I consciously wrote this like a classic disaster movie. One reviewer even quantified for me that the the first 19% of the book is the 'getting to know the characters and the ship' stuff, and then BOOM, the wreck happens and everything kicks into high gear.
The book is loosely based on, and inspired by, the Titanic sinking, but set in the far future on an interstellar cruise liner. It was the recipient of the SFR Galaxy Award.
(It's available as an audiobook too!)
There was no time to waste. Disasters in space tended to be abrupt, over with in a violent moment. Whatever had happened to the Nebula Dream, it was nothing short of amazing they weren’t all dead already. Can’t push luck too far. He caught the eye of the D’nvannae Brother, standing a few feet away, an appalled frown on his face, probably over the loss of critical time.
Nick jerked his head in the direction of the LB portal. “Watch my back,” he yelled, wading into the crowd without waiting to see if the man would come to his aid or not. This had to be done, with or without support.
Nick tried not to hurt people, but he forced his way through the throng with ruthless intent, stopping short about a yard shy of the door. Exactly as the woman had told him, two men were on the deck, kicking and clawing at each other, fighting over access to the locked LB. No one else could get by.
Reaching down, Nick grabbed one man by the scruff of the neck, hauling him to his feet. He was mildly pleased to find the D’nvannae Brother was right beside him, dragging the second belligerent combatant to the other side of the LB access portal.
Nick sensed the crowd preparing to surge forward in blind panic, now the human obstacles were removed. He wheeled, shoving the man he had grabbed roughly away, knocking down two or three other passengers in the process. People stepped on or over them in an instinctive rush to get closer to the presumed safety of the lifeboat.
“Nobody moves until I say so!” Holding up one hand, he used the tone of voice he would employ on a batch of unruly, raw recruits, awesomely commanding.
“Quiet down now,” he said, watching the people in the front row of the mob, getting eye contact, to personalize his commands, make them feel like responsible individuals, not a mindless, panicking herd.
The blaring sirens and recorded emergency warnings cut out, resumed briefly and then died away in a slowly fading gibberish. The lights in the corridor flickered, causing gasps here and there in the crowd.
“Are there any SMT officers or crew here?” Nick said.
Desperation, fear, and puzzlement on the faces in front of him. Many sidelong glances, mute head shakes.
“All right, then. I’m Captain Jameson, Sectors Special Forces. I’m taking charge of this LB portal. I need four volunteers besides this man,” nodding at the D’nvannae, “to help me keep order here. You can’t all get into this LB. No one’s going to make it off unless you keep your heads and we go about this calmly and quickly.” He pointed at some likely candidates. “You, you, you and you.”
He’d picked out a quartet of fairly good-sized men, who seemed calmer than some of the others ringing him. Pointing at the Brother, he said, “What’s your name?”
“Fine, Khevan, you and these four gentlemen form a ring. No one gets by until I say so. Watch my back while I open this damn portal.”
Nodding, the D’nvannae and the four men linked arms and established a perimeter. Nick gave his attention to the locked access. Damn, there should have been at least one SMT crew person at each LB by now, with the unlock code, getting the civilians safely off the ship as fast as possible. Nick spared a second and a small part of his mind to swear at the inefficiencies and lax discipline of this ship’s captain. Lucky for all these nice people I know how to open the thing.
Nick scanned the portal info display as he keyed in a code on the access panel. “Capacity one hundred sentients,” the label declared in Basic and the other five languages. Okay, Jameson, quick, calculate what the limit really means, what the margin of design safety probably was. How many extra oxygen-breathers can I shove onto the thing without killing them all?
As the door cycled open, Nick assessed the waiting throng. The crowd, even larger now, probably in excess of two hundred men, women and children, pressed forward. They were pushing his ring of volunteers closer to him before the men dug in and shoved resolutely back.
“This LB can only support one hundred and twenty-five,” Nick announced to the assembled passengers, pitching his voice to carry to the edge of the crowd. “I’m not allowing one more person to board beyond the limit. I’m taking children and their caretakers first, followed by as many other adults as possible. Anyone with children, come forward now. We’ve got no time to lose. No luggage! No pets!” Nick pointed to the stout woman, who had followed in his wake through the crowd. “You, what’s your name?”
She stepped forward. “Maud Panula.”
“All right, Maud, come stand right here next to me and keep count. Shout it out for me every ten heads, then every five as we get closer to capacity.”
“Who appointed you Lord of Space?” shouted a red-faced man in the middle of the crowd, as the first nervous children and their relatives came forward, passing through Nick’s cordon. The complainer found a few kindred sentients who appeared to agree with him. An undercurrent of ominous murmuring increased in volume.
“There’s only a few of them –”
“No weapons – let’s rush them!”
“The officer and I can kill with our bare hands,” Khevan said softly from his place in the center of the cordon guarding the LB access, his voice carrying as easily as Nick’s had. “You won’t gain entry to this LB by challenging his order, I guarantee you.”
Nick listened to the count rapidly climbing, as more and more children and adults streamed past him. Where the hell had they all come from? “We’re at eighty already,” he announced to the crowd. “If you don’t like your chances here, better go find the next LB.”
“Where?” screamed several despairing voices.
Nick cursed the SMT Line again for its lack of preparation. “There are LB portals every few hundred yards, going both directions, all three passenger decks and on the Casino Deck.”