Cris has been to the shipyard five times.
He can’t afford the one he wants, but he lingers near her anyway, binary suns glinting off her hull. Something about the red and white ship calms his mind.
After all, his thoughts aren’t his own, are they? They’re classified. Every second of Captain Vandermeer killing those two people, then eating his own phaser — never happened, according to Starfleet Command. Yet the scene plays out in Cris’ memory, every second with perfect clarity, over and over.
Except when he’s near this ship, this Kaplan F17 Speed Freighter. She sings to him, a lullaby, and his shoulders relax as his mind clears. He knows he should take a look at the F13 or the F6. He could pay for one of those and have credits to spare.
But he puts a hand to the F17, the desert wind stinging his eyes, the metal warm to his touch.
“Only you can decide what you want. You are in control,” Cris mutters, imitating any one of the Starfleet counselors who were of no use to him.
“Oh, you already know what you want.”
Cris turns from hull plating that he’s spent more time with than any person in the last few weeks. Striding toward him is a man Cris has seen around the shipyard.
Blond hair peppered with grey.
Haunted look in his eyes that reminds Cris of what he sees in the mirror when he bothers to look.
“What did you say?” Cris’ hand drops from the F17.
“I said you already know what you want. You’ve been here, what, four times? Five?” The man stands shoulder to shoulder with Cris and gives the ship a pat. “Always with your eyes on this little lady.”
Cris nods. “She is a beauty. I can’t deny.”
The man chuckles. “Now you’re just flattering me.” A hand extends. “My name’s Tom. I designed this one and a few others here. But she’s my favorite.”
“Cris.” The handshake is firm. Cris doesn’t want to be charmed by a salesman ... yet he has to know. “Why is she your favorite?”
There’s a low whistle. “Have you ever piloted an F17?”
Cris’ head shakes.
“C’mon.” Tom leads Cris to a boarding port, their steps kicking up dust that settles on black boots. “I’m sure you’ve read the specs. Deflectors. Phasers. Landing gear. Holo-tactical interface, plus holograms and shipwide holo-emitters standard.”
Cris has the specs memorized.
But he hasn’t had the courage to do this, to walk into a ship that isn’t Starfleet but could be home.
The door slides open.
A smell wafts out — a slap in the face of clean life-support filters and new bulkheads.
Cris’ legs twitch. He wants to run. Back to the ibn Majid, back to the captain he loved and the Starfleet system that made his place in the galaxy seem so clear.
“Hey.” Tom’s forehead furrows. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Cris rubs his eyes. “Yeah. Sorry.”
They step in and lights come on automatically.
Grey interior, like there will be no highs of happiness here, but also no valleys of sadness, no pain.
Deck plating reverberates with their footsteps, and Cris tries to imagine a life of piloting for hire, flying from place to place free from Starfleet and counselors and the memory of a captain who put a phaser to his own lips and pulled the trigger.
His stride falters.
He sags against a bulkhead.
He can’t do this.
The heels of Cris’ hands press to his closed eyes and he sees a night without stars.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Tom’s voice pierces the darkness, “did Starfleet, by chance, toss you out like a bag of garbage when you couldn’t take a mental gut-punch?”
An almost-palpable snap of electricity fires across Cris’ brain. “How did you know?”
Tom takes Cris by the elbow, gently steers him into the captain’s chair. “I can smell my own.”
“You?” Cris blinks at the man settling into the pilot’s seat.
“Twice. Once when I was a dumb kid and then,” Tom activates the holo-interface and a flick of his wrist sends the ship skyward, “well, my wife was called in for morning shift at Utopia Planitia, First Contact Day, 2385.”
The synth attack.
Tom shifts the controls and the F17 skims through the atmosphere, then constellations appear through the front viewport. “Her death was pretty rough for me, but Starfleet only got involved when my work suffered. You’d think getting drummed out for the second time would have been easier. Turns out, it hurt even more. I was old enough to know I wasn’t in the wrong.”
A backward glance and a nod tells Cris to take the controls.
He pulls his pilot’s license from his pocket, lets the ship scan it, then grasps the holo-interface.
The ship surges forward with the most perfectly tuned impulse drive Cris has ever commanded. He slides his hand for a turn and it’s as if the F17 is part of his body, smooth and responsive.
“She’s an incredible ship,” he murmurs.
There’s a slight smile and Tom settles back, quiet.
Cris wonders if this is a sales technique, a sob story followed by silence to get the chump in the captain’s chair to yearn even more for this ship that arcs through space, to suddenly hunger for this dream of soaring among stars that are constants in a galaxy of change.
If so, it’s working.
He needs to distract himself.
“When I was a little boy, my mother told me stories of the mer-people.” Cris tries to ignore the perfect glide of the holo-control as he turns the F17 back toward the shipyard. “Half-human, half-fish. This ship is like la sirena, the mermaid’s song that could lure a sailor even if he knew better.”
“How so?” Tom enters holo-commands and Cris figures the salesman must be logging a test drive in the ship’s database. He’s a good salesman, and guilt pools in Cris’ stomach.
“Because I can’t afford her,” he blurts. Cris’ hands fall to his lap, bringing the F17 to a stop. “I wasted your time and I’m sorry.”
There’s a shake of Tom’s head. “I know a thing or two about half-humans, and sometimes they’re the best thing that ever happened to a lonely sailor. Enjoy your ship, Cris. I’ve registered her as La Sirena. She’s yours.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Cris doesn’t know what kind of sales technique this is, but his cheeks are hot with embarrassment. “I said I can’t pay for this ship.”
Tom enters more commands into a holo-interface, then stands.
“I inherited quite a few credits when my father died. More than I’ll ever need. Every so often, I see a sailor singing to a ship. This one just happened to sing back — and I’ve learned over the years that good duets are hard to find. Like I said, Cris, enjoy her.”
Cris surges forward in his chair, mouth open to question this insane generosity, but a holographic deed of ownership appears in front of him. There’s his name, La Sirena, and a note: bomDI' 'IwwIjqaqaw. An automatic translation from the Klingon reads: Her memory sings in my blood.
Through the hologram, Cris sees Tom gesture a final holo-command, then a transporter beam whisks him back to the shipyard, leaving Cris by himself, but not alone, on La Sirena.