by Clyde Andrews
part 1 of 2
The exploration spaceship Seeker passed quietly through the Kuiper belt as though it were an everyday occurrence. The ease in which the sleek, jet-black spaceship passed the belt, however, was deceptive. Thrusters on all sides of the vessel ignited and shut off in a frantic sequence so that the Seeker could safely navigate the countless ice-bodies and debris that populated the belt.
“Forty minutes to transition,” a voice droned over the intercom. “All personnel report to their sections.”
“I hate transitions,” Xavier moaned as he drained his mug of ship issue coffee. He winced as he swallowed the last of the brown, cold fluid. “And Mr. Pritchard hasn’t been attending to his duties. This coffee is awful. Might have to have a word with him later about it. He’s been lacking in a lot of areas of late.”
“This’ll be my first transition, you know?” Tom said, looking wide-eyed around the mess hall, finally settling his stare upon Xavier, his senior officer. “I wish I could be in the Control Room with you though, instead of — well, you know. With Mr. Pritchard.”
Xavier eyed Tom over the rim of the mug. “You will be. One day, I’m sure.”
“So why do you hate transitions?” Tom said with a raise of his eyebrows and a quizzical look.
Xavier sat forward in his chair, coming closer to Tom. “Well, you see, navigation through this part of the Solar System requires precision, accuracy, and skill. Do you know how many men are needed to pore over the graphic charts, computer readouts, and all the other specialist equipment we have crammed in the panic room? Do you?”
Tom just replied with a blank stare.
Xavier continued, taking the boy’s silence as a signal to continue his tutorial. “Ships going into deep space first have to navigate through the Kuiper belt, don’t you know? That’s just outside the orbit of Neptune, by the way. But once we’re through, once the darn manoeuvre is finished, there’s nothing but clear space beyond. Perfect for exploring. It’s the transition part I hate.”
Xavier had spent a whole rotation in the Control Room and he felt weary for it. Even his eyelids felt like they were weighed down and he rubbed them constantly. “Yeah, I like to call the Control Room the ‘panic room’. For every time a manoeuvre has to be done around here, everyone inside literally panics, like ants around a nest. Darn panicky ants, that’s what we all are. I’m tired. Sick and tired of it all. Panic! Panic! Panic! Hey, even the Captain the other day said: ‘All senior personnel to the panic room.’ Made me chuckle to hear that from him, let me tell you.”
“Don’t you like your job, Sir?”
“Oh, hell yeah. Exploring is what it’s all about, Tom.” Xavier thumped down the ship issue enamel mug onto the table. “It’s the darn manoeuvres in between that bug me to no end. They’ll get to you, too. Mark my words.”
“I see,” Tom said slowly, his stare still stuck upon his face. His eyes, however, told a different story. They had a spark to them, an enthusiasm that came from both inexperience and expectation.
“Say, this will be your first transition, won’t it?” Xavier said with a crooked smile.
“You’ll see then why I hate it soon enough.” And with that he got up, leaving Tom sitting at the table alone.
* * *
As Tom watched Xavier leave, he realised he was the only one in the entire mess hall.
This is strange, Tom thought. But seeing as this was his first transition he concluded that it must be normal. How was he to know what was considered ‘normal’ with no experience in transitions?
It didn’t make him feel any better knowing he didn’t know. He rubbed the nape of his neck, and a prickling sensation coursed up his back. He didn’t like this one bit.
Finally, he shrugged his shoulders and put it all down to inexperience. “Oh well, better get back to it then.”
But even though he shrugged it off, the nagging feeling he got didn’t subside. A darkness seemed to creep up on him, and he struggled to motivate himself to get up and report for duty.
Tom dragged himself off the standard ship issue steel chair. Bracing himself against the steel frame to support his weight, for he suddenly felt heavy. Was this a normal thing during the pre-transition manoeuvres?
He had to clock on in five minutes, and Mr. Pritchard didn’t take too well to late arrivals on duty.
“My day just couldn’t get any worse,” he added as his thoughts were knocked back to reality. He had to report to duty five minutes before his shift. “My first transition and I’m late. Oh, God, I hope I’m not sick or something.”
* * *
Tom arrived in a state that didn’t fit someone who had an organised disposition. He was sweating and panting as he came to Mr. Pritchard’s door, exhausted from the run through the ship he had just accomplished even to arrive within a reasonable lateness.
His watch said: 9:05 a.m.. He knocked and entered without waiting for a response.
All he could see were his senior officer’s eyes boring into him as he stood in front of his desk. Tom tried with all his might to ignore his glare and concentrate on looking as respectful as possible. Behind his back, however, he pulled and turned his fingers in all sorts of directions.
He waited for his orders.
Mr. Pritchard seemed to find paper work and files that needed sorting as Tom stood patiently. To Tom it just seemed to be pointless busy work. But then who was he to say? Tom was just a lowly ship hand; Mr. Pritchard was chief of the lower decks and a senior officer.
He’s not even going to acknowledge that I’m here, Tom thought as he pulled on his fingernails until they hurt.
Getting impatient with the wait, Tom began to fidget with his feet, shuffling his shoes against the carpet. It seemed to Tom that Mr. Pritchard enjoyed doing this to all those below him. The man, after all, had no real power as such on board the ship. All the real business of the ship was controlled by the officers and the Captain. Chief of the lower decks was just a fancy name for personnel manager, and even that he didn’t do very well. No one was ever happy around him. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about something. But that was Tom’s opinion, and he kept that to himself.
Tom’s mind wandered as he waited.
He remembered just last week there was a drunken brawl between the crew, in the end it was Xavier and some other senior officers that had to calm things down. It turned out that Mr. Pritchard was ‘indisposed’ during that event. He was probably drunk himself from his own distilled brew and fast asleep in his cabin trying to sleep off said brew. Tom smiled at that thought.
Tom finally gave a polite cough, which again was received with a stare that could curdle milk.
“Problem?” was all the old man said. “Well?”
“Yes, sir,” blushed Tom, cursing his throat.
After what seemed an eternity, Mr. Pritchard looked up from his work. “Are you aware we are close to transition?”
“Yes, sir,” Tom replied cautiously, wondering why the old man felt compelled to state the bleeding obvious. Tom’s brow furrowed, not sure whether or not that was a question or a statement. He began to fidget on the spot, but still stood to attention as straight and true as he could manage considering he’d been standing there for ages.
Again a long pause.
“Well, I need you to take these data crystals to the Control Room. I will not be made a fool of, not now... and not ever, you understand? Give them the precious data they want, the little good it’ll do them.”
“Um... yes, sir.”
Tom quickly grabbed the crystals, careful to not show his impatience by snatching, but also letting the old man know about his frustration in having to wait for so long to carry out such a simple task. Tom was actually relieved that he was ordered on an errand to the Control Room, anything to get out of Mr. Pritchard’s office.
He dreamed of one day working full-time in the Control Room, and frequently pretended he was an officer of the watch or some other grand job like that. Alas, he was just a ships-hand, and as a result was stuck with menial tasks under the whim of Mr. Pritchard.
* * *
Tom ran to the Control Room with exuberant enthusiasm; past the noisy tunnels and dark corridors of the lower decks, through the cleaner areas of the crew's living quarters, the mess, the recreation hall, sleeping cabins, and finally to the upper deck where the Control Room nestled comfortably amongst the other vital rooms which controlled the Seeker.
Quickly he passed stellar cartography to arrive in good time at the Control Room. He checked his watch. 9:30 a.m.. He smiled. He’d made the run in ten minutes, his new record.
Tom caught his breath as he stared at the magnificent steel door to another world. The room where, Tom knew, all that happened within its walls ultimately affected the ship one way or another, from the direction the ship’s steered to the way the crew's shift rotation is managed. And Tom — ship’s hand of the lower decks — could not wait to enter it.
He tucked in his shirt, straightened his collar, and buffed his shoes against the back of his trousers before he reached out to turn the impressive handle of that magnificent door.
Tom, sticking rigidly to protocol, announced himself to the officer of the watch immediately upon entering the Control Room. The activity inside was almost frantic, as was to be expected.
Then, for a split second all turned to glare at him, then at each other. Even the Captain nodded in his direction with a faint smile. Tom shrugged it off as nothing more than curiosity on their part, and soon the room was again like a circus or a fair where everything and anything was happening in a kaleidoscope of colour and movement. Everything looked chaotic, but had the purpose and precision of a symphony orchestra. It was dazzling, it was beautiful, and above all else, Tom really wanted to be a part of it. He yearned to be a part of it.
He knew everyone knew what they were doing — and yes, the ship was approaching transition, so the mad rushing around was to be expected. But it did not make it any less of a spectacle even knowing this. Tom stood and watched in fascination as the officer of the watch, Jeffery someone, questioned Tom’s reason for being there. Once it was sorted out that he was delivering backup data crystals to the navigation officer he let Tom pass.
The officer, however, didn’t let Tom by without passing comment about getting back to the lower decks and into his proper place as soon as possible. Lower deck crew shouldn’t disturb the important work going on right now at this point in time, thank you very much.
Tom just smiled and entered the Control Room proper.
“I need the results of that recent data, commander. NOW!” the Captain barked as he flicked switches and turned dials on his chair’s console.
Copyright © 2007 by Clyde Andrews