A new year – a new series for WEP. By now, it has become a personal challenge for me to write interlinked flash stories for every prompt of the year. This year, I came up with a sci-fi series about a young cadet of the Fleet Academy, Neville Ranen. He has one year of the Academy left before graduating and becoming a full-fledged officer of the Federation Space Fleet, when an unexpected calamity turned his world upside down. And all because of a kiss. This story is my answer to the Feb 2021 challenge.
Cadet Neville Ranen stared at the wall behind the admiral’s left shoulder. His bruises ached. One of his eyes wouldn’t open to more than a slit, and his cut lip stung. His only consolation was that his adversary, Peterson, looked worse.
“Well,” the admiral drawled. “I have already heard two different versions of the events, by Cadets Peterson and Grant. What is yours, Cadet Ranen?”
“Sir?” Surprised, Neville glanced at the admiral’s spacer-pale face, creased with wrinkles. He didn’t expect the question. He had attacked his classmate Peterson when he noticed the cad pawing one of the freshmen girls, Grace Grant, in a deserted corridor. Grace had been resisting, trying to extricate herself from the unwanted kisses, pummeling Peterson with her small fists, but Peterson was bigger, stronger, better trained, and obviously set on conquest. So Neville had waded in. Now he steeled himself to pay the price. Peterson was a Fleet brat, a son of a highly decorated Fleet captain. Neville was a son of a farmer from a distant colony. He didn’t think anyone would be interested in his explanations.
But the old admiral, the Academy Superintendent, looked amused, his sharp eyes twinkling. Easy for you to be amused, old goat, Neville thought angrily. His whole life was on the line. If the Academy expelled him, what would he do? He didn’t want to go back to his father’s farm. Perhaps he could find a job here, on the station? His three years of the Academy training must count for something. But first, he would try to save his position at the Academy. He didn’t like ratting out another cadet, even a swine like Peterson, but he didn’t have a choice.
“I saw Cadet Peterson assaulting Cadet Grant,” he said woodenly. “She obviously didn’t want his amorous attentions, she was struggling, sir. Trying to call for help, but he covered her mouth … with his. I interfered.”
“Successfully, I take it. You broke his collarbone and his wrist,” the admiral pointed out.
“He wouldn’t stop fighting,” Neville said. “I had to finish the fight as speedily as possible.”
“You’ve had a number of disciplinary infractions over the years, Cadet, but as far as I understand, all of them were pranks, until now,” the admiral said.
Neville didn’t respond. There was nothing to say.
The admiral sighed. “Cadet Grant’s version was identical to yours, Ranen. She was properly grateful. I don’t approve of cadets brawling, but a sexual assault against another cadet is a violation of the Fleet code. Because of that, Cadet Peterson has been expelled. You, on the other hand, represent a quandary. I can’t leave you unpunished. I’m suspending your Academy training for one year. You have a choice. During the suspension year, you can go home or find a job on the civilian side of the station. Or I can assign you to a ship – not as an officer, as you’re not yet qualified for any officer’s posting, but perhaps as an enlisted. To do whatever the captain says. What is your preference?”
“A ship,” Neville said without hesitation. He wanted to stay in the Fleet, even if he had to clean latrines for the next year.
“A ship it is.” The admiral nodded. “The Mariposa. She is in dock eight. Report to Captain Moss by tonight. I’m transferring your file now. Dismissed.”
Neville saluted and left, his heart thumping. The last thing he saw as he turned was the old admiral grinning evilly. The Mariposa captain must not be a forgiving fellow, but Neville would endure his year of suspension. And then he would come back to the Academy and finish his training. He would be a Fleet officer one day.
Two hours later, he stood in front of the Mariposa captain and thought he might have made a mistake after all by choosing the ship duty. His brief research of the Fleet database had identified Captain Anna Moss as the commander of the deep space resupply vessel Mariposa. A huge cargo ship, Mariposa carried armaments and machinery wherever the Fleet needed. But not for the next while.
“We have been detailed to help with the evacuation of Tarius Destra,” Moss said. She sprawled in her office chair and regarded Neville with the eyes that didn’t miss much. “You know what happened there?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Neville said. “Some kind of astrographic disaster. Everyone who survived has to be transported somewhere else.”
The captain nodded. “Every colony in the galaxy offered a quota of refugees they’re willing to accept. The Mariposa will carry people to Simel, as many trips as needed. We have ample space for the passengers, several thousands per trip, but a very small crew: the bridge team, the two engineers, and a medic aka cook. You’re going to be a big help, Cadet. I’m assigning you to be my deputy, my liaison with the passengers.”
“A deputy? You mean like … a policeman?”
“Exactly. You’ll patrol the cargo holds with the refugees and see what needs to be done. If a group of teenagers gets antsy, make up an occupation for them. I don’t know, a sporting competition. If a toddler gets lost, find him. If some adults stir trouble, try to keep it from escalating. Talk to people. Reassure them. And report to me.”
Neville gulped. Him a peacemaker? “I don’t think I’m qualified, ma’am,” he said faintly. “At the Academy, I was a troublemaker.”
“I know. Your file is extensive. Unfortunately, I can’t spare anyone else. The bridge officers are irreplaceable. You can’t perform their duties; you’re not qualified either. The medic will do her job: among thousands of refugees, someone is bound to get ill. And the engineers are already working overtime. We have to upgrade our air recycling system from handling a small crew of fifteen to several thousand people aboard. I’m not even talking about the toilet recycling.” She winced.
Neville felt entrapped. “Nobody will listen to me. They’d say: ‘That silly boy.’”
“No. You’ll be in uniform. We’ll all be in uniform, instantly recognizable for as long as we carry passengers.” She looked down at her dark green, totally un-regulation T-short with a golden dragon print and snorted. “More is the pity. But unavoidable in this case. And you’ll have a sidearm – a stunner. Use it if you have to. I’ll back you, Cadet. Publicly. I might rake you privately later, of course.” Her lips twitched. “But as long as you don’t kill anyone, I’ll back you. Remember: these people are hurting, traumatized. They’ve lost everything. They are going into the unknown. Be kind … if you can.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Neville croaked. Nothing else he could say. But him a policeman? It sounded surreal. He had never been so terrified in his life. It would’ve been so much easier to clean latrines. Even for several thousand people. He grimaced at the thought.
“Do your best, Cadet. For now, until the passengers board, familiarize yourself with the ship. Dismissed.”