The ship was real. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it was at least real.
Guhle led me through the maze of docking lifts to the port where his crew’s ship was waiting.
And there it was.
As the lift doors opened, there it was. Just sitting in the clamp, all hooked up to about a hundred different cords and tubes and I don’t even know what else.
It was a stocky-looking thing. Not fancy. Not in anyone’s book would this thing be considered fancy, not even mine. But clearly serviceable. Grey hull, but with a curious dappling of black and white spots scattered around the sides.
Guhle led the way across the loading plank toward the port entrance. On our way in, I caught a glimpse of the registration number beneath the cockpit’s exterior. B-355-13. And beneath that, painted on in a fading red, “Bessie.”
I guess that explained the spots.
Just inside the entrance, Guhle waited for a trio of large, bullish-looking aliens to shoulder their way off the ship before leading me through the halls.
“Brakkine,” he said. “They’re never too happy when you get in their way.”
I nodded. I’d worked alongside them before. They were something of a mainstay in this sector of the galaxy when it came to heavy labor, like the kind we did on the orbital stations.
“Guhle,” cried a voice from further up the hall. I turned to find a large, white-furred alien with a tool-filled leather apron hanging down its front trotting toward us. “Hey, Guhle. A bit late for you, isn’t it? Gator said he wants to see you.”
Guhle sighed. “I was hoping he’d be willing to meet with the newcomer here.”
“You first,” said the furry alien with a full-mouthed grin. It cocked a thumb over its shoulder and Guhle sauntered off down the hall.
I wondered what that was about, thinking maybe that Guhle was in trouble for enlisting me. That maybe the whole job situation that he had promised would turn out to be a hoax, a ruse he put up so that he could…
Well, I couldn’t think of any goal Guhle might have had for deceiving me. But my prospects were not looking good at that moment.
“So,” said the furry one, interrupting my downward spiral. “You’re the new guy?”
I nodded, and before I could say anything, the alien had stuck out its hand — well, paw, I guess — and started talking again.
“Nice to meet you, hatchling. I’m shipboard mechanic. Wow, this is exciting. I gotta go tell Mearr. He’ll have a new name for me now. Come on.”
With neither an indication of who Mearr was or why this furry crew mate would be getting a new name, I followed it down the hall toward who-knows-where. Along the way, we passed several more Brakkine, as well as other labor-class aliens, moving about the ship, clearly bringing in supplies and installing equipment for the upcoming departure. I still didn’t know where we would be going, or what our cargo would be, but it was clear from the amount of labor that had been hired that it was going to be a long one.
The hallway eventually led to a narrow lift, which was barely wide enough for both me and the furry mechanic.
When the lift doors opened again, I was greeted by the most disorganized collection of mechanical gear I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve worked on construction, demolition, renovation. I’ve worked at all levels of the orbital station infrastructure: exterior communication arrays, interior waste management, corporate information networks. Everything. And in all those years, while I’ve seen some messy arrangements, I’d never seen anything like that cockpit.
It wasn’t large. Enough room for about five people, comfortably — though I could imagine cramming up to ten in there if necessary. Somewhere under all the clutter I could make out the straight backs of crew seating beside dismantled panelling.
Aside from that, however, I couldn’t see how this ship had ever been operational — or ever would be again. Cords and wiring lay strewn about the deckplating and draped over the crew seating. Entire consoles lay open and gutted bare, leaving behind cavernous spaces and blank screens.
Even the floor had been opened up, with bolts and power tools laying besid panels of deckplating that had been propped up against the exterior viewscreen.
“Mearr,” called the mechanic. “You in here?”
I heard something shift up toward the front of the room, but I didn’t dare try to make my way over for fear of disturbing the seemingly precarious balance of appliances.
The furry mechanic, however, was not so dissuaded. “Alright, I hear you. I’m coming in.”
Before it could take a step, however, another voice spoke.
“I’d stay where you are if I were you.”
I nearly leapt into the pile of wiring immediately in front of me, because the voice had come from right behind my left ear. Instead, I restrained myself and slowly turned, hoping I wasn’t about to get a shiv in the side.
A spindly, six-limbed, chitinous insectoid stood in the corner. It’s skin was a deep grey-green, which probably explained why I hadn’t noticed it when we first came in.
“Oh, heya, Sys,” said the mechanic. “Hatchling, this is Sys, our technical expert.”
Sys, as the insectoid was apparently called, looked me up and down with beady, black, multi-faceted eyes. “Nice to meet you,” it said, before turning back toward the mechanic. “Mearr is under the dashboard up front. We identified a number of performance issues in our tests and decided to go through the wiring to see if we could upscale some of the components before shipping out tomorrow.”
“Wow, sounds like quite a project,” said the mechanic. “Puts me to shame. All I did today was readjust the spatial compensators on the realspace engines. Maybe I should take a look at the gravitic generators, too, just to see if I can make things more comfortable.”
Sys shrugged with four of its limbs. “Do what you please. Just don’t disturb Mearr while he’s under the dash.”
“Oh, I won’t. I was just hoping he’d have time to give me a new nickname. Y’know, since we’ve got a new deckhand and all.”
Before Sys had an opportunity to respond, I heard a voice echo up from what sounded like a hollow space beneath the floor. “Is that hatchling?”
Sys…well, I think it sighed, but I’m not sure. I wasn’t really sure how Sys talked at all. Aside from its eyes, there were no other identifiably human features on its face. Antennae protruded from its forehead, as was common among insectoid species, but there was no nose, and in place of a mouth was a cluster of small tendrils that I assumed were proboscises. Whenever Sys talked, I didn’t see any part of its face move — in fact, it was impossible for me to read anything off of Sys’s facial expressions. But when Sys said certain words, I felt a thrumming in my bones, like the vibrations you feel from a heavy bass note.
It was altogether an extremely unnerving package in a crew member.
“Hatchling is here, Mearr, but I really don’t think she’s going to fit down there.”
There was a brief series of clanging sounds and then the sound of shifting debris before two feline ears poked up out of the mess near the front of the cockpit. They twitched back and forth before the rest of the head appeared, whiskers and all.
“Hey, Mearr,” said the mechanic — Hatchling, apparently. “How’s it goin’ down there?”
The feline alien Mearr sniffed his disdain before climbing the rest of the way out of the hole. He grabbed two supporting handholds on the ceiling and swung over the entire mess, landing deftly between myself and Hatchling.
“A humie?” he said, looking at Sys. “What’s a humie doing here?”
“That’s why I came,” said Hatchling, while Sys just shrugged. “Co brought him in. He’s the new deckhand. That means I’m not the youngest, so he’s hatchling, right?”
Mearr purred and then laughed. “No, I guess you’re right.” He leaned down to inspect my face. He towered over me by at least a foot, yet was clearly more lithe and agile than anyone I had ever met or worked with, even Dox. “So,” he said. “You’re coming along on this little trip?”
I tried not to look away, to keep my eyes fixed on Mearr, but…well, you know what they say about staring contests with cats.
It was all I could do to look out the viewport instead of down at the ground, saving a few scraps of my dignity. “Looks to be that way,” I said feebly.
Mearr scoffed, then turned back to the mechanic. “He meet Gator yet?”
“Nah. Gator wanted to talk to Co first. Don’t know what about.”
Mearr made a noncommittal sound. And when it was clear that he wasn’t going to be saying anything else in the near future, Hatchling jumped in again.
“So do you have new name for me, Mearr? C’mon, I’ve been living with Hatchling for two years now.”
Mearr glanced over at Sys with a fiendish smile, and then turned his back on Hatchling as if he were about to head back to work. “Wow, Em,” he said. “You sure are excited about this.”
“You bet I am. So what’s it going to be?”
“You know,” said Mearr, vaulting back to the front of the cockpit. “I’m gonna have to think about it, Em. These things don’t just happen automatically.”
“Hey, where’re you going? Do you know what it’s like living with a placeholder while the rest of you get cool call signs and nicknames. It’s like I wasn’t a part of the team.”
Sys unfolded from her corner and set a hand on the furry mechanic’s shoulder. “We all start with hatchling, Em,” she said. “We all know what it’s like.”
“I’ve got to get back to work,” said Mearr. “Or else we’re never gonna get out of here. Thanks for stopping by, though, Em. Make sure the humie doesn’t get into too much trouble.”
“Hey! You can’t just leave me hanging without a name. And why do you keep calling me…” Em’s mouth widened into a big grin as her four eyes lit up in surprise and delight.
Mearr smirked and then waved as he ducked beneath the console to continue working on the ship’s piloting systems. As he went under, he called out, “Don’t make too much of a mess up here. Take him to see Chief or something so you can celebrate.”
Em nodded enthusiastically, grabbing my arm and wrenching me toward the lift. On our way down, though it was barely a ten second ride, she couldn’t stop talking about the new name.
“And it makes sense because Em is the callsign for our engineering bay’s thermal reciprocator, which I know Mearr knows I’ve been working on a lot. In fact, when I first came here, I was responsible for making it run thirty percent more efficiently. Saved Cap a lot of money on that trip. I even got a raise. So to have a name that reminds everyone of that. Wow. You know, I got to tell you about this one time…”
But she lost the chance as Guhle came around the bend in the hallway.
“Guhle, Guhle,” said Em, throwing her arms into the air. “I’ve got a new name!”
The tall, wiry avian clicked his beak together a few times and raised his eyebrows. I took it as being the equivalent to a human’s “Oh, really?” expression.
“It’s ‘Em,’ now. Mearr gave it to me just a few minutes ago. Now that the new deckhand is here-” I had to duck as she swung her arm out in a haphazard gesture in my direction. “-he’ll be the new hatchling, and I get to be Em!”
“You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” said Guhle with a whistling chuckle.
Em nodded and grinned like a puppy.
“I’m glad to hear it, Hatchli- I mean, Em. Do you know where Mearr is now?”
“Working in the cockpit with Sys,” said Em, cocking a thumb over her shoulder. “They’ve torn the whole thing apart trying to streamline some of our operational systems.”
“Kraznit,” muttered Guhle. “Those two can’t sit still for one minute, can they?”
Em shrugged. “I learned early on not to get in their way. So long as the ship keeps flying and they stay away from the rest of my baby, I don’t much care what they do.”
“Well, they’d better get it pulled together soon. Gator wants to go over operational procedures by the end of the day.”
Em nodded. “Understood. I’ll just pop down to the engine room real quick and run a diagnostic. Shouldn’t take too long to double-check where we’re at.”
“Thanks, Em,” said Guhle, clapping her on the shoulder. “Let me get out of your way.”
Once Em had shouldered past Guhle and made her way out of sight down the hall, Guhle turned toward me.
“You’re clear,” he said. “Gator doesn’t think there’ll be any trouble with Cap. He’s a low-key fellow about these kinds of things anyway. We just need to get you to fill out some paperwork before that meeting tonight. Can you do it now?”
“Is there anything better to do?”
“Then let’s go.”