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A Small Problem

Author: Leopard
Rating: Moderate
Status: In Progress
Preceding: None
Succeeding: A Lost Planet



The Omega Squad: A fleet of six starships, each with a mix-match crew who try their best but very rarely succeed. This is likely to be one of those occasions.

The crew of the good ship Lunar are currently in orbit around one of the exoplanets of some star. They'd know which if their equipment worked properly. They'd also know which galactic criminal they're supposed to be bringing to justice too, if that were the case.


I.

Captain Tropport drummed her fingers on the steering column. They weren't going anywhere until the navigation systems were back on, and though Commander Gan had promised it'd be within the next Orbit, she had little hope. Frankly, their engineer was the worst narm'd crew she'd ever had the misfortune to work with, and that was saying a lot seeing as she'd worked with some pretty terrible crews. For a bad pilot, she was definitely the best at her job on the ship. 

She didn't turn to look as the door to the command deck opened. She knew it was Gan from the quiet exclamation of pain as he hit his head off the roof, again. He was even short for a Zinyan, and yet still managed to crash into everything with all three of his arms. 

"News, Commander?" Tropport asked, suspecting she knew the answer. Gan crouched down next to her. 

"Did I not promise we'd be repaired in the next Orbit?" Tropport turned her head to look at him, uncertain of where the conversation was headed. 

"You did."

"How long has it been since I said that?" They both looked to the dial-clock. 

"9.6 Spins. Get to your point. Are we ready to fly?" Gan paused. Tropport sighed, but before she could make a remark, the Commander continued.

"We have power to the engine and the basic navigation is running. We know what quadrant we're in, and even what system, just not specifics-" 

"I need specifics! How can you expect me to pilot a ship without any sort of functionality? Get back to the crew, and tell them they need the job done properly in the next five Spins or else- or else... Just do it!" Gan scuttled away quickly, leaving Tropport alone in the deck. She rubbed her forehead and frowned. Even as a child she'd always wanted to be among the stars. And now she was a pilot, a Captain no less, even if it was a captain of complete imbeciles. 

So what if she'd failed the test a few times? She was still the superior voice on the ship, and they would have to do as she said. After all, being a Captain meant you were the best at making difficult decisions. Perhaps that was why she'd failed before. Being hot-headed means fast and angry decisions, and that doesn't always end well. 

Right now, Tropport was anxious to do the job and get out of there. It made her nervous to be so far out, and it was even worse when they had no idea where they were. In fact, they weren't even entirely sure that Thax was even on the planet the Alpha Project had said he was. Everything was going terribly wrong already, and even worse that the Pi Squad had had their eye on the job. She'd be damned if her crew failed a job that one of the better Squads had wanted.

She was so lost in her determinedly angry thoughts that she didn't notice Officer Sollem slip into the command deck. She turned around, surprised as she felt eka hand on her shoulder. Tropport always noticed just how cold Sollem seemed to be, though it was the nature of eka species. After all, Shulle was in one of the coldest parts of the galaxy, and so the Shulleka has adapted to have thick, grey skin, and long hair. Sollem usually wore eka in a neat plait, and often it was curled away under eka hat. 

"Captain? I'm sorry to interrupt, ah, but I wanted you to know that I have information on the criminal Thax." Sollem always sounded apologetic, and if Tropport has been more like Gan, that is, blunter with expressing opinions, she might have told eka to stop. But she wasn't, and so she didn't. Instead, she nodded. 

"Thanks, Sollem. I wish the rest of the crew were like you: good at their jobs." Sollem looked down at eka feet, seeming to be embarassed at the compliment. "Please, what have you got?"

Sollem cleared eka throat, and began."Thax, an alias for the criminal Peter Hethax who has been rogue, ah, for some time. Wanted for theft of rare Lithium compounds from several facilities. Not dangerous, but not, ah,  friendly. I suspect he has weapons down there, and he is." One of the many advantages of Officer Sollem, and indeed of all the Shulle, was their mild telepathic senses. 

“He’s definitely there?” Tropport asked, relief washing over her. Even if her stupid crew couldn’t pull themselves together, at least they were in the right place. “Can you stay here? I need to go and tell Gan and Silva to hurry up so we can get out of this place.”

She got up and strided out, not waiting for a reply. Sollem could be annoyingly humble and shy, but at least eka actually did was eka was told. If only the same could be said for Silva. So she might be a good engineer, but she had no sense of deadlines, or if she did, they were very loose.

Had Tropport not been so frustrated, she might have remembered that this was in fact the first mission they had all shared where something like this had gone wrong. Previous to this, they had only flown three missions together. Tropport was a new captain and Gan had been demoted to a commander of the Omega Squad, so they were both sent to the Lunar crew to replace the old captain and commander.

Thinking about it, Tropport realised she had no idea what had actually happened to them. She had assumed they had been fired, but anything could have happened. She just hoped it hadn’t been something permanent that stopped them from their jobs. Another mystery was Gan’s demotion. He was a skilled commander, quick at making good decisions and - to Tropport’s annoyance - always confused for the captain.

She was the captain. Everyone who met her learned this very, very quickly.

Gan and Silva were about to learn it again as Tropport entered the heart of the ship, where all the electricals were and where the hatch to the engine was. Her speech about how she, the captain, needed her ship fixed so why weren’t they doing it? was forgotten as she stepped in to see the wave of red lights.

“What in the universe has happened?”

II.

Silva looked up, her bright blond fringe falling from behind her ear to drift in front of her face. She brushed it back with a frown, her fingers leaving dirty streaks behind. After noting that the intruder was the captain she turned back to the electrical panel she was working on, returning the screwdriver she was holding into her mouth.

“Hi, cap’n.” she mumbled around the tool. “We had a power surge and everything went wrong.” As she leaned in towards the wires, Gan stepped towards Tropport. In his hands were all Silva’s tools as though he were a living, three handed toolbox.

“As we flew past the star, it was giving off more solar energy than we expected-”

“Than we were told.” Silva interrupted, her voice muffled behind the panel. Gan grunted, his thick eyebrows lowering to almost cover his eyes.

“-and so it took out a lot of our system, including the nav-”

“The nav, comms, radar are all down, the steering’s busted and the clock’s gone wrong.”

Tropport sighed. This was typical. Was it so hard to have one person explain what was wrong and fix it? She found it hard to believe it was so difficult to get anything done efficiently, yet the proof was here in front of her.

“Please tell me you’ve nearly fixed it. We are, as it happens, actually on a job you know. The Alpha Project won’t be happy if we don’t report, and they’re the ones who control our licences to fly in this ship.” Silva sat back on her heels as Tropport spoke, eyebrows raised and mouth hanging slightly open, half annoyed and half bewildered that all Tropport could think about was being told off a bit by their superiors. Had it not been for them they wouldn’t be here, broken down in the middles of nowhere.

“Look, Louisa, it’s under control. I swear I’m dealing with it. I just need more time. Those idiots back at the Project couldn’t care less what happens to us and you know that as well as I do. To them, we’re replaceable, like robots heeding to their every word and doing all their dirty jobs. You think they see us as living beings?” Silva locked eyes with Tropport, who was taken aback for a moment as Silva used her first name rather than her last.

In honesty, Silva had always found it unfair how she was the only one who got called by her first name. It was in part to avoid confusion with her sister she knew, but it felt very much like being looked down on, as though she weren’t just as valuable to the team as the Captain or Commander.

However, Tropport quickly recovered, forcing her face back into her ‘I’m-the-Captain’ expression, a mix of stern eyebrows and pursed lips. Gan sighed heavily behind the two, rolling his eyes. If only Tropport knew how she looked when she drew herself up like that. She looked less like a commanding force and more like someone who was trying really, really hard to be one.

“I’m aware of your opinions of the Alpha Project, Silva, but let’s not forget that they are who sent us here, and that they are relying on us to do our jobs, irregardless of our opinions of them. We have been sent-”

“Regardless.” Silva interrupted. She hadn’t taken her eyes off Tropport and had been mouthing along with her speech. Tropport was too fond of speeches.

“I’m sorry?” Tropport refocused her gaze onto Silva, blinking twice and shaking her head. She did have a tendency to let her words run away with her before she’d thought them through, and so was almost glad to have lost where she had been going.

“Irregardless isn’t a word. Regardless already means what you think irregardless means without the extra suffix.” Before Tropport could criticize Silva for criticizing her, Silva turned back to her control panel, snatching a screwdriver from Gan’s hand. “Now, if you’re finished, I’m actually busy.”

Tropport stood, unsure what to say next. She wanted the final word, but she also wanted her ship fixed, so it looked like she was going to have to let Silva win. She looked at Gan who just shrugged. With a sigh, she left them.

{}{}{}

The flight deck door opened with a crunch. Tropport always forgot to mention it to Silva that it needed looking at. After being on one of the Chi Squad ships, she had realised the doors were supposed to make a faint ‘whoosh’, not sound like sandpaper over nails. Then again, that was the side effect to being in the worst squad of the Alpha Project - everything broke.

Sollem was sat at eka seat, watching the screens in front of ekam. Eka rested a grey finger on it as though willing it to work so eka could report to Tropport. Upon hearing the door, eka turned to look at Tropport, smiling. “Are we nearly fixed, Captain?”

Tropport shrugged, her face dropping. “Goodness knows. Silva might be a good engineer, might even be the best in the Omega Squad, but she doesn’t seem to understand deadlines, or authority.” She walked over to her seat and dropped into it with a sigh.

“She is certainly the best engineer this ship has ever seen, ah, Captain. But I don’t think it’s, ah, authority that she does not respect-”

“Are you telling me that my own crew don’t respect my authority?” Tropport snapped, sitting bolt upright to look at Sollem with fire. She regretted making Sollem flinch yet wasn’t going to take back her anger. Sollem shook eka head quickly, holding eka hands up.

“No, no, not at all. I’m sorry, ah, you misunderstand what I’m trying to say. Believe me, Silva Smithwood has plenty of respect for you - and I’ve seen her when she doesn’t respect someone. She’s just challenging you because, ah, she thinks you’re worth the challenge. And, ah, as much as you might not think it, you certainly aren’t the worst Captain we’ve had - the most uptight perhaps, but not the worst.” Sollem held eye contact with Tropport. She was still angry, but now she felt embarrassed too at cutting Sollem off too soon which was the worst combination ever.

Feeling her face burn red hot she turned away from her Officer, her shoulders slumping again. She mumbled “I’m sorry, Sollem. I just want to get this job over. I hate arresting criminals, they make me nervous.“

Eka nodded ekam forgiveness. “I can feel it. It’s more overwhelming than usual. Normally, ah, you feel nervous and worried but today it’s, ah, very powerful.”

Tropport mumbled another apology, not knowing what else to say or do. Before Sollem could say anything else she changed the subject. “Did you know that the solar energy was going to be strong, Sollem? Because Silva said the Alpha Project didn’t warn us how bad it would be.” She looked up to see Sollem’s eyebrows furrow deeply.

“She is right. They told us there would be increased activity, yes, but not enough to, ah, affect a whole ship. Silva was sure it was the solar wind that broke our system?” Sollem met Tropport’s eyes again. She nodded vigorously.

“Yes. Aren’t the Alpha Project supposed to tell us things like that? I thought it was one of the new Galactic Codes that people weren’t allowed to be sent into high radiation zones after the increased radiation poisoning in the Kesp Belt?” Though Tropport phrased it as a question, she knew the answer. She was more or less a walking encyclopaedia of all the laws and codes and rules of the Alpha Project and of their partners the Galactic Project.

The two Projects had been formed to help the galaxy. To protect, to serve, to explore was their motto; to protect the people of the sectors they were based in, to serve them and to serve justice, and to explore beyond inhabited zones. That was why Tropport had joined the Alpha Project, she wanted to explore and she wanted more than anything to fly.

Sollem had turned back to ekam control panel to check over the mission and what the Alpha Project had told them. All of a sudden, eka made a noise of surprise, making Tropport jump in her seat, worrying for a moment that something serious was happening. “What?” she demanded.

“Silva’s got the nav and radar back online! We, ah, if you’re ready, can land, Captain.” Though eka phrased it as a question, Tropport could hear the implication that she should land and soon. She had wanted the comms to come back so she could report to the Alpha Project, but then she reasoned that they would be more pleased if they got the job done quickly and efficiently rather than wait and wait and wait just to report the situation.

“I’m ready. Can you send the message to Gan that we’re landing?” Tropport straightened up in her seat and took hold of the steering column. After Sollem had send the message, eka typed in the coordinates of their landing spot on the planet below. Eka nodded once to show that ekam was ready to begin the descent.

Tropport smiled as she fired up the engines. There could be no doubt. She loved flying more than anything else in the universe.

III.

As Tropport and Sollem conducted the post-landing checks, Gan entered the flight deck. “Rough landing?” he asked, trying his hardest to be sympathetic to the adverse conditions. Tropport frowned, her eyebrows knotting. She knew she wasn’t the best at landing, and definitely not without half her system, but she hadn’t thought it was that bad.

Before she could speak to defend her landing, Gan continued. “Silva’s just making sure we’re not going to blow up or anything while we’re on the ground.” He laughed, low and grating, sounding more like he was choking on one of his lungs than was amused. Zinyans weren’t designed for laughing, or for smiling, so each time Gan did he ended up looking and sounding even more intimidating and frightening than usual.

“Is an explosion likely?” Sollem asked, worry consuming eka face. Just as Zinyans weren’t accustomed to having a sense of humour, Shulle weren’t good at understanding or telling jokes. Eke were used to talking plainly without many metaphors and without any sarcasm, so Sollem had a tendency to take things too literally. The two of them meant telling funny stories on the good ship Lunar was very tricky indeed.

“Nah, I doubt it. We’re more likely going to have to unbend our landing wheels. Any news on, oh, what’s ‘is name…?” Gan put two of his hands on him hips and lifted the other to his head as he wracked his brain.

“Thax?” Tropport offered, trying desperately to get a word in. “No, other than that he is in fact here.”

“Nearby.” Sollem said, sure of what ekam was saying. Tropport sighed and resigned herself to being the silent on in the conversation. Like that wasn’t normal.

“Can you tell how how nearby he is, Officer?” Sollem shook eka head to Gan’s disappointment. “Aw, shame. At least we know he’s here though, right? Ready for you to give the order, Captain.”

Gan turned to Tropport and smiled. Tropport couldn’t help but notice how square and grey his teeth were every time he smiled, and the way his mouth looked like it was contorting. She nodded so that she could avert her gaze, looking to the floor and then to Sollem who was looking at her with the same eager expression of Gan.

The plan ran through her mind. She and Gan would go to the surface, find Thax and try to reason him into coming back. If he refused, well, that was why she was bringing Gan. Though he was softer than a kitten, he still looked terrifying. Sollem would be on the ship watching and guiding them while Silva finished fixing the ship. In theory, nothing should go wrong and they’d be out of this hell-world soon. All they would need was a miracle.

“Yes, yes, I’m ready. Gan,as you’ve been so busy helping Silva and standing here blabbering, I should take that to mean you’ve sorted out the suits, and prepared the airlock?” Tropport stared at him pointedly, knowing full well what the answer would be. He hung his head, turned, and left without a word. She sighed, sinking in her seat.

Pretending not to have noticed Sollem’s look of disapproval - or at least, that’s what it looked like - Tropport got up and walked up to the main display. She could of course control it from her seat, but she liked the feeling of control she got to stand up and gesture at the screen. She ran through a list of the outside conditions. There was no chance of rain.

Gan returned a few moments later. He was wearing his specially designed space suit, one it had taken months for them to get made because none of the designers seemed to understand that Gan had three arms, two left and one right. He’d gone through four before he had got one that fit correctly. Tropport was just glad that they hadn’t given her one designed for a tall, thin person based on assumptions.

Tropport nodded awkwardly to Sollem, not knowing what else to say. Ekam did a tiny wave as she and Gan left the flight deck and headed for the air lock. Tropport glared at the crunching door again.

They made their way in silence. Several times Gan seemed to have something to say but thought better of it. Tropport grabbed her suit and pulled it on, ignoring Gan. She always found it impossible to put on, getting her arms stuck and being unable to zip it. This time was no different, but pride forbade her from asking Gan for help so she hopped around, fumbling with the zip desperately. Thank the stars the atmosphere was breathable, because the helmets were even more of a pain to put on.

Muttering numbers under her breath, Tropport typed in the six digit code to open the airlock. They stepped into the chamber, and waited a moment for the pressure inside to match that of outside. With a whoosh, the outer door opened allowing the light of the red sun to flood in. Gan looked at Tropport, who nodded and led the way out.

Looking at the place, it was likely there was never any rain. Beyond stretched a barren wasteland, red dust covering rocks and craters. Thax had almost certainly brought his own supplies, because unless he’d stolen some of the biodome technology, there was no way anything would grow or survive.

In a way, it reminded Tropport of home. She had been raised on Mars, as most humans were these days. Around a century ago, humanity had started colonising Mars as a place to migrate to. It had taken several decades, and Tropport had been one of the first generations to not remember life on Earth.

She had only visited once. It was hard to believe the stories of Earth in the past, of the skyscrapers and roads, palaces and trains and traces of humans everywhere you could look. None of that remained. All that was left were trees and ruins. She had seen a rusted car too, one with no wheels or windows. Whatever colour it had been was indistinguishable, an empty shell that now homed brambles. How could humans have allowed such a beautiful place to choke to death with their machines? However she tried, Tropport couldn’t imagine a cloud of smog hanging in the air like at home.

Some people did live on Earth again, dubbed the Leaf Lickers by the Martian community. They were generally looked down upon, though Tropport could see herself retiring to Earth just to feel soft grass under her toes, a luxury she had never been afforded at home. Perhaps she would build the first Earth retirement home.

Gan had already crunched his way forward from the ship, and was waiting for Tropport to catch up. “Can you slow down? Not everyone has such long legs.” she grumbled to Gan’s amusement.

“Sorry, Cap.” Before she had time to huff about the formalities of her position, their earpieces crackled, a sharp, loud noise directly into their ears.

“Sollem!” Tropport shouted as she jumped, her hand flying to her ear. Gan winced in a similar way, his eyes half closed.

“Ah, sorry, sorry. The transmitter seems to be, ah, a little faulty.” Sollem apologised, eka voice wavering in volume as ekam tried to set the levels.

Tropport sighed. “It’s fine now, Sollem. Now tell us, which way?”

“Well, ah, you see, we’re not certain. I think he is - krrk - to your straight ahead, ah, a few kilometers away.”

Terrific. They were going to get lost out here, with a bloody criminal and with their communications sounding riskily intermittent. Just terrific.

IV.

“Left to your straight ahead, ah, a few kilometers away.” Sollem glared at the comm as it spat out interference, bashing it once on the desk in from of eka. Blasted technology, it never worked as it was meant to. Some days ekam wished eka had stayed on Shulle, where everything was organic. All this electric and nuclear based fuel was far noisier than anything back home, where everything relied on what nature gave them.

Some days, the harsh electric lights gave Sollem a headache and ekam wished for the light-trees of home. The soft, blue light of the bioluminescent leaves could not be matched by the sharp yellows and oranges and the mechanical whirring and clunking and roaring. Ekam had never understood humans who said that machines hummed. If they spent one day on Shulle they’d soon realise what true humming power sounded like.

Yes, Sollem pined for home most days, feeling out of place in this built up part of the galaxy, longing for the gentle blues and greys of home. But ekam had a job to do, and if living among bright lights and whirring technology was the price ekam had to pay to go and travel the stars, and prove to ekeself that in fact Shulleka were capable of far more than farming or sitting in a stuffy room full of old, rich politicians arguing, well, ekam would pay it.

Before ekam had left to join the Alpha Project, eka family had celebrated eka leaving by having a traditional send off. Usually, send offs were for a member of a family travelling Shulle, or for leaving to go and join partners or begin a family. Shulle was often seen as a simple world, but eke traditions ran deep. Sollem had been overwhelmed by the good luck gifts given to eka by friends and family, the traditional cakes and scarves and a beautiful woven hat from eka only sibling, Layen. Ekam wore it often to remind eka of home, plaiting eka hair then coiling it up into ekam hat.

Sollem touched the tree tattoo on eka shoulder, hidden by eka uniform. Ekam had been surprised to learn that to humans, tattoos were permanent and not painted onto the skin. Shulleka used a range of different paints, all black to stand out against eke grey skin, and chosen based on how long it was supposed to last. Sollem’s tree, ekam hoped, would last for some years yet. Thinking about it, ekam needed to go over the crescent moon on ekam wrist as it had begun to fade.

Eka thoughts were broken as the flight deck door crunched open and Silva waltzed in, a screwdrive in hand from where she had presumably forgotten to put it down. She went over to Sollem, leaned in over eka shoulder to look at the screen, hummed in discontent and sat in her seat next to eka. “All well at the front end?”

“I’m afraid the mobile comm seems a little, ah, intermittent, Smithwood. I’m not certain that the Captain received my directional instructions.” Sollem always chose to refer to everyone by their last names, unless specifically told to use their first. Shulleka didn’t really have a sense of first and last names, instead having a name and a family group that was represented by a symbol, not word. It was Sollem’s only permanent tattoo, a bird with its head bowed at the base of eka spine.

Silva smiled at the formality, finding it nice to sound like she was being treated with respect. She held out her hand. “Give it here, let’s have a look at the narm’d thing.” Sollem handed eka comm over without a word, watching as Silva unscrewed the back with another, smaller screwdriver she had produced from a pocket in her trousers.

Sollem enjoyed watching Silva work. She had a methodical approach, looking to solve the problem with efficiency. She always immersed herself fully in her work, not caring for the smudges of oil or dirt on her face or overalls, muttering to herself about how to go about fixing things. Sollem half wanted to ask if ekam could help, but instead said nothing and tried to figure out what Silva was doing with the colourful wires in the device.

Again, Silva’s near white fringe fell over her eyes. It was oil streaked from where she had pushed it back behind her ear many times. In fact, Sollem had barely seen Silva without her fringe highlighted with dirt, and wondered why she didn’t tie it up or get it cut into a more practical style.

But Sollem said nothing, keeping all eka thoughts to ekeself. Ekam heard the sighs of the others at ekam silence, their frustrations when they were expecting an answer in multi-syllables only to receive one word. Ekam couldn’t help it - ekam didn’t understand why ekam would use words upon meaningless words when one would suffice, didn’t understand why it was bad to be someone who listened rather than talked over.

Listening was all very well but even Sollem could be distracted by eka thoughts and daydreams. Silva waved her hand in front of Sollem’s face, redirecting eka attention. Ekam blinked in surprise and hung eka head. “Oh, I apologise for my, ah, inattention. If you would please repeat that?”

“No worries, mate. I said, I think this is back online so can you try getting through to Cap and Gan?” Silva half threw the comm back to Sollem who caught it as though it were an uncooked egg.

Ekam pressed the green button on the side, the ‘press to speak’ button, and said “Captain? Please report your location. Captain?” Sollem raised it to eka ear as though the closeness would turn the silence into Tropport’s frustrated tones. Ekam shook ekam head and handed it back.

Silva’s frown deepened as she glared at the comm. “There’s nothing wrong with this one so it must be on the other narm’d end. Because they’d never think about checking their equipment before they go gallivanting off onto this idiot planet! Of course, that would make perfect sense! Let’s not let the engineer check stuff, especially not after the whole ship’s tech’s been interfered with, you know, in case it’s broken.” Silva had trailed off into muttering to herself, once again taking the comm apart as though reassembling it again would fix the problem.

She often spoke to herself like this, muttering while she worked as though keeping herself company. Sollem found it endearing how humans had discussions with themselves as they went about doing what they were doing. On Shulle, hardly anyone spoke aloud at all. The hum of the planet was filled with mental energy, shulleka communicating in their minds and sensing others around them.

Sometimes, Sollem’s head felt so empty it was crushing. Ekam had no idea how all these people managed without broadcasting their thoughts to each other. Of course, you could hide whatever thoughts you wanted, but it still felt quiet without hearing other’s happiness. Reading it from their faces was so much harder. So it seemed the conversations with themselves made up for it.

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