Ellie paused before the door to the mess to gather her courage. The captain had ordered her to have lunch there, at the height of mealtime, and to socialize with others. “No one blames you,” he’d said, “and it’s high time you saw that for yourself. You’re no good to us if you’re tied up with guilt like rodeo calf.”
She’d had to look up the reference to understand his meaning, but somehow, the photo of a young cow, lying on its back with its arms and legs bound, passive and miserable, had hit home. Only no cowboy could free her. She had to do it herself.
I can do this. I can loosen my own noose.
She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and strode through the doors.
The room was busy with a mix of shifts; everyone was working odd hours to get the ship back together. With the replicators offline, the galley prepared buffets six times a day, being sure to make sure everything was fully dead, tasted fine and did not contain hidden laxatives.
The routines had not only prevented a repeat of the turkracken incident but also served to bring the crew together. It had paid off, she knew, as people clung to each other after the battle, and…
She choked off the rest of that thought.
Three days later, most had worked through their initial grief. She didn’t see anyone crying, and yet, the room felt subdued. People talked quietly about work or stared into coffee cups. She felt a kind of relief. The captain couldn’t blame her if no one felt like talking to her.
A few people glanced her way. She steeled herself, expecting accusations or at least dirty looks. A moment later, she realized they were wondering why she was blocking the door. With a start, she headed to the line. The servers were volunteers, folks she didn’t know well, even on their small ship. They didn’t give her a second glance as they loaded food onto her plate. She couldn’t find her voice to thank them, either.
She found an empty table toward the back and settled with her back to the corner. That way, she was open to the rest of the room, but not imposing on anyone’s group. Just like high school.
She’d always hated lunch in high school.
The captain had ordered her to stay in the mess for an hour or until everyone was gone. As in high school, she pulled out a pad and opened it to a book. Not a romance this time, but biographies of radical artists. If she could find some commonalities in motivations, maybe it would give them an edge in dealing with the KatHack-enhanced Cyber nation.
She looked up to find Enigo standing in front of her, a tray in his hands. She set her book down. “Lieutenant.”
Taking that as an invitation, he sat down across from her. For several awkward moments, they stared at their trays and picked at their food. She hoped her hands didn’t show how she trembled inside.
Finally, he broke the silence. “Listen, chica. About what I said. I didn’t mean it. I was just. I…”
She met his eyes. His gaze was steady and as strong as always. Yet, something seemed missing. “You were in love, weren’t you?”
He nodded. “Yeah. We were. She wanted you to be part of the big reveal, you know.”
His face grew blurry and she blinked back tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”
He reached out and gripped her wrist with a gentleness that surprised her. “It’s not your fault. You saved the ship.”
“But I didn’t save them. I didn’t even save KatHack, and that was the whole point. Now, it’s in part of the Cyber Nation.”
“Yes, it is.” Enigo’s voice took on a dangerous, scheming tone. His grip on her tightened as if he could pass on his determination. “And they can’t alter it much if they want to keep kuricrearrogance.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
With his other hand, the one he’d broken only days ago, he tapped her datapad. “You’re trying to get into its head, aren’t you? The whole time you were working with that cursed program, Loreli was downloading everything she could about it into her tricorder. We managed to get a partial copy of the software. And you are the only person alive who understands it enough to fill in the blanks.”
“You think…we can use it to destroy the Cybers?
Now, his eyes came alive, and the light behind them was feral. “The ship is family. If you can’t protect family, then you avenge them.”
He leaves and she was surprised to hear him humming. Surely not Dread Oog death metal? No, it was too melodic. As she watched him stride away, others came to her table.
“Hey, stranger,” Lieutenant Leslie Straus said as she stole one of Ellie’s fries. “Long time no see. I heard the Captain made you redesign the holodoc. What’s he like? Is he ripped? Or is he the sexy nerd type like Fle’ek?”
“She. She’s…” Ellie couldn’t bring herself to say she was a temporary replacement for Loreli. She changed tracks, “She’s pretty amazing. It was mostly Commander Deary’s idea. I think she might be based on an old girlfriend.”
Several nearby diners perked up their heads, and a few moved to join her table, eager for news that didn’t have to do with life-threatening system failures or loss. Ellie relayed the stories Commander Deary had shared while they’d worked on the holo emitters.
“But not a current flame?” Leslie said, and when Ellie shook her head, dismissed the conversation as unworthy of further pursuit. “Can’t wait to meet her. Now, what is this about you and Fle’ek? Because we have it from a keen observer that he is into you.”
“What? Oh, please. We had some conversations. He’s probably only interested in my mind,” she said, then felt her face redden as the crewmen around her chorused, “whoa!” and high-fived each other.
Leslie leaned in, “Well, be sure to share with him about this kuricrearrogance thing. I’ll bet he finds it fascinating.”
Ellie ducked her head, but this time it was in happy embarrassment, not shame. Around her, the mood in the mess seemed to lighten. Someone on the other side of the room broke into song, and others joined in.
Suddenly, Ellie felt like singing, too.
“So,” Minion Jenkins said, knocking the chicken neckbones of his necklace together in a catchy rhythm. “What do we call the holodoc?”
“Siobhan?” Leslie half sang.
“Simone,” Jenkins crooned back.
She replied in counterpoint, “Come on – Simone?”
* * *
In Sickbay, the EPMT had finished checking her patients, nurturing those that needed it and scolding those who seemed to enjoy it. Humans were an odd lot. She then made a complete inventory of supplies and equipment in Sickbay, noted the overabundance of imposazine and scanned the literature for potential side effects from chronic use. She reviewed the medical records of the crew, noting those who were overdue for exams and creating a schedule and appointment reminders. Finally, she used the ship’s sensors to check on the current state of each crewman.
Why were so many singing?
That’s it for this year, folks! Have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and joyous New Year.