Table of Contents
The Icelandic Troll was a brief, yet big, part of my youth.
I’d belonged to a Star Trek fan club called Starfleet, where each local chapter was a starship. I’d belonged to the USS Jamestown chapter in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and with some other members had formed the USS Powhatan in nearby Chesapeake. We had a great time, doing charity events, fundraisers, and playing (heavily modified) Lazer Tag in the woods at night. We went camping, went on group movie trips, and more. I was the youngest person in the group at the time (earning plenty of Wesley Crusher teases), and the entire group was basically my big brothers sisters. It was probably the first time I’d really been accepted fully into a social group, and it felt great.
Times change, and in a Navy town they change quick. People came and went, and before long Powhatan wasn’t doing the stuff I’d enjoyed. I missed the friends that had left. I still loved Star Trek, but it wasn’t the same social group. Starfleet in general had started to get very political, with people nationally arguing about how to run the organization, who could do what, which “generation” you had to pick ship names from, and all kinds of nonsense. It stopped being as much fun.
Some of my best friends felt the same way, and one of them, Buzz Ryan, formed his own little group. Completely unofficial, the Icelandic Troll wasn’t some grand starship. It was a garbage scow. A salvage ship, with a part-time interest in search and rescue, since that was a personal interest of Buzz’. We were joined by Shandra Smith (now Stevenson), who was a high school friend of mine, and her husband. Our sole reason for existing was simply to get together and have fun, and sometimes make fun of the uptight Starfleet groups in the area. Buzz and I may, or may not, have similar burn scars which are now barely recognizable as the letters “I” and “T.” The little crew of the Troll got each other through some difficult times.
Buzz is a fair hand at drawing, and started providing illustrations for the snarky, mostly-poking-fun-at-the-Powhatan’s-new-Captain short stories I wrote. We had a great time, and the crew of the Troll was there for me through some tough times as I navigated my apprenticeship, an (abandoned) Air Force enlistment, and a lot more. Buzz, then a Navy parachute specialist, was eventually transferred, which was a real blow to me. I moved away for work not long after, and we fell out of touch.
We reconnected via Facebook a few years ago, and have been in closer touch since then, and it’s been a real thrill. Not just for the nostalgia of “remember when?” but because Buzz is a truly cool guy. We’d both been better about keeping in touch with Shandra since then, and I got to see her kids–still toddlers when Troll was a thing–grow up and move on to their own lives. Buzz and Shandra went through a divorce. Shandra remarried, I got married (after twenty years with the same person, it seemed like time), and Buzz recently got engaged. It got me thinking about the Troll, and how much silly, carefree fun we’d had. About how we’d make up snarky, ridiculous stories on the spur of the moment. Buzz’ work with the Starship Farragut team, and his “episode guide” for a USS Geronimo NCC-535 show, lent a sometimes-more-serious air to the Troll background in my mind.
And so this was born, a likely perpetual work-in-progress I can treat as a hobby. I’m borrowing heavily from the “characters” we dreamed up for ourselves, as well as what I took from Buzz’ lovingly flip attitude about the whole thing. I hope you enjoy these stories, but if you don’t, frankly, it’s likely because they were only ever meant for the three of us.
Tales of the Icelandic Troll is set in the Star Trek universe, around the time of the original 1960s television series. However, it draws heavily from non-canonical lore, and concerns itself far more with story than with a slavish devotion to chronology.
Although this book is a work of fiction, any resemblance to actual persons is absolutely intentional.
If you’re a fan of old-school sci-fi filk music, you’ll recognize some of the retellings herein. Much gratitude to Leslie Fish, Vic Tyler, Teri Lee, and the crew of Off-Centaur Productions for their inspiration.
“Why is this taking so long?” First Officer Smith asked me. “Wouldn’t the phaser torches be faster?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “But the Captain specifically asked me to get some footage of the bunny cutting up the hull with a hand torch. Besides, it gives me time to watch Top Gun again.”
“Ugh,” she sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “It’s bad enough he puts them in those ridiculous bubble-top, form-fitting silver spacesuits. This is going to take forever.”
“You could always do an inspection of the Engineering spaces,” I suggested. “We’re about six months overdue.”
“We’re overdue because I hate that idiot, and I’m not going back there. First excuse I get, we’re putting him off at the next port, even if I have to shovel coal myself.”
“Pretty sure we run on dilithium,” I said.
Silence settled back onto the bridge. We’d arrived at Delphine IV yesterday, after winning a bid to salvage an old, abandoned intersystem ship hull that had been been falling out of orbit for several months. Captain Ryan had promptly gone on a personal shore leave, primarily because the planet’s dominant species was apparently very similar to Earth dolphins, and because the planet was primarily aquatic. The Captain’s latest space-bunny was out, in her admittedly ridiculous and sexist spacesuit, slowly carving off the bits of the hulk that wouldn’t fit into the Troll’s salvage bay. Once she’d trimmed it down, we’d slowly swallow the rest of the craft and be on our way.
The Icelandic Troll was, like its Captain, a bit of a hodgepodge. It was, in essence, a giant box. The front quarter split in half, hinging sideways and providing access to its spacious salvage bay. The bay was equipped with hundreds of tractor/pressor beams, letting us hold odd-shaped salvage in place during transit. Since it could be flooded with atmosphere but kept at zero gravity, the bay made a more convenient place to disassemble wrecks–when they fit. When they didn’t, we needed to chop off the extra bits to it could all cram in. Normally, we’d do that using an array of phasers mounted just inside the salvage bay. In this case, the old-fashioned approach had been mandated.
Lying across the top three-quarters of the box was our secondary Engineering hull, basically a narrow tube centered on the top of the salvage bay. Protruding downward and slightly outward from the tube were two beat-up warp nacelles capable of driving us at about warp 4. On a good day. Slung across the bottom of the main hull was the crew hull, consisting of a fairly spacious Captain’s quarters, a half-dozen crew cabins, and some common spaces. Attached to the bottom of that, with direct egress into the Captain’s quarter’s, was the “Captain’s skiff,” a search-and-rescue vehicle the Captain had salvaged and rebuilt. We affectionately called it Little Troll, but never in Captain Ryan’s hearing.
The bridge, which sat at the foremost end of the Engineering hull, was a small affair. A utilitarian, two-station central console provided access to most of the ship’s functions, including the drive systems, navigation, helm, environment, communications, and salvage operations–it had been designed to run with just a couple of crew members. The Captain, when present, had bolted an old Starfleet command chair just behind the center console, which made it a bit tight to move around the bridge, but made him extraordinarily happy. To the left of the command chair was an equally out-of-place secondary console that housed some of the Captain’s “upgrades.” The Troll was very much no longer running to her original specifications.
“Why are you listening to that with the sound off?” Smith asked.
“I’m not. I replaced the audio outputs with ultra beam-forming ones. You have to pretty much be sitting right in this chair, and be almost exactly my height, or you won’t hear a thing.”
“Why in the world did you go through all that trouble? We’ve got headphones.”
“First, they muss up my hair. Second, this way the Captain doesn’t know when I’m watching movies. Warp 4 is the second-most boring way to travel, right after generation ships,” I said.
“I see.” Silence returned like a grumpy coworker who’d gone out for coffee only to discover the pot had been empty for an hour.
“Hey guys,” a voice crackled over the main intercom. Our illustrious Captain. We both sat slightly upright, and I paused Top Gun. “How’s it going up there?”
“Oh, peachy,” Smith replied. “We’re staring at Debbie chopping off the second of this thing’s four in-system drive pods. How’re you?”
“Who’s Debbie?” Ryan asked.
“Delilah,” I hissed.
“I meant Delilah. Your… yeoman? What do we call her?” Smith said.
“You mean Denise?” Ryan asked. “She’s not a yeoman, she’s an intern. We’re dropping her off at Qualor II with the salvage. She wants to see about getting a job there.”
“Right, right, Denise,” Smith said. “It’s so hard to keep track,” she muttered. Then, “how’re the dolphin-things?”
“Oh yeah, they’re great. I mean, they don’t keep the blowholes and… other holes… in the same places. So that got a bit confusing. Also, I’m heading back up in the skiff. We should… we should probably plan to leave pretty soon after I get back. There may have been misunderstandings.”
This was a drill we were well-acquainted with. “On it,” I said. “Denise,” I said, switching channels, “get back inside pronto.” I began powering up the salvage phasers and started running a topography scan of the wreck.
“Joe,” Smith said, keying the Engineering channel, “get the warp drive hot, and make sure the salvage bay beams are ready for full power.”
“I was just going to take the warp core offline and rebuild it!” Our engineer replied. This was a fairly standard reply of his, in my experience; he was always wanting to rebuild things, but seldom left the relative comfort of the engineering console.
“Ah well,” Smith said, “maybe next stop. Be ready in twenty. Bridge out.” She toggled the channel off. “We’re leaving him at Qualor II. I’m done,” she muttered. “You got the phaser array ready, Don?”
“Almost,” I said. “There. Scan complete. Engaging automated array.” Then, in my best 20th century sentai warrior voice, “it’s time… to slice and dice!” The phase array flared to life, slicing off the remaining drive pods. Tractor beams lanced out to meet each one, dragging them into the bay. “Engaging impulse drive, one meter per second. Prepare tractor-pressor net.”
“Already on it,” Smith said. A bleep from our console announced that the Captain’s skiff had been picked up exiting the atmosphere and was en route to us. “Salvage net at full power.” Sensors and the ship’s computer locked tractor and pressor beams onto the wreck’s main hull, drawing it into the bay and slowing it down as we coasted over it. After a couple of minutes, she announced, “wreck is clear. Closing bay doors.”
“Accelerating to one-tenth c,” I said, goosing the impulse drive to the top speed our Captain could safely match for docking in his skiff.
“Hey guys,” his voice came over the intercom again, “there isn’t any fuzz up there, is there?”
I pulled up the system ship log. “There’s a Starfleet destroyer, USS Geronimo, just breaking the ecliptic on the other side of the planet. But they wouldn’t care about local law enforcement issues, and I don’t think the planet has a space fleet.”
“Okay,” he said. “Wow, Geronimo. That’s Captain Cree. He’d at least listen to my explanation. Anyway, docking in thirty seconds. As soon as I’m latched on, punch it.”
“Wilco,” Smith said. “Hey, did Debbie get back inside?”
“Denise,” I corrected. “And I’ve no idea, that stupid suit doesn’t have a transponder. Denise,” I said, activating the shipwide intercom, “you make it back in?”
“This is Denise,” she replied. “Yeah, I’m just getting into the shower. Is Buzz going to be back soon?”
“He’s docking now,” Smith said, flicking off the intercom. “I swear to God,” she muttered. “You have a course plotted to Qualor II yet?”
“An hour ago,” I said. “Captain’s docked and confirmed. Ready to engage.”
“Hit it,” she said. I slapped the Warp Engage button and listened to the engines spin up. And… stay there.
“Isn’t this where the stars go all stretchy?” she asked.
“Normally, yes,” I said, swiveling to the engineering display on my left. “Engineering,” I said, “what’s happening back there?”
“Warp drive’s at nominal power,” he said, tension in his voice. “But the warp bubble isn’t forming. We don’t have the sensors for this kind of thing, but it seems like something’s pressing the warp bubble inward so that it can’t encompass the entire ship. I’m shutting it down before something burns out.” The thrumming feeling/noise I associated with a spun-up warp drive quickly ramped down to nothing.
“Why aren’t we in warp?” Buzz asked, bursting into the bridge and collapsing into his command chair. “We need to be in warp.”
“We tried,” Smith said. “It’s not going. Something’s preventing the warp bubble from forming.”
“Uh, Buzz,” I said, “we’re being hailed. It’s Geronimo.”
“No, no no nonono!” he replied not-calmly. “Do they know we know they hailed us?”
“Yeah, that’s kind of the point of the hailing thing,” I said. “On screen?”
“Yes,” he said, leaning his elbows on his knees and placing his face into his hands.
“Buzz!” said the dapper-looking Starfleet Captain now on our screen. “It’s Captain Cree! How’re you doing over there?”
“Oh, hey!” Ryan replied sitting up and offering a decent approximation of a smile. “We’re, ah… we’re good?”
“Your warp engine just lit up our sensors big-time,” Cree said. “Everything okay?”
“Funny you should mention it… um, Shandra? Want to fill him in?”
“Sure,” she said, sighing. I tapped her elbow, pointing to my in-system sensor display. Geronimo had pulled up alongside us, close enough for a tractor beam to latch on. They probably thought we needed a tow, although I didn’t know where in this particular system they’d tow us. She nodded, and continued, “we’d just finished pulling that wreck into our bay, and were ready to warp to Qualor II. Our warp drive ran up to full power just fine, but our engineer says something was preventing the warp bubble from forming around the entire hull. He said it was like something was pressing it inward toward the nacelles.”
“Yeah, our sensors showed something similar, although gravitic readings suggest something was pulling the bubble in. What exactly was that wreck you–wait one,” he said, turning aside to one of his crew. “What?” He was handed a PADD, which he quickly scanned before looking back at us. “How’s your impulse drive?”
“It’s fine,” I said, glancing at my console. We were still–“ah, not fine. It’s completely offline. We’re just drifting at our last speed and vector.”
“Yeah, us too,” he confirmed. “And our sensors are showing some serious gravitational anomalies. Whatever you’re salvaging must be responsible.”
“I’m pulling up the bid,” Ryan said, reaching for his own PADD. Says it was the… SS Apple’s Core. In-system drives only. We’re not licensed for warp core salvage.”
“Apple’s Core?” Cree asked, glancing to his right, where his Science Officer would sit. There was a brief pause. “Ah. I see. Well. Buzz,” he said, turning back to his view screen, “I’m going to send a small engineering and scientific party over, led by my Science Officer, Mr. Garret. Can you open your salvage bay and provide them direct access?”
“Uh, sure,” Ryan said, pointing at me. “What’s up?”
“Classified,” Cree said, smiling. “Sorry. It looks like there was a mixup in the paperwork when Apple’s Core was decommissioned. She was an NX-series Starfleet experimental ship. Just get that bay door open for me.”
“Bay door opening,” I said, tapping the controls. A Starfleet shuttle had already departed Geronimo’s shuttle bay and was angling toward us. I noticed that they were using their gas-powered attitude thrusters rather than the shuttle’s impulse drive. “You guys need a tractor assist?”
“I believe not,” came a voice from the shuttle, “but please stand by to assist in case it is required.” The voice sounded Vulcan.
“Wilco,” I replied. I muted the inter-ship channels. “Wonder what we–um, hey,” I said, staring at my console. “We stopped.” Space has very strict rules about inertia, and without some force to oppose our drift, we should have simply kept drifting more or less forever. “How did we stop?” I unmuted the intra-ship. “Geronimo, our sensors show that we’ve come to a complete stop.”
“Ours too,” Cree replied, looking somewhat worried. “Stand by. Let’s see what the shuttle team says–they’re pulling up to your bay right now.”
Truth in advertising: their shuttle had stopped just shy of the bay entrance, and two suited figures were moving inside on puffs of gas. Several minutes passed in silence, save for us squirming uncomfortably in our chairs.
“Buzz, we’ve got some news,” Cree said. “Without getting into the classified details, you’ve picked up an old Starfleet experiment that we apparently lost track of. We’re guessing that when you cut off the drive pods, you interrupted some kind of low-power feedback loop that had kept the experimental portion of the ship dormant. It’s now coming online, and it’s what is suppressing our drive systems and holding us in place.”
“What is it?” Ryan asked urgently.
“Well, again not to get into the classified bits, it’s kind of an artificial micro- black hole. Or at least it will be when and if it fully activates.”
“You idiots made a black hole?”
“No, not exactly. Again, I can’t get into the classified bits, but let’s just say that in its current condition and situation, it can probably suck both of our ships down to very, very tiny remnants of themselves. If it activates.”
“And what,” Smith asked slowly, “activates it?”
“We’re not real sure,” Cree said, finally dropping some of the cheer from his voice. “We don’t have a full set of records and we’re having some problems getting a transmission to Memory Alpha.”
“Great,” Buzz said. “Should we evacuate the Troll?”
“No,” Cree said, waving a hand, “you’d never be able to get far enough away to do any good. Otherwise I’d beam you over here and put you on an escape pod.”
“Gee, thanks,” Ryan muttered. “So what do we do?”
“Sit tight,” Cree said. “We’re working on some ideas and taking some measurements.” He muted the line from his end, so I muted ours as well.
Ryan drummed his fingers on the armrest of his command chair until Steveson told him to stop. “I hate waiting,” he muttered.
“We all do,” she muttered back.
“Hey,” I said, “the tractor/pressor net in the bay is still active, right?”
“I assume so,” Smith said, glancing at her console. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“So look,” I said, “if this thing’s main goal is to hold its own position in space, which seems to be the case at present, then why can’t we just flip everything to pressor? It might not shove it out of our bay, but it’d shove us backwards from it, unless its just exerting so much gravity that it overloads the pressors, in which case we shut them off and cry a lot.”
Ryan shrugged and signaled Geronimo. Cree came back on, and Ryan explained my plan. He pursed his lips in thought. “Hmm. Yeah. Maybe. See, this thing isn’t in gravity mode per se right now. It’s kind of in a certain kind of energy-suppression mode, but you’re right in that your tractor/pressor net is clearly still working.” He paused. “Yeah. Let me get my crew out of there and we can give it a shot.”
It took several minutes for his crew to reboard their shuttle and move away on little puffs of gas. “Shuttle to Icelandic Troll,” the Vulcan-sounding voice came over the intercom, “you will need to gradually increase power to your pressor beams, monitoring them carefully for any overload. If one does overload, and explodes, it may trigger the wreck into an adverse reaction.”
“We may make it smoosh us into atoms,” our First Officer translated sotto voce. “Wilco,” she said more loudly. “Troll out.” She cut the communications channel and turned to me. “Okay, Don, your idea, your show.”
“Bay is fully open. Confirmed clear space to the aft. Engineering,” I said, opening a channel, “warp core to full power, divert all power to pressor net.” My console readings confirmed the power flow. “Initiating pressor array at ten percent… twenty… thirty… we’re showing movement! Array to forty percent and holding. We’re moving backwards at almost one meter per second. We should clear in about three minutes.”
Ryan opened a channel to Geronimo and relayed our progress. “How’re you guys fixed for shielding?” Cree asked. “Our best information at this point is to take a potshot at that thing with our phasers once you’re clear.”
“Whoa!” Ryan said, almost coming out of his chair. “We’ve got navigation-quality shields only, not the big stuff you guys carry!” Delightfully, he refrained from glancing at the illicitly installed console to his left, which controlled the equally illicit military-grade shield generators we’d installed. Not something we could actually use in front of a military ship, though.
“Okay,” Cree said, “it was just a thought. How far off will your pressor be able to push you?”
“Not much more than a hundred meters,” I replied. “Can you guys flip your tractor to press? It should extend to three or four hundred meters, right?”
“No,” Cree replied, shaking his head, “the cruisers get those because they handle the long-range exploration and stuff. Destroyers really only have tractors to help drag wayward shuttles back home. It’s okay,” he said, raising a hand. “You’re coming up on a hundred meters now. You’re probably still in range of the drive-dampening effect, but we’re working on another idea. Try killing your pressors, but be prepared to flip them back on if you edge forward.”
“Dropping pressor net to twenty percent…” I paused, and my console didn’t show us moving forwards toward the wreck. “Pressor net at zero,” I announced.
“Okay,” Cree said. “We’re showing some weird gravitic readings, now. It’s ramping up to something since coming out of your hull. Locking on tractor beam.” A hazy beam of light connected Geronimo to the hulk, although neither one moved. “Buzz, you got emergency attitude thrusters on that scow?”
“Yeah,” I answered for him. He hated other people using that word. “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, I want you to shift about ten degrees down, so you’re pointed through the ecliptic instead of along it. Then we’re both going to engage our warp engines at full power. We think having two sources, especially with ours being so much stronger, might let your nacelles deploy a proper bubble and get you out of here.”
“What’ll happen to you guys?” Ryan asked.
“Hopefully nothing,” Cree said, smiling. “In which case we’d like you to squirt a request to Memory Alpha for us. I’m transmitting over an encrypted packet now.” I nodded, indicating I’d received it. “Warp back into the system when you get their response, but keep well back from this thing. If we’re still here, you can send me the response, and it should have the codes for deactivating this thing.”
The three of us were silent for a moment. There was a big if there. We made fun of Starfleet a lot, but this is what they were for, and it was huge to have them there when you needed them. Ryan nodded. “Engineering,” he said, “prepare for maximum warp.”
“What, again?” came the reply. “I thought I’d have time to rebuild the–”
“PREPARE FOR MAXIMUM WARP!” Ryan shouted, before slamming the button that closed the channel. “Please fire him at the next port,” he told Smith.
“Already done,” she confirmed.
“The Troll is reoriented,” I said. “Course laid in, ready to engage. Geronimo seems to be spinning up their own warp drive.”
“Punch it,” our Captain said quietly. I punched it. This time, the Troll’s warp engines spun up and launched us out of the system at several times the speed of light. We came to a stop in open space.
“Transmitting to Memory Alpha,” I said, keying the instructions into the communications controls. Several tense moments passed. Then: “Reply received and stored. Return course laid in.”
“Go,” Ryan whispered. By now, there might not be a Geronimo to deliver the reply to. I engaged the warp drive. We emerged several light-minutes away from Geronimo, close enough for ordinary communications to work without much delay, but well outside the range of that wreck.
“Transmitting!” I said, hitting the button. “Sensors show Geronimo closing in on the wreck, though–they’re closer than we were, at this point!”
“Ah, Buzz, good to see you,” Cree said in an audio-only response. “We’ve received your transmission, and none too soon. This puppy is actively dragging us in, now. Give me a few.”
Nobody said anything for several minutes. Then, “Geronimo’s tractor beam has disengaged!” I said. “They’re moving away quickly–their impulse engines must be active again.”
“Can I get a visual?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “sorry. Pulling it up now.” Our main screen showed the destroyer rapidly backing away from the relatively tiny wreck. At a couple of kilometers away, her phasers lashed out, and the wreck’s explosion was entirely disproportional to its size. We’d have been wiped out at a hundred meters.
“Problem solved,” Cree said, his image replacing the still-bright explosion on our screen. “Thanks for the assist, Troll.”
“We’re the ones thanking you,” Smith said. “We’d probably be dead if you hadn’t been in-system.”
“All in a day’s work,” Cree said, smiling. “Which does remind me–right before all the excitement, we got a request from the planetary government, asking for an assist since they lack a space force. Something about a possible interspecies paternity suit?”
“I, ah, the, I’ve no idea what that could possibly be about.” Ryan stammered.
“Yeah, I figured. Still, it’d probably be best if you steered clear of this system for a bit?”
“No reason for us to be back,” Ryan said, waggling his hand at me. “Okay, thanks again and hope to run into you some other time! Troll out!” The communications feed cut out. “Get us to Qualor II, please. Now, please.”
“Course laid in, and ready to engage,” I said.
“Punch it,” Smith said before Ryan could respond. Troll’s warp drive literally told space to get bent, and we were on our way.
“What have you done?” Our First Officer, Shandra Smith, demanded.
“I thought we were about to miss our turn,” our Captain, Buzz Ryan, said. They were behind me, Ryan sitting in his command chair and Smith likely doing her best to loom over him. She sounded pissed, which was not a good thing.
“So you, what, wrenched the helm hard left while we were moving at Warp 4?”
“Yeah,” I piped in, “that’s basically what the helm log shows.”
“You know that the helm computer doesn’t ‘miss our turn,’ right?” she asked, tension rising in her voice.
“I mean, it can make mistakes,” Ryan said.
She rubbed the bridge of her nose. She got a lot of headaches. “Remember how we discussed not touching the helm until Don and I got back?” she said slowly, as if talking to a particularly slow child.
“I do know how to drive this ship,” Ryan said, like a particularly petulant slow child.
“You demonstrably do not,” she retorted, sitting down in the chair next to mine and scanning the console. “These nacelles can’t take that kind of abuse. They’re old, and even going in a straight line is a challenge. So,” she said, turning to me, “where’re we at?”
“Warp core is offline. I can’t tell more without going down to engineering. Inertial dampers are offline. Again, can’t tell more. Artificial gravity is fluctuating and is probably offline in the crew hull. I hope someone washed the dishes, because if not we probably need new dishes.”
“And you fired our engineer at the last station,” Ryan helpfully reminded Smith. I was pretty sure I could hear her molars grinding together.
“I’ll stay here,” she said to me, “can you go back to Engineering and see what you can find?”
“Yup. I’d actually like to shut off the gravity entirely. It’ll make this a little quicker, and that system might just need a reset anyway.”
“Done,” she said, tapping her console and placing the ship in zero gravity.
“Back in a sec,” I said, pushing off my console toward the hatch at the rear of the bridge. I pushed off again and sailed through the long access tube that led to Engineering, close to the aft end of the ship. I settled into the Engineering console and opened a channel to the bridge. “Okay, it looks like the warp core did a self-preservation shutdown, so we should be able to get it back online pretty easily. Impulse engines read five by five. Logs show the gravity systems probably do just need a reset, so they should be fine. I expect it was the sudden jolt that threw them off.”
“So we’re good to go?” Ryan’s voice came back.
“Yup, all except for the inertial dampers, which seem to be completely fried. So we’re good to go so long as you don’t mind getting smooshed as soon as we start moving at any appreciable speed.”
“I’m lighting up the distress beacon,” Smith said, “nav says there’s a station not too far away, and I’m sending them a request for assistance.”
“How far?” I asked.
“Fraction of a light-year,” she said. “A small fraction, actually. It’d be an hour at full impulse, maybe, assuming we wouldn’t be killed at full impulse.”
“Couldn’t we just work up to full impulse really, really slowly, so the inertia wouldn’t kill us?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, in theory,” I said, “but I was actually wrong about the impulse engines. They’re reading as fully operational, but as I glance around back here, I notice that the main power conduits are actually charred black with smoke coming out of them, so I’m a bit suspicious of the diagnostic system.”
“No impulse engines,” I clarified. “Also, everything else is suspect. We’re going to need to overhaul the Engineering systems, and we’re going to need a decently equipped station for that.”
“I have an idea,” Smith said.
“You got a reply form the station?” I asked.
“I did not,” she said, “but I’d like to start moving in that direction anyway.”
“I may not have been crystal-clear on the state of the engines,” I started.
“No, I got it. No engines. But you do remember what we picked up at the last station, right?”
Icelandic Troll was nominally a salvage ship, with search-and-rescue being a kind of side hobby. But that meant the ship consisted primarily of a giant empty box, where we’d work on salvage as we took it to someplace to sell. This trip, we’d been hired as an ersatz cargo ship. I’d not actually looked at the manifest we’d been given, although I pulled it up on my PADD. “Organic compounds?”
“Yeah,” Smith said. “Meet me in the bay.”
We usually kept the bay fully pressurized in transit, and this trip was no exception. It only took me a few moments to clamber through the hatch in the floor and emerge into the aft end of the bay; Smith popped in a bit ahead of me, using the hatch just aft of the bridge. Our cargo was twelve large, identical, cylindrical metal tanks, held in place in the middle of the bay by its built-in array of tractor and pressor beams. Each tank was about thirty meters long and probably ten meters in diameter. We each pushed off the ceiling of the bay and arrived at the same tank. We edged over to a label that was riveted onto the side. It was covered in barcodes, but a section in small text read, “Keep chilled. Contains Saccharomyces cerevisiae.”
“Sack-a-what?” I asked.
“It’s beer,” Smith said. “We have twelve tanks of beer.”
I did some math in my head. “This is over two million liters of beer.”
“They’re pressurized, too.”
“Pressurized.” I said. The word wandered around in my mind.
“We have all those struts,” she added, pointing to where they were strapped down against the inner walls of the bay.
“We use those to support wrecks when we’re dismantling them,” I said, not understanding where this was going.
“Yeah,” she said, “but they’re hollow. They’re basically four-inch pipes.”
“Pipes,” I repeated. That word wandered around in my mind, too. It eventually brushed up against pressurized. “You want to make beer jets.”
“I do,” she said, grinning.
“He’s going to be pissed,” I said.
“I know,” she said, grinning bigger.
“It’ll take us a couple of days at a jet-powered crawl,” I said.
“I figure at some point the station will be able to send something to tow us, but worst case, yeah, a couple of days. We’ve plenty of provisions.”
“I’m getting the welding kit,” I said, kicking toward the back of the bay.
“I’ll turn the ship around,” she said, kicking back toward the hatch that led to the bridge.”
A couple of hours later, the rear of the Troll was pointed toward the station; we’d had enough oomph in the pressurized attitude thrusters to achieve that much. We’d depressurized the bay, and I’d donned a work suit to weld a pipe to one of the tanks. Smith had cracked the bay doors open, and I’d run the pipe out the opening. “I think we’re ready,” I said. “I’m on a safety tether and I’ve got a good hold on this pipe.”
“WE CANNOT DO THIS,” Ryan yelled over the intercom.
“We mourn for the brew,” Smith said. I opened the fuel line, and we rode to the station on a long wake of foam.
The station–which apparently was a fairly isolated facility that didn’t check their communicators all that often–finally got in touch. We were about an hour out, with two tanks to go, when they sent a ship over to give us a tow. Figuring that the cargo job was pretty much a write-off at this point anyway, we drank up some of the fuel, and were feeling no pain when we arrived at the station.
So pity us poor sailors, wherever we roam,
For there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever come home.
So cheer for us sailors, riding in on the foam!
We were drunker than lords by the time we got home!
The Troll was making a run through sector 7, near Barber’s Star. We’d picked up a sweet load of salvage that included some rare minerals, and a colony on Barber IX had offered us a great price. The problem with Barber’s Star is that it had a really anomalous gravity well, forcing us to drop out of warp well outside the system, and cruise to the colony on impulse.
Meaning we had time to kill.
But we still needed to be fairly alert. This system was very near the Federation-Klingon border, and while it wasn’t a contested system, you definitely had to be on your toes. Barber IX had had more than its fair share of Klingon raids in the past, until Starfleet had built a heavily-armed outpost station in orbit.
“You know,” I said into the dreary-yet-tense silence on the bridge, “there was a story back in the academy that I think was about this system.” Buzz and Shandra knew I’d been through Starfleet Academy, although I’d quickly discovered that Starfleet life wasn’t my cup of tea after serving as a junior Communications ensign for a couple of years.
“Oh?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, apparently back in ‘82 there were a bunch of Klingon raids in this area. The USS Christian was out here on patrol, and was lost.”
“Lost?” Shandra asked, perking up. She loved war stories.
“The story goes that they were one of the tightest-run scouts in the fleet at the time. Captain Jamie Dawson. But they were jumped by three Klingon raiders. She was just a scout ship, so she wouldn’t have stood a chance,” I said. “But that’s not what makes the story interesting. Apparently after she didn’t check-in for several days, they dispatched a frigate out here. All three of the raider ships were found dead in space, and those suckers were light cruisers. There’s no way a Starfleet scout ship could have done that kind of damage.”
“And the Christian?” Buzz asked.
“Not a sign of her. The whole crew was declared Missing, Presumed Killed in Action.”
“Creepy,” Shandra said. “On that note, do we know which ship is on patrol around here now?”
“USS Powhatan,” Buzz said, “although it’s a big patrol area and she’s mainly concerned about the border. We probably won’t run into her.”
“I’m not sure running into her would be a bad thing, right now,” Shandra said. “Hey, heads up–sensors are picking up contacts.” She paused for a moment, reading her console. “Shit,” she said quietly.
I could hear Buzz sit upright in his retrofitted command chair. “What?” he asked.
“These are Klingons,” she said tensely. “Four of them.”
I started laying in a pattern of evasive maneuvers, and slapped the distress beacon into life. I heard Buzz lunging for the jury-rigged console to his left, enabling the quasi-legal military-grade shielding he’d incorporated into the Troll. “Buzz, they’re jamming the beacon. And we’re being hailed.”
“Federation ship,” snarled the dark-visaged Klingon captain who appeared on our screen. “Lower your shields and prepare to be boarded. You cargo belongs to the Klingon Empire and if you are lucky you will live to tell your descendants of this day.”
Buzz kicked the back of my chair. “Nothing, boss,” I said quietly. “We’ve got salvage phasers with a range of under a hundred meters, and even those are useless unless we open the bay doors. Plus, even with those shields they can wipe us out in thirty seconds.” The Troll didn’t have a power plant capable of running those shields for long, especially under a four-ship barrage.
He steamed for a moment, glaring at the screen. “Fine,” he said tightly. “Shields down.” He stabbed the console, killing the heavy shields. “We won’t resist–”
“New contact!” Shandra said. She closed the channel with the Klingons, and displayed a vector plot on the main screen. We were in the middle, roughly surrounded by the four raiders. A new blip was swinging in from “below” us.
“Is that the Powhatan?” Buzz asked.
“No, the signal isn’t strong enough. If it was them, we’d know,” she said. “And it doesn’t look big enough, to be honest.”
“Another Klingon, then,” Buzz said. “Talk about overkill. Get that captain back on the–”
“No, it’s not. The vector’s all wrong. This one’s headed in hot,” she said. “Plus, look at this.” The main screen flipped to show a visual, but all we could see was a glowing red ball.
“What the hell is that?” Buzz asked.
“It’s their shields,” I said. “They’ve got them modulated so tightly they’re reflecting photons. The shield’s opaque.”
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Buzz said.
“You can’t,” I whispered. The ship was moving fast, close to full impulse speed, and the Klingons were just starting to react. The closest raider started to peel off and engage when the stranger fired what must have been the brightest, hottest phaser I’d ever seen. Like, frigate-class megaphaser bright, although this ship didn’t look large enough to mount that kind of weaponry. The bright blue beam smashed through the raider’s shields and obliterated the ship in a single shot.
“Holy crap,” Buzz whispered.
The stranger wasn’t done. The other three raiders had started moving, but the stranger was pulling off impossible maneuvers. In seconds, two more raiders had been cut down by those incredible phasers. The last raider managed to get on the stranger’s tail, but the stranger simply pulled “up,” executed something like a spaceborne Immelmann, and came about face-to-face with the raider. Another bright phase beam drilled the Klingon ship right down the middle, and the stranger flew through the debris.
It all took less than a minute. I was shaking.
“Jesus Christ,” Shandra whispered. I think she meant it.
“I’m trying to hail it,” I said, “but I’m not getting any confirmation that they’re even listening.”
The stranger pulled up directly in front of us, not fifty meters away. And she dropped her shields. I’d been half expecting some bright, shiny experimental battleship with an NX designation on her hull. What we saw instead was an old scout-class ship, like a Hermes class or something. There must have been thirty holes blasted clear through the ship’s saucer section, and her single warp nacelle seemed to dangle from a barely intact pylon. Still visible on the battered hull was USS Christian.
This was the tomb of Jamie Dawson and his crew.
We had no idea what to do, and I think all three of us were simply too scared to speak. I know I was. And then it got weird. The Christian didn’t fly off. She didn’t raise her shields. Instead, she began to fade. The outer hull went all smoky and translucent. Then the bulkheads. As we sat there trembling, the last thing that slipped from view were the bones of Jamie Dawson and his crew, still garbed in ragged Starfleet uniforms, staring solemnly at the Icelandic Troll.
Sailors have been telling each other stories for centuries. The Flying Dutchman, the Mary Celeste, and the Barnum’s Pride have scared superstitious men and women for a long, long time. There are stories of the Pale Rider, and the Lady by his side. But the story that most chills my spirit, because I swear to God it’s true, is the tale of Dawson’s Christian and her crew.
Another day, another salvage run. The Troll had been contracted to help with the dismantling of a Genesis-class research station that had had one too many close encounters with asteroids. Our capacious cargo bay was full to the brim with valuable salvage, and we were off to Starbase XI to turn it in for some hard-earned credits. Captain Ryan was behind me in his command chair, snoring lightly. First Officer Smith was next to me at our shared console, poking at her screen. Probably playing Tetris or something. I was screening the Tom Cruise classic film Labyrinth. The Troll was cruising along at Warp 3, which was pretty close to our top speed and definitely the maximum speed our new engineer, Bob, was comfortable with.
“You know there’s a big ion storm ahead,” Smith said. Not Tetris, then. She generally handled the helm while I handled navigation, although we could swap anytime we wanted.
“Um, sure,” I said. “Right here,” I said, tapping my screen and flipping Labyrinth into the background. “I saw it.”
She sighed. “Just plot a course around it.”
“It’s not all that severe,” I said. “And we’re in warp. It’s big, though. At this range I’m probably going to still skim the edge of it.” I was already poking the controls to modify the ship’s course. “Go ahead and execute.”
She reviewed the new course. “Should be fine,” she said, engaging the new heading. “Engineering,” she said, opening a channel to Bob back in the Engineering hull, “might want to lock it down for a few minutes. We’re going to skim the edge of a fairly big cloud of ionized particles in a few minutes.”
“Copy,” same the terse reply. Bob, thank the heavens, wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
The minutes ticked down until we entered the edge of the particle field. The ship shuddered slightly as our warp field interacted with the charged particles. It was all basically smooth sailing until we hit a more densely packed section, causing the ship to buck hard.
“What the hell?” Ryan said, coming out of his light nap.
“Ions,” I said. “Not bad, though. We’re clear of the field. Should be fine.”
“Yeah, let’s run a long-range scan just to make sure we don’t hit any more unexpected pockets like that one,” Smith said.
“Scanning,” I replied. “Um, there’s a ship ahead, but it looks like we’re otherwise clear.”
“A ship?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, she’s in warp, moving just a tick slower than us. Looks like a Starfleet cruiser from the basic signature.”
“Huh. Any idea which one?”
“No,” I said slowly. “It’s vaguely Miranda class, but… thing is, it’s not an exact match for the computer’s records. The basic configuration is right, but we don’t have a profile that matches the specific details. And… Captain, I think they’re pulling alongside.”
“What?” Ryan asked, leaning forward in his chair.
“Don’s right,” Smith confirmed, staring at her console. “They’re deliberately allowing us to catch up, and they’re maneuvering as if they’re trying to pull alongside.”
“You can’t pull alongside in warp,” Ryan said. “I thought the warp fields would bounce off each other or something.”
“Hardly,” I said. “There’d be some bad interactions, but they can keep pace with us so long as they keep their distance.”
“They’re not,” Shandra said, alarmed. She slapped the ship wide emergency channel into life. “Brace yourselves!”
The Starfleet ship had dropped back rapidly, pulling to what must have been within a hair’s breadth of our own warp field. The Troll shuddered mightily, and alarms were blaring from every console on the bridge. I reached over to drop us out of warp – a maneuver that wasn’t completely safe, in that situation, but that would at least get us down to relativistic speeds. I never had the chance. The other ship did something, and we both dropped out of warp immediately. More than out of warp: we essentially came a complete standstill in a single second. Troll’s inertial dampers overloaded with the unexpected shift, and we were all thrown forward. Ryan, who rarely fastened the seatbelt on his jury-rigged command chair, flew into the back of my chair. I was too busy trying to regain my breath after my own restraint dug into my diaphragm.
“Jesus,” Ryan moaned from the deck. At least he was alive. “You guys okay?”
“Yeah,” Smith groaned. “Engineering?” she said. The ship wide comm must have still been open, but there was no reply. “Bob?” Nothing. “Shit.”
“He may just have had the wind knocked out of him,” Ryan said. I nodded, still dealing with that same sensation.
“Unidentified vessel!” The speakers on the bridge blasted out a hail that I hadn’t even keyed to accept. “This is the ISS Reliant. Identify yourselves and prepare to be boarded for inspection.”
I turned and glanced at Shandra. We’d both caught the ISS. Starfleet ships were USS.
“This is the salvage ship SS Icelandic Troll,” Ryan called out. “Captain Buzz Ryan. What the hell did you do to us? Who’s your captain?”
Our forward viewscreen activated, delivering a video feed from the Reliant. Her captain was in standard Starfleet command gold, but it was… well, a custom shirt design, I suppose you’d call it. It sported a deep V-neck, a sash around the waist, and lacked sleeves. At his left hip was a Type-II phaser, and at his right was a dagger. Neither were customary accouterments for a Starfleet captain on the bridge of his own ship. “Silence!” he barked. “You will answer questions, not ask them. Prepare to be boarded.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the distinctive sound of a transporter chimed across our bridge. No fewer than four security officers beamed aboard. They wore normal-looking Starfleet shirts, in red of course, but sported gold waist sashes. They had Type-II phasers raised and pointed at us. Their insignia were unusual: I was accustomed to Starfleet crew wearing insignia distinct to their ship, but this one was an Earth-like globe pierced vertically by a long sword. It was a little more… military than I’d seen before.
“Do not move!” one of them ordered. “You are being taken into custody. Surrender all weapons immediately.”
“We’re not armed,” Ryan said. “We’re civilians. And we may have an injured–”
“Your fourth crew member is dead,” he said. He glanced at one of his compatriots. “How is it that you are not armed?” he asked. All four were eyeing us up, but our utilitarian coveralls didn’t leave a lot of places to hide weapons.
“As I said,” Ryan repeated, raising his hands slightly, “we’re civilians.”
“Impossible,” the man retorted. “There are no civilian ships in the Empire.” The other three men were moving toward us, each one positioning themselves next to one of us. “Reliant! Six to beam over!”
“Empire?” I started to ask, before I was swept up in the tingling, there-yet-not-there sensation of the transporter beam.
Several minutes later, we were aboard Reliant. We’d been “escorted” to their brig facility, and were each in our own individual, uncomfortably cozy niches behind force fields. The ship’s captain stood before us, accompanied by two security officers and a blue-garbed medical officer holding a tricorder. “Our records match your ship with the ISS Icelandic Troll,” the captain said, emphasizing the I, “an Imperial salvage ship under the command of one Jonathan Ryan of Earth.”
“That’s me!” Buzz said. I groaned internally. The medical officer stepped forward and gave Ryan a once-over with his tricorder. He showed the device’s screen to the captain.
“Yes, a genetic scan confirms your identity,” the captain said. “But our scans of your ship show its markings as SS Icelandic Troll, and show an installation of unauthorized military-grade equipment including heavy shields. Do you deny these facts?”
Buzz caught on and said nothing.
“I see. So you have renounced the Terran Empire, stolen Imperial property, and are conducting yourself as a rebel, no doubt in league with the so-called Reformist movement led by former Imperial Commander Spock.” He paused. “Take him to the agony booth.”
The two security officers stepped toward Buzz’ cell.
Several hours passed. Shandra and I weren’t left alone, but we at least weren’t hauled off to ‘agony booths,’ whatever those were. We were instead subjected to a simple interrogation by one of the ship’s security officers. They confirmed our names, and confirmed Shandra’s identity by means of a genetic scan. Turns out that their Smith–because we were very obviously in some kind of screwed-up alternate universe–was serving on the ISS Powhatan under the command of her mother. Like I said, screwed up. My own genetic scan… well.
“Your records match nothing in the Terran Empire’s fleet or citizen databases,” I was informed by the medical officer.
“I get that a lot,” I replied.
“You are demonstrably human,” he said, “and there have been no reports of rebel outposts in any timeframe corresponding with your age. The only possible conclusion is that you have tampered with Imperial databases, which is high treason and punishable by death.”
“Whoa!” I said, raising my hands. “Slow down. No, there’s a perfectly good explanation, and it has absolutely nothing to do with high treason.”
“And that is?” he prompted.
“Um. Genetic experiments modified my genome,” I said. “And it’s not in your database because it’s all classified way above your pay grade.” One of those things was definitely true, at least back in my own universe, and I hoped it’d help sell the other one.
The medic raised an eyebrow and stared at his tricorder. “Hmm,” was all he said. He glanced at the security officer. They looked at each other for a moment, and then turned and left the room. Shandra and I were alone in our separate cells.
“Genetic experiments?” she said.
“I just told you it’s classified,” I said. No way was this room not being monitored right now. “And besides, I–” I stopped as the doors swished open, and Buzz came back in. He was between two security officers, who each had hold of one of his arms. As they drug him, obviously, because he was passed out. They tossed him back in a cell, activated its force field, and walked back out without saying a word.
“Do you still know how to operate a transporter?” I asked Shandra.
“I feel that they’re probably already transmitting a message to the Powhatan, and they’re going to realize that you’re not the you they think you are.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Then they’re probably going to track down the ISS Troll and figure out that Buzz isn’t who they think he is.”
“So we should probably leave before then and the transporter seems like the easiest way.”
“You’re forgetting,” she said, “that we’re stuck inside force field detention cells.”
“I didn’t,” I said, “but I absolutely do not want to discuss this, not even later. Not ever.”
“Discuss what?” she asked.
I stuck my arm into my cell’s force field, which promptly stuttered and died. “That,” I said. I walked out and stuck my arm into hers, and then Buzz’, and they both promptly shut down.
“How the hell–”
“No. No discussions. Help me carry him, he weighs a ton.”
He had very little time, but fortunately their detention room was a short ways away from their transporter room. We paused outside the door, and I muttered, “you owe me a tooth, too.”
There was no time to answer as the door swished open. There were two crewmembers in the room: a red-shirt security officer and a duty officer behind the transporter console. I’d suspected as much. The security officer started to draw his phaser, but I ground down on a molar and spat in the man’s face; he went down immediately. Shandra threw some of her mad judo moves on the duty officer, and he crumped into a wall and slid to the floor, unconscious.
We hauled Buzz into the roomWe drug Buzz onto a transporter pad, and beamed ourselves back to the Troll’s bridge.
“There’s no way they didn’t notice all that,” I said. I quickly opened the Troll’s salvage bay doors and deactivated the tractor/pressor net that held our salvage in place.
“Then what the hell are you doing?” she asked, slipping into her seat and leaving Buzz lying on the deck.
“Just warm up the warp drive and plot us a course back to that ion field,” I said. “Backwards.” The ship’s inertial dampers could be deactivated within the salvage bay, and I did so. I then goosed us backwards slightly on impulse, causing the salvage to spread out in front of us. The Reliant was already pivoting slightly, probably to bring her phasers to bear on us.
“I’ve got a plot,” Shandra said. “We’re not supposed to do this with the bay doors open,” she noted. Whatever. That’s why we carried insurance.
“Stand by on the shields,” I said. She moved back into Buzz’ command chair, which was within reach of the jury-rigged shield controls he’d bolted to the wall years ago.
I was busy pivoting the Troll. We didn’t have proper weapons-grade phasers, but we had something better, in this case: a powerful short-range phaser array designed to help carve up debris so it could fit into the salvage bay. “When I say ‘now,’” I said, “hit the shields, then hit the warp drives. Whatever you think they’ll tolerate.” The leading edge of Reliant’s warp nacelles were right at the range of our phaser array, but it close enough was good enough. I fired. “Now!”
Reliant obviously didn’t consider us to be enough of a threat to raise shields, and so we inflicted a good bit of damage on both nacelles. Hopefully enough to keep them from following us too quickly. We leapt into warp. “We need to make sure we hit that same rough patch at the edge of the ion field,” I said.
“Yeah, I figured that’s what you meant. I got it,” she said.
“Ow,” came a ragged voice from the deck.
“Stay down, Buzz,” Shandra ordered. I could feel the Troll shimmying; she’d run us up to the old warp engines’ maximum. “Approaching the ion field.” We fastened our restraints.
I had a moment to worry that we weren’t duplicating our prior circumstances very well, since we were at a much higher velocity, when we hit the denser patch of ionized gas. The ship lurched, and Buzz came off the deck and then slammed right back into it. “Ow,” he repeated.
“Are we home?” Shandra asked.
“I’ve no idea,” I said, poring over my console’s readings. “Wait–yes. Yes, I’m getting Starfleet background traffic. I’m yelling for help. Wait a couple more light-years and drop us out of warp.”
Our extremely urgent and profanity-laden distress call was, ironically, answered by the USS Powhatan. I have never used the zoom function on the viewer more aggressively to verify that U on her hull. We’d been debriefed quite thoroughly by the ship’s captain, who shared nothing but gave us the distinct impression that the alternate Terran Empire universe wasn’t completely unknown to Starfleet.
“We’ll get warning buoys by that ion storm immediately,” the captain assured us. “And I don’t have to remind you again, do I, that this is all highly classified? You’re not to speak of it to anyone?”
“No, Mom,” Shandra said, “you don’t have to.”
“All right. You kids take care, then.” She closed the channel.
“Ow,” Buzz groaned under his breath. He’d been sitting in his command chair rubbing his head the entire time. Our automated medi-bay had declared him fit for service, but warned that he’d likely be in some pain for a few days. He’d declined its offer of analgesics and was instead nursing an enormous mug of hot tea.
“You okay?” Shandra asked.
“No,” he said. “Yes. I will be. That agony booth thing was well-named. How did you guys bust out of those cells, though?” I’d delicately avoided specifics with the Powhatan’s captain, kind of implying we’d been the beneficiaries of careless guards.
“We don’t discuss that,” I said. “Not ever. And you owe me a tooth.” I rubbed my tongue over the gap in my molars.
“I don’t think we can buy SFMC tooth capsules,” Shandra said.
I sighed. “I know a guy. Frankly, he could also get us some proper phasers, and I’m starting to think it’d be worth it.”
“Oh good,” Buzz said. “We can bolt those controls to the other wall,” he added, gesturing to the side of the bridge opposite his jury-rigged shield controls. “The lack of symmetry in here has always bothered me.”
Labyrinth hadn’t turned out to be as good as I’d remembered. I cued up Endless Love, which was definitely worse.
“Let me get this straight,” I said, pressing pause on Rain Man, which I’d been watching for an hour. “You’re going to go meet with a pirate.”
Captain Ryan smiled. He smiles loudly; I could hear it behind me. “Yep. When I said, ‘I’ve got a meeting with a pirate,’ that is what I meant.” Next to me, First Officer Smith snickered softly.
“And may we know why we are meeting with a pirate?” I asked.
“First, we are not. I am. Solo mission this time. Second, I think the pirate has a job lined up that I’m very eager to take.”
“But if I don’t go,” I protested, “I won’t be able to write anything in my journal about the mission.”
“I’ll take notes,” he replied.
“And since when do pirates offer us jobs?” Smith asked.
“I’ve known this particular pirate for some time,” Ryan answered, “and I believe it’s a search-and-rescue operation.”
“Well, what could possibly go wrong?” I muttered.
“Well, we’re almost to Downbelow Station,” Smith said. “They’ve got a berth for us. You know where you’re going once we get in?”
“Not exactly, but I’ve got the name of a place. Should be easy enough to look up on a directory when I get there. She said she’d feel more comfortable meeting at her place.”
“Her place?” I asked.
“Girls can be pirates, too,” he retorted.
“Her place?” Smith asked.
“Her place of business,” Ryan countered. “She owns a kind of restaurant.”
“A kind of–” I started.
“Yes, a kind. It’s called Black Amy’s Whorehouse and Grille,” he said.
I was distracted for a moment, because Shandra had stopped punching final approach instructions into her console and was apparently trying to swallow her own face. The result was a lot of sputtering, combined with some words I hadn’t realized she knew. A made a note to look up a couple of them later. “You okay?” I asked as she settled down.
“I am not okay,” she said, “and we will not talk about it here.”
“Okay, well, I’m going to go down to the skiff and grab a few things,” Ryan said, referring to the heavily customized, nearly antique search-and-rescue vehicle that snuggled up to the underside of the Troll. We did not refer to it as Little Troll in his hearing.
“I’m going to go down with you,” Smith said, standing from her console. “We can talk there before you go.”
I took over bridge operations while the two of them walked out, and finalized our approach into the station’s berth. “I do not enjoy being left out of the conversation!” I yelled to their backs. I toggled the shipwide comms on monitor-only mode. I’ve been told that eavesdropping is wrong, but I’ve never really bought into the concept.
“I’m going with you,” Smith said. “And that’s not up for discussion.”
“I can totally handle this myself,” Ryan said.
“This has nothing to do with whether you can handle this or not,” she said, “which you cannot. This has to do with the ship and the crew. Have you actually met this pirate before?”
“No, but we’ve done more than a couple of contracts. She’s legit.”
“I’m going with you,” she said. There was a tone of finality that did not invited commentary or dispute.
“Fine,” he said. “Just step out for a minute and let me change.”
“I’m not going to this meeting in coveralls,” he growled.
“Fine.” I heard her step out of the skiff and stand for a few minutes, tapping her foot. Then: “how long is this going to oh, my God. What are you wearing?” It was killing me that I didn’t have a video feed.
“What?” came Ryan’s voice.
“You look like a pirate whoreoh, I get it.” I’m pretty sure I knew the outfit she was talking about: flowing white shirt, tight at the cuffs, unbuttoned to the navel. With any luck, he’d strung a bunch of fake gold chains around his neck and had a gaudy ring on every finger. “Oh-kay. Well, I suppose let’s go.”
The two of them left the skiff, and I tracked them moving into the Engineering hull, which is where we were connected to the station. I didn’t trust Buzz to take notes. Instead, I engaged a failsafe protocol I’d developed several months prior. As they passed through Troll’s external lock, a small blast of pressurized air launched a discreet bug at each of them. The bugs immediately started transmitting on a cycling, encrypted communications channel, which I promptly opened on my console on the bridge.
“Here, get in,” Smith said.
“Why? We can probably just walk it,” Ryan replied. She must have steered him toward one of the enclosed runabouts that station personnel tended to use to zip around the place. I started poking around in the station’s communications operating system to see if I could pick up a video feed of them.
“We can’t,” she said. “I looked it up. Get in, I’ll drive. You can just tell your pirate friend that I’m your driver.”
“Okay, fine,” Ryan said. There was some rustling as they seated themselves.
“Oh,” Smith said. “Sorry.”
There was a thumping noise. “That,” she said. “It’s for your own good.”
There was no reply. I started to suspect she’d knocked him out somehow. My bugs provided rudimentary location-tracking, and I superimposed that signal over a floorpan of the station. Smith drove for about ten minutes, into a section of the station that appeared to consist mainly of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. There was some rustling as she got out of the runabout. I still hadn’t figured out the station’s video feeds.
“Um, sis?” came a voice. Not Smith’s. “I thought I must be losing my touch, but it sure felt like you.”
“Hey, Amy,” Smith said. “This is Captain Ryan of the Icelandic Troll.”
“Wow, no shit? You work with him?”
“Yes, and I think we should talk a bit. The tap I gave him won’t last long, though–any chance you have a…?”
“Oh, yeah,” Amy said. There was a sharp hissing noise, and I presume that the Captain had been tranquilized. “Here, let’s go in the side entrance. That’s my office.” The following sounds were consistent with them stepping through a metallic door and into an enclosed, fairly small space.
“What’s this job, Amy?” Smith asked.
“It’s nothing complicated, and it’s not even totally illegal,” came the reply. “There’s an old ship hulk in the next system over that contains something I’d very much like to have.”
“Recipe cards for this ‘Whorehouse and Grille’ you’re apparently running?”
“Hey, these girls are professionals and they’re here of their own free will. And no, it’s not recipe cards,” Amy said. “The ship was an old troop transport that took one too many hits, and so it was abandoned.”
“A Starfleet troop transport?” Smith asked, incredulous. I’d never heard of such a thing either. Starfleet tended to use dreadnoughts and cruisers if they needed to move Marines around.
“No, local system militia,” Amy replied. “Not even warp-capable.”
“Is whatever we’re supposed to be retrieving legal?”
“Possession of it is not illegal in this system.” That seemed weirdly specific.
“Is this old ship hull unclaimed, or is it claimed by you?”
“Neither of those.” Ah. That’s why she needed us to go in. We could probably fake up some salvage orders. I started working on that on my padd, while continuing to try and crack into the station’s surveillance systems.
“Amy, how long have you been running out of Downbelow?”
“About six months. This will actually be my last job here. A couple of the girls actually saved up enough to buy me out of this place, and I’ll move on.”
“Amy, we just ran into Powhatan not too far from here. She’s on patrol, and she’ll likely be through this system soon,” Smith said.
There was a pause. Then: “Shit. Mom will know I’m here.”
“Yes. And whilst many blind eyes have been turned toward you, I think at some point you’re going to run out of rope,” Smith said.
“Yeah,” Amy said quietly. “Okay. But I need to do this job. Look–can I just talk to Ryan?”
“Talk,” Smith said. “Just talk. You’re not going to kill him?”
“No, you should not,” Smith said heatedly. “And he–we–can’t take this job. It would create a lot of complications I’m not ready for right now.”
“No,” Smith said emphatically. “We’re going to wake him up you’re going to tell him that the job is off, and we’re going to go on our way. And then you’re going to get the hell out of here before Mom shows up with all her Starfleet wrath and stuff.”
There was a pause. “Fine,” Amy said sulkily. “I’ll wake him up, and you can help me get him back here. Then we’ll talk.”
Lots of noises ensued, including a good amount of invective from the now-awake Captain Ryan. I finally figured out that the godforsaken station, which must seriously have been the oldest one we’d ever been to, didn’t have a video surveillance system. Damn.
“Whatthefumph,” came Ryan’s voice.
“She knocked us both out,” Smith said. Huh. She didn’t lie much. “We’re at her office, now. I think you took a bigger dose than I did.”
“Oh, my head,” Ryan said. “Okay. Okay. Where–”
“Just step inside, Captain,” came Amy’s voice, “and we’ll get down to business.” It sounded like they all moved back into her office. I got the same enclosed-space feeling from the bugs.
“I like your outfit,” Amy said. “It’s very dramatic.”
“Oh, why thank you. It’s–”
“Can we just get down to business?” Smith said.
“You let your driver speak for you?” Amy said sharply.
“Uh, my driver–uh, no. Hey, you’re Klingon,” Buzz noted. Interesting.
“Half Klingon,” Amy said. You could hear the smile in her voice.
“Those are interesting piercings,” Buzz said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen piercings on cranial ridges.”
“I’m guess you haven’t met very many Klingons,” Amy said. Definitely a smile in her voice.
“Uh, no, I guess, not really,” Buzz said. He was kind of stammering, which was weird. Usually he was all bravado. Must have been lingering effects from the tranquilizer.
“Well, Captain–can I call you Buzz? Well, Buzz, let me show you what it is I’m hoping you can help me retrieve.” I swear, I could hear Smith’s molars grinding. This didn’t sound like what they’d agreed to. I heard some paper rustling, and then a long silence. I imagined she was showing them a printed photograph.
“We’ll take the job.”
That was Smith’s voice.
“This is a bad idea,” Amy said. She was standing on the bridge of the Troll, kind of wedged between the Captain’s retrofitted command chair and the port bulkhead. Smith and I were at the main console. We’d loaded a large cargo container into our salvage bay, and strapped it to the bay’s aft bulkhead.
“This is a good idea,” Smith said. “Starfleet’s due through this system any time now, and I certainly don’t think you want to be here when they show up.”
“Oh, yeah,” Amy muttered.
“Powhatan would never dock at Downbelow Station, though,” I pointed out. “It’s unlikely they’d come looking for you if they didn’t have a strong reason. Like a Federation warrant.”
“Weellll…” Amy said.
“Or are you just concerned it’s because the Captain is your–”
“Eyes front!” Smith snapped, cutting me off. “We need to be in warp in the next five minutes, and once we’re on-site at this salvage job, we’re going to need to be alert.”
And what else did you happen to hear? came a soft voice in my head. My head whipped around and my eyes shot daggers at Amy. “Keep. Out.” I growled.
“Hey!” Ryan said from his command chair. “Black Amy is our guest, and she’s as welcome on the bridge as I am.”
I turned back to my console, enduring the daggers coming my way from Smith’s eyes. “You did not,” she muttered through clenched teeth.
“Of course I did,” I replied, somewhat louder. “I can’t be effective if I’m not informed. And I’ve got those salvage orders that you asked about all ready to go.” I’m pretty sure she dented her console where she was gripping it. Smith’s pretty strong. “Course laid in. Ready for warp speed.”
“Warp factor three,” Ryan said. “Punch it.”
I punched it, and the Troll leapt into warp. We’d only be in warp for a few minutes; our target system was only fifty or so light years away. In the meantime, I decided to poke a bit more.
“So, Amy,” I said, not turning from my console, “where are you originally from?”
I felt a wave of… I dunno, I guess it was feminine wiles or something, float over me. I grinned. That wouldn’t have any effect. “I’m a Federation citizen,” she said.
“Enough chitchat,” Smith said. “Watch one of your Tom Cruise movies or something,” she added.
“No time,” I said. “We’ll be emerging from warp in 3 minutes.” Federation citizen, indeed. Amy was Smith’s sister. Well, half-sister; Smith certainly wasn’t half-Klingon. Their mother was Captain Eppinger of the USS Powhatan. There was only one Klingon I knew of in Starfleet, and he’d accepted banishment from Kronos in order to marry his love and take a position as a Starfleet officer. And unless Klingons had secretly developed telepathy, that meant Eppinger was at least part Betazed. Which meant Smith was– my console chimed. “Dropping out of warp in three… two… one. Currently at half impulse, closing on the salvage target.”
“You know, you never did mention why this object is of such great value to you,” Ryan said. I felt another wave of emotion pulse around the bridge, best described as disinterest. Fascinating.
“It’s more sentimental value than anything,” she said, “but I’ve been trying to track it down for some time, and so I’m quite eager to finally have it in my hands.” Another pulse of emotion. Flirting. “You and your crew will be reward quite handsomelyâ€””
“We’ve read the contract,” Smith said in a flat voice. “Thank you.”
I decided to try letting off some emotion of my own. I’ll be so glad when you’re all dead and floating in the cold vacuum of space. Shandra’s head snapped toward me, and I heard Amy gasp slightly. I stopped. Interesting. “Approaching target. Slowing to one-tenth impulse. Opening salvage bay. Engaging attitude thrusters in stationkeeping mode. Full stop in three… two… one. Full stop.”
“Okay, kids,” Smith said. “Buzz and I have this one. Amy, you’ll stay here with Don.”
“Sounds fun to me,” she said. I turned, and she had a coy grin on her face. Emotional pulse: Coquettishness.
“I usually watch movies while I wait,” I said flatly. She frowned, and I turned back to my console, pulling up Edge of Tomorrow. “Engaging broad-comms. Unfortunately, I have to recommend the hard suits,” I added. “There’s a lot of high-vee particles out there and you’ll need the protection.”
“This just gets better and better,” Smith said. The hard suits were bulky, harder to maneuver, and just plain uncomfortable. “Let’s go, Buzz.”
“Harry Mudd is my Jedi Master,” Ryan said to nobody in particular. That’s when my console chimed.
“Um, guys, I’m getting a ping from a Federation buoy. This system is under Federation interdiction.”
“What?” Shandra said, spinning to face our pirate guest.
“Did I not mention that?” she said. “Besides you said you faked up salvage orders. That should cover us, right?”
“Um, no,” I said, glancing at my padd. “I’ll need to make some modifications.”
“So what’s the deal with this ship,” I asked, as Smith and Ryan boosted their way to it on puffs of gas. I’d tweaked the forged salvage orders to look like they’d been issued by a Federation bureau. They wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny, but they’d hopefully give us a head start. I also turned off the Troll’s identification beacon. Doing so wasn’t legal, but, well. Here we were.
“The ASC Auckland,” she said, “was an in-system troop transport. Solid ship design, if lacking warp capability. Rumor has it that Starfleet is looking at adapting the design for their own transports. Despite,” she added with a smirk, “your belief that Starfleet has no need for troop transports. There were four inhabited planets in this system, and each evolved life independently. A rarity,” she continued, “and the amount of interplanetary aggression that went on here suggests that four species is to many for one system.”
“You said there ‘were’ four systems,” I said.
“One was completely wiped out in one of their many wars. Ages ago,” she said, “but that’s where Auckland comes into the picture. Two of the remaining species decided to lay claim to the empty planet, and of course they found it to be a perfect opportunity to wage war on each other. Both were also on the verge of discovering warp drives, and so that’s when the Federation stepped in to try and cool things down. Auckland was actually returning home on graves duty when she was attacked by an opponent who claimed to have not gotten the cease-fire memo.”
“Graves duty?” I asked, pausing the movie and swiveling to face her. Her face was sad.
“Killing themselves and the other native races of this system wasn’t enough,” she said. “Both sides had hired plenty of out system mercenaries and troops, usually with an agreement that any remains would be returned to their homeworld or merc company. That’s what Auckland was doing, along with ferrying a short company of surviving troops.”
“So…” I said. “You’re after…”
“No,” she said scornfully. “I’m not after dead bodies. Shouldn’t you be checking in on your friends?” She crossed her arms, ending the conversation.
“I have been,” I said, turning back to my console. “They’re close to the target location.” I unmuted the bridge comms. “Captain, how’s it going?”
“Oh swell,” came the reply. “Love me a hard suit. Nothing like banging down narrow companionways like you’re a human pinball.”
“Telemetry shows you closing on the target location,” I said.
“Yeah, we’re actually right outside the door, which appears to be sealed.”
“We knew that was likely,” Smith said. “Deploying bulkhead cutter.” We were a salvage company; dealing with sealed doors was hardly unusual. My console little up as the cutter deployed, showing its power reserve, energy output, and the like. She ran it for about five minutes before shutting it down. “We’re through.”
“Um,” came Ryan’s voice, “there are a few more of these than I expected.”
“You want the one with the identification number I gave you,” Amy said. “It’ll be engraved into the short end.”
“Ah,” Ryan said. “Oh, they’re in order. Good. Um… okay! Found it!”
“Excellent,” Amy whispered. Just then, my console lit up in angry red lights.
“Captain!” I called out. “Incoming warp signature!” More lights as the incoming ship dropped out of warp. “It’s the Powhatan!” Amy cursed. “Wait… no. Same class, different ship. This is… the USS Catskill. Sorry. Still going to be a problem, though. These border patrol captains play it tight.”
“We’ve got the package,” Ryan said, “and we’re already on our way back.”
“Unidentified ship, this is Captain Eric Goines of the USS Catskill. You are violating a Federation interdiction on this system. Identify yourself and state your business.”
“Oh boy,” I muttered. “You should probably duck out of sight,” I told Amy. She was already hunching down behind the command chair. I put Captain Goines on the main screen. “Ah, hello, Catskill. This is the SS Celtic Selkie, on salvage orders from the Federation Committee for Historic Preservation.” I’d selected the most obscure department I could think of, in hopes it would delay any queries into the veracity of our orders.
“The Committee forâ€”Selkie, why is your identification beacon not responding?”
“It’s not?” I said, adopting a confused look and poking slowly at my console. “Oh, we’ve been having trouble with the main power conduits in the automated comms systems,” I said. “I’ll get our engineer to look into it right away, sir. Sorry about that.” As soon as we hired a new engineer, of course. My console bleeped softly, indicating that the forward lock had finished cycling and that my cremates were back aboard. I keyed the cargo bay to start closing.
“Selkie, what are you doing?” Captain Goines asked.
“Well, there seems to be some confusion about our orders and this interdiction thing, so we’re shutting down operations,” I said politely.
“Ah, well, good,” Goines said. “I appreciate that. Now look, I’d like to beam your captain over so we can look at those orders and–”
That was enough. I cut the comms feed. We had a couple of tricks for situations like this, besides being able to illegally disable our identification beacon. I tapped my console just as Ryan came onto the bridge. “Plan RLASLB!” he shouted. Run Like a Scared Little Bitch.
“Already engaged,” I replied calmly. The Troll’s inertia dampers went into overdrive as there ship slewed sharply away from the Starfleet ship. Decoy packages attached to our warp nacelles exploded, making it look for a moment as if both nacelles had ruptured. Two fake escape pods ejected from the engineering hull on our dorsal side, and the Troll leapt into warp.
“Wow,” Amy said, standing back up. “Will that work?”
“It should,” Ryan said, settling into his command chair. “We’ll bounce around at different warp speeds and courses for an hour or so, and then make our way back to Downbelow and drop you off. Unless that ship got some really good scans of us, it’ll be hard to pin anything on us. Don, which name did you use?”
“Selkie,” I said.
“Ah, hell, I really liked that one. Okay, well, cross it off the list.”
“Already done. And can I see what all this fuss as about?”
“Ah, yes,” Smith said, coming onto the bridge. “This little darling.”
The “little darling” was literally a black box. It was glossy, and aside from some engraved numbers in one end, absolutely featureless. “What is it?” I asked.
“One of the reason the Federation interdicted this system and restricts the use of warp drives within it,” Amy said. “They didn’t want these little puppies getting out.”
“It’s basically an artificial intelligence,” Smith said. “One of the races in this system copies the brainwave patterns of military experts, and embeds them into these devices. Paired with the right equipment, this thing can fight an entire war all on its own. If it were properly connected to a Starfleet ship, you’d have one of the most dangerous weapons in existence.”
“Aaaaand we’re giving this to the pirate lady,” I said slowly.
“She’s not going to use it that way,” Smith said confidently, handing the box to Amy.
“A close friend of mine was hired to create battle plans for those assholes,” Amy said softly. “But rather than pay her as agreed, they took the plans and then shoved her into one of their mind-scanners. They wanted a genius military slave.”
“Did she ever escape afterwards?” I asked.
“That’s the thing,” Amy said, looking at me. Emotional pulse: Anger. “Their mind scanning process is fatal.”
I blinked. “So… what are you going to do with that?”
“Her mind is still in there,” Smith said. “And it’s active. Connected to an interface, she’ll be able to communicate. She can probably be fitted into a body of some kind, and be able to actually live again. Or something like it.”
“You sure you want me to take this?” Amy asked softly. “You two were always closer.”
Smith shook her head. “No, there are way too many complications with that for us to carry it. You take her. Get her out of Federation space, if possible, or at least to a border colony. Just keep away from the Klingon borders,” she added. “The–”
“The Powhatan,” Amy said, smiling. “I know.” The Powhatan routinely deployed to the Klingon border, where Amy’s Mom was more likely to be, and apparently more likely to find her.
“We should be back at Downbelow in a few hours,” I said. RLASLB would bounce us around deep space in that time, randomly varying course and speed to throw off pursuit. Tracking ships in warp was difficult under the best of circumstances, and I suspected Catskill wouldn’t expend much effort trying to find us. “There’s a kitchen in the crew hull, if you want to sit for a bit.”
“I think I will,” Amy said. “But before I do…” she tapped the wrist-comp she wore on one arm. “As agreed,” she said, nodding to Ryan.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“She just unlocked the cargo container in the salvage bay,” Ryan said. “We took that in lieu of pay.”
“Instead of… money?” I asked.
“It’s an emplaced military-grade megaphaser,” Ryan said, grinning. “I’ll expect you to find someplace to mount it.” My jaw dropped.
“We’ll have to beef up the power conduits, I expect,” Smith mused. “And maybe add an auxiliary dilithium chamber.”
“Already figured that out, and there’s one in the box,” Ryan said. “I think we’ll all sleep a little easier at night with that sucker mounted someplace.”
As the Troll’s automated avoidance routine continued to run, I shut down the movie player and pulled up the ship’s schematics. Where to mount a megaphaser?
“I’m going to go down and talk to Amy for a bit before we get to Downbelow,” Ryan said, standing. “And Shandra?”
“After we drop her off, you and I should probably have a little chat about family.”
We were at Nordic Station, although unfortunately not to enjoy some well-earned downtime. Instead, we were looking for an assistant engineer. This was entirely First Officer Smith’s fault: when she’d hired our current engineer, Kate Meachum, Smith had failed to inquire after the engineer’s age or physical condition. These turned out to be “advanced” and “poor.” I mean, I admit that we simply needed an engineer, and Kate was one. Kate also didn’t need much money, which fit right into the Troll’s perpetually lean budget. But Kate couldn’t do the job on her own. Her eyesight, in particular, was laughable.
“You need to let her go,” Captain Ryan had said almost immediately. “She needs to retire.”
“I would,” Smith had said, “but quite honestly I think her heart would stop the day she’s no longer part of a crew. She’s a spacer, Buzz.” The Captain relented.
Anyway, we were in some run-down Viking-themed bar trying to follow up on some potential assistant engineer leads. Unfortunately, all of them were either straight-out con artists, or extremely expensive. Meaning, they wanted more than room and board. Captain Ryan, Smith, and myself were all brooding over a beer after our eighth lead didn’t pan out. That’s when this kid–and I swear, there’s no way he was older than sixteen–walked up to our table.
“I hear you’re looking for an assistant engineer,” he said. “Take me with you. I’ll work for free.”
“Well, the price is right,” Ryan said. And the kid did look a little young to be a con artist, but still. “Why for free?”
“I was spacer born,” the kid said, “and stranded here. Space stations… aren’t for me.”
That is an old tale. Some stationer, likely acting under the influence of alcohol and being not at all wise, sleeps with some random spacer. The spacer, quite predictably, leaves, and the stationer ends up with a prize. The kid, hearing of his “heritage,” grows up restless. They make up stories about roaming free, visiting foreign ports, and things he’ll never see. Toward the edges of Federation space, joining Starfleet isn’t a widely promoted option, and without a decent Academy education the kid will never be more than an enlisted janitor anyway.
“A spacer’s more than born,” Ryan said. “He’s bred. He’s trained, usually from a very young age. Not that you’re that old, but you’ve no experience, no training. You’ve grown up on a station. I’m sorry, man, but you’re no use for us.”
The kid nodded, and slowly turned and walked away. “Buzz,” I whispered, “he’s not going to give up. Look at him. He’s just going to keep trying, and eventually someone’s going to take him up on the offer to work for free, and it isn’t going to be someone nice.”
“But he’s got no experience!” Smith whispered.
“He can be taught,” I whispered back. “You have to be able to feel the determination. It’s practically radiating from him and I’m not even–”
“Stop,” Smith said. “You’re right. And besides, Buzz,” she said, turning toward our Captain. “Space is wide.”
“And good friends are too few,” he finished. “I get it. Hey kid!” he called. The kid stopped and half turned back toward our table. “You’re stubborn. If you work with half that will… well, our engineer could use a hand. We’ve got a berth to fill.”
The kid turned to face us, scowling. But it was an act: even I could see the tears trickling down his face. He signed his papers on the Captain’s padd, never saying another word. In fact, he never was much for talking. I learned his name: Sam Jones. After that, “yes sir,” “yes ma’am,” “no sir,” was about all you’d get out of him.
Now, Smith’s new-hire engineer, Kate Meachum, clearly needed help. Her eyes were going bad. She knew, she knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew that we knew. But that kid drove her mad. He was always wanting to help, always asking her questions, and it was impossible to punish him. “Get out!” she’d yell back in the Engineering hull, when he ticked her off. And he’d just lie low until Kate got cool, and then sneak back in and do whatever scutwork there was, while Kate called him names.
So, they got along okay.
As the weeks and months passed, they became a real team. Kate’s eyes got much worse, and we all knew, but again–this woman was a spacer. She’d been places, and she’d seen things. She’s die the minute someone grounded her, and that someone wasn’t going to be us. But that close-mouthed kid just covered for her. “Kate,” we’d hear him say, “check the number four? Er, Kate, that’s nine point eight, actually.”
We continued on our way, flitting from salvage job to salvage job, stopping in at our regular ports to dump the salvage and collect our pay. Almar, Halley’s, Downbelow, you name it, we hit them all. Well, this one day–this is a little difficult to write about, if I’m being honest. Any spacer has these moments when–well, you’ll see.
Space is deadly. It’s not so much that it hates you, it just doesn’t care so deeply that, at some point, something is going to go wrong. You train for it, you prepare for it, but space always has something new. So, this one day, we’re shooting along at warp 3 when the engines fail. We drop out of warp, still ticking along at three-quarters c, right near this little K-class star. Surrounded by an ionized dust cloud the size of a freaking nebula. And everything’s offline: navigation shields, warp drive, impulse engines. Everything.
“Damn!” came the comms from Engineering. “It’s the number three dilithium conduit on the port nacelle,” she said.
“We’ve got a spare, right?” Ryan said.
“Yeah,” she confirmed, “but we can’t fix it from here. It’s an outside job. And pulling that thing in the middle of a high-velocity dust cloud, like we are right now, is tricky.”
“I’ll go,” I said, standing up from my console.
“No,” came her reply. “It’s a job for the engineer.”
We were all silent for a moment, the only sounds the soft beep-doops of the bridge equipment, and of course the high-vee dust chewing away at our unshielded hull. “Kate,” Smith said, “it’s hell out there. You hear it on the hull? It’ll chew a hard suit even faster. You won’t last ten minutes.”
“Die now, die later,” Kate said. “I’ll just work a little fast.”
I sat down and listened to the comm as Kate struggled into her hard suit and cycled the aft airlock. “Jesus,” she said, her voice full of static, “it’s like being in the middle of a banshee wail out there. Okay, I’m at the nacelle. I’m on it. I’ve got the cover clear.”
I double-checked to make sure all the auxiliary power was routed away from the access point she was at. There was silence for a good long while, and then, “Dammit, my faceplate’s fogged. My sight’s gone all to mist.”
“Kate,” I said, standing again, “get back inside. I’m coming out.” That’s when I noticed the aft lock cycling again. “Buzz,” I said, “I think–”
“Steady, Kate,” came Sam’s voice, cut through with static. “I’ve got you. Easy. My suit’s brand new, you just keep as low as you can. I’ll find the release pins. You tell me how, and we’ll get this sucker free.”
“Ten minutes gone,” Smith said after a moment. We could hear Sam’s hard breath in the comms.
“I got it,” the kid said. “Shove the other one in and hold on for your life, Kate.” My console lit up, showing the repaired power pathway. “Shit,” the kid said, the first time any of us had heard him curse. “My arm’s gone numb. Oh! Now, there, Kate, it’s in and locked! Get inside, fast! Get outta here!”
“Boy! Hang on!” Kate’s voice said. Then we heard her swear.
Then, nothing but static.
“I’ve got confirmation on power,” I said softly, after a few minutes.
Nobody said anything for four more minutes. Just the dust, slowly scoring our hull. Nothing came over the comms.
“Power up,” the Captain said quietly.
I tapped my console. “Power restored,” I said, trying to talk around the lump in my throat.
The Captain reached over my shoulder, tapping my console to engage the shields and impulse engines. The Troll turned toward that little K-class sun, exiting the dust field so that we could safely resume warp speed. But Kate and the kid went on together on their own journey.
Old half-blind Kate and young Sam Jones made a hell of an engineer.
“Turn down a glass for such as they,” the Captain intoned.
“And thank God we’re sitting here,” Smith finished.
For space is wide, and good friends are too few.
“So, how did you all get together in the first place?”
That was Scotty (no, not that Scotty; in this case, it was his first name), the latest in a worryingly long line of short-term engineers aboard Icelandic Troll. We’d just hired him while laying over at Starbase XIV, and he was currently enjoying his first cruise with us. Unlike literally every other engineer we’d had to date, Scotty seemed to enjoy hanging out on the bridge rather than lurking back in the Engineering hull. This notwithstanding the fact that it made the already tiny bridge really tight.
“Oh, I met the Captain here shortly after I resigned my Starfleet commission,” First Officer Shandra Smith said offhandedly.
“Starfleet?” Scotty asked.
“Yup,” she replied.
“I did the usual stint at Starfleet Academy,” Smith explained. “I specialized in security, but I could never quite buy off completely on the whole red-shirt mentality, so I picked up a minor in communications. I served my middie cruise on the Revere, a little scout ship that ran back and forth along the Romulan border. Fairly uneventful, although we did have a few scary moments with some birds of prey trying to sneak across our line.
“That’s actually where security work started to seem more interesting to me. Lord knows, communications could get boring out there, but there was always something for the security people to do. I started shadowing their security chief and learning more about the job.
“After the middie cruise was over, Reliant dropped me off at one of the old Outposts. USS Powhatan had just bee rotated into border patrol and I was assigned to her as Assistant Chief of Security, and got my promotion to Lieutenant. Fun fact: my Mom was, and still is, Powhatan’s CO, and my step-Dad is her Chief Engineer. That was kind of fun for a while–I got to really get into the whole security game, but I picked up a good bit about engineering along the way.
“Anyway… I eventually got into combat training. I think that’s where it all started to fall apart. Starfleet’s training arm has a dense bureaucracy, and it just got to be a bit much. I mean, you’re doing good work for the most part, but there’s always a couple of spoiled snots that ruin it. I had one kid whose Dad was a seriously high-ranking Admiral in First Fleet, and he busted my chops for being ‘too hard’ on his pwecious wittle baby. I was basically had drill sergeant attitude by then, so I gave it right back at him about how his lazy little offspring was going to wind up dead in space one day. That went well. Resigning was easier that apologizing.”
“Wow,” Scotty said. “That’s pretty cool. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who left Starfleet and stayed in space.”
“Honestly, I’ll probably go back one day, especially if I can pick up a training gig again. I love the Troll, but I actually do miss the Fleet from time to time. And my issues with Powhatan are… mostly hashed out. But I still try to steer clear of her nowadays.”
“So are you all ex-Starfleet?” Scotty asked.
“Oh, not quite,” Captain Ryan said.
“I went to Academy,” Ryan continues, “but I dropped out in the third year. Just way too much ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and stuff. And despite all the Kirk stories you hear coming out of the Academy, they’re not all that into innovation or crazy stuff. I was command-track, but what did it for me was trying to pull off my own Kobayashi Maru.
“Kirk was the first one to hack the simulator, of course, but pretty much every command-track kid after that gave it a shot. Eventually, they just scrapped the whole scenario, beefed up the sim, and came up with a new no-win scenario. I was actually one of the first ones to run through the new one.
“It starts out more or less the same, I guess. We chased after the phony distress beacon, we wound up surrounded by Romulans, and they threatened to blow us up if we didn’t let them board and capture the ship. The implication is that they’d torture us all if we did, so kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right? Our self-destruct wouldn’t work, of course, because that would be too easy. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to let them have the ship or not; we certainly couldn’t have simulated a repel-boarders situation. Anyway, I snuck a phaser into the sim and stunned my entire bridge crew. Then I put the ship on a collision course with the nearest warbird.
“Obviously, they shut the sim down at that point, and had some very lengthy conversations with me. We decided to part ways.
“I wound up working at a water plant on some planet someplace. I honestly don’t remember many of the details. The staff was friendly, the locals were friendly, and there was way too much partying. That’s where I found my first ship, too. It was this rusted-out, busted-up hulk that I found on a beach. The inside was in decent condition, but it was never, ever going to fly, so I kind of made a fort out of it. I lived in it for a year or so. Way too many parties. I eventually started to pull my head out of my ass and realized I needed to get off-planet. Off any planet.
“So I bounced around for a little bit, and finally got my Captain’s license piloting tugs at commercial shipyards. I got used to the small crews, the more relaxed attitude. I got really good at EVAs, in fact, because most of the time we had to manually hook up to the ship hulls to move them around.
“I named my first spacesuit Michio. It’s very possible I proposed marriage to her on more than one occasion.”
(“Marriage?” Scotty interrupted.)
“She had a lot of my bodily fluids in her. Seemed like the right thing to do.
“That went on for a couple of years until I found the Troll up for sale. I’d stashed away plenty of overtime pay, made a down payment, and here we are.”
“That’s so cool,” Scotty said. “So where’d you both end up meeting?”
“Oh, the three of us met at about the same time,” I said. “It was in a bar. Donna’s, on New Rome, I think.”
“Duke’s,” Ryan corrected me, “on Altair 7.”
“It wasn’t Jammer’s on Pallas III?” Smith asked.
We all paused for a moment. “Definitely a bar,” I said. “I think we all bounced around a bit.”
“So what’s your story?” Scotty asked. Hoo-boy.
“Starfleet Academy, communications. Did my middie cruise on Jamestown, eventually transferred to Powhatan. Met Smith there. Decided I wanted more action and transferred to the Starfleet Marines. Got promoted a lot.”
There was a silence on the Troll’s bridge. “That’s it?” Scotty asked.
Sigh. “Don’t you want to hear about the ship itself?”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“Troll was originally designed as a garbage hauler, roughly around the lines of a Malon waste export scow,” Ryan said. “She was built at Salazaar, which at the time was trying to diversify and build out commercial ships in addition to all the Epsilon-class cutters they churn out.”
(“Malon! I knew the basic shape looked familiar!” Scotty interjected)
“Sure. Anyway, Salazaar produced about two hundred of these puppies before they quit. Commercial ships just don’t generate the kind of profits a ‘Fleet ship does, I guess. But the Troll’s whole class are probably some of the best-built garbage haulers in the universe. Even the warp drive is ‘Fleet-quality, although it’s obviously a lot smaller than a cruiser would have.
“By the time I picked her up, she’d been in service for about ten years, and had been pretty thoroughly refitted a couple of years back. But she was still in rough shape. The thing that really attracted me to her was the modular design. Salazaar had intended to sell the same basic hull design for a variety of purposes, and so they engineered all these hard points all over the place. The entire crew hull on the ventral side, for example, was pulled off a Salazaar yacht design. Anyway, that made it easy to add a docking point for the skiff, and gave us room to mount the salvage phaser array in the salvage bay.
“The shield generator I, uh, came across during a… discussion with a couple of Subytts. It’s originally from a Rapier-class light cruiser, so it’s about the perfect size. Aft coverage is a little weak because our nacelle configuration is so different, but it’s good enough.
“Anyway, Shandra and Don have done most of the modifications. As we mentioned, we’ve had some trouble keeping a full-time engineer in the crew.”
(“They’ve done great work!” Scotty enthused.)
“Sure. So, that’s about it for the Troll.”
“For the record,” Scotty said, “I love this ship. The whole patched-together, half-gray-market look is totally cool. My last ship was an interplanetary ferry. Nowhere near as fun.”
“Yeah, we’ve really made Troll our own,” Ryan said.
“But I’m still interested in you,” Scotty said, pointing at me.
“I come from a fairly remote colony. Remote enough that the Federation is a government more in name than actuality. We, ah… the colony was founded by some people who still felt Human Augments were a good thing, although they kept their genetic tinkering activities very down-low. Nobody wants another Eugenics War, right?
“But I didn’t do especially well in the colony. They were very insular, and I wanted more. I’m pretty close to baseline Human, but acing Starfleet Academy’s entrance tests was no big. I graduated, did my time on the Jamestown, transferred to the Powhatan, met Smith, all that. Pretty unremarkable. I actually transferred off Powhatan to go through Starfleet Marine Academy. Smith left sometime while I was gone.
“I enjoyed the Marines. They’re a group that really appreciates talent, and they go out of their way to take advantage of it when they find it. Starfleet tends to slot you into whatever role it is you’re supposed to do, which is fine, but if you’re mis-slotted it’s hard to do anything about it. Not in the Marines. They’ll reassign you in a heartbeat. They’d honored my Starfleet rank and brought me in as a Marine Captain, but within a couple of years I was a Brigadier General, and was helping run Marine Academy. I spent some time on the Central Logistics Staff, too.
“But eventually I just got bored. I like starships, but Marines basically see them as giant buses. I got back in touch with Smith somewhere in there, and she seemed to be doing well enough in civilian life, and she’d heard of a commercial ship that needed a small crew. Small crew works for me; it gives me more to do, keeps me occupied. She also made it sound kind of shady, which sounded challenging. So I basically resigned on the spot, and agreed to meet her at the aforementioned bar, where she was meeting Captain Ryan.”
“So you’re… genetically engineered?” Scotty asked quietly.
“We’re all genetically engineered, you doofus,” I said heatedly. “My parents were just a little less random about it than yours. And I don’t like to talk about it.”
“So, that’s our story,” Ryan said before Scotty could follow up. “Other than already knowing your engineering background, though, we’d love to hear more about you.”
“Actually, we’re here,” I said, ending that line of inquiry.
I was sitting along on the bridge of the SS Icelandic Troll, enjoying Jerry Macguire as we cruised along at Warp 2. Unexpectedly, Captain Ryan rushed onto the bridge. Rather than plopping into his retrofitted command chair, as usual, he stood next to my console.
“May I?” he asked.
I blinked several times. In all my time aboard the Troll, I’d never seen him at the main console. I’m not saying he couldn’t operate the ship, but I suppose I suspected it. I slid out of my seat, and moved behind the command chair. Ryan began intently poking at the controls, as I picked at the worn and faded Starfleet logo that somehow still adorned the back of the command chair. A moment later, I felt the Troll’s warp engines kick up to Warp 4, our absolute maximum speed.
The Captain likes to say that you can feel the hull thrum at that speed, and asks–repeatedly–that we refer to it that way. Thrumming. I think of it more as a severe shuddering that indicates the inertial dampers are about to give up, and that hull integrity–and the shipboard life signs–is preparing to plunge to zero. Predictably, the “thrumming” brought First Officer Smith rushing to the bridge a minute later.
“Don, why are we at waooooh. Buzz. You’re driving,” she said. She moved to sit next to him at the main console, but he quietly held up a hand. She slid instead into the command chair. “Sooooo,” she continued, making it clear that this was all very casual and not at all alarming, “what’s the occasion?”
“I think he’s–” I began to whisper into her ear.
“He is,” she said, raising a couple of fingers in a request for silence. Ryan had said nothing.
After a moment of watching him poke the console, I became worried. You can’t leave skid marks in space, but we were clearly going to be giving it our best shot. “He’s–” I whispered more urgently.
“I know,” she said.
Finally, Ryan turned around. He looked at us with a grave expression on his face. In a flat voice with just a tinge of existential panic in it, he quietly said, “we’re out of cereal.”
I’m positive I heard Smith blink.
- a grain used for food, such as wheat, oats, or corn.
- a grass producing a cereal grain, grown as an agricultural crop. "low yields for cereal crops"
* a breakfast food made from roasted grain, typically eaten with milk. “a bowl of cereal”
To be fair, I had not ever given much thought to the Captain’s diet. I knew that tacos, of the hellishly inauthentic, fat-laden, nutritionally void, mass-market kind played a starring role. I’d once heard him express the payment amount for a salvage job in terms of how many tacos it would purchase. I suspected that caffeine was a major nutrient. But cereal? I mean, sure. Fine. But this seemed like a lot of concern over breakfast flakes.
I couldn’t recall ever having seen milk on board.
We tore through space at a teeth-jarring Warp 4. When we dropped down to sublight speed, I immediately recognized our destination. “That,” I said, “is Mars.” Smith nodded.
“Let’s go,” Ryan said, lurching from the console and moving toward the bridge access hatch. We followed him down the accessway to his private quarters, and then onto the skiff we affectionally did not call Little Troll in his presence.
“Where are we going?” I asked. I was answered with a curt wave of the Captain’s hand. O-kay. We detached from the Troll a bit quicker than the manual would have specified, had anyone bothered to write a manual for the unholy and ungainly marriage between the main ship and its smaller cousin. Speaking only enough to issue curt replies to Mars space and air traffic controllers, the Captain maneuvered us into a small spaceport near the equatorial belt. We landed, and he rushed into the spaceport proper, Smith and I in tow. He quick-marched unerringly to a small tavern called the Winking Lizard, and walked in. The bartender, an attractive, tall, raven-haired woman of perhaps middle age, noticed him immediately.
“Buzz,” she said, sliding over to where we waited at the bar.
“Lady Stella. You know why I’m here,” he said quietly. She nodded, and placed three shots of something brown on the bar. Buzz picked one up, and gestured to us to do the same. Smith and I glanced at each other and silently decided to play along. We downed the shots, which were extremely alcoholic, terrible tasting, and somehow soothing. My prefrontal cortex immediately went on a small vacation. While Smith and I recovered from the assault on our senses, Ryan and “Lady Stella” had their heads close to each other and were whispering furiously. Finally, they broke apart.
“Let’s go,” Ryan said. He followed him back to the skiff, which he piloted back to the Troll. He practically flew to the bridge, programmed a new set of coordinates, and blasted us back into Warp 4.
This pattern repeated. We visited The Jammer on Ballast Three, where Ryan engaged in a heated, whispered exchange with one “Charlie.” Next was Finke’s Weight on the space station known as Heaven’s Rim, where the next clue in our scavenger hunt was provided by “Angel.” Then the Lone Star on New Texas. The Unicorn on Eros. Duck’s on Altair Seven. Donna’s, on New Rome. This took seemingly forever, during which Ryan permitted no eating and only a little sleep, taken in wary, fitful shifts. At each bar, we were required to take a shot of something horrible, after which Ryan apparently received whispered instructions that set us off on our next tangent. My liver had begun sending urgent panic signals to my brain, which was in no mood to listen. “Walk it off,” said the return signal, and I felt my liver make serious efforts to, in fact, walk off.
Donna’s was apparently the final clue, because our last stop–and honestly, I’m guessing here, because the shots we’d been consuming were adding up, and some of them took hours to even start to wear off–was at an unnamed civilian space station very close to the Romulan border. Once again, we performed the shots-and-whispering ritual. I started to wonder if Ryan had somehow become confused on the difference between cereal, typically a breakfast product, and grain, which is what I hoped most of these shots had originated as. I wondered if this was all some elaborate cosmic bar crawl.
This time, the bartender disappeared into the back for a few minutes, and re-emerged carrying a nondescript cardboard box, a roughly one meter cube. Ryan took it, nodded gratefully, and led us back to the skiff. Smith and I were, frankly, off our asses–the shot at this place had been at least 100% alcohol, I believe, lightly flavored with more alcohol. Certainly, something extradimensional was happening in our brains by then. “Belly up to the bar, friend, have another round!” we sang loudly together. At least, that’s what I believe we thought we were singing; in retrospect, it probably sounded like a horny Rancor being roughly neutered without the benefit of anesthesia.
We returned to the Troll, where Ryan deposited the box on his bunk.
“Do you want me to carry that up to the galley for you?” I asked carefully. D’you wan me’t curry h’up gelly f’you? Smith giggled.
He stopped, and turned slowly to me. “I do not want to alarm you,” he said quietly and, if I’m being frank, somewhat menacingly. Enough so that the then-squishy parts of my brain made serious inroads toward sitting up and paying attention. “But if you ever touch that box, or its contents, or any of its contents’ contents, I will not rest until everything you have ever loved is scattered across the surface of a million suns.” He turned back to his bunk, sat down, and stared at us. “Okay?” he asked with a bit of cheer in his voice. He may have smiled, but the part of my brain that recognized body language had been asleep since at least Altair Seven.
“Not the galley, then,” I said. “Got it.” N’gelly, g’tit. Smith quietly took my hand, and we drunkenly staggered to the common area on the crew’s quarters to commiserate. As Ryan’s cabin door slid shut behind us, I heard a soft, satisfied sigh, layered over a quiet, deliberate crunching.
We’d just arrived in the Proxima system, in response to an urgent distress call. We weren’t the only ones: our sensors showed over two dozen ships of roughly our size, although most of them were proper search-and-rescue support vessels, rather than our Frankenship salvage-cum-rescue amalgamation. A research station in orbit around Proxima IV had apparently experienced a major power plant failure, sending the station into a decaying orbit, causing it to break up in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The crew had gotten distress signals off before popping out in their escape pods, and any ship within distance had been quickly contracted to locate the survivors before their air supplies ran out.
“Medic is aboard,” I said. “We’re in a stable orbit, so I’ll go meet him.”
“I’ll go with you,” First Officer Smith said. We’d worked with this medic before, and I recalled he and Smith getting along fairly well.
“I guess I have the bridge,” Captain Ryan said.
“Yeah, we’re going down anyway,” Smith replied. She and I ducked into the lift at the rear of the bridge, and clambered into the spacious salvage bay. Starfleet had already provided us with a modular medical unit, which we’d anchored into our salvage bay. It could accommodate up to a dozen survivors, making us a valuable medical base. A couple of full-size Starfleet medical ships were en route, but we’d provide an important first responder base.
“Actually, Captain,” I said over our intercom, “you might as well prep the skiff. The Troll can keep herself in place on autopilot, and they’ll probably have a sector assignment for you pretty soon.”
“Ah, right! Some action!” he replied. “I’ll head right down.” The skiff bolted onto the bottom of the Troll, which we did not ever call Little Troll within the Captain’s hearing, was a fully equipped search and rescue vehicle. It even had better life-sign detectors than the main ship, something which occasionally caused me to grind my molars.
Smith and I pushed over to the medical unit. The salvage bay itself didn’t have artificial gravity engaged, and instead used pressor/tractor beam arrays to hold the medical unit steady. The medical unit had its own gravity, so we could at least look somewhat dignified–and upright–when we met the medic. He was already outfitted in a blue Icelandic Troll coverall, since he was technically under contract to us for the mission.
“Adam!” Smith said, walking over with her arms spread. She gave him a big hug, and then somehow flipped him onto the deck.
“That never gets old,” he muttered, standing back up. “Good to see you as well,” he added, somehow throwing her onto the deck. They’d done this last time, too; I found it immensely confusing and has probably repressed the memory.
“Good to see you’re still practicing,” Smith said.
“You too,” he said, grinning. Whatever.
“We’ve been asked to expect survivors within the hour,” I said. “Starbase 18 is prepared for us to bring them in once you’ve stabilized them, assuming we fill up before the Pasteur arrives.”
“I’ve got an assignment!” Ryan’s voice came across the intercom. “Detaching and en route.” We heard the clunk of Little Troll releasing its docking clamps from the hull.
“Buzz will make it a contest to bring back as many as he can,” Smith said.
“Well, I suppose I’ll finish getting ready,” Adam said.
“I’ll give you a hand. Don, you should probably head back up to the bridge and coordinate incoming traffic.”
“Okeydokey,” I said. Those two weren’t exactly googly-eyed, but if you knew what to look for in Smith’s face, she was certainly interested. I wondered if there’d be more judo throws. I left the medical unit, pushed off into zero-gee, and made my way back up to the bridge. I took my seat at the main console, keyed up The Mummy (not any of the good ones; the Tom Cruise one), and toggled the intercom to Little Troll. “How’s it going down there?”
“This atmosphere is like the inside of a toilet bowl after a long night of drinking,” Ryan said.
“Ew,” I offered.
“Yeah. I’m homing in on a beacon right now. Stats look okay, but grappling this thing up is going to be a bitch.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Let me know when you’re incoming.”
I watched the movie for a bit, and then decided even I wasn’t that dedicated. I pulled up War of the Worlds instead. After maybe ten minutes of that, Ryan checked back in. “Hey, I was able to grab two pods,” he said. “So I’m at full capacity and en route. How’s the medic?”
“He’s fine,” I said. “Shandra’s down there helping him out.”
“I think he’s hot on him,” Ryan said.
“No,” I said, quite sarcastically.
“Well, let them know I’m on my way.”
“Will do. Hey, keep an eye open–it looks like we’ve got two other S&R ships inbound with pods as well. You may have to wait in line.”
“I’ve already got three more beacons assigned to me,” he said. “Can’t you let me in first?”
I thought about it. “Everybody is probably in a hurry to get back,” I said. “What if you drop the pods just ahead of the salvage bay? The med-unit can lock down atmosphere, I can pop the bay, and drag the pods in with the tractors. That lets everybody just dump and run.”
“Works for me,” Ryan said.
“Medical unit,” I said, toggling the intercom. “We’ve got four to six pods inbound. Communications indicates that none are critical.” I told them the rest of the plan.
“Sounds fine,” Adam replied. “I’ve got the unit locked down for vacuum, and we’ve got light EVA suits in here if we need them.”
“Shouldn’t,” I said. I was tapping out instructions to the incoming ships, who quickly acknowledged. One was already off our bow and was dropping his escape pod cargo. “Pulling atmosphere now.” The Troll stored its salvage bay atmosphere in compression containers, and it only took a few seconds to pull all the air out of the bay. “Opening salvage bay doors.”
“Hey, Shan,” I said, “the doors are stuck again.”
“You’re shitting me,” she replied.
“I am not. Last time I had to shut down the tractor net to get them to work, but the med unit is going to drift if I do that now,” I said.
“Can you fix it?”
“No, you guys never showed me how all those stupid interlocks work, and we don’t have an engineer on board right now, in case you’d forgotten. And you guys are stuck in there.”
“One second,” Adam’s voice came. I could hear Smith and he muttering. “I think I can probably fix it. Can you re-pressurize the bay?”
“First, no, because the door sequence is initiated. It won’t let me flood the bay,” I said. “Second, aren’t you a medic?”
“I studied engineering before medicine,” he said. “But I won’t have time to get a red jumpsuit. Is that okay?”
Smartass. I’d been the one to insist he wear Troll livery while aboard, and I’d had to really scrounge to find a set of blue coveralls. I ignored the jibe. “Use the upper aft hatch,” I said instead, “that’ll take you right into the engineering area.”
“Roger. Getting into an EVA suit now. Hey, Shan, can you give me a hand? These things are–” his voice cut off as he struggled into the EVA suit.
“Hey, you’ve got like eight pods out here, plus my two,” Ryan’s voice came across the intercom. “What’s with the plan?”
“Thank you for visiting,” I said in a monotone voice. “Please deposit your cargo and continue with your day. We appreciate your business.”
“We got it. Go rescue more pod people.”
Clunk. The bay doors started to swing open. Finally. “Thanks, Adam,” I said. “I’ll bring these pods in and depressurize so you guys can work in more comfort.” I’m a master at the tractor beams; it took less than five minutes to rope the ten pods into the bay, another minute to close the doors, and another couple of minutes to repressurize. “You’re good to go, guys.”
“On it,” Smith’s voice came. The bay cameras showed them floating over to each pod, checking its readouts, and opening them. Of the ten people, only one was unconscious, and Adam and Smith worked together to float her into the medical unit. Once they’d sealed off the unit, I depressurized the bay, opened the door, and grabbed the last two pods Buzz had brought in. I moved the empties to the side of the bay for later disposition. Within a couple of hours, Buzz had re-docked Little Troll and joined me on the bridge.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You guys need to let me rewire that stupid bay door system so that I understand it,” I grumbled.
“Guys, I’m heading back up,” Smith’s voice came over the intercom. “Adam thinks he’s got everyone stabilized. Is the Pasteur in-system, yet?”
I checked my console. “No, and she’s still a couple hours ETA. Does he want us to head to Starbase 18 instead?”
“Yeah,” she said. The intercom dropped as she entered the bridge. “He’s got a couple that are pretty serious.” She plopped down next to me at the main console.
“Okay,” I said, turning to look at her. “Do you want to plot the–” I stopped, staring at her chest.
“What?” she said.
“Why does your name patch say ‘Stevenson?’” I asked.
“That’s Adam’s last name,” she answered.
“Why are you wearing Adam’s coveralls?” Ryan asked.
“I’m not, these are mine. His are blue, and wouldn’t fit me,” she said. “You want me to plot the course?” she asked, turning to her controls.
“Why do your coveralls say ‘Stevenson?’” I asked.
“We got married while you were maneuvering the pods into the bay,” she answered.
The bridge was quiet.
“Course laid in. Ready to engage at warp 3,” she said.
Crickets. Only, you know, with no actual crickets. So, quiet.
“Ready to eng–”
“Yes, engage,” Ryan said. “That usually comes before marriage. You’re married?”
“We’d been discussing it for a while,” she shrugged. “Seemed like as good a time as any. And since he knows a lot of the engineering stuff, he can help out even if we’re not on a medical mission. Although he wants a red jumpsuit, too. Plus, as much as you get us into trouble, having a medic aboard wouldn’t hurt.”
“Wait, you hired him, too?” Ryan said in a high-pitched voice.
“Seemed faster,” she replied. I was still staring at her in shock. She turned and met my eyes. “What?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t let me help plan the reception,” I said. I turned back to my console, hit “play” on War of the Worlds, engaged our warp drive, and pointedly ignored everyone.
We’d been working on salvaging a defunct Starfleet research station for about two weeks. The work was slow-going; we had to work closely with a Starfleet salvage team, who was offloading some of the station’s still-usable scientific equipment, and make sure not to rupture anything crucial. “Subtlety” not being Captain Ryan’s strongest suit, he’d taken to spending a lot of time in his cabin on the lower hull.
First Officer Smith Stevenson and I had been taking turns carving off pieces of the station using our salvage bay’s forward phaser array, and then packing the raw material into our salvage bay. We were close to full-up. I figured that we had a day, maybe two, on-site before we’d have to head to Starbase 47 to offload the salvaged material for recycling.
I’d been on-shift for a solid ten hours and was getting tired. Normally, Shandra would have already been on the bridge for handoff and her own ten-hour shift, but she appeared to be running late. Odd for her, really. I toggled her comm, but didn’t get a response. Odder. I toggled Adam’s comm. “Hey Adam, seen Shandra?”
There was a long enough pause that I grew concerned. Then, “Um, let me come up there.”
Ooooo-kay. Odder yet. I tractored my last piece of station hull into the salvage bay, and tucked it into the tractor/pressor net that held everything in place. I stowed the forward phasers just as Adam came onto the bridge. We’d picked up him a few months back as part of a Starfleet-directed rescue operation, and after somewhat hurriedly marrying our First Officer, he’d signed on to the crew. He was nominally a medic, although he’d originally studied engineering, meaning he helped fill two roles on board. We’d sort of made off with the standalone medical module that Starfleet had, er, “loaned” us for that rescue mission. Instead of keeping it in the salvage bay, though, where it just took up precious space, Captain Ryan and I had attached it to the Troll’s port-side hull, tucked in just aft of the salvage bay door hinge and just under the leading edge of the port warp nacelle. It looked, frankly, ridiculous, but it generated its own gravity so having it welded on “sideways” didn’t effect its usefulness.
Adam was out of uniform. That was fine, since our uniforms were only colored coveralls in the first place, and since as far as I was aware he didn’t have anything official to be doing right now. Except “out of uniform” in this case meant a slightly worse-for-wear t-shirt half-tucked into a pair of pants that had obviously been thrown on somewhat hastily. He was barefoot, too. “Soooo….” I said. “What’s up with Shan?”
“She’s, uh… we’ve… she’s going to need some time off,” he said. He was panting slightly.
“Off?” I said. Our First Officer almost never took time off.
“Yeah. She may need, like, a few weeks. But I–”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “A few weeks? What in the world is wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he said. “Everything’s perfectly normal. She’s just going through a… well, a phase, basically, and I need to keep an eye on her. It’s all good, she’s fine, but she can’t report for duty right now.”
“I mean, we can finish up here in a few days without her,” I said, doing some calculations in my head. “I need to let the Captain know to go see her.”
“No! No, no, no,” he said, waving his hands emphatically. “He can’t see her! No, like I said, it’s just a… it’s just a phase. Maybe just a week or two. We can stay in our cabin,” he added, backing off the bridge. “I’ll keep you posted!” He closed the bridge hatch.
I was still staring, somewhat dumbstruck, at the hatch. Without looking, I reached behind me and toggled Ryan’s comm. “Captain,” I said, “something’s weird with Shandra. Can you come up to the bridge?”
There was a slight delay before, “um, no. No, not right now. How’s the salvage going?”
The salvage? “The salvage is fine,” I said slowly, “but Shandra won’t come out of her cabin and now you won’t come out of your cabin? Should I be worried?”
“No, it’s fine, I’m sure she’s fine. Did Adam say she’s fine?”
“Adam said it’s a phase.”
There was another pause. “She’s fine. They’re fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine. Keep salvaging. Don’t forget to take a break.”
I will admit that I’m not the most empathic person aboard the ship. I turned back to my console and finished shutting down the salvage operation, and messaged the Starfleet crew that I’d be back in ten hours. Being not-so-emphathic means I sometimes don’t fully “read” what my crewmates are going through, and that I’m terrible at reading through the–
I toggled Adam’s comm again. “Hey, Adam, just a quick quest–”
“NOT NOW!” he screamed. “WE’RE FINE!” And the comm cut off.
I thought hard for a few moments. I called up our onboard ship registry, which had pretty up-to-date information on most of Starfleet’s ships, and flipped to the entry for USS Powhatan. I read a bit about her Captain, who happened to be our First Officer’s mother. Empathy. Empathy.
Troll didn’t have a very comprehensive medical database. The information we had was pretty limited to first-aid type stuff, dealing with traumatic injuries, that kind of thing. Our own tiny medical bay was basically an autodoc. But we had a shiny new Starfleet portable medical unit bolted to the side of the ship. I put the Troll’s helm on stationkeeping and made my way into the medical unit.
It had a much more comprehensive medical database, and I spent a good bit of time poking around in its entries on various Federation species.
“Adam,” I said, toggling his comm again, “do you guys need me to bring you any–”
“NO, NO!” he shouted again. The audio sounded a bit hollow, as if he was shouting at his comm from across the room instead of wearing it. And he sounded out of breath. “WE’RE FINE, THANK YOU, NO NEED TO BRING ANYTHING!”
I shut down the medical unit’s computer, and climbed back into the Troll. I made my way to the lower deck, which is where our crew quarters were. After what I’d read, and what I suspected, I wasn’t going to even go near Shandra and Adam’s quarters. Instead, I hit the chime on the Captain’s quarters, which sat dead in the middle of the crew section and was the only way to access the little skiff docked to our bottom hull. Ryan opened the door. He stood dead in the doorway, body language making it clear he didn’t want me coming in. He had the lights down low. I was used to that, but this time we didn’t have one of his Space Bunnies aboard. “I’ve a concern about the First Officer,” I said, peering over his shoulder into his cabin. “But… what is that on the floor?”
“Nothing,” he said. “What’s wrong with Shandra?”
I pushed past him and stood in the entrance of his cabin. He’d unbolted his bunk and desk and pushed them against the wall, leaving about a 10-meter by 10-meter area of clear space. It was covered with…
“Is that a model of a Constitution-class starship’s bridge made out of cereal boxes?” I asked.
He pushed me back into the passageway. “Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to get accurate blueprints. What’s wrong with Shandra? Do I need to check on her?”
“Well,” I said slowly, “not per se. And if everything I’ve read is correct there’s a good chance you shouldn’t. But you might want to check on Adam.”
“Why?” he said. “What’s wrong with Adam?”
“He’s with Shandra.”
“Yeah, they’re married.”
“He’s only human.”
“Yeah, so are we all, so what?”
“Well,” I said, even more slowly, “that’s kind of the thing. Shandra isn’t as entirely human as, say, you or Adam.”
“I really need you to get to the point,” he said sharply.
“It’s just that she’s pushing fifty, and I don’t know if you know this or not, but her Mom is Betazed, and–oh, you get it,” I said with some relief, watching the blood drain out of his phase. Er, his face.
“Is Adam okay?” he hissed.
“He just seemed tired but they’re only a day into it,” I said.
“I was concerned, but I don’t know what to do.”
“I think these thing just have to play out,” he said. “It’s like Vulcans, kind of. We should have plenty of food on board,” he said.
“I checked the computer in the medical unit and it said anywhere from a week to three.”
“And we’ve been here for two already,” he muttered. “Okay. Look, I’ll go up and take a shift and try to finish up. I’ll–stop looking at me like that, I’ll just carve and leave everything in place, you can stow it. Jeez, you’re so anal retentive. Next shift, drag it all in and we’ll get out of here.” He stepped out of his cabin. “Once we’re at Starba–do not go into my cabin!!” he barked, closing the door behind him. “Once we’re at Starbase 40-whatever, we can figure out if there’s anything else we need to do. They’ve a nice recreational sector, maybe we can get the two of them a nice suite with room service.”
“Okay,” I said, following him to the bridge.
“No, you go catch some sleep,” he said. “You need to be fresh in eight or nine hours.”
“Well, I just wanted to understand–”
“I am absolutely not having this talk with you if your parents or whatever did not do so. Go to the medical unit and look it up.” I turned back toward the access hatch we’d made for the unit. “Later,” he said. “Sleep now. Go.” He pushed me in the direction of my cabin.
I’m fortunate in that I can fall asleep more or less at will. I got a solid eight hours, and then made my way to the bridge. I absolutely did not hear banging noises coming from Adam and Shandra’s cabin, nor the immense mess in the small galley that was clearly the result of several hurriedly-prepared meals. “How’re we doing?” I asked Ryan.
He turned from his seat at the main console. “I do not know how you two do these for hours on end,” he said, red-eyed and clearly tired. “I’m going back to my cabin. Drag this stuff in and get us on to Starplace whatever, would you?”
“Yessir,” I said. He sketched a tired salute and left the bridge, and I sat at the main console. He’d done really well: all the salvage he could possibly fit was carved off and stacked up, representing probably a half of the station’s mass. I let the Starfleet crew know we’d be back in a few days for the rest, wondering to myself if the Stevensons would be with us or not. It took about five hours to load the salvage and close the bay. I was just plotting the course to Starbase 47 when Adam lurched onto the bridge. He didn’t look good. He’d forgone a shirt at all, and there were clear bruises across his torso. No blood, though.
“I need to ask you a favor,” he said, his voice ragged.
“We’ll be on our way to Starbase 47 in a few minutes,” I said. “It’ll take about 20 hours to get there at maximum warp, which I’ll absolutely be programming us for. En route, I’ll reserve you two a suite at the station’s nicest resort hotel. They have room service. Would you like me to notify medical personnel?”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I could use a quick checkup. And, um, when we get underway, could you go into the med unit for me? Storage locker C should have racks of syringes. I need a pack of the green ones and a pack of the red ones. You’re not color-blind, are you?”
“No, I can do that. Do you want me to–”
“Just put them on the floor outside our cabin door, please. Don’t knock. Say, 20 minutes?”
“Make it 10,” I said, engaging the warp drive. “I’ll go right now.”
He nodded again, took a deep breath, and turned to make his way back to the crew quarters. I followed, veering toward the medical unit. “Hey Adam,” I called before he rounded the corner.
“Yeah?” he asked tiredly.
“You’ll make it,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Once in a lifetime opportunity!” He rounded the corner and I continued on to the med unit.
Attention, Icelandic Troll, stand by for customs inspection.
First Officer Stevenson and I were on the bridge, and our eyes flew open. We’d just docked at Upabove Station, preparing to bring on supplies and such. Our salvage bay was empty, so a customs inspection wasn’t something we’d normally be dealing with. Technically, stations could inspect civilian ships anytime they wanted, but it was unusual. Sometimes they were dealing with a rash of smugglers and just made an all-out effort to find them.
It’s also possible that the Captain’s current Space Bunny was a “person of interest,” although it’d be odd to send a customs inspector after her.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Troll was carrying some less-than-regulation equipment. Our jury-rigged shield generator was ex-Starfleet, and absolutely not intended for civilian use. The Starfleet medical unit welded onto our side was also… well, Starfleet, and not intended for civilian use. The emplaced megaphaser that I’d incorporated into a modified docking collar for our skiff was absolutely contraband, and a close inspection would reveal that the power conduits supplying the skiff were way oversized.
“Acknowledge, Upabove,” I replied, trying to sound bored. I cut the channel, and triggered the shipwide circuit. “Customs inspection, everyone. Plan Zed. Do it. Do it now.”
The inspector arrived via the auxiliary dock that connected directly to the back of the bridge module. That passageway also led to the aft engineering spaces, and it was our most common docking point. The rest of the Troll was basically a giant box, without any hard points to dock to.
“Good morning,” the inspector said, strolling onto the bridge. I mentally slapped myself for not cutting our artificial gravity before he boarded. He was a short, stout, beige-skinned… man, I presume, with deep skin folds all over his face. His head was covered with sparse, bristly black hair, although its primary feature was a… generously sized mouth that was, at present, easily conveying a “displeased” attitude. “I am Inspector Tr’gat. To whom is in charge of this vessel?”
Cool, Standard as a second language. “I am,” Stevenson answered, stepping toward him but not offering a hand to shake. “First Officer Shandra Stevenson.”
“You have no Captain?” Tr’gat asked in a somewhat gurgly voice.
“We do,” Stevenson said, “but he’s otherwise engaged, and I’ll be available to you for your inspection. Shall we start with the salvage bay?”
“No,” he said. “Thank you, what was your name? Jennifer. No, our scans already confirm that your salvage bay is empty. Why do you have a Starfleet emergency medical bay attached to your hull?” he asked.
I knew someone would notice that, one day. “It’s Stevenson,” she repeated, “and we frequently conduct rescue operations under contract to Starfleet. It became more efficient to have a permanent facility for our staff medic to work from.”
“We will inspect that at present,” Tr’gat said. He turned toward the engineering space. “For now, will Jennifer please show me your engineering?”
“Stevenson,” she said firmly. “Like it says on my uniform. And, of course. Right this way.”
I tagged along. Adam, our other Stevenson, was in a pair of greasy red ship’s coveralls, working through a preventative maintenance routine on the salvage bay door mechanism. “This is our Chief Engineer,” Shandra said. “This is Inspector Tr’gat.”
“Hi!” Adam said brightly. He stood, wiped a hand on his pant leg, and held it out to the inspector. The inspector looked at it like it might be radioactive, and made no move to reciprocate. “Seems fine,” he said. “You have weapons?”
“No,” Adam said, lowering his hand. “Our salvage bay has a standard short-range phaser array for cutting up wrecks, but unless you’re really close and really patient, it’s not much of a weapon.”
“Fine. Will the Jennifer please showing the bridge, now?” Tr’gat asked.
Shandra just sighed. “Right this way.” We walked back along the corridor to the bridge.
Tr’gat entered first, and glanced around. His attention was drawn–as I knew it would be–to the shield controls haphazardly bolted to the starboard rear console. “This is defensive shields?” he asked.
Shandra looked at me. “Ah, no,” I said. “It’s a proprietary controller for the salvage bay’s pressor/tractor net. It gives us more granular control over the containment field, and integrates with the ship’s inertial dampers. The basic technology is exactly the same as shield controllers from a few generations back, though.”
He stared at the equipment for a moment, and then made a wet-sounding harumph. “Is fine. Will view medical unit now.”
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” Shandra asked.
“Medical unit,” he answered.
We led him down to the ad-hoc hatch we’d created to access the medical bay. “Please be cautious,” she said, “as the unit has its own gravity field, which is perpendicular to the ship’s main field. There’s a zero-g buffer just around the hatch.”
“Acknowledges,” he said shortly. He walked forward, and with a confidence clearly born from experience, flipped into the medical unit. We followed.
Adam, who was also our Chief Medic, was there, in a pair of clean blue coveralls. “Hello!” he said brightly, holding out his hand.
Tr’gat drew up short. “You are Chief Engineer?”
“Nope! I’m the Chief Medic,” Adam said, just as brightly, although he let his hand drop. “We’re twins.”
Tr’gat looked like his brain was doing a soft-reset, and he looked mildly uncomfortable. “Is fine,” he said, glancing around the medical unit’s airlock. “Fine.” He left the unit, and we followed. Challenge one avoided: we had a lot of medical supplied in that unit that, while not strictly illegal, would have been a little difficult to explain to someone like Tr’gat.
We walked through the crew quarters, which comprised the rest of the ship. “Where is access to small shuttle?” he asked, stopping in the middle of the corridor. This was the big challenge. We couldn’t let him see Little Troll.
“That’s actually the Captain’s private skiff,” Shandra said, “and it’s only accessible through his quarters.”
“Jennifer will show.”
“I will not,” she said firmly, “because the Captain is in there and has requested privacy. Now, you’ve not indicated what it is you’re looking for, but as all we are doing is bringing supplies on board, not offloading anything, I don’t see where Customs has a role–”
“Then you will show,” he said, pointing at me, “or docking privileges revoked.”
I looked at Shan. She shrugged. I pointed to the door of Captain Ryan’s quarters. Tr’gat stalked over, and touched the door chime. A moment later, the door slid open. Captain Ryan was standing there, clothed in nothing but what God gave him and a fine sheen of sweat. “WHAT?” he yelled. “I told you I was busy!!”
Tr’gat took a firm step backwards. In an attempt to not look at Buzz’s naked glory, the inspector’s eyes slid sideways, into Ryan’s cabin. I was standing right behind Tr’gat, and I’m sure he must have seen what I saw. Buzz’ current Space Bunny was… well, they’d clearly been busy, and it had clearly involved… equipment. She smiled at us. I offered a small wave. Buzz scratched his balls.
“Is… is fine. Inspection complete,” Tr’gat said, turning away. Buzz smirked and closed the door. We followed the inspector back to the upper hull. “Tribbles,” he said, as he was clambering through the docking gangway. “Tribble problem on station. Ships always bringing them, them always sneaking off. Scans inconclusive.”
“Ah,” Shandra said. “Well, certainly no tribbles here.”
“We hate the things,” I added helpfully.
Tr’gat turned to close the docking hatchway, pointed at us, and said, “Captain not to arrive on station.” He dogged the hatch shut.
Shandra and I both slumped against the wall. “Thank God,” she said. She toggled her intercom. “All clear, everyone. Good job. Captain, that was–I’m going to go with inspired.”
A moment passed. Then, “what was? And who was that?”
“That was the inspector,” she replied. “We were doing Plan Zed.”
“Oh,” Ryan said. “I didn’t hear that bit. Sorry. We’ll be done here in a bit, did you guys need to get into the skiff for something?”
We didn’t reply.
The Troll was not officially licensed to carry passengers, but so long as it was only one, and we didn’t do it too often, it was fine. And so, on our trip outbound from a salvage job to a processing center that would buy the salvaged material from us, we had a passenger: one Derek Aldridge. Aldridge had been one of the engineers working to direct the salvage operation, which had been especially tricky. The wreck in question had drifted into a particularly dense gas cloud, making any use of our salvage phaser problematic. We weren’t big enough to tow the wreck clear, and so we’d done most fo the disassembling and cutting using smaller hand phaser-torches. It had taken twice as long, but the abandoned hull had been rich with excellent materials, and we expected quite a large check from the recycling plant.
We’d also taken on a temporary crew member, Jason Kepler, which had kept the operation moving more smoothly. As a bonus, Kepler was completely certified to run both our helm and nav functions, meaning we had a third pilot aboard. Well, four including Ryan, but the Captain rarely piloted the Troll in warp.
I’m not going to lie: working in that gas cloud had been a little scary. Light was different; working in empty space is usually dark, of course, but you always have this beautiful backdrop of stars in seemingly every direction. Inside the cloud was–well, eerie. What light there was reflected and refracted in oranges and blues. Aboard the derelict hull, we couldn’t even clearly make out the Troll all the time, although her powerful floodlights bathed the area in cool, white light. Again, though, the gas picked up that light and tricked and twisted it into shadows and colors. I’d wished the entire time that we’d invested, at some point, in portable work lights that we could have carried over with us, but I couldn’t remember a job quite like this one where those would have been useful.
What made it worse is that the human brain simply wasn’t designed for that situation. Your peripheral vision would keep picking up on dust motes drifting by, briefly reflecting the light before turning dark, and you’d swear someone was watching you. But of course nothing was; it was just our brains’ adapted-for-forest-survival mechanisms being fooled. Still, it wore on you, and we were all pretty tired every day, and damn near exhausted by the time the job was done.
By the time we finished our last shift, with only Kepler and Aldridge back aboard the Troll, we were bleary-eyed, unnecessarily paranoid, and deeply wanting a nice stiff drink.
Kepler had just come on-shift as we were buttoning up our fully-loaded salvage bay, and offered to take first watch on the bridge for the four-day warp to the processing center. First Officer Stevenson and I, along with the Captain and our Medical-Officer-Slash-Engineer Adam Stevenson, leaped at the opportunity to catch some much-needed shut-eye. We checked that Aldridge was comfortable in his cabin, and made our way to our cabins. As the Troll wound into its artificial shipboard night, dimming the lights throughout, we showered off, and collapsed into sleep. For me, the thrumming of the ship’s warp engines had always been a kind of lullaby, and I quickly fell asleep.
It wasn’t a deep sleep, though. You know how sometimes you’ll have a dream, and you know you’re having a dream, but you can’t do anything about it? So one part of your brain is off making up stories, while another part is watching it do that and trying to make sense of it? My dream had this weird thread of wordless music–haunting and, in a way, beautiful–but some portion of my rationale brain just kept trying to put words to the music.
We are the dark children, spawn of the incubus, depths of the nighttime are the lands we command.
We hold the life power, try not to anger us!
Tread soft, a fine line, there is death near at hand!
Well, that woke me up. Straight up, sitting up, sweating up a storm. I glanced at the chronometer in my cabin and saw that I’d only been down for a couple of hours. A flashing light caught my attention: Troll was registering nobody on the bridge. Huh. Not unusual; it was normal for someone to go take a pee or get some coffee, but after that little dream-song, I figured a walk would clear my head. I dressed, and headed up to the bridge.
It was–actually, if you’ve a sensitive stomach you might want to skip this–a bloodbath. Kepler was dead, in the most dramatic way I could imagine. He’d been beheaded, not to mention, from the looks of it, stabbed a lot. There was blood everywhere. I probably stood there for–well, I’ve no idea how long–before my hand finally reached to the panel near the bridge entrance and slapped the red alert button. The red light that bathed the bridge did nothing to improve it.
“What’s happening?” The Captain’s voice came over the intercom.
“There’s–Kepler’s been killed,” I stammered. Logic finally asserted itself. “Locking down the bridge,” I said firmly, the deed following the word. “Someone’s killed Kepler,” I continued, “and I recommend everyone lock down and arm themselves. We need to sweep the ship.” Troll wasn’t equipped with the fancy Starfleet-style sensors that could scan for lifeforms inside the ship; we’d have to find whoever did this ourselves. Aldridge, I assumed, since I didn’t know where else a stowaway could have come from. I used the pared-down controls on the Captain’s command chair to put the ship on full automatic, overridable only by myself or Ryan. Ryan and Shandra had civilian-grade phasers in their cabins; I did, too, although I’d not considered snagging it before coming up.
Toggling the shipwide intercom, I said, “attention, all hands. There is an emergency. Mister Aldridge, please state your location.” There was silence. I listened intently to the intercom, trying to listen through the slight hiss that the life support systems imparted to the audio feed.
Then I heard it, soft as a whisper.
We are the dark children, killers from the incubus!
Depths of the nighttime are the lands we command!
We hold the life force, our will it is never just!
No more a fine line, there is death in our hands!
The goddamn intercom was incapable of pinpointing where that came from in shipwide mode, unfortunately. “Shan,” I said, toggling a private line to her cabin, “you there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Buzz filled me in. Adam’s with me. This is Aldridge?”
“I assume,” I answered. “One sec.” I switched to Aldridge’s cabin. “Mister Aldridge?” No reply. I toggled back to Shandra. “He’s not answering in his cabin, and someone’s on the ship someplace whispering evil shit.”
“Shouldn’t be. We never granted him access and that space locks down automatically.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding to myself, “could be. It’s open-access. But it could be the salvage bay or the main crew common area.”
“I’ll clear that,” she said.
“Adam’s with me.” The two of them were no wimps when it came to protecting themselves, or each other. I waited a few minutes, listening to them move quickly through the space. “Clear,” she finally announced. “I’ve got this locked down, too. So it’s either the med bay, the salvage bay, or one of the connectors.”
“Looping in Buzz,” I said, creating a three-way between us. “Buzz, Shan cleared the crew area, so you’re good to come out. Can you guys check Aldridge’s cabin?”
“I did,” Adam said, “and it’s a mess. He tossed the place before he came out, and left the door open. There’s nobody in there, now.”
“Is his vac suit in there?” I asked.
“One second.” A moment passed. “Yeah, although it’s tossed on the floor.”
“That rules out the salvage bay, then,” I said, “because I depressurized it.” I glanced at the control panel, covered in gore. “It’s still vacuum. No way he’s whispering things in there.”
“Med bay or one of the connectors, then,” Buzz said. “I’ll take topside between the bridge and engineering,” he added. “Don, I’ll come up to the bridge and grab you, and we’ll clear the passage back to engineering. Shan, you and Adam take the connector to med bay. Don’t go in there, yet. Just cover the entrance.”
“Aye,” she said.
The connector from the crew area to the med bay is much shorter than the climb up to the bridge, and so her reply came before Buzz made it up to me: “nobody here, but the med bay door is open. Covering it.”
“I’m at the bridge, Don,” Buzz’ voice came, accompanied by a rap-rap-rap at the door. I popped it open, stepped through, and sealed it behind me.
“You heard Shan?”
“Yeah, you guys hold tight while we clear this passageway,” he said. “Let’s go. Nice and slow.”
The Troll isn’t a complex ship, and the passageway from the bridge to engineering was basically one long tube, lined with utility conduits. There were no corridors branching off, and basically nowhere to hide. So it was pretty easy to verify that Aldridge wasn’t up here. I verified that the engineering area’s door was still sealed. “He’s in the med bay,” I said.
“He sure didn’t come in my cabin and get into the skiff,” Buzz agreed. “Shan, Adam, we’re on our–”
“YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE!” a booming voice came across our intercom. Followed by “FIRE!” In Shandra’s voice. Simultaneously, we heard the whine of phasers and a booming, “WE ARE THE DARK CHILDREN!”
Civilian phasers suck. They can only stun, and they only do so on a very low energy level. Someone who’s nervous system is really jacked up can survive a hit or two, and the stupid things take a couple of seconds to recharge.
“SHIT!” I heard Shandra yell.
“THIS PLACE IS OUR PLACE!”
“WATCH IT!” Adam’s voice.
“THIS PLACE IS YOUR GRAVE!”
Grunting, followed by slamming sounds, followed by more phaser whines. Then, a moment of silence.
“SHAN?” Buzz yelled.
“Yeah,” she replied, out of breath. “We got him. He had a big-ass knife, but Adam got it away from him, and I threw him into a bulkhead. Adam stunned him. I stunned him again for good measure. Adam’s tying him up with some restraints from the med bay.”
“Jeez,” Buzz whispered. “You guys are okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine. Not even a scratch. You?”
“Fine,” I said, “but the bridge is a mess.”
“Yeah, I’m going to call ahead and have the authorities meet us,” Buzz said. “Man.”
By the time we arrived, the local authorities as well as a Starfleet vessel were ready for us. A cleaning crew was on-hand to help deal with our bridge situation, and four armored officers hauled Aldridge away. He’d been awake for hours, by then, screaming and cursing at us all. We’d left him tied to a bulkhead outside the med bay and shut off all the intercoms.
“What the hell do you think that was all about?” Buzz asked as the cleaning crew finished with the bridge.
“It’s funny,” I said, “but that singsong he was whispering before you came up… I’d heard it myself, when I was sleeping. Well, close to it. Honestly…” I paused.
“I think something possessed him. I think it tried to possess me.”
“Possessed?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not superstitious. But it fits the facts. He was the sanest person aboard for that whole trip, but something was in that gas cloud. We all felt it.”
We fell quiet, and watched the cleaning crew gather up their equipment and leave.
“This,” I muttered quietly, “sucks.”
The Troll had been on this particular salvage job for three months. Three. Months. Ninety-three point two days, to be precise about it, which I wasn’t being because every time I was our First Officer growled at me and went down to the med-bay to toss her husband on the floor. Three months was a long time for a salvage job, but it was a big job: we were literally helping to salvage a near-ancient NX-class cruiser, one of Starfleet’s first interstellar warp ships. Its warp drive made the Troll look well-equipped. We weren’t, however, working on anything interesting like the warp drive, or the warp core, or anything. No, we were stuck helping to dismantle a portion of the main saucer hull. We’d already made eight trips to the nearest Starfleet recycling center; this particular NX-class ship was in such poor shape that it was faster to tear it apart where it lay than to even tow it to the recycling yard.
Our salvage bay was almost full, ready for the ninth of what looked to be about eleventy million trips.
First officer Smith Stevenson and I were doing the majority of the salvage work, taking shifts in turn to cut up the hull and drag the chunks into our bay. Other salvage crews were working elsewhere on the enormous hull, slowly breaking it down into pieces that could be re-engineered into a new ship. Starfleet was very environmentally conscious. Adam, our Engineer, took the first half of his shift during the last half of mine, overlapping into the first half of First Officer Wifey’s shift. That way he got to spend some time helping each of us, and got to spend “mornings” with his wife, making sure she got enough coffee to not snap at me when she got to the bridge.
Captain Ryan? Utterly useless for long-attention-span jobs like this. Ryan, as he would inform you, was a hard worker, but a man of action. A man of whim and whimsy. A man of charm, with a lady in every port. A man of… well, something, but I’d quit listening. Ryan had spent the first week on-site jetting around the inside of the ship we were salvaging, waxing eloquent about its place in history and treating it as his own personal museum. The next week, he spent visiting the various other salvage crews on the job, until they’d all, one by one, called us and asked us to stop him from doing that. Then he’d disappeared into his quarters for two weeks. He’d emerged looking haggard yet refreshed, and his quarters were littered with starship models and board games he’d invented, all made from cut-up cereal boxes.
Then he’d become annoying.
First, he’d clambered onto the bridge during Shandra’s shift, but when she was taking a brief bio-break. He’d repositioned the Troll to a different section of the NX-class ship, later claiming it to be a “more interesting” part. Shandra, bless her, had noticed and hadn’t immediately fired up the salvage phasers when she came back, thus sparing the lives of the workers crawling over that section of the saucer-shaped hull. She’d had some firm words with our Captain, moved Troll back, and ended her shift an hour early.
Then, he’d decided to play with the immensely complex pressor/tractor beam net system we used in the salvage bay to hold all the loose salvage in place during transit. As a result, the next time we’d shifted the Troll to a new vantage point, everything had slammed to one side of the bay, knocking the ship off-position and almost pushing us into the derelict hull.
We suggested he engage in some critical EVA maneuvers to ascertain the safety of the next section we were schedule to cut up.
Of particular suckage was that we were edging up to December 25th on the Earth calendar, which meant Christmas. This would be the first time I’d spent Christmas aboard the Troll, as we usually scheduled some downtime this time of year. I mean, I wasn’t a huge holiday celebrant, but I did enjoy contacting my homeward to exchange greetings, and I particularly loved getting presents.
Few presents would be in the offing.
I turned up the salvage phasers a bit, more out of spite than anything else, and watched hull material disintegrating in front of me. Sigh. I glanced at the chronometer, a flat, dull-red display that listlessly told me we were a few minutes from midnight, ship time, which is when my shift traditionally ended. I wasn’t tired, though.
“Hey.” Shandra walked into the bridge.
“How is it?”
“Metal. Phasers. Blargh,” I replied. “Also, it’s officially Christmas in, like, six minutes.”
“Huh. I don’t think I’ve spent Christmas on a job before,” she said.
“You think Buzz knows?”
“Probably,” I said. “He’s the attention span of a tribble, but he’s actually pretty good at keeping track of things. I honestly thought he’d have rigged up some kind of Christmas tree by now, but he’s still EVA-ing out there.”
She shrugged. “Oh, well. You ready to head in?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I replied. “I’m not tired and I’ve literally watched every Tom Cruise movie ever made at least twice, just on this job. If you want to take over the phaser, I can run the main tractor and speed things up a bit.”
“Might as well,” she said, sitting down at her station. “Seen Adam?”
“He was up a couple of hours ago,” I answered, “but I think he’s back in Engineering messing with the intermix regulator. Didn’t you see him this morning?”
“Yeah, we practiced for a bit in the rec area, but he said Buzz had asked him to take a look at something. The regulator, I suppose.”
“Yeah.” I toggled my console to shift passer control to hers, and focused on pulling in the chunks she began carving off the lifeless hull in front of us. That’s when the ship’s alarm system fired off. We both jumped; after weeks of absolute boredom, we hadn’t been expecting anything. “The hell?” I asked nobody in particular.
Shandra had already shut down the phaser and pulled up whatever the ship was complaining about. “Shit,” she said calmly. She toggled the ship-wide intercom. “We’ve got a bogey coming in fast. Prepare for immediate maneuvers. Prepare for possible impact. Don–”
“On it.” The ship’s midrange sensors had picked up a small mass hurtling toward us at roughly .5 light speed. Far below warp speed, but far more likely to drill a hole right through our unshielded ship. “Should I–”
“No,” she said, “we’re not supposed to have those shields and there are Starfleet people all over the place. Just move us.”
“Yeah, already on it.” Troll wouldn’t move fast with the salvage bay opened, but it took a bit of time to close it, and we didn’t need to move much to avoid the incoming things’ trajectory. I nudged us back a couple of hundred meters. As I did so, I kept an eye on the sensors. “Shandra, it’s turning to follow us.”
“Shit with espresso,” she replied. “Shields up.” She slapped the jury-rigged shield control, and I glanced to my right where the main shield controls were seriously jury-rigged into the ship’s original support console. I heard her slap the control again, and looked back at her. “They’re not activating,” she replied, finally allowing some annoyance to creep into her voice.
“Impact,” I said, glancing at the sensor display, “in about a minute.”
“Brace for impact!” she yelled into the shipwide. She and I sprang for the back of the bridge, where a set of emergency vac-suits were stored next to the bridge entrance. My record with these was 30 seconds, but we both stumbled a bit. In my head, the countdown ran out before we got the vac-safe hoods on. I stopped. Shandra saw me, and stopped sealing her own hood. “What?”
“It didn’t hit us,” I said. I let the hood fall down my back and went back to my console. “Also, it’s gone.” I toggled the near-, mid-, and long-range sensors on the display. “Like, no sign of anything.”
“You guys okay up there?” Adam’s voice came over the intercom.
“Yeah, we think so.” Shandra replied from the back of the bridge. “You’ve got nothing?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. I scanned the entire console. Phasers locked down. Shields not up, although they were showing ready. Tractor locked down. Tractor/pressor net engaged. Bay open. Little Troll docked. Life support systems optimal, energy optimal, warp engines on idle. “I’ve no idea. Everything looks fine.”
“Hey guys,” Adam’s voice came on again, “could you come down to the rec room?”
We glanced at each other. This felt weird, and I didn’t like weird. I put the bridge controls on full standby; the Troll would hold her place in space and alert us if anything else showed up on the sensors. Shandra and I clambered down to the lower hull area, where the rec room, galley, and crew quarters were. As we emerged into the rec room, Adam was standing there smiling. He was standing in front of a seven-foot tree, made from twisted shards of metal and painted an appalling fluorescent green. Arrayed around the bottom of the tree was a collection of cereal boxes, in all their bright, marshmallow-advertising colors.
“What,” I asked carefully, “the hell?”
“Well, I’ll be!” came Ryan’s voice as he emerged from his quarters into the rec room.
“I thought you were on EVA?” I said.
“Nah,” he answered. “I saw it was getting close to midnight and wrapped it up. I was taking a nap. But look at all that!” he said, pointing to the “tree.”
“What is it, exactly?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It looks like Santa Claus paid us a visit right at the stroke of midnight,” he said. “Look, he brought presents,” he added, strolling to the tree and picking up a cereal box. “This one has your name on it!”
I blinked. There were a lot of conflicting inputs going on, and I glanced at Shandra. She was grinning from ear to ear. “Open it,” she said.
More or less on autopilot, I took the box from Buzz and opened it. Inside was a media deck, like the kind of I used to store all the Tom Cruise movies that had ever been made. I pulled it out of the box. “It says ‘Hemsworth.’”
“Ah,” Buzz crowed, “Santa obviously knows you’ve run out of movies to watch, and so he brought you something new!”
I looked at him. “How in the world did you get this in here?”
He smiled. “I didn’t! Santa did.”
I glared at him, and then turned to glare at Adam. “Okay,” Adam said, “he had me disable some of the bridge controls so you wouldn’t see that the skiff wasn’t docked, and to disable the shields. He flew in at max speed, and we unloaded this tree before you guys could get down here.”
“Aw, man,” Buzz said.
“It’s not like he believes in actual Santa Claus,” Adam chided. “He was just missing Christmas.”
“You did all that,” I said, “so that I’d have Christmas.”
“We felt bad for you,” Buzz said.
“And you,” I said, turning to Shandra, “you were in on it.” She nodded happily.
I blinked again. “Thank you,” I said. “I was bummed because I wasn’t going to get to really see my family for Christmas. And get presents. But you got presents. And,” I said, putting down the media deck and drawing them all into a big hug, “I got to spend it with my family after all.”
“This,” Captain Ryan said, “seems like a terrible idea. When exactly do we start?”
The Vulcan on our main view screen raised one long eyebrow. Weird how they all could do that. Genetics, right? “Arrangements will be finalized on the other end of the route in approximately thirty minutes,” he said. “We will begin shortly thereafter. Can you please confirm that you understand your ship’s role in the experiment?”
“Yes,” Ryan said.
The Vulcan waited.
“Oh, you want me to say it?”
“Simply to ensure that you have every detail,” the Vulcan said, not smiling. Because Vulcan.
“Okay,” Ryan said. “Basically, we’re going to navigate at warp 3 to the specific coordinates you gave us. Before we engage the warp drive, we’re to activate whatever that equipment is you’ve loaded into our salvage bay.”
“Correct,” said the Vulcan, as if Ryan had just completed a tridimensional quadratic equation.
“And,” First Officer Stevenson said, “this is going to somehow create a permanent wormhole between the endpoint you’ve constructed on this end, and the endpoint you’ve presumably constructed on the other end?”
“Correct,” said the Vulcan, raising his eyebrow again. Gold star for Shan. “It is our hope that this wormhole technology can eventually provide more efficient faster-than-light travel for commercial traffic, without the expense of equipping each ship with a warp drive.”
“And Troll is doing this because why, again, exactly?” she asked. We’d been through this before.
“A warp-capable ship is required,” the Vulcan reiterated, “but as you have seen, the wormhole equipment is quite large. It must be fully contained within a structure, and so a warp tug is unsuitable. And, Starfleet prefers to use a civilian ship for this experiment, rather than tying up valuable fleet resources.”
“Because, like, a Constellation class ship could easily have fit this thing into its shuttle bay,” she noted.
“Agreed,” the Vulcan said. I detected a note of irritation that was almost certainly my imagination. Because, Vulcan. “However, the equipment would have to be scaled up significantly to work inside the mass of such a large ship. Icelandic Troll provides an excellent power-to-mass ratio, enabling a smaller-scale experiment.”
“Plus, tacos!” Ryan cried out, pumping a fist in the air. Troll’s revenues were always measured in the number of cheap tacos the money would buy, and Buzz had cheerfully informed us that we’d be making over a million tacos on this run.
“Indeed,” the Vulcan said, not sighing in exasperation. “Are there any other questions before we begin?”
Ah, I’d been waiting for that. I raised my hand. “I have questions,” I said. Mathematical ones, to be specific, because this all smelled like horseshit.
“No questions!” Buzz cried out. “Tacos!” He cut the view screen.
“I had questions,” I groused.
“You’d only have gotten answers you wouldn’t have liked,” he chided me. “Plot the course and standby to engage.”
“Course plotted,” I muttered. “We’re all going to die.”
“Shan, maneuver us into the starting gate, please,” Buzz said, ignoring me.
“Aye,” she said. “You’re right,” she muttered to me under her breath. She nudged the Troll into our designated starting position, coasting slowly toward an enormous ring-like structure. We were to engage warp just as we crossed through the ring, and we’d allegedly disengage warp as we passed through its twin on the other end of our route. “Engage warp in five… four… three… two… engage!”
I pushed the warp button and the Troll leapt into warp. Well, I say “leapt;” the Troll wasn’t so much a leaper as she was a heaver. He heaved into warp like a drunk person who’s just discovered that the sidewalk curb he’d just tripped over didn’t actually exist. I’d already rigged the warp controls to simultaneously activate whatever was lodged into our salvage bay.
Flying in warp is usually peaceful, and somewhat beautiful. The stars form colorful streaks, and you definitely get a visual sense of speeding. This was not like that: the stars looked angry, and the streaks of light seemed determined to get the hell out of our way. We didn’t so much glide through warp as we screamed through it like a madman on a mission. I shut off the forward view screen to spare our brains the sight, but kept a close eye on the warp engines and our nav plot.
“How’re we doing?” Ryan asked. I glanced back, and he was perched eagerly on the edge of his chair.
“Well, we’re literally tearing a giant tunnel through space-time, and I’m guessing space-time isn’t enjoying the experience. We’re probably going to go on some kind of space-time offenders’ list,” I answered.
“Engineering!” he shouted, because the intercom system on Troll didn’t care if you shouted or not, so why not? “How’s it looking back there?”
“Well,” Adam yelled back, because based on the background noise coming over the intercom, it was loud back there, “we’re probably going to die.”
“Told you,” I muttered.
“What’s wrong?” Ryan asked, some concern finally entering his voice.
“The warp engine is having trouble settling on an exact velocity, and the structural integrity of the nacelles isn’t looking too good,” Adam replied.
“Can you fix it?” Ryan asked.
“How long have you not owned this ship that you don’t know what ‘structural integrity’ means?” came the reply.
“Will it hold together?”
“I’ve always been amazed that it holds together at all, so I dunno.”
“Energy readings are starting to fluctuate,” I said, staring at my console. “Shan, does this look like–”
“Yeah, the equipment in the bay is drawing off the warp field,” she said, looking intently at her own console. “I think it’s on purpose, but we’re definitely going to crack the dilithium crystals when we come out of warp,” she added.
“What’s that cost?” Ryan asked.
“A few thousand tacos,” I muttered. “Hey, look, it’s stabilizing.”
“Um, no,” she said. “Look again.”
I looked again. “That’s impossible.”
“What’re you guys doing up there?” Adam asked over the intercom.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s impossible.”
“What’s impossible?” Ryan asked.
“We’ve stopped,” I said. I activated the view screen. Nothing was moving. It was like we’d taken a photo of the angry, twisty, get-the-hell-out-of-its-way loops of light. They were absolutely still. “Our power consumption is absolutely steady,” I said. “Which is impossible. Even in normal warp flight there are minor fluctuations due to gravitational fields and whatnot. We’ve stopped, but we’re somehow still in warp.”
Everyone thought about that for a moment.
“Can we get out?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t even know how this happened,” I said. “Maybe not?”
“Can we disengage the warp drive?” he asked.
“The pointy-eared guy said that we can’t do that before reaching the endpoint, or the wormhole will have an unstable terminus and possible swallow the galaxy or something. I wasn’t paying close attention because none of the math on this made sense,” I said.
“Swallowing the whole galaxy seems unlikely,” Shandra said.
“Probably just the ship itself,” I acknowledged.
“Probably,” she agreed.
“Wait, what?” Ryan asked.
“We’re all going to die,” Shandra said.
“Oh, you believe her,” I said.
I caught a piece of popcorn in my mouth. “That was excellent,” I said, hitting stop on my console’s media player. I’d just finished watching a Chris Hemsworth movie called Thor. It was the second movie I’d had a chance to watch in the six hours we’d been sitting still, waiting for something to happen. Shandra had gone aft to engineering to consult with Adam, and Captain Ryan had stayed on the bridge attempting to make me become interested in doing something productive.
“Can you please go help them, now?” he asked for the fortieth time.
“The only thing I can think of,” I said, “after having had some time to carefully go over the math in my head, is to pulse the impulse engine a couple of times to see if that kicks us out of this.”
“Can we do that?”
“Normally, you can’t run impulse engines when you’re in warp. It’s an oxymoron. They’re powered by a fusion reactor, not the warp drive, and they do an entirely different thing.”
“So how would it help?”
“I didn’t say it would. I said it was the only thing I can think of.”
“Can we try it?”
“Well,” I said, “we’d have to do some reprogramming, because normally impulse is locked out of the helm in warp. And we’d have to make some changes to the EPS relays since they normally do a safety lockout in warp, too. That’ll take some time.”
“About two movies. Shan,” I said, activating the intercom back to engineering. “You guys about ready?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Just now. You reprogram the interlocks?”
“Yeah, during the second act of Bad Times at the El Royale,” I replied. “You want to come up here for this, or stay back there?”
“We’re all going to die anyway,” she said, “so I’ll stay back here with Adam.”
“Righty-ho,” I acknowledged. “Pulsing engines.”
“Wait!” Ryan said.
“You guys did all this already?”
“Dude,” I replied. “Keep up.” I’d set up a control to pulse our impulse engines for one second exactly. I tapped it twice in slow succession. The bands of angry light in the view screen moved each time, paused, and then swirled around us. We were on our way. Troll was shuddering like a whore who’d just picked up a winning lottery scratcher from the pavement and was realizing that she was finally free of her pimp, if only she could get the hell out of the neighborhood before that scum ball found out.
“We didn’t die!” Ryan crowed.
“Give it a minute,” I said.
The shuddering got worse, as if Troll had consumed way too much caffeine, and was trying to compensate for it by taking a strong hit of methamphetamines cut with every gummy worm in the universe. I stared at our nav plot. We only needed to hold together for another thirty seconds to reach the planned terminus. Hopefully they hadn’t gotten bored waiting for us. “Thirty seconds,” I announced helpfully.
The Troll moved into a full-on grand mal seizure, something I could relate to given what was happening on our view screen.
“We’ve got about twenty seconds of this before something blows,” Adam yelled over the intercom.
“I hope there’s a margin of error, there,” I said.
“We’re all going to die,” Ryan whispered behind me.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said. “Ten seconds.”
Troll was shimmying like a society that had just invented 24-hour cable news. “Eight.”
The bands and loops of light on the view screen had finally had enough of us, and seemed to be converging on the ship as if to smoosh it like a bug. “Six.”
“We’ve just lost an intercooler!” Shandra yelled.
“Four!” I yelled back.
“No, just the one,” she yelled back, “although we’ve–”
“Inertial damper failing!” Adam cried.
“DISENGAGING!” I screamed, slapping my console. The Troll normally slid out of warp with a sort of grateful sigh, the sound of a marathon runner with two artificial legs, whose limbs had begun to chafe at the flesh interface point a kilometer ago. This time, the Troll plopped out of warp space like a Hutt who’d somehow forgotten that it was a sessile creature, not meant at its advanced age to be practicing flips and turns on the uneven bars. I got a glimpse of the terminus ring as we blasted through it into normal space. I was thrown against my console, and Buzz was thrown against the back of my seat. “Inertial dampers are probably offline,” I said.
“Icelandic Troll, please respond,” came a calm, measured voice. The Vulcan appeared on our forward screen.
“Yo,” Ryan said.
“Please report your status. Your journey took you somewhat longer than expected.”
“Fork yourself, greenie,” I said. “Transmitting diagnostics logs. Analyze ‘em yourself.”
“Did it work?” Ryan asked.
“Regrettably, no,” the Vulcan said. “The wormhole appeared to be stable immediately after you exited warp, but one of the terminus rings failed to completely contain it, and it collapsed within point-seven seconds. However, we have gained valuable data, and will begin preparing for a second attempt.”
“Nope,” I said. “Not us.”
Shandra walked onto the bridge. “Yeah, I’ll second that,” she said. “We’re out.”
“Tacos?” Ryan asked quietly.
“No. Absolutely not,” said Adam, who’d followed Shandra. “The ship couldn’t take it. As-is, we’re going to need significant repairs.”
“We will allocate additional payment for your damages,” the Vulcan said. “And agreed. Based on the data you transmitted, we probably need to consider a purpose-built ship for the next phase in the experiment. However, this one was promising enough that funding for such a ship should be easier to secure.”
“Yay, you,” I said. “Troll out.” I cut the comms.
“We didn’t all die,” Ryan said, a smile in his voice.
“The day is young,” Shandra said. “So I’d watch your mouth. Adam, you want a drink?”
“Whiskey,” he said.
“Whiskey makes you sick,” she reminded him.
“That’s what I’m going for, right now.”
“Buzz has a great collection in his cabin,” she said, and the two of them walked off the bridge.
“Right behind you,” I said, standing from my console.
“What about me?” Ryan asked.
“I’ll bring up a taco in an hour or so,” I replied.
“You know,” Adam said, “you’re always a little cagey about your past. I know you were in Starfleet for a while, but I don’t know much more about it apart from it’s where you met Shandra.”
Adam, our Engineer and Medical Officer, were enjoying some downtime in a lovely bar on Space Station XVIII. First officer Shandra Stevenson and Captain Buzz Ryan were off negotiating our next salvage jobs; Adam and I hadn’t really spent a lot of quality time together, so Shandra suggested we go have lunch and a few drinks. Orders are orders, what can you do, and here we were.
“Yeah, I don’t talk about it much. I really wanted to be in Starfleet, but once I was there, it didn’t work out. I wound up in Communications, but I’d always wanted Navigation and Operations. So it wasn’t satisfying. I did a stint in Starfleet Marines, which was great, but I wanted to be a flier. So, I left.”
“That’s when Buzz bought the Troll?”
“Well, no. I bounced around a bit and lost touch with him and Shan. Two or three years, maybe. I did a lot of thinking, and I think I grew up a bit. I had a couple of close calls.”
Hoo-boy. I signaled the bartender for another whiskey, holding up three fingers. This story would take a little cushioning.
“So, it was actually out on old Space Station III, one of the earlier civilian stations. I’d, uh, I’d gotten a bit down on my luck. I’d wound up in a bar, just looking for–hell, I dunno. A job. Maybe just a friend. I was pretty down on myself. I remember there was a kind of regular crowd of losers there. One old guy, Captain Jed, owned an old tramp freighter, the Antelope. Poor ship was as half-dead as he was, and he basically only flew her enough to make enough money to come back and drown his woes in Andorian gin. Nasty stuff. Another lady, Molly, had been a crack navigator at one point. I actually kind of worshipped her, because she’d flown. But she got out to Regulus way, got hooked in some of the drug clubs there, and lost her license. She washed out, and just kind of hung around bars on the station hoping someone would buy her a drink or a hit.
“Anyway, Space Station III was a dump. They’d didn’t get a lot of traffic, back then, and so they’d shut down half the place between ships. I think we were a week out from one, and I was hoping to get a job as a deckhand or whatever and finally get the hell out of there. I’d basically been sweeping up the bar in exchange for food and booze, and they let me sleep in one of the booths at night. I’m pretty sure Antelope was the only ship in dock that could actually fly at all.
“The station’s red alert went off. We must have gotten hit by something, because the place shook like it was the end of the world. The lights cut out, and there wasn’t much in the way of emergency lighting. The gravity cut out, so we’re all floating around. And we could hear the air pumps die off. Manny, the bartender, started saying prayers. I figured we were goners, and honestly, a part of me was happy about it. At least I wouldn’t be living on that dump of a station anymore, right?” I took a sip of whiskey and steeled myself.
“Jed, of all people, stands up and says, ‘stow it! Head for the Antelope!’ like that was going to save us. ‘You idiots hear that whine? The station reactor’s gone critical with nothing pulling juice and she’s gonna blow! Get the hell to my ship!’
“He wasn’t the only one who had that idea. By the time we got to the dock, bouncing off walls in the dark with no gravity, everyone left living on the station was already there. Nobody said a thing, but they all stared at Jed.
“‘Break out yer suits,’ he said, ‘because it’s got no air, got no heat, and got no gravity, but I can get you all out of here in her hold.’ We didn’t have long; they all started getting into emergency vac-suits and piling into the cargo hold. Antelope was designed to run with a small crew; it was even less fancy than the Troll. There was basically a big box of a cargo hold, a tiny bridge, and the drive systems. ‘She only needs three hands,’ Jed said. ‘Molly, can you navigate?’
“‘Aye,’ she said. I remember the look in her eyes. ‘Who’s crew?’ she asked him.
“‘We only need someone to fly,’ he said. He looked straight at me. ‘I think you’ll do.’
“Literally nobody outside the Marines had ever looked at me with that kind of confidence before, and I started to remember what it felt like with them. I never even thought about saying no. I’d rather than stayed on the station and died, but I was needed again. And he was asking me to fly.
“We had two hundred in the hold, plus Jed, Molly, and me. We slammed off the docking clamps and pushed out just as the reactor blew. Jed pumped the emergency thrusters and his impulse engine, full blast, to get us clear.
“Well, Antelope didn’t have the best inertial dampers, and that was a lot of gees. A lot. I figure six or so. I mean, I blacked out a little. Probably everyone did. But as soon as Molly and I saw him, we knew old Jed wasn’t going to wake up.
“So I took the engineering and helm boards, and Molly took comms and nav. She had the ship yelling a distress beacon on every possible frequency, and we had the operating manual spread out all over the deck. Fortunately, Molly’s mind, even half-melted as it was, was a better ship’s manual than any manual has ever been. She worked at that nav comp like a crazy machine, even with her hands shuddering like grass in a hurricane. She was a sharp lady, and she got us through three warp jumps despite the DTs.
“Antelope’s old drives could only run for a bit at a time, so we had to make those jumps, stop, recalculate, and jump again. We were down to one last jump, which would put us within hailing range of Space Station V. And the alarms went off. It had all been too much for the poor old ship, and her seals had blown out. We were losing all our air. And Jed, curse his soul, only had one vac-suit on the bridge.
“Molly and I looked at each other. She smiled, and pulled a coin out of her pocket. I smiled back, and turned to my board to set the helm on stationkeeping.
“She hit me in the back of the head.
“When I came to, she’d sealed me in the suit. She herself was belted down at her console, her hands fluttering right over the controls. She was still smiling, even through the ice on her face and in her hair.
“She’d left a note on the screen: ‘Here’s the instructions for the last jump,’ it said. ‘And if anyone asks after old Mol, just tell them she finally got clean.’”
A big gulp of whiskey.
“I followed her instructions, and crews from Space Station V towed us in and got everyone off. We’d only lost five people, plus Molly and Jed. And the goddamn people on the station started talking of the ‘Hero of Antelope’s Run.’ I put a stop to that shit, right quick, because Molly and Jed were the heroes, not me. I was just a lunkhead who did what he was told. Molly and Jed, they weren’t out for the glory. They were heroes because they gave without counting the cost.
“It made me realize I could do better. So I got in touch with Buzz and Shan, and the timing was just right. I’ve been flying Troll ever since, and right now, it’s all I want to do.”
I finished my whiskey, turned the glass down on the bar, and stared at it. Adam patted my back, and I’d never been so happy to have a crew and a ship to call home.
“Thank you so much for your business, and we hope you enjoyed your stay!”
It was fairly rare to get a send-off like that from a station, but here we were, being handed a literal basket of fruit by the station master.
“Uh, thanks?” Captain Ryan said.
“Oh, again, thank you! And please, have a safe journey!” The man waved as our docking hatch closed, and we heard the clamps release as the docking gangway disengaged.
“That was weird,” I said.
“Yeah, but fresh fruit,” Ryan said.
We walked to the bridge carrying the odd-shaped basket. “Fruit?” Shandra asked as we stepped into the bridge.
“Weird station master,” I said, sitting at the console next to her.
“Oh, I like pineapples,” she said, picking through the basket. “Mangos, too. Wonder where they tropical fruit out here?”
“Hydroponics, I expect,” I said.
“Not pineapples,” she said. “You need the whole tree. Anyway, you want to take us out of here?”
“Sure thing. Where to?”
“Coordinates are on the board already.”
“Off we go.”
“I swear to you, I cannot figure out where it’s coming from,” I said, exasperated.
“Me either,” Adam said.
We were in the salvage bay which was, blessedly, empty. We’d dropped our salvage at the station we’d just left, and were on our way to a new job, so we had a chance to clean the place out. I’d pressurized it, and Adam and I had gone down to get started. Problem was, there was this clacking noise every so often. Rhythmic, almost, which made me worry about something mechanical getting loose. But we’d been down here for an hour, and we hadn’t seen any sign of anything. More annoyingly, it wasn’t continuous. Just, every so often, you’d sort of feel the thrum of the warp engines a bit sharper, and then this clacka-clacka-clacka would kick in alongside.
“You think it’s something with the warp engines?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Beats me. I haven’t heard it back in Engineering, though. Just here. There it is again.”
I listened. Sure enough, a soft, staccato clack-clack-clack, pause, clack clack clack clack!.
“I’ll call Shandra,” I said.
“Buzz,” I said, “I thought Shandra cut up that pineapple already?” I was standing in the rec room, looking at the apparently untouched fruit basket on the main galley table.
“She did,” he said, poking his head out from his cabin. “Why?”
I pointed. “Still there.”
He walked over to the table. “That’s impossible. I put the fruit in the chiller and tossed the basket.”
I pointed again. “Still there.”
We stared at it for a bit. Buzz poked the pineapple, which seemed solidly fruity. “Okay,” he said. He picked it up, put the fruit in the chiller–which demonstrably had fruit in it, already–and said, “maybe Adam got one, too.” He took the empty hat-shaped basket to the disposal. “You’re my witness,” he said, pushing the hat in.
“Seen,” I acknowledged.
He stared at the disposal for a second, and then shrugged, and walked back into his cabin. A moment later: “Um, Don?”
I walked in. He was standing just inside his cabin, pointing at his bunk. Amidst the rumpled sheets was a full fruit basket.
Between the annoying sound of maracas in the salvage bay and the seemingly endless supply of free fruit baskets, I was a bit on edge by the evening. Buzz was taking a shift on the bridge, while the rest of us were in the rec room discussing ways to use pineapples. “I need a bio break,” I said, and walked down the corridor to the head. As I turned the corner, something orange rolled toward me on the floor. It rolled to a soft bump against my foot. I reached down and picked it up. A tangerine.
“Buzz?” I said, looking down the corridor. There was a figure, but with the ship’s lighting on night mode, it was dim. “Lights up,” I said, toggling the switch in the passageway.
It was a woman, wearing a sparkly green crop-top, a sparkly violet skirt, and a fruit basket on her head. I blinked. She smiled. I blinked again, and she was gone.
“SHANDRA!” I yelled.
She and Adam ran over. “The ship is haunted,” I said flatly.
“You’ve had too much rum,” she said.
“I have not,” I said. “This,” I added, holding up the tangerine, “was just rolled down the corridor to me by a woman wearing a fruit basket on her head.”
“Is that where they’re all coming from?” Adam asked.
“She had maracas on her fingers,” I added.
“Ah,” Adam said, nodding. “The ship is haunted.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a ship give me a fruit basket,” the station master said, holding the laden basket and eyeing the pineapple appreciatively.
“Well, you’ve all been so hospitable to us, and so accommodating what with us not having a reserved berth, that we wanted to do something small to thank you!” Buzz chirped. “Anyway, it’s been really lovely, and we hope you have a great day!”
Buzz and I stepped back and sealed the docking hatch.
“Was that all the fruit?” I asked.
“Every bit of it,” he confirmed.
“Shan,” I said over the intercom, “get us the hell out of here.”
“So you guys have all know each other for… what?”
We were sitting, somewhat predictably, in a bar on Heaven’s Rim station. It was one of my favorite stations, and had one of my favorite bar’s, Pinky’s. Unusually, all four of us–me, Shandra, Buzz, and Adam–were in the bar, enjoying a rare combined moment of downtime. Buzz was not off terrorizing aquatic creatures (the station had none). I was having a beautiful Lowlands Scotch, Shandra and Adam were enjoying a very stout-looking beer, and Buzz was sipping slowly from something that was green, putting out its own blue fog, and bubbling gently. The bartender had overhead us joking about past misadventures, and brought up the question.
“Quite a few years, on and off,” Shandra said. “We’ve got memories.”
“Storytime!” I said happily.
“What is this nebula called again?” Ryan asked.
“The Black Death Spiral,” Shandra replied.
“It’s got a weird gravitational anomaly. If we do it right, we’ll pop right out the other side in about fifteen minutes.”
“And if we do it wrong?” he asked.
She shrugged. “We’ll bounce very aggressively off the edges of the anomaly field and damage the ship pretty badly.”
“Ah. And, just one more question, why am I sitting down here with you and Don is sitting in my chair?”
“Are we ready?” I asked.
“No,” Buzz said.
“Yes,” Shandra said, punching a button on her console. Brassy music began playing from the bridge loudspeakers.
“Is that…?” Buzz asked.
“Theme from Indiana Jones,” I confirmed. “Here we go.”
“It was fine,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t think we got much over one-third c the whole time.”
“It was way too fast,” Buzz muttered.
“We did learn a valuable lesson, though,” Shandra added. “That was when we removed the nav controls from the command chair. Buzz kept insisting he could have steered it better, and we figured we needed to remove that possibility.”
“No, trust me, you’ll like it. The food is good,” Shandra said.
“What do the serve?” Buzz asked.
“Something noodle-y,” I replied.
“Can you be more specific?”
“We don’t really come for the food per se,” I said.
“Then what… are you just going to eat all the bread, then?”
“Om, dmfntlmh,” Shandra said, her mouth full of the last small loaf of warm, piping hot bread. “Ah,” she said, swallowing. “This is the good bit.” She looked at me, her eyes bright.
“MORE BREAD BILL!” we screamed in unison. Several fresh rolls came flying over the other diners’ heads, landing in our hands, on the table, and one bouncing gently off Buzz’ head.
“You’re idiots,” he said, slathering butter on the roll.
“So does this guy ever get involved?” the bartender asked, gesturing at Adam.
“Only in a non-canonical way,” I said. “But sure.”
“This is a terrible idea,” Buzz said, grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s extremely immature,” I added. “Adam, are you ready back there?”
“Ready. This is a terrible idea, you know that, right?”
“We know!” Buzz said gleefully.
We were positioned about half a light-year out from… well, the best description is probably a “stellar picnic.” A Starfleet ship–the USS Powhatan, to be precise, commanded by Shandra’s dear own mum–was orbiting a small moon. Most of the crew had shuttled and beamed down for a day of recreation. The moon had a warm, habitable atmosphere, and small groups of crew members had spread out in its open, airy meadows with sandwiches, beverages, and other goodies. We’d been eavesdropping on their communications, and knew they were planning games, team-building exercises, and more.
We couldn’t resist.
“PUNCH IT!” Buzz cried. I punched it. We took off toward the moon at a respectable percentage of light speed, on a slingshot course.
“Ten seconds,” I said, as we approached. “Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Get ready! Three! Two! LAUNCH!”
“Launching!” Adam cried out over the intercom. The hundreds of small chunks of comet ice we’d stored in the depressurized salvage bay were released. They continued on-trajectory, as I pulled the ship out of its course and away from the moon.
“Oh my God, this is so good,” Shandra whispered.
On our forward view screen, we could see the chunks of ice striking the atmosphere and breaking up. We’d calculated exactly the size of chunk needed–oh, the maths–and within a few minutes were rewarded with video of the Powhatan crew being pelted with chilled comet-water.
Buzz laughed hysterically. “Get us out of here,” he said, holding his stomach and panting. “They’re going to kill us.”
“You attacked a Starfleet picnic with the equivalent of water guns,” the bartender said.
“Yup,” Buzz replied. “It was very immature. We enjoyed it immensely.”
“What did they do?”
“Oh, nothing,” Shandra said. “They just got a little wet, and it’s not like starfleet can make a big stink about getting a little wet. They’d look like pansies.”
“Pity you couldn’t have dropped water balloons into the atmosphere,” the bartender said, chuckling.
“We’d already used balloons,” I said.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” we screamed as Buzz clambered down from his shift on the bridge. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU,” we sang, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!” and so on. We’d hung streamers all around the galley area.
“Hey, thanks guys,” he said, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Um, did you have plans?”
“You said yesterday that you wanted to take the skiff out for a quiet spin,” Shandra said. “So we’re going to park the ship right here and let you have your quiet time.”
“Guys… thank you,” he said. “I really appreciate it. It’s been a long week, and–”
“AND YOU’RE THIRTY!” I screamed with delight.
“Yeah, yeah, the old guy, I get it,” he said, smiling. “Okay, I’ll be back in a few hours then.”
“HAVE FUN!” I said far too loudly. Shandra kicked me under the table. We watched Buzz go into his cabin, closing the door behind him. We could hear the sounds of the floor hatch to the skiff being unlocked and swung open. There was a moment of silence. Then the cabin door opened up again.
“Why is the skiff full of balloons?” Buzz asked.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” we cried, jumping up from the table and waving our arms in the air.
“I don’t get it,” the bartender said.
“You had to be there,” Shandra said. “There were, like, three thousand balloons. It took us his entire bridge shift to blow them all up.”
“It took me hours to clean them out,” Buzz said. “I had to pop them all.”
“Well,” I said, “you didn’t have–”
“Pop. All of them,” Buzz said firmly.
“And you never did take the skiff out,” I said. “You came out of your cabin again in that ratty blue bathrobe–”
”–with an enormous can of chocolate pudding,” Shandra finished. “Man, you ate a lot of that pudding.”
“It was my birthday,” Buzz replied.
“Yeah, anyway, we’ve a lot of good memories,” I said. “Mostly goofy ones, which are the most fun.”
“Oh,” Shandra said, “you remember that time when we had you hold that glow-in-the-dark–”
“Oh,” I interrupted, looking at my wrist-comp. “Look at the time! We’ve got to get back to the ship. Bye, then!” I added, standing and leaving them with the check.
“Are we there, yet?”
What I love most about our Captain is when he strolls onto the bridge and asks that. He knows we’re not there, yet; he can feel the warp engines thrumming along just like any of us. He can see we’re still in warp by looking at the main view screen, which is directly in front of your eyeballs when you walk on the bridge. No, I think he just does it to start conversation.
“We were,” I said, “or I thought we were. There were just a bunch of rocks floating around, so I figured we should leave. I’m surprised you didn’t feel us drop out of warp.”
“I did,” First Officer Stevenson said from her station beside me. “But I thought it was just a disturbance in the Force.”
“Probably just sinus pressure,” I said. “Anyway, now we’re just flying at warp 3 to nowhere in particular.”
I heard Captain Ryan settle into his command chair. I also smelled the smoke as he formulated a response. Before he could, however, Shandra said, “We’re here,” and the Troll dropped out of warp.
“We’re there yet,” I added helpfully.
One thing I’ll say for Starfleet is that they design beautiful ships and stations. Graceful, sleek, and symmetrical, they’re all distinctly human in their aesthetic. The vista before us, as we dropped out of warp, would hopefully one day continue that tradition, but not today. Deep Space 5 was in the middle of construction, and it was surrounded by construction crews, shuttles, various space borne construction equipment, and a steady stream of ships dropping off raw materials. We were part of that steady stream, and so I maneuvered us into the queue position that the local space controller transmitted in. “Captain,” I said, “space control is hailing us.”
“On screen,” Ryan said.
Oh joy, I thought, as a Vulcan’s dour countenance filled the screen. They’ve got a Vulcan running things.
“SS Icelandic Troll, please confirm your cargo manifest,” the Vulcan said without preamble.
“Didn’t you transmit it over?” Ryan asked me. I nodded, and shrugged.
“We require a verbal confirmation of your manifest’s accuracy from the ship’s Captain or owner,” the Vulcan said flatly.
“Um, okay,” Ryan said. “I am he. Both of him. I can confirm that the manifest is correct.”
“Thank you,” the Vulcan said, terminating the channel.
I turned to Ryan and said, “What do you think that was all–are you wearing a hoodie?” We obviously was. It was in the same khaki-gold color as our usual coveralls, and it had the ship’s logo on the right breast and RYAN skis-screened onto the left, but it was definitely a hoodie, because it zipped up, only went to his waist, and had, well, a hood.
“I’m trying a thing,” he said. “What were you saying?”
“Wonder if something’s up,” Stevenson mused. “Usually they don’t ask for a verbal confirmation.”
“That,” I said, turning back to my console.
“Is the planet here any fun?” Ryan asked.
“Ivor Prime?” Stevenson said. “Not really. Small colony, still in bootstrap stage. Class F sun, so it’s a little bright. Smaller seas, mostly landmass. No bars.”
“Huh,” he replied. Then, after a few minutes, “so now what?”
“We wait in this line,” I said, pointing to the view screen where a dozen or so ships were situated in front of us. “When we get to the front, we pop the bay, dump the cargo, and peel out of here. They’ve got us scheduled for three or four more runs, I think.”
“Three,” Stevenson said. “All bulk metals.”
“Huh,” Ryan said. Then, after several more minutes, “I’m going to–”
“You can’t take the skiff out,” Stevenson said. “Controlled space and we’d have had to file for clearance 48 hours ago.”
”–have some chocolate pudding,” Ryan finished, “in the galley.” He stood and left the bridge.
“I want chocolate pudding,” I muttered. This queue was taking forever; the ship at the front was badly bungling its offload, making the rest of us wait. I thumbed my media player and started Red Dawn (the 2012 version). My console cheeped. “Huh,” I said. “We’re being hailed.”
Stevenson shrugged. “Answer it.”
“Icelandic Troll,” I said, thumbing the channel open. “Whassup?”
“Hey, this is the Captain of SS Baby Spice. We’re in line right behind you. This is taking forever–we wondered if maybe you wanted to get together and chill for a bit while we wait?”
I looked at the First Officer. “Sure,” she said. “Beats whatever we’re doing right now.”
“Awesome,” Baby Spice sent. “I’m Captain Thomas, by the way. We’ve got a small shuttle–mind if we come over?”
“Sure,” Stevenson said. “See you in a minute.” She toggled a control on her console. “Hey, Buzz, we’ve got company coming over. Want to put out some snacks?”
“Company?” came the reply.
“Snacks.” I confirmed, before closing the channel. “I’ve got a convoy protocol in the helm,” I said. “It’ll just pace the ship in front of us automatically and holler if anything goes wrong.” I stood. “Shall we?”
We made our way to the upper airlock just as the Baby Spice shuttle docked. “Permission to come aboard?” Thomas asked.
“Happily granted,” Stevenson said, stepping forward to shake his hand. “I’m First Officer Stevenson, and this is our navigator and helmsman, Mister Jones.”
“I’ve got my navigator, Mister Evans,” Thomas replied, gesturing to a positively hot young gent standing behind him. “Our engineer wanted to stay behind and get some work done without us in the way. You guys it for the crew?”
“Mister Jones and me,” Stevenson said, eliciting a chuckle from myself, “our Captain’s down in the galley, and our Engineer-slash-Medical Officer is heading down to meet us.”
“Odd combination,” Evans said, grinning. Just precious.
“You should see him fight,” I said.
“Shut up,” Stevenson said, smiling. “Let’s head down.” She led us down to the galley, where Captain Ryan was just laying out the last tray of snacks. He’d somehow managed a bowl of fruit punch, a small cake, and a tray of vegetables. Amazing. I hadn’t known we even had vegetables on board.
“Captain Ryan,” Stevenson said, “meet Captain Thomas and Mister Evans.”
“Welcome! I’m Captain Caterer today,” Ryan said, smiling. I wanted to roll my eyes, but I was busy keeping an eye on Mister Evans.
We lounged around for about an hour, enjoying the (appropriately, but disappointingly) non-spiked punch, finishing off the cake, and picking at the veggies. We talked about the kinds of jobs Baby Spice had been up to (mostly ore hauling), and that we’d been up to (all kinds of things; see the previous chapters). By and by, the intercom chimed. “Boss, boss,” it said. My auto-follow program letting me know that we were getting closer to the front of the line. “That’s us,” I said. “I can walk you guys up to your shuttle, if you want,” I added. “We won’t be long unloading.”
Everyone stood. “It was wonderful meeting you all,” Thomas said. “You have runs after this?”
“Yeah, a few,” Stevenson said. “I’ll head up with you guys.” We led the way back to the airlock, and waved as they boarded their shuttle. “Thank God they weren’t pirates or something,” she said. “Although with this much Starfleet around, I guess not.”
I blinked. “I should scan the ship in case they left time-delay bombs or something,” I said quietly.
“Have fun with that,” she said, walking to the bridge. “I’ll get us unloaded.”
We were heading back to the pickup point to take on another load of materials. Starfleet had asked us to modify our route, saying that a neutron storm was forming along the route we’d previously been using. The new route skirted the edge of Federation space–this was going to be a Deep Space station, after all, and they’re usually out on the edges–and added a few hours to our trip. Which meant more hours for watching movies.
Unless, of course, the Troll were to suddenly and jarringly drop out of warp, with no warning whatsoever, while also skipping a few beats on the ol’ inertial dampers. Which is what happened.
“What the hell?” Stevenson said, snapping awake from what was definitely not a peaceful mid-shift nap.
“We’ve dropped out of warp!” Adam’s voice came over the intercom.
“Make him not do that,” I muttered. “It’s pretty obvious we fell out of warp. What I need to know is–”
That’s what someone said. Nobody on the bridge, mind you, the sound just sort of echoed out of nowhere. “Um?” I replied. I hadn’t even opened a channel. “Hello?”
“Hello” the voice said. “Ah, the barbarian language.”
“Barbarian?” Stevenson asked.
A figure materialized on the bridge. Not transporter-materialized; more of a just-faded-into-existence materialized. It was a man, who would probably have stood about six foot two, except he had the head of a proportionally sized falcon, which put him at close to seven feet.
“I am Ra,” he pronounced in an echo-y, resonating voice. “And we are glad you have found us again, my children.”
“Buzz,” Shandra said, thumbing the intercom on. “We’ve a visitor on the bridge. It’s for you.”
An hour later, we’d been transported–not by sane Federation transporters, but but some Old God Magic Voodoo or whatever–to the surface of a planet we’d been several light years from. So, you know, so much for physics and stuff. We were standing, and I kid you not, on a beautiful, oasis-like plaza in front of a giant, shining white pyramid. Like Egypt on Earth. Pyramid. Both Stevensons and I were kneeling on a very comfortable patch of green grass, with Captain Ryan standing in front of us. We were all facing these mythical, magical beings, who would stand seven or more feet tall, but who were presently seated in gilt-covered thrones. There was falcon-head, dog-head, cat-lady, and monkey-head.
Captain Ryan was talking to them, and I couldn’t tell if it was going well or not.
“No, I swear,” he was saying, “my ka separated completely. Total out-of-body experience. But my ba snagged it and shoved it right back in my body. I’ve been fine ever since.”
“I’m sure our brother Set was displeased at losing such a treasure,” falcon-head–sorry, Ra–said.
“Yeah, sorry, just wasn’t time,” Ryan said. I could hear him grinning. “Hey, can my crew stand up?”
“Certainly,” cat-lady said. “There will be plenty of time to engage in all the rituals, no need to do them all right now.”
“Rituals?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, leaning over a bit to look past Ryan at me. “We have waited centuries for you to seek us out. We had thought we had left you everything you needed to join us sooner, but it seems to have taken longer.”
“Left… us?” Shandra asked.
“Indeed,” monkey-head said. I hadn’t caught his name. “Our vision was to bring you to the stars with us, by letting our own example inspire and drive you. We were, frankly, a bit disappointed. But you are here now.”
It clicked. “They think they’re the ancient Egyptian gods,” I whispered to Shandra out of the side of my mouth. “They–”
“Yeah, no, I got it,” she said.
“I don’t think they get out much,” I added.
“Hush, guys,” Ryan said, turning briefly to glare at me. “They’re cool! We’ve made First Contact!”
“That’s so illegal,” I said.
“You have become less respectful since we departed,” falcon-head noted.
“We get that a lot,” I said. “But,” I said, “here’s the thing–”
“No, I got this,” Ryan said, gesturing for me to hush again. I hate being hushed, but I was all for him delivering the bad news. He turned back toward the “gods.” “First of all, thank you so much for bringing us down here,” he said. “This is a blast, and I have some great ideas about tourism that’ll bring you tons of people, if that’s what you want. You’ve got really lovely weather.”
“Thank you,” falcon-head said, nodding.
“But rumor has it that the old Greek gods already tried this and it went just terrible.”
“THE GREEKS?” dog-head said, standing. Yeah, about seven foot two, I’d guess.
“Yeah, Apollo, Zeus, the whole pantheon,” Ryan confirmed. “But it’s cool, nobody’s worshipping them anymore.”
“Nor should they,” dog-head said, growling. “Weak, false gods that they were.”
“Yeah, but,” Shandra said stepping forward, “we don’t really worship anyone anymore. I mean, plenty of people are spiritual, but literal god worship hasn’t been a thing for… gosh–”
“About a hundred years,” I supplied.
“Yeah, about that,” Ryan confirmed, nodding.
The four “gods” stared at us. “Impossible.”
“Not really,” Ryan said. “I mean, we figured out faster-than-light travel and communications. We’ve met dozens of other living species. We’ve formed an entire Federation of Planets.”
“I told you that was going to happen,” cat-lady muttered. “The galaxy is lousy with them.”
“Yeah, so, it gave humanity kind of a whole new perspective. After the sperm whales went extinct, we started getting the planet in order, meeting new life, new civilizations, the whole deal,” Ryan said.
The “gods” looked nonplussed. “So none of our worshippers survived?”
“Oh, no, no,” Ryan said, holding up his hands reassuringly. “Egyptians are all over the place. Really, all the Arabic peoples still exist.”
“We’d assumed they were dominant,” Ra pointed out.
“Yeah, I got that from your initial message,” I said. “But the thing is, none of us are dominant anymore. Our cultural heritages are important, but we’re really all just Human, now. Like, we really cherish old traditions like Saint Paddy’s Day, but we don’t–”
“Saint Paddy?” dog-head asked.
“Kind of Celtic,” Ryan said. “Big drinking holiday. Alcohol.”
“He is still worshipped?” dog-head asked.
“No, it’s just a cultural leftover. There’s lots of Arabic ones, too. Heck, we still–”
“Not that,” Shandra said quickly.
The “gods” were quiet for a moment. “But you feel Humans would still want to visit us, see our promised land, and pay respect?”
“Yyyyeah,” Ryan said slowly. “I could see respect. Honestly, some themed roller coasters would go a long way, too. And some high-end hotels.”
“Roller–” monkey-head started.
“Actually, we can send you a whole data dump, and refer you to some wonderful consultants,” I said. “But we’re really on a schedule, so…”
The “gods” looked at each other. Ra nodded.
“That was amazing,” Captain Caterer said. “We are totally going back there one day.”
We were back on-track for our materials pickup, moving at maximum warp to try and make up for lost time. We’d already sent a communique off to Starfleet, who was no doubt scrambling a cruiser to get to the planet ASAP for a formal First Contact. We’d also tipped off a themed entertainment designer I knew. The ancient Egyptian gods would be just fine.
“Okay,” I said, standing up from my console. “I’m done.”
“See you later,” First Officer Stevenson said. We’d recently rotated shifts, putting her on night watch whenever we were en-route. That meant Captain Ryan and I had been spending a lot more time together, which was fine, except that I kind of missed the solitude of night watch. Solitude, and my collection of vintage Chris Hemsworth movies, which I couldn’t watch with Buzz sitting behind me on the bridge.
“I’ll head down with you,” Ryan said as I walked toward the bridge exit. “I’m starving,” he added. We stepped into the turbolift at the rear of the bridge. Now, if you’ve ever seen Starfleet’s recruiting videos, then you’re familiar with the turbolift. It’s a fast elevator. They can run sideways as well as up and down, although ours only runs up and down. The doors have that famous swoosh noise, except ours kind of creaks shut instead, with the left door panel closing much more quickly than the right one. A light panel on one wall of the lift mimics the movement of the lift itself, except that ours had been broken since time immemorial. The Troll was not a Starfleet recruiting video.
“Fancy some tacos?” Ryan asked as the doors squeaked shut.
“Um,” I said. “Yeah, I guess.” I’d kind of been hoping to dig into the pulled pork I’d had stewing all day, but I suppose a taco shell was just as good a way to transport slow-roasted pork into my mouth as anything. “We could–”
Just then, the turbolift shuddered and stopped.
“What was that?” Ryan asked. Buzz didn’t care for elevators, and I think he only tolerated the turbolift out of a deep loyalty to Starfleet technologies.
“I think the lift is stuck,” I said. I toggled the communication panel on the wall. “Shan?” I said. “I think the lift is stuck.”
“I don’t know what we have that stupid thing,” she replied. “It only goes down three levels. It’s not like stairs would have been a huge burden. I’ll tell Adam.”
Adam Stevenson filled a quadruple role on the Troll. He was the husband of our First Officer, as well as her judo toy. He was also our Medical Officer and our Chief Engineer, a duality that makes a lot more sense if you’ve been on the Troll for any period of time.
“You think it’ll just start up again?” Ryan asked nervously.
“Spontaneous functioning hasn’t been the Troll’s basic mode of operation, but I suppose anything is possible,” I answered. He was beginning to sweat a bit, so I decided to try and put him at ease. “Shit!” I cried out, hunkering down suddenly as if the lift had dropped out beneath us.
“SHIT!” he agreed, grabbing for the handrail along the back wall. It came loose, clattering to the floor. I almost laughed out loud, but it was so funny I instead found myself sitting on the floor, holding my abdomen and gasping for breath as tears ran down my face. Comedy gold, that. “Shut up!” he said. “I hate elevators!”
“I mean, I suppose we could climb out the access hatch in the roof,” I said, recovering my ability to speak.
“We can?” he asked, looking at the ceiling.
“No,” I said. “I was kidding. This is a turbolift. They’re designed to move at really fast speeds, and the system can operate multiple cabs in a single shaft. You can’t just climb out the roof.” He glared at me. “SHIT!” I said, hunkering down again and causing him to grab for the no-longer-attached handrail. This might get old at some point, but that point hadn’t arrived, yet.
“Hey guys,” Adam’s voice came from the intercom. “You okay?”
I nodded, still laughing silently. I realized Adam couldn’t see me, and waved at Ryan to answer.
“We’d be fine if Jones here stopped fooling around. Can you get this thing started again?”
“It looks like you’re stuck about midway between the bridge and the main access corridor,” he said. The bridge was in an elevated position atop the Troll’s hull; the main access corridor ran fore and aft, from underneath the bridge all the way back through the engineering hull. It was our main means of accessing the rest of the ship and, frankly, a set of stairs going up to the bridge would have been more than sufficient, disabled access concerns aside. “But the system says you’re still on the bridge. I’m going to reboot it.”
“Will we be okay in here while you do that?” Ryan asked worriedly.
“You should be. The system’s got you braked. Honestly, ten feet either way and you could just pry the doors open and walk out. Rebooting now.”
The lights went out.
“The lights went out!” Ryan cried.
“He can’t hear you,” I said, standing. “The intercom will be out, too.”
“What if we suffocate in here?” he demanded.
“He’ll get it fixed before out bodies start rotting,” I said. “Especially if we deplete the oxygen and actually do suffocate.”
“Could that happen?”
“No. The turbolift cab isn’t airtight.”
“I thought they were,” he said.
“They’re supposed to be. SHIT!” I said, stomping on the metal floor.
“STOP THAT!” Ryan yelled. The lights came back on.
“Hey, guys, that reboot didn’t work,” Adam’s voice came over the intercom. “The system still thinks you’re on the bridge level. I think the shaft sensors must be messed up.”
“This thing is a death trap,” Ryan said.
“It is,” I agreed. “We should get rid of it and install a spiral staircase.”
“We’d be in violation of Federation accessibility requirements,” Ryan muttered.
“Yeah, accessibility requirements are our problem,” I said. Most of the Troll was in violation of one Federation regulation or another. “I imagine they’d be upset about that megaphaser before they even got to the lift,” I reminded him. “Or that medical module we stole and welded to the side of the hull. Or that extremely illegal skiff you’ve got bolted to the bottom of the engineering hull right underneath your own quarters. Or–”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “If we survive this we can discuss replacing the lift.”
“Guys, would you mind just climbing out the floor hatch and taking the ladder down?” Adam asked.
Ryan glared at me. “What?” I asked. “I said there was no ceiling hatch. There’s definitely one in the floor.”
“You said we could be killed,” he reminded me.
“We have a 40-foot turbolift shaft with one cab. We’ll be fine,” I said. “Yeah, Adam, no problem. You want to shut the system down?” I leaned down and flipped open a small panel, revealing the handle for the floor hatch. “Move over, Buzz,” I said. “You’re standing on it.” Ryan moved, and I hauled a roughly meter-square panel up, hinging it against the wall where the handrail and formerly been mounted. The lights cut out. “SHIT!” I yelled, once more, just for fun.
“STOP IT!” Ryan screamed.
I looked down the shaft. “Oh,” I said. “We’re only about six feet from the bottom.” I jumped down through the access panel.
“Can you pry the door open?” Ryan asked, peering down at me. The emergency lights in the shaft provided just enough illumination.
“Keeping the doors shut is the problem on this ship,” I reminded him, wedging my fingers into the seam between the door panels. “Not opening them.” I pulled the door panels apart, ducking through the opening into the access corridor. “Come on down.”
Ryan clambered down and through the opening. “Finally,” he said.
“That was, like, six minutes,” I reminded him.
“I told you,” he said, “I’m hungry. Let’s get tacos.” A crashing noise came from behind us as the turbolift’s cab brakes released and the cab fell to the bottom fo the shaft.
“Huh,” I said.
“WE COULD HAVE DIED!” he yelled.
“It’s a 40-foot drop, worst case,” I said. “We’d maybe have twisted an ankle.”
“DIED!” he yelled, glaring at me.
“Guys,” came Adam’s voice from inside the cab. “I think I got it reset.” He did: the doors squealed shut and we heard the cab accelerate upward.
“Tacos?” I asked Ryan, walking toward the crew’s quarters in the aft hull.
“Ugh,” I said softly. “I hate those things.”
“You signed a commission in Starfleet and you hate transporters?” First Officer Stevenson said, stepping off the transport platform onto the USS Geronimo.
“It’s not like they beam you a few times before you sign the paperwork,” I retorted. “I’d no idea.”
“Happy faces, crew,” Captain Ryan said. “We want to show our hosts our our appreciation!”
“Appreciation is a shuttle ride,” I grumbled, following him off the platform.
“Buzz!” cried a man wearing a Command-gold shirt with the sleeve piping of a Starfleet Captain. “Welcome aboard!” Captain Cree, of the USS Geronimo, stepped out from behind the transporter controls and embraced Captain Ryan in a warm hug. “It’s so good to be together!” he exclaimed.
“The walls,” I noted softly to Shandra, “are purple.”
“Shh,” she said. “We’re probably in enough trouble.”
“Ah, yes,” Cree said, overhearing her. “You kind of are. We definitely appreciate you meeting us here to return that medical module. I’m… ah, I’m kind of afraid we need to take you,” he added, gesturing to Adam Stevenson, our engineer-slash-medical-officer, “into custody pending a hearing on the module’s… recent history.”
“Hey!” I objected, stepping forward.
Shandra grabbed my shoulder. “We talked about this,” she said.
“And then you made me de-weld the medical module,” I muttered.
“It’s fine,” she said firmly. “It’s in their shuttle bay, now.”
“And we thank you for that,” Cree said. “And as we discussed, we just expect to have a quick hearing in the briefing room later today, and we can clear all this up. From what I understand, there’s been no real harm, just a bit of a… misunderstanding.”
“It’s fine,” Adam said, stepping forward. “If you gentlemen,” he added, gesturing to the two red-shirted security guards, “could lead the way?” They nodded, one leading the way out of the transporter section and the other falling in behind him as they escorted him to what I presumed would be the brig.
“It’s a very comfortable brig,” Cree assured us, leading us out as well. “We’ve just gone through a refit, and we’ve got all the comforts and upgrades of a Constitution II-class ship. Just a bit smaller,” he added, grinning. “Are… are you coming with us?” He stopped, looking at Shandra. She was kneeled down on the deck, picking at the flooring with one finger.
“Is this… carpet?” she asked.
“Um…” Cree said slowly, “yes? It’s everywhere, really. What do you guys use?”
“Scuffed linoleum,” I said. “Remnants, actually, from a do-it-yourself warehouse.”
“Where there’s not doubled-up deck plating,” Ryan added.
“Obviously,” I agreed.
“Ah,” Cree said. “So, um, you guys want to see the bridge?”
“I didn’t bring a rosary,” I said.
“Stop,” Shandra said. “Yes, please, that’d be wonderful.”
Cree led us down the corridor to an oh-so-functional turbolift, which carried us to an oh-so-sparkling bridge that, I swear to you, was straight out of a Starfleet recruiting brochure. As we walked into the bridge, the officer sitting in the command chair leapt up and shouted, “Captain on the bridge!” Nobody else made a move. “At ease,” Cree said, somewhat redundantly in my opinion. They seemed pretty much at ease. A tall, lean woman with long, raven-black hair walked over from an observation station. “This is Captain… well, soon to be Captain Cree,” he said, grinning like an idiot.
“How can there be two Captains on a ship?” I asked. “I thought that was like, critical mass, and it’d all explode.”
“I’m actually commanding an embarked mission,” the woman added.
“She’s technically referred to as Commodore to avoid confusion,” Cree added. “We’re getting married.” I blinked several times, probably enough to alarm him. “We’re technically still on a shakedown cruise after the refit,” he explained. “So they sent us to pick up the medical module from you guys, and then I’m taking some time off to get married. To her,” he added, gesturing awkwardly at the gold-shirted woman. They both smiled.
“Is there a bar on board?” I asked.
“Seconded,” Shandra said. “Also, what’s the procedure regarding Adam? I want to make–“
A Klaxon started blaring. The bridge lights dimmed, accentuating the flashing red panels set into the wall. Dramatic, I felt, but absolutely the opposite of “hey, shit’s wrong and you need to pay close attention,” which is kind of what I’d personally have expected in an emergency. This felt more like a, “hey, let’s have a cool and relaxed attitude toward impending doom, and maybe a nice glass of Merlot.”
“Report!” Cree shouted, running toward the command chair. Man Cree, that is, not woman-Cree-to-be. Hell, this was going to be tough to write about later.
“Incoming ship,” the officer at the security station responded. “Hostile configuration, no identifier.”
“Raise sh– oh, right,” Cree said, his voice trailing off.
“What?” Shandra asked.
“Shields are one of the things we found aren’t working so well after the refit,” he explained.
“On it,” I said, running to the side of the bridge where the shield controls would sit.
“No,” he said, “they moved them. Over here,” he pointed. To the opposite side of the bridge.
“Well, there’s your problem,” I muttered reversing course and diving under the console.
“Um,” said the red-shirted Engineering officer sitting in that position. “You can’t–”
“Hush, you,” I said, pulling a ‘driver out of my coveralls pocket. “If you hadn’t just locked up our real engineer, this’d already be faster.”
“Incoming transporter carrier,” the Security officer yelled. Useful chap. The telltale fairy-chime of a transporter beam sounded throughout the bridge.
“Shit,” Ryan said.
“Buzz?” The voice was female, moderately deep, and husky. I’d recognize it anywhere.
“Black Amy™?” I said from under the console. I started extracting myself. This was bound to be good.
“Shit,” Shandra said.
“Look,” Amy said, “I don’t want any trouble, I just–“
“SHIT!” Ryan cried.
“What?” Amy said, looking bewildered.
“Trouble. I mean, tribble.”
“You didn’t,” Shandra said.
“The red one?” I asked.
“What?” Cree said, confused.
“Yes,” Ryan said, his face a mask of worry.
“You did,” Shandra said.
“Shit,” I added.
“WHAT?!?” Cree yelled.
“I brought you a tribble as a present,” Ryan said. “A rare red one.”
“ON A STARFLEET SHIP?” Cree screamed. Ryan nodded dejectedly. “WHERE?!?!?”
“I lost it,” he said quietly. I started to laugh, but tried to hold it back, resulting in a huge snot-wad spraying out of my nose and into the console I was laying under.
“URK!” Cree responded.
“I NEED A TOILET,” Black Amy yelled at the same time. She’d moved over to Captain Cree and pulled a wicked-looking knife on him, even as he tried to put her into a chokehold.
“What?” Cree said, wrestling with her.
“I thought you’d sold that tribble,” Shandra told Buzz.
“TOILET!” Amy yelled.
“Wait,” Shandra said, turning to where Amy and Captain Cree were now fighting over possession of the knife. Still on the deck, I pulled my knees up and enjoyed the show. “is this…?”
“YES.” Amy yelled.
Shandra pointed to the side of the bridge. “There’s one in the ready room,” she said.
“Not anymore,” Cree said. “It’s one floor down,” he added, pointing at the turbolift. “But you can’t–“
Amy broke free, pulled his phaser from his hip, stunned him it, ran toward me, hauled me upright, drug me toward and into the turbolift, and said, “I’ll be right back.” Once we were in the lift, she said, “take me to a toilet.” I complied. She had a lot of knives, plus the phaser. Turbolifts aren’t so “turbo” when they’re only moving one floor; it took a solid five seconds for it to come to a stop and for the doors to slide open.
“There,” I said, gesturing to the left. “Just past the transporter section, make a quick left.” She nodded and ran. I keyed the turbolift back to the bridge. The doors whooshed shut, and I felt the lift move. But the doors didn’t open. “Um,” I said. “Hello?”
“Don?” I heard from outside the doors.
“The doors won’t open,” I said loudly.
“That’s been a problem,” I heard Commodore will-be-Cree – the gold-shirted lady who hadn’t been stunned – say. “Don’t try to pry them open, they’re delicate,” she added.
“Isn’t this a warship?” I muttered. “Why are things delicate?” Then, in a louder voice, “can someone share with me exactly what the fuck is happening? I think I broke the elevator.” I heard a squeaking behind and above me. Looking up, I saw a small red tuft of fur squeezing into the wall panels. “Shitballs on a stick,” I said, just as the ‘lift doors wooshed open. I leapt onto the bridge. “So, what’s happening?”
Shandra was sitting on the deck, her head in her hands. “It’s Amy,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I noticed.”
“She’s part Betazed and part Klingon,” she said.
“Fascinating,” I said, “and I definitely am going to need a diagram of how that works at some point,” I noted, “but what does it have to do with right now?”
“You know how Betazeds have a cycle?” I blinked. I did know, but it involved gross organism things. “Never mind” she said. “Amy has a cycle too, but it’s different.”
“Different how?” I asked.
“About every three years she needs to vomit,” Shandra said. “Copiously. She usually drinks beforehand to justify it.”
“Why in the name of all that’s holy would she do it here?” Ryan asked.
“It’s probably the refit,” the Commodore said. “The toilets are beautiful on this ship. And also, obviously, the shields aren’t working. You didn’t leave her alone down there, did you?”
“I–” I got out, as the turbolift doors whooshed again.
“The bathrooms were beautiful,” Amy said, emerging from the ‘lift. “That one’s going to need to be replaced,” she added.
“I’m sure they can cl–“ Ryan started.
“No. Replace it,” Amy said. “I apologize for the intrusion,” she added. “I–“ and she stopped. She was staring at the console station I’d recently been laying under. She walked over, looking at the console surface, cocking her head from side to side. Without saying a word, she pulled a small cloth from somewhere on her person, and began vigorously rubbing at the gloss-black surface of the console.
“Oh-kay,” I said.
“Minor OCD,” Shandra said, stunning the pirate with as phaser she’d probably picked up from the stunned-Cree. “Probably spotted a fingerprint.”
“I did recommend against gloss surfaces,” the Commodore said. “Is she going to be a problem?”
“We should probably get Adam to look at her,” Shandra said. “On the Troll..”
“We don’t have a medical module,” Ryan reminded her.
“We’ve a competent medical staff,” the Commodore said.
“Let Adam look at her in the medical bay, then,” Shandra said.
“Adam’s in detention,” the Commodore reminded us.
“Stow it, sister,” Shandra said. “We all know what that’s about. You guys have your medical module back, it’s completely intact, we’ve definitely kept all the drugs, and nobody wants to fight about this.” The two women looked at each other for a moment. Shandra lowered her phaser. The two stepped closer, and then embraced.
“I’ll get him out,” the Commodore said. “Just to make sure she’s okay. And your pirate is invited to the wedding,” she added.
“Wait,” Amy said, turning from the now-grease-free console, “there’s a wedding?”
“That one,” I said, pointing to the smiling Commodore, “and that one,” pointing to the Captain, who was just beginning to rouse. “I also suspect there’ll be a review of security procedures at some point.”
“Indeed,” Cree said, rubbing his temples. “We’re just on a shakedown cruise,” he muttered.
“I’m assuming there will be Romulan Ale at this wedding,” I said.
“And cake,” the Commodore confirmed.
She was correct. There was Romulan Ale, and peanut butter-and-jelly flavored cake. None of which got onto the ship’s pristine carpeting. The wedding itself was beautiful – Captain and Commodore-but-really-Captain Cree exchanged simple vows on the bridge of the ship, surrounded by a small contingent of officers and the Troll crew. And Black Amy. After getting more than a few sidelong looks, Amy beamed herself back to her ship and left; the rest of us were offered a tour of the ship, and had a wonderful time. Hours passed before I realized I hadn’t seen Captain Ryan.
“Buzz is missing,” I said quietly to Shandra. Leave it to Starfleet, I thought, to wait until they had him in their clutches to blame him for–
“Is he?” she asked, smiling. She turned to watch the Crees, embracing and looking at each other as if they were the only two bipeds in the universe.
“Ah,” I said.
Or at least, that’s how I remember the story.
And that’s the conclusion of the Tales of the Icelandic Troll. You see, in most ways, the crew you’ve met in these stories hasn’t existed for many, many years. They’ve grown up, and become slightly different. Better, in most ways, as good people tend to become. In the case of Captain Ryan in particular, they’ve become someone different indeed: Captain Cree. And that’s a good thing. Eventually, we all have the opportunity to meet the people we’re meant to be with – the friends, the loved ones, the families we make for ourselves. We never leave our old selves behind, of course, but we do become the people we’re supposed to be.
Oh, the crew of the Troll will continue on. Their histories, their spirits, and their simple energies are just too strong to stop. But they’re on their own, now. They’re living their own lives, and the people that they once represented have moved on to new adventures. The crew’s stories are now their own, and we can only hope they’ll share them one day.
For Captain Ryan, it’s meant finally meeting a woman – perhaps the only one on Earth – who’d share her video games, DVDs, and board games. Who’d be just as ridiculous, just as noble, just as fallible, just as stubborn, just as hard, and just as soft as himself. The person who made his eyes light up. The person who made him cry, but in a way that made him want to keep crying, in the best possible way. The person who, perhaps most tellingly, finally made Captain Cree a real person and not just an aspiration. His co-captain, his lady of the dark, his ice princess, his mermaid, his amore. And the sparkling, formidable Geronimo is a far more suitable vessel for her and her beau. Infinite diversity, in infinite combination.
For First Officer Stevenson… well, you’ve already met the person she was meant to be with. Engineer-slash-medical-officer Stevenson met his match, both on the mat and off. The two of them connected in exactly the right way. First Officer Stevenson was, as first officers must be, always the strong one. Always the one who, perhaps, never needed the Troll, but who was always game to keep the ship moving and to keep her crew within arm’s reach. She was in many ways our One Ring: the one to bind the crew, and the one to bring them all together. She’s our center.
Black Amy™? A late addition to our universe, to be sure, but one cherished by the crew. A pirate who marches to her own beat, a stripper who’s more likely to leave you naked than herself, and a person who’s proudly, defiantly, and deservedly earned the title of woman. Our little sister, and our hero, even when she’s a villain.
And as for Don… well, he found Chris. Or Chris found him. Whichever. But when that happened, Don stepped off the Troll to a new assignment that he’d always been preparing for, but never imagined would happen. Confidentiality agreements prevent him from sharing more, but suffice to say that, if life is a battlefield, he’s won a decisive victory.
For anyone who’s been on a ship, they know that stepping off never means leaving your former shipmates. It means maybe not seeing them as much, and it means maybe not hearing from them as much. But serving aboard the Troll isn’t something that leaves you lightly, and after all, that’s why reunions are a thing. From the earliest fleets, Navies have had a tradition of awarding the title plankowner to the men and women who sail a new ship, honoring them by letting them “own” one of the planks that made up the decks of the earliest wooden ships. The Troll only has scuffed linoleum and composite deck plates, not planks, but her plankowners share a bond no less lasting than the seafarers of old.
Icelandic Troll is a shabby, beat-up, proud ship. A ship not of the line, but of the heart. She carried us all through the beginnings of some of our toughest times. Sadly, we each had to leave her before we were ready, as was likely her intent. We each had our own battles to fight, our own wars to win; our own rescues to conduct and our own salvage operations to complete. Somehow, the ship knew that, and she put us off at what, in hindsight, was the perfect time. And when the time came for us all, collectively, to declare our victories, she was back to help us sail through one last, victorious journey. She reminded us that we may have been apart, but we were never truly separate. And in that spirit, she and her crew will always travel safely through the stars that we’ve always shared in our hearts.
The best friends have everything in common, and nothing. That’s why they become family, and that’s why some few lucky amongst them have sailed on the SS Icelandic Troll.
Thank you for joining our crew for these tales.
All art by Buzz Ryan