Ensigns Red Jarvis and Jimmy Robinson stood in line in the Phoenix mess behind a female Ktarian petty officer, who was at the food synthesizer ordering dinner. In most officer and enlisted integrated messes, officers did not wait behind enlisted for meals, but Captain Conrad had issued a standing “first come, first served” order for all meals, applying the rule even to himself and the first officer.
And just one glance at the small mess compartment would be enough to explain why. There were three tables, each with four chairs. Because the mess could only accommodate a dozen crew members at a time, each crew member was sorted into one of six groups of twelve that dined in 20-minute blocks for each meal. The mess technically only functioned as a dining hall six hours out of every shipboard day. The rest of the time it was open as a recreation room. In addition to the dining tables, there were two lounge areas that had seating for three people. Currently one of those areas was occupied by the Medusan Ensign Zee and Chief Fideran. The Zakdorn yeoman appeared to be deep in thought as she pondered her next move.
Of course, rank did have its privileges, and officers, who enjoyed the luxury of a food slot in their private staterooms, could choose to dine in their quarters. Jarvis, however, did not mind the sharing the mess. It gave him a chance to admire the attractive petty officer he and Jimmy were standing behind as they waited their turn for the food slot. The navigator was not as amused.
“I never had to stand in line at headquarters,” he said, shuffling his feet anxiously. “Except when they rolled out the buffet, but it was worth it.”
“Welcome to deep space, partner,” Red replied. He leaned back closer to Jimmy and, lowered his voice, gesturing toward the attractive blonde Ktarian. “Just enjoy the view, man.”
Robinson scoffed. “You have a half track mind, Red.”
“Thank you. It got me through the academy.” He smiled in a self-satisfied way. “Seriously though, you didn’t seem to be complaining about it the other night when I introduced you to that dentist at the officers club.”
“Ah, yes,” Jimmy answered, “we were having a marvelous time right up to the moment her husband, the station boxing champ, showed up.”
Red turned toward Jimmy pointing his finger at the navigator’s face. “Hey, that guy is a widely respected astrophysicist. I’d have figured you’d appreciate the chance to do some shop talk.”
“He also had fists I’m pretty sure were made of rodinium, so…” Jimmy rubbed a spot on his left bicep and winced, “no, thank you.”
In front of the Ktarian, the food slot hummed to life and her meal materialized in the small transporter chamber built into the unit. As she turned toward one of the mess’s tables, Red flashed her a smile and gave her a confident wave. She smiled back and paused.
“Petty Officer Li’vet,” she said to the helmsman. “And I’ll be around.” She turned again and resumed her path to a table where three other enlisted crew members were sitting.
“Li’vet,” Red repeated to himself softly.
“You know, if she had brown hair she’d be Li’vet the Brunette,” Jimmy offered.
“I wouldn’t care if she were a redhead,” Red replied, still transfixed on her retreating form.
Jimmy shook his head. “Half track mind.”
The helmsman and navigator took their turns at the synthesizer and were soon heading toward one of the tables. Red rolled his eyes at the human crewman who, upon seeing Red and Jimmy in the mess, remarked “Hey, who’s driving the ship?”
“Yeah, that’s funny. I’ve never heard that before,” he said under his breath as they sat down. They had arrived early enough that they got lucky and secured an empty table.
Red looked down at the open-faced pot roast and mashed potatoes. He speared a cooked carrot on his fork and tasted it.
“Not bad,” he said, proceeding to slice into the food slots approximation of shredded pot roast, gravy and bread. “I’m sure it’s not up to the standards of the mess at HQ.”
“Hardly.” Jimmy took a poke at his mixed greens salad. He dipped a tine of his fork in a bit of the raspberry vinaigrette dressing and tasted it. “Not great, but not bad either. I’ll get used to it.”
“OK, I’ve been dying to ask you this ever since we arrived here.” Red took a sip of his cranberry juice. “You were working for the Starfleet Navigator General. Why would you request an assignment on this cramped tub?”
Red saw Jimmy pause a moment before taking a bite of the green leaves on his fork. He shook his head as he chewed before saying. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Red replied emphatically. “But that doesn’t mean I’m still not curious.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Jimmy repeated. “What made you give up that gravy train taxi service you were flying from Earth to Mars?”
“OK. I’m a good sport. I’ll play along,” Red replied. “It’s not even complicated. I did it because Jack asked me to.”
At the sound of the captain’s first name, Jimmy’s head darted around the mess. Looking, Red assumed, for T’Prana.
“You’ve got a death wish, Red! If the exec-“
“Oh, belay the exec, Jimmy.”
“Just…please keep that kind of talk to yourself.” The navigator poked around at the lettuce. “How do you know the captain anyway?”
“My first assignment out of the academy was the test flight program at Utopia Planitia. Jack-“
Red saw Jimmy wince at his use of the captain’s first name again.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. OK…Captain Conrad was my commanding officer. In his day he was one of the best pilots in his academy class. And I was the best in mine. He took me under his wing. He said I was the son he never had.”
Jimmy’s expression turned somber for a moment, almost like he wanted to say something in reply, but whatever it was did not have hold of him for long.
“Why’d you leave the test flight program?” the navigator asked. “It seems like it suited your personality.”
“Didn’t leave. Got kicked out. An indiscretion with one of the wives of the Argelian ambassador,” he answered matter of factly. “In my own defense, I’ve been to Argelius II, and no one would have guessed they’d get that uptight about anything. But I was offered — no, I was forced into — the Earth to Mars transport route. Not exciting, but the hours were predictable. Then Jack — the captain — calls me out of the blue. Tells me about the Phoenix. I was ready for something real again.”
The hiss of the doors opening distracted Red for a moment. The communications officer, Lieutenant Rains, began moving to queue up for the food slot, saw Red and immediately made her way toward their table.
“Oh, here comes trouble,” Red said under his breath.
“Ensigns,” she said to both of them, but her icy stare was focused on Red. “Impressed with yourself today? Think you were being cute with the exec on the bridge earlier?”
“Nice to see you too, Sam. I guess we’re doing this out in the open.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m an impressive individual, and I’m never not cute. But you ought to know that.”
“Cut the crap, Red!” she hissed. “I should have known you hadn’t grown up. Still an ensign after four years, and with the maturity of a plebe.”
“I’m pacing myself, Sam. Now, did you stop here with a purpose, or are you just flirting?”
“It’s lieutenant,” she said, pointing to her insignia, “and you listen to me. This assignment may not mean anything to you, but this ship is doing important work, and a lot of us take it seriously.”
“What’s your point, lieutenant?” Red sounded exasperated.
She tightened her face and leaned in toward the helmsman. “If you want to scuttle your career, do it on your next ship. Not this one.”
Her gaze fell to Jimmy.
“And a little advice for you, ensign. If you want to get your name on a promotion list, the best thing you can do for yourself is to disassociate with him,” she cocked her head in Red’s direction.
Jimmy did not meet her gaze, but rather looked at his salad, pushing it nervously around with his fork.
“Gentlemen,” she said, giving them a curt nod before moving toward the food slot queue.
Red and Jimmy sat in awkward silence for several long moments. The helmsman looked over at the navigator, who was still poking at his salad.
“You can get up and leave if you want, Jimmy,” he finally said.
Jimmy paused for a moment, as if he were actually thinking about it. Red understood. He could count close friends on one hand. Most others had merely been hangers on at Starfleet Academy, and his relationships with women were only relationships in the academic sense. It was a revolving door, and he knew that. He never had any expectations of them, nor they of him. Red was about to say something when Jimmy spoke up.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. He finally took a bite of his salad. “Just don’t set me up with any more married women.”
“I should probably follow that advice myself.” He finished off his cranberry juice. “So, what’s your story? How did you end up here?”
“I graduated Starfleet Academy last year and was hoping for a deep space assignment,” Jimmy began. “My father is the chief of staff for the Federation Diplomatic Corps. He arranged for my assignment to the Navigator General’s office. He felt that Starfleet was beneath me, and so he wanted to keep me close to other career opportunities in Paris and San Francisco.”
“And out of harm’s way,” Red said.
“Yes.” Jimmy nodded. “It was a very clumsy attempt at showing parental love. I guess I can’t fault him too much for that.”
“Yeah.” Red replied. “Sounds a lot like our captain.”
Jimmy let that statement hang between them for a few moments, then continued.
“It was good work there. I learned a lot about astrometeorology, contributed to some really outstanding research, collaborated some of the top names in astrophysics and navigations. It wasn’t what I wanted though.”
“Well, how did you manage to escape from under daddy’s thumb? Sounds like he could have killed this assignment for you with a few calls to his buddies.”
“I’m my father’s son.” And for the first time since Red met Jimmy a few days ago, the navigator actually cracked a smile. “As long as I was working at headquarters, I thought I’d make a few buddies of my own…in the Personnel Office.”
“Smooth operator.” Red raised his empty glass in salute.
“I’m also a bad poker player. It’s a lot easier to get what you want from someone who feels guilty for taking your credits.”
“And I thought I was the only one who had that idea!” Red chuckled. “I think that’s the only reason I didn’t get drummed out of the fleet after that whole ambassador thing.”
“I’ll make sure you get a royalty if I ever use the idea again.” Jimmy looked at his watch and looked around the mess. “Zee’s already gone. They were going to talk to me about the latest in Medusan navigation research.”
Red raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. “Sounds like a party.”
“I’m young and eager for promotion,” Jimmy replied as he stood and gathered his tray. “What are you gonna do?”
Red glanced over at where Li’vet was seated. She caught his gaze and smiled. He winked.
“I’ll figure something out.”