The Violet Nanoborer Disaster (Or, How To Break the Heart of an Admiral, Given 50 Years To Do It)

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When you as a young commercial captain marry a hardened old soldier half by accident, you learn to pay attention to little things, and you learn that the difference of why you live and others die has a lot to do with little things.

My wife is a quarter-Vulcan, so the ten years I thought she might have been older than me turned out to be 31 years, and even though she told me the truth, I was sprung and asked her to marry me anyway. She said yes, because in 55 years she said I was still the best man she had ever met.

So, that's how the kid cousin of the most famous Kirk in the galaxy walked off with Cousin J.T.'s fleet colleague, except that Admiral Vlarian Triefield already outranked Cousin J.T. by as much as Cousin J.T., as a fleet captain, outranked an ensign in those days.

My wife had been a full fleet admiral for two years by the time I married her – there were no more promotions but only lateral moves or retirement available to her. Cousin J.T. remains the fastest to ever make captain in the fleet, but in terms of career track, Vlarian Triefield has the all-fleet record, and did it as a science officer, becoming the highest-ranking science officer in the fleet.

How my wife began her meteoric career rise, I discovered in the hardest way, during the year I was off from work due to injury.

V.T. and I had habits: she had a work office in both our homes in Ohio and San Francisco, but she left the door ajar at all times so she could hear what was going on with the children and also allow me to check on her … she was a calm person deciding colossal matters without ever breaking a sweat day after day, but I knew the stress could get ridiculous. Because she was a mild telepath, she always knew when I was stressed, but I had to see, and she let me do that by leaving the door ajar.

So, when I saw her put her head down on her desk, I changed course and went into her home office.

Up on her screen was a video of the still you see above – the last few minutes of a starship's life are thus recorded.

Consider what it takes to put cracks in a starship porthole for a moment. Average space dust or even the average asteroid isn't going to do that – take shatter-proof glass to the highest perfection you can think of and then multiply it by the ingenuity of all the civilizations humanity had encountered by the 23rd century – that's starship porthole glass, and if there are spreading hairline cracks in it, that takes some doing.

The lovely color of the cracks is from the beings responsible for that: Violet Nanoborers from the Ulfahert System, which on the microscopic level are all doing this, in each and every self-similar cluster:

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Of course, a starship could easily irradiate its hull and drive off the creatures – no big deal, right, given that starship glass and hulls are too thick to be pierced without hours and hours of nanoboring?

Wrong, because, as Cousin J.T.'s communications officer once pointed out, all starships and really all moving vehicles with some kind of engine have a feature that we do not think enough about in the 23rd century.

“The thing's gotta have a tailpipe!”

By the time starship officers were seeing the pretty patterns on the glass, thousands of the things were up the exhaust of the idling warp engines, since the whole flotilla was traveling on impulse power with shields down.

Problem 1: The duty manual had said not to do that for 50 years
Problem 2: What happened when you ignored the duty manual

My hardened old soldier of a wife was weeping, just overwhelmed for the moment, because of where and when she had seen that pretty pattern on the glass before.

I turned on the news … an entire flotilla had exploded in the Ulfahert System, for the second time in 50 years. All hands – 4,774 souls – had been lost.

I sat down by my wife and pulled her into my arms until she composed herself enough to sit up and plan her next move.

“Marcus,” she said, and I knew that when I didn't hear Mark, things were super serious, “I need you to stay in here with me, because I need your strength right now. I need your holy, righteous presence to just hold me back – I need you to pray and just hold me accountable by just sitting right there.”

“You know I have you covered, Vlarian.”

The admiral returned to her computer at that point, hands trembling with rage as she worked for an hour, and then made a call.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, but Rear Admiral Custer is at a pool party, and so –.”

“You tell him Full Fleet Admiral Vlarian Triefield is calling, and he has ten seconds to answer my call before I come get him. Ten!”

Admiral Custer was on the line in nine seconds.

“What, ma'am? It's my day off!”

Oh, the disrespect!

“Turn on the news, Admiral Custer.”

Five minutes later, I heard the rear admiral gasp.

“That was your flotilla to prepare, Admiral Custer. I have a copy of your briefing to the late Commodore Pope. Did either of you review the basic duty manual for the Ulfahert System?”

“Oh, we looked over it.”

“Did your look over include page 56?”

“Probably not.”

“Go look at it now, Admiral.”

A couple of minutes later, the soft swearing began.

“Right, Admiral Custer … and you know as well as I do that the press is going to find that pretty quick. Our colleagues have already gone out there pretending like they don't know what is going on, but they are going to be made out to be liars very soon.”

“Well, look, Admiral, nobody can really blame us – it's only a recommendation from some little ensign science officer, and you wouldn't figure an admiral or a commodore would pay attention to that.”

“An ensign could only make a recommendation because of low rank – it clearly doesn't mean the science doesn't apply, and for 50 years it has been standard procedure to send ships and flotillas through the outer Ulfahert System with maximum shields. That's why it is in the duty manual.

“It has only cost 4,774 lives for you and Commodore Pope missing that little detail over your disdain for some little ensign science officer – but if you have any of the last ten updates of said duty manual, there ought to be an asterisk by that information on page 56, and a footnote. But you haven't updated, now have you?”

“Uh … .”

“Don't even bother to lie. Go ahead and download the latest duty manual for the outer Ulfahert System, and read the footnote.

Silence, then a cry, then a crash, and then more silence until people came running.

The story went in the news that Admiral Custer, in seeking to discover what had happened to the flotilla, had discovered his error and died of a massive heart attack upon realizing his mistake.

That wasn't true.

He had died upon reading the ensign's name: Ensign Vlarian Triefield, with the latest note that the recommendation had been made a standing order by Full Fleet Admiral Vlarian Triefield.

“My first love – my fiance – was stationed on the first ship to be overcome by Violet Nanoborers while we were both ensigns,” she said to me. “The video he sent to me of the incident before he died allowed me to discover what had happened, and assured my promotion to lieutenant at age 23, just a year later. That was the beginning of my meteoric rise in the fleet … what I did to make sure no one would ever suffer what I had suffered, because all anybody had to do was make sure to go through with shields up. That's all it takes. Nobody needed to go multiply the loss of a starship, and all those lives, by 11 – the problem has been solved for 50 years! Nobody else needed to go through this!”

The hardened old soldier broke down completely … beyond all that, she was a deeply loving woman who had carried that grief 50 years, making things better for millions of others in a galaxy in which high-ranking people toyed with the lives of thousands for not wanting to bother with standard duty manuals and little ensign science officers of 50 years ago.

When in the course of working with a fractal in Apophysis 2.09, THIS came up, I knew it was cracked glass of a very special kind ... and then the second variant showed up on my next move ... so, I knew what had made the cracks at that point ... nanoborers on the microscopic level, an idea not too far from reality given the rise of nanotechnology and the reality of bacteria and virus doing weird things anyhow. Then I thought, "What would it be like to be sailing along and see that on a starship porthole?" ... and then remembered Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek 6 talking about the one vulnerability every ship without its shields up has ... so if something that can bore hairline cracks in starship glass makes it up into the engines ... uh oh!

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