Eni shared her berth with Susan James, cook and back-up systems chief, who flame of red hair cascaded down her back. Before this, Eni had only ever seen it in the single, thick braid Susan wore when working. Eni had rich, chestnut-brown hair that suited her well and Stavo called beautiful. She smiled sadly. Her hair couldn’t compare with Susan’s waterfall of color, but it didn’t matter. Eni knew who she was and felt such an instant bond to the woman that she hardly gave it a thought. In fact, in the two days they waited for the balance of their cargo to be loaded, she discovered she fit well with this all-female crew. They all seemed content with their lot and worked well together. Finally, it became time to undock from the station.
As the newest member of the crew, untrained in any of the bridge duties, Eni settled into the lone, empty acceleration couch. Oddly proud that she had managed to correctly belt into the multiple belts and restraining straps without help, she sat quietly, trying to learn everything she could through observation. Their departure proceeded without incident or complaint. She learned little that would help in a crisis or even in the simple departure from station, but her high opinion of this crew and their work ethic was reinforced. Still, despite the changes time and training would bring, Eni felt out-of-place and insecure. It wasn’t a feeling she enjoyed or had experienced much previously.
Captain Cornwell seemed to sense this and, she supposed the other as well. When they were safely out-system, locked onto the correct vector to the jump point, the captain gave orders for the crew to assembly in what, to Eni’s mind seemed a closet, but served as the galley. She introduced Eni to those she had seen but not yet met, giving her a tally of who they were and what they did. Eni already felt comfortable with Camile and Susan and had developed a nodding relationship with Josepha Murphy, the third member of the bridge crew. Next came the quiet and no-doubt efficient queen of Evironmental, Anne Patel. She was also, Eni thought, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Here, at last, fluttered the Reactor-Room Dyke, a holdover term that had lost what spike it had when it rang new. It hardly applied to Worboo Owintieu, a diminutive Lefor, from the race everyone called fairies. Barely two-feet tall, she could lift a lorry. Being from a heavy-gravity planet with ubiquitous surface deposit of uranium made her immune to any leakage through the interface between the ship and the reactor core. Her iridescent wings were everything Eni had expected and more.
Captain Cornwall said, “I’m Pat, when aboard. Murph, Anne and Boo followed with their shipboard names. Eni already knew that Susan always answered to Susan and didn’t ask why.
“Call me Eni,” she said. They all welcomed her again as Eni, including Camile, who everyone simply called Jinx. Eni had learned it was meant as a compliment, though she had to wonder. It would be a long time before Eni seriously pondered where it came from and what it meant. She found herself much too busy as the ship continued toward its jump point.
Eni started in Environmental, where the only sound came from her scrubbing every filter once and then a second time. Anne ruled her domain like an ancient monarch, a queen indeed.
She hammered Eni, “clean, clean, clean. Poorly maintained systems will prove a much surer end than any encounter with pirates.”
This was something Eni understood; she didn’t need to pretend. Her time as a cop on Arcadia served her well. From clean weapons and well-ordered quarters, it was no great leap to maintaining your air and your life. Somehow the, it didn’t seem too odd that there was a small amount of tension between Anne and Susan. Though Eni kept her bunk with military precision, Susan’s scattered mess of a nest contrasted with her formal name. Still, they were all friends and there banter seemed no more than gentle teasing. Though she’d had a hard taskmaster, Eni felt almost sorry to leave environmental. Not only had she repeatedly scrubbed every filter, she learned the place and purpose of every line and run. She knew what the dials should read and what to do about them if they were off.
Next, Eni went to Engineering. She felt clueless and hopeless. It didn’t help that Jinx set problems for her that Eni thought worthy of the legendary Sphinx. Yet Jinx wasn’t shy with her help and almost before Eni realized it, she had learned the basics of manual problem solving, as well as the standards and computer-aided calculations. She didn’t feel as if she had learned much, certainly not enough, but Jinx said she would probably be able to pass a random test from any master. Eni knew she had learned enough to keep them from disaster. Despite the difficulty of the subject, she would have liked to spend more time in Engineering. Unfortunately, Jinx said it was time to move on. Her life and time on the Shortest Mile was again rearranged when she went to the bridge.
Eni both bunked and worked with Susan now, the same board and billet, and here she began to fathom Susan’s formality about her name. She taught Eni about the scanners and alarms on or triggered from the bridge. Thorough in her instruction, Susan explained how she thought of life as a game. She lived free and easy, but never stinted on the important details. She considered very little overreaching and confronted Eni about her plans. Susan sensed that Eni’s time on the ship would be short. She tried to persuade to stay on; they’d rarely had a sixth crew member who learned so quickly or fit so well. She explained she’d had so many loves that many of them had been forgotten or misplaced.
Eni did her best to explain her feelings for Stavo, how each completed the other, but there was no convincing this free spirit. Susan found a love for life on every station and couldn’t seem to keep track of which planet or nation they owed their allegiance. Nor did she care if they all flew away on the wayward dawn. Eni smiled and shook her head. Each had been clear, but there was a gulf between their views of life that would never be bridged. They didn’t think less of each other, they just couldn’t understand. Eni knew that if she gave up, lost hope of ever finding Stavo, she might as well be dead. She thought Susan’s life sounded lonely, though Susan could not see it. She lived the life she chose, whole, complete and happy, and that if other didn’t understand that was their problem.
“All this talk of other halves sound sappy,” she said. Yet it seemed to Eni that Susan smiled wistfully as she turned to set another plot for Eni to analyze.