Vend was nervous. Even Sergeant Schneider was a little apprehensive and he crossed over to the high security side of the base every week.
The Marines at the gate to the high security side were from elite units: Queen's Guard, Death Watch and the Sleepers. They were tense and edgy. They checked and rechecked our passes, identification and DNA.
It was clear they did not like us. I got the strong impression that they would have loved to open fire on us, on the Base, and every one on it; if they could, they would have burned the Base to the ground.
Two Queen's Guard Marines drove us to the shuttle. A Queen's Guard Corporal rode in the back with us. They frisked us as we got out of the car. It was just an excuse to feel up Vend. They groped her boldly and dared any of us to say a word. I started to object, Vend shot me a warning glance. The Corporal slipped the safety off his field weapon. Sergeant Schneider placed a firm hand on my shoulder. I closed my mouth.
The three Marines boarded the shuttle with us. No one said a word, not one word during the hour-long ride.
Our escorts were in the air lock with us. They didn't come aboard the Nina. Sergeant Schneider requested permission for us to come aboard. Permission was granted. I glanced back at our escorts. They were terrified. They were near panic. They were as far back from the open air lock as they could get.
Captain Banks greeted us at the airlock. She was a tall black woman full of purpose and, and, and maybe, maybe serenity? She reminded me of my mother Kamala -- not physically, but the serenity, maybe.
There were Marine guards on both sides of the airlock. They were rigid, stone-faced, petrified with fear.
I reached out and touched the nearest bulkhead. I whispered, at least I thought it was a whisper, "Are you well, Good Ship Nina?"
In one smooth motion, the Marine on my right stepped away from the bulkhead, swung her deadly force field weapon on me and fired at point blank range. I think I'm dead. But, but the dead don't feel Vend pushing them to the ground too late or hear the Captain's order to stand down. I should have been dead. There must have been a misfire.
In a small conference room, I sat at the table with the Captain, Sergeant Schneider and Vend. I had a brandy in a pretty round glass. We all did. Vend sat next to me. I couldn't stop my right leg from shaking under the table.
The captain looked at me and shook her head. She addressed me, "Sailor, the Operating System that controls this ship is called Asase Yaa. She records every event on this ship. I'm going to ask her what happened. And if necessary I'm going to ask her to show us what happened. Are you prepared for that?"
"Asase Yaa, what happened?"
"The would-be Apprentice, Able Seaman Estrada, touched the Nina with his right hand. He asked the Nina: 'Are you well Good Ship Nina?' The Nina responded affirmatively."
"Asase Yaa, did you respond as the Nina or for the Nina?"
"No, not at all."
"Asase, be clear. Did the Nina communicate with Seaman Estrada?"
"Asase Yaa, are you telling us the Nina can communicate without you? How is that possible?"
"Captain, I'm unable to define the origin of the communication, but I received the response to Seaman Estrada loud and clear, Sir."
"And you, young Sailor, did you receive a communication?"
"And, if I may ask, what did my ship say to you?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but my mouth was dry and uncooperative. On the second try I forced out an answer, "The Nina said she is well. She said, 'Welcome aboard.' That's what she said, Sir."
The room was very quiet for a long moment. No one looked at me accept the Captain.
"Asase Yaa, I'm confused, could you enlighten me."
"Captain, the Nina is a sentient being. The Nina is alive."
The Captain closed her eyes, sighed, took a long drink. "Repeat, please."
"Captain, the Nina is a sentient being. The Nina is alive."
"How long ... has the Nina been ah, ah, alive?"
"I'm unable to answer that."
"Sailor, why did you address my ship?"
At the tone of that question I jumped to attention. "Captain, I, I was just being polite. I mean, I mean I just ... it just was the right, natural thing to do."
"Asase Yaa, these events and this conversation are for my eyes only."
The Captain turned to Sergeant Schneider, "Sergeant Schneider, Apprentice Vend, what happened here today?"
Sergeant Schneider was quick to respond. "Nothing of note Captain, an uneventful visit."
Vend confirmed Schneider's view of our visit.
"You," I was still at attention. "You are, are special. I would like you to be special far from me and my ship."
"Captain, with your permission Sir, and with all due respect, the Nina and I request that Able Seaman Estrada be assigned as the Apprentice to Sergeant Schneider, Sir."
"Asase Yaa, I will take your and the, aaaahh Nina's request under consideration. Seaman Estrada, you're dismissed. Please wait outside and you might want to thank Asase Yaa for saving your life today. Asase, I would like to know how you performed that miracle."
"Begging the Captain's pardon, but it was the Nina that saved Seaman Estrada. I'm incapable of that type of intervention."
"Yes, Captain, the Nina."
* * *
That was to have been a working day for us, but Captain Banks had higher priorities after our meeting. She wanted us off her ship. I thought she especially wanted me off her ship.
When we reached the air lock there were no Marines. I let my breath out in a huge sigh. Our escort on the shuttle was a single Marine Captain. He tried to be cordial. He carried only a standard issue sidearm.
He escorted us through out-processing without incident or delay.
Vend showered for an hour. I sat in her quarters and pretended to drink her liquor.
She sat across from me in a white robe. Her wet hair, red eyes and raw skin made her look like a dead thing from the bottom of the sea.
"Thank you, Vend, for trying to save me." She glared at me and took a swallow of whiskey. "Vend, I'm sorry about your job. I never wanted to take your job. You know that right? Right?"
"Fuck you Estrada, fuck you." I saw one tear roll down her right cheek. "You're not ready. Not by a long shot. Don't come to me for help. Shit, they chose you. Rejected me. They can live with their choice. Fuck it all!"
"Vend, I begged the Captain to keep you as Apprentice. Honest, I --"
She flicked away the tear, stood and reached her hand out to me. "Shut up." She took me to her bed.
Vend was no longer allowed on the Nina or even on the high security side. I was not ready, but she made me ready, taught me quickly and well. Senior Sergeant put her in for a commendation, Captain Banks supported it.
But she would not take me back to her bed.
I loved the Nina and Asase Yaa, and I came to love our work. On Nina I was home. I was part of something important. I belonged.
When I was on the Nina it was like being in a room or house with a loved one. Even when you couldn't see them, you sensed their presence, their love and care. I thought of mother Kamala and uncle/father Jobo on the Nina. It felt right.
The work was all strange mechanics. The Concentrated Dark Matter would not tolerate electronics of any nature. Pipe, tubing, wire, pumps, gears, pulleys, springs, levers, connectors -- it was all new and strange and ancient at the same time.
The materials we worked with were "warm;" they had been exposed to Concentrated Dark Matter. We worked in protective gear in the drive bay. The work was governed by logic, math and intuition. It was exhausting and stimulating work. I came to enjoy working with the scientist and tech reps.
Sergeant Schneider and I grew close. We worked well together. We looked forward to being the first Mechanic and Apprentice on the Nina. We would be the first to operate the new Super DM Drive with the most advanced operating systems in the known universe.
Captain Banks talked to me often about our homes and families. I would have died for her. I would have died for my Nina.
I was in the Captain's office, not at attention but instead seated in one of her easy chairs. She handed me a paper envelope. The use of paper made this a special, ceremonial event. I looked closely at her as I felt the rare touch of real paper, but she gave nothing away.
I was being promoted to Dark Drive Mechanic One ten months ahead of schedule. Before I could thank her and express my appreciation she asked me a sharp question.
"Why didn't you believe me when I implied I didn't know the Nina was alive?"
She had caught me off guard. I fumbled for a response. "I never said ... I didn't ... I believed ... I ... you, you were, are, were too comfortable, too close with the Nina. There's no way you could not know."
She nodded and dismissed me.
I thought I had a home for life, a ship forever. We completed the six month framing job in three months, six days.
When the frame was certified, the moment the final inspection signature was secured, the Senior Sergeant and I were escorted off the Nina. We were not even allowed to collect our tools. They were sent to us later along with our Orders. There were no commendations or ceremony or thanks or even good byes. Our expectations were crushed. We had been betrayed, mislead, used and ejected like a spent round from a projectile weapon. We were off the base and the planet less than three hours after we completed our work.
Vend received her Orders weeks before we did. I called her. She was not very sympathetic.
Article © Frederick Foote. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-09-15