by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Thursday 1 January 2601 (Earth Relative Time)

Ensign Darlene Charles took a deep breath to quell her nerves. This is my last chance to make a good impression. Because a third strike would not be a good career move in the Unified Star Fleet. As she picked her way through the dimly lit mess littering the docking bay, the quantity of unwashed bottles and glasses heaped in bins testified to the magnitude of the party. A sour stench from trash containers suggested many partied too well, an unfortunate reminder of some early college mornings. Ahead, the starship Evensong’s giant hangar doors were closed, unusual in port. But a smaller man-sized hatch remained open allowing her to step through into bright lights and a fresh, cleaner smell.

“Hullo?” Her tentative voice might’ve echoed in the vast chamber, but in truth the sound was more swallowed up by the emptiness. Darlene had never seen a single cargo compartment stretch off in the distance for more than one hundred meters, and it had to be fully sixty meters wide. Thick armored doors separating the cargo bay from the hangar bay were opened all the way, as were smaller compartments aft of the hangar adding to the space. Short, blond and still a very new ensign, she felt tiny. Intimidated by a military cargo ship was not how she’d expected to start this day. She’d looked up the USFS Evensong in the Fleet registry and found she’d be one of just eight officers in a crew of twenty-two. This ship was a lot bigger than she’d thought it’d be.

All she could say was, “Wow.”

Overhead something creaked. Startled, she glanced up to stare at a sign on the hangar bay ceiling which said Flexi-Seams, with arrows running in two perpendicular directions. No doubt that was what she’d heard, expansion joints of some sort shifting as ship and station moved between dayside and nightside. When no alarms were triggered, she assumed it was safe enough.

Nearby three crewmen worked on stacking folding chairs and tables onto robocarts. One lone male worked a databoard, checking off each load. None held a rank higher than spaceman.

“Excuse me,” Darlene said in her best professional officer’s voice, with just a hint of Southern charm. “Who do I check in with?”

The spaceman with the databoard nodded into the larger cargo bay. “You’ll find Mister Grimsley at the far end, sir.”

At least he’d been polite and said sir. Darlene didn’t know what to think of the absence of anyone else around. There should’ve been an officer, or at least an NCO, at a check-in podium. But there wasn’t even a podium set up in the hangar. Of course the huge banner still hanging in the empty cargo bay – WELCOME TO THE 27TH CENTURY – might’ve been instructive, along with the debris outside on the dock. And indeed, walking to the far end of the cargo bay Darlene approached a middle-aged woman in dress uniform, sitting casually on a lone folding chair, wine glass in hand and one last bottle of red wine on the deck. She was tall and still what one would politely call handsome, but clearly much older than Darlene. Her nametag read GRIMSLEY, so Darlene felt confident she’d found the right person.

“Ensign Darlene Charles, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Are you insane?” The question seemed so unprofessional and unreasonable Darlene chose not to answer. But the look on the seated woman’s face told her she seemed to think this was a reasonable question. “For one thing I’m not a sir. If you’re real nice, you might be able to call me Marilyn. But I don’t think we’ll be on a first name speaking basis for a while, ensign. For another thing, it’s New Year’s goddamn Day – which just happens to follow New Year’s Eve and in most jurisdictions, squashed up in-between is the big ol’ zero-hundred hours midnight. We are off duty today.”

“A Unified Star Fleet ship is considered in service and ready for action at all times.” The words from the manual came without bidding and Darlene tried not to wince as she said them.

“This is a Fleet cargo ship,” Marilyn said, with less annoyance than Darlene expected. “Our next assignment is assisting a civilian colonial deployment and – trust me on this one, Mister Ensign Charles – I’m pretty sure the civilians are not working on New Year’s.”

Something about this wasn’t right. Was the woman drunk?

“I know everything about you,” Marilyn continued, “though the reverse clearly isn’t true. Because you don’t seem to have noticed the sleeves to this uniform which say I’m a master chief petty officer. Or the stripes which mean I have decades of experience over your newbie self. Or the gold keys on my lapels, which should’ve told you I am the Chief of the Boat. This is my starship you’re on, ensign, and I’d rather you didn’t forget that.”

“Master Chief…”

“I’m not done,” Marilyn said, finishing her wine with a flourish and then standing up. She was much taller than Darlene. “You’ve broken seventeen Fleet regulations so far starting with getting the dock chief to let you aboard even though the dock is closed right now, because this ship is off duty. But that’s not so surprising. You graduated from the Academy in June and you’ve been in transport for 144 days – and that’s after getting bounced from two postings already. Jesus, you got fired from a job five days after you started boosting from Mars, woman. If that’s not a record, then surely you’ve made the top five of Fleet’s hall of shame.”

Darlene swallowed hard, but managed to stare straight ahead at the master chief. Technically as an officer – even the most junior of officers – Darlene outranked Marilyn. But you took on master chiefs at your own peril. Everyone at the Academy had said so. And a chief of the boat? Marilyn Grimsley was right. This was her ship. Even a commanding officer would ask her opinion as a matter of course.

“At least,” the master chief continued in a less threatening tone, “you didn’t come a few hours ago. Assholes in charge of this station took one look at my empty cargo bay the other day and decided then and there we had to host the Party of the Century. Whoo-hoo… what a thrill.” As Marilyn feigned enthusiasm for the party, Darlene had to smile. Despite an initial minute of terror, she began to like this Master Chief Grimsley. “Now everyone else who has any sense is asleep. What bright idiot station-side sent you over now?”

“That would be the Fleet station chief,” Darlene said. “A Mister Marlowe.”

“Ah. A man of substantially finite genius, I’m afraid. What we’ll never know is whether his sending you over now was his sense of humor or his feeble attempt to help. I’m being charitable in assuming he isn’t just completely incompetent as well.” Marilyn tried looking across the cargo bay back towards the hangar. “Is all your gear with you?”

“My spacesuit is coming later.”

“Sure it is,” Marilyn sighed. “Come on. The captain will want to see you now.”

“And he is…?”

“You haven’t looked up the roster yet, have you? Must be nice to be so new and fresh and green in that uniform. Our commanding officer is Captain Angela Dessin. And she isn’t a he. Neither is Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer, our X.O.”

Was this is the way Fleet really works? You put all the women on a cargo ship? Darlene had seen only one male crewman aboard so far.

Her face betrayed her thoughts. “You think this is punishment? Segregation?” Marilyn seemed particularly angry. “I’ve put in twenty-nine years – I’ve worked my way here. This is the modern, new and improved 27th century Fleet, Mister Charles, and the crew of a cargo ship is small. You build a company of officers for a ship like this, especially this ship.”

“Why? I mean, I don’t understand – why this ship?”

Clearly Darlene had finally asked a right question. “This is a prototype of things to come, Mister Charles. See this huge open space? New design. The pride of the Sebring Ship Foundry. In fact, they oh-so-cleverly managed to get the shipbuilder’s name in the class designation – SSF-91 USFS Evensong.” She paused long enough to add some real emotion to her voice. “My father is a welder for Sebring. He helped build this ship. I came into Fleet with a welding specialty, though of course I had to add all the others to make master chief.”

“My daddy welds, too,” Darlene said.

“Really? Did he teach you?”

“Yes, ma’am. A hot torch and a good bead solves most problems, Daddy always said.”

“A wise man.”

“I always thought so.”

“Starships?”

“No, Earth-based. He has a small Electroglide dealership and does customizations.”

“A biker,” Marilyn said, laughing. “I think I already like him more than I like you. You have a tattoo?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But you’re not going to show me, are you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No, ma’am,” Darlene said with good-natured force.

“You’re not very good at this game yet, Mister Charles. I’m neither a sir or a ma’am in this Fleet.” Marilyn rolled her eyes upward. “O save me, Lord, from newbie ensigns.”

Captain Dessin couldn’t have looked more different than her tall and angular chief of the boat. Instead, Angela Dessin was short, wide, sixtyish. Her short graying hair lay flat against her scalp, cut as if almost done as an afterthought. There was the air of the no-nonsense about her. Any idea this woman had been booted to cargo ships evaporated at the brag shelf of awards, framed photographs and certificates. She looked to be a plankholder, an original crew member, of at least seven new ships – four of them as commanding officer. The Evensong was the only cargo ship of the lot – the rest were warships.

“We’re supposed to have a crew complement of twenty-two,” the captain said. “But with recent promotions and transfers, we’re down two people. A basic spaceman is supposed to report tomorrow – that means we have two rookies aboard.” She looked straight at Darlene when she said this last bit. “Unfortunately, our Quartermaster got promoted to Warrant Officer 1 so we’re only allowed seven commissioned officers now. That means you will have to be third officer – don’t let it go to your head. You’re a green ensign and you are not ready to take over this ship in an emergency except on paper.”

Darlene barely heard anything after her appointment to third officer. It seemed unbelievable to make a command position. Then she understood. “You’re completely correct, Captain. I’m not ready to lead.”

“Of course I’m right,” Angela said with some irritation. “It was never up for debate. For the moment though, take your assignments from the X.O. Dismissed.”

Darlene saluted and went looking for the executive officer. She found Lt. Commander Nancy Kramer in the hangar bay working at the recently wheeled out check-in podium and executed the best salute she could. Already the ship seemed more alive. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles reporting for duty, sir.”

The prim, proper and tough looking X.O. – forty-ish to fifty-ish, to judge by her slightly salt and pepper hair – held up a datapad. “I don’t like you, ensign. According to this, you have near perfect grades in all subjects over four years at the Academy. Your training performances in maintenance, logistics, navigation – both dead reckoning and relativistic/jump – and engineering are all above satisfactory. But you’ve received decidedly insufficient performance reviews in the real world. You’ve annoyed my chief of the boat and confused my captain. In short, your record stinks and you’re a very green junior officer who knows nothing, yet Fleet has seen fit to give you authority to screw up my ship. For now you get all orders approved by me before issuing them. Understood?”

Darlene didn’t understand how every order could be handled this way, but she wasn’t in charge here. “Yes, sir.”

“Where’s your gear?”

“My space duffel is on the dock,” Darlene said.

“No it isn’t. We’ve taken care of it. Docks aren’t controlled space – a Fleet starship is. Remember that. Where’s your spacesuit?”

“It’s being shipped over,” Darlene said, pulling a plastic tab from a front pocket. “Here’s the receipt.”

“Unfortunately the Strosser has already reported they can’t find your suit. That’s usually shorthand for Gee that was an easy way to steal a suit from a green ensign. You should’ve checked it personally before you left the Strosser – now God knows where it is. Hope you didn’t have any personal gear stowed in the suit pockets. See the Cargo Officer and have him issue you a new one.”

“You’re from the South,” Lt. Jake Henning drawled as soon as Darlene introduced herself. “I’m from Mississippi myself.”

“Aiken, South Carolina, sir.”

“Well that’s just right fine,” he beamed, swiveling slightly as he leaned back in his office chair. “Now what can I do for the pretty lady from the great and humble state of South Carolina?”

“Apparently I am out one M400 spacesuit. Neither the chief of the boat or the X.O. thinks it’ll ever show up from the Strosser. As third officer – strange as that sounds – I suppose I need to be issued a white command suit if you’ve got one.”

“We all get white command suits,” he said. “M400C. But I’ll be sure to come up with those third officer badges when I have the suit pulled from stores. You can report to the suit tech tomorrow and have the fitting adjusted.”

“Tomorrow? I was told by the first officer to get a suit today.”

The lieutenant waggled a finger at Darlene. “No-ooo. I s’pect the good commander told you to see me today. Fact is, there’s hardly a soul standing on this ship after last night. Not a helluva lot of work is getting done on New Year’s Day, I can assure you.”

“What exactly did happen last night?”

“Ah,” Lt. Henning said, leaning forward again. “Now there’s a tale to tell. By virtue of that magnificent wide open and obstruction free cargo bay of mine, the station’s senior Fleet officer decreed that said cargo space was to be used for a 27th Century Party to usher in the new year, decade and century. There’s about ten Fleet ships in port right now – everyone had a very good time, I can assure you.”

“And I missed it,” Darlene said wistfully.

“Oh, I’m positive they made sure you missed it. Otherwise, they’d have no one to stand watch today,” he said with a wink. “Meanwhile, if you need a spacesuit, there’s plenty of emergency lockers everywhere you look with perfectly maintained baggie suits. Now, if you were smart, I’d suggest you find out where you’re bunking tonight, because that’s where we both hope the rest of your gear is. Before someone calls and comes up with another assignment, of course.”

“Of course, sir,” she answered.

Jake chuckled. “You may be green, Mister Charles, but my oh my, the South does teach its officers to be polite.”

She only got lost twice on the way to her compartment and had to query the corridor screens for directions. When she got there, the doorplate read THIRD OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. Darlene didn’t mind a roommate – it was expected – and perhaps it’d make adjusting to life on the Evensong a little easier. With satisfaction, she noted the keypad responded to her standard access code, but when she reached for the hatch lever it clicked before her hand was set and locked her out. Slightly chagrined, she worked faster so the second time she pushed open the hatch with her other hand while the green light still glowed on the keypad. Apparently it wasn’t the same lock module timing she was used to.

Fifteen thousand ships in Fleet, she thought, and practically all of them are different. New design, indeed.

Inside, the compartment was just as ruthlessly efficient and compact as she’d expected, so this was not really a problem. She was off in space to serve, not spend all day hanging out in a cozy compartment. But the best thing that’d happened so far this New Year’s Day 2601 was a freshly charged datapad centered on her tiny fold-down desk. It accepted her ID sliver automatically and had been configured for third officer duty.

“Yes!” she said under her breath and smiled.

“Would you watch that light?” a new voice demanded when Darlene clicked the room lights on.

“Oh sorry,” Darlene said, killing the main lights and figuring out which switch turned on the task light centered on her desk.

“You must be the new vegetable of the month,” the other person said in a voice resigned to not getting instantly back to sleep.

“New vegetable… oh, you mean I’m the new green ensign. Yessir – guilty as charged.”

A hand snaked out of the wad of bedclothes on the lower bunk. There was a distinct lumpiness to the bed, but so far Darlene hadn’t actually seen her roommate. “Lt. Kirsten Van Zoeren.” The voice spoke perfectly acceptable Interstellar English, but with a clipped, European accent Darlene didn’t know enough to place. “I’m the junior engineer on this barge. And since we’re not going anywhere at the moment, the Evil Triumvirate decided I wasn’t needed in Engineering and so was assigned a double-watch overnight on the bridge while everyone else partied.”

“Evil Triumvirate. You must be talking about our esteemed captain, first officer and chief of the boat,” Darlene said.

“Those would be the ones.”

“Ensign Darlene Charles at your service. And you do know the Evil Triumvirate, as you called them, have made me third officer?”

“Sure. That’s why you’re standing in the third officer’s stateroom. And if you were in command, on the bridge, I’d probably salute you and say yessir and aye-aye, sir. But right now I outrank you and I’m trying to get some sleep.”

“Right. Sorry. I’ve located my bunk. My space duffels have somehow magically arrived here and the seals are still valid. I can come back later and unpack.”

“That would be nice. It’s nothing personal.”

“Quite understandable under the circumstances.” Darlene removed her standard cover and found her safety hat at the top of her duffel. She should probably change, but her gray khaki skirt and jacket uniform would have to do for the moment. “I’ll just be going…”

But there was no response from the lower bunk.

Darlene’s datapad gave her directions to any place on the ship, so she found the wardroom without any difficulty. If the officers of the Evensong were expected to have a scheduled sit-down luncheon, there was no evidence of it in the wardroom. Instead a coffee urn and a large cold tray stacked with sandwiches seemed to be the offering. From the state of the tray, others had already been through here.

She’d already placed two sandwiches on a plate when an older man in a clean uniform jumpsuit stepped in. “Looks like they’re still feeding us leftovers from last night.”

“Sorry – I just got here. I wouldn’t know.”

“It wasn’t a question, ensign,” he said. “You must be the new girl.”

Trying not to bristle that at twenty-eight, some male colleague was going to call her a girl, Darlene instead introduced herself. Still, he was old enough to be her father.

“Camp. Captain Herb Camp, Chief Engineer,” he replied and offered a firm handshake.

“I think I’ve met your assistant, Lt. Van Zoeren. At least I’m assuming that was her under the covers.”

Herb laughed. “Not a morning person – no matter what part of the day serves as morning. Sometimes I think she still lives on Amsterdam time.”

“Amsterdam? She’s… Dutch?”

“Sure. This ship isn’t a territorial, so mainly we get Nordamericanos and a couple of real spacers. But there’s no reason not to have a Dutch junior engineer – so we’ve got one.”

“We have spacers? That’s rare.”

“You haven’t met the Serious Girls yet – you will. Believe me – you will.”

He grabbed a couple of sandwiches, while Darlene dithered for a moment before selecting a third for herself. Sitting down, she saw him looking at the pile of food on her plate.

“I get it from my mother,” she said.

“Get what?”

“The hollow leg.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Touché.”

They ate in silence through Darlene’s first two sandwiches. “Are you going back to Engineering after your lunch? If so, mind if I tag along?”

“New third officer volunteers to come to my bailiwick – I am not going to turn down an offer like that,” he laughed. “Sure. We’ll give you the good tour.” And he actually winked at her when he said it.

The ship’s Engine Hall was divided into halves and then halves again to house the four F-575 fusion engines. It represented a lot of power, more than she’d expected on a cargo ship.

“They’re not quite the very latest version,” the chief engineer said. “For which I am eternally grateful. There’s enough innovation on the Evensong as it is.”

“You wouldn’t want another Galen Roads on your hand.”

It was the perfect thing to say to the sixty-three-year-old engineer. “I was fifteen when the Galen Roads nova’d. Outside watching the ship on its first boost through my telescope – I saw it go up.”

“A telescope? It’s a wonder you weren’t blinded.”

Camp touched his right temple. “I was. They had to grow me a new one. I was quite the hit in high school. Nearly everyone thought it was cool. And,” he smiled slightly at the memory, “some of the girls were very sympathetic. But I worried it’d keep me out of the service.”

“My. Touched by a historical moment.”

“And one technological disaster I have no interest in repeating – on this ship or any other.”

“Hope you’re right. Uh, because you were saying this ship is very innovative,” she added hastily.

“Completely different situation. The Galen Roads was the end result of making ships bigger and more powerful without understanding how complexity scales up. They never had a chance. If the engines hadn’t gone, they still wouldn’t have finished their maiden voyage. Too many things were going wrong all over, which the brain trust on board just figured were glitches from the shipyard. Idiots to the end from the designers to the bridge.”

Towards the end of her tour, Darlene saw a tall dark blond woman officer enter and immediately take a seat at one of the consoles. “Excuse me, captain,” Darlene told the chief engineer. When she got closer and could read the lieutenant (junior grade) badges on the newcomer’s uniform, Darlene put two-and-two together.

“You must be my roommate, Lt. Van Zoeren. We shook hands earlier. I’m Darlene Charles.”

“Yes, of course. I recognize your…vivacious personality.”

“Sorry about earlier. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be in the other bunk at that hour.”

“Something to consider in the future – you never know what sort of schedule a new roommate might be on.”

“Right. The Academy was more regimented.”

Kirsten nodded. “Yes. That makes sense. However a starship operates around the clock. Not very like a school schedule at all.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Actually,” Kirsten said with an impish smirk, “I think you shall.”

Returning from Engineering, Darlene stopped suddenly in a long corridor when the deck plate she was crossing creaked alarmingly and she momentarily thought her feet were sliding out from under her. Once she’d regained her balance, she stepped back and forth on the offending plate. She could generate the noise several times, but not the motion. Though there was no marking on the deck, the walls were painted with gray striping and bore a declaration this was another expansion joint. To her relief, the air pressure remained steady, but she chose to close two bulkhead hatches on either side of this segment and set a pressure monitor.

Only then did she touch her comm link. “Maintenance.”

“Van Zoeren here.”

“Kirsten – this is Darlene. You do Maintenance, too?”

“Engineering is engineering. As I said, everyone does multiple duty.”

“Yes, of course.” She explained about the noisy expansion joint.

“Sounds like the joint plates need to be relubricated.”

“I’ve never heard a noise from an expansion joint before, to say nothing of nearly being knocked off my feet.”

“This ship is more flexible than you’d think. If the joint plates seized up due to lack of lubrication, they could unload with a certain amount of bound energy. Walking could trigger such a shift. However, it shouldn’t be particularly dangerous. But to be safe, I shall check out the situation shortly. You’ve closed the bulkheads – you needn’t remain in the area. Van Zoeren out.”

Darlene did not like the sound of a flexible ship. Especially one where she could shift a deck plate just by walking. But if she was told it wasn’t a problem, she’d have to go along until she found out differently.

In the corridor outside the wardroom she met a crewman dressed in white serving attire, busily moving large covered trays from a robocart to the small galley kitchen unit.

“Hey, there,” Darlene said. “What’s for dinner?”

“Veal scaloppini – and I don’t have time for chit-chat. Sir.”

“Uh, carry on then.” Slightly embarrassed, Darlene entered the wardroom. This time the table was fully set and some of her fellow officers were already taking seats.

“I wouldn’t get too comfortable, Mister Charles,” Nancy said. “You’ve got Dead Man’s Watch on the bridge.”

“Junior officer always gets the short end,” Kirsten said, slipping in behind Darlene. “Thankfully, I am no long the junior officer aboard.”

“Gee, thanks,” Darlene said.

“And I checked your expansion joint on the way over. As I suspected, it’s a lubrication problem. Nothing to worry about.”

Which actually didn’t reassure Darlene very much.

The bridge of the USFS Evensong was cool, dark and quiet. Darlene had been on a bridge exactly once, for real, plus all the training at the Academy, so she didn’t exactly have a lot of examples to compare this to. She supposed in the long run, it looked like a bridge. Obviously the command staff wasn’t expecting anything to happen sitting here docked to the station. Truthfully, she acknowledged nothing should be happening.

A tall chair off to the side swiveled. The man with the sly smile had to be the second officer – Roman numeral twos gleamed at his collar. “Lt. Glenard McMurray. Don’t ask about the Glenard – if you have to call me by a first name, it’s Rich. Don’t ask about that either. And you are…?”

She managed not to jump. Of course she’d not be alone on the bridge – they wouldn’t leave the bridge empty at any time. “Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That would be Third Officer Ensign Darlene Charles relieving you, sir.” The sly smile remained.

Darlene repeated his words.

“Then I stand relieved,” he said, turning around long enough to grab a databoard from its storage slot and signing his name before handing it to Darlene. “You ever stood watch on a starship bridge before?”

“Uh, no sir,” she said, taking a short breath before affixing her signature to the databoard’s screen. The update informed her that responsibility for the safety and operation of the ship was hers and hers alone.

“Thought so. This has to be one of Mister Kramer’s little inside jokes. You’ll find she’s hilarious, once you get to know her deadpan style. And she probably hates your guts until you prove yourself – so don’t screw up.”

“I’ll try to remember that.”

“You don’t seem particularly scared by our first officer?”

“I’m already on her shit list, I’m afraid. Pretty much for breathing.”

“Okay. Relax. This is just a Dead Man’s Watch.”

“The commander said that,” Darlene said. “I’m not sure what that means.”

“Yeah, why tell the hired help anything? We’re in port and not planning on moving until the end of next week. Still, anything can happen. Warrant Officer Juliette Capri is over there on the forward mount. She’s our quartermaster – our senior navigator. If it comes to that, I guess I’m the number two navigator on this ship. The engines are cold, but the maneuvering thrusters can be up and running inside of thirteen seconds. You have to remember to authorize active maneuvering systems before they can be used. And for other crises, there’s always a fire and damage control party assigned, you can access them with those comm buttons.

“But,” he said getting ready to leave, “it’ll never come to you having to order anything. Despite the fact that you’ve just naïvely signed for and are now responsible for an entire starship, if something – anything – happens, there’s the panic button. We’ve got the Big Button preprogrammed at all times to bring in someone senior in an emergency. In this case, it calls the X.O. Do not be afraid to use it – Nancy’ll rip you up harder for not calling than if you waste her time.”

And then she was alone and in charge. Darlene looked around, taking in the low ceiling, the safety straps for use in emergency zero-gee, rows of consoles and screens, overhead racks of controls. And in the forward part of the bridge were the two maneuvering mounts – the helmsman seat on the left occupied by a tall thin graceful looking black woman.

“We meet at last, ensign,” the navigator said as Darlene threaded her way between the stations.

“Don’t get up, Quartermaster Capri.”

“Not regulation while I’m on the mount.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order – they said you’d just been promoted.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“So… tell me what I need to know about running the Evensong.”

Juliette laughed. “Despite it being a cargo ship, she’s really a dream to fly. Turns out that precision docking capability is important in a cargo ship – surprised me. A year ago I thought destroyers were pretty neat to fly. Hard to believe I’m in love with a shiny new cargo ship.”

“And the big engines?”

“Pretty much the same as a cruiser, sir. Thirty-two gee acceleration and all. Fourteen days even to jump speed. When the military wants its priority supplies, they brook no delay or expense.” Juliette paused. “Do you have a question, sir?”

“Yes. Do we get dinner sent up here during this watch?”

The next morning Darlene got up early to find an empty wardroom, but a full coffee pot, a crock of oatmeal and a smaller one of grits, a toaster and a machine which turned chilled whole eggs into whatever kind of cooked eggs she selected. The grits were a nice touch, even if she wasn’t the only Southerner in the wardroom – she was sure they weren’t for her sake.

“It’s 0603 hours,” Kirsten said with a yawn, staggering in after Darlene had begun eating. “How did you get here so early?”

Darlene shrugged. “First full day on the job. I’ve always been an early riser.”

“Looks like you’re hungry, too,” Kirsten said, sitting down with only a single mug of black coffee.

You might have dined on veal scaloppini last night – but I was on the bridge. The galley sent us up a pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent makes a very fine pepperoni pizza.”

“Vincent…?”

“There’s only twenty other people on this ship, Darlene. Surely you memorized the roster?”

“First thing on my to-do this morning,” Darlene said hopefully.

“Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini, our esteemed cook.”

“Not much taller than myself, serious looking eyebrows?”

“That is our Vincent.”

“I met him in the corridor. He was carrying… your dinner.”

“You were expecting a serving staff? This is a small crew, Darlene. Everyone performs multiple duties,” Kirsten said, pausing to sip at her coffee. “Even third officers, who already are in charge of everything.”

“I suspect especially third officers,” Darlene said. “Which is why I need a good breakfast.”

Though they were expecting no one, with the great space doors now open to the dock, Darlene was ordered to stand as podium officer. The sole guard on duty in the hangar bay, dressed from helmet to boot in soft armor, shouldered his weapon and came over to talk.

“You American, ensign?” he asked.

“Uh, and you are?” Darlene glanced for a nameplate, but it was covered by a black stealth flap. Interesting, she thought. She had no idea the security setting for this operation was rated so high. Though there had been a class on Security procedures back at the Academy which talked about denying troublemakers information to maintain control, Darlene didn’t have nearly the experience to figure out if it was true.

“Vincent. Vincent Mandelini. Specialist 2 Vincent Mandelini if you want to be specific – I’m the ship’s cook and bosun’s mate. And I asked if you were an American.”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “From Aiken, South Carolina. And you?”

“Close enough,” Vincent shrugged. “I’m Canadian. You got any food allergies or religious or dietary issues I need to know about?”

“Uh, no.”

“You like Italian?”

Darlene was astute enough to understand he meant Italian food. “Yes. I like Italian very much.”

“Good. Because that’s what I cook. And I’m pretty damned good at it.”

“Glad to hear that. I enjoy eating.”

“Okay,” Vincent said. “Go ahead and ask.”

“Ask what?”

“‘How’d a Canadian get into Fleet?’”

“There are no citizenship restrictions. And not everyone in Fleet is an American – and I’m not even talking about the territorials with their all-regional crews from around the Earth.”

“But as a Canadian, I could’ve gone into the Commonwealth or Royal Space Navy.”

“You could’ve, but you didn’t.”

Vincent folded his arms, cocking his head to one side as he squinted at the ensign. “You’re not going to ask, are you?”

“Bad habit of not allowing myself to be maneuvered by others – superior offices excepted, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Gives me the illusion that I have some control in my life. Besides, I have the feeling you’re dying to tell me, Mandelini.”

“How can I resist? I had a nice place in Calgary, good steady business, but I got restless. Decided to open a restaurant on the Moon – Luna City.”

“What was it like?”

“Great food, but no atmosphere. Cutthroat competition. Lost my shirt on the deal.”

“I’m sorry.”

“The thing of it was… I wasn’t ready to go back home. So I signed up.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am.”

Darlene saw Mandelini straighten to attention, so as she turned around to see who was coming, she was already prepared to come to attention herself and salute. The captain, first and second officers were in their dress whites. Nancy paused long enough to scribble something on Darlene’s databoard at the podium.

“We shall be gone for perhaps an hour, ensign. Required social visit to the warship Guarder.”

“Very good, sir,” Darlene said, already astute enough to find the box and sign for the ship in the absence of the senior command officers.

“Carry on,” Nancy said, hurrying after the other two officers.

Not five minutes later three crewmen entered the hangar, dressed in clean black and white uniforms. They saluted the flag and moved to sign off the ship. Darlene stopped them.

“Let’s see who we have here,” she said. “Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Spaceman Hachem.”

“Ship’s Clerk,” Edward Hachem reminded her.

“You’re still a spaceman, Hachem. And where do you think you’re going? There’s no shore leave authorized for anyone.”

“Mister Charles,” the lone woman, Tammy Rooney said, “we’re in port and it’s just to get a beer.”

“In a word… no.”

“Have a heart, sir.”

“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” Darlene stood firm. “You think you can play just because the cat’s away, but there’s a new mouse in charge.”

“We’re not trying to game you.”

“Stow it, Hachem. Everyone heard the announcement that the top three command officers were now leaving the ship. The only question for me, is do I summon the bosun or the master chief?”

“Sir, if you’re not comfortable using your authority, we understand…”

“Chief of the Boat it is,” Darlene said, picking up a secure handset. “Chief of the Boat to the podium.”

The three crewmen were suddenly apologetic, talking over one another as they first backed up, then turned and walked as quickly as decorum allowed back into the ship.

“Nice touch, ensign,” Mandelini said. “What you gonna tell the master chief when she gets here?”

Darlene held out the secure handset, clearly showing her thumb over the DISCONNECT button. “Who says I called her?”

“Are you going to report them?”

“Report what, Mandelini?”

The bosun’s mate and cook smiled. “Clever. I think I’m going to like serving with you, sir.”

Darlene still was feeling good about her handling of the crewmen some seventeen minutes later when a good sized young man came into the docking area. Burdened with two space duffels, a shopping bag from the space station concourse, a full M366e spacesuit with all its environmental gear slung over his back and a small case which probably held an instrument or personal item, he paused before trudging up the angled safety grip plates of the docking ramp.

Reaching the top of the ramp and the threshold bumpers between station and starship, he seemed confused as to what to do – unable to salute the flag or the officer while bearing his loads.

“You could try setting your things on the deck first,” Darlene suggested.

“Oh, yessir,” he seemed relieved. All his items slumped to the deck, but once freed the young man straightened up to attention, crisply saluted the flag, then pivoted and saluted the ensign. “Permission to come aboard, sir.”

She’d already glanced down the list of notes left for the podium officer. “You must be Basic Spaceman Brian Todd.”

“Yessir,” the polite young man said, saluting again.

“Permission granted.”

Brian crossed the painted yellow line on the hangar deck and waited patiently.

“Your paperwork?” Darlene asked.

“Oh yeah…,” Brian said, bending over and accessing a sealed pocket on one of the space duffels. “Here you go, sir.”

“Welcome to the USFS Evensong,” Darlene said. “And how did you end up in the Unified Star Fleet, Todd?”

“Grew up in scrub country. Finally tired of a job working at a meat processing plant on the edge of the Nebraska Desert.”

“That sounds fair.”

“Yessir.”

“Do you have any idea yet what sort of specialty you want to work towards? I’m not grilling you,” Darlene added hastily, seeing the stricken look on the boy’s face. “It’s just I’m sure one of the officers or chiefs is going to stick you with that question soon and I thought I’d advise you to perhaps have an answer ready.”

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Absolutely, Mister Todd – this is just a casual conversation during check-in.” And if you only knew how green I am at this, Darlene mused to herself.

“I haven’t given it much thought – just so long as it doesn’t involve slaughtering chickens, pigs or cattle.”

“I think that can be arranged.” She got on the secure handset. “Chief of the Boat please… Master Chief, I have a new crewman checking in – a Basic Spaceman Brian Todd from the Nebraska Desert. I’m not sure who you were going to assign to shepherd him, but if you were to call Engineer’s Mate Morton, Cybernetics Specialist 1 Rooney and Ship’s Clerk Hachem, you might find a ready volunteer amongst those three.”

“Oh really?” Marilyn answered. “Should I ask what they’ve done or have my own fun?”

“I wouldn’t dream of denying the master chief her own entertainment.” Darlene heard a chuckle on the other end of the handset before the disconnect signal. “It’ll just be a couple of minutes, Mister Todd. If you could just wait over there, the bosun’s mate will run through a security check.”

In the cargo bay a half-dozen bots rolled slowly over the deck, cleaning the surface completely. Two spacemen – both women – took turns supervising the bots and lying on the deck doing nothing. Despite their somewhat dramatically tattooed faces, they stopped and saluted when Darlene approached.

“I see you both have the same home patch on your sleeves,” Darlene said, nodding at the odd constellation of stars against a black background. She knew the New Zealand flag had stars on it and a native population that believed in facial tattoos – but she was pretty sure this wasn’t it.

“We’re both Mongrels,” Spaceman Azi Leland explained.

“It’s like a nickname,” the second girl – Uril Mannet – said, seeing Darlene’s puzzled frown. “We’re from the same place.”

“And that is…?” Darlene asked.

The two spacemen thought it a hysterically funny question. “Oh you’re too serious, Mister Charles. But that’s our job. We’re supposed to be the Serious Girls around here.” Apparently that was very funny, too.

“So what exactly is the point of lying on the deck? Besides getting to goof off on the clock, that is.”

“Not goofing, sir.” Azi seemed insulted by the suggestion.

“Yeah,” Uril added. “We’ve got a scanner planted on the deck and then we use the smart glasses. We’re inspecting the ceiling.”

Darlene looked up. “Inspecting for what? And anyway, what’s that small pylon? There’s nothing else suspended from the ceiling anywhere else in this compartment.”

“That’s the center junction sensor, sir.”

“A tri-axial center junction sensor,” Uril corrected.

“Yes,” Azi giggled. “My mistake, sir. It’s the tri-axial center junction sensor. Part of the jump system.”

“I know what a center junction array is,” Darlene said. “What I’m wondering is what is it doing here and how do you know what it is?”

Azi shrugged. “I looked at the plaque.”

Darlene looked at Uril’s amused face, then down. The girl stood on a deck tile – TRI-AXIAL CENTER JUNCTION SENSOR DIRECTLY ABOVE / SERVICE LIFT BELOW.

“You are way too serious for us, sir.”

“And we’re supposed to be the Serious Girls.”

“So you said,” Darlene murmured, resigning herself to losing this round with a pair of spacemen. “Carry on.”

Still stung a bit by her failure to deal with the Serious Girls, Darlene almost ran into another woman who’d been lurking by the open airlock doors leading into the forward part of the ship.

“Ensign Charles – I’m Tech 5 Luanne Womat, Pharmacist’s Mate. And you were supposed to check in with me when you came aboard.”

“Um, I’m sorry, Womat.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. I think I slept for eleven hours after the last of the revelers left the 27th Century Party. But you were planning on checking in with Sick Bay, weren’t you?”

“Absolutely. As soon as I looked up the doctor.”

“No doctor, I’m afraid. I’m your complete health care provider on this ship,” Luanne almost apologized. “That and your first-aid training, plus whatever help the autobots are.”

“With thousands of colonists aboard?”

“We don’t normally do many colony runs. Anyway, they’ll all be in hybernation.”

“What if there’s a problem?”

“Hybernation is very safe, sir. I wouldn’t worry about the hybe tanks.”

“It’s my job to worry about everything and everyone,” Darlene pointed out. “And being responsible for several thousand colonists without a doctor sounds like asking for it.”

“The colonists should have their own doctor, sir,” Luanne said. “It’s all under control.”

“A new ship and a new crew for me – plus an unknown bunch of civilians who may or may not have medical supervision,” Darlene said with a sigh. “I am so relieved, Womat. Let’s go get me checked in.”

Sick Bay was barely larger than her stateroom. Three medical bunks lay stacked against the one side, each behind a glass cover. Womat explained how a bed could be swung out and down for treatment.

“What happens if you need to treat more than one?” Darlene asked.

“We can swing two trays down at a time.”

“All right – what about three?”

“If we need to treat three or more, we start folding out the gurneys in the corridor.” Womat must’ve sensed the disquiet rumbling through Darlene’s mind. “I do make house calls, sir, for a lot of the usual downtimes. We try to keep Sick Bay clear for emergencies. And anything I can’t handle, we have medical stasis tubes and let Fleet Medical deal with it some other time.”

“What’s for dinner?” Darlene asked as she took her seat at the wardroom table. This was her first real dinner aboard and she smiled at the heavy real china and silver service which lay atop the starched white tablecloths. It was elegant, professional and, at least here in the wardroom, everything the Academy had promised upon joining the corps of officers in the Unified Star Fleet.

“Vincent?” the captain asked, as the cook came in. “What’s for dinner? Our young ensign is either starving or dying to know.”

“We have Earth Alaskan salmon filets,” Vincent said, bringing in a large serving platter, “marinated in real Vermont maple syrup for two days.”

“Salmon? My goodness,” Darlene sounded pleased. “And you told me you did Italian.”

“I never said I only did Italian,” Vincent smiled. “But this is a special occasion. Captain informed me we are back up to full complement today and I’ve had these fixings rattling around the galley for a couple of months.”

“We should get a new crewman more often,” Kirsten observed. “Fish is nice.”

“Here’s to Basic Spaceman Brian Todd – the man with two first names,” Rich quipped.

Hear-hear!” the table declared.

“Maple syrup on salmon?” Rich asked, getting back to their dinner.

“More like maple syrup in salmon,” Vincent replied.

“Candied salmon?”

“Sure,” Vincent agreed.

Rich half rose from his chair, placed one hand over his diaphragm and dramatically held out his other and sang in a deep baritone, “Salmon candied evening…”

“That, Mister McMurray,” the captain said, “is enough of that.”

“Yessir,” he said, quickly taking his seat. But Darlene noted that both were still smiling. Perhaps, despite a bit of a rough start, she was going to really like serving on this ship. After six months bouncing around the real Fleet, Darlene dared to hope she’d finally found a home.

“Don’t go just yet, ensign,” the captain said as Darlene left her napkin at her place and started to stand after her meal and two desserts. The first officer remained as well while others filed out. “You did well on the Dead Man’s Watch last evening.”

“Yessir.”

“You seem polite, willing to learn and so far have exhibited no bad habits. This doesn’t exactly match your service record.”

“No sir,” Darlene said, inwardly wincing at the forcefulness of her reply.

“Then how do you explain this?”

“My first superior officer didn’t like Southern white women. There were two of us in the group kept out of hybernation to work on the boost from Mars. Lt. Commander Oxwell managed to find cause to dismiss both of us after an unfortunately short amount of time.”

“Mister Oxwell is a Southerner. A white Southern male.”

“Yes. Strange, isn’t it?” Darlene wondered how they knew so much and what else they knew.

“What’s your evaluation of yourself? Your worst features.”

This was always a dangerous interview question, but Darlene addressed it head on. “I suppose I’m a perfectionist. My second superior officer decided I wasn’t learning fast enough. I thought I was doing everything I could to not make any mistakes.”

“That doesn’t get you fired in five days.”

“The well was poisoned, sir,” Darlene said.

“I doubt that Nancy is buying this,” the captain said, without even looking at her executive officer. “But I base my evaluation reports solely on your performance on my ship. Your geographic or planetary origins and previous postings are not my concern. You are dismissed, ensign.”

Nancy spoke for the first time. “You have the midnight bridge watch – don’t be late. You’ll be relieving me.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” After standing and saluting, Darlene hoped her ears weren’t shining too bright red.

Monday morning at 0800 hours the cargo bay began its miraculous transformation. Loader after loader began packing in space shipping containers of a dozen different sizes, stacked in the closest packed formation possible. Keeping to the safety-striped zones on the deck, Darlene watched the preprogrammed ballet. While it became clear it would take time to fill the entire compartment, she was impressed with the rapidity and ease with which the loaders performed.

“The largest containers are full of vehicles and heavy machinery,” Senior Chief Sammy Hortez explained.

“I am assuming it’s all been load balanced?” Darlene asked.

“Manifest is sliced sixteen ways to Sunday and recalculated from stem to stern,” the cargo bay chief said.

“It’s all very impressive,” Darlene admitted.

“Yeah, it sure is.”

An alarm bell rang and Darlene’s attention was drawn to the end of the safety zone. Huge panels with flashing yellow warning lights began to fold out from what she’d thought was the end wall. Now she realized the cargo bay would itself be sliced up into sections. A cargo bay whose compartments were assembled after the fact, rather than built into solid bulkheads.

Innovative design indeed – she began to see the possibilities.

Stark space black butted against the pale glow from the planet’s atmosphere below. The view through the quad-glazed plex took Darlene’s breath away. She’d merely come here to find a quiet place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and instead found one of the few compartments aboard with windows. Now she sat cross-legged on top of the large conference table so she could see more of the dark brown planet turning underneath.

“I’m glad you found the in-port conference room,” the first officer said conversationally from the back of the room. “It’s one of my favorite places when we’re in orbit.”

“It is beautiful,” Darlene said, willing herself not to leap up and spoil the peaceful moment. “One tends to forget about space sometimes. The stars, the planets. We get very tied up inside the ship.”

Nancy came and stopped next to her, arms crossed, gazing out the long clear windows. “Usually it takes longer for a newbie to realize how internalized our lives become on a starship.”

“I was bounced around a lot during my long lost migration.”

“Mmm. Well, finish your coffee.”

“All done, sir,” Darlene said, taking that one last slightly bitter swallow.

“We have an appointment in the starboard hangar airlock.”

Darlene expected to be given a full vacuum check-out of her new spacesuit. But she was surprised to see Nancy stepping into her own white command suit – and the chief of the boat as well.

“Anticipating your question, ensign,” Nancy said, “there’s a one-hour per month zero-gee full vacuum training requirement on this ship. That’s for everyone. Might as well escort you onto the hull and make my time as well. Once we’re underway I always seem to have too much crap on my plate to make time for my own drills.”

Sealing up and pressurizing, then cycling through the airlock, Darlene noticed Marilyn setting a safety line next to the control panel. “You’re not coming?”

“First and third officers are buddies on this run,” Marilyn said. “I’m your safety.”

“Right.” Vacuum drills while at the Academy usually involved so many personnel that the safety crews were practically ignored as everyone poured out of the locks. “Law of small numbers.”

Stepping across the zebra stripes at the hatch onto a small shelf plate outside, Darlene could feel the artificial gravity field weakening. By the time she’d joined the first officer on the sloping curve of the hull, Darlene was weightless inside her suit.

“So what have you learned recently, ensign?”

“I learned that our two spacer girls in the spaceman ranks think they’re pretty funny. I thought they were trying to tell me they were serious girls, which didn’t jibe with their cut-up attitude. Then I finally had time to read the crew’s service records. Now I know they are Sirius Girls.”

“Grew up together with their families around Sirius B.”

“The Dog Star,” Darlene said. “Constellation Canis Major. Which is why they’re Mongrels. It’s really quite clever wordplay – and I should’ve put it together earlier.”

“Catch that lock ring. Keep a safety line in place at all times,” Nancy reminded her. “Yes. It takes a while to work your way through the crew manifest, even on a small ship. And especially when we keep you jumping during your first forty-eight hours.”

“More like seventy-two… My, what a view.”

The two women, boots magnetized to the line of black metal tiles they’d been ascending. Though there was technically no up or down in space, Fleet called this the dorsal hull. Darlene’s orientation made her believe that she now stood on top of the Evensong. Whitish-gray ceramic shield and armor panels spread and curved away far to the forward. The hull appeared almost clean at this time, with nearly all the antennas and telescopes stowed neatly out of the way, unlike all the gear festooned on the space station hull ahead. Warships all had a long tapered wedge shape to lower visibility head-on. The Evensong was thicker and had a rounded nose, not a sharp point, at the bow. Four massive bells for the fusor engines lay aft.

“I’m told this isn’t a very pleasant planet,” Darlene said, looking away towards the colored disk below. “You can’t rightly tell from seven hundred kilometers.”

“See the silvery lake? That’s mercury. The planetary scientists nearly had a heart attack when they realized you could have an open pool of mercury that large on a planet. It’s a nasty industrial world and ninety percent of the workforce uses remotes from orbit.”

“People back home would have no idea why we’re here.”

“The station is a crossroads. Good a place as any to organize a colony run somewhere else.”

“Yes, but why?”

Nancy was likely smiling behind the darkened visor of her helmet. “No one jumps ship and goes planetside here.”

As the cargo bay filled and sections of it were closed off by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of moving wall panels, a new construction project caught Darlene by surprise. Huge plex sections as thick as a man’s arm and supported on wide girder feet were being bolted together to form a massive gang hybernation tank. When completed, it would measure thirty meters long, eighteen wide and eight meters high.

“I knew the colonists would travel in hybe,” Darlene said to the chief engineer. “I guess I assumed we carried hybe tanks, but… we aren’t usually in the colony moving business.”

“That’s right,” Herb said. “All told there’ll be five thousand colonists in this tank.”

“Anyone ever hear about putting all of one’s eggs in one basket?” Darlene mused. Then she caught herself, as the chief engineer glared at her.

“Ensign – I assemble what they tell me to assemble. I don’t get to choose which level of technology gets used for an application like this.”

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t be. Anyway, this is the heaviest, most overbuilt section of the cargo bay – right off the hangar. So this hybe tank is protected by the strongest part of the cargo bay’s frame.”

“And I suppose it’s easier than trying to bring aboard five thousand stasis tubes,” Darlene said. “More compact.”

“And cheaper.” He nodded to a white container being slid into the other side of the cargo bay. “That’s livestock. You’d think they were more valuable than the colonists – the cows travel in stasis chambers.”

“I’m sure they are valuable,” Darlene said. “But it’s just as likely that Fleet doesn’t want to deal with drowning live cows in hybe fluid. I imagine they’d be a little fussy about that. And it’s hard to explain things to a cow.”

The chief engineer laughed. “Mister Charles – you do have a point there.”

“I thought we didn’t have a Marine detachment aboard,” Darlene said at breakfast.

“We don’t,” Rich said.

“Then I wouldn’t go to the overlook and take a peek down into the hangar,” Darlene said to the second officer. “There’s a Marine unit with full armored space suits and all their gear.”

“We transport Marines though,” Rich said. “That’s a colonial deployment unit.”

“Oh, I see. They’ll go into the hybe tank with the colonists?”

“No – some stasis tubes are being installed in a forward section of the cargo bay.”

In the cargo bay? Do you mean we treat them like cargo?”

“In a manner of speaking – yes. Besides, there aren’t a lot of other places to put them.”

“I suppose,” Darlene said. “And like livestock, there’s no point in feeding them on the way out.”

“Nope. Put them on ice or gray them out – hybe or stasis.”

“Hi, I’m the ship’s third officer, Ensign Darlene Charles,” she said with a welcoming hand.

“Lt. Colonel Maxwell, ensign,” the Marine officer said as they shook hands. “693rd Colonial Deployment Force, 1203rd Detachment. At your service.”

Darlene broke into a big smile. “Do I detect a proper South Carolina accent, colonel?”

“Indeed it is, ma’am,” Maxwell said, touching the brim of his cap. “So how can I help you?”

“This is my first colony run. I wanted to find out how the Marines figure into all this – understand what your capabilities are.”

“You’re new, aren’t you?”

“Yessir. Don’t be fooled by these third officer badges.”

“I wasn’t,” Maxwell smiled. “Ma’am, let me introduce you to Lt. Mays. Robbie!”

Second Lieutenant Robert Mays was tall blond and handsome, his dashing good looks somewhat distorted by wearing his oversized powered armor without a helmet. “And you’re Ensign Darlene Charles.”

“That’s right,” Darlene said, a bit confused. “How…”

“But you’ve forgotten that I know who you are.”

“You do?”

“I roomed with Marine Cadet Wilkinson at the Academy. You may recall he escorted you to the Solstice Ball.”

“I recall Mister Wilkinson and I definitely recall a memorable evening at the Ball. But I’m afraid I don’t remember you.”

“Uh-huh. Blinded by Curt’s natural beauty, I’m sure.”

Darlene hoped she’d have an easy duty before dinner. But forty-five minutes later she heard a commotion and saw a Marine blocking a middle-aged stocky woman, who was not in line, from boarding.

“Step aside, young man,” the woman said, raising her voice to make sure everyone in the hangar bay heard. “I have business on this ship.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I have my orders.”

“We’ll see about that.” The woman peered around and spotted Darlene. “You there – come here!”

Darlene was already on her way, so tried not to let it rankle if this woman wanted to make it seem as though she were in charge here. “How may I assist you, ma’am?”

I am Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

Checking her databoard, Darlene found no mention of Councilor Wallace. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I don’t have any orders regarding you. Do you have any paperwork?”

Councilor Wallace seemed insulted. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“Yes, ma’am. You are Councilor Mary Elisabeth Wallace.”

“Are you being flippant with me, young lady?”

“No, ma’am. I know who you are and I’ve verified that you are indeed a member of the Inter Stellar Council, a fact which you failed to mention by the way. That’s all the information I have on you and I still do not have any clearance for you to board this ship.”

“Miss Charles – the Inter Stellar Council owns the Star Fleet.

“I very much doubt that, ma’am.”

“It means I own you.”

“See, that’s the thing about Fleet, ma’am, which most people don’t understand. There are multiple national and planetary interests, but not one of them is sole owner. Nobody owns it – and everyone does.”

“You aren’t really so naïve you believe such things, are you, dearie?” the woman asked.

“You aren’t likely to be so naïve to believe that you wouldn’t be here unless the Unified Star Fleet invited you aboard the Evensong. Ma’am.” Darlene forced herself to add a pleasant smile.

“Well!” the woman exclaimed. “I want to talk to your superiors.”

“That is your right, ma’am.” Darlene pulled a secure handset from the podium, touching the comm button for the bridge. “Officer of the Deck – this is Third Officer Charles at the check-in podium. I request the presence of the captain and executive officer for an Inter Stellar Council matter.”

“Acknowledged, Mister Charles.”

Darlene knew that having all three of them here on an active hangar would violate officer safekeeping rules, but expected only one of her superiors to show. Frankly, she assumed it would be Nancy who’d come – she wasn’t expecting the captain.

“Councilor Wallace, I’m Captain Angela Dessin. This is my boat you’re standing on,” the captain said smiling. “And I don’t quite appreciate it when someone of your standing comes onto my boat and starts trying to push people around. It is unbecoming and unprofessional.

“Now, we’ve both had our little bluster – and it hasn’t done either one of us any good. How about we go to my in-port office and have a cup of coffee, and in the quiet calm of reason you can tell me what you’re really here for and I’ll see if I can’t accommodate you, Councilor Wallace.”

Angela’s shift in tone was extraordinarily effective. Darlene couldn’t believe the aggressive stance at first, but now she knew how this woman had come to earn the trust of Fleet Command.

Loading the colonists took two days, even with an orderly procedure set up. Darlene had traveled in hybe several times on her journey out here, but she was military and it was expected. She had to admire the calmness amongst the civilians. It wouldn’t be easy to ride the lift to the top of a huge tank filled with trays of dead looking people. Five thousand was a lot of people to cram into one liquid filled tank, with children, too.

By the time the last sleeping colonist got wet and was submerged in the cold blue fluid, the rest of the cargo bay was finally filled. Only the Marines who’d helped out with the hybernation sequence were left to load and they had to file back to their temporary stasis compartment and one-by-one, disappear behind the gray veil of their own stasis tubes. Then panel by panel the massive armored doors sealed off the cargo bay, leaving the hangar bay just a hangar.

The captain and first officer moved quickly through the inspection hallways of the cargo bay. After the captain signed off on the work, the first officer linked to the All Hands. “Gentlemen – a fine effort securing our cargo and passengers. Departure is set for 0800 hours tomorrow. That is all.”

“Did you take care of Councilor Blowhard?” Angela asked Darlene. “I notice she’s not been darkening my world lately.”

“Yessir,” Darlene answered with as straight a face as she could muster. “Councilor Wallace observed the final operations and we reserved the last tray position for her.”

“Didn’t object too much to going in with the colonists?”

“No sir. Apparently you’d already pointed out that we were just a cargo ship and didn’t have suitable facilities for her comfort. I assured her she’d be the first to be revived and we’d make sure she was clean, dry and dressed before the colonial manager or any of his staff were awake.”

“Good thinking,” Angela said. “Though it’d be good for the old cow to have to stand cold and naked before five thousand colonists and knock a few centimeters off that chip on her shoulder. But… you didn’t hear me say that, ensign.”

“Excuse me, captain. What were you saying?”

“Good girl,” Angela smiled. “Carry on, Mister Charles.”

A conspiracy of silence between the captain and third officer – Darlene could’ve floated away even in the artificial gravity.

“Oh and your presence is required on the bridge at 0800 hours for departure. Now that we’re loaded, it’s time we went back to being a cargo ship and about time you started earning your paycheck. Bring a spacesuit – you’ll be the designated safety officer.”

“All ahead one-quarter.”

Darlene Charles felt a slight shifting in the bridge deck plates under her feet. “Did anyone just feel that?” she asked as casually as she could.

“Engines came up, ensign,” the captain said. “The keel shifted – that’s all.”

No one seemed concerned with the motion. All the lore she’d heard at the Academy on Mars said that you never felt any motion on a starship when it was underway due to the acceleration dampeners. But this ship flexed and moved. And this was still part of the innovative new design?

She had no duty at the moment other than to observe bridge procedures, so Darlene took a seat by the control mounts. Both were occupied – Quartermaster Capri on the left and Spaceman Azi Leland on the right.

Rrrrr-ik!

Darlene looked startled. “What in the Sam Hell was that?” she asked in a louder voice.

“Bridge isolation box flex joint, sir,” Juliette said. “The hull is cold soaking as we move away from the sun. You’ll get used to it.”

“I’ve never heard of that happening on a starship before.”

“There are always expansion joints on starships.”

“I know that,” Darlene said with some irritability. “What I said was that I’ve never heard of them making such a sound.”

“Thus speaks the expert on star travel,” Azi remarked.

“What was that?” Darlene demanded of the Sirius Girl.

“Nothing, sir.”

The first officer wandered over. “Mister Charles – this ship has a very thin profile and an open interior design. It’s designed to flex a lot more than most starships, especially your heavier warships. Perfectly all right.”

“If you say so,” Darlene said. But even though everyone seemed to be singing the same song, she didn’t sound convinced.

“Nancy says you’re skeptical of our little flexible starship,” Marilyn said. “So we’re going to take you ‘tween decks for a little maintenance job. Call it part of your education.”

“Yes, master chief.”

They donned clean hooded jumpsuits and disappeared through a hatch between decks.

“Where are we exactly, master chief?” Lying on her back in a narrow crawlspace, Darlene was staring at several massive sets of springs and shock absorbers.

“We’re underneath the bridge box,” Marilyn said. “And since you’ve complained about the noise, you get to relubricate the joints.”

“So all the strange noises I keep hearing are just maintenance issues. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“You learn fast,” Marilyn said. “But you still get to do the dirty work this time.”

“Of course.”

“Mister Charles, sir, what’s going on?”

“I’m just putting together a light supper, Mandelini,” Darlene said, clean and famished after spending several hours sliding around under the bridge.

“You’re not supposed to be cooking in here.”

“Who’s cooking? There was a lovely tomato minestrone soup leftover from dinner and I’m having that with a grilled cheese sandwich. Well, actually three grilled cheese sandwiches – but who’s counting? Do you want one?”

“Sure,” Vincent said.

Darlene began to assemble a fourth sandwich on the griddle. Shaking his head, he poured two bowls of soup. When the sandwiches were done, Darlene slid one onto a plate and handed it to the Spec 2 Cook. The rest went onto her own plate.

Seated at the wardroom table, Vincent watched in fascination as the young woman ate. “Mister Charles – don’t take this the wrong way, but just how many calories do you consume a day?”

“Oh, don’t mind me. It’s my metabolism. I’m a bottomless pit.”

“It’s not a problem, except our food reserves are whatever we are carrying. I’m supposed to be feeding twenty-two aboard – if you eat like this all the time…”

“Oh yes.”

“… then I’m serving one or two extra folks I didn’t know about.”

“It’s not a problem. The supplies are fine.”

“Sir, with all due respect, our emergency reserves are carefully calculated.”

“Nonsense,” Darlene said. “If we were to have a catastrophic emergency out in deep space, we could easily lose half the crew or half the food supply. Either way, that would be a crisis. Reserves are estimates and you know that. Besides, if I were a 150-kg ex-linebacker and ate three grilled cheese sandwiches at a time, you’d think nothing of it.” She took another bite of sandwich. “And a 150-kg ex-linebacker is already figured in your food supplies and emergency reserves. So consider that ex-linebacker billet filled, Mandelini, and don’t you dare give me any more grief about it.”

Darlene didn’t bother to mention she was pretty sure Basic Spaceman Brian Todd also qualified as a 150-kg ex-linebacker, which meant there were two new big eaters in the crew.

They’d boosted to near the speed of light in two weeks and made the leap into jumpspace. On the second leg of their four-jump route to the new colony, they had to refuel. Dropping back to normal space, the maneuver involved scooping hydrogen from a star at relativistic speeds. A common procedure, it still sounded insane every time Darlene had to think about it.

“I think I should’ve practiced in this suit more,” Darlene said. “I feel very awkward.”

“You’re here as emergency backup,” the captain said. “Which means you get to seal up. Sit over there and observe the refueling operation.”

“Watch and learn. Yessir.”

Darlene sealed and locked her helmet, then the gloves. A slight hiss told her the air supply had come on and the indicators showed all was operating correctly.

It was difficult to watch either the forward screens or the trajectory charts – the Evensong would be just grazing this star, but it looked to be certain death.

“Hyper-radar scanning,” the captain ordered. “I don’t want to run into anything we weren’t planning on running into.”

Even with her suit on, Darlene could feel and hear the groan as the ship again flexed due to the stresses. Everything she’d been taught told her this wasn’t right. She swallowed hard, steeling herself to let it ride. To act normally.

“Contact in three… two… one…”

Without warning she felt herself slide forward and down. Despite running into the limits of her seat restraints, she still ran into the console in front of her, or at least the chest pack of her spacesuit did. And after tilting, the bridge fell again and abruptly stopped. Something banged into Darlene’s helmet as all the lights went out. Then more things.

“Stop it!” Darlene shouted, bringing her arms up to protect her helmet. “Stop it! End run!”

The bridge had… fallen?

In the sudden dim, mainly lit by red warning telltales, Darlene did the first thing she could think of. “Engineering – emergency transfer of control. The bridge is down!

Emergency lighting came on, casting eerie shadows not usually seen on the bridge. An awful lot of the overhead equipment panels had come loose, scattering forward.

“Bridge – this is Engineering. Control is transferred. What’s going on up there? I’ve got numerous faults on my board for bridge systems. Bridge… acknowledge.”

“Third Officer Charles here,” Darlene said. “Did we hit something?”

“Negative. What’s your status there? We’re getting no environmental readouts.”

Darlene glanced at the wrist telltales on her spacesuit. “Negative on any atmospheric leak. Air is clean and breathable. No toxics, no particulates, no smoke. Emergency lighting just came on.”

“This is the first officer – sound off on the bridge. Captain.”

Relieved to hear from Nancy, Darlene unstrapped herself and clambered over the console. The captain’s chair was gone – ripped from its support. “Captain is down, commander. I’m making my way to the front of the compartment.”

“Third officer has reported,” Nancy went calmly on. “Quartermaster.”

“Quartermaster is very seriously injured,” Darlene said, picking her way down the steep incline. “She’s not moving. I think she may be dead.”

“Chief of the Boat.”

“Master Chief Grimsley reporting,” Marilyn said slowly from the far side of the bridge. “I’m okay – shaken – and trapped in some debris. The goddamned overhead equipment boxes all broke their restraining straps. We have fallen shit all over the place. Emergency teams requested.”

“Acknowledged. They’re on the way,” Nancy said. “Spaceman Leland.”

There was silence.

“She’s definitely dead,” Darlene said, now that she could see. “One of those loose equipment boxes… decapitation.”

“Steady now, Charles…”

“Yessir. Uh, did we get the fuel secured, sir?”

Nancy’s voice softened, almost a hint of a chuckle. “Spoken like a true spacer, ensign. Yes – the fuel load is confirmed and secured.”

Continuing her descent, Darlene made it to the front – the bottom – of the bridge. Her boot splashed into a pool of something, as she found Captain Dessin.

“How bad are we?” the captain asked, wincing as she looked up. “Did we hit something?”

“We’re flooding. There’s no evidence we ran into anything hard. Don’t move, Captain, I think your leg is broken at the very least. Engineering, I need that medical and rescue team ASAP.”

“They’ve arrived,” Nancy reported. “Ensign, can you go and open the bridge hatch for the rescue teams?”

Darlene looked up the sloping deck. Of course, the bridge hatch locks from the inside.

Before she could reply, Marilyn broke in. “I’ve got it – I’m closer.”

“Flooding?” The chief engineer, who’d been monitoring the conversation, wasn’t convinced. “All water lines in and out of the bridge are double-guillotine closure valves – you can’t be flooding.”

“It’s not water, it’s blue… somewhat viscous,” Darlene said, the horror creeping slightly into her voice. “Engineering, we’ve fallen into the hybe tank. Someone needs to get into the cargo bay right away.”

No wonder there’d been a tri-axis center junction sensor in the cargo bay and not here. The bridge, the most protected box on the ship, lay over the cargo bay, off-axis. And right over the five thousand colonists in hybernation.

“The second officer was in the hangar and cargo bays during our maneuvering,” Nancy said.

“Lt. McMurray,” Darlene said. “I need a situation report on the hybe tank.”

When she didn’t get an answer, Darlene repeated her call.

“Bosun!” Nancy called out. “Are you in contact with the second officer?”

“Negative, sir. Cannot reach the second officer,” the bosun reported.

“Where was he last?” Angela asked.

“Last report had him in the hangar bay – full suit.”

“If he was there, then he might’ve been inspecting the cargo bay, too, checking on the hybe tank. Send someone down there.”

“Vincent! Hybe tank area – be careful. A lot of the systems are not responding to the automatic net queries. Based on the bridge, there’s gotta be a lot of damage down there.”

“Acknowledged. Reporting to hybe tank.”

When Pharmacist’s Mate Womat came down into the bridge dangling from a safety line, Darlene could finally breathe.

“Thank God you’re here.”

“I’ve got it, sir. You did a great job of first aid here.”

“I need you down in the hybe tank,” Nancy said to Darlene. “You helped with the immersion of the colonists and our limited med capability is needed for the captain. I don’t want to lose any of the colonists, but they can’t run a starship.”

“Yessir,” Darlene said.

“Belay that,” Marilyn said. “Ensign, you’ve got quite a dent on your helmet. Have Womat check you out.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re fine when the pharmacist’s mate says you’re fine.”

Reluctantly removing her helmet, Darlene waited until Luanne came over and scanned her for signs of trauma. “You’re clear.”

Darlene took one last look at the captain getting treated and the master chief giving her a weak wave of dismissal. And then she climbed out of the tilted bridge.

Meanwhile the first officer was moving on to other issues. “We’re burning real time at a rate of 13-to-1 and I don’t know how well our space systems are performing. Chief Engineer, are we ready to jump?”

“Near as I can tell.”

“Prepare to jump.”

Darlene broke in. “Wait one! Mister Camp – do you have your own center junction sensor in Engineering?”

“Yes, but it’s only two-axis. I was going to use the remote to the three-axis.”

“The unit in the cargo bay may’ve shifted. I wouldn’t trust its alignment – and God knows it’s critical.”

“Good thinking, ensign. We’re on it.”

When Darlene finally made it down to the mess in the cargo bay, she was appalled by the carnage. Though the bulk of the walls of the mass hybe tank held, whole sections of the upper meter and a half were cracked, shattered and leaking. Ceiling panels were scattered everywhere along with thousands of liters of hybe fluid. The exposed shock mounted box which held the bridge compartment had crushed part of at least two rows of hybe trays. They wouldn’t know until they got in there. Injured and dead colonists both lay still like discarded dolls. Other than a disturbing creaking from the damaged and overloaded supports, it was eerily quiet.

Worse was the chunk of structural frame which had fallen on Lt. McMurray. The second officer was unquestionably dead – no one had yet made a move to extract his corpse. There were too many living to deal with. And some colonists, otherwise uninjured, were no longer submerged in the refrigerated blue liquid and required immediate attention.

“We’re too short of people down here,” Darlene reported. “We need to break the Marines out of stasis. They’re supposed to be trained in emergency hybe tank work.”

“How do you know that?”

“I talked with Lt. Colonel Maxwell the morning they came aboard.”

“Helluva time for the first officer to find out about that,” Nancy said. “Call out the Marines. We need them anyway.”

While the Marines were taking trays and either letting them fall to the bottom of the hybe tank, or pulling them out to have them spread on the hangar bay floor, Darlene watched a hastily assembled damage control team begin to jack the bridge up. It wasn’t going well.

“We need to relieve the strain off those hybe tank panels,” Darlene said. “But I’m not sure those remaining bridge supports will hold. That ceiling rail could collapse.”

“It’s going to take some time,” the cargo officer said.

“Why?”

“The lifts are trying to raise 22 tonnes of bridge.”

“Why are we working so hard? The bridge fell because it had full-Earth weight and wasn’t supported properly. If we’d just turn off the artificial gravity…”

“We can’t – the hybe tank is open to the air.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”

“However, we can ramp the gravity down.”

Nancy cut in. “Engineering, I think we need to keep the stress even. Lower the artificial gravity to twenty percent Earth-normal shipwide.”

“Aye-aye, commander. Gravity coming down – now.”

A warning klaxon sounded and the overhead speakers came on. “AG Field reduction. All-Hands, standby during gravity field reduction.”

The weight of Darlene’s M400C spacesuit suddenly dropped on her shoulder suspension pads.

“All-Hands, Low Gravity Alert. Be alert for sudden shifts. Avoid sudden moves. That is all.”

With the gravity reduced, the job suddenly became much easier. Lift pillars rose up one section at a time until the jacks made contact with the bridge isolation box. Immediately the low grade leaks from the tank stopped as the strain was taken off the hybe tank walls. As Darlene came around the corner, she found the chief of the boat giving instructions.

“We’re running new supports across those beams. I need a bead weld along those beams, ensign,” Marilyn said. The master chief was bruised but not seriously injured. Some of the blood on her uniform wasn’t hers. “I haven’t checked you out as a welder – so I hope you’re good. But you’re already been in those spaces.”

“Not in a spacesuit.”

“Ditch the suit. The hull doesn’t appear to be compromised.”

Surrounded by chaos, dangling by a safety line from a beam whose solidity Darlene wasn’t certain of, she soon began to weld. When the master chief came back, she admired Darlene’s efforts.

“Your daddy taught you good work.”

“Why thank you.”

“Unfortunately, you’ve only made and finished two welds here. I don’t need clean and polished. I need thirty linear meters of welding from you as fast as possible. Now put heat to welding rod and go to town.”

A little crestfallen, Darlene looked at her neat welds and then the length of the beams. “Yes, master chief.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Absolutely. But I was wondering what happened?”

“I don’t know, Darlene,” Marilyn said quietly. “It’s got to be a design flaw and a big one. Sonofabitch, but we can’t worry about that right now. Some of these poor people in that tank are dead and dying and they’ll never know about it.”

When Darlene came back out of the crawlspace, the marines had blocked off two areas on the hangar deck into shallow pools of blue hybe fluid to store bodies.

“Why is the fluid darker in this tank?” she asked.

Lt. Mays stood up from the deck, blue dripping from the long gloves he wore. “That wading pool is intact colonists,” he said, pointing to the other pool. “This one is the injured and the dead – we’re not quite sure which are which yet. The color is blood and guts. We can’t leave them like this for very long or they’ll all be dead.”

“Can’t they be revived?”

“You guys don’t have the medical facilities.” Mays looked around. “All this gear and we can’t really afford to bring these people out of hybe to treat their injuries. But we can’t keep them in hybe, they’ll die.”

“The cows,” Darlene suddenly said. “We’ve got to get the cows.”

“Ensign?”

“We’ve got cows in stasis – big white containers. There…,” Darlene pointed, “… in Section A13.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“We don’t have enough stasis or medical stasis for these people. At least if we put them in farm stasis they have a non-zero chance.”

“What do we do with the cows?”

“If we don’t have any place to keep them, we’ll have to kill them.”

“Does anyone aboard have any experience slaughtering cattle?”

“Yes,” Darlene said. “Basic Spaceman Todd.”

Into the unreality of the situation on the hangar deck came the protestations of cows, released in pairs from their stasis chambers, upset at the lowered gravity and the unfamiliar noises and smells. With the repeated crump! of a pulse rifle shot, though, that soon stopped.

“What are we going to do with all these cow corpses?” a Marine asked, powering down his rifle.

“Carcasses,” Basic Spaceman Todd said. “Dead cows are carcasses, not corpses.”

“We can’t stow them, we can’t space them – won’t they bloat up?”

“Don’t worry,” Todd said. “Give me two Marines from farms and I’ll take care of them.”

They held an impromptu departmental meeting in the hangar bay at 2100 hours.

“What’s the status of the colonists in the hybe tank?” Nancy asked.

Darlene didn’t even need to consult her datapad. “It’s hard to tell for sure, but we know that there are one-hundred-and-eighty-two casualties from the top tiers.”

“Dead?”

“The Marines have moved out forty-eight definites. We won’t know about the others until revival. We’re going to try to filter as much blood and waste from the hybe fluid as possible, but we can’t just put in chemicals to prevent any organism blooms. And we don’t have the facilities or resources to revive everyone and start over.”

“Damn.”

“How’s Captain Dessin?” Darlene asked.

“Fractured pelvis, collapsed lung. She’s in Sick Bay.”

Darlene and the chief engineer inspected a crawlspace atop the bridge box. Despite some buckled attachments, she couldn’t quite see what had caused the failure.

“I don’t understand,” Herb said. “The design clearly specifies there are safety straps to hold the box in place.”

“This is all torn up in here – how many safety straps are there?”

“There are supposed to be six safety straps holding the bridge in place.”

“Well you don’t have six now,” Darlene said. “I can’t see any at all on this end.”

“They snapped?”

“Yes,” she said, then slid into a smaller crevice. “No – this broken end is worn down, not frayed.”

“That’s not possible.”

“This is the Galen Roads all over again,” Darlene sighed.

Herb turned off his spotlight. “How so?”

Darlene shrugged. “Everyone said this is a new design for a cargo ship. That this will be utilized on destroyers and cruisers in the next three years. Maybe we’re just pushing the envelope too hard again.”

“This is structural failure,” he said, “due to the flexing. That big open cargo bay is nice for cargo, but it’s a problem. A warship would have closed compartments for both structural and security reasons – totally different inside.”

“But how did this happen? What broke?”

“I’m not sure anything broke,” Herb said. “My guess is that the flexing during the star diving run went too far – and the bridge isolation box pins slid off the front rails. It just fell off the track.”

“That’s crazy!”

“That’s life in the real world. Bet you a steak dinner at our next shore leave that there’ll be a simple fix for this – something the structural engineers should’ve caught in their modeling.”

“There’s no way we can make it to the deployment point,” the X.O. said to Darlene while pacing in her office, arms folded. “We need heavy maintenance and a hybe processing facility capable of saving the rest of the colonists. They won’t have that in place – they’re expecting intact colonial units needing minimal support. Suggestions?”

“Sir?” Darlene was startled. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t look so surprised,” Nancy said, handing her two small metal badges. “Like it or not, with the death of Lt. McMurray, as second officer you have the most recent navigation experience. Nor do we have a quartermaster. You’re now also our senior navigator, Darlene.”

Quickly absorbing her sudden promotions represented by the Roman numeral II’s in her hand, Darlene glanced at the star charts displayed on the wall screens and tried to concentrate on their navigational situation. “What’s that station there?” she asked, unclipping the III’s from her lapels and changing to II’s. “Ambrose Miller Station? Isn’t that a Class Two maintenance facility? I’m sure I read that in a report somewhere…”

“Ambrose Miller Station it is,” Nancy said, holding out her hand for the Roman numeral III badges. “Let’s see if you learned anything in your Academy navigation courses. Set up a route change at GV-852 and run it by the captain, if she’s available. Then find me and I’ll check it.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” was all Darlene could think to say.

“Oh and do you know any of the Marine officers well enough to recommend a new third officer?”

“Um, you could try Robbie. That would be Lt. Mays, sir.”

“Get him here, ASAP.”

This was the first officer’s show, so Darlene stood quietly off to the side.

“2nd Lieutenant Robert Mays, USFMC, “B” Company, 1203rd Planetary Colonial Detachment. Reporting as ordered.”

“What do you know about running a starship, Mister Mays?” Nancy asked.

“I let the Navy handle that, sir.”

“Well, this Navy ship is short some officers. We need someone who can stand a watch, file paperwork and scream for help if anything untoward happens. Think you’re up for the job?”

Robbie hesitated, but only for a moment. “Sir, a Fleet Marine is ready to go in zero time, for any assignment, as needed.”

“That’s the line they always tell us. And you are needed.”

“Then I’m your man.”

“Congratulations, Lt. Mays – you are now the ship’s third officer. Don’t let it go to your head, I’m just filling in a position in the org chart. Since it was Ensign Charles who recommended you, and she’s now our second officer, I’ll put Darlene in charge of you for the moment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Nancy smiled. “For what?”

Robbie smiled back. “Nothing, sir. Just happy to serve.”

“Uh-huh. Get out of here, lieutenant.” Nancy shook her head as she smirked at Darlene. “Marines.”

“They are paid to be very enthusiastic,” Darlene said. “And that’s what we need right now.”

When Robbie ran into Darlene later in the day still working the stacks in the hybe tank, she looked down and saw her old third officer badges on his lapel. “Congratulations, lieutenant. We may make an honest naval officer out of you yet.”

“Thank you, ensign. I still think you have a thing for Marines.”

“Well you do wear those snazzy dress uniforms well, don’t you just?” Darlene said, turning up the girlish Southern charm.

“Not right now I don’t,” he said, looking at the blue gel liquid dripping from her insulated suit.

“True. You better gear up. I need you in here to assist me.”

“I thought I was going to be assigned bridge watches.”

“You are – but after lunch. And I can’t get my lunch until I finish here.”

“And so on and so on,” Robbie nodded, looking around for a clean and dry hybe maintenance suit.

The clock display read 0206 hours ShipTime when Darlene made her way through the hangar bay one last time at the end of a very long day. The overhead lights had been dimmed and with the cargo bay doors left open, she could hear the hum of the new recirculation pump for the hybe tank.

But there was also a flickering glow from the far end, coming from behind a figure seated cross-legged on the safety decking. Two Marines on watch were ignoring this person, so it must’ve been approved by someone. Darlene had to go see.

The lone surviving Sirius Girl, Spaceman Uril Mannet, looked up at the ensign – she had six globes flickering in front of her. “Hey.”

“Hey, yourself,” Darlene said. “Mind if I join you?”

Uril shook her head, then patted the deck next to her.

“These are beautiful,” Darlene said after a few minutes of calm silence. “Are they for Azi?”

“Yeah. They’re flameballs – some people call them space candles.”

“Are they really lit?”

Uril nodded. “Perfectly safe. They’re pressurized. If the fuel were to leak out, it’d be very hard to catch fire.”

“Why six?”

This time the girl smiled. “The stages of Life, at least according to the gurus on the Dog Station: bump, birth, child, teen, adult, corpse.”

“That seems rather brutal.”

“Life is brutal. It comes and it goes. Azi was good people.”

“That she was.”

“And I’ll miss her.”

They sat quietly while Darlene paid her respects. But with only a few hours available for sleep, she finally headed for her bunk. There’d been no time to move her things to the second officer’s cabin. So she was surprised to see the stateroom she shared with Kirsten now tagged ACTING SECOND OFFICER / JUNIOR ENGINEER. But the sign wasn’t quite slipped into its slot straight. Pulling it out to reseat the sign, Darlene turned it over and had to smile. The ACTING SECOND OFFICER had been on the flip side of the THIRD OFFICER nameplate all this time. Fleet apparently anticipated many possibilities.

“The bridge is cleared for operation,” Nancy told Darlene. “The repairs have temporarily limited the complete freedom of movement of the isolation box and many of the minor systems, especially overhead control panels, have not been reattached or replaced. But all primary control and navigation functions have been restored.”

“Then we’re back in business, I suppose,” Darlene said.

“As much as we can be,” Nancy agreed.

“Captain! You’re up!” Darlene was surprised to see Angela Dessin in the wardroom.

“Temporary repairs, I assure you,” the captain said. “Bone glue and a support cast for now. But I won’t be standing watch for a while. Womat is a very skilled medic, but we don’t have a doctor.”

“We unfortunately loaded the colony’s two doctors in the top tray of the hybe tank,” Darlene said. “Just in case they were needed. Protocol’s failed us there. Here – don’t get up. Let me serve you.”

“Thanks, Darlene. You’ve done a helluva job on this run, ensign. One helluva job.”

Darlene beamed and tried hard not to blush.

The service for Lt. Glenard “Rich” McMurray, late second officer of the Evensong, was short yet poignant. Darlene had barely known the man, so was assigned the bridge watch. But she had the service on one of the command screens and followed along. Likewise Lt. Mays was on duty and he stopped in to check up on what needed covering.

“I never did find out why Lt. McMurray was called Rich,” Darlene said sadly. “I got the impression there was a story that went with that.”

“What will happen with the other dead?” Robbie asked. “The colonists.”

“The colonial authority will have to sort out if they’re related to any of the survivors. They’ll be shipped to the colony for burial. Otherwise, they go back to the Home System.”

“There should be a ceremony for all who died before they are taken off,” Robbie said with some certainty.

“Oh, there will,” Darlene said. “I heard that from the X.O. At least, there won’t be any of the Everlasting Electric Monuments down on the colony.” They were once very popular in Charleston and Savannah – you could still see the flickering glow from many of the cemeteries at night. “But I checked their inventory.”

“You don’t like them?”

“They’re a bit gaudy, even for the South,” Darlene said. “I like the Sirius flameballs better.”

“We’re coming into port,” the exec said, poking her head into Darlene’s compartment. “Do you want to take her in?”

Darlene took a deep breath. “Sure.”

“It is Friday the Thirteenth, in case that scares you.”

“Is it? I’d forgotten,” Darlene said. “I’d better set you up on the Button.”

“No,” Nancy said with a slight smile. “I think you can handle this all right. Lt. Van Zoeren is next on the duty roster – she’ll handle the emergency response.”

“I take it,” Darlene said, “that I’m off your shit list.”

“I suppose from your point of view you might say that.”

“You make it sound like I never was on your list.”

“Whoever said I kept a list? I’m the executive officer – it’s my job to maintain discipline aboard ship. That includes putting a little fear into the new, the young and the impressionable.”

Darlene wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“You’re due on the bridge to take her in, ensign,” Nancy reminded her. “Dismissed.”

Darlene was just scraping up the last mouthful of breakfast the next time she saw Nancy Kramer.

“It’s 0552 hours, ensign,” the first officer said sternly. “Aren’t you due on the podium at 0600?”

“Yessir,” Darlene said, swallowing her coffee in two gulps.

“You need to be in a spacesuit – and you’re not moving?”

“Two minutes to the hangar bay, five minutes to get suited and I’m there,” Darlene said brightly. “And if you excuse me, sir, I need to be on my way.”

“Carry on, ensign,” Nancy said with a little amusement. But Darlene was already gone.

She was actually logging into the podium station in the open hangar before 0600 hours. At the beginning of a shift, the only people likely to come up the ramp to the Evensong were delivery people and overachievers – something Darlene wryly noted she was familiar with.

She spotted the officer at the station’s barricade even before the podium’s signal light came on. Short, plain faced, Asian eyes, straight black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Standard khaki-gray uniform skirt and jacket, sturdy dress work shoes. A French flag on the sleeve. Darlene noticed these because the woman was burdened with both a space duffel and an M400 white spacesuit sans back and chest packs slung over her back. These items were laid down on the deck at the threshold before the woman saluted the flag and then came forward with her transfer packet.

“Second Officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Nina Jardins reporting to the USFS Evensong for duty,” the woman said, with only a hint of a French accent.

Darlene’s smile didn’t waver a bit, even as reality began to sink in. She was, after all, still an ensign early in her first year in Fleet and only aboard the Evensong a matter of weeks. It would’ve been too much to think she’d get to stay second officer – correction, acting second officer. She should remain third officer by all rights. Wasn’t that enough?

“I can log you as coming aboard, Lt. Jardins,” Darlene said. “However…”

Nina’s eyes widened as she spotted the Roman numeral II’s on Darlene’s lapels – the same emblems she was wearing herself. “I’m sorry, sir…”

“Nothing to apologize for, lieutenant,” Darlene said, skipping through the records which appeared on the podium’s screen. “You have valid orders. I’m just Acting Second Officer. But I cannot log you in as Second Officer Arriving – First Officer Kramer will have to do that. I’ll have a runner escort you in a minute.”

“Thank you, ensign.”

“It’s Darlene,” she smiled. “And may I be the first to say Welcome aboard?”

“Thanks.”

“And a Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“What?” Nina looked confused.

“It’s February fourteenth, Earth Relative Time. Happy Valentine’s Day.” The sound of a cutoff wheel from the cargo bay interrupted them. Workers reinforcing the supports for the bridge were already back at work at this early hour. “Apologies for the mess. We had a structural failure on this mission.”

“I see,” Nina said. “I was trying to figure out why a cargo ship needed a structural engineer aboard. Now I understand.”

Darlene did, too.

“I hope you’re all right with this,” Nancy said as Darlene stood at ease in front of the first officer’s desk.

“Perfectly, sir. Actually I feel a lot better now that Lt. Jardins’ aboard.”

“Even if all your welds are going to be replaced?” Nancy said with a trace of a smile.

“That was an emergency repair, sir. Nothing wrong with my welds.”

“It was a difficult job and you did well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Nina says the repairs will take six weeks. You need to make a schedule for everyone in the crew to take one week of leave – that includes yourself, it does not include the captain or second officer. I have you scheduled for a Dead Man’s Watch, which is a pretty good time to start on this project. You should start with the chief engineer – Herb doesn’t take leave much while aboard ship. Tell him that he gets first choice of dates and that you cannot proceed with the schedule until his slot is filled.”

“Yessir.”

“I don’t suppose I need to remind you that Mister Van Zoeren is not allowed to have the same week as Mister Camp.”

“Quite understandable.” The two woman shared the barest of smiles.

“By the way,” Nancy said, “I was reading the final bridge transcripts from the accident. At one point you were identified as saying,” she paused to pick up a datapad, “Stop it. Stop it. End run. Who were you talking to, ensign?”

Darlene’s cheeks colored slightly. “I’m afraid I was being battered by gear which came loose.”

“End run?”

“It’s what you tell the computers at the Academy to halt a simulation.”

“You understood you weren’t in a simulation situation?”

“I was… having a moment of panic, sir. But I quickly recovered.”

Nancy put the datapad back down. “You’re finally becoming the officer the Academy thought they were sending to the stars, Mister Charles.”

“Why thank you, sir.”

“Now don’t be a pill about it. Anything else?”

“Hmm.” Darlene thought for a moment, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. “So how did Captain Dessin know my first supervisor was himself a Southerner?”

“Because I told her.”

“Then how did you know?”

“The other ensign made a complaint to Fleet JAG – a complaint which upon investigation seemed to prove valid.”

“But I wasn’t called to testify or give a deposition.”

“We thought it best if you weren’t involved. Starting out in a military career is a delicate business – no point in adding to your difficulties.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Captain Dessin has some pull with Fleet Personnel. While they come down and yank some of our experienced people from time to time, we also get to choose the replacements.”

“You choose your replacements?”

“Funny world we live in sometimes, isn’t it?” Nancy said.

“I guess.” She could barely contain the thoughts racing through her head – or the questions which needed answering.

But Nancy had been through this before. “I think that’s more than enough truth for one day, ensign.”

Darlene started to go. “Do you think there’s time for me to get something to eat? I think so much better on a full stomach.”

“Go. You’re dismissed.”

“Aye-aye, sir,” Darlene said, saluting. But just before she went through the hatch she turned back. “And thank you.”

Nancy Kramer smiled, but said nothing more.

___
Copyright 2012 Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon teaches Physics at Western Michigan University by day and writes of the great wars of the 29th century and elsewhen at night. In his first half century, he’s lived in the lake effect snow pattern of four of the five Great Lakes, from growing up in Western New York to getting a B.A. in Integrated Sciences (everything) at Northwestern and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Michigan Tech. His stories have been published on three continents on this planet, including “A Man in the Moon” in the 24th Writers of the Future anthology, “The Brother on the Shelf” in Analog, “Hail to the Victors” in Abyss & Apex, two stories translated to Greek, and Down Under, “Machine” and “In The Blink Of An Eye” appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. In April of 2012 his near-term SF story “The New Tenant” will appear in the U.K. anthology Rocket Science. Dr. Phil’s website is www.dr-phil-physics.com.