I didn’t want to go to work, but I couldn’t just sit and stare at the picture of my parents on the dresser any longer. My lack of sleep wasn’t unusual for me; I didn’t sleep much most nights, to the point of even needing medication for it at times.
I stretched and stood, knowing I would feel better working, better disappearing into the ship’s systems. Today makes ten years since their death. It feels so very much longer.
God help me, I missed them so much.
That’s stupid, of course I missed them.
Seeing their picture on my dresser brought me joy, of course, but it also reminded me of the day they died. Every single time, it reminded me.
I was five. The morning of their death I had been arguing with my mother, trying to talk her out of going to work. Her and Dad were doing a repair on an antenna outside of the ship that day, and I had a really bad feeling. But she assured me that they were the best onboard at the outdoor repairs, that they had each done dozens of jobs in the EV suits, and that it was perfectly safe.
I wasn’t so sure, though.
Eventually, Mom insisted I go to school, and she promised me she would make me some cookies when she got home so they would be ready for me.
Dad stopped in to say goodbye just before he left, and I remember his exact words that day as clearly as I remember my own name.
“Eww! Go change your wet pants, Liddy!”
I was so embarrassed! I remember wanting to explain to him, to tell him I didn’t pee myself again, that I had just splashed water when I washed my hands. I didn’t get a chance before he hurried out the door, though.
I never could figure out why he called me Liddy all the time. It’s strange, the things we remember about our parents. He always called me Liddy. I remember even telling him that it wasn’t my name, that my name was Callie, but he just kept calling me that.
Not Mom. She would always call me Eun-ji. When I was little that would confuse me so much, because people would call her that all the time. It wasn’t until later that I understood that it was her name, and that they had given me that as a middle name as well.
I always thought her name was just Mom.
So that day, that terrible and tragic day, I was in class and listening to the teacher drone on and on and on about something that I couldn’t have cared less about. Multiplication, I think. I don’t know, I was zoned out, thinking about my parents and how sure I was that something bad would happen.
When my tablet vibrated I removed it from the pocket on the front of the cutesy dress that my parents always put me in, then unfolded it. There was a message saying there was a livestream from my mother. I eagerly opened it to see her smiling face staring at me as she waved at the camera, the stars and blackness of space a backdrop behind her.
As Mom stood there, her suit working hard to keep her oriented to the ship, the stars and bleakness of space behind her, I saw Dad come into view, working on the antenna behind her.
I saw him jerk to the side suddenly.
I saw the vapors from the oxygen escaping from his suit.
I saw Mom turn toward him just as he was struck by another micrometeoroid.
I saw Dad tumbling away from the ship.
I saw Mom lurch forward, then the tablet–which had been strapped to her arm–came loose and flipped end over end, flashing image, then space. Image, then space.
The broken glass of Mom’s helmet, then space.
Dad’s flailing body, then space.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I remember thinking that it couldn’t be real, that I wouldn’t let it be real. That it had only been my imagination, my make-believe as Mom called it.
I stood and walked to the port, triggered the outer shutter and stared out into space. I saw them there, floating away from the ship, grasping onto each other as they tried in vain to regain control of their suits and make their way back to me. I saw the looks of terror on their faces as they sucked in their last breaths.
Of course I know now that there was no way I could have seen them, they were on the opposite side of the ship from me. But five year old Callie could see it. Five year old Callie could imagine every gruesome detail of what they were going through.
I remember the teacher calling over to me to close the shutters and return to my seat. I was an obedient little girl–at least in school–and I did as she had instructed. But not before waving goodbye to my Mom and Dad one last time.
I don't remember much else from that day. I remember being scared. I remember my Mom's best friend, Bao Xiang, coming to pick me up from class a few minutes later, tears streaking down her face. And I remember feeling really, really sad.
And I never saw my parents again.
And I never got to explain the wet spot that was on my pants that morning.
I don't think I cried at all that day. I don't think I cried until two days later. And then that's all I did for twelve straight hours. They had to have Mark, the ship's doctor, give me a sedative just to get me to stop. I didn't eat for a week, and I barely slept.
And every day I stared out the port, hoping to see them coming back. Hoping they would walk in and tell me it was all a mistake, that everything was fine. That they were fine. I knew I'd never see them, but a small part of me thought that if I stared long enough, that if I wanted it badly enough, that if I promised God that I'd be a good girl and really meant it then they could come back.
Sometimes I still stare out the port, just waiting for them and making those same little girl promises.
Anyway, when my chance at command came I was going to do better–be better. I would never send both parents of a child outside the ship for minor repairs, leaving only their EV suits to protect them from the micrometeoroid showers that the Freedom encountered several times a year.
I would never let a child be turned into an orphan.
I would never let some other little girl grow up alone.
That’s what I told myself every morning when I woke. Not that I slept every night. Many mornings came with me having no sleep at all, having spent the entire night going over and over what happened to them, trying to think of what could have been done differently, trying to think of what I could have done or said to keep them from going out that day.
I think a part of me, the little girl part that died a little that day they died, thought I could bring them back if I just came up with an answer. That if I wished it with enough intensity, I could go back in time and fix things. Make them not die.
Of course the fifteen year old Callie knew better. I did.
I took a last look at the picture of my smiling parents, trying very hard not to sink into the mire that I felt pulling me down inside. I put on a nice dress–not precisely within the rules on uniforms–and did my makeup. I tried to improve my mood by looking my best. It helps sometimes, somewhat. As long as I avoided the ports.
I made my way to the bridge, determined to go to work as I did every day. I’ve always been determined to learn. To impress and move up in the ranks.
My number one goal that morning was the same as always, to work toward becoming captain one day so I could prevent the tragedy that happened to our family from happening to another. And I was getting there quicker than anyone ever had.
When I was ten the senior crew voted to make an exception to the rules that require you to be fourteen and allowed me to join the crew as a recruit. I was crewman second class by the six month mark, and crewman first class in less than a year.
At eleven they voted again to override the regs, and allowed the captain to promote me to ensign second class. You usually have to be sixteen, but I had been studying everything I could find about the ship since I was five.
Did I mention I was a determined child?
At twelve I skipped ensign first class, leaping to chief in the Command division. Milton–Captain Nelson–had to really push for that one. To make exceptions to the regulations requires a two thirds majority of the senior officers to approve it, and it took some arm twisting for him to convince them. It only took a simple majority of votes from the junior officers, which is those chief and up, to approve a promotion, but overruling regulations is only voted on by senior officers–the captain and those who are commanders in each of the four divisions.
I mired at chief for over two years. It was killing me, but I worked hard and knew more about the ship than almost everyone else by the time I was promoted–overruling the regulations again–to Lieutenant second class at fourteen, and added as a second third officer.
As of that morning, that’s what I remained. My position was on the bridge, as head systems officer. The job wasn’t strictly supposed to be in Command, it was usually in Engineering, but Milton insisted. I think he just wanted to keep an eye on me.
When my parents died, Milton Nelson–who was first officer at that time–became my guardian. I’m not even sure how that all happened, to be honest. I’ve read and researched, asked all the questions that I dare, but the best I can come up with is that he was just the next unlucky person who walked through the door, and they stuck him with me. Whatever it was, he became captain five years ago, when Captain Donaldson died. On top of moving to better quarters, it put Milton in a position to really push my career forward.
I got to the bridge and took my seat, but I could feel the eyes of everyone else on the bridge watching me. I knew the reason. I didn’t need their pity! It only reminded me of my parents.
“Good morning, Lieutenant Monroe.” Milton said to me. “I don’t believe you’re on the schedule for this morning.”
“I’m not on the schedule a lot of days, Milton. It hasn’t stopped me before.” I replied.
It is true, I was up there almost every single day. It wasn’t like it should have been a surprise to anyone. I studied every waking minute, could cite the page and number for regulations from the thousand page manual, knew every sensor and node in the entire ship, and worked my butt off to know every detail about the network onboard. I even knew that someone tried to login with an expired password in the cafeteria two minutes before.
“You should take the day off, Callie.” he said softly to me.
“I don’t need a day off.”
He thought that would do any good? Did he even know me? Didn’t he know I’d either just be working from there or, more likely, go over each detail that day to come up with ways it could have gone better?
“Callie,” he said. I felt his hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t make me go, Milton.” I mumbled, working hard not to lose it.
From the corner of my eye I saw his head move up and down in a nod, and he took his hand from my shoulder.
I got into the systems then, noticing an alarming number of problems coming from sensors on the network. Specifically, the ones connected to major systems, like the main engines. A quick double check confirmed that I had flagged these for repair, many of them over three days ago. Another quick look verified that there had been over twenty instances in the past month where I had flagged something for Engineering to repair and it being left for more than two days.
“I think I’ll go check with Bao.” I said, standing and stepped toward the door.
“About what?” he asked. “It’s so important that you need to get out of your seat? Isn’t that what comm channels are for?”
He had that half smile smirk on his face that he gets sometimes when he is teasing me. For an older guy approaching seventy, he had a quick wit, and he often teased me for avoiding face to face contact with the crew whenever I could.
“We’re having a lot of problems with sensors not being repaired. It’s not like Bao, usually she’s on top of her people better than this.”
“Yes, Commander Xiang usually trains her people well and enforces a policy of making sure the Freedom is a well maintained ship.”
That’s another thing he teased me about, calling the senior officers by their first names. Bao Xiang was my mother’s best friend when I was born, and she was Aunt Bao before I even knew what a commander was, let alone before she had risen to that rank. I had gotten to know the other senior officers when I was a scared and lonely five year old following Milton everywhere on the ship, afraid to be alone. I’ve always called them by their first names.
Engineering was on deck six, two hundred and seventy meters aft and five levels down from the bridge on our four hundred meter ship. When I entered I found a mess. This was so unlike Bao. She liked things clean and tidy. A well ordered workplace makes for a well ordered crew, which makes for a well ordered ship. That was her motto.
I didn’t see her, though. I expected her to be out there, yelling at people, screaming at them for not doing their work the way they should. At least I thought she should be out doing that, since things were definitely not going well in Engineering right then.
Instead I saw crewmember after crewmember slaving away to fix things that are not high priority while the higher priority items remain untouched.
The first three crewmember I came across–two ensigns and a chief–walked right past me when I asked where Bao was.
“Looking for Commanded Xiang, ma’am?” Chief Logan finally asked from fifteen meters away. The look on his face makes it rather obvious it wasn’t his crew who is incompetent and not doing their jobs. “She took a break for breakfast, Miss Monroe. She should be back soon, if you want to wait in her office for her.”
“Thank you, Chief.” I told him.
Bao’s office was a mess. At least for Bao. There were papers all over her desk. I moved to the backside of the desk and sat in her chair, looking down at the pile. Many of them were written orders, and some were reprimands for some of Bao’s crew. I checked her computer to verify that there wasn’t a problem down here, that they actually could access the log where I marked things for repair. There didn’t seem to be any problems, as far as I could see.
“Having fun back there, kiddo?” Bao asked, entering the room.
Her short black hair was messy, not her usual orderly military cut. Instead it was spiky and uncombed. Her clothing looked as if it could have been worn three days in a row, and it had stains and wrinkles.
This couldn’t really be Bao. Someone had kidnapped her and replaced her with a bad lookalike. Maybe not, but… wow, she was a mess.
“Just checking to see if you got my notifications.” I told her.
“Oh I got ‘em. Now if I can just get my damn night crews to get off their lazy asses and do something, I could probably have that list completed.”
“Problems with personnel?” I asked her.
“Flippin’ attic dwellers.” she muttered. “What brings you down here? And do you mind giving my chair back?”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to steal your chair.” I said, standing up quickly.
“You’re not sorry! Kiddo, you’ve been stealing my chair since you could crawl into it.” She moved to her seat and sat. “And yes, personnel problems would be an understatement.”
“I see. So, the papers?” I asked. “It’s not like you to waste resources on notes that could be in the computer.”
“Got that right.” she said. “Yes, well, there are some things I’d just as soon keep quiet right now. In fact, I shouldn’t have left them out where anyone could see them.”
She made a show of gathering the papers up into a neat pile, aligning the edges with the sides of the desk. I waited patiently, not wanting to get in her way when she was in an organizing mood. I’ve done that before; it did not go well.
“Now, what can I do for you?” she asked, looking up and sipping from her coffee.
“Just wondering about the sensors that are down.”
“Huh! I can’t get the damn chiefs to do anything overnight. My day crews have been doing their best, but of all my chiefs I think I really can only trust two of them, Logan and Wilson, and they can’t make up for the rest of them by themselves. Logan is a great guy, and Anna is the damndest thing I ever saw–that girl is snap bang! She’s been at it three months and may very well be the best chief I’ve ever had–but they can’t do the work of six crews.”
“What’s the problem with the rest?” I asked, trying hard to stay focused on the task and not let the memory of the last night’s dream intrude.
“They suck!” she said quickly. “No, that’s too kind. They are beyond sucking. Grace and Abner, especially. Those two keep marking things done that have not even been looked at, let alone done.”
We were on a giant ship in space, and our only chance at rescue came from our transport ship, the Atlantic Gale. Kind of made me think about how dangerous Abner and Grace really were.
“You look so much like Eun-ji.” Bao told me, apropos of nothing.
“Not even remotely, but thank you.” I told her.
“You have her smile, her nose, her eyes.”
My mom was an average height woman with a Korean family. She was maybe five three, but muscular, and had black hair that was always in a short bob. I’m just over five foot tall, half Scottish, have brown hair down past my shoulders, and am thin and non-athletic. To be honest, I’ve always thought Bao looked more like my mother than I did. Maybe they are distant cousins or something. Point is, I look nothing like my mother did.
“So you didn’t just come down here to listen to me bitch about my crew. What else is up?”
“Just worried, that’s all.”
“Okay, kiddo. If you say so.”
“I better get back to the bridge.”
“Oh, congratulations on your promotion, by the way.”
I must have looked confused, because I was. That was the first I had heard of a promotion. I wasn’t going to call her crazy, she outranked me (not that that usually stopped me, I guess), but I’m pretty sure she was making things up or imagining them.
“Oh hell, you didn’t know?” she said. “Damn. Forget I said anything.”
“Like that’s going to work.” I said. I took a seat and waited.
“Milton is going to ream me for this.” she told me, shaking her head and chuckling. “Habib is retiring.” she said.
“Well I’m certainly not going to be given command of Science.” I told her, forcing a laugh.
“No, no, not at all.” She laughed at that idea. “No. Commander Tyler is moving over to take it, and Rowe is being promoted and given first officer.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I asked. “Howard is senior to me, he’ll be elevated to second.”
“Howard is a nose fungus, and you know it.” she told me. I caught myself mid nod and she smiled. “Captain Nelson is putting you up for promotion and wants to move you to second.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
I was on cloud nine heading back to the bridge. Halfway there I decided I better stop in Administrative to talk to Sally.
“Have you seen Commander Wilson?” I asked the older gentleman, a crewman named George, who is pushing a broom across the office.
“Good mornin, ma’am!” he said, a smile broadening to fill his face. “How are ye this fine mornin? She’s with someone in er office, I thin, Lieutenant.” he said.
George used to run a small bistro on deck six. He quit and joined the crew when all his kids grew up and left home. I think he probably did it to stabilize his income. Being a lowly crewman didn’t pay much, but it was consistent, at least.
I’d always admired the man, and I knew I could learn a lot from him. Seeing him sweeping and wiping down the office, humming a jaunty tune as he did, reminded me of why. He did such a menial job, but he found a way to make things nicer for the rest of us. He didn’t seem to see being a janitor as lowly work. He told me one time that every job is important, if you were contributing. I have always thought that was a great attitude.
When Sally finished with the guy she was talking to, she invited me in with a warning that she only had a moment, and she asked if Milton sent me. I told her no, I was there on my own, just needing to talk to her to give her a heads up on something.
“You may want to start searching for chiefs for Engineering.” I told her.
“Did Bao say that?”
“No, but she’s having trouble with the ones she has, and I really think it won’t be long before she decides she can’t work with them anymore. I just figured if you could find some people we could–”
“This isn’t your business, Callie.” she told me.
That set me back. Safety of the ship was a concern to everyone. Not to mention the fact that I was a trusted officer who knew more than the average officer when it came to the happenings onboard.
“I just figured it would save some time–”
“Stay out of it.” she told me. “Commander Xiang is more than capable of handling her own personnel decisions. Until then, back off.”
“Lieutenant!” she said, getting angry. “Don’t poke your nose into someone else’s business.”
“I wasn’t trying–”
“You should go, I have to get ready for the next appointment.”
“I’m sorry, I was just… I’ll go.”
I couldn’t believe she was acting that way toward me! I mean… well, maybe she was right, but I was not completely wrong either! I just thought I had a good enough relationship with the senior staff that I could talk to them–especially Sally, whose quarters I spent so much time at back when I was in school and Anna and I were assigned as study partners.
“Callie,” she said, softening her tone as she opened the door for me. “You can always come talk to me. Just let the other departments handle their affairs, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I told her.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that Bao had already talked to Sally about this. It seems obvious to me now, though. I needed to trust them to do their part, just like I trusted crewman George to do his.
I made my way back to the bridge only to find a very loud argument going on. I could hear it fifty meters down the passage, even with the bridge door closed. And upon entry I found three ensigns all standing, facing each other, and not one of them at their consoles. Milton was not on the bridge, either.
“What's going on?” I asked the group.
“No!” Lewis said. “You're wrong, Stanley!”
“Wrong about what?” I persisted.
“I'm not wrong, I'm apparently the only one in here who gives a damn about the ship, though.” Cho responded.
“Hello,” I said, trying hard to get their attention.
“You don't have a clue what you're talking about, Cho.” Ensign Sokolov added to the discussion.
“Where is Milton?” I asked the trio.
“Just log it, Sokolov!” Cho ordered him.
“There's nothing to log!” Lewis shouted back.
“Hey!” I shouted. They didn't even look my way. “Ensign Lewis,” I said, trying to get his attention.
“I'm telling you–“ Cho began.
“Silence please.” came Milton's voice from behind me.
Of course all three ensigns immediately stopped their discussion and turned toward him. He didn't even have to shout. His voice was barely above his usual speaking voice.
I only wished I could do that.
“Someone, perhaps you Mister Cho, please explain to me what this discussion is about.” Milton said calmly.
“Sir, I've seen a lot of suspicious scans from the long range scanner reports recently.” he said.
“And what do you make of these suspicious scans, Mister Cho?” Milton asked.
“Too much, Captain.” Ensign Sokolov said.
I waited to see how Milton would react to Sokolov speaking when Milton was not talking to him. Milton remained relaxed. I would have been angry. I was angry. But instead of getting angry, Milton just calmly stared down Sokolov until he lowered his head and mumbled an apology.
“I think there are faults in our long range sensors. We need those sensors in case we come across something. If we can detect at this range it makes it much easier to change our course in time to miss it.” Cho explained.
“What was this disagreement about, may I ask?” Milton said, turning his gaze to Mister Lewis.
“He wanted us to log it as an error for Engineering. He said it was highest priority, and we needed to flag it for immediate action.”
“Thank you, Ensign Lewis. Now, Ensign Cho, do you believe this warrants emergency action?”
“Sir, if there is something there we need to know.” Cho answered.
“Of course, Ensign. How far out do you scan before you start getting anomalous readings?”
“At our current speed? Approximately nineteen days, Sir.”
“Which is why I keep telling him to just wait until we get more scans!” Sokolov interjected. “Sometimes we just have interference.”
“I see, Mister Sokolov. Thank you. Would you please return to your station now?”
“Yes sir. Sorry sir.”
“Please flag it for Engineering to check out. If they haven't gotten to it with then next five days I will speak to Commander Xiang about it directly.”
“Yes sir.” Cho said. “Thank you, sir.”
Milton took his seat as the others returned their attention to their duties and calm returned to the bridge. I slipped into my chair and turned in Milton's direction.
“Lieutenant?” he said, then sat silently waiting as I decided where to start.
I couldn’t ask about the promotion there in front of everyone, I couldn’t tell him Bao's Chiefs are neglecting their duties because it was a private personnel issue, and I couldn’t ask why he could calmly tell everyone to shut up and they do it while I couldn’t even order them to answer me and get a response.
“Bao is on top of things, Captain.” I said. “She assures me that things will be taken care of shortly.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
I turned back to my screen and brought up the scans that Ensign Cho was so concerned about. A lot of our scans were of interstellar bodies we encountered, looking for any sort of resources we could mine from them. When we came across something, whether it be an iron-rich asteroid or a hydrogen rich comet, we could alter our course to intercept, then send out our small mining shuttles to get what we could in a reasonable time. It was this constant mining, along with diligent recycling and entire decks filled with farms, that allowed the Freedom and our companion transport ship the UNSC Atlantic Gale–really just a flying hotel–to survive for over three hundred years with no resupply from Earth.
The majority of our scans, though, were just watching space in front of us for any impediments to our flight. Larger objects that may endanger the Freedom or the Gale required a course alteration. Even smaller objects could cause us to alter our course if there were enough of them. A heavy cloud of dust or micrometeoroids, for example. In those cases, in the very least, we would shutter all the ports and cancel any outdoor missions.
That is what should have happened the day my parents died.
Anyway, a small part of what we searched for with our scans were inhabitable worlds. That was the whole point of our mission, after all. Earth was falling apart, being destroyed by massive storms and choked by pollution, when the mission began. Apparently people were smart enough to see that was happening in time to organize together and send us out with plenty of time to allow us, or more accurately our ancestors, to search for a new place.
The United Nations Space Commission sent out eight ships. The science vessel UNSC Freedom–that would be us–and her transport ship, the UNSC Atlantic Gale; the UNSC Dragon and their transport the Tsunami; the UNSC Vitol and their transport the Bear; and the UNSC Peregrino and their transport the Salvador. Each science vessel was supposed to have a crew of around a hundred, and could carry up to twelve hundred additional passengers. We have about nine hundred passengers. The transports can exceed ten thousand aboard, and the Gale has nearly that. The whole point is to jump start a new settlement and have things up and running before the first wave of immigrants from Earth arrive.
But we lost contact with Earth because of signal degradation and interference over a hundred years ago. If we ever found a habitable world we were going to send a relay back toward Earth just to get a signal to them and let them know. I hoped that the other ships were having more luck than us.
The scans that Cho was talking about weren’t exactly empty. That would have been quite normal. But there were large empty spots in the midst of a very dispersed cloud of dust in those. It was hard to tell from that distance, but the dust was spread out enough that it shouldn't pose a risk to the ship. It looked like we may not even have to shutter the ports, if it was as minor as it appeared. But those empty spots were odd, and they worried me.
“Ensign Cho, can I see you when you have a moment please? Whenever you have time, no hurry.” I said.
He didn't answer. I could drop it, but Milton was staring at me. He gave a sideward nod toward Cho and continued watching me.
“Mister Cho,” I tried again, a little louder this time.
“Yes, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“Did you hear what I just said?” I asked, trying to sound angry and failing.
“I'm sorry, we're you talking to me?”
I swiveled my head and gave Milton an exasperated look. He shook his head a little. At me. I turned my attention back to Ensign Cho.
“Yes, I was.” I said, doing my best to show my annoyance in my voice.
“I'm sorry, Lieutenant, I didn't realize. Would you mind repeating what you said, Ma'am?” he replied, showing no recognition that I am annoyed.
“I...” It is stupid. And unfair. “I said,” I sighed and rubbed at my left temple. “Yes, I just said I need to speak with you when you have a moment.”
“I was just running through my dailies, ma'am. Would twenty minutes be okay?”
“Yes, Mister Cho. Thank you.”
Ensign Cho swiveled back to his station and I leaned back in the seat and started rubbing my right temple to match my left one. I needed to figure out a way to get the rest of the crew to stop ignoring me. I was going to be second officer! You couldn't just ignore your second officer. It wasn’t right.