The gray work-shirt didn't fit very well, and was threadbare at the collar, but it had been clean. Fiona cursed under her breath, jerking and tugging to loosen the bolt. Her gray eyes squinted reflexively when the old fluid sprayed out, soaking the shirt's breast and sleeves. Doggedly, she continued wrenching on the connector until the seal completely separated. The spray lessened to a blue fall of oil, ceasing to spurt, and pattered down into a waiting funnel. After wiping her hands off, Fiona tugged the sodden Mechanic's cap firmly back down over her short dark hair.
The Contine family had supplied only one outfit; a cloth cap, a gray button down shirt, and a pair of tan work trousers. The pants were men's pants, with a too low crotch and untapered waist that corrugated uncomfortably when belted to her thin midriff. It would take an extra hour tonight to clean the uniform well enough to pass the Domo's morning inspection.
The star-liner was old, past due for maintenance. Pressure had built up behind fittings unopened in a decade of storage. The fleet's newer ships were better serviced. For some reason, the hanger's Domo had ordered all these older ones flight prepped.
She reached in and ragged the gland of gelled oil, wiping it down carefully before resealing it. Fitting the fill hose to its nipple, she flicked on the pump, metering in the new lubricant. As she finished, some tech elsewhere on the massive cruiser, powered on the dormant A.I.'s general interface.
Monitor lenses flickered to life along the passageway, one winked to life just above the present station. Its stabbing ruby light startled her, scanning across the identity code of the drenched shirt. Fiona recovered, then leaned down to pull out her tester.
"Wait, tech Fiona. I can pressure test the sub-system for you." The voice creaked tinnily from a small speaker grille near the lens.
It was not the first time she had been addressed by a ship's AI, though these systems were few and the intent rarely helpful.
Fiona nodded appreciatively. The self-test would save her some work. Likely the A.I. was just performing its own evaluation, but at least this one had made an effort to save her a few steps.
"Stable at 80 PSI. Tech Fiona, you are assigned to the level one hydraulic maintenance schedules?"
"Uh, yes. Is something wrong?"
"No. Pressure test and valve response time checks are part of my start-up routine, which will go better if the tests follow your servicing. My clock shows me dormant for over ten years. Several service functions are sluggish. We can work together on this, as it happens, and it will save you time. This is suitable?"
It was a blessing, probably being offered techs all over the ship, now that the direct interface was on, but the deference was still a welcome scrap of attention.
"Of course, Navigator. Direct me as you wish."
"Just keep to your service schedule. I will do the tests and report my results to you. It will save you 18 minutes on each station. Your next valve port is 23D ?"
"Yes. Yes that's right." Fiona tugged her cart down the long central service corridor, but not without a longing glance backward at the elevator to the command center. This did not pass unnoticed by the A.I.'s pick-ups.
"You have an interest in Navigation?" Then, by way of explanation, "I have access to your records."
A wistful look passed over her slightly squared features. "I trained for it, but my father died the day navigation tests were given. I attended the funeral instead. It was take the Mech exam, or wait another year."
"You couldn't wait?"
"Mother would have starved. I had to keep in some kind of program, or I would have been removed from the dole." Luckily, the house of Contine contracted to train me, based on my Mech pre-exam scores."
The Residence Proctor, she remembered, had shaken his head adamantly. "It's not up to you or me. This colony is entirely Contine property, including this residence, the food you eat, the ship that brought you here, the mills that provide your clothes. Even the air scrubber that extracts the ammonia so you can breathe it, all Contine owned. You are their property. They protect you, train you, and decide where you will stay."
Fiona bridled. "My mother has lived here all her married life. My parents slaved their lives away for the Contines. It is only right we be allowed to stay."
"This is a couples residence. Your mother isn't a couple. The space is needed for another working married pair," the Proctor sneered, "and you would be best to worry more about your own future. You missed your examination date, yes? If you don't pass one this week, you won't qualify for housing at all, not to mention losing your stipend. What will you do then?"
Having reached the next port, Fiona repeated her assigned maintenance cycle.
"81.5 PSI, Stable. You are an efficient tech. I can't say you made a bad choice."
"To stay a Mech."
Fiona shrugged. "A natural talent, I guess. Didn't expect to pass the Mech. Just luck. I would have aced the Nav exam, could I have waited for it though."
Choice. Almost, an anachronism. The dull routine of valve maintenance encouraged her mind to drift, and memory stirred.
Walking the common corridors, the warm hand of Trip squeezing her own. The tan everplast walls seemed brighter, almost colorful. He nattered excitedly about his upcoming exams.
"Dad thinks my best shot would be to take the Chemical engineering app, and stay in the city, but if I get a pass on the Agri-test, we could move to the farm belt. Good weather, no crowding, outdoor work, and lotsa time with each other come winter."
Fiona laughed. "You just like the idea because you know your math isn't good. Well, good enough for ship engineering anyway. I would have to give up Nav, and take the Agri-test, too."
His eyes almost pleaded at her. "You could pass the agriculture exam! Place in farm logistics, or something--we would be together, that's what counts!"
Fiona sighed. "We'll see. The exams are months away yet."
She shook off the reverie, and focused on repacking her tools.
"You are a dutiful daughter."
"I was. Mother died soon after. We--I lost the survivor's half stipend then. So with her housing reassigned, I ended in the single's Mech barracks."
The gland seal was seized, and Fiona had to chisel it out. She lost some skin replacing it.
"79.7 PSI, stable. You still wish you had been able to follow the Navtrack?"
Fiona winced, wiped her hands, then bandaged a damaged finger gratis the chisel work, considering. "Sure, but the Contine royalty don't allow for changing occupation tracks. Too much trouble."
"I may be able to help with that. I do have the standard exams in my files. If you can show me a pass on them, I could tutor you, put your name on the stand-by roster."
Fiona hesitated, wondering why the ship navigator comp could give a damn. "You? Take an interest in me?"
"I...resonate to your condition. I was trained as an expeditionary Nav-Comp. My purpose was to serve the colonists – but ended installed to this ... royal barge. Does that surprise you?"
Somehow, she reflected, it didn't. She remembered when making choices had ended for her. It happened without warning, unexpectedly, like the fall of a ripe fruit from a tree. It was a robust part of your life, then suddenly it was gone, unplucked, lying in the dirt at your feet.
More memories welled.
She kept company with Trip in the registration line when war with the House of Trent had been declared. Something about a mining concession. All of the eighteen year old males exams had been suspended, replaced by the conscription. A crushing second blow, so soon after her father's death. With the Nav exam for her group missed, all her options evaporated. Her mother, still morning dad's death and facing the loss of her couple's residence, was panicked and depressed.
Trip swayed on his feet, looking down at the crumpled green notice in his hands.
"They say it's not permanent, necessarily. When the war is over, I can get assigned to other things, depending on training. Won't be by open examination though, just by service record—best match. Maybe we will end up close enough to, to..."
He fell silent.
Fiona started to cry. The line moved forward with a shuffle of feet. They held hands again, kissed fiercely, then, he was gone.
She took the very next available examination, for Ship Mechanic's rating.
Fiona found herself staring down at the three point wrench on her cart, and put her torn glove back on. A choice? Standby for ship navigation support? She laughed nervously. "I would have to be assigned as on-board crew, not as a station Mech, to qualify for standby."
"You were not told?"
"The Contine family is abandoning Auris Three. It is why I am active. Why I am being prepped for running, after ten years of dormancy. You will be assigned this ship, as soon as it is fully prepped. You will not see Auris Three again."
"Abandoning?" Fiona stood speechless. "The whole colony?"
"No, of course not. The Royal family only. Not enough ships in the system to accommodate the resident populous. Mechs, techs, servants and family members. 25D next."
Fiona's head whirled. So much for choice, still...She put her cart in order then pushed on to the next site, thinking about her friends, and beyond that, the broken families this would leave stranded here.
"80 PSI, exactly. Stable."
Fiona rolled the lube hose neatly on the cart, and checked off the station maintenance as complete.
"Return tonight after hours to the external bay console. I can offer the exam to you then. By the way, I wouldn't say anything about the Contine rout, were I you. If they wanted you to know, they would have told you."
The hours passed more than slowly. Mech quarters were right at the hanger, to save time, so there was no question of access.
The commissary was filled with Mechs, all just off shift and as ravenous as she was. The buffet line buzzed with rumors. A tall Mech pushing his tray ahead of her leaned down and whispered, "They say all the ships on planet are being prepped. Some kind of royal display for the Ascendant Contine's birthday. A kind of parade is being planned."
"Oh? A space parade? Who would be able to appreciate that?"
The tall tech, Stafford, she remembered, shrugged. "Who can say what runs through the minds of Royals? Anyway, that's what I heard." He looked at her expectantly. Everyone seemed to have some 'insider' guess, and these were being traded like children's collector cards.
"I haven't heard anything official," Fiona temporized, reaching for a clean food tray, "but there's a lot more work being done."
Fiona heard other rumors, including that the colony was being abandoned. But all of them were guesses, whispers. Her nerves were raw by day's end, from keeping silent, from adding to the confusion what little she knew. From wondering why the issue was left cloudy, unannounced. From questions piled upon questions, and of course, excitement over the ship Navigator's opened opportunity.
As promised, the console was active when she finally returned to the Waystalker. The test was exactly the one she had prepared for, those long years ago. As the A.I. must have concluded, her interest and self training, along with her understanding of ship mechanics, made the test simple. Not only her aptitude, but her grasp of specific system knowledge tested well above requirements.
"You have passed. I will register you on the ship roster. You now have bridge training access, at my discretion. Would you like to go over the Nav consoles? I can allow you that now, if you like. There is no further Mech work going on at this hour. Good time to train, generally."
Fiona thought about laundering her shirt, and the short sleep cycle that would mean. It all paled next to the opportunity to assert, in however small a way, control over part of her life.
"Of course, Navigator. I'm breathless."
"To the bridge then. The elevator will open to you."
The Nav room was smaller than she had envisioned it from the diagrams and videos. The same, but perspective is a funny thing. She had always envisioned it as being larger, from the materials she had studied. The consoles, though, were exactly like the simulations she had run. Exactly, since this was an older ship.
The following three weeks were exhausting. Running almost two out of three shifts, tending to Mech duties, then Nav training until late in the evening. All for a chance that some Bridge Nav officer would take a sick day, or be removed for discipline during flight. A carrion bird's chance, hoping to profit from another's loss.
Domo Morgan stopped her just outside her sleep cubicle, and thrust out a sheaf of orders.
"I have your exchange service papers, Fiona." He stared curiously at her for a moment, then grunted, "I wasn't aware you had applied for the auxiliary function training. Not many techs know that program still exists. The auxiliary training sequence was scheduled to be phased out. Duty directs me to commend you, so, good work, I suppose, and," he hesitated, "Good timing. Next time, see to it you advise me directly about any -- outside activities you undertake, however. Is your training complete?"
Fiona smiled. "Almost. Six more log hours to go. Luckily, the ship is still in dock, so I have had a lot of access time."
The Domo's expression soured instantly. "What do you mean by that?"
"Oh! Nothing sir. Just that if I had to train on active service ships, I would have been lucky to log an hour or two a week. It has gone faster working with the dormant ships we are prepping. Just luck, sir."
The Domo's features smoothed. "Well, as it turns out, I am scheduling you for Ship's complement aboard the Waystalker, when it's recommissioning is complete, so as I said, good timing."
"Thank you, sir. Can I ask when that might be?"
Some of the sourness crept back into the Domo's visage, overladen with a bit of suspicion, but that faded. He sighed heavily. "Yes, I suppose you would want to know that, as I have mentioned it. Their recommission is almost complete, save for stocking the galley with delicacies for the royal entourage, and general staples. So your new orders will likely be cut within the week. You have that long to work in those six hours, before the ship bridges become busy places. Carry on, but don't let any of this interfere with your real work."
She was tired , and reeked of lubricant, but managed to make her night's visit to the Waystalker's bridge, still excited that the ship's prediction of reassignment had come true.
"This session, we will work on planetary survey protocols. This is a little beyond the Contine Navi-tech specifications, but the log hours will reflect against your training requirement as well as any."
"Satellite deployment? But, that is only done by survey ships, or commercial enterprise service vessels."
"You are competent enough with the standard control systems. Your remaining hours would be better spent in considering advanced deployment protocols. This will constitute best use of your time. Fiona, there are...other reasons." Almost, a hesitancy seemed to enter the flat voice. "You have earned the opportunity I am offering. It will make a difference to you, I promise." The A.I. reverted back to its usual uncadenced voice. "As you know, ships of my class cannot make final decisions about landings, even when the protocols are automated. We were originally colony seed ships. The Nav personnel must make all final evaluations and decisions, whether the runs are standard or not. So there is more to do and to learn on older ships. Refer to the printouts I have provided. Only sixty pages or so this time. We begin..."
It was interesting. Setting trajectories for small body insertions required solving non-standard mass, velocity and approach vectors. There were more look-ups to do, and of course, some probes orbited high or medium, instead of the low parking or approach orbits the ship itself used. Fiona wondered where the Royals intended taking the Waystalker.
"You are almost fully qualified. Would you like to have me telex notice of your graduation to your friends and relatives?"
Friends, she thought, that she would never see again. Taken, as she would be, off to whatever destinations suited the Royal complement.
"You would do that, navigator? I have no close family left, but there are some, a few friends, near the shipyard. I know I will never be given time to contact them myself, the Domo bragged as much."
"Did your Domo tell you when the ships will be lifting?"
"No, Navigator. He seemed worried I might have found out, though."
"The House of Trent has launched a fleet directly against the Contine holding here. They are every bit as viscous as the Contines, but their fleet is much larger. This place cannot be defended against the Trents. So the Contines are abandoning the colony to Trentonian mercy. The entire Contine military fleet is deployed midway between as a delaying screen, so the family is understandably hurried and wary of loose talk."
Fiona thought angrily back to the proctor's speech, when he had served the eviction papers. They really were just property to the families. Possessions to be discarded at convenience. "Just a change of masters, then, for most here."
"Perhaps not for all. Don't speak of this to the yard workers. They will be divided up to crew the ships, for the most part. Anything you could say would only serve to bring family attention down on you, so keep this to yourself. Not all have been told. You may as well bring anything you wish to take with you back to me tonight. I will set aside quarters for you now, as you will be crew on Waystalker. Yes, bring your things back, and stay here tonight--here is your room assignment. I will file your completions."
"I, I need to wash my uniform, and my duties start early..."
"Trust me with these details. I know your schedules better than your Domo does, since I handle them, as regards my fitting requirements. New shipboard uniforms are stocked on-board in any case. The Royal Contines are scheduled to board in three cycles, and I want my crew at station before that happens. I will notify your Domo, as appropriate."
"I don't mean to presume, Navigator, but protocols may have changed in the ten years of your dormancy."
"Ten years are nothing. You cannot guess how long I have been in service. The Contines did not commission me, nor did their predecessors. The rest of the essential crew have already received instructions from me. You will not be boarding alone. Your scores were the highest of any I have trained, but you are not the only one. Several key operators needed...reassignment, and most of the new crew will be boarding with you."
Fiona nodded briskly, eyes downcast. Ship A.I. navigator systems were respected and catered to. Most of the newer ships didn't have them. Only the older ones, and most of those were kept dormant, as Waystalker had been. Whether this was because the technology was lost, or considered too expensive and unnecessary for standard running, she was unsure. She only knew that the royals seldom recommissioned them.
The older ships, as the Contines kept in service, were extensive refits of the original colonial vessels. Their size assured comfort for the family, slaves and servants, on interplanetary affairs or junkets. The Techs, even the Domos, still deferred to the behemoths, when they were active. There was something about them that the Contines and their like, could not replicate, or quite do without.
Back in her small alcove, she carefully packed the few things of importance to her. A framed picture of her parents found a place beside her nano-player, and song collection. A pair of real shoes,not issued work-boots, tendered to her on her sixteenth birthday by her mother. A carved bone comb, and an antique brush. A vial of scent, a packet of letters from Trent, letters that had ceased arriving a year ago. Her library and reader. There were not many things. Twenty years, and surprisingly, her world fit all in a duffel half as long as she was tall. She reflected on this a moment,before hoisting it to her shoulder.
As warned, a troupe of workers clogged the various entry ports of the Waystalker. Few enough, still, to be lost in this yard of giant ships. Some stepped off the ubiquitous hover carts that always swarmed the yard, some seemed to have come on foot, dragging duffels, some perhaps from the berths of nearby ships still undergoing maintenance. In any case, she was not alone. Just one of many jostling along narrow crew corridors. Her ears filled with the scrape and rustle of baggage being manhandled into new quarters.
Fiona followed the room numbers, noting the section flags. The general corridor layout was the same as on the maintenance decks, but still, this was unfamiliar territory.
She, like all the others, had learned early to be quiet and quick on the way to her tasks, and uneasy about asking for direction. The thought spurred a quick glance at the hurried crewmen.
Surprisingly there were no officers or Domos about. She hesitated before one final door, whose number matched the one Waystalker had issued her. She was high in the ship cabin area. Fiona bit her lip, worried. What if she had wandered into the wrong section? Was this the right room?. It will be, she asserted inwardly, or it won't open to me. Entrance anywhere on a star-liner was monitored. She took a breath, and pulled on the door handle. A brief red light played over her identity patch, then the door opened. She bumped her sack over the threshold and into the cabin.
The room, or suite rather, was thirty times the size of her alcove. The bed--there was a real bed--was more than twice, maybe three times the width of her shoulders! An embroidered blue and orange comforter decorated it, and below that, she found fine sheets stretched. There were built in drawers for things. A sliding door unveiled a closet the size of her alcove, with paper bound parcels of clothing stacked on the floor of it. Shelves scattered across the walls.
Another door opened on a bath. A private bath! There was a sink, a shower...her eyes swept across it, but settled on a new, pressed uniform, just hanging there. Not a Mech uniform. Not even a ship-Mech uniform, but a full bridge navigator's kit!
She found, after first trying the shower, that the pants fitted at the waist, and were comfortable everywhere else, for a change. The clothes felt wonderful under her fingers, and some time was invested in front of the mirror, just to enjoy the sensation of them, and what they meant. It was hard to put a finger on. A sense of accomplishment, yes, but more than that. A sense of freedom, of personal...space, latitude...choice. Some of the closet packages contained clothes not necessarily suited to working, more uniforms, other things. None of them were gray or tan.
She whirled, taking it all in. "I will never, ever, leave this room."
Although speaking to herself, a reply rasped from a speaker set above the quarter's door. "I am afraid you will, and often as well, Fiona. But not tonight. Your quarters are a little better than some, because they are closer to navigation. Your Navi-tech option has been activated. You will be appearing on the bridge most days, and are specifically to be there tomorrow by ten bells, ship-time,tomorrow."
Fiona was aghast and elated at the same time. A dizzying sensation, that sent her to sit the fine bed.
"What, what happened? Was there an accident?"
"I would say rather, a reassignment. Several people on your notification list have agreed to come and celebrate your new status. You will find them gathered in auditorium five-C, tomorrow at nine bells, so I suggest you start your day a little early. That will be one deck down, second corridor. There will be others there, so you will have to look for your guests. Do not leave the ship tonight."
"The Contines are going to allow commoners aboard?"
"The circumstances are unusual, as we have noted before. The case warrants it. I suggest you retire now. There will be a briefing, at the proper time."
She rose at eight, having slept in her new, luckily wrinkle-free, uniform. There was a commissary on the current level, she found, but in her state, taking advantage of it was furthest from her mind.
The auditorium was crowded with people, some in ship garb, some not. It took a harried 15 minutes, but she found her group. They were clustered together, and beamed at Fiona's appearance. Old neighbors, Bill and Linda Green, who had been of so much help when her mother had passed, and their daughter, Barlina. Tom Allen, one of the math tutors she had been assigned as a student, quite old now, it seemed, had come. Several friends from outside the shipyard were gathered as well. Becky, an Agri-tech, the other, Philip, a Med-tech. Trip's parents had come. They all talked excitedly and simultaneously, so it was hard to sort out what was said. Generally, everyone seemed more enthusiastic than she would have thought appropriate.
Bill grabbed her hand. "Thank you, Fiona. Such an opportunity, a shame only so few...but especially for our daughter, a blessing."
Mr. Allen laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I knew there was something special about you. Sometimes with a student, you can just tell. This person will change a life, you think, and ...."
Becky hugged her, Phillip looked on with serious, bright eyes. It was embarrassing, more than she had expected, and certainly more than was her due. Phillip waved a text fax saying, "When we got these, we grabbed what we could and boarded the hover-carts sent immediately. I knew there was something fishy going on, but no one was saying anything sensible. You probably saved our lives."
Open mouthed, Fiona took the fax from Phillip's hands. It was all there, the plan to abandon the colony, the imminent invasion, all of it, and an invitation from her to escape! Not just from the invasion and occupation, but from the Royals as well.
The Navigator had never intended allowing the Royals to board. Voluntarily, no officer or Royal would ever confine themselves to ship, days before it was scheduled to cast off. No royalty, or officers of the royalty had been asked to board early, so none had. There was a temblor building in the floor, a sense of motion, and the auditorium address system came on.
"Welcome aboard the Waystalker. By now you realize that all aboard her, depart to a new future."
The auditorium screen lit, showing an angry gaggle of officials. Domos beat on the closed locks of the ship's hatches, clutching important looking documents. Another pair in the background struggled to lug some heavy cutting torches up to the lock platform.
One of them, yes, it was Domo Morgan, Fiona recognized the beet red face, glaring angrily up at the exterior camera lens. The faces grew smaller, as the ship rose. Smaller in more than size, she thought.
"We are beginning ascent. Crew is directed to stations. Colonists to their appointed rooms."
Fiona ran her hands deftly over the Nav console, still enjoying the cool feel of the controls beneath her fingers, despite all the months spent plying unexplored space.
"What do you think of this one?" the Waystalker's A.I. queried.
Planetary data chuckled across the display, while she made a few small adjustments to the mineral survey probe's orbit.
Fiona knit her brows and ran a comparison against prior candidates. "It is definitely worth considering."
One of three possible new homes they had discovered. She dispersed a soil report to Philip, to make some decisions as to which of the available seed crops might do best here. The temperate zone spanned a larger latitude range than the other two, but the planet also pulled a slightly heavier gravity. Not, she thought, uncomfortably so. The ocean percentage was greater. Daniel Fess would have to go over the geological reports closely, and of course, everyone would get the overall summary. Then, a location for starting the colony needed choosing. It was only one of many decisions that needed to be made. One of many, many choices to be considered.
Bio: So, I write largely science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy/humor. I do novels, short stories, Serial short stories, Novellas, all that. If all goes well, I expect to be posting a good deal of both here. What else can I say? I like walks in the rain and ice cream? I sketch, play blues harp, have been known to program for fun. Gamer? Yeah, I'm a slacker. Ran Plotters of Dreams for writers before it was virtually shut down save in title by Yahoo cuts in service, for ten years and counting. Ive moderated other groups, and obviously, writing is a passion. -Want to make peoples day, send them on vacation, make them chuckle occasionally.