Sep 30th 2022
This was not helpful.
Captain Travis’ challenge was to steer the event as unobtrusively as possible. Preparations had taken weeks, months. Despite political pressure to stay on Earth, His Majesty had been insistent on keeping the engagement, even if The Queen only appeared in public as a holograph. Travis’ future—hopefully a soon to be realized future as Commodore Travis—depended on the ceremonials going without a hitch.
The aged king, head bowed, hands clasped behind his back, took in the ship, Britain’s first space going military vessel and the ninth craft to bear the name, as he was given the grand tour by Admiral Pepys, Travis a pace behind. As they entered each section the Admiral would bark a description at the monarch—Pulse engine control room! Enlisted men’s quarters!! Latrines!!!—which was then expanded upon by Travis. To each headline and executive summary, The King would nod and grimace, as if acknowledging the seriousness of the project.
“Bridge,” Admiral Pepys declared, redundantly. So far, the tour had gone without a hitch. Travis could almost see the four thin gold stripes on his cuffs replaced by one thick band.
The King took in each detail, his gaze settling on a dark red button, in size and shape like a large mushroom.
“And what is this?”
“The self-destruct mechanism, your Majesty,” Travis explained.
The King’s face gained a few more lines as he took in what he had been told.
“You press the button…” began Travis.
“And that destroys the ship?”
“No, that causes four canisters to rise from the panel to the side, into each of which a key is placed, the keys being held by separate keyholders”.
“And that destroys the ship?”
“No,” glowed Travis, proud of the vessel. “That reveals four keypads into each which a different five-digit code is keyed by the key-holders.”
“And that destroys the ship?”
“That starts a ten-minute countdown, during only the first five minutes of which can the self-destruction protocol be rescinded by reversing the initiation sequence.”
“Ah,” The King nodded, and then casually added his bombshell, “Why?”
And it was at that moment Travis knew events were about to unravel. It was protocol for the monarch to smile and nod as he was shown the ship. It was not for him to ask probing questions. There was nothing in Travis’ briefing that covered The King going off-piste.
“Why would you need a self-destruct mechanism?” King George IX repeated.
“Every ship has one,” Travis said simply.
Travis would later recall how, on the one hand, there was much coughing and foot scraping, but at the same time he felt you could hear a proverbial pin drop. Memory could be strange like that.
“Well, if you wanted the ship to self-destruct,” he said slowly, the absurdity of his answer clear to him as he uttered each syllable.
“I assume it would only be needed in the direst emergency,” The King soothed.
“Absolutely,” said Travis, feeling he’d regained solid ground again.
“A dire emergency in which you have time to press a button to cause four cylinders to rise into which you turn four keys kept by four separate people—all still alive, of course—who then input codes they can recall under battle conditions. And then wait ten minutes.”
Travis felt himself begin to sweat. “But we couldn’t just make it a big red button against which somebody could accidentally lean, could we, your Majesty?”
It wasn’t at all clear whether his attempt at humour had backfired as at that moment a junior engineering officer piped up, “Couldn’t you just shut off the cooling to the reactor core?”
“Or vent the coolant; that would be quicker,” another said.
“Or put the ship’s own coordinates into the weapons systems?” a voice further back called.
“Any of those systems may be inoperative,” Travis responded. Even without a mirror, he knew his skin had gone a blotchy red.
“But the self-destruct mechanism is, of course, indestructible?” The King mused, rocking back and forth on his heels.
In space the silence is total, overwhelming. Somehow the silence that filled the deck was… emptier.
“I really think we should be moving on to the naming ceremony, your Majesty,” Travis said, attempting to get events back on track.
The King turned to him with rheumy eyes. “What, do you think The Queen will be waiting? She never leaves Windsor. She’s a bloody hologram, man.”
Travis winced and leaned back, sensing there was more chance of him next answering to the rank of ensign than commodore, but The King turned and shuffled his way off the bridge towards the thick glass screen through which the dignitaries could watch Queen Alice say the magic words, ‘I name this ship…’.
As it was, it took three goes for the image of her majesty to even begin her part of the ceremonials. Each time the vision flickered for a moment as it rebooted and two sailors in full blue and white uniform that would have been recognizable to Admiral Lord Nelson disappeared and reappeared completely.
But at the third time of asking the bottle swung and smashed, illusory fingers and genuine champagne combined and coordinated, the shards of glass spinning off towards Earth’s atmosphere, the angles worked out. It looked like a dandelion clock or a firework, the burst of glistening glass needles followed by a flowering of champagne beads, glinting in the sun as they floated away, eventually lost from sight forever.
Travis wondered if his future had gone with it.
Author Bio: Robert Bagnall was born in Bedford, England, in 1970 and now lives in Devon, between Dartmoor and the English Channel. He is the author of the novel ‘2084 – the Meschera Bandwidth’, and the anthology ‘24 0s & a 2’, which collects two dozen of his fifty-plus published stories. He can be contacted via his blog at meschera.blogspot.com.
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