Flash Fiction: Misplaced (946 words)

Harry had tried for years to find a way to make helm diagnostics fun. He ran them so often. When they reached port. Just before they left port. After any maintenance on the engines. Any time the ship made an unexplained beep. He wouldn’t have minded the repetition so much if it didn’t remind him of the inane instructions at the beginning of a video game: Press the forward throttle to go forward. Good! Pull back on the throttle for reverse. Good! Press the right arrow for the right engine. Press the left arrow for the left engine. Press the right arrow at the same time as the forward throttle and the blue square to do a reverse flip barrel-roll. Excellent! Except the ship did absolutely nothing because it’s locked in docking clamps!

Still, he went through every step of the diagnostic, every time, by the book. He’d been out of the Academy for five years and he still couldn’t shake the feeling that an instructor might appear behind him to check his work. So, he did everything methodically, and cooked up snarky responses he could use to stall for time in case a question came his way.

The walkie chirped. “O’Neal, you there?” Mulford’s voice came through, backed by all the voices and rumble of the port.

Harry picked up the walkie from where he’d dropped it on the top of the console, held it one-handed while he continued. “I’m here.”

“You wanna come down here? Could use you for a minute.”

“What? Found cargo you can’t handle yourself?” He lifted his finger off the talk button before he laughed. From the pause and the sound of Mulford’s response, his mate knew it.

“I could handle it,” Mulford told him. “But you might murder me.” Another pause. “And she says you’ve warned her about me.”

Harry froze. Then he ran for the door.

Mulford was at the airlock, leaning against the heavy rubber tunnel that connected the ship to the port. He watched the traffic outside – pedestrians and motorbikes and small vehicles sealed in a layer of sound that echoed around the metal station. There had been a stack of steel crates waiting to be loaded, but that was gone now and Jenna was standing there, bright and smiling and holding a blue rolling suitcase. There was something about that suitcase that looked ridiculous against all the grey metal and the stiff smell of fuel in the recycled air. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen her off-planet, or outside of one of her white, polished shuttles.

“What are you doing here?” Harry demanded, striding past Mulford.

Jenna’s smile widened. She was braced for a fight. “We had a deal,” she said and she wrapped him in a one armed hug and kissed him.

Harry had to push her back to arm’s length to keep himself from getting distracted. “You can’t be here,” he told her, quieter.

“Actually, she can,” Mulford murmured. Harry glanced over at him, but he was still watching the traffic.

“You had six months,” Jenna said patiently. “A year technically, since we started talking about this.” She gently stepped out of his hands, brushed down the front of her jacket, smoothed her hair. “You asked me to marry you, Harry. That has this crazy implication that we’ll actually be together, not just see each other on calls from opposite ends of the known universe.”

“Yes, yes,” Harry said. “But it takes time to find a replacement pilot, especially out here, especially on a ship that needs a good hand.”

Jenna nodded. “You told me six months.”

“Give or take.”

“It’s been six and a half. And I told you, that if you didn’t have a replacement by now, I would come to you.” She spread her hands and beamed at him, grandly gesturing to herself and her suitcase.

Harry stopped, dumb. “So… what?” he finally managed. “You’re just going to hop on the ship and tag along on our next assignment?”

“Yes.” She pulled out a piece of paper, folded and a little mangled, and held it up for him to read. Crew assignment. Signed by the Captain. Her name spelled out in clear, black letters.

“How…?”

Jenna peeked out from behind the paper. “The captain seemed quite pleased to have two pilots instead of one.”

Mulford snickered. Harry glared at him, since he couldn’t glare at Jenna.

“Are you going to show me to my room, or do I have to find it myself?” Jenna asked. She waited for him to speak, then shrugged and stepped around him to enter the ship.

“Jenna…” Harry said. She didn’t turn back. He ran to catch up with her as she started up the metal stairs to the main deck of the ship. “How did you even get all the way out here?”

She didn’t slow down, lifting her suitcase off the ground to get up the stairs. “Three passenger flights, a mail carrier, a cargo hauler that smelled like week-old bacon, another cargo hauler and a very, very tiny passenger flight that sounded more like a smuggler’s crawler. Or maybe a prisoner’s transport. The girl next to me? She was coming back this direction for a court date over drugs and trespassing and something to do with a dog. The man behind us was being very kind with his advice. He’d done the same thing. Three times. Before he was twenty. Apparently, he got away with it.”

“Jenna, see?” Harry said. “Please. You don’t belong out here.”

She gave him a triumphant smile at the top of the stairs. “According to you, no one does. But here you are. Left or right?”

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