Excelsior, Part 2

I spent the rest of the lift on the screen, cleaning up loose ends. I affirmed that my Engineer, Katya Antonov, was okay with being Assistant Engineer, my Surgeon was prepared for a female giant, the elves knew not to hide cameras in her stateroom, and that Eggy was the hell off my ship. I also arranged for a woman from Weapons to train the Duchess on the use of the zero-gravity brassiere and the plumbing connections on the spacesuit.

That inspired another phone call to what turned out to be a rather frantic foreman of the crafting shop. He’d had about as much heads up as I had and was scouring the orbits for suitably-scaled spacesuit parts. I gave him permission to cannibalize my former engineer’s suit and gained a lifelong friend. I called back to tell Antonov that a work crew would be collecting the suit.

As the lift arrived at Top Station, the press were at the door in full force. Albalureindis was pretty, poised and wonderfully non-committal. She handled the questions well, or referred the questioner to Space Corps HQ, the royal embassy or her tailor’s URL as needed. The hounds lapped up her every word, and her smile dazzled the cameras. She hadn’t even seen Excelsior yet, and the program was making a media profit off of her. The black cloud of impending doom started to fade to an angry gray in my mind.

Admirals of all three scales of the Alliance made a production of welcoming her to the station, to the Corps and to my ship. I’d gotten my 10 minutes of fame with Whazzat? so I just stayed near, unnoticed. They had photo ops of her against view ports, meeting the other giants on the station, drinking a few barrels of water and holding an entire field trip of Taiwanese Space Scouts in her hands.

Finally we were alone again, in the cargo bay of a station shuttle. She lay flat on the deck in the cramped space, with her bag on top of her legs. I sat in a jump seat near her head.

“I figured it out.” She announced as we drifted towards our ship. “I wondered if the drink-water thing was a trick to play on the new girl? Having me nearly burst looking for a restroom in this shuttle? But it didn’t seem that the skipper would get involved in such a jape. So then I thought about where water comes from on the ship.

“I know that it’s recycled. And the Doc and Engineering go to great lengths to keep the freshwater tanks full before we leave. So any chance to get new water is a good thing.” She turned to see me nodding approval to her. “So…a full bladder of water is my contribution, a way of bringing water aboard without having to arrange a tanker call.”

“Yes. It’s usually a rather meaningless superstition, but it’s considered polite. Like saying ‘gesundheit’ even though no one really thinks that your soul is vulnerable to demons when you sneeze.

“The amount of free…um, water that a crewman can bring aboard is negligible. Probably doesn’t even make up for the unavoidable losses in system inefficiency. But it is expected. And in your case…” She blushed again, but only lightly. Then she squirmed around to reach into her bag.

“That,” she noted, “would explain my commissioning gift. When Admiral Dynackatchik swore me in and made me a commander, he said this would bring me luck on patrol.” She pulled out a bottle of water. The tank-sized container was crystal clear, with an understated label on the side. “He gave me six, is that okay?”

“Is that...?” She smiled. The bottle was from a spring under the Castle in Lorbrulgrud. The king’s private spring, used for his personal family and very, very close friends. His royal stock of whiskey used this water. Those that were in a position to know claimed it was the best tasting water on the planet, bar none.

The one bottle she was showing me was worth about as much as the shuttle we were in. And that was assuming you could buy one without incurring a charge of treason and trespassing against the giant king.

“I’d…um, yeah, that’s okay. I wouldn’t show anyone else, if I were you. Wouldn’t promote good order and discipline, if the crew was green with envy.”

“Oh. No, sir, I was intending to share these. Two for me, three for the English and one for the Lilliputians?”

“That’s…that’s incredibly generous, Albalureindis. But really, you have to stop calling us ‘the English.’ I know it’s been the custom since Gulliver was among you, but we’re not all from England. And even though Lilliput conquered Blefuscu and Ooopatel ages ago, it’s kind of insulting to call every little person a Lilliputian.”

“So, what do I call you all?”

“Crew, usually. Shipmates, department personnel, whatever. If you have to make distinctions by size, it’s giants, humans, and elves. But the water sharing is a great idea. I’d wait until our one-month-out party. It’ll be a big hit.” She smiled agreement. Just then a ship came into view out of the port on my side of the shuttle.

“Is that the Excelsior?”

“No, that’s one of the colonization ships: The Sundering of the Silent Spaces by Science and Spirit. It’ll deliver a crew of 20 giants to a planet to start building a base. Its sister ship, the Big Can, will follow on with 2000 human and elf colonists to support the base and build the first city.” Albalureindis grimaced.

“You know, it took Hilly about four days to come up with that name. I hear it took your president about 5 minutes for hers.”

“She always was rather…abrupt, for a politician.” I agreed. I pointed out the view port on her side of the craft. “Now that…that’s Excelsior.”

Sunlight shadowed the hull, dramatically displaying the curve of Excelsior’s form. She was a large egg. The ‘bigend’ was engineering, with the in-system drive wrapped around the hyper drive components. Above them were Albalureindis’ spaces, a small apartment all to herself. Four decks above that were given to human crew spaces, and the top littleend section was the sensor suite. Elf spaces were crammed in wherever they fit.

The shuttle finished turning and braked for docking. I was up and walking towards the door when it fell away from the commander’s feet. She scooted out awkwardly, then stood in her level. It reminded me of the old blimp hangar at the Academy. Consoles soared over my head, the deck stretched out and away, and the sliding partitions seemed like an impossibly steep cliff. She looked left, right, and blew a puff of air through her lips.

“A bit cramped, isn’t it?” I think every giant that steps into a room built, or largely built by humans absolutely has to say that. I suspect that it’s a running gag in the giant part of the Space Corps.

“Cozy. Cozy is the official word the designers used. Know it, live it, love it.” The cargo door closed behind us. I saw by the screen that someone was coordinating the shuttle release from the Bridge. Freed of that chore, I turned back to the Engineer and waved. “Pick me up, I’ll give you the tour.”

She scooped me up and held me about shoulder height. I directed her through her living quarters. Her work space took up half of her single level, a head that configured as either a toilet or a shower stood in one corner, and there was a bedroom where she had a choice of a desk or a bed at any given time. Yeah, maybe cramped was a better word.

In the center of the level was a steel tube about half again as wide as she was at her shoulders.

“That’s the access tube for all levels. The door there opens manually or hydraulically, and allows the movement of big pieces of equipment from your cargo door to any level necessary.”

“Why not just a big empty shaft?” she asked. “Wouldn’t that be more convenient?”

“We don’t need constant access through the ship. The design uses the metal of the tube for structural support. There are doors and baffles to improve atmospheric isolations in case of emergency.”

“Oh. Could I fit through it?” It was an innocent enough question, but I had a tiny little anxiety attack right then and there in her hands. Eggy could have climbed up any time, and reached any of us. I shivered, then tried to shake it off.

“Um, yeah. Yeah, I think you could. All the way up to the sensor suite. It’d speed up repairs and rework, if you could move what it’d take a 20 man working party to haul along that thing. Um, back to work.” I pointed to the covered catwalk that ringed the room and she lowered me to a ledge that always reminded me of the scenic overlooks at Niagara Falls.

At a console there I took control of her primary display. She sat at her own board and observed. I showed her how NAVSHIP implemented her engine interface designs into the control console, the various databases attached, and the mimicking of the controls in Maneuvering. Then we covered how she could tour the rest of the ship by accessing the screens and cameras throughout the spaces.

As I conducted the virtual tour, crew started congregating at the lookout. She seemed surprised as I finished, when she turned to me and found thirty people looking back at her.

“Oh. That’s why all the spaces are empty. Everyone’s here.”

“As a matter of fact, everyone is.” I waved her closer. On the back wall of the catwalk a small subway car waited with the elf complement. She squinted until she realized what I was pointing at, then turned back to the console. Quick as a wink, she found and called up the cameras that showed the car and the overlook. Everyone turned to the cameras and waved, cheering her rapid adaptation to the situation.

I introduced, through the cameras, our crew: my elf Executive Officer Ruspahar; the elf techies of Computers, and Communications; Doc and his four nurses –male and female, elf and human; the ten Weaponeers; the Supply officer and his loyal minion; and saved Engineering for last.

I dismissed the others to their various tasks and took a bit more time introducing her to her department. The fifteen of them all seemed eager to welcome Albalureindis, if intensely curious about why Eggafederesh had been so summarily replaced. I followed her station performance and referred all such questions to the Royal Embassy in San Francisco. They took the hint and shut up.

I took Antonov aside and told her to make sure her new boss was up to speed on space operations. I told her about the difficulties with the bra (skipping over the topless scene). I said it was up to her whether or not a woman from weapons would be a better choice in demonstrating the necessaries. Whether being in or out of the chain of command would be more appropriate for such subjects. She muttered ‘men’ under her breath and turned away. So, I guess I’d worried for nothing. After six patrols with Katya, I should just figure she can handle anything I give her and get out of her way.

I turned to the subway station, where my XO remained. I picked him up and put him in my pocket. “Let’s discuss the new watchbill,” I said, walking towards the up shaft. “And a shorter nickname for Albalureindis.”


“A lot of people are counting on this, Lewis.” I smiled stiffly towards the honored guests crowding my bridge and replied to the Commodore.

“Yes, ma’am. I understand that, ma’am. Four, ma’am.”

“Four what?”

“Hmm? Oh. Sorry, never mind that. Rest assured that my crew is doing their absolute best for the ship, the mission, the entire Three-Scale space program, Commodore. One hundred and ten percent, and all that.” She gave me a lowered eyebrow as she walked away, but she did walk away. She gathered her gaggle of reporters and moved on to the crew quarters.

So far, the darlings of the media attention were Reins, down in Engineering, and the elves in the RealBridge. The RealBridge was the domed small-scale room in the center of the Conn. Every work station on the ship could be operated from there. Today the elves were conducting the major parts of the countdown while the humans conducted tours and kept reporters out of sensitive areas. Everyone watched them running the final tests, coordinating and sending off status reports.

The big thing for my security officer posted at the RB was to prohibit flash photography. I’d expected Weps to pick her biggest, meanest SO to intimidate. Instead, she’s stationed SO Foster there. The small but dangerously clever man was perfect for the task. He kept a man-overboard searchlight aimed at the reporters at all times, with his thumb on the switch. Designed to sweep the deep darkness to find disconnected space workers, it had enough candle watts to turn an orca into an X-ray fish.

The threat of poetic justice kept the media compliant, and no flashes disrupted my crew.

My satisfaction at that was marred by my VIP visitors. They constantly suggested that I might not be aware of the honor of my billet. I was just getting into a good teeth grinding about the next wave of tours when I felt a weight on my left shoulder.

“How’s it going, handsome?” I recognized the voice, and manner, of Lissisi. My Software Officer wasn’t really in Space Corps. She was a civilian working for the MicroMicrosoft company that made our operational networks, posted as part of the contract to keep everything running. As such, she was less formal in her dealings with me. I turned slightly to the little woman and spoke out of the side of my mouth.

“I suppose it’s appropriate that you’re on my left shoulder. That’s where the devil part of a conscience is supposed to stand, on the ‘sinister’ side.” She whipped the side of my head with the line she’d used to lower herself down from the cable runs in the overhead.

“Are you calling me evil?!”

“Aren’t you here to stir up trouble?”

“Not so much,” she replied, “more to take a measure of. What’s the count? And what are we counting?”

“Today, I decided that if twenty more people reminded me of ‘what’s riding on this,’ I am going to start screaming until security is forced to wrestle me to the deck. The count is down to four.” I eyed a lieutenant commander coming over towards me and whispered a quick, “Maybe three.”

I never knew if the LtCdr. was intending to advance my countdown. About half way through making sure I knew who he was and what office he represented, he noticed my little shoulder angel. I refused to look at her, but it felt like she was doing fan kicks. His voice petered out and his jaw dropped a bit. I tolerated being ignored for a moment while, then tapped his shoulder. I pointed behind him where his tour group was leaving. He ran off without even a thank you. The performer on my shoulder ran down and started laughing.

“You’re an evil, evil woman, you know that don’t you?”

“Why do you think I’m on your sinister side?” I picked Lissisi up and set her next to the RealBridge entry, gesturing her back to work. I gave Foster a thumbs up and started working my way through the spaces.

Down in Reins’ room, tiers of temporary seats were installed for our passengers on her worktable. The first plan was to bolt them to the floor, but the Engineer complained that viewing from that from down there, they couldn’t see her screens, they wouldn’t feel involved, and there was a safety hazard if she had to take emergency measures with the engines.

Besides, she finished, views from that angle made her ass look big. I’m still not sure if she was joking.

Anyway, the view stands were aimed over her shoulder at her engine displays and the repeaters from the bridge screens. Crew reports, system screens, ship status and observer commentary (read: translations for the civilians) were available to each reporter depending on their readership interest.

I gave a very short pre-launch speech, reflected on specific efforts by elf, human and giant crew to get us to this point, then left Admiral Mendez to run the pony show. The path back to the Conn took me across Reins’ console.

The day before, I’d told her that she’d come a long way since she boarded. I was perfectly confident in her ability to conduct the launch as Engineer. But if she wasn’t, I was willing to be there for her.

“More handholding, sir?”

“Well, look how well it worked last time. You made it to orbit without any anxiety attacks.”

“Does Corps HQ want you by me, to keep me from blundering?”

“Corps,” I admitted, “wants me to leave you alone, as if you were a trusted professional, there to do a job for reasons of merit, not politics. I’m not asking what that Admiralty wants, I’m asking what you want.

“Antonov will be at the other end of your headset to support you. Hell, the whole department exists to support you, and you already know the script for tomorrow. You can do it. But it’s a new ship, a new engine, and your first time out of the Solar System. It’d be perfectly natural to want a little moral support.” She’d thought it over, but declined my offer.

So today, I gave her a nod as I passed, she winked with the eye the reporters couldn’t see.

On the Conn, I gave the command and we left orbit. The ship responded nicely, even better than the simulations and test runs had indicated. It felt like Excelsior was as ready to get out into deep space as her crew. We ramped up slowly to Departure Speed, making it about halfway to Mars before we reached Threshhold. We took a bit longer than usual to make final checks, then I gave everything over to Albalureindis. She activated hyper drive and took us out.

In the blink of an eye, we were in the back of beyond. For ease of location, the rendezvous with The Jonathan Swift was alongside the mass of Haley’s Comet. I’m sure the mission planners had imagined the dramatic impact of pictures with the comet in the background. Unfortunately, comets out in the Oort cloud are just dirty ice until they get close enough to the sun to flare.

We transferred all visitors to the Swift for return to Earth, and carried on. Once we were back in hyperspace, the crew started totaling all the ‘firsts’ we’d achieved that day.

“First giant beyond Lunar Orbit.”

“First use of the Delta drive.”

“First three-scale crew to enter hyper space.”

“First press conference Captain Lewis didn’t punch anyone.” Silence followed that one as everyone tried to figure out the speaker. I just reminded everyone that the day was still young and turned the ship over to the daywatch.

That evening, Reins screened me in my stateroom to talk. Before she mentioned the topic, though, she noted something on the bulkhead behind my head.

“What’s that on your wall?” I turned and let her direct my attention to a spot of discoloration and chipped paint about the size of my hand. I acted surprised by the discovery.

“Well, beyond this bulkhead are the living quarters of the elves. This spot is…” I paused as if calculating. “I think this exact spot is the part of the bulkhead I share with the XO’s stateroom.”

“Oh. Why does it look that way?”

“Ask me about Whazzat.” She blinked for a second, shrugged, and complied.

“Why did you name the planet you discovered ‘Whazzat?’”

“Excellent question.” I opened a desk drawer and took out a steel mallet, laid it on the desk. “As you know, Whazzat is covered by a large pink life form. Whether it’s one organism or a colony hasn’t been decided. But the consistency in most places is that of cotton candy. There’s an outer shell that appears in places above 3500 feet altitude, that looks like nothing so much as pink dirt.” I leaned back in my chair, eyes on the horizon of a few years before.

“When the Foresight explorer craft landed, we were on a mesa covered by that shell, about three inches thick. It compressed slightly but didn’t crack under the landing struts.” I glanced back at the screen to find my audience leaning into the screen, eager for the story.

“As is customary on new worlds, it was for me, the CO, to step onto it first, giving it the official name. I climbed down, stepped off, and found there was a ravine under the mesa. The three-inch shell cracked where I stepped down and I fell through.

“Took me exactly 33 seconds to fall through the strands and fibers of pink crap all the way down to the bottom. It was dreamlike, a slow motion avalanche.” The Duchess tried not to crack a smile but it was an effort doomed to failure. “I was swearing like a sailor the entire time.”

“Let me guess. Someone recorded it? Came back to haunt you?”

“I was already on mike for my landing announcement. It came out ‘and in the tradition of the Space Corps I name this planet AAAAAAAAAAAAH! what the frelling crap is…’ Thirty three seconds. Never repeated myself.” I picked up the mallet. “And when I stopped, my never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Communicator at the time, Lieutenant Ruspahar,” I turned and whaled on the XO’s wall, “marked the entire tirade as my official name for the planet and sent it off as a Pulse.

“Every command with Pulse capability read it. Spent the next month discussing it. And me.” She covered her mouth but the giggles came through loud and clear.

“So, the official registry of the seventh planet discovered to have indigent life is actually 33 seconds of profanity?”

“Profanity, scatology, obscenity, vulgarity and some interesting gerunds.” I shook my head. “No. Our ‘abrupt’ president was the Secretary of the Space Corps at the time. She was the one with the actual authority to name planets, it was just a tradition to rubberstamp the CO’s transmission. She ordered the registrar to delete all the profanity, and name the planet what was left.” That was when my XO keyed into the conversation. As always, he merely laughed loudly, then keyed out. I clobbered the wall again.

“If you ask him, I’m sure he has a copy of the original recording aboard. Along with photos of me slugging the first three reporters that asked me to comment on some rumors they heard about Whazzat.”

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