Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
[p.145]Maker, please let her hold together till we land,” Paul Turner pled as he felt the starship vibrate, signifying the first stages of exit from hyperspace.
“Why does it always have to be like this?” he murmured, pressing his long frame against the pads of the chair. Around him the various pieces of furniture and equipment in the lounge began to quake.
A low whistle continued to penetrate the entire ship. No crew in the long and “glorious” history of the Galactic Star Fleet vessel, LaVerkin, had ever been able to stop that confounded whistle. You had to become a heavy sleeper to survive a tour on this ship.
In the back of his mind, Turner knew he should be terrified. It wasn’t safe for a craft to shake so badly every time it exited hyperspace. It wasn’t all that safe when it shook entering either. But, Turner thought, the continuous repetition of the events, coupled with the various other minor catastrophes he had experienced while on this tour, had dulled his sense of fear.
He was a veteran.
A startled gasp over the ship-wide speaker caused Turner’s stomach to tighten. He listened to the message for the captain.
“Captain!” came the voice of crewman Gwen. “She’s starting to do it again!”
“Gwen, we can’t chance having that blasted fuel dump right now!” Captain Liebing’s voice was tight as it echoed through the audio system. [p.146]“Close down the ducts. Isolate the lines. Do something! We’re entering orbit. If it ignites—”
A slight jolt ran throughout the ship just as the first gentle lift was felt from the edge of the atmosphere, and Turner knew, with a sinking feeling, that the fuel had dumped into space just as they contacted the first traces of the air below. Turner cursed, wishing he knew the names of more Gods. As usual all the efforts of the ship’s engineers, Gwen and Theil, were useless. The ship did as it darned-well pleased.
Captain Liebing, knowing what must have happened, responded with his own long array of colorful metaphors, followed with a voice of resignation, “Get out the spacesuits and pumps everybody. We’ll try to delay our descent as long as possible.”
Turner unlocked his restraints and jumped up from his seat in the lounge. This was an example of why, though the ship was recorded as the GSF LaVerkin in all Fleet logs, her true name to the crew and sister ships in the fleet was Scrap Pile.
He hated risking his life but knew they had no choice. Three times the Scrap Pile had for some unexplainable reason dumped her fuel, twice just before entering a planet’s atmosphere. The only thing they could do now was gather it back up by going outside in their spacesuits and chasing the viscous fluid with their pumps.
Outside the ship they could see the fuel slowly oozing away in a long thick stream.
With resignation showing in every line of their space-suited bodies, the crew headed for the farthest edge of the spill, knowing from their past experiences that the quickest way was to work toward the ship—and it was imperative to work quickly—not only to prevent the fuel from dispersing into space but to save their lives. They needed to prevent the fuel from igniting, but they also needed it to maneuver the Scrap Pile to a safe landing.
Part of the fuel was already beginning to glow as the friction from the upper atmosphere began to take effect. The crew worked quickly and efficiently, each one doing his or her part, using as little time as possible, then heading for the airlock when they had gathered as much fuel as possible.
They had no more than removed their helmets and begun to congratulate each other on a successful run when the ship’s alarm began to blare. What now?
Gwen’s voice, calmer now that the fuel had been collected and [p.147]sounding apologetic, came over the speaker, “Turner, the nav computer’s misaligned again. You’ll have to come up to make exact coordinates.”
Turner banged his way to the top levels of the ship. Sometimes it definitely did not pay to be chief navigator.
“Damn computer!” Turner murmured. He sighed as he settled himself in front of the navigation computer and contemplated his fate. The craft was not nicknamed the Scrap Pile without cause. It had gained a well-documented (and widely known) reputation for being able to claim every system failure possible.
The worst curse bestowed on a member of Earth’s starfleet was to be assigned a tour of duty on the Scrap Pile. That’s why they were now orbiting Earth, preparing to descend past the satellite Tamiuw II. Tamiuw II marked the precise location for the space window that would lead to Utah’s planetary shipyard. The base possessed some of the most highly advanced equipment and skilled repairmen.
Now their reputation would truly be put to the test.
The old navigational center was the only room in Scrap Pile with large portals lining every wall and the ceiling. It offered magnificent sights—if one was in the mood to appreciate them.
He immediately set about taking readings and manually adjusting the controls to their proper settings. He could clearly see Tamiuw II pass by the aft instrumentation screen as the ship made its final approach.
The ship’s inner vibrations began to subside as they lowered through the atmosphere, and Turner relaxed. The primary settings were all laid in, but he knew better than to leave. The computer had a tendency to choose the worst times to be uncooperative—he’d probably have to remain up here until they made planetfall.
“Hey, Turner, don’t you have anything better to do than baby-sit the nav controls?”
Turner looked up to see the smiling face of Scoop, his best friend, just poking around the doorway.
The navigator smiled, glad for a visit. “Come on in, Scoop. Take the load off your mind.”
“Cute,” he replied.
Scoop walked to the seat near his friend and gratefully lowered himself into it. The communications officer tended to be the best-[p.148]natured crewman on the ship—with his almost bald head and stocky body, he had to be.
He stretched with obvious pleasure, lifting his legs up to rest on the console before him, settling in with a sigh. “Ahhhhh, a great load off my mind.”
His name was Errick Paylor, but everyone called him Scoop. He said it was because as communications officer he knew all the news before everyone else. Actually it was because the top of his head resembled an upside down ice-cream scoop.
“Mother’s going to be calling you,” Turner reminded him.
“So nice to be loved.”
“Loved, hell. What will you wager it’ll be over twenty pollution citations this time?” Turner pulled out a pad from his uniform jacket ready to peel off a few credits.
“No way—I’m saving my money for shore leave.”
“Provided we get there.”
“Tut, tut.” Scoop vigorously scratched his dry scalp with both hands, voice fluctuating in rhythm to the movement. “This ship will get us there one way or another—in one piece or several.”
“Paylor, get down here!” a voice boomed over the com system.
“Mother calls,” Turner said.
Scoop rose with reluctance, haphazardly rubbing at the heel smudge on the console. “Capt’n’s cheery tonight. I wonder why?”
Turner leaned back in his chair, temporally glad he was the navigator and Scoop would have to help handle the coming trouble. “This landing ought to create the longest citation list ever—and you thought MarCinn 4 was bad! Utah’s fanatical about its air control. Good luck appeasing the local officials—”
“Paylor!” the captain’s voice shouted over the com, a full octave higher.
The communications officer fled the room, leaving Turner to attend to his duties alone.
As the craft descended into the atmosphere, it shook under the onslaught of changing pressures. Crew members kept watch over their separate positions as the ship quickly dropped to Earth below. Distorted images of landmass became more distinct, and the ship spewed out a trailing path of smoke and stench above it.
The stone cliffs of Zion National Park opened up to show a spaceport, with attending ships and a neighboring complex occupying [p.149]half a small city.
It took four minutes for the port authority to clear enough of the black exhaust from around the landing gear for it to be safe to open the outer hatch.
As the nine men and four women exited the ship, with their duffel bags, they were greeted by an applauding welcoming committee.
Turner and Scoop exchanged glances. After their many tours of duty on the Scrap Pile, they were used to the looks of amusement aimed at them or more specifically at their “ship.”
They both bowed, their mood matching that of the snickering assembly.
The other crew members, not yet used to such a reception, ignored it.
Turner and Scoop recognized some old friends they’d both served with a couple of years before and sauntered over to that part of the reception committee and shook hands.
“What’s she held together with, Turner?” a familiar voice asked, “Gum?”
Turner searched the crowd. “Hi, Vic,” he said. Then he turned and greeted the others. “Hello, Brawn, Hayes. Berra, it’s been a while. How are you doing, Vic?”
“Heard you had an interesting trip, this round,” Vic noted with a chuckle. The laugh lines around his eyes showed that he enjoyed humor. “You two have got the longest-standing survival record on that ship, not counting your captain. Any of your transfer requests come through yet?”
“Not yet,” Scoop sighed.
Three port personnel approached the group. One, the stockiest of the trio, was holding a clipboard. “Any of you Captain Liebing?” he asked.
“Nope,” responded Turner. “We’d never claim that privilege. Mother—er—the captain’s waiting for you inside.”
While the port personnel talked to Turner, Scoop casually leaned over to glance at the thick pad of computer printouts clipped on the board. Citations—in triplicate.
The trio nodded in unison and turned to ascend the ramp.
Berra nudged his friend. “Hey, Turner, getting pretty free on the nicknames. Aren’t you worried that Liebing will hear you?”
Scoop spoke up, “He knows he’s a mother hen to this pile of scrap.”
[p.150]“He’s from Utah, isn’t he?” Berra asked. “Heard tell it was through him you were able to bypass the shipyard’s two-year waiting list.”
Scoop leaned close, and his secretive act made the others huddle around. “An opening came up. The Entrim never made it here—lost both ship and crew. Mother arranged for us to take their slot.”
He smiled proudly. “Times like this, I’m definitely glad for the captain’s connections. It’s helped us out this round at least.” Scoop’s voice fell away as he suddenly took in the sight before him. He was looking through the entrance of the neighboring national park. The port itself was positioned tightly between the park and Springdale City.
What he saw was nearly indescribable. The terrain was ragged and angular, a harsh beauty. A series of stark cliffs portraying a wide tapestry of reds, whites, and browns rose from an earth littered with a maze of sand, rocks, and sandstone hills. Towering cliffs climbed to a vividly blue sky.
Nestled at the base of a range of cliffs and hills—but outside the park—lay a wide collection of lush trees and shrubbery, unnatural next to the bare rock of the desert.
“Your first visit to Utah, I take it?”
Scoop nodded, open mouthed. Finally words returned. “Where did all the red come from?”
Vic snorted, amused at the expression from the two crewmen. “The locals call this area Zion.” He pointed a finger at one of the more prominent stone figures standing as sentinel against the blue sky. “That’s called Angel’s Landing.”
Turner nodded, still mute.
“And it’s natural?” Scoop added before the others could ask.
Turner and Scoop were both obviously perplexed that, after traveling to other worlds in search of adventure and beauty, they’d find one of the most beautiful scenes they had ever seen, on Earth, in a gallery of stone and cliff.
The new arrivals were told of Checkerboard and Sting-Boat Mountains and the Narrows. Much of the conversation centered on the natural architecture as they departed the landing field.
Berra, reverent to the moment, said: “You should see Goblin Valley. It looks like a place where God had a beach party.”
Turner turned to his old friend. “A what?”
Vic interrupted. “Come on, I’m thirsty.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be a desert?” Turner asked.
[p.151]Berra wiped the perspiration off his forehead with the back of his hand. He pointed out some transparent tubing that framed part of the horizon.
“The state has an irrigation system that pulls water right out of the air. Look at all the plants. It’s helped their growing seasons for the last century. I think their atmospheric irrigation and recycling systems are part of the reason so many engineers are attracted to Utah. There’s a lot of experimenting going on, and Utah’s the guinea pig.”
The conversation fell away as the group left the yard. They headed for one of the bars that ringed the spaceport. A high, nearly transparent defense wall framed the back of the port’s recreation buildings, presenting a definite barrier between the bars and the interior of Springdale.
A cloud of dark smoke, compliments of the Scrap Pile, had begun to gather against part of the shield, creating a growing blemish that would require a hard wind or air purifiers to dissipate. Turner knew that the cost and manpower required to conduct such an activity would eventually end up on the ship’s expense reports.
“Came here to see if she could be fixed up, eh?” Berra asked, returning to their original conversation. He began tugging at an ear irritably.
Utah was humid and hot, contrasting with the normally dry air of the ships. The difference made everyone feel as if their skins were crawling.
“We’re hoping these engineers can do something for us,” Turner admitted.
“Miracles are possible, so I’m told,” Hayes returned snidely. Her blue eyes sparkled as she looked at the two men.
“You’ll have one of the best engineers of the Fleet working on your ship,” Brawn cut in, her long brown hair catching in the slight breeze.
Turner and Scoop smiled, their expressions brightening for the first time since being assigned to the Scrap Pile. No more constant whistling throughout the night. No more vibrations before and after hyperspace. No more malfunctions continually cropping up throughout the ship, keeping them forever busy with never a moment of relaxation. It would take time for them to adjust to running a perfect ship. But they would certainly be willing to change.
“So there we were, in our spacesuits, a waterline broken in the storage unit spilling all that water on the deck, and with the insulation [p.152]problem, what else would you get but ice? So we thought, well since it’s here, why not a good game of space hockey? There were so many dents in those walls already … ”
Scoop let his sentence hang, enjoying it. His audience’s imagination took over, and they laughed. The bar was loaded with members of different crews, each enjoying a nice evening planetside.
Scoop originally intended his story just for his companions, but it attracted other ears as well. Their table soon became surrounded with men and women intently listening to the woes and adventures of those aboard this infamous ship.
“You had insulation problems and a waterline break at the same time?” one thin voice asked from the circle.
“Yep,” Scoop returned, enjoying the attention they were getting. He couldn’t resist adding, “It happened soon after we reactivated our malfunctioning gravity controls. Now that was fun!”
The amazed exclamations encouraged Scoop to continue. He and Turner both knew that their catastrophes did not regularly occur so close together, but neither of them could resist promoting the legend and reputation of the Scrap Pile to recruit looks of amazement from their audience.
They would become men to be remembered as two survivors.
Of course no life had been lost on the ship—yet. The crew had always been able to correct the malfunctions before they took a life.
The GSF LaVerkin was one of the few older Epsilon-model vessels that had made an “adequate” transition to the newly invented hyperdrive, requiring Earth’s fleet to still use the ship for transport, much to the crew’s consternation. The crew often dreamed about sabotaging the hyper-drive.
“One would have to be suicidal to remain on that ship,” someone said.
“Being aboard her gives me a warm feeling right here,” Scoop said, pounding his chest dramatically.
“Yeah, heartburn,” Turner finished, getting a laugh from most of those listening. The few bar customers intent on their own drinks and company now looked over at the growing circle.
Turner poured his fellow crew member another drink as Scoop expounded on their past adventures. He told his audience about the time of the oxygen leak, the pressurization imbalance, the fuel dumps—
He was a good storyteller, Turner admitted to himself. Why did it [p.153]all sound fun when the crew actually had to risk their lives, time and time again, to keep the ship going? The knots in his stomach were not something he remembered fondly. So Scoop’s almost favorable report irritated him.
It was insane: combating one problem after another was no way to spend your time aboard a ship, all the time wondering if you would get to port in one piece. Their companions in contrast reported their own ships to be near trouble-free, giving them time to read books, watch the visro waves (when they were in range), and to just relax and enjoy life.
Turner glanced at his cup, trying not to let his growing irritation spoil the mood of the party, for it was surely turning into that. He sighed and tried to laugh with the others at whatever Scoop was saying as the night pressed on.
Two days later the entire crew of the ship stood assembled in the engineering room, looking down at the casing now covering the main computer line that ran throughout the ship.
It lay new and glistening like a snake that had just shed its old skin.
Captain Liebing stood proudly near the new equipment, his face beaming. He eagerly began his explanation: “Gentlemen, we find ourselves at an historic moment. The GSF LaVerkin will never again be called the Scrap Pile.
“Apparently the problems we’ve been experiencing have been the result of an electrical chain reaction originating from here.” He pointed a hand excitedly toward the computer line. “Once the source of the problems was identified and corrected, everything else linked up. The ship will no longer give us problems.”
“Doesn’t seem possible, Capt’n,” Turner said eyeing the new machinery skeptically.
But Liebing, ignoring the doubt Turner was expressing for most of the crew, dismissed them to prepare for lift-off.
Five days out Turner sat on his bunk staring up at the ceiling. He still had a half shift to wait until he was on duty. Maker, he was bored. None of the books in the computer appealed to him, and with so little practice at having to hunt for things to do, he was at a loss. So he sat.
He glanced up when he heard raised voices in the corridor. Theil and Horan were at it again. They had been at each others’ throats ever [p.154]since lift-off.
Turner shook his head.
He’d never noticed their animosity before. They were usually occupied with keeping the ship from falling apart. Now they were debating whose turn it was to baby-sit the nav computer. Yet so far the computer was behaving perfectly. They remained on course and would reach their first assignment in seven days.
So why baby-sit a perfectly behaving nav computer? Turner got up and stepped into the hall to find the two men facing one another.
“Problem?” he asked.
“Stay out of it, Turner,” Theil warned, standing straighter as the tension increased.
Turner spread his hands before him in a token of peace. “Hey—if you—” he began, but Captain Liebing bolted into the corridor, stopping Turner from making peace.
The captain glanced at the trio curiously. “Is there a problem here?” he demanded.
“No, sir,” Horan answered stepping back with a small smile. His lanky frame filled the passageway, and he had to press himself against the wall as Liebing nodded and passed on. When he was gone Horan’s face hardened and he turned back to his opponent. “Look, Theil, just because you’re the chief engineer doesn’t excuse you from taking the same amount of duty time as the rest of us.”
Turner headed for the lounge. This was already becoming an old argument. He stalked into the lounge, only glancing up to see who was there as he turned through the door. All that greeted him, however, was a thrown fork that seemed intent on skewering him. He instantly jerked his head aside and watched as the projectile hit the door that closed behind him.
Snickers rose from within the lounge.
“Little slow on the timing there, Leach,” Scoop critiqued from the sidelines.
Leach, a stubby fellow, was standing in the center of the room next to one of the tables. He nodded with mock seriousness. He turned back to his projectiles, which just happened to be the entire complement of the ship’s eating utensils, and moved the next one over.
They had been carefully and precisely lined up on the surface of the table in an apparent order of importance: first the forks, then the spoons, last the knives.
[p.155]Turner walked away from the door, making a wide berth around the concentrating Leach.
All eyes were centered on Leach, who aligned a spoon with about half its length hanging over the edge of the table. Then with one swift, practiced hand swung down, the projectile flew across the room, hitting the same spot as the fork.
“What is this, the flatware Olympics?” Turner asked.
Scoop looked up from his chair. “C’mon, Turner. It’s as boring as hell here. You know that. We need something to entertain the masses.”
Turner pulled up one of the chairs to sit down, also watching the concentrating crewman. Another spoon was now being placed into position.
“If Mother were to come in—” Turner began.
Scoop looked up, sudden humor lighting his eyes. “Hey, now that’s an idea—a moving target!”
“Isn’t there something more constructive to do in your spare time?”
“Look, Turner,” Joy Gubler said, “this ship is cramped. Theil snores in his sleep. We’re too far out to catch the visro waves.” She sighed wearily, “And Gwen’s jokes aren’t that funny.”
Another of the crew, short and thin, looked up from the library disk he was reading. “What about my jokes?” he asked.
“We’ve never had the time to relax before.” Scoop said. “How were we to know this ship lacked all the little extras other ships take for granted?”
Joy snorted. “I spent all leave hiking Angel’s Landing while listening to my friends praise free time.” Joy looked around the room and shook her head with clear reproach. “I wonder if they were trying to convince me or themselves?”
“We never realized how much time it took to keep the ship together before,” Turner said.
Gwen turned his attention back to his book, not pressing the issue about his unappreciated jokes.
Turner was thankful the man was more even tempered than most. But he had a strange sense of humor. Who knows what Gwen would come up with as a response to a crew member who insulted him, but he was certainly better tempered than Horan or Theil. As if on cue Turner heard raised voices from the hall.
“Those two still arguing?” Ina Bundy asked, her thin form draped across three chairs.
[p.156]A voice from above hollered over the com system. It was Mother.
“TheIl! Horan! It’s now both your turns to baby-sit. Get up here and take over.”
“Guess that’s settled,” Turner said with a sigh.
“Those two have always had a hard time getting along,” Scoop said. “Never became a problem until now.” He turned away for a moment to applaud Leach’s bull’s-eye with the spoon.
Turner nodded. He pulled a storage box in front of his chair to prop his feet up and leaned back, folding his arms behind his head. “Never knew how loud Theil snored, either, until the ship got so quiet. The walls don’t provide much of a buffer, do they?” He looked over at Scoop and leaned forward, stealing a glance at the preoccupied Gwen. Turner whispered, “Gwen’s singing in the shower is as bad as his jokes.”
“You’re telling me!” Scoop said, nodding for emphasis.
Turner chuckled at the sincerity of his friend’s reaction. What was there to do now when there was nothing needed to keep the ship from falling apart? Everyone was becoming irritable, snapping at friend and foe alike. Many of them were having trouble sleeping. With nothing to do who got tired?
Friends back in port had generously detailed the virtues of a normally functioning ship, but they neglected to state what occupied one’s time while crossing the long expanses of space between ports. He found himself noticing the various dents scattered about the dull surface of the far wall. Unable to think of other entertainment, he began to count them.
Two days later everyone had assembled in the Rec room. The captain had called a conference on the growing issue of low morale, and Liebing hadn’t accepted any excuses for nonattendance.
“Capt’n—Thell’s and Horan’S constant bickering is driving me up a wall,” Gwen stated as he stood in the center of the lounge. His arms were folded.
Liebing sat, straddling the back of a chair. His gray temples accented the deep creases of his face, a face that now looked sternly over his crew. The captain was, however, known for his fairness—seven growing kids at home apparently helped—and he now listened carefully as the crew took turns detailing the trying behaviors of their companions. Scoop’s complaint surprised Turner the most.
“Turner screws up the food processor every time he uses it, Capt’n.”
[p.157]Turner looked at his friend as if betrayed. Scoop had of late lost much of his good mood and was becoming a grouch. Turner himself became defensive. “Yeah?” he rebutted, “What about when you—”
“All right, all of you,” the captain’s tone commanded silence.
“I must admit all of you have been a royal pain in the butt ever since we left Earth.” The crew remained silent, but the looks on some of their faces clearly indicated that their captain had not been much of a blessing himself.
“We’ve had too much free time on our hands,” Liebing observed, “and we’ve been getting sloppy.” He glanced around the room catching each person’s eyes.
“We don’t function like a team anymore,” he said. “Before we’ve had to work together to keep the Scrap Pile from falling apart. We probably know more about how to keep a ship together than any other crew in the fleet. Now we’ve all gotten lazy, including myself.”
“So what do we do about it?” Turner asked. “I’ll be the first to admit it—I’m as bored as hell.”
In response Liebing stood up, indicating that the others were to follow him. Curiously, looking at one another, the assembly complied.
The captain led his crew to the place where the Utah engineers had recently conducted repairs. It looked the same as before, the new metal casing that shielded the main computer line still looking out of place next to the old, worn fixtures.
Liebing walked over to it, then waited until they had all surrounded the unit. He cleared his throat to gain their undivided attention.
When the crew were all looking curiously at him, he swung a firm foot against the new shield. The force of the impact vibrated throughout the entire room, leaving a large dent in the computer line.
As the noise of the impact receded, another more familiar noise began. A sound they had not yet forgotten: a low whistle.
It had been a good seven days since they had heard that noise. The vessel seemed to quiver slightly, as if in accompaniment to the whistle. A red light began blinking on one of the monitors from a wall console.
Turner smiled, as did the rest of the crew.
Maker, it was good to be home.