The Joy Eaters, Part 1 of 5

“Why does it smell like fried chicken?”

Andrea looked toward her tablet, suddenly busy. “Sorry. Captain Stevens was rather attached to sitting in the chair when eating. And he liked eating. We haven’t been able to get rid of the smell yet.”

Mark groaned. “Great. And I suppose that’s normal, too?” He gestured to the masses of wire hanging from his bridge’s ceiling.

“Our electrician is a bit eccentric, sir. It looks a mess, but he gets the job done.” She paused a moment before adding, “Normally.”

Mark nodded. “Right. That’s Mr…. Everty, right?”

Andrea nodded. “Clint, yeah. Listen, you’re the captain, but we’re used to being a bit more informal here. We’re a smaller crew than you’re used to. We usually stick with first names. Sir.”

Mark tightened his lips as he considered that, but tossed the thought aside for now. There were other things to address first. He sighed and stepped to the chair. Various shades of grease stained its blue upholstery. One arm displayed a rather large dent. It matched the rest of the bridge: falling apart, dirty, and as far from professional as possible. Mark didn’t mind leaving the necessary sterility of Farholme, but he hadn’t imagined he was being transferred to something that looked like a food reclamation unit.

He pointed. “Get me a new chair. Either use our funds to get something new or find something from the rest of the ship that doesn’t smell like Original Recipe.”

Andrea made a notation on her tablet. “Right away, sir.”

“How long until we jump?”

Andrea answered without looking up, “Eleven hours.”

“How’s personnel and equipment transfer going?”

“Everything is proceeding according to schedule.”

“I’m going to take in the rest of the ship myself.” Mark stepped up toward the exit but stopped as he reached the sliding doors. “Please tell me that my quarters don’t smell like chicken.”

Andrea stopped tapping on her pad, but didn’t move her eyes from its surface. “No, sir. They smell like cumin.”

“Cumin?”

“Captain Stevens was a unique man.”

–          – – – –

Engineering. Hydroponics. Ship’s stores. Medtech. Lounge. Mess.  Not his new quarters. He shuddered slightly at the thought. The rest he toured section by section, learning it as best he could in so short a time. The crew appeared dependable, despite the apparent incompetence of their last captain. Andrea, the first mate, probably had a lot to do with that.

Back to the bridge, twenty minutes before jump. Mark could feel the vibration of the engines as they prepped to part space. He didn’t like that he could already recognize that shaking. It meant the engines were a touch out of alignment. Something to discuss with the head engineer. What was her name again? Daliah. That was it.

As he approached the doors to the bridge, he slowed his step. The gray doors before him hid the place where he’d spend the bulk of his time from now on. Despite the smell of fried chicken, despite the ramshackle appearance, this was his home. Best get used to it.

Mark took a deep breath and strode forward. The doors parted automatically for him, revealing his seat in the center of a half-ring of four others that made up the command center of Magnus. The rest of his staff stood as he stepped to his chair.

He looked down at it. The greasy blue seat was gone, replaced by a dark leather recliner. He looked up to the station behind and to his left. Andrea’s station. “This is the best you could do? I wanted a command chair, not something to nap in.”

She shrugged while continuing to enter information into her station. “Sorry, sir. We couldn’t find anything better on such short notice.”

“It’s at least secured?”

His first officer met his eyes. “You won’t go flying the first time we hit a bump, sir.”

Mark blinked down at his seat and then glanced up again at Andrea. “Everything’s transferred?”

“All personnel and equipment are registered and here.”

Mark turned to the next station. “Daliah. Engines’re ready?”

“As ready as they ever are,” the short woman replied.

“Will they make the jump?”

Daliah’s eyes widened as if he’d called her child an ugly puppy. “They’ll make the jump. They always do. Magnus will get us where we need to go. Don’t doubt it.”

Mark’s gaze lingered on her a moment, trying to figure the woman out. He turned to the next station. “You ready for the whatever-it-is we’re going to find once we get to Colony Greta?”

Patch nodded. “Sure thing. Sensors have been recalibrated and everything’s working.” A light began flashing on his station. He hit it with his fist, and it stopped blinking. He smiled at Mark.

Mark reluctantly turned to his communications officer. “Any last messages?”

“We’ve sent the last package away and received confirmation of receipt. Everyone’s last notes are going home,” Callista answered, her eyes closed as she concentrated on the signals her implants received from the ship’s communications devices. “We’re clear for departure.”

“All right.” Mark turned and sank into the leather chair. “Daliah, let’s make the jump.”

“Aye, sir.”

The stars on the viewscreen blurred as the engines roared and the deckplates shook. One by one the stars faded into darkness. Mark felt himself slide and his muscles clenched into a strange full-body déjà vu.

The stars blurred back into a new arrangement and Mark’s stomach found its home exactly where it had been before. The engines calmed to a pleasant background rumble. Mark nodded. “Well done, Daliah. Looks like our first jump together went well.”

The wires suspended above Mark sent a shower of sparks onto his head. The thin carpet at his feet caught on fire. The bridge’s automatic fire suppression system kicked in, spraying foam from the ceiling to cover him.

Mark heard Daliah speak into her comm., “Clint, your wiring sucks. Still. Get up to the bridge and fix it.”

–          – – – –

Mark was glad his quarters were near the bridge. Less crew to see him covered in foam.

Eccentric?

He was going to have to meet with this Clint, and sooner than he’d expected. A ship this small, though, he’d probably actually get to meet the entire crew in fairly short order.

One more turn, and his quarters’ gray doors slid into view. A quick shower and then the staff meeting while the engines recalibrated for the next jump. Just a quick shower. Then a meeting. Then bed. They couldn’t screw up regulation beds that bad, right?

He shook his head as he keyed his code into the panel next to the door. A red light flashed at him. He punched the code again, and again the red light denied him entry. He punched the panel. The door slid open.

This ship was going to take some getting used to.

Mark stepped into his quarters to discover an empty space. A standard desk sat in the corner, a fair bed in another corner, and a small door to the private bath. He did not see any of his crates. Not a single one of the navy-blue containers in which he had packed his library of oldbooks. Not one bag of standard uniforms. And his small aquarium of exotic fish… missing.

Mark told himself his belongings were in cargo. They had to be in cargo. Yes, they were in cargo. That had to be it. At least his personal files should have made the transfer. He tapped a black panel on the wall and entered his code. The screen lit up, and Mark pulled up the music files.

They were empty.

–          – – – –

“I’ve had a hell of a day. Tell me it’s not normally like this.” Mark sat at the head of the table in the officer’s mess. The department heads sat down the sides of the table, their tablets before them.

Andrea glanced around at the others before answering, “Normal’s such a hard word to define.”

Mark blinked at her before continuing, “I want to publicly thank Patch for lending me an extra uniform. Until my belongings find their way out of storage, I guess I’m going to have to look like a tactical specialist.”

Patch smiled. “No problem. There’s all sorts of tactical situations that need my specialty.”

Mark cocked his head at that comment before addressing the group, “Many of you haven’t met me. The only one of you that’s actually spent any time with me is,” he paused as he forced himself to use her first name, “Andrea, as we organized my transfer. You all know I was Farholme’s captain. I’m used to discovering planets, cataloguing them, and starting the terraforming process. I was busted for being inefficient and sent here. You’re my punishment. Apparently the company thinks worlds of everyone on this ship.”

He sighed as looked at the hodge-podge before him. “Look, I’m going to admit it: I’d rather be back on Farholme. That was my home and my dream assignment. I don’t care about revisiting settled worlds and picking up their reports and whatever. But for now, at least, you’re my crew, and I’m your captain. I’m going to learn to live here, and I’m going to be the best captain I can be for you. Just because I’m not at my dream anymore doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore you or treat you like crap. You’re my crew. I’m going to treat you like it. I’d like you to act like my crew, too.

“I understand Captain Stevens had a lax command style. I won’t hide that I’m accustomed to precision, but our mission is much different from what I had been doing. We’ll get used to each other over time. Until then, be patient with me, and I’ll attempt to be patient with you. Deal?”

Mark saw a few heads nodding. Patch did not attempt to hide his smile. “Captain, you get a little too tight, we’ll shake you up. Don’t worry.”

Mark answered, “Just be sure you can handle it when I shake back, Patch. If I’ve had a bad day, you don’t want to annoy me. Clear?”

Patch chuckled and nodded.

Mark continued, “Our first stop on our tour of planets is Colony Greta, formerly designated YN5429. Place has been settled ten years. We’ll be the second ship to visit them since they set down a decade ago. Andrea?”

She stood and addressed the crew, “Should be pretty standard. They’re scheduled to get a visit from home. We’ve got some supplies and mail to deliver, they should have full reports and samples of anything interesting they’ve found since the last stop. We’re scheduled to be there a month while our engines recharge. It’ll only take twenty-nine standard jumps to get us out there, since we met Farholme halfway out while it was on the way homeward.” Andrea glanced at the captain and resumed her chair.

Daliah raised her hand, her face red.

“Yes?” Mark asked.

“Sorry about Clint. He’s eccentric. I’ll do what I can to make sure you don’t end up fried because of him.”

–          – – – –

Daliah smiled as the stars snapped back into focus. “Ha! See? That’s why you should trust Magnus. She always gets us exactly where we need to go!”

Andrea muttered, “And never any farther.”

Mark jumped up from his leather recliner and stepped forward. The wires in the ceiling sparked and started a fire on the carpet. The fire suppression system sprayed the area with foam. The captain narrowly avoided the entire mess.

Patch cheered. “You finally got it timed out! Only took twenty-nine jumps to get it right.”

Mark ignored the comment and began issuing commands. “Callista, call down to the surface and let them know we’re here, and right on time. Patch, see if you can upload any data from their satellites. Daliah, start running the check on the engines. Find out if we can keep schedule and be out of here in a month.”

The bridge whipped into a fury of action. Mark strode toward the viewscreen, examining the planet. He’d been here when they’d discovered it twenty-two years ago. It was his first tour on Farholme, back when he’d just gotten out of training. Back then it was covered in trees with purple leaves and strange rabbit-frog things. Now it looked like a standard company colony effort: half the world “untouched,” the other flattened and made as close to cookie-cutter as possible for human habitation.

Patch reported, “Captain, I’m not getting any satellite traffic. No read on any man-made orbital object.”

Callista added, “No one’s responding down there. I’ve tried all standard channels. I’m also not getting any kind of local transmission down below. If anyone’s talking, it’s with nothing stronger than a walkie-talkie.”

Mark glanced at Andrea, “They had everything in place at the last visit, right?”

Andrea nodded. “According to reports, everything was following standard operating procedure.”

“Patch, you reading anything at the alpha colony site?”

“Yeah. Standard buildings are up, it looks like. Habitation ready for five thousand colonists.”

“Still no answer, Callista?”

“No sir. Not a beep.”

“Patch, atmosphere analysis. Are you picking up anything suspicious?”

“Looks pretty standard. There’s nothing exotic that I can detect.”

“Tectonics analysis?”

“No major geological problems that we can see,” Patch answered.

“Hm.” Mark waited a few moments before turning back to the bridge crew. “What’s local time at the alpha site?”

“Almost noon,” Andrea answered.

“Someone ought to be home. I guess we just have to show up to dinner unannounced.”

–          – – – –

The shuttle circled the alpha site at ten thousand feet. The buildings appeared small from this height, but intact. Gradually spiraling lower, they watched for any movement. Callista, back on Magnus, still couldn’t raise anyone. Patch handed out pistols to everyone on the shuttle, including Paris and Jer, who he’d assigned as guards for Mark. “Can’t be too careful,” he said.

Mark had never even thought about guards back on Farholme.

“Any changes in the atmosphere readings?”

“Air looks good,” answered Bastion, the science officer.

Patrick brought the ship over the main settlement and hovered over a large town square. The shuttle dropped the last two feet, striking the pavement with a jolt. Apparently it was time for the pilot to get a refresher course.

“Keep the engines running,” Mark growled. “We might want a quick takeoff. No knowing what’s out there.”

He nodded to Patch.

Patch thumbed the hatch. Air hissed as pressure equalized, and finally the door opened. Patch edged out, pistol ready. Two guards followed, and finally Mark and his entourage.

After the radio silence, Mark had expected some sort of disaster. It hadn’t been atmospheric or natural, apparently, but something. He had expected silence to greet him as he landed, the whistling of the wind, or perhaps screams of pain if anyone still survived.

He had not expected the sound that now assaulted his ears.

From every quarter, every building, echoed uproarious laughter.

Read Part 2 here.

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6 thoughts on “The Joy Eaters, Part 1 of 5

    1. Ah, but it’s meant to be — not at all what anyone on the shuttle was expecting, to be sure.

      In all honesty, part one is more of a prologue. The story really doesn’t begin until they jump over the colony — the bulk of the tale focuses on what’s happening there. Part one just introduced the main shipside characters and Mark’s situation.

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