Part of Phoenix: Back in Black

Enjoy the Fresh Air

Starfleet Command, Earth
July 2156
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It was a sunny day in San Francisco when the Phoenix was due to launch, so Lopez slouched to the shuttlepad in large sunglasses to shield against the bright light, horrifically hungover. Her pilot was smoking when she arrived, leaning against the hull, and noticed her so late he had to scramble to put it out.

‘Don’t bother,’ she groaned at him. ‘Unless you don’t let me bum one off you. In which case, put it out.’

He was a young man, not that tall but pretty broad, bristly-short brown hair framing rather square features, with deep-set eyes and a nose that looked like it had been broken at least once in the past. She suspected that with Commander West, she’d filled her quota on crew who’d suit a recruitment poster. ‘Oh, uh, sure, Captain.’

She grabbed the roll-up and accepted the lighter. ‘Enjoy the fresh air; it’ll be a while ‘til we’re back,’ she said, aware of the irony as she smoked. ‘What’s your name, Ensign?’

‘Corrigan, sir. Jack Corrigan.’

‘You’re not my primary Helmsman, Corrigan.’

‘No, sir. That’ll be Ensign Antar. She’s up prepping for launch; Commander Edison sent me down to pick you up.’

‘Oh yeah, can’t possibly have a captain fly her own shuttlepod up. Not if she’s been flying since before her chauffeur was born.’ Lopez turned away from Corrigan, looking across the bay. Her gaze was drawn not to the sea or sky, not to the verdant greenery; those, she expected, she’d see again. Colony worlds boasted life and landscapes that reminded her of Earth. What they would lack was the sheer bustling human life of the city.

When she looked back at Corrigan, his face had settled into a surly expression, and she realised she’d taken her comment as an insult. With a groan, she ditched her cigarette and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Ensign. Let’s hit the skies.’

Corrigan was at least a better pilot than he was conversationalist. Lopez found it hard to not judge the flying of others; she hated being in a shuttle when she wasn’t in control, and with the amount she’d put away the night before preying on her temples and stomach, every imperfection in the flight route jolted. It was a smooth enough trip, but it meant she kept quiet, so only a gloomy silence brought them out of atmosphere and into orbit.

She’d just started to drift off, exhausted and lulled by the gentle hum of the hull, when Corrigan’s voice broke in. ‘There she is, sir.’

Lopez realised she was still wearing her sunglasses – all the better to nap behind – and had to pull them off to squint through the canopy up at the shape nestled within the Orbital Drydock Facility. She’d seen the seven NX-class ships dozens of times before, and the eighth looked exactly the same; even her professional eye could barely tell them apart. The only distinctiveness was the lack of distinctiveness; unlike her sisters, she had not a single mark upon her hull plating. And unlike her sisters, the Phoenix was hers.

Lopez’s lips curled. ‘She’s a beaut.’

Even Corrigan, whom she was suspecting to be surly by nature, nodded at that. ‘Commander Edison said she’s ready to go.’

Edison had overseen the final construction phase and shakedown. Lopez had never met him, nor had she dealt with his ilk before; she was not the sort of captain to get a command fresh off the line. But she could only imagine the dour lack of ambition of a man who wanted nothing more than to get these crafts of adventure and exploration ready to leave Earth, and never join them.

‘Well, if Edison says so, isn’t that just a call to adventure. At least we’re not getting the pomp and circumstance of a big ceremony.’

‘Yeah,’ Corrigan grunted. ‘Folks must be sick of making a fuss about launches, and wars ain’t much time to get excitable.’

‘Oh, wars are a great time to get excitable; morale’s a thing. But Starfleet have made it clear they’d rather we slithered to work without the cameras, the press, the public acclaim.’ Lopez stopped herself from adding, All the easier to ignore us when we inevitably screw up. She didn’t believe it, but she expected Starfleet did. The boy didn’t need to hear how Command didn’t believe in them, so she cleared her throat. ‘They want us launching as quickly as possible this time.’

But that seemed to put Corrigan in a grump again and, tired of the young man’s dour mood, she kept silent while he landed. The Phoenix was a merciful hub of activity, crew buzzing around making ready for departure and thus far too busy to give her any grand welcome or even pay her much mind. She left her pilot with the shuttlepod, which would need prepping for the last of the drydock staff’s departure, and headed for the nearest lift.

She arrived on the bridge to find it humming even more, both with crew and anticipation. She recognised Black at tactical, who gave her a cautious smile; West, neutral and professional at science; Takahashi throwing her a wink from comms. If Ensign Antar was at helm, she couldn’t tell, the pilot not turning around and giving her only a view of the back of a head. And then, at the centre chair, was Commander Edison, proving all of her expectations correct. He had the sort of officious, pinched look of a bureaucrat, in body language more than appearance. Every gesture seemed deliberate, nitpicky, and accusatory, so when he stood at her arrival and turned to face her, it felt like he was confronting an interloper instead of welcoming the new commander.

‘Captain Lopez.’ He didn’t move, so she had to come to him, and still he didn’t yield the space. He was taller, but merely looked down with his eyes instead of lowering his chin, giving her a good view of imperious nostrils. ‘Welcome to the Phoenix. I had not realised you’d be arriving so close to departure.’

So Lopez did what she always did when condescended. She grinned like it was no big deal. On the far side of Edison she could see Black, her eyes already fixed on the ceiling in an embarrassment Lopez recognised – embarrassed at Edison for being snotty. Embarrassed at whatever Lopez was about to pull.

‘It’s no big deal, Commander.’ Lopez clapped Edison on the shoulder like they were old friends. ‘I knew you’d have everything tidy and ready waiting for me. I’ve no talent for that kind of busywork. You did get everything ready, right?’

The imperious nostrils flared. ‘Of course, Captain. All system checks have been finished -’

‘Then I’ll take it from here.’

His chin, if possible, tilted even higher. ‘First things first. Mister Takahashi, put out a ship-wide broadcast.’ Lopez watched Takahashi make a show of swirling his finger before keying the command, and he gave Edison a nod. The commander straightened and picked up a PADD that had sat on his armrest. ‘All hands, attention to orders. From Commander Leyland Edison, Starfleet Corps of Engineers, to Captain Natalia V. Lopez, July 21st, 2156. As of this date you are hereby requested and required to take command of Phoenix NX-08.’

He thumbed the PADD, and stated, ‘Transferring all command codes to Captain Lopez,’ before handing her the PADD.

Lopez couldn’t help herself from finally returning the wink to Takahashi as she took the PADD, pressing her thumb to the reader, the final step on the primed computer command to give her full authority over the ship’s systems. Edison looked even more put out when she met his gaze. ‘I relieve you, Commander.’

She did not extend a hand to shake, and neither did he, and when he said, ‘I stand relieved,’ his sincerity sounded broad. He stepped aside as the bridge crew broke into applause that was at first polite, and Lopez wasn’t surprised when Takahashi livened it up with a celebratory whoop, earning more of a pinched look from Edison and even West.

‘The ship’s ready to depart, Captain,’ Edison continued once the comm feed had been killed. ‘I’ll leave at once with the remainder of my staff. Your Lieutenant Hawthorne has been making himself at home in Engineering.’

With the disapproving tone in Edison’s voice, Lopez decided she at once adored Lieutenant Hawthorne, whom she’d never met in her life. But she still said, ‘You’ve done a good job here, Commander,’ because she knew there were few people who could make her life more difficult than a drydock commander. It was with some relief that she noticed the handshake West offered as Edison left. It was his job to smooth ruffled political feathers, after all.

Lopez had never been superstitious about the centre chair. It was just a station, just as the helm had been when she was a junior officer. That, and the eyes of the other officers on her – save Helm herself, who still hadn’t turned around – only inspired her to further irreverence when she plopped onto the seat like she would a comfy chair in her apartment. ‘Right, that turgid bit’s done. I want a final systems check from everyone. Tak, tell me when Commander Boring’s left and then we can get underway.’ She heard West draw a breath, but he didn’t say anything. She looked at the front. ‘Ensign Antar, right?’

At last the young officer turned. She was a little over average height but seemed taller sat down, with long limbs and a gangly build. A grimace marred her face, and the clipped, ‘Yep,’ of her response made Lopez think it was perpetual.

‘You’re my Chief Helmsman, right?’

‘That’s what it says on the paperwork.’

Having just called Edison ‘Commander Boring,’ Lopez realised she didn’t have much of a leg to stand on for decorum. So she gave Ensign Antar a thumbs up and wondered if someone had dug up the most miserable gang of pilots she’d ever met. ‘Worth checking you’re not some lost drydock admin officer. Couldn’t really tell when all I had was the back of your head.’ Antar opened her mouth to reply, but Lopez had already looked away, examining the comms panel on her armrest before she found what she wanted. ‘Bridge to Engineering.’

A pause, and then clipped, brisk, British tones answered. ‘This is Lieutenant Hawthorne in Engineering; I assure you, newly-minted Captain, we will be ready to depart so long as we’re not interrupted. Again.’

I’m getting exactly what I deserve, Lopez thought as she reflected on the personnel choices she’d made; some with more options than others. ‘Lieutenant! We’ve not met. Captain Lopez here.’

‘Oh, I know. Loved your work in the ceremony all of three minutes ago. Masterful relieving.’

‘You said “will be ready.”’ Lopez decided she didn’t want to get into her second sardonic senior officer in a matter of moments. ‘Is there some reason you’re not ready when Edison said you were?’

‘The Commander’s estimations and mine of the work here do not match,’ said Hawthorne at length, his voice sounding like it came through gritted teeth. ‘I’ve been forced to double-check things are ready to my own satisfaction.’

‘If impulse will get us out of drydock, if warp will get out of the system, and if we can breathe and resequence a good sandwich while we’re at it, I’d say we’re good to go. This is going to be pretty different to how it all looked on paper in your research labs.’

Another terse pause. ‘Then if that’s your requirement, Captain, we are, as you say, good to go. I’ll go make sure of it. Engineering out.’

Her prior adoration of Lieutenant Hawthorne revoked, Lopez cut the channel somewhat peevishly. ‘Tak, I assume all staff are on board, including the CMO and MACOs?’

‘Arrived this morning,’ Takahashi confirmed. ‘And Commander Edison’s shuttlepod is away.’

‘Tactical standing by,’ said Black, like she’d realised this situation needed a spot of firmness. She wasn’t wrong.

‘Science standing by,’ added West, sounding like he’d rather be somewhere else. Then, ‘It’s traditional for a captain to make a speech before we launch.’

Lopez rubbed her temples. She’d made this bed. Now she had to lie in it. ‘Lieutenant Hawthorne won’t thank me,’ she pointed out, but gestured to Takahashi to open another ship-wide channel. ‘All hands, this is Captain Lopez. I know you’re sick of my voice and most of us haven’t even met. I know you have better things to do than listen, because you’re desperately trying to get your job finished before we launch in about a minute. So I’ll keep this brief: Command want us to patrol past Vega. That’s a couple weeks out. We’ll go. We’ll chase off some Rommies. We’ll see what comes next. Probably killing more Rommies ‘til they’re dead and we’re home. So we’re setting off. Get to work. Lopez out.’

A terse silence fell on the bridge, broken by Takahshi pressing forefinger to thumb. ‘Inspirational, Boss.’

‘Can it, Tak,’ she sighed. ‘Tell Drydock we’re departing. Ensign Antar, decouple us, bring us to one-third impulse, and take us out. Set a course for Vega and take us to Warp 4 as soon as we’re clear.’ She gave a languid forward motion of the hand. ‘Go.’

As Ensign Antar set about following her orders with a competence suggesting she was not, in fact, a drydock admin officer impersonating a helmsman, Nat Lopez sank back on her chair. And contemplated if putting together a crew based on what personnel she could beg, borrow, or con onto her roster for the ship she’d hoodwinked her way to command was the smartest move she’d ever made.