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She couldn’t remember a time when these hallways were loud. The light bluish grey carpet dampened the sounds of footsteps and voices, naturally. But, even now - walking alone in the empty corridors- Spencer could hear her own footsteps. She couldn’t remember a time when the hallways were loud, but she couldn’t remember a time when they were so quiet, either.

The hallways were brightly lit. That remained the same, and all the rooms were where she remembered. Each room’s assigned number was stenciled to the right of the door in a bright red that stood out against the shiny metal walls. Below the room’s number, a touchscreen was built into the wall that functioned as a security panel and intra-ship communication screen. All the screens were shut off now, indicating that none of the doors were locked and that intra-ship communication was off - except to essential areas.

Spencer had been on empty ships before, but this ship was different. To another’s eyes it would look the same as any other fleet ship from fifty years ago (assuming the models were the same.) This particular model had long since passed it’s prime, and this ship was the last one active in the fleet. It was small in comparison to the ones rolling out, now. This model required a crew complement of about 200, as compared to the 600-crew required of the newer ships. Yet, something about this ship was different; although, Spencer couldn’t say what that something was. But it felt different. More devoid of life than other ships. It had never felt that way before.

If this were any other ship, on any other day, her feet would move faster. Spencer had a job to do, and she wasn’t one to spend time reminiscing. But she’d arrived early with the intent of walking the maze of grey carpeted hallways. It wasn’t really a maze. Not to her, at least. Most of the decks looked about the same, but she’d spent half her life exploring every nook and cranny of these halls. She knew exactly where she was even though twenty years had passed since she had last stepped foot in this place.

She hadn’t expected it to be so cold. She didn’t remember the cold. It had always been so warm when she was a child. The halls had been busy, but happy. And rarely so busy that someone didn’t stop and ask her how lessons were going, or what she was up to, or did she want another tour of the engine room? And warm. It had definitely been warm then, too. Now, they seemed as cold as the metal walls her fingertips had been lightly tracing as she walked.

She stopped as her fingers met air instead of metal. She stood in front of a small alcove in the wall. She remembered this maintenance hatch. A smile produced creases at the corners of her mouth creating small cracks in otherwise unblemished light brown skin. There were hundreds of maintenance hatches on the ship. Areas that allowed appropriately trained persons access to the hidden mechanisms of the ship. This hatch was a little different, however. Most hatches remained locked except to authorized personnel, meaning they couldn’t be accessed by children or other visitors that might be on the ship. But this one -and a handful of others- doubled as emergency exits, so they remained unlocked. Unauthorized personnel were still discouraged from using them except in emergencies, but they were far too tempting to children. Because they were emergency exits the “maintenance” aspect of these hidden halls was minimal. Although they were checked regularly at the beginning of every shift change, they were usually empty. Meaning any child wishing to find a secret place could usually be assured of privacy if she knew what times the shift changes took place.

Kneeling, Spencer turned the manual release and the hatch door opening noiselessly. She was almost disappointed; a little sound would have been welcome. She crawled inside; the bun of dark hair piled on her head bumping the top of the tunnel as she settled down against the cool curved wall. She remembered a time when all she had to do was bend over and walk inside. It was dimly lit but could be brought to full light with a simple voice command. She had explored this hidden corridor and all the others a thousand times, so she had no need for more light. She rested about a foot inside the small tunnel. She would only be in here for a moment.

It still smelled the same. Her smile grew although the smell itself was not pleasant. The lingering odor of human sweat and air warmed by the electrical equipment that was visible in some places. It was more cramped and less exciting than she remembered. But somehow it was still comfortable. She leaned her head back against the wall. Closing her eyes, she took several deep breaths and allowed a few of the memories to return.

She and her best friend – Sidney – trying to skip lessons and being found by their tutor after leading him all over the ship for two hours. How old had she been then? Eight? Nine?

Hiding in here with Sidney determined to catch a glimpse of the elusive ambassador that refused to have meals in the mess hall with the rest of the crew…

Playing a game with Sidney only to have the door open and the First Officer crawl in without noticing them; until after he’d closed the door behind him. He claimed to be trying to avoid the visiting Admiral.

She slid out of the hatch and resumed her leisurely pace. The memories warmed her slightly. However, as she walked down the corridor that was once so full of life and warmth, but now stood empty and as cold as the dark iciness of space she felt the warmth vanish. It drained from her, and the smile that had transformed her face drifted away, as well.

It was too empty. Too small. She looked up. She could touch the ceiling if she wanted to. As a young child, she requested that people pick her up for just that purpose. Now, she raised her own hand to briefly brush against the ceiling. She continued walking and soon her feet led her to the school. It was a large room for a ship this size. Especially, considering there were only about 10 children on the ship at any given time. Often less. Rarely more. For two years it had been just her and one other boy, Sidney. The first two children born on the ship. She had been first. Sidney was born over a year later. Then about two years later another baby. Slowly more came. It was inevitable really. The ship’s mission at the time of her birth hadn’t even completed the first year of its fifteen-year mission.

The school didn’t hold many special memories for her. She’d spent a lot of time there. Playing mostly, but she was more interested in the walls than the memories. The door slid open for her as she approached, and the lights came on automatically. Unlike the standard grey and silver décor of the hallways, this room was filled with bright colors. She was sure that, originally, the walls had all been painted the same light green, but over the years so much artwork had been added that the original color was nothing more than a memory.

One wall was less decorated than the others. She moved towards that wall trying to ignore how empty the room was without toys or desks, and trying to ignore the cold that seemed more pronounced by the room’s bright colors. The decorations she came to see were simple: names, horizontal lines, and numbers at varying intervals next to the lines. Her name and birthday were written sideways against the corner. Her ages from 1 through 17 labeled vertically beside the varying marks on the wall. She hadn’t grown much since age seventeen. She ran her finger over the “17” and looked down. At a year old she’d stood at about the height of her knee. Had she really been that little? No wonder everything looked smaller now.

 Off to the right of her height lines were Sidney’s name, birthday, and heights. She examined his numbers, as well, smiling when she remembered how he had suddenly become much taller than her seemingly overnight. Ruslan was next, then Bridget… she looked at each name. Remembered each of them. How long had it been since she’d spoken to them? She stayed in touch with Sidney regularly. They were more like siblings than friends, really. But what about Gabriella? Five years at least. She stopped when she didn’t recognize the names. A glance at the birthdates confirmed that she hadn’t been on the ship when the last nine children were born.

She left the school glancing at the device on her wrist. She had 15 minutes. Plenty of time for one more stop. It would be pointless going to her old bedroom. Others had lived in it since her mother was reassigned, and it wouldn’t seem at all like the home they had shared. No, she would go to the place she had visited least while on the ship.

Stepping onto an elevator she tapped a button and commanded. “Bridge.”

She stepped off the elevator onto the ship’s command center. Where the captain and chief officers conducted their duties. It was not the most dangerous part of the ship. But unlike the more dangerous areas, the bridge was the most sacred. She had only been on the bridge twice, and she remembered both times vividly. One time had been by the Captain’s invitation. The other time had been by her own invitation. Strangely, it was slightly warmer on the bridge than on the rest of the ship though it was equally as empty.

 The bridge was more or less circular with about fifteen individual computer stations around the curved sidewalls, and one door on either side. It was a three-tiered setup with the stations in the back at the highest level. A screen was positioned directly across from the elevator which would normally display images from any of the exterior cameras. It was dark now, like the screens on the rest of the ship. The second level was behind the navigator and pilot, in the center of the bridge. Spencer walked easily to that section which consisted of three large connected chairs - although only two were usually occupied. One for the captain and one for the second in command. The third was for any honored guest privileged enough to be allowed on the bridge. The chairs for the captain and first officer came equipped with armrests that could be converted into computers if necessary.

Spencer hesitated before taking the guest’s seat. Although she was no longer a child it didn’t feel as though she belonged in the Captain’s chair on this particular ship. Or even the first officer’s seat. Certainly not the Captain’s seat, though. She glanced at the Captain’s seat to her left.

The Captain had been sitting there when Spencer had invited herself to the bridge at age six. She smiled a little at the memory even if the incident had resulted in restriction to her quarters for a week and no dessert for a month. Not to mention a severe tongue lashing from half the ship. It seemed like forever before anyone trusted her to walk across the hallway unaccompanied.

Her second trip to the bridge occurred just before she left the ship. The Captain had asked to see her before she left. She remembered walking nervously onto the bridge while tugging awkwardly at her new cadet uniform. Her mother had accompanied her but had hung back by the elevator allowing her seventeen-year-old daughter to approach the Captain on her own. The Captain had been standing while talking to another Captain on the screen. A Captain that would take her away from her home and then to Earth for the first time in her life. That trip would take just over a year. The conversation had been brief, and upon its conclusion, the Captain had turned her attention to Spencer. Unlike when Spencer was six there was no reproachful look on the Captain’s face. Only pride. Seventeen-year-old Spencer was soon smiling, and before she knew it the bridge crew where taking turns giving her hugs and wishing her luck. The Captain had accompanied her and her mother to the shuttle, and to the other ship.

Now, sitting in the guest chair on the bridge Spencer wanted to feel the same warmth and contentment as before she left. She’d known before coming aboard that it would be different than she remembered. But she hadn’t expected the differences to be what they were. She hadn’t expected the cold. Or the emptiness.

One of the doors on the bridge slid open and Spencer turned to see the Captain step out of her office. Spencer stood at attention immediately.

The Captain smiled and waved her off, “no need for that, Spencer. Besides, you’re a Captain yourself now.” Spencer relaxed as the Captain came closer. “Let me look at you.”

The Captain looked Spencer up and down, then – using her thumb – brushed nonexistent dust from the shoulder insignia that displayed Spencer’s rank. As the Captain pulled her into a hug Spencer considered that apparently higher-ranking officers and adults that knew you as a child both enjoyed inspections a little too much.

“How long has it been, now? Five years?” The Captain asked, sitting in her chair. The Captain’s chair.

Spencer took the guest seat, again. With a small smile, she replied, “we spoke last week, Captain.”

The Captain rolled her eyes. Eyes that had more lines around them than Spencer remembered. “I’m not senile, yet. I meant since we met in person, as you well know.”

 “About five years, yes.” Spencer’s grin faded as she watched the Captain. She hadn’t noticed how old the Captain had gotten, but after walking down memory lane for the better part of an hour it was clear just how much time had passed. The Captain’s skin was somehow even paler, and every line stood out to Spencer’s eyes in a way they hadn’t five years ago, or even last week.  

The captain tilted her head causing her short grey hair to bounce slightly. “What’s wrong?”

Spencer shrugged. A very un-captain like gesture that was more fitting the teenager who stood on this bridge twenty years ago.

The captain nodded slowly, “you’ve been on this ship for almost an hour. Did you get lost?”

They both knew she hadn’t been lost, “I was just wandering around.” She paused for a moment. “I went to the school.”

“I made sure all the parents have pictures of that wall. Including your mother.”

Spencer didn’t know how to voice what she felt walking along the halls of her childhood home. “It’s quiet.”

The Captain nodded and made a small humming noise as she turned her head to look at the blank screen. “Well, that’s depressing.”

The Captain pulled the computer from the arm of the chair and in a few silent touches the screen turned on to show an external view from one of the cameras. Spencer watched as stars lit up the screen. Millions and millions of stars. Most of them out of reach. Humans had been traveling in space for over a hundred years and still hadn’t made it to the closest one outside their solar system.

Sliding the computer back into the arm of the chair the Captain commented, “that’s better.”

Spencer looked at the screen. Not feeling any less depressed.

“I’d imagine it’s a bit bittersweet for you. Coming back to this ship, taking over as Captain, and watching as it’s dismantled then reassembled.”

“I thought it would be like coming home. But without the crew, and the other kids…” Spencer’s voice trailed off.

The Captain’s voice was quiet and seemed to hold an infinite amount of patience. “Home is where the heart is, Spencer. Your home has always been with the crew, it just happened that we all lived on this ship for a few years.” The captain gestured to the screen. “The doctor made sure that your picture was on this screen seconds after you were born. You knew that, right?”

Spencer nodded and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She’d heard that story a million times over the years. Many of the crew who’d been on this ship were high ranking officers now, so attending any kind of event with the upper-brass would include a mandatory retelling of her birth. 

“I watched you grow up. We all did. We’re all so proud of you.”

Spencer smiled, she watched her fingers play with a loose string from the upholstery.

“This ship has been my home for fifty years. And it will continue to be my home. I just won’t be living in it.” The Captain paused waiting for Spencer to make eye contact. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather turn this ship over to, Spencer.” The captain smiled, and Spencer felt warm for the first time since she stepped on the ship. “Now,” the captain continued, “let’s get this over with, then we’ll find something to do on the station before going to the decommissioning party.”

“Decommissioning party? I thought it was your promotional party, Admiral.” Spencer teased.

The soon-to-be-admiral winced, “As I said, the decommissioning party.”

Spencer stood up with the Captain, and they faced each other on the bridge of the ship. What was about to take place was more tradition than necessity.

“Captain Phyllis Robin,” Spencer spoke with authority, “I’m here to relieve you.”

The Captain reached out to shake Spencer’s hand, and any lingering chill Spencer felt vanished. The Captain’s face showed nothing but pride. “I am relieved.” 

October 18, 2019 14:11

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