With the greatest gig in the unviverse, comes great responsibility to make sure the toilets function— for both humanoid species and those otherwise equipped passengers aboard the Elegant Slipstream.
The job let Chrystal Eagle see the universe but it also had one main drawback — the passengers. Including those that with, shall we say, different social behaviors?
With both toilets and passengers one rule applied—expect the unexpected!
Until recently Chrystal felt that her life on the Elegant Slipstream lacked for nothing. The greatest gig in the universe, being a starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, First Class, according to the starship crew manifest. She preferred starship plumber, much easier to say and most species understood what she meant. As the First Technician she only got her hands dirty if she wanted to, she got to see the sights, and she rarely had to deal with the passengers.
Life was good right up until Prince Harris, heir to a planetary dynasty on Epsilon Fortis, dumped her for a jellyfish. He said that he couldn’t be himself with her since he preferred the gelatinous unformed state he’d been in when she first found him clogging up one of the humanoid stalls on board. Okay, he didn’t leave her for a Terran jellyfish, but the species was aquatic and luminescent.
Now even watching the cascading relativistic auras as the Elegant Slipstream’s CrunchBang drive coughed them back up into normal space, a sight worshiped by some species and admired by most, failed to engage her. Chrystal sipped her champagne in her favorite lounge as the auras spread in frenzied fractal patterns, across colors her human eyes couldn’t even fully appreciate. Some called it a birth-of-a-universe moment, only the Elegant Slipstream was the universe reforming itself from nothing into something again. Chrystal didn’t pretend to understand how the CrunchBang drive worked, but she figured the trick was not thinking about the crunch part.
First class passengers mingled in the lounge, humanoid and not, imbibing, eating, ingesting, speaking and signing as the auras reached a peak of activity and then without warning the auras vanished. A group of seven Cantorian scientists, looking like a school group of six-year-olds with canary-yellow scales, raised their voices in song. It soared up on thin, high voices as they threw their heads back and funneled their lips up toward the arching windows above. As the pitch rose Chrystal winced and put her glass down on a passing service droid. It had been a mistake coming up to the lounge to watch their arrival. Three seconds passed and the only disruption came from a Yelephant monk’s cyanide-scented fart on the other side of the lounge. Nearby passengers edged away but no one dared leave yet. In a blinding wash of activity, colors flared across the windows and brought a burst of flavors to her mouth as her brain attempted to make sense of what it was seeing. The wash swept over the ship leaving them in quite normal space with a blue and green planet below. The Cantorians continued singing and the rest of the passengers vacated the vicinity of the Yelephant monk.
Turning to leave she nearly ran right into a passenger. Quadruped, covered in long brown wavy fur, with a thick muscled neck and a long wolfish snout. It wore a bright blue carry sack across its back and a shiny translation collar around its neck. Bright yellow eyes looked at her calmly and blinked in sequence, all three of them. The passenger rocked back into a sitting up position and stuck out one forelimb. What had looked like a black hoof unrolled into three fingers and a thumb.
The passenger mumbled something, and in the curling of its lips Chrystal caught glimpses of shark-like teeth. “Greetings!” Said the translation collar in a cheerful man’s voice. “I am —” the voice switched to a dull genderless monotone “— [unpronounceable].” Then the voice switched back to the cheerful male voice again. “I didn’t catch your name?”
“I didn’t say.” While the collar translated her words into mumbles, Chrystal reluctantly accepted the handshake. The alien’s hand felt hard, like bone, and lacked any warmth. Even worse, he squeezed fairly hard. She winced and pulled her hand free.
“Apologies, did I perform the greeting incorrectly?” He said, his mumbling words translated by the cheerful collar.
Chrystal didn’t know the species, hardly unusual in on a galactic passenger liner. She found it best to get right to the point with passengers. Limiting the scope of her interaction with them made her day better.
“Do you need a steward? I work in sanitation.”
The passenger’s wide nostrils flared. “Oh yes! Delightful aroma. So complex and multidimensional. It is what I noticed first about you.”
“My smell?” Chrystal sniffed her shoulder. She smelled the sharp antiseptic chemical scent of cleansers, but she hadn’t gotten into any messes today.
His nostrils flared again and he inhaled deeply. A shudder shook his shaggy body. “Oh yes! Very nice, very nice indeed.” His mouth fell open showing rows of sharp shark teeth. A smile? “I wondered if I could buy you dinner?”
“Your pick, any tier one establishment, my treat. You’re not a —” the translation collar changed tones again. “— [unpronounceable]?”
Even though he looked like a shaggy brown dog crossed with a giant meerkat Chrystal found herself tempted by the offer. Ordinarily, the only time she got to tier one was to fix some issue with the plumbing in one of the exclusive suites reserved only for the richest of rich. The sentients that stayed on those levels had bathrooms as large as this entire lounge. Larry, the ship’s A.I., wouldn’t even let her into tier one without a work order. Or an invitation. Dinner there probably cost more than she made in a year.
Chrystal hated it, but she had to ask. “Why are you asking me? I don’t think we’re compatible, if you understand what I mean?”
She waited for the translation collar to finish mumbling all of that. He inhaled deeply and shuddered again. Then his fur parted between his legs and Chrystal took a step back, shaking her head.
“No, sorry. I can’t. Thanks, all the same.” She didn’t wait for an answer. She turned and headed quickly away from him. Her cheeks burned at the memory. Passengers!
She heard hard raps behind her and looked back. He was trotting after her on four legs! Chrystal called out. “Larry?”
The passenger was gaining on her and there wasn’t any answer from the ship’s A.I. “Larry!”
The smooth tones of the A.I. came through her earpiece. “We have discussed the need to stick to protocol when addressing me, First Technician.”
“Right, sorry. You just sound like a Larry to me.” She picked up her pace and the passenger loped right along after her with effortless grace. She had the impression that he could catch her at any point and his mouth was opening showing those teeth. “I need security here! Now! I’m being chased!”
“What did you do this time?”
“Nothing!” Chrystal reached the unobtrusive door marked ‘Crew Only’ and palmed through.
As the door closed she turned and saw the passenger slow to a stop, then he turned as two squat, egg-shaped security droids hovered into the lounge. Then the door closed, leaving her alone in the access corridor. Chrystal leaned against the corridor wall. She looked up at the ceiling.
“Thanks, Larry. What is he anyway?”
“A paying passenger,” the A.I. responded, not rising to her taunt. “The crew is expected to handle incidents with a degree of decorum, not racing across a viewing lounge.”
Chrystal pushed away from the wall and walked over to a stack of waiting rail sleds in the red zone. She pulled one down, stepped on and kicked off. The sled picked up speed as she increased the throttle, chasing the red alert lights that pulsed ahead along the red zone lines to inform anyone coming that there was a sled heading toward them. On a ship the size of the Elegant Slipstream, a rail sled was essential to getting around quickly. The ship was helix-shaped, with crew and passenger compartments twining around one another, connected by access corridors and supports. Now that they’d arrived in planetary orbit she could get busy on the repair schedule and stay away from any additional contact with the passengers. Just thinking back at what she had seen, when his hair parted, made her blush. She pushed the thought aside, after all, she’d never see him again anyway.
Four hours later Chrystal was on tier five, waist deep in a bulkhead trying to locate a water line leak. This was the fourth time she had crawled into a bulkhead along this line trying to find the source of the leak the sensors had detected and already she could tell she was wasting her time. On top of that, she was in a public corridor so she had to worry about passengers stepping on her feet, and she could smell the spicy meat smell coming from the Paleo restaurant across the way. She licked her lips but they were as dry as the compartment.
“This one is as dry as the last. If there was a leak wouldn’t there be water on the floor? Maybe some spraying out of the pipes?”
In front of her two silver egg-shaped droids, each as large as an eggplant hovered inches above the floor. Their red scanning lights moved back and forth across the chamber. Huey gave out a low despondent buzz.
“I know, right?” Chrystal rolled onto her back. “La — Ship Mind?”
“Yes, First Technician?”
“We’re not seeing any water down here. All of these compartments are dry.” She felt a tickle in her nose. “And dusty.”
“My logs show a drop in pressure equivalent to one gallon of water leaking. Flow volume monitors show the same drop. My analysis and diagnostics indicate that the water level did drop by that amount.”
Dewey gave a querulous beep.
“I don’t know,” Chrystal said. “That much water, we should have seen it but there isn’t anything that I see in here. What else can you tell me about the water loss?”
“I can forward you the data if you’d like to review it yourself.” If she didn’t imagine it, the ship’s A.I. actually sounded a bit offended that she didn’t trust his analysis.
“That’d be great.”
“I have transferred the data to your tablet.”
Chrystal dug the tablet out of her cargo pocket and thumb-flicked it on. Charts and numbers filled the screen along with a flow volume graph. “Thanks, Larry.”
She was dragging the graph when someone tapped on her knee, and then mumbled something unintelligible. Chrystal groaned.
“There you are!” A cheerful voice rang out. “I’ve tried tracking your scent all over this ship, I wasn’t sure I’d find you, but here you are!”
A long snout shoved into the bulkhead beside her knees and yellow eyes blinked at her. “Remember me? I’m — [unpronounceable] — we met earlier in the lounge?”
Chrystal like lying on her back with this passenger by her legs. “Back up. I’ll come out.”
The passenger withdrew his snout. Chrystal turned her head and looked right into Huey’s red light. “Go through it again and signal me in two minutes whether or not you find anything. Got it?”
Huey chirruped happily.
“Are you stuck?” The passenger asked.
“No.” Chrystal wiggled out of the bulkhead and sat up.
The passenger sat in front of her showing off his shark-like teeth. Chrystal stood up and brushed off her coverall. “Look, I don’t think we’re communicating. Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. Okay? I’m sure you can find all sorts of females willing to have dinner with you.”
His mouth snapped closed and a rumbling growl came from deep in his throat. Chrystal stepped back but she hit the wall. She glanced down at her toolbox. Could she grab a wrench fast enough to fend off an attack?
The passenger mumbled something and a moment later the collar translated, still in that same cheerful tone. “I want you to reconsider. You are quite exotic and I would greatly appreciate — [unpronounceable] — with you.”
“Right now I’m trying to track down a leak, understand? I’m working. I’m not a passenger on this ship, I actually have a job to do. Why don’t you try going planetside?”
“I understand. I tried to buy your contract, but the ship’s mind declined the offer. I don’t see why dinner and — [unpronounceable] — is too much to ask.”
“For one thing your collar isn’t translating everything, so I don’t even understand what all you want. Why don’t you go have that looked at and we’ll talk after I get off work?”
“This is a top of the line translation collar!”
“Maybe, but it doesn’t translate everything, even your name.”
“My name is — [unpronounceable].”
“See, just then? Did you hear how the voice changed? Each time it does that it’s because it couldn’t translate what you said.”
Chrystal felt something bump her leg and looked down at Huey. He beeped twice. She looked back at the passenger. “I really need to get back to work.”
The passenger mumbled briefly and dropped down on all fours. “I’ll be back!”
He trotted away into the crowd and Chrystal sighed. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? This was exactly why she didn’t like dealing with passengers. Huey beeped at her again.
“What is it?” Her tablet flashed in her hand.
Chrystal tapped replay and a video took over the screen. A droid-camera view of the crawlspace in the bulkhead. Huey floating along next to the waterline. The pipe was smooth, except for one spot where a mound of whitish material stuck out of the pipe as if it had developed a pimple. Chrystal froze the video. “What is that?”
Huey beeped sadly.
“I guess I’d better take a look.” Chrystal pocketed the tablet and got back down on the floor, then wiggled into the bulkhead.
It took some contortions to get her head back into the space behind the pipe. Her neck protested the unnatural angle, but she could see the material. It was translucent, whitish and looked very organic. She squeezed her arm up and tapped at the material with her fingernail. Hard, and dry to the touch. Chrystal started to move when she heard something bang against the pipe.
“Huey? Dewey? Was that you?”
Two negative buzzes answered her from the droids.
“Well, something just hit the pipe. Huey, work your way forward. Dewey, head back. Find it.” Chrystal slid on down until her head rested on the floor and her neck wasn’t bent. She pulled out her tablet and tapped into the droids’ visual feeds, displaying them split-screen. Both showed essentially the same view as the droids floated along the pipe.
“First Technician,” Larry’s voice came through her earpiece. “I’m detecting another drop in pressure near your position.”
“I’m working on it. I heard something. The droids are tracking the problem down now.”
On the screen, the view hadn’t changed on Huey’s display but Dewey’s showed something hanging from the pipe ahead.
“Move faster Dewey!”
The droid raced along the pipe closer to whatever it was and then Dewey was close enough that she could see it clearly. An animal with a funnel mouth clamped to the pipe. The long throat swelled and a lump moved down as the creature swallowed. Not an animal, Chrystal realized. The creature wore a green hooded tunic, the hood folded back, and a small pack lay on the floor beside it. The body was very rotund, with skinny little arms and legs kicking in the air as it swallowed straight from the pipe. Dark eyes like raisins in oatmeal rolled to look at the approaching droid. The creature’s arms and legs kicked frantically and the lips peeled back from the pipe. Chrystal caught a glimpse of a hard bony fang-like protrusion piercing the pipe before the creature sneezed a glob of whitish muck onto the pipe, right over the hole, as it fell away. Not a drop of water leaked. The creature snatched up its bag and turned to flee.
“Grab him!” Chrystal shouted.
Dewey extended manipulators and flew after the creature, which was waddling. Chrystal laughed. No way it could out run Dewey.
Evidently, the creature realized that too. It turned and sneezed at Dewey. The image vanished from the tablet and she heard a wail of distress echo through the bulkhead. Chrystal swore and scrambled out of the bulkhead. A tall willowy passenger blinked big black eyes at her as she popped out and then strode quickly away on four thin legs. Chrystal ran along the bulkhead toward the section Dewey had reached.
“Larry! I need security here. Dewey found the cause of the pressure drop.”
“First Technician, why do you persist in using —”
“Security, Larry! We’ve got a stowaway.” As if she didn’t have enough trouble with passengers, now a stowaway too?
“I find that unlikely,” Larry said. “However, I have dispatched security droids to your location.”
Chrystal reached the bulkhead and swiped her id on the access lock. Bolts disengaged and the panel popped free. Dewey lay on the floor, snot gluing him in place. She looked for the stowaway and saw it waddling through the next section.
“Hey! Get back here!”
The stowaway turned and its head drew back. Chrystal recognized the movement and jerked out of the bulkhead. A glob of snot hit the floor in front of her and immediately hardened. “That’s so gross.”
She heard the wail of the approaching security droids and crawled over to the next access lock. She looked up as two massive security droids — Dewey’s giant cousins — glided up to here. “He’s in here. Ready? Watch out for the snot.”
Chrystal swiped the access lock and the panel popped free. She caught the panel and pulled it away, giving the droids access while shielding herself. One of the droids glided forward, extending manipulators into the bulkhead. She heard another explosive sneeze and ducked behind the panel. A glob of snot hit the droid’s visual scanner and hardened. Unfortunately for the stowaway, the droid was undeterred and snatched it out of the bulkhead with a many-tentacled manipulator. The stowaway went limp in the droids grip except for drops of water that welled up from its eyes and pattered down on the deck. Was it crying?
Putting the panel back into place, Chrystal rose and faced the droids and their captive. “Can you understand us?”
The stowaway went into a frenzy of fruitless squirming and then sneezed a huge glob of snot at Chrystal. She barely managed to turn, only enough that the glob hit the side of her head and immediately hardened in her hair, plastering her hair down over her ear.
“Oh, that’s so nasty!” She gingerly probed at her hair but the mass of hardened snot was as hard as the glob plugging the waterline.
Larry’s voice sounded in her earpiece, but was addressing the droids. “Take our unwelcome guest to holding and escort the First Technician down to the medical tier to see what they can do to help.”
Huey floated out of the bulkhead and let out a low mournful beep.
“Someone will come help Dewey and work on repairing the damage caused by that rat,” Chrystal promised. “You stay put to help out.”
Huey beeped affirmatively as she followed the security droids away. Their captive hung limply, but Chrystal stayed back out of range of any more attacks. As they walked past the Paleo restaurant the smells set her stomach rumbling. Stupid stowaway, for the first time she’d found something worse than passengers.
Two hours later, sporting a new Mohawk hairstyle that she actually sort of liked, Chrystal returned to the spot where the stowaway had hidden. All the panels were back in place. Miguel Stacks, her second-in-command, had already reported in that the repairs were complete. It wasn’t the waterline that brought her back, but the Paleo restaurant. Her stomach growled as she headed for the open doors and breathed in the spicy meat smells coming from inside.
Stepping into the dim interior she saw a waiting area and a human hostess dressed in a skin bikini waiting beside the reception desk. A shaggy shape heaved itself up from the waiting bench.
“At last!” A voice exclaimed.
Chrystal’s heart sank. She didn’t want to deal with this lovesick passenger, she wanted food. Meat that she could sink her teeth in. She raised her hands. “What are you doing here?”
As her eyes adjusted to the lighting she saw the shark-toothed passenger clearer. The thick collar he’d worn was gone, replaced by a thin silver model. He didn’t mumble this time before the collar spoke.
“I took your advice and replaced my translation device with a thought-controlled device. Much more efficient, and I’ve been assured that the translation matrix is more accurate.”
“But how did you find me again?”
Shark-like teeth flashed. “The ship mind told me that you planned to dine here after your appointment.”
That was to get back at her for calling him Larry all the time. He must have been listening when she was leaving the clinic and told the technician that she planned on coming back here.
“Larry, shouldn’t have done that,” Chrystal said, expecting that Larry was listening.
“Perhaps you’d like to dine with me? My treat?” The passenger looked around the waiting area. “Although we could find better on the first tier.”
Chrystal sighed. “I want to eat here. Just tell me one thing with your new translator, what’s your name?”
“My name is — [unpronounceable].”
“Of course it is. Let’s eat.” Chrystal marched up to the hostess. “A table for two.”
Bill, as Chrystal thought of the passenger with the unpronounceable name, departed the ship at the next stop but in the two weeks until then Chrystal accompanied him to over a dozen different restaurants, including three first tier establishments. At one she had a chocolate dessert that defied description, but it haunted her dreams for three straight nights. She made it clear that, although she was happy to dine with him, their relationship wasn’t going to turn romantic.
A month after he departed she received a brief message, forwarded to her tablet. Bill grinned with his shark teeth on the screen. “Dear Chrystal Eagle, I wanted to let you know I have found someone for — [unpronounceable] — and hereby release my claim on you. Love, — [unpronounceable].”
Claim? Chrystal flicked the message away. Being a starship plumber was the greatest gig in the universe, too bad she had to deal with passengers.
This story is the 77th short story release, written in February 2011, and follows my earlier story The Greatest Gig.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Shore Leave, which follows the further adventures of Chrystal Eagle.