By E.L. Bates
Tyler was buried underneath a dysfunctional shuttle engine when one of his colleagues nudged his foot.
“Look, it’s the shiny new ensign, right out of the Academy,” Hanson whispered.
Tyler craned his neck to see what sort of idiot they were saddled with this time. The chief difficulty with this assignment, he’d decided months ago, was the appalling number of baby ensigns and lieutenants the powers-that-be kept foisting on them. The Athena was a grand ship, the finest caravel in the fleet. Tyler had been proud enough to be assigned there two years ago. Since then, though, he’d realized the danger of working on the pride and joy of the Alliance: the aforementioned baby officers. Fresh from the Academy, feeling even more important due to their prestigious posting, they were the best of the best, and they knew it.
Which meant, in turn, that they rarely lasted more than a few months before receiving a new assignment, after which they’d receive a new batch. The problem with baby officers was that they were quite sure they already knew everything, and they weren’t interested in listening to the experiences of the non-commissioned officers who’d already been doing this for years. Which resulted in tension, problems, errors, requests for transfers, and on one still-freshly painful occasion, the death of several crew members due to the ensign panicking and refusing to listen to what the NCO told him.
The ensign hadn’t been drummed out of the service, of course. The incident had gone on his record and he’d been transferred to station duty, but that was small comfort to Tyler and the others aboard Artemis who had lost friends.
His replacement walked through the shuttle bay now. Tyler had been off Anah long enough now to understand human concepts of beauty; this ensign was a stunner, no question. High cheekbones, enormous dark eyes, full mouth, black hair cropped short enough to show the lovely lines of her skull, smooth dark skin … she was tall, for a human female, and walked with a stride full of confidence. If he’d been human, Tyler would probably have been falling all over himself to impress her, shiny ensign or not.
Hanson and Tyler waited until the last possible moment to stand and come to attention for her, an act of insolence just skirting the line of insubordination.
She stopped and nodded sharply at them.
“Good afternoon, gentle beings,” she said.
Her voice was rich, full, and deep. Even Tyler wasn’t immune to the charm of that voice, though her use of the Academy-approved “gentle beings” irked him. It was so proper. Nobody used gentle being in the real universe, not unless you wanted to mop the floor with your face.
“Ma’am,” Hanson said, eyes fixed on the wall behind her. That was another dig—they were supposed to use the officers’ titles, as both “ma’am” and “sir” were considered outdated terms of respect, separating authority by gender in a way it was never meant to go. Another bit of nonsense, of course, though Tyler supposed when one’s history was as fraught with conflict between genders as Earth’s was, one would be hesitant to do or say anything reminiscent of those uglier times.
On Anah, you did what you were called to do, and your gender was irrelevant for anything except mating and reproduction.
“What’s your name?” the ensign asked Hanson now. She didn’t seem offended, but you could never tell. Perhaps she was the type to smile and say sweet things, and then turn around and stab you in the back. Or the kind who silently saved up every minor offense and then threw them all at you in a report.
“Crewmember Hanson, ma’am.”
The ensign turned to Tyler, eyebrows raised. He gave in to his wickeder side.
“Ty’le’rehonorogh’mrembemonorough, Petty Officer First Class,” he said. “Ensign.”
He had to give her credit. She raised her eyebrows at the name, but didn’t say anything.
“And what seems to be the trouble here?” she asked instead, looking at the mess of engine parts scattered across the floor.
“Shuttle accident,” Hanson said, face and voice wooden. “Ensign.”
“Looks like quite the mess,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a story behind that.”
Her eyebrow raised invitingly, but neither man bit. With the merest hint of a sigh, she let it go. “Well, I’d offer to help, but you both quite clearly know far more about this than I do, so I’d only be in the way. Sorry to keep you from the job. Carry on the good work.”
She nodded again, releasing them from attention, and continued walking across the shuttle bay. She was nearly at the door when she stopped, turned, and said,
“Oh, I forgot to introduce myself, didn’t I? Rude of me, asking your names but not giving you mine in return. It’s Sapphira. Ensign Sapphira Osei-Koné.”
She executed a neat military turn on her boot heel and left them.
“Huh,” said Hanson, staring at the door. “She might not be half bad.”
“They’re all bad,” Tyler said, sliding back down under the shuttle. “This one’s just prettier than most.”
“Oh, come on. There’s got to be one or two coming from the Academy who make decent officers. How else would the Fleet survive? And if that’s so, why shouldn’t we eventually get one of the good ones?” Hanson sounded proud of himself for that train of logic.
Tyler ruthlessly derailed it. “The Fleet survives because of us, not them. And if ever you’re inclined to forget it, remember Schell and Marisa and Toby and the rest.” Tyler tugged another burnt piece of the engine out of the body of the shuttle and tossed it aside. Both men listened to the clatter, waiting for the echoes to die away before speaking again.
“All right, Tyler,” Hanson said. “I haven’t forgotten them. I’m just saying—”
“Less saying, more working, Crewman,” Tyler interrupted.
He was developing a headache behind the eyes, and this job wasn’t getting any easier.
“Yes, sir,” Hanson said, wounded dignity clear in each syllable. The two men worked in silence until the shift ended.
Over the next few weeks, Tyler managed to avoid Ensign Osei-Koné as much as possible. The other crew, much like Hanson, capitulated under her charm at once, some of them even trying to tell him that she “wasn’t so bad,” and maybe he should “give her a chance.”
“After all,” Hanson said, unwisely pursuing the matter in the mess one evening. “You’re always the first one to give people a chance. It’s not like you to hold a grudge, or to blame someone for something someone else did—” He stopped and swallowed his next words.
Tyler rose to his feet, crushing down the rage inside him. He was of Anah; he would not give way to base emotions in front of aliens. They simply did not understand.
“Thank you for your opinion, Mister Hanson,” he said, and then left before the desire to choke the life out of someone overwhelmed him.
Back in his quarters, Tyler saw that he had missed a connection from his bond-mate back on Anah. He considered trying her back—Rosi would understand, if anyone could—but looking at the time, decided against it. She was probably back at her work now anyway, and trying and missing her would be almost worse than not even trying.
He missed home with an almost physical ache; it had been a long time since he’d been on Anah, a long time since he’d seen his bonded life partner and their daughter. Rosi was head of mining operations in their province. It was a prestigious position, and Tyler had been so proud of her when she’d won it. In turn, she was proud of him when he’d decided to take his engineering skills further afield from their own world by joining the Fleet. Their daughter had finished school and was starting a career of her own, and Tyler was getting restless. He’d always wanted to travel the stars.
Rosi and Shenel had come to visit him two years ago, right after he’d been assigned to Athena, but he hadn’t been back to their shared home on Anah in seven years. Even for their long-lived race, that was too much.
He’d ask the captain about leave, he decided, as soon as he finished work on the shuttle. Because Hanson was right about one thing: Tyler had lost perspective. He knew he wasn’t being just to the new ensign, or possibly any of the officers. Knowing it didn’t change anything, though. The hurt ran too deep, and Tyler was beginning to suspect it would never fully heal so long as he remained here.
In the meantime, he would continue avoiding Ensign Sapphira Osei-Koné to the best of his ability. No matter how she charmed the rest of his people, she wouldn’t get around him.
“Sir?” Tyler hoped against hope he had misheard. He was worked awfully hard to get the shuttle back up and running, after all. Maybe his lack of sleep had caught up with him.
Captain Adromen was a Kolothian, noted for their lack of humor. He repeated his command word for word. “You and Ensign Osei-Koné are to take the newly repaired shuttle on a test ride to Jurel to pick up supplies.”
“But, sir—” Tyler tried to think of the best way to phrase this. I want nothing to do with any of your baby officers didn’t seem the best option. “A test and supply run does not seem to require an officer overseeing it. I can do it on my own just fine. Surely the ensign has more important things to do with her time?”
“The ensign requested the task, PO,” the captain said. “And I have granted it.”
Tyler switched tactics. “In that case, you don’t need me. Send Hanson, or one of the others.”
The captain’s pale blue eyes didn’t waver. “I have chosen you. You were the one to do most of the work on the shuttle, you are the one who will be most likely to notice if anything is not running smoothly, and the best choice to fix the problem should something go drastically wrong in space. You are dismissed. Meet Ensign Osei-Koné in the shuttle bay at the appointed time.”
Tyler was out of arguments. The only thing left to say was, “Yes, sir.”
He slouched out of the captain’s star cabin, deliberately forgoing that proud, upright, Fleet walk the officers all had. As soon, as soon as he was back from this run, he vowed, he was taking his leave whether Adromen liked it or not. He hadn’t taken more than a day in the last two years, the captain couldn’t begrudge him a few weeks now. He could endure this run. He just had to be civil to the shiny ensign for ten hours, and then they’d be done. He could do that.
Or so he kept telling himself, right up to meeting the ensign in the shuttle bay. She was so polished. He could practically see his face in her boots, they were so shined (not uncommon to newbies, hence the nickname “shiny ensigns”). Her uniform had not one crease in it; no stain or discoloration marred its perfection. The only thing that wasn’t honed to a military crispness was her hair, which, short though it was, gave hints of an exuberant personality hidden underneath that sculpted exterior.
Tyler dismissed such notions. If he started thinking that way, he’d start to allow the shiny ensign a personality, and then she’d become a person, and then he couldn’t hate her anymore, and he wasn’t ready to let go of his rage yet. He told himself that he was glad he hadn’t bothered to change out of his stained, rumpled uniform into a clean one, or even shower before coming down here. Let her despise him as much as he despised her, and then he wouldn’t have to feel guilty over not giving her a fair chance.
“Right,” she said, ignoring his disheveled appearance, as well as the scowl marring his silver face. “Ready? Let’s go, then.”
Tyler motioned to the shuttle. “After you, ma’am.”
Inside, the ensign took the co-pilot seat without asking, allowing Tyler to take charge. For a moment, he thought about making a big deal out of elaborately insisting she pilot, as she was the senior officer, but the thought of the damage she could do kept him from the gesture. Besides, his goal was to get out of this with as little friction as possible, and then leave. Maybe it was even time to ask for a new assignment. Some ship patrolling a back world, maybe, or the new space station that was getting built out past Koloth. Some place with older, jaded officers and crew. Someplace where he wouldn’t have to worry so much about making, and losing, friends.
The ensign stayed quiet aside from necessary comments until they were launched from the bay and well on their way to the moon of Jurel. There was a small Alliance settlement on the moon, which orbited a gas giant, and while Athena was stationed in this sector, it served as their support base.
Tyler was just starting to relax when he heard the noise. If the ensign was going to keep this quiet the entire time, it wouldn’t be so bad. Normally he was the one who wanted to chat, but not now. Now he wanted nothing more than the peace and emptiness of space.
Tyler straightened up in his seat and looked around.
“Something wrong?” the ensign asked. He held up a hand to silence her.
He swallowed a curse, knowing how finicky officers could be about language.
“What was that?” she asked.
He couldn’t help but be startled. “You heard it too?”
“There it is again,” she said. “I didn’t hear it at first, but once I saw you look up, I listened. What is it? I don’t have enough experience to recognize it.”
“Trouble,” he said. “Can you fly this thing on your own?”
She straightened up herself, nodding. “Yessir—I mean, yes,” she said, biting her lip.
Tyler suppressed a sour smile. An ensign calling him sir! This was the day for surprises, it seemed.
“Take over,” he said, leaving the pilot’s seat. “I need to check something in the back.”
“But what is it?” the ensign persisted. “I can’t very well make a plan without knowing the details.”
Tyler stood to his full height and looked down at her. “Are you ordering me to tell you, ma’am?” he asked, not caring that he was insolent and she would most likely report him as such.
“No,” she said after a few moments. “I may technically have seniority, but I’d be an idiot if I didn’t recognize that you know far more than me, out here. I’ll take your orders.”
“Wonders really will never cease,” Tyler muttered. He grabbed his toolcase and moved to the back of the shuttle, opening up the blank panel to examine the wires behind it.
What he saw confirmed his suspicions. No longer caring about offending officer sensibilities, he vented a long stream of curses in his native language that would have made him blush to hear coming from anyone else’s mouth. He would have put Shenel through so many discipline courses if she’d ever said any of those words in his presence!
“What is it?” called the ensign from the front. He didn’t hear any trace of panic in her voice. Good.
“We’ve got a loose connection,” he said, replacing the panel and coming back to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. He began scanning the sky charts.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that if we don’t find some asteroid or something large enough and with enough atmosphere to land on right now so I can make repairs from the outside, the shuttle’s going to come apart at the seams,” he said.
Osei-Koné brought the shuttle to a dead stop. “What?!”
“Don’t do that!” Tyler said. “No sudden starts or stops. Or turns. Or … look, just keep her flying comfortably, all right? Can you manage that, Ensign?”
That one got under her skin, finally. “I think so, Petty Officer,” she replied between gritted teeth. “How did this loose connection happen? How did it get missed with all the pre-flight checks?”
Tyler fell silent. This one was on him.
“I made a mistake,” he said at last. “I got careless, and I missed something. Happy?”
“Not exactly,” she murmured. She cleared her throat. “What happens if there’s nothing to land on?”
Tyler raised his head to meet her eyes. “Then we die.”
Just like his friends. Only this time, it wouldn’t be because an ensign panicked. It would be because he was so busy sulking that he’d missed one of the most basic aspects of shuttle repair. There wouldn’t be any mitigation for him, just a curt notice sent to Rosi and Shenel informing them of his death, and an uncomfortable feeling among his mates back on the ship that old Tyler really had messed things up for himself and that poor little shiny ensign. She’d never even had a chance to make good.
“I refuse to accept that,” she said. “Because I happen to know there’s no asteroids out here, and I also happen to know that I’m not going to die today.”
“Somebody tell you that, did they?”
She glared at him. “I have studied these star charts, all right? There’s nothing between the ship and moon except empty space. As for dying … I’m not going to die because I have too much to do with my life. I don’t have time for death.”
That startled a laugh out of him. “Well then, what’s your plan?”
She had never started the shuttle moving again, even though he’d told her to, and now she left the pilot seat to rummage around one of the storage cabinets. “You did remember to stock the cabinets properly, I hope?” she said, a trace of sarcasm threading through her words.
“Not my job,” Tyler said.
“Oh good, then hopefully it was done right.” She paused, pulled her head out of the cabinet, and faced him. “I apologize,” she said. “That was uncalled for.”
Tyler couldn’t help it. A real smile ghosted across his face. “Under the circumstances, I’d say it was entirely called for. You could rip a strip off my hide and it’d still be called for. I really messed this up.”
“Yes, you did,” she said briskly. “But I’ve looked at your record, and it’s spotless, so I’d say you’re due a mistake.”
“You looked at my record?”
She was buried in the cabinet again. “Mm-hm. I wanted to know if you actually were a jerk, or if there was something about me in particular that annoyed you.” She emerged with her arms full of thin blue material.
Tyler stood up so fast he tripped over the seat. “No. Absolutely not. No way.”
“It’s better than waiting to be torn apart, isn’t it?”
Tyler glared at the panel as though it had personally betrayed him.
“Sounds like it’s getting worse,” Osei-Koné said. She shook out the spacesuit.
“I suppose you are going to pull rank now and order me into that?” Tyler said.
“No,” said Osei-Koné. “I am going to wear it, and I am going to exit the shuttle, and you are going to tell me what to do.”
For the first time since the day that they’d met, she favored him with her full, brilliant smile. “How else am I supposed to get the experience?”
“You are nuts, lady,” he said.
She began pulling the lightweight suit on over her uniform, remembering to transfer her communicator to the outside before closing the tabs. She added the helmet and last of all the gloves. She collected the spaceworthy tool kit and closed the cabinet door.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Tyler said in one final attempt to make her see reason.
“Better than sitting around waiting to die,” she retorted. “Hold on.”
She retracted the shuttle door, leaving only the thin bubble of a force field between them and the emptiness of deep space. Even through the field, Tyler felt the tug as the air rushed toward the opening. He held tightly to his seat as Sapphira activated the magnets on the feet of the suit, clumped her way over to the doorway, and walked through. Once outside, standing sideways on the shuttle wall, she activated the door to close again. The cabin abruptly re-pressurized, making Tyler’s ears pop. He sat down, not sure his legs could hold him anymore.
“Can you hear me?” came the ensign’s voice from the control panel. Tyler swung around in the chair to hit the communicator.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, and for once he intended no sarcasm with that moniker.
“OK, then tell me where to go and what to do once I get there,” she said.
Suppressing the urge to tell her to take a long walk off a short plank (he had read too many ancient Earth stories to Shenel when she was a child), he gave her directions to the outside control panel. “Once you’re there, take off the cover. You should see a loose yellow wire that needs to be attached to a red stud on the opposite side. Attach it, put the cover back on, and get in here before your oxygen runs out.”
“That’s it?” she said. “One tiny unconnected wire is enough to shake this entire thing apart?”
“It’s a delicate wire,” he said sourly.
“So, what was it?” she said after a few moments, during which he had had enough time to wonder if her foot magnets had lost their grip and she’d floated off into space with no tether.
“What was what?” he snapped.
“What was it about me you didn’t like? Don’t like,” she corrected herself.
“You want to talk about this now?”
“You have something better to talk about?” she said.
She had a point. Besides, he owed her something, after bringing her out here in a faulty shuttle that was probably going to kill them both.
“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s your rank.”
“You don’t like ensigns? Because believe me, I’m doing my best to get promoted as quickly as possible, but I just barely graduated, so …”
He shook his head even though she couldn’t see him. “It’s all of you! Shiny ensigns, baby lieutenants, all you brand new officers. So sure you know everything, are so much smarter and better than the grunts, can do whatever you want, don’t need advice, don’t care who you kill—” He cut himself off.
There was a pause.
Then, “I did that?”
“Not you,” he had to admit. “Not you personally.”
“I know we tend to be arrogant, coming out of the Academy,” she said. “I have a cousin who’s an NCO, and he told me about officer arrogance. I promised him, and myself, I wouldn’t do that. I get why that would be frustrating. But you—you really seemed to hate me.” Another brief pause. “A-ha! Got the cover off the panel. Looking … yes, there’s the yellow wire.”
“Good!” Tyler said, hoping this would bypass their discussion of his irrational dislike of her. “Now just connect it to the red stud and we’ll be all set.”
“It doesn’t fit,” she said.
“It doesn’t reach all the way across to the red stud.”
“I tried! It won’t even go halfway.”
“Oh no,” he said.
“Please don’t say that.”
“It didn’t come loose. It broke.”
“That’s bad, right?”
“That’s very bad.”
“But I can fix it still? Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
Tyler dropped his head into his hands. This would explain why no error had shown up in the pre-flight checks. Everything had been properly connected until they left the shuttle bay, at which point the vibration from flight started to separate an already frayed wire until it snapped. The ensuing sparks fried the broken part of the wire into dust, and they were left—what was that other ancient Earth expression? Ah yes—up the creek without a paddle.
“You can’t do anything, Ensign. Get back in here.”
“I am not going to sit around waiting to die, Petty Officer!”
He stood up. “I don’t mean that. You can’t fix this, but I can. I need you to come in so I can have the suit.”
Sweet Anah, but he hated space walks.
Half an hour later, their roles reversed, Ensign Osei-Koné sat at the control panels while Tyler clumped around on the skin of the shuttle, doing his best not to look out into the vastness of space, where he could vanish like so much dust should anything go wrong—
“So,” the ensign’s voice came over his comm. “You were telling me why you hated me.”
Tyler groaned. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“Never,” she said. “Not on anything.”
He grunted. That, he was starting to believe.
He shuffled to the control panel, wrenched the cover off, confirmed that the yellow wire had indeed broken, and began the tortuous task, in thick space gloves anyway, of splicing and reconnecting the other wires to patch it up enough to get them to Jurel, where presumably they could obtain a new, whole, yellow wire. It was monotonous work, but not enough that he could claim he needed complete silence to complete it.
“The ensign before you,” he said. “The one you replaced. He was out in this shuttle with five crewmembers. On this run, actually. Picking up supplies from Jurel. Everything went fine getting there, but once there, he—”
“I read the report,” she said. “There was a problem with the shuttle on the way back, they couldn’t fix it, and they ran out of oxygen. He survived, barely, but the others didn’t.”
“That isn’t even close to the whole story,” Tyler said.
“Official reports never are, so they say. So what really happened?”
“He was too busy swaggering around showing off his ensign stripes to the Jurel ladies to do his job properly and check all the supplies,” Tyler said. “And then he didn’t bother overseeing the pre-flight check-up for the trip back, to make sure they had enough fuel and oxygen and that everything was set.”
Shuttles were delicate, and the smallest error—like a frayed wire—could destroy them. Tyler kept hoping someone somewhere would invent a safer way of traveling from surface to ship, but thus far, no one had. More people died in shuttle accidents than ship accidents each Earth year. It was one reason why engineers were so important to the Fleet.
“They hit a meteoroid on the way back,” Tyler continued. “It caused a slow leak in the oxygen tank. If the ensign had done his job properly, they would have been able to use the spare tank in its place. But he hadn’t, and the landing and takeoff on Jurel had jostled things enough that the spare tank couldn’t set in properly. There weren’t enough personal oxygen tanks, because the ensign hadn’t bothered making sure of that either. He grabbed one, of course, and the five crewmembers shared the other two between them. It … wasn’t enough.”
“That’s horrible,” Osei-Koné said. “No wonder you were angry.”
Tyler focused on the wires. Almost there.
“They were my friends,” he said. “They were kids. I took them under my wing, so to speak, when they started. They hadn’t been doing this much longer than the ensign had been, but they already knew how to work together and do the job. They were my kids. Marisa … she was only seventeen years old. So yeah, I took it personally. I couldn’t let it go. And I took it out on you.” The words turned to ash in his mouth, but they had to be said. “I apologize, Ensign.”
“Accepted,” she said, so briskly it left him floundering.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” he said. “I let my anger at that ensign consume me so much that I ended up doing the same thing he did—causing a near-fatal accident by my own carelessness.”
He should have seen that fraying wire. Six months ago, he would never have let that slip past him.
“By your own account, that was my responsibility, too,” Osei-Koné mused. “I was the officer, I should have checked everything myself.”
“You did,” Tyler protested. “That wire wouldn’t show up in a pre-flight check. That would only be visible to the engineer who went over the panel before declaring the shuttle flyable. Me.”
“Still,” said Osei-Koné. “I think we share the blame for this one. That will go in my report, that we were both in error,” she added.
Tyler nearly let all the delicate wires gathered in his hands slip free in his astonishment. A shiny ensign taking responsibility for an error not her own? Someone dead-set on early promotion willing to let a black mark accumulate on her record?
“I can’t let you take the fall for this, Ensign,” he protested.
“You seem to like old Earth sayings, PO,” she said. “Here’s another one for you: the buck stops here. Have you heard that one before?”
He had. He knew what it meant, too. He didn’t know what to say.
“Done!” he exclaimed, fitting the last of the spliced wires into place. Ever so carefully, he fit the cover back on the panel and made his way back to the door. “That ought to at least get us to Jurel.”
“Thank goodness,” Osei-Koné said as he opened the door and tumbled inside. “I really did not want to die today.”
He lay still for a moment, listening for the ominous noise.
Silence. He released his breath, his fear, his anger, and his guilt all at once. “Neither did I,” he said. “Neither did I.”
“On to Jurel, then, PO Ty’le’rehonorogh’mrembemonorough?” Osei-Koné said, turning back to the console as though nothing had happened.
Tyler staggered to his feet, stripped off the blue spacesuit, and motioned for her to move to the pilot’s seat. After everything, he thought, she deserved it.
“It’s Tyler, by the way,” he said, sinking into the co-pilot chair.
Osei-Koné gave him her brilliant smile and held out her hand for him to shake. “Sapphira,” she said. “Pleased to meet you, Tyler. I hope our friendship is long and full of many more adventures.”
That sounded ominous. Then again, he’d never wanted a dull life.
Maybe he should hold off on that leave for a few more weeks.