“Almost burned up coming in,” I told him.
“Nah,” he said, rubbing his greasy hand back and forth across his matted hair before slapping his bright blue hat back on. “That never really happens anymore. At least not in the twenty years I’ve worked on these type of ships.”
“Well her sensors told a different story.”
“If you know your ship,” he said chicken-pecking my information into the computer at his desk, “you know when she’s squawking over nothing and when she’s being serious. They’re programmed to bitch.”
“Ah,” I said, letting it go.
“Okay, so,” said the tech, squinting at the screen. “Who is..”
“Nobody, well, somebody, I,” I hurried over and looked. “Shit,” I said.
“Who’s ship is this?”
“Okay, but – somebody else owns it?”
“No, I own it. That used to be my name.”
“Parents mad atcha?”
“Often,” I said, hoping he’d leave it at that. He did.
I’d also hoped to make it past Mars to Europa before I absolutely had to fix the damaged side of my ship’s hull, but my ship, who I affectionately – and sometimes angrily – called Maleta, had other plans. She apparently really wanted to see Mars. So here we were.
My name change hadn’t made it to the outer planets yet, which was a huge hassle. As soon as I was sure the techs at the garage were good on paperwork and signatures, I hightailed it over to Planetary Reception to get my details in order.
That’s when I found out my three-day Martian vacay was going to be three months.That was just how long things of this nature took, according to the clerks I spoke to.
I didn’t even argue with them. There was no arguing with the non-Terran governments about these things. They’d just as soon shoot you as have you darkening their offices with your crazy liberal thinking and queer agendas. I let it go, and got in touch with the boss.
“I understand what you’re telling me,” she said. “But you need to understand that we can’t pay you for your time while you wait. Lucky for you that shipment has a six-month window for delivery; they only need it before the dry season.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice even and calm. Guys like me always got a bad rep for being hot-headed, and I wasn’t going to help that myth along, not today. “So I won’t get a late fee garnished?”
“Nope,” said my boss. “But I guess you’re going to have to rent a room out there somewhere until your paperwork comes back.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Guess so.”
Three months of getting up to an artificial sunrise, walking the tubes to the public square of the little outpost I was able to find a motel room at, eating crappy food and watching every episode of all twelve seasons of Planetscope (a ponderous soap opera about space-truckers in love) and I was ready to get off the Red Planet and back to work.
Maleta was waiting for me, as slow and ponderous as the soap opera. After recording her manifest for my boss, I found the tech at his desk.
“She checked out fine. We didn’t need to reboot her so your flight plan’s still primed to go,” he said, this day sporting a green cap, which was just as greasy as the blue one.
“Awesome,” I said, and offered him my balance-card as a tip; I wasn’t going to need it being as I never planned on visiting Mars again.
“Thanks buddy!” he said, grinning as if I’d given him a puppy.
Maleta fired up smoothly, and they towed us to the launch-pad with minimal fuss. As soon as she punched through the atmosphere, expelling the plasma out of her business-end, I breathed my first calm, happy breath since just before her alarms had warned me of the compromise in her hull, three months and one day prior.
I checked the flight-plan and it was ticking away perfectly. I powered off all but the essentials and made my way down the corridor to my cryo-bed.
Waking up from cryo always sucked. At least for me.
I stretched my legs so hard my muscles shook, and I drew a face in the condensation on the plexiglass covering the bed. Then I heard the alarms.
“What the-” I muttered, grabbing the sides of the bed as the cover slid away, lifting myself out of my temporary coffin. “Shit.”
My ship was losing her mind, again.
I stumbled down the corridor to the pilot’s room and powered up full controls, blinking to read what was on the screen.
“How the-” It wasn’t the best day for me and full sentences.
“Maleta!” I yelled at her, too trembly and stiff from cryo to type.
Please identify said my ship’s pleasant, always-patient voice.
“Um,” I said, plopping down in the chair. “Ma-leta? It’s Jake.”
And then I realized how badly I’d screwed up.
“Maleta, please try and understand.”
Identify yourself to gain access to control screen.
“It’s me, I just – I have a cold.”
In order to gain access you must have permission from the pilot.
“I had surgery on my throat, um, for my tonsils, I had them removed, and it sounds different now. It’s totally me.”
Less than one hour before entering Sun’s orbit.
“That’s not helping at all,” I said, to no one, because my own damn ship was ignoring me.
I leaned forward, reading the semi-transparent lock screen and trying to find a field in which to enter a command, any command, but there was none. She wasn’t having it. Meanwhile, my three months too-late flight-plan had screwed the pooch entirely and Maleta had propelled when she should have backpedaled, and here we were.
The Sun was close enough that I could have cooked some fajitas on the hull. Why was I hungry? Oh right, cryo.
I pushed up from the chair and hurried my way down to my bunk, where I’d stored all the weird and useless crap I’d managed to gather during my three months of boredom on Mars. Somewhere in that wildly random haul was a thing that might just save my soon-to-be-cooked ass.
I slid the square touchpad out of its bubble-wrapped shroud. It was a Tascam multichannel sampler, beige and big-buttoned.
“Let’s do this,” I said, and looked for the cord.
“Fuck,” I said. There was no cord.
The lights were flashing in every corridor and room of the ship now, and the ominous chime of the proximity warning was starting to stab at my calm like a knife to the ribs. I dug through the boxes and crates under my bunk, desperate for a cord. Finally, in the dusty corner where a spider skittered away from my clawing hands, I found one, and plugged the Tascam into the power strip by my desk.
“Please work please work please work,” I begged the inanimate object, and unlike every other thing I’d encountered in my three-month trial, it complied.
“Maleta,” I spoke into the tiny mic embedded in the touch pad, “Please grant Jake Harris all pilot controls, screen-driven as well as voice-activated.”
I ran back down the hall and stood in front of the pilot’s screen, holding the sampler, and hitting playback.
Too high! I lowered the pitch and tried it again.
In order to gain access-
“Okay okay Maleta!” I bellowed at her, and instantly felt like a jerk. I raised the pitch up, just a hair.
My old voice – or a damn decent copy of it, sweetly intoned, “Please grant Jake Harris all pilot controls, screen-driven as well as voice-activated.”
The lock-screen vanished and the pilot controls brightened, and I typed like a man one year at space trying to close the deal on a particularly steamy session with a “Me Time” friend.
“Glad you made it,” said the woman at the deliveries desk.
“Oh, you and me both,” I said, signing the paperwork to receive the electronic deposit into my account.
“Noticed she’s got a bit of charring on her starboard side,” said the woman. “If you don’t mind my being nosy.”
I walked out of the depot and examined Maleta. The new panelling they’d installed on Mars was bubbled, and puckered. It wasn’t her fault, though. I turned right back around and asked for a work order.
“No problem,” the woman said. “Name?”
Deven Balsam is a freelance, queer sci-fi writer.