Chain of Command

Love and Starships: Chapter 7  (Long chapters ahead!)

Francis awoke to the glow of the morning lighting system shining brightly in her eyes. She rolled to her right and peered out into the empty room. Oh yeah, no more roommate. Sleepily, she pulled the blankets up around her neck and rolled back over to the bright light. She attempted to block it out by shoving her face deeper into the pillow, when the realization hit her. Oh god, I have a shift to work today.

Francis pushed the layers of blankets off her and knocked her hand against the communication terminal past the head of the bed. The screen lit up, displaying the time; 07:26. Just a half hour before she was expected to report way down at the bottom of the ship. Food, or shower… Francis pondered to herself. As she stood, her weak legs reminded her that she had decided to take time to settle into the room instead of going to the mess hall the previous night. As she was just about to step into her shoes, she took a second glance at the synthesizer on the wall. It was bigger than the one in the previous room, and with no roommate to disturb, the bright lights and sounds of the machine wouldn’t matter.

“Computer; French toast, two slices, with butter, and coffee, hot.” She gave her order to the speaker. The machine whirred to life. As the food began to materialize on the tray, Francis looked around again at the bare room. It was larger, but had not yet been furnished with anything besides the bed and a tiny table beside it to place her tablet. I should synthesize a dining table or something.

The smell and steam from the coffee caught her senses. Francis took the tray and sat down on the ground with it on her lap. The warm mug of coffee radiated warmth into her palms. Her first bite of French toast was soggy with butter, and not quite as tasty as anything she had in the mess hall, but in her hunger she forced it down nonetheless.

Francis set the tray down on the ground, feeling sated, before looking at the clock again; 07:39. The time before her shift was less than adequate to take a shower. Francis stepped into the bathroom and peered at herself in the mirror before splashing her face with water. Outside, she pulled a uniform from the stark closet and pulled it on.

Francis stepped out of the first of the maglifts at the midsection of the ship. She walked the short distance across the deck to reach the lifts that would take her down to her section. This particular section of the ship was busier than others at this time, forcing Francis to duck through hoards of people to reach her destination. The lift signaled its arrival at the level as she stepped up to it.

The familiar alien was present just behind the door, as if waiting for her. “Why, hello Francis.” Skee greeted as he stepped out of the lift.

“Hello, Skee.” Francis responded, her eyes avoiding his. The alien slid past her without another word. An elbow met with hers as the other crewman shoved his way into the now empty lift. Francis glanced back at Skee who disappeared into the crowd before she entered into the lift just before the doors closed on her.

As Francis arrived down at her floor, she noticed a strange energy around several of her colleagues. She double-checked the clock on the wall to double-check that she was, in fact, just one minute early. She quickly made her way down the hall to the storage room to pick up her scanning equipment. Inside, one of the other crew members with whom she had hardly interacted was tucking things away into lockers.

“What’s going on here?” Francis asked. “Everyone seems on edge.”

The crewman turned and raised an eyebrow at her before turning back to a bunch of wires attempting to dangle outside of one of the compartments. “You didn’t hear yesterday?”

“I was off.”

“Great.” The man sighed. “We’re getting an inspection from the senior comms officer down here.”

“Like the one from the bridge?” Francis asked, moving to her locker to grab her scanner out.

“Uh, is there another one?” He shot back.

“Y’all should get in here, we’ve a maglift on the way!” Another crew member called out from the main corridor. Francis closed the door on her locker, leaving the scanner behind. She quickly followed the man out into the hall, where the others had began to form a line against the wall across from the lift’s entrance.

Francis shifted back and forth to the point where she could barely see the profiles of the other crew members beyond the person just to her right. The whirring of the lift stopped just beyond the door, which opened just a few seconds later. Francis swallowed hard as the woman stepped out.

She had short blond hair that had been trimmed back almost to her scalp, though her height made it hard to look up past her stern gaze. Francis noticed the others giving their formal two-second long nods of their head as the officer scanned each person. She could have sworn the woman’s eyes met her own for slightly longer than the others.

“Good day, everyone.” The officer spoke in an even tone, her voice noticeably low for a woman. “As some of you may know, I am Lieutenant Canner. I… took it upon myself to come all the way down from the bridge today to get to know you all who, to some degree, directly compliment my duties.”

Canner began to pace down the corridor, first down the opposite direction from the lift, then back towards Francis. Their eyes met for a brief moment as the Lieutenant silently judged each person. “You all look like mostly acceptable people.” Canner commented as she returned to her position in the middle of the line-up. “I would first like to identify those who worked on the core relay earlier this week.”

Francis held her breath, remembering her work on the low deck several days prior. “I worked on it, ma’am.” A familiar voice spoke up. Francis leaned out of her place in line and down to Wil, who had waved at the Lieutenant.

“Crewman, excellent job.” Canner praised, her expression not having changed. “Never have I had more pleasant dreams on a starship. Your calibrations have made for a smooth ride. Though…” She paused. “Doing so is a two person job, is it not?”

“I joined him, lieutenant.” Francis blurted out. She leaned her head forward and nearly ended up stumbling and stepping out of line.

Canner paced back down to stand in front of Francis. Her eyes scanned up and down. “State your name, crewman.”

“Francis Arnold.” She offered, dreading the response.

“Is that so?” Canner furrowed her brow, seeming to stare into Francis’s eyes. “Crewman Arnold, are you aware that your hairstyle does not conform to GSS Guidelines?”

Francis peered up slightly to the curly bangs hanging just above her brow. “I understand, I recently had to change accommodations, and I have not had time to-”

“I don’t have time for your life story.” Canner interrupted. “Have it fixed by the next time you are on duty.”

Francis nodded slowly as the Lieutenant paced away. Canner’s words drifted out of focus as Francis attempted to nudge her unruly bangs to the side with a shake of her head.

“…Please just work as you would normally today.” Canner’s words finally caught up to Francis. “You are dismissed.”

The tall woman turned back to the wall and leaned against it, her arms crossed. Francis relaxed and quickly headed for the storage room while avoiding the woman’s gaze that seemed to follow her.

“She’s not so bad.” The crew-member beside her whispered as they dug into the lockers again. “Tough to be called out, though, huh?”

Francis slumped back down and let out the long breath she had been holding. “I guess… it is my fault.” She said, running her fingers through her hair.

Francis found herself one level down once again. The lieutenant had yet to show herself again, and Francis silently got to work. This day, Francis was assigned tracking down and replacing a trace that had begun to show signs of dropping its signal’s fidelity. After a quick bypass of the circuit, she was able to extract the faulty section. By her clock, she would have just enough time before breaking for lunch of replace it.

Francis took the short set of stairs up to the second level to the synthesizer to generate the part she needed. After choosing the schematic she needed, she took a long-needed seat while the machine warmed up.

“You know, I wouldn’t fault you if you decided to synthesize a comb, or pick for that hair of yours.”

Francis turned around to see Canner leaned against the wall, staring at the lights of the synthesizer. “I um…” Francis stuttered, wondering if she should stand or not. “I’m just waiting on a part.”

The lieutenant stepped up behind Francis and shoved her fingers deep into her mess of curly hair. “It is soft. I understand why it would require more attention than my own.”

A shiver ran across Francis’s shoulders, and she pulled away out of reflex. “Lieutenant?”

“As you were.” Canner said stiffly before retracting her hand and marching back off down the hallway.

A few hours and a delayed lunch later, Francis had finished with the trace. If only I weren’t constantly having to look over my shoulder for that woman. The final few hours of her shift somehow went by without catching sight of the Lieutenant, leaving Francis to fiddle with a few final things to round out her day.

Arriving back at her room, Francis immediately collapsed back on her bed, the new trek up the her room not helping her exhaustion. When she finally felt as if she could lift her head up from the pillow, she noticed a flashing light on her communication terminal next to the bathroom door. Francis stretched out her arm to tap on the screen and read the missed message.

“Didn’t see you last night. What’s up? -Trish.”

Francis sat up with a grunt and tapped in the code for the woman’s room several decks below. The strawberry blond answered with an impatient look. “Hey, about time. Are you in-?”

Francis motioned back at the room with her free hand as she grasped her other arm around the pillow. “Yeah, I got a new room. A single, too.”

Trisha clicked her tongue and grinned. “Well, aren’t you lucky. Did… Skirt have anything to say about it?”

“Skee.” Francis corrected. “Nah, not really. It’s kinda hard to read him, though.”

“How far away is this new room anyway?”

“Deck six. Way up here.”

Trisha rolled around and sat up to fit better into the camera’s view. “Wow, If we didn’t work so close, I might never see you again. You aren’t the first to reach out, after all.”

“You know.” Francis mumbled and shrugged.

“Well, before you get too comfortable, do you want to get dinner?” Trisha asked. “I missed you both last night and this morning.”

Francis slid down to the ground in view of the screen, still fumbling with the pillow in her hands. “Ugh, I don’t know if I have the energy. We had one of the bridge officers stop by to inspect our work.”

“Ouch.”

“She kept creeping around, popping up out of nowhere.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t let your work fail any scrutiny, right Frannie?” Trisha encouraged.

The terminal flashed with a dull red light at the corner, signaling another incoming communication. Francis sat up and studied the buttons beside the screen. “Someone else is trying to get a hold of me.” Francis warned.

“Go ahead, I’ll talk to you later.” Trisha said, signing off.

Francis depressed the button to take the newly incoming call. The screen refreshed to reveal the smooth features and short blond hair of Lieutenant Canner. “Good evening, Crewman Arnold.” She greeted. The woman’s face held back a smile.

Francis sat up and threw the pillow to the side. “Lieutenant, ma’am. Was there something regarding my actions today you wanted to discuss?”

Canner shook her head and loosened her smile a bit. “No, nothing like that. I would like to invite you to dine with me in my quarters tonight, if you would be so inclined.”

Francis found herself inadvertently playing with her hair and trying to unwind some of the messy clumps. “I uh…” She stammered and forced her hands to her lap.

“My room is deck 3, room 314. If you are not here in 10 minutes, I will assume that my invitation was declined.” Canner finished and terminated the call.

Francis stood up, her legs shaking slightly. She quickly checked the clock on the computer terminal before heading to the bathroom to peer at herself in the mirror. Her hair was in a similar state to the one she woke up with; slightly lopsided, but overall neat and compact. She quickly grabbed at the brush and began to pick at the flattened side to even out the shape. As she became satisfied, she pointed her nose in the direction of her armpits, checking to make sure her suit had no discernible smell.

Why am I suddenly so concerned with how I look and smell? Francis dusted her suit with spray deodorant before pushing against her hair one last time. She quickly exited the room and headed to the maglifts, headed up even farther than she had ever been for the second day in a row.

Francis quickly found the room on the slightly smaller deck, among the doors with ample room between them. The lieutenant had a special nameplate even beside the door to her room; Brenda Canner. Lieutenant, Communications. Before Francis could knock on the door, it opened automatically, revealing the blond woman waiting for her on the other side.

“I’m glad you decided to come.” Canner greeted her. She stepped back inside the room as a gesture for Francis to enter.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had time to change into anything, really.” Francis muttered, taking the bait and stepping into the room. The door closed behind her. She immediately breathed in the savory smell of something hot and cooked to perfection.

“I hope what I ordered tonight will be satisfactory for you. I had our chef make Beef Wellington; it’s like a roast in a pocket of dough.”

“I’ve heard of it…” Francis remarked, looking around the massive room. The lieutenant had a wide space, lit with a few dim ceiling fixtures. Inside was a set of chairs and a couch, with the room leading off into what looked like separate bedroom and bathroom. “Never had it.” She finished, finally turning her gaze back to Canner.

The Lieutenant had moved back to her dining table, where she had placed a faux-candle between the two plates of pastry-wrapped meat atop the doily table cloth. “How do you feel about wine, Francis? May I call you by your first name?” Canner barraged her with questions as she turned to the synthesizer.

“That’s fine, uh…” Francis answered, though to which question she was unsure. I hope not white wine… “Maybe like… sparkling water, though?”

“Computer, one pitcher of sparkling mineral water, cold.” The Lieutenant requested. The glass container was the first to be moleculized, followed by the carbonated liquid being poured inside of it.

Francis looked down at the floor and the wrinkles in the legs of her suit from sitting and crouching about during her shift. Canner began to pour the water into a set of tall glasses before finally speaking up again. “Take a seat on the couch. You must be tired after the day’s work.”

Francis nodded slowly and finally made her way into the room. The couch was light, but soft. She took the far end of it, the farthest away from the Lieutenant, and gently placed her hands under her thighs.

“We shall eat at the seating area.” Canner announced, having looked back and forth between the plates of food and Francis at the couch. “I imagine that eating down in the dining hall may seem stifling, with all those people around, talking each other’s ears off.”

“A bit.” Francis managed to utter. Canner brought over a singular plate and glass and presented them to Francis, placing the plate on her lap. She turned back and grabbed her own, returning and taking a seat across from Francis.

Francis grabbed the steak knife off her place and juggled it while reaching for the fork. The crust of the wellington cracked loudly as she cut through it and into the tender roast underneath. She glanced quickly up at the Lieutenant who was more focused on Francis than her own meal. “Is there a particular reason you invited me here for dinner, tonight?” Francis asked, slowly prodding a slice of the meat with her fork.

Canner’s eyes moved down quickly to her own meal. She hastily cut into the food and shoved a section into her mouth, chewing it with much vigor. “I just want to appreciate my crew’s accomplishments.” She said while attempting to swallow the bite.

Francis shoved the food into her mouth. The beef was tender and juicy, and the puffed pastry crust crispy and flaky. She could feel the juice from the meat slowly begin to take from the handle of the fork and onto her fingers. She took the chance of the Lieutenant not staring her down for once to lick at her pinkie finger.

“Oh dear, that’s what I forgot.” Canner spoke up suddenly. “Napkins, napkins.” She stood and ran back to the table, where they still sat, folded into neat triangles. She quickly returned to Francis and presented one of the folded pieces of cloth to her.

“Thank you.” Francis said, taking the napkin and rubbing it over her hand.

“Is the food alright with you?” Canner asked quickly as she returned to her own meal.

“Lavish, but… excellent none the less.” Francis commented, carefully cutting through another band of the crust.

“Next time perhaps I will ask for something more… casual.” The lieutenant replied.

“Next time?”

Canner’s knife grated loudly against her plate as she cut herself off another portion. “A figure of speech.”

Francis’s eyes darted back between her own meal and the lieutenant’s, hoping to keep the same pace. The next few minutes of the meal continued in silence, while Francis worked through a little more than half of the roast. Setting her knife down on the plate, she grabbed the sparking water off the table beside her and carefully sipped the bubbly liquid.

Francis finished the sip with a short breath before turning back to the food resting on her knees. There’s no way I can finish this. With her fork, she carefully chipped away more of the pastry crust and nibbled on before plopping the rest down on her plate.

Canner stood suddenly, her plate in hand. “If you’re done I will take your plate.” She announced. Before Francis could reply, the Lieutenant marched towards her and retrieved the food, bringing back both servings to the table.

Canner stood at the table for a few longs seconds, her back turned away. Francis stared at the woman’s short, neat haircut and well fitting semi-casual clothes; a pair of dark trousers and a stiff white button up blouse. The lieutenant turned around and returned to the sitting area where she placed herself on the couch down from Francis. “We may have dessert any time you are ready.”

Francis replied with a dull smile before she rubbed her stomach and sipped down more water. “I’m in… no rush, really.”

Canner turned to Francis and placed her legs up on the middle cushion. Her feet were bare, and Francis could see her neatly trimmed toenails and the pale, soft skin past her ankles.

Francis turned her attention back to the Lieutenant’s smiling face. “I’m surprised as a deck officer you find time to keep yourself looking so… fresh.” She attempted to converse.

Canner’s face lit up. She held out her hand and presented her fingernails out. “You must make time. Just, some times, I wish regulations would allow me to paint my nails.”

Francis peered down at her own hands that were dry, and her fingernails that had been scratched or marred in places. “Wouldn’t do me any good if that were the case. Too much working with my hands in small places.”

Canner stretched her legs out and nudged her toes against Francis’s thigh. “You have your natural beauty; that dark skin and neat, curly hair. It’s been so long since having my hair long.”

Francis felt the Lieutenant’s toes dancing against her leg. Her eyes were piercing, and Francis could feel her own heart beating loudly in her chest. “I mean… I don’t do much. I will make sure I have it neat enough for regulations, tomorrow, Lieutenant.”

“Just call me Brenda.” Canner said. She had begun to scoot forward, her toes pushing farther under Francis’s thigh, and her legs bending.

“I appreciate the dinner, but if I wait around until I have space for dessert, it may become too late.” Francis stammered, attempting to not have her eyes meet the Lieutenant’s.

Canner stretched her arm across the back of the couch and slowly pushed her fingers among Francis’s curls. She could feel the lieutenants fingertips brush against her neck.

As she turned back, she suddenly spotted Canner’s face drawing even closer. “I think we can find space for dessert somewhere, Francis.” Canner said, her voice low and sweet in Francis’s ear. Her lips suddenly made contact with her neck and up to her lobe in several kissing motions.

Francis shot up from the deep couch cushion before rubbing the saliva off her jugular. “I’m… I’m… I’m sorry.” She stuttered, dropping the napkin from her hand to the ground.

“I think I gave you the wrong impression or something, I just…”

Canner pulled her legs back and sat up equally as quickly. She adjusted her top which had begun to ride up over her stomach. “No, not at all Crewman Arnold.” Canner backtracked. “I am the one who is at fault here. I simply… had to make sure… I didn’t think poorly of your character or your quality of work.”

“No no, I appreciate the meal with you, but I think I should turn in for the night.” Francis said, quickly finding the correct steps backwards to the door.

Canner clasped her hands together and nodded officially. “Keep up the good work, Crewman Arnold.”

Francis found the button to open the door and quickly shoved it in. With her eyes locked to Canner, she exited the room, allowing the doors to close once again.

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