Mary Anne Eckhardt pressed her face against the shuttle’s view port, in an attempt to see the approaching ship. It was huge, a long silver arrow lying dormant in space with many silver bugs swarming around it.
“Wow, it’s big,” Mary said in awe. Her breath steamed up the view port and she lost her view of the ship. Rather than wiping it off, she sighed and turned to the crisp young ensign sitting next to her. He looked even more apprehensive than she was.
“I… this is my first assignment,” he said, swallowing nervously. Mary would have like to believe that her closeness was making him nervous, but she knew better. A first assignment was always scary. You never knew what to expect.
“Keep your mouth shut and do what everybody else does and you’ll be ok,” she said patting him on the hand. He scowled down at her hand and she pulled away.
“Hey, lighten up,” she growled.
“Sorry, I don’t like to be touched,” he said by way of apology. “You’re a petty officer, what’s it like. I mean on a ship?”
“Every one is different, depending on who you work for and the commanding officer. Most of them are great. I haven’t heard any rumors about the Joan Of Ark since she’s newly commissioned, but I’m sure it’s fine too.”
“But we’ll be stuck in deep space for three years. What if it’s not — ok, I mean?”
“Then you grit your teeth, do what you’re told and live with it, sir.”
“Oh boy,” he sighed, even more apprehensive than before.
“Don’t worry about it, we all have our first ships. Just remember to salute aft, then salute the officer of the deck when you board. After that some petty officer will undoubtedly take care of you until you learn the ropes.”
“A petty officer?” he seemed offended.
“Sure. Who do you think runs this fleet, the Captain?” she asked, trying to keep a straight face.
“Why yes, I…”
“Everybody line up, we have a five minute window. Anybody who’s not off in three get’s kicked off!” A chief petty officer shouted from the front of the shuttle.
“See,” Mary pointed with a half-smile. The ensign swallowed even more and nodded convulsively.
“Your bag,” Mary pointed to the bag in the overhead compartment. He apologized and pulled the bag from the rack.
“Your other bag,” she pointed to the compartment under the seat. The ensign looked at the chief, then quickly ducked to get his other bag. Mary wondered if he would have abandoned it if the chief was watching.
“Officers first, enlisted last!” The chief shouted. Mary gave the ensign a little shove. He went to the front of the shuttle reluctantly.
“He’ll be just another asshole shouting orders in a month,” a woman leaned over and whispered in Mary’s ear. Mary turned and smiled.
“God save us from asteroids and ensigns,” Mary said and they both giggled. “I’m Mary,” she extended her hand.
“Ruth, Ruth Toliver. So how did you rate the Joan Of Ark?”
“I was on the William Perry,” Mary said, suddenly uncomfortable, “they gave me first choice of assignments.”
“The asteroid duster that exploded?”
“Yes, it was a deep space exploration ship like this one, but much smaller. I barely made it on the second of the only three lifeboats to escape.”
“Wow, a medal of honor winner, huh?”
“It’s in my bag,” Mary patted the side of her canvas bag with a smile.
“Glad to meet you. I was transferred from HQ, no war stories here. I did two tours so I’d have enough points for this,” she pointed out the window at the silver ship, now laying alongside.
“It’s better that way, believe me. When a stranded crew becomes desperate enough to draw straws to see who will get eaten, then it’s best to stay home.”
“They didn’t, did they?” the woman asked in horror.
“Didn’t eat anybody?”
“No, but I’d rather not talk about what we did eat. I may never eat again,” Mary said with a look of disgust.
Mary nodded and shuffled forward as the line began moving.
“Well if you ever change your mind about eating, buzz me,” the woman whispered, very close to her ear. “I wouldn’t mind being eaten just a little.”
“Ruth!” Mary said in surprised embarrassment. She turned and stared at Ruth. Their faces were an inch apart. Ruth’s smiling eyes looked deeply into her own.
“Well I wouldn’t,” Ruth whispered and they laughed together. Mary had no idea how prophetic that statement would turn out to be, in a pleasant sort of way.
Within 24 hours, Mary was installed in the Captain’s Office. In 36 hours the atomic generators were powered up and the Joan Of Ark got underway leaving the supply ships, maintenance ships, shuttles, and well-wishers in it’s wake like a thousand little silver leaves scattering on a fall pond.
As soon as her paperwork was caught up Mary headed directly for the sexual recreation lounge. The lounge was the talk of the fleet, and she had been dying to try it out. It was new technology, a small world constructed of holographic images, with real and holographic people. Their true shapes and identities were masked with a holographic overlay. She didn’t realize how effective that masking was until her first encounter in the lounge.
Mary sat in the booth and filled out the form on the screen. She first selected “Gone With The Wind” of course, but that selection was filled for the next two weeks. She added her name to the third week, and moved on to something she could participate in now. There was an epic sea battle going on in one section of the lounge, she stared at that selection undecided, for a moment, then on inspiration she began programming her own sub-menu into the battle. Finally, after much work, she sat back and looked at the screen, very proud of herself. She opened the metal door and slid into the weightless room with a giggle of laughter.
Ruth sat in the still-warm chair and recalled the menu Mary had been looking at.
“That little imp,” Ruth said in admiration, then programmed herself into the hologram. She looked around quickly, then turned off the screen and followed Mary through the same door.
Mary rocketed through the cool, clear waters for several minutes, enjoying her sleek body and the great speeds she could attain. Suddenly, needing air, she shot toward the surface. She broke through to open air and turned a somersault, gasping in as much air as she could hold through her blow-hole, then landed tail-first in the water to break her fall. She balanced on the tip of her tail, watching the far-off battle between wooden ships with soft, gray eyes. She chastised them soundly with a series of squeaks, clicks, and squeals, then leaped skyward and dove deep, using her pointed nose for a rudder.
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