell him he can expect punishment for attacking a Hopper.”
His mother rounded on him. “You attacked a Hopper? Iro, who? Why?”
“I didn’t,” Iro said urgently. “I don’t know who…” Then it dawned on him. Cali and Mia were Captain Fiwagoa’s daughters. He’d insulted them by sticking up for himself in the training hall. He hadn’t expected them to run to their father for retribution, but it didn’t surprise him. “It’s not my fault, I…”
“Go!” His mother said sharply, pointing down the hall to his room. “I have to hear what the admiral has to say, but we’ll talk about this later.”
Iro thought of arguing, but he knew it would be pointless. Even if his mother did believe him, no one else would. They’d take the word of a Hopper over his any day. Besides, he couldn’t keep his mother from her work, and he really wanted to hear what the admiral had to say. Iro lowered his head as if in a sulk, and trudged down to the hall to his room. He forced himself to pull open the door slowly and ducked inside. But as soon as the door was closed, he grabbed his old handmade radio from the floor and rushed to the window. Of course, he didn’t have the clearance or the frequency to listen in to the admiral’s broadcast, but he also didn’t need it. He’d long ago tuned his little radio into the apartment’s comm signal. He spent a few agonising moments finding the right channel, then leaned in close to the speaker to hear what was being said.
Ship to ship transmissions had never been particularly good. The truth was, no one really knew how the technology aboard the fleet worked. They simply knew that it did. Sometimes parts burned out and needed replacing. The controls flew the ships and operated the various systems like engine control or communications. But that was as far as anyone understood it. Some of the Scrappers seemed to think the ships were alive, a rudimentary sort of intelligence like they gifted to the automatons they created.
“Have all ships checked in?” The voice was tinny with static, but Iro recognised it. He’d heard it only once before, when the titan died. Admiral Nmayer had made a fleet-wide announcement, praising the heroics of all those lost Hoppers, and delivered a rousing speech about flying into the dark unknown with passion and bravery and hope. Five years later and all three of those seemed in short supply.
“Yessir,” said another voice, this one Iro didn’t recognise.
“This is Admiral Nmayer aboard the Vermillion.” His voice sounded like a grinding servo, all its teeth filed off, but unwilling to stop spinning. “As your captains have probably all informed you by now, we’ll detected a large metallic mass. Analysis indicates by size and shape, it’s a titan.” The radio went dead for a moment. Iro could almost imagine bridges across the fleet echoing with the cheers of their command staff.
“We have a number of problems,” the admiral continued. A hiss of static might have been a sigh. “This new titan is not close. With a course change, and at our current speed, we would reach it in one hundred and seventy five days. Ten of our ships won’t make it. They’ll run out of fuel half way there.”
The radio went silent again. When it clicked on once more, a new voice came across. A woman Iro had never heard before. “Admiral, this is acting captain Troy of the Serendipity.”
“Acting captain?” the admiral asked. “What happened to Osidus?” Iro guessed that was the previous captain of the Serendipity.”
“He’s missing, admiral.”
“Missing? How…” the admiral paused. “Continue, Captain Troy.” Iro understood immediately. No one went missing aboard a ship. There was nowhere to go missing except not on the ship. Captain Osidus was not the first person to give in to despair and step out into the darkness.
“We’re one of the ships who won’t make it, admiral,” Captain Troy said.
“Do you have a question, Captain?”
Captain Troy coughed. “No sir.”
Admiral Nmayer continued as if the interruption had never happened. “I’ve had the math run and triple checked. If we increased speed, we can cut the arrival time down to twenty eight days. The fuel we’ll save on essential system usage will allow all thirty three ships to arrive. It will be at the very limit of our reserves though.”
“Assuming the ships don’t shake themselves apart, admiral.” Said another new voice, a man even more tinny than the others. “This is Captain Ecktov of the Lament. The Lament is falling apart, admiral. We don’t have the parts to repair it, and we can’t be sure it will survive the acceleration.” From the notebooks Iro had read, and his discussions with Roret, it was the deceleration that would be the real problem. That’s when the most force was subjected upon the ship.
Captain Fiwagowa’s voice came across clearer than the others. “Captain Fiwagowa of the Courage, sir. What if we take the people and fuel from the ships that won’t make it, scrap them for parts, and carry on at this speed?”
“We don’t have the food production facilities,” said a woman with a high voice. “Uh, sorry. This is officer Tanny of the Burning Ember. The fleet’s food supplies and algae growth are balanced on a fine edge, sirs. If, um, if we inject new members into the crews, it will upset the balance. We won’t have the food production capabilities to feed everyone.” She went quiet for a moment and Iro heard her arguing in the background with another woman. Then she came across clearer once again. “A quarter of the fleet will starve before we reach the new titan.”
The argument continued for what seemed like hours. Iro leaned on the window ledge and stared out at the black beyond. Five years ago, he’d needed a box on the floor to stand like this. Now he could reach it comfortably. It gave him hope that he might still have some growing left to do and he wouldn’t end up the shortest member of the adult crew.
“So we are agreed,” the admiral’s voice sounded firm. Iro realised he hadn’t really been listening for some time. “Any trainees are to be given dispensation. Extra rations and freedom from duties. Any youths with even a single talent manifested are to be pressed into training immediately. Get your Hoppers trained. We’ll have only one chance when we arrive. If we fail, we lose the fleet.” He was greeted by silence.
“Prepare your ships, captains. Inform your crews. We make for this new titan at full speed.”
Twenty eight days passed as a blur of exhausting work for Iro. The ships of the Home Fleet might once have been designed for hard accelleration through the void, but after half a hundred generations of people living and dying aboard them, they certainly weren’t anymore. Not a day zipped by at nauseating speed where some critical system didn’t fail. Water supply, fuel management, food delivery, thruster control, door motors. Everything failed, and the tech core simply didn’t have the parts or the people to fix it all.
By the second ten-day, most of the apartment doors had to be cannibalised so the locks no longer worked. However, this allowed them to change the motors in the algae vats. Roret assured Iro that stirring the algae was of great importance. Not that the tech core got to eat much of it. With Hoppers and trainees receiving double portions, the techs were down to one quarter rations. Not a day went by where he didn’t feel his stomach clawing at itself.
On the twenty third day, just five days from contact with the new titan, the water purification systems crashed. Literally crashed. The bulkhead wall fractured from the strain and vented the entire purification system out into the black, along with half the Courage’s remaining water supply. That was the end of showering. Roret’s complaints only got louder.
Worst of all was not the exhaustion from the constant repairs, nor the feeling of fighting a battle that couldn’t be won. Worst was that he found no time to train. He carried Neya’s sword everywhere in his tool bag, but the few times the training halls weren’t in use, he was either too busy or too tired to take advantage. His mother seemed to have completely forgotten about her promise to train him too.
As they burned through the black ever closer to the new titan, Iro had to admit to himself the truth he had been hiding from for five years. He wasn’t ever going to be a Hopper. There were a dozen low level talents Enhancers could manifest to allow them to use the power all people carried inside. They were all beyond him. And now the new titan was so close, he was out of time. He could no longer pretend it would happen eventually. On the morning the Home Fleet flew into the space around the new titan, Iro finally admitted the truth to himself. He was going to be a tech for the rest of his life. He’d never see anything beyond the rusting metal walls of the Courage.