“Hey, Fish, what’s happening with those beans?”
My head comes up at the sound of that voice, with its distinctive East London accent. “Underway, sir,” I reply, returning my attention to the task of mixing green beans with a can of something labeled cream of mushroom soup.
Around me, laughter breaks out at my response. I can feel my ears burn; I’ve been on this ship a little over four months, long enough to discover that habits formed during four years’ service aboard military vessels are a source of endless amusement.
I sneak a peek across the galley, to see the other occupants exchanging grins and knowing looks. It’s practically the smallest space on the ship, as if the designers didn’t understand that someone might want to actually cook a meal. Right now, with every person onboard crammed into it, the galley is downright claustrophobic. I’ve been assured, however, that it’s all part of the occasion.
Cole Washington, the ship’s engineer, turns toward me from where he’s shredding bread into a bowl, stretching his tall, lanky frame as he does so. “Do you think we could get an ETA on that green bean casserole, Fish?”
Beside him, Edie Row, our talented pilot, can’t resist joining in. “Just make sure it’s prepared according to protocol,” she says. “Heaven help us if you don’t follow the vegetable code of conduct.”
I laugh along with them, not bothered by the hazing. After all, I went through worse than this back in the service.
It’s a funny thing. I’ve spent almost half a decade aboard spaceships, patrolling or plying the interstellar shipping lanes, and this is the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving aboard ship. It’s kind of ironic that it’s a custom adhered to so diligently by a crew that couldn’t be more eclectic.
Captain Liam Bennet squeezes past me, carrying a large tin of processed turkey meat. “Don’t blow a head gasket, Fish,” he says, his face ruddy from the heat of the galley. “Just so’s you remember to salute when we’re in the loo together.”
“Aye, sir,” I say, deliberately, to more laughter.
The beans and soup have reached the point where it’s hard to tell the difference between them, and I look around for a dish to bake it in. Spotting a likely candidate, I reach for it, and bump into Lena Ramirez, our shipboard medic.
“‘Scuse me,” I mumble.
“No problem,” she says, good humor in her dark brown eyes. “Place like this, you’re bound to trip over someone.”
“Got that right,” I say. “It’s not like it’s a small ship, either. Just the places where the crew has to live.” At over six hundred meters in length, with cargo capacity of fifty million tons, this ship is way bigger than any other I’ve crewed. But the space designated for habitation is minuscule by comparison.
“That’s the company for you.” Lena keeps her voice light and airy, hiding any irritation. “More space for payload, less for paid employees. We get by, though.”
I eye her askance. Lena might be about fifty, short and a little plump, kind of motherly, but I know she’s an experienced spacer. “So, you’ve flown with the captain for a while now, right?”
She nods, her attention on the potato flakes she’s whipping into creamy spuds. “Almost as long as he’s worked for the company.”
“Uh-huh. Maybe you can tell me, what’s with this ship’s name?”
She glances at me, a smile twitching her lips. “What, you don’t like it?”
“It’s just a strange name. In the service, most of the ships were named after famous people or old battles. When I was shifting billets, the ships on registry were named things like Lucky Molly or Tycoon’s Tempest, names with a story behind them. The company agent told me that ship names are the discretion of the captain.” I pause, glance toward the captain, who’s struggling to get the turkey out of its tin. “So why did Captain Bennet name his ship No Place Special?”
Lena shrugs, her smile widening. “Well, there’s no real mystery to it. This ship is one of thousands of cargo haulers. Captain Bennet knew that when he got his commission. I guess he figured that there wasn’t any reason to give it a name with personal meaning. With so many ships just like it out there, it really is no place special.”
I think about that for a second, then shrug. It’s his ship; he can call it what he wants. “Casserole’s ready to cook,” I say, holding the pan of gray-green sludge aloft.
“Then get ‘er into the bakehouse,” Bennet says, not looking up from his project, where he’s lopped off the ends of the glob of turkey meat and placed them alongside the main portion. Squinting at it, I can tell he’s trying to make it look like a turkey, but the shape reminds me more of an old space shuttle. “We’ll have this meal on the table before you can say Bob’s your uncle.”
I open the oven and slide the casserole in, stretching to reach around Cole, who is now peering at the faded labels on several spice jars.
“Jeez, Cole,” Edie says, her ginger-red ponytail swaying as she shakes her head. “It’s stuffing, not rocket science. Three Ph.D.s and you can’t figure out seasonings.”
“Four,” Cole corrects her, a frown in his voice. “And none of them were in culinary arts.” He sighs, still eyeing the jars. “Or deciphering ancient texts.”
Cole’s my direct superior, as I’m the ship’s mechanic, so I try to find a tactful way to help. He notices that I’ve got something to say and arches an eyebrow at me.
I tap three of the jars. “Thyme, garlic, and sage. Can’t go wrong.”
“Thank you,” he says with feeling. “Didn’t know they taught that on military ships.”
“I was an enlisted yeoman, did a little bit of everything.” I grin, remembering. “Nothing teaches you to cook faster than a hundred crewmates who don’t like the menu.” That gets the desired laugh. “Still, I never tried to do anything like this. Tell you the truth, I’m not sure why we celebrate… what is this, Thanksgiving? In primary, I learned it was an old American holiday.”
“S’not about where it comes from, Fish,” Captain Bennet says, straightening with a satisfied sigh. His turkey construct now looks three lopsided eggs jammed together, but it’s clearly close enough for him. “It’s about being together, like a family. We’ll all spend most of our time together, maybe most of our lives. Things like this help us to get along. So it’s either the occasional transplanted holiday, or we’ll be at it like honeyed truffles.”
I blink, confused.
Bennet smiles. “Married couples, Fish. It’s a joke, see.”
"Right then.” Bennet scoops up his masterpiece, slides it into the oven beside my own creation. “Now we’ll give it a bullseye to heat, and then we can eat.”
Just then, a loud bang sounds, and the ship gives a shuddering lurch. I stagger, clutching at a counter to stay upright, as a groan passes through the ship’s hull. The lights flicker, and for a second I feel a tug, like something’s trying to lift me off the deck, as the artificial gravity field falters.
Then everything goes back to the way it was, only the lights are a little dimmer, and everyone’s staring around with that look in their eyes that presages real fear.
“Stations,” Bennet raps out, all brisk professionalism now, without even a trace of the anxiety I know he must be feeling.
We scatter, headed for our assigned emergency stations, all plans for dinner put on hold. I follow Cole aft, toward the engineering area. His job aboard ship is to keep the reactor and engines running, maintaining power for propulsion and life support. My job is to assist him, doing all the leg work.
We reach our destination, Cole slipping through the door before its fully open and hurrying to his terminal. Engineering is no bigger than it has to be, and the space is dominated by the bulky square box of the reactor chamber, pipes and cabling trailing away from it and disappearing into ports and ducts.
Cole brings up a diagnostic display while I fetch my kit, a full harness carrying just about every tool conceivable for ship repair. Whatever’s happened, I’m as ready to handle it as I can be.
“Cole, report.” Bennet’s voice crackles over the intercom.
“Checking it now, Captain,” Cole says, his voice a little breathless. “Looks like we had an impact.”
“Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.” Edie’s voice cuts into the line. “Did we hole? Lose anything vital?”
“Edie, off the channel,” the captain says. “Damages, Cole?”
Cole’s eyes dart from side to side as he reads the information on his screen. Then his eyebrows raise. “Well, that’s interesting.”
“Cole…” A trace of annoyance creeps into the captain’s tone.
“Surprisingly little damage, Captain. Whatever hit us seems to have knocked out the forward port thruster array.” He glances at me.
I reply with a nod, donning a comms headset, before hurrying out of the chamber, headed for the damaged section. It’s not a critical system right now, but we’ll need it by the time we make port.
“The odd thing,” Cole says, his voice faint and tinny over the headset, “is that the impacting object was carrying a significant electromagnetic charge.”
“That’s not strange,” Edie says, ignoring Bennet’s order. “Anything moving through space builds up a fair amount of EM.”
“I mean that something that charged should have done a number on our electrical systems,” Cole continues, as if pointing out the obvious. “There was a brief surge, but it got shunted almost immediately.”
I’m still moving forward, following a narrow maintenance passage, bulkheads pressing close all around me, cable conduits and equipment housings protruding from every surface. The only light comes from recessed bulbs set into the ceiling, rendering my surroundings in a soft, diffuse glow.
“Shunted?” Bennet says. “How? By who?”
“That’s the odd thing. No one knew it was happening, and no one was in any position to do anything about it.”
At the tense, confused tone of his voice, I slow down, a sense of unease creeping over me. Suddenly, the corridor seems a lot eerier than it did a second ago.
“Run a full systems analysis, Cole.” If the captain’s worried about this development, he’s not showing it.
A long, slow moment passes as Cole carries out his order, then a soft grunt comes over the line. “Captain, I’m showing a power reroute. Life support is being diverted to Inspection Port 11A.”
I recognize the location; an externally accessible space, smaller than a closet, normally left cold and airless unless the ship is docked and undergoing repairs. For it to be receiving life support means that someone—or something—is in there.
"Right then,” Bennet says. “Fish, meet me outside Inspection Port 11A. Lena, prepare the medical bay for possible casualties.”
A tingle of apprehension runs down my spine. Whatever is hiding in that closet, the captain means to get it out of there. And he wants me to help. I swallow around the lump that’s just formed in my throat.
Captain Bennet is already at the access hatch when I arrive. He’s standing there, straight and tall, arms folded in front of him, with a sidearm holstered on his belt.
He greets me with a nod. There’s a tautness to him, a rigidity I haven’t seen before, obvious in the clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. It takes me a second to realize that this is what Captain Bennet looks like when he’s angry. “If you please, open the hatch. And then step back.”
“Aye, sir.” I tap the access key into the lock panel, and the door slides open.
A gasp comes from the other side, followed by a scrabbling noise.
“Jig’s up, mate,” Bennet says. “Come out now, hands in view.” There’s no response from the darkened space beyond the door. “Don’t make me come in there and get you.”
I glance at the captain, surprised by the menace in his voice.
“All right,” says a small, quiet voice. An instant later, a figure emerges. It’s a person, a young girl, wearing stained coveralls several sizes too big for her. Dirt and grease streak her face, and her short hair is lank and matted. Her gaze darts from the captain to me and back again, eyes wide and scared.
My breath goes out in a hiss of relief. A stowaway. I was half expecting some sort of horrific alien creature. Guess I’ve seen too many movies. Then my brain catches up with the significance of our find, and all the anxiety comes back.
When the kid comes into the light, Captain Bennet blinks, frowns, as if this wasn’t at all what he expected. “What’s your name?” asks Captain Bennet, his tone somewhere between irritated and confused. “How did you get in there?”
“I’m Cassie,” the girl replies, looking down at the deck. “I slipped in there at the last port.”
The captain’s jaw drops. “That was sixteen days ago. You’ve been in there all that time?”
She nods, hugging her arms across her chest, practically trembling in fear.
She has good reason to be scared. Company guidelines are draconian regarding illegal passengers. At best, this kid is looking forward to detention in a youth incarceration facility, until she’s old enough to stand full trial, after which it’ll be a penal labor colony. A frown crosses my face. I don’t like the idea of giving up a kid to that fate.
Captain Bennet stares at the girl for a second longer, then sighs and rubs a hand across his face. “Come along,” he says, taking the girl by the arm.
“Where are you taking me?” Cassie’s voice cracks.
“Med bay, to get you checked out.” Captain Bennet shakes his head. “Of all the stunts for a kid to pull…”
“You don’t understand,” Cassie says, looking like she’s near to tears. “I’m a ship brat; I’ve spent all my life in orphan housing. I… I needed to get away.”
I dart a look at the captain. Everybody’s heard tales of what orphan housing is like. When an unwanted child is surrendered to company care, they get shoved into a crowded, understaffed facility until they’re old enough to take a job, where their wages are garnished until they pay back the rearing costs. Privation, neglect, and even outright abuse are common in those places.
“Captain…” I start, but he silences me with a look.
In the med bay, Lena darts a quick look between the captain, me, and the stowaway, sizing up the situation in an instant. Then she goes about her business in silence, giving the kid a reassuring smile while she works.
When Cassie is given a clean bill of health, Bennet lets out a sigh. “You understand the mire you’re in, right?”
The girl nods, unable to meet the captain’s gaze.
“So, you tell me who helped you aboard, I’ll make sure they go soft on you.”
She gives him a quick, hopeful glance. “Nobody helped me.”
Bennet chuckles. “You’re telling me you overrode the lock yourself, diverted life support one your own?”
“Yes.” A hint of defiance creeps into her voice. “I’m smart. I studied ship’s computer systems.”
Instead of blowing off her claims, Bennet looks thoughtful. “And the power surge, the one that should have left us dead in space? You shunted that?”
Casey shrugs. “I’m on this ship, too, remember? I’ve been monitoring systems since I got on board, making sure no one noticed what I did. When we got hit, well, I didn’t what to freeze or suffocate any more than you do.”
I rock back on my heels. This kid can’t be more than fourteen, but she had the technical skills and presence of mind to do a critical shunt in the seconds between contact and terminal failure. Impressive.
Now Bennet is looking down at the deck, one hand rubbing his jaw. I can imagine the debate he’s having with himself. According to the rules, he has to report this incident immediately, turn Cassie over to company authorities at the next port, and let the system take over.
But how could any decent person do something like that?
Lena catches my gaze, gives me a wink, so quickly that I can’t be certain I saw it, just as Bennet straightens. The look on his face says he’s made up his mind.
“So, Cassie, when was the last time you had a proper meal?” he asks.
Cassie finally meets his gaze. “A proper meal? What’s that like?”
Bennet shrugs. “Come along and find out.” He turns to the intercom panel, opens the main channel. “Right then, everybody. Alerts off. Get back to the galley and let’s get dinner on the table.” He pauses, glances at Cassie. “We’ve got a new crew member to welcome.”
The look on the kid’s face is priceless, all wide eyes and gaping mouth, like a fish out of water realizing it can still breath.
Bennet claps a hand on Casey’s shoulder. “And afterward, I have some paperwork to fix up.”
“Why?” Cassie can’t seem to grasp what’s happening.
“You just saved all our lives, kipper,” Bennet says with a snort. “Least I can do is repay the favor. Besides, it’s Thanksgiving, and that’s all about family, i’nnit?”
He gives me a smile as he walks past, a stunned Cassie in tow, and I can’t help but smile back.
Captain Bennet may think his ship is no different than any other cargo hauler plying the trade lanes, but I now realize just how special a place it is.