The Kiln

Within the constructor fleet floats a mega structure known as the Kiln. It’s a place where raw material is transformed into the vessels that carry the denizens of the flotilla across the void.

Baking within the Kiln is a ship so grand that many designers believed it to be impossible to build. The Alliance is a new beginning for the fleet and set to replace the Procyon, an aging dog of a war.

In the bowels of the Kiln, a single workstation is still lit and papers are flying.

“Where is it?” Canis swore as she dug through the mountain of papers on her desk. “Aha! Found you.”

Canis is one of a hundred designers who works on the Alliance project. She’s been tasked with designing the ship’s mess halls, but that hadn’t stopped her from snooping. She’d worked on other ships and her instincts are screaming out.

Something looks too familiar.

She clears her desk and rolls out the design. She scans it carefully using her forefinger as a guide through the crisscrossing patterns.

“Oh no, nononononononono…” she curses. “I told them a thousand times.”

Suddenly she’s at a run, her long hair trailing behind. The Kiln needs to be stopped.

The existence of the flotilla is at stake.

***

Commander Garman sulked as the briefing droned on. The committee was attempting to reassign him to a new ship, yet again.

Garman had been a commander on the Procyon for years while others like him soared past. There was a nasty rumour going around that his inability to receive the top position aboard the ship has little to do with his surly attitude.

Garman sneered at the thought.

“Now Garman,” the head committee member says as he shuffles his papers. He looks down his glasses at the commander and smiles wanly. “I understand that Captain Muscar wishes to make a statement before we give your reassignment.”

Garman looks to his captain. She’s had it in him for months now after the meteor storm. In his defense, the parasitic ships that were chewing away at the Procyon’s hull deserved the heavy pelting they’d received.

“Thank you,” Captain Muscar says addressing the committee. She looks to Garman whose head has sunk so far down that she could only see his eyes.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Commander Garman and have found him aggressive, authoritative, and prone to taking action before seeking the counsel of his peers,” Captain Muscar says. “I’ve also found him to be…”

“Oh gods,” Garman whispers.

“… a person who holds the wellbeing of the flotilla above everything else even his own life. I whole heartedly recommend him for the captain’s position aboard the Procyon as I transition to the Alliance.”

Garman freezes.

“While we had our disagreements, I always had full confidence in his judgments as did the crew members who vouched for his abilities to command in times of great stress,” Muscar says. “Though his attitude toward the crew may be… harsh, there is no question that if given the chance to lead, he will do so admirably.”

Captain Muscar sits back down in her seat and looks to her wide-eyed commander.

The committee sits in stunned silence for a moment and then a fluttering of whispers fills the hall. “Shit,” is uttered more than just a few times.

“Thank you,” the head of the committee stutters. He clears his throat. “In light of your comments, we are happy to confirm our recommendation that Garman be promoted to the rank of captain,” he mumbles and then sighs. “Aboard the Blue Skink.” He claps his hands. “Now that everything’s in order—”

“I’m sorry, what?” Muscar says standing so quickly she knocks over her chair.

“Thank you for meeting with us,” the committee member announce. “Plenty more reassignments to get through, thank you!” His eyes shift as the captains remain in the room.

“You’re putting him onto a garbage scowl?” she yells. The committee visibly shrinks as Muscar bares down on them. “My recommendations don’t come lightly! He should be on the Procyon,” she growls.

Garman sits in stunned silence thinking not of his captain’s defense of him, but of the smell garbage scowls carry with them even in the void.

“It’s been discussed,” the committee head says. “However, we’ve already made our decision. As for the fate of the—”

“Gods damn you,” Muscar curses.

“If I may,” Garman says as he stands. “Thank you, captain, for your words, but arguing won’t get us anywhere.” He watches as she sits down, hair mussed and face still red. “I accept the assignment.”

“We can—” she protests.

“No,” Garman says. “No further reassignment will be necessary. The,” he pauses as the bile wells up in his throat, “Blue Skink will be well taken care of under my command.” Garman has had enough of the committees, the red tape, and the bullshit. One way or another he’ll command the Procyon, but it’ll take time.

Garman gathers up his datapad and a small package that contains his new captain’s hat, which had been left on his desk by a terrified assistant. As he reaches the door, he looks back to his captain and bows.

“Thank you for believing in me,” he says as he turn the door handle.

It was a kind thing she had for him done and he thought about her words all the way to the floor after being hit by the door.

***

Canis rushes into the boardroom and lays out her papers onto the desk. “We’ve got a problem!” she yells as her papers flew. “The flotilla’s existence is at stake!”

The committee and a dazed Captain Garman stare at the newcomer.

“Canis?” Devine, one of the committee asks. “What are you doing here?”

“Saving the flotilla!”

“Who is this?” the committee head asks.

“Oh,” Canis says. “Canis, designer on the Alliance project.”

“Junior designer,” Devine says sternly.

“Technically,” Canis retorts. “I’m still on probation until the end of the month—”

“What,” the committee head repeats. “Do you want?”

Canis steels herself as she points to the schematics. “I’ve found flaw in the design of the Alliance that will lead to a meltdown of its power core that will engulf the reserve fleet in an explosion the size of a small sun.”

“What flaw?” Devine asks.

“Well sir,” Canis says. “I stumbled upon it while looking into the weapon schematics and realized—”

“You aren’t privy to those reports,” Devine says. “We’ll have to reevaluate your probation. Sir, my apologies for this subordinate’s intrusion.”

“The power systems are routed through the mess hall!” Canis shouts. “Our systems can’t handle the power transfer, so even during testing, like they’re about to do, the power will build up and will result in a total meltdown!” She waves a schematic in the air. “I told you to build it from the ground up!”

“We’ve done meticulous testing,” Devine says. “What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” He apologized against the head of the committee.

“Why aren’t you listening?” Canis shouts.

“They rarely do,” Garman said as he wipes his bloodstained nose. “Thank you for proving that my day could, in fact, get worse.”

“You know I’m right,” Canis says. “The Procyon is one of a kind, unique its systems won’t work on another vessel.”

The room’s power fluctuates and then fails. The red emergency lights fill the room with ghastly shadows.

“Would you look at that,” Garman says looking around. “It just got even worse.”

***

While the committee scrambles to pull together section leads aboard the Kiln to formulate a plan, Canis pulls Garman toward the loading docks.

“We have to remove the Alliance’s power core,” she says scanning her datapad. “From these readings it’s already reached dangerous power levels.”

Garman pulls away and adjusts his coat, but hurries to catch up with the young designer. “What can we do from here?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Canis says. “The only way to fix this is to remove the core by tethering onto it and then pull it into space.”

“That’s insane,” Garman says.

“The Procyon could do it,” Canis says. “You’re the captain, right?”

“Uhhh,” Garman says. “That’s Captain Muscar, I’ve just been assigned to the Blue Skink.”

“That smelly garbage scowl?”

“Yes,” Garman growls.

“It’ll have to do,” Canis says.

The loading docks at the Kiln are home to ships of every size and class including the Procyon, which sat sulking in a corner.

The battle ship had been built up over the years with so much scrap that it didn’t need the retrofit it was receiving now. Blackened, war-worn panels were being removed and replaced with ones covered in fresh impact-resistant paint.

Engineers were superstitious of the ship and had protested about removing too much of its original chassis at one time, especially after the last incident.

Garman pulls his gaze away from the ship and looks to the Skink. He’d known a few captains who ran the waste barges. They built ships in bottles.

“All the crews are off station,” Canis says as they pass through a security checkpoint. “I suspect they’re being called back, which is a mistake. If that thing goes off it’ll take them and us with it.” She swiped her card at a loading door, groaned, and then stepped aside.

“Security clearance revoked?” Garman asks as he swipes his card.

“I suspect so,” Canis says, as her hand balls into a fist.

“Devine’s a prick,” Garman says.

Canis looks up and smiles.

The smell makes Canis and Garman reel for a moment as they step into the claustrophobic halls of the Skink.

“The plan— oh gods that smell.”

“The plan is you follow my lead when you’re on my ship,” Garman says pulling on his new captain’s hat and trying to stifle a cough. “Bridge’s this way.”

The bridge is a joke, but Garman didn’t laugh. This was his future if he survived.

Every ship in the flotilla has the same basic layout from the power regulators to how the drives were powered up. It’s a deliberate design choice to allow any captain to command any vessel at a moment’s notice, but Garman struggles to figure out what the hell this crew has done to their bridge.

The Skink reluctantly sputters into life.

He pilots the ship out of the loading dock and past the Procyon. He can’t count the number of times he’d been at the helm of it as it went into battle. Now the ship watches him as he slinks off into space on his trash barge.

“I’m going to miss the old girl,” Garman says.

“She’s one of a kind,” Canis says.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Garman replies.

“It’s ugly,” Canis says as she look at readings from the Kiln. “Every system was designed for war. Designed to kill. Designed—”

“To defend the flotilla,” Garman says abruptly. “With deadly force when necessary, but always to protect what’s ours.”

“At what cost?” Canis says. “Hundreds of species now know us only as a military force. We’re not making friends out here only enemies with ships like that. I swore to never help make another one, but it looks like the committee had other plans,” she mumbles. “I’ll be glad once it’s put out of commission.”

“It is?” Garman asks. He remembers hearing from Muscar that the ship was going to be a sister to the Alliance and provide military support.

“We won’t need the Procyon once the Alliance is put into service,” Canis says. “It’s a consular vessel with an aim at creating peace.”

“Who knows about this?”

“Only a handful of people,” Canis says.

Garman’s eyes narrow as he watches the Procyon fall out of view.

“What’d you design on the Alliance?”

“The mess halls,” Canis says somewhat crestfallen. “If the ship makes it, I think they’re going to be extremely popular.”

“Did you work on the Procyon?”

“Yes,” Canis says.

“On what?”

“Weapons systems,” Canis says, hand again balled into a fist.

“Never failed me,” Garman says. “Rock solid design compared to some of the other junkers I’ve been on.”

“As I said it’s one of a kind,” Canis says. “At least, I thought it was,” she adds darkly.

***

Canis and Garman look down into the Kiln’s crucible where the Alliance floats. Hundreds of mechanical arms assemble ships within the confined space. When activated, they’re a blur building vessels piece by piece at an alarming rate, but on a project of this size production was unusually slow.

The viewport on the Skink’s bridge peers into the red-hot interior. Nothing’s moving. The limbs sit like the dead branches frozen in a icy pond.

Garman brings the Skink in closer and alarms ring out across the bridge. Radiation, heat, and external pressure warnings flash across every screen.

 

“We can’t take the ship in there,” Garman says. “We’d be vaporized.”

“Is there any way to boost our shielding to compensate?”

“Ha! This is a garbage scowl,” Garman says. “Not a star ship.” He pauses. “If we shot a tether from here…”

Canis duck under a panel and wrenches it open. “That’s insane,” Canis says.

“It’s been an insane day,” Garman replies. “There’s no way we could make that shot.”

“Not with the weapons systems the Skink’s got now,” Canis says.

“What are you doing down there?”

The bridge’s lights flicker and then cut out. A moment later, the lights come back on and a new interface appears at Garman’s hand. It’s the same weapons system as the Procyon, highly tuned and designed for pinpoint accuracy.

“Now we have a chance,” Canis says.

Garman’s nerves tense as he inputs the command to tether onto the speck of light in the distance. Even with the most advanced targeting system, the chances of hitting it on the first go are slim at best. The other thing that rankles him is that they’ll be pulling the unstable core right toward them.

“Firing!” Garman calls out.

They watch in silence as the multi-stranded tether flies toward the light. The material would withstand the heat and the radiation, but their nerves are at the breaking point.

“Is it there yet?”

Garman turns around to look at Canis who purses her lips.

“Sorry,” she says.

A small blue light flickers on.

“It’s tethered,” Garman says as he went to the ships helm.

The Skink’s engines flare into life as the ship pulls away from the Kiln. Canis watches the core through a scope. It’s straining in its binds.

“Left!” she yells.

“What?”

“Um, port!”

“Ok!”

The Skink groans as the engines struggle against the various real and abstract forces that govern the inner workings of the power core.

“We got it!” Canis yells as the ship sways violently to one side.

Garman breaths a sigh of relief when the light starts to move in their direction. It would only take a few moments for it to be out of harm’s way.

“We’re dead in space,” he says. “Thrusters are all we’ve got left. Thing’s moving way too fast for us to get out of the way in time.”

Canis looked at a system diagnostic. “I had a feeling this would be a one-way trip.” She looks out of the porthole and toward the Kiln. “At least, the ship will get built.” She sighs. “I was looking forward to trying out the food synthesizers.”

Garman looks back at his panel. “Looks like evacuations of the Kiln are underway,” he says. “Wait a minute that’s the—”

A red light lances out from the docking port and strikes the tether and sends the Skink into a deadly spin. Garman and Canis wait a moment as the internal stabilizers fixes their dizzying view. The Procyon is headed in their direction.

***

“Why’s it firing on us?” Canis yells as the Skink barely pivots the tether away from another blast.

“No idea,” Garman yells as he keys in a distress signal. “Procyon, cease firing!” he yells into the transmitter. “They’re not responding!”

They watch as a beam cuts through one of the tethers. The black line slices through the void and slams against the Skink’s chassis.

“How far until we’re out of range?” Canis yells.

“Almost there,” Garman replies. “Who the fuck is at the helm?” He pushes whatever was left in the Skink’s thrusters to evade another lance of light.

A buzz fills the room. The Procyon is transmitting. They wait in silence. The static rises, cresting like a wave as it washes over the Skink.

“What’s happening?” Canis screams over the din.

Garman’s stomach drops as he checks the scope. Years spent on the Procyon tell him that there’s something wrong. It’s bounding toward them, weapons dripping with irradiated saliva.

“You’re going to have to trust me over the next few minutes,” Garman yells.

Canis strapped herself onto one of the bridge stations. “Is this another insane plan?” she asks.

“Probably,” Garman replies, a smile flickering for a moment.

Canis looks on as the blackened hulk slinking toward them. “Do it!”

The Skink begins to spin. With each revolution, the tether spins round and round its chassis moving the core faster and faster toward them in a wide orbit. The inertial dampeners struggle to compensate for the forces that are starting to rip the ship apart.

Garman has to release the tether at just the right time. Everything counts on it.

The Procyon’s cannons light up as it prepares to fire another beam.

Time slows as the light turns off a split second before Garman’s hand hits the panel. The tether releases. Canis watches as the core sails around the Skink like a mad morning star. Round and round it goes in a deadly arc moving closer and closer to the Procyon.

The core slammed into the ship. Garman watches as the light pours out as the ship’s hull protests against the foreign body. Its black panels close around the gravitational weight of the sphere, like fingers staunching the flow of blood.

Garman braces himself.

***

The emergency lights flicker on.

“Garman!” a voice calls out. “Garman, are you there?”

“Captain,” Garman mumbles. He stands up and looks out the blackened viewport. Out in space there’s an expanding debris field. He turns on the panel beside the captain’s chair. “Who the hell was on the Procyon?”

There’s a moment of silence. “No one,” Muscar says.

“A ship doesn’t leave dock of its own accord,” Garman yells. “Someone tried to stop us and in the process destroy the Kiln.”

Canis moans. Garman jumps from the panel and removes the debris on top of her. “Going to need some assistance here,” he says.

“We’re on our way,” Muscar replies.

***

Canis’s eyes open.

The medical ward’s lights blind her, but a familiar outline appear from out of the fog.

“I’m never going to forget that smell,” she says as she sits up. ”What’s happened?”

Garman sulk in his chair. “A whole lot of nothing. The committee’s been silent on the incident,” he says. “I’m also still captain of the Skink even after what I did.”

“What we did,” Canis corrects him.

Garman smile and then looks down. “Can a ship…” he trail off and looks up into the light.

“Think?”

“It sounds crazy,” Garman says looking at Canis. “I’ve looked over the logs myself, no one entered the Procyon. I knew that ship’s security systems myself and personally locked it down when we put it into dock. Without the captain in the chair the damn thing can’t start up, I’m—”

“All kinds of things exist within the flotilla and a ship trying to destroy its replacement isn’t too far fetched,” Canis says. She looked out of the porthole. “I figure it knew its time was up.”

“That’s crazy,” Garman murmurs. “A ship can’t think or act on its own.”

“The Skink did.”

The blue light flashes in Garman’s mind. He shrugs. “A fluke at best,” he says. “It’s a garbage heap and now in dire need of repairs.”

“So you’ll be sticking around for the next little while?” Canis asks.

“Yes,” Garman says, the corners of his mouth lifting ever so slightly.

“Lunch.”

“Lunch.”

***

Charlotte Allard sat with her mouth open as Canis leaned back in her seat. She smiled, laugh lines appearing on her face.

“It took Garman many, many years to become captain of the Alliance,” Canis said. “The destruction of the core saved millions of lives, but left a bad taste in the mouth of the committee.”

“I thought he’d hate the idea of being on this ship seeing how it almost got him killed,” Charlotte said.

“Despite him saying how much he hates it, I know deep down he loves it here,” Canis said. “Seeing the Procyon baring down on him changed him, and I helped too. Softened him up a bit with a little loving.”

“Wait,” Charlotte said holding her hands up. “You were a couple?”

“I tell you this amazing story about the ship’s origins and that’s all you care about?” Canis asked astounded.

“Well yeah,” Charlotte said.

“We were,” Canis said. “Not for a very long time, mind you.” She looked out of the view port. “Part of me likes to think he fought his way here because he knew this is where I’d be.” She sighed. “Then the more realistic part of me remembers his dedication to the flotilla and that he has an ego bigger than the Alliance.”

Canis put her plate into the food synthesizer where it promptly disappeared.

“Knowing he captained a garbage scowl makes him seem a bit more human now,” Charlotte said, as she smelled her clothes. “Might explain why he hates me so much.”

At the end of the mess hall, a door slid open and an ensign stood at attention. Canis sipped her coffee. Garman walked in, ordered his food, and looked in their direction.

Charlotte waved eagerly.

“She bothering you, Canis?” Garman asked as walked up to their table.

“Not at all,” Canis said. “I was just telling her about the Kiln.”

“And where you two first met,” Charlotte said beaming.

“Ah,” Garman said somewhat flushed. “Well I just be—”

“No, no,” Charlotte said. “I’m just going. You sit here. Eat food. Here.” She handed him a fork. “Food. Eat. With Canis.”

“Why are you talking like that?” Canis asked.

“I don’t know,” Charlotte said as she grabbed Garman by the arm and sat him down.

The captain’s face was livid, but softened as he looked at Canis.

“She’s a live one just like you said,” Canis told Garman as she watched Charlotte go.

“Hrm,” Garman replied. “Makes my back ache just being around her,” he grumbled. He looked at Canis. “Lunch?” he asked unable to keep eye contact.

“Already had it,” Canis replied.

Garman huffed. “Second lunch? Captain’s orders.”

“It’s a date,” Canis said.

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