My winning entry from June.
Shades of Betty
My name is Miles Edward O’Brien, and I am of sound mind. Or at least I used to be, after last week I’m not so sure anymore.
She was an Oberth class starship, and for sixty years she had served the Federation well as the USS Elizabeth. As with all things though, her time eventually passed, and she was decommissioned, stripped of all weapons and shields she quickly fell into the hands of a group who organised luxury cruises to far off planets for bored Federation citizens. The Elizabeth was retrofitted with all the fixtures a 24th century person could want on a long voyage, even down to holo-emitters throughout the ship, allowing holographic staff to tend to any passenger’s need, no matter where they were. She was also re-christened the Betty.
Two years ago the Betty embarked on her first voyage, with a handful of real crew and a dozen VIP passengers. Three days later she vanished with all hands.
Until last week that is…
We approached slowly, and I left the piloting to crewman Bean. In part because this was always supposed to be a training mission, but also because I wanted to take a clear look at her as we moved in.
I hate to say it now, and you can believe me or not, I don’t much care, but even then I knew there was something wrong with the Betty, and it wasn’t just the lack of a Starfleet registry on a familiar ship, or the garish colour scheme her new owners had forced upon her. No, it was something else, something about the way she hung there…ever so slightly off kilter. I can’t even explain it to myself so how can I explain it to you?
‘Were there really no survivors?’ my earnest young colleague asked.
I looked at him, but didn’t answer right away. They say you know you’re getting old when the people serving under you start looking ever younger, and it was true. Robert Bean was just a few weeks past his nineteenth birthday. I can barely remember being that young, and I can’t remember being that innocent, Setlik Three saw to that.
Now as I looked at the fear in Bean’s dark, wide eyes, I knew that he was already readying himself for his own Setlik Three, and his first brush with death.
It felt good to disappoint him. ‘There are no bodies on board, at least not according to the freighter crew, though they said they weren’t able to do a thorough job.’
‘Why didn’t they take her in tow?’ he asked me as we drifted ever closer to the Betty.
I shrugged. ‘They’re a small ship, they don’t have the capacity to tow another vessel at warp.’
Bean frowned. ‘Neither do we though, right? That’s why the Defiant’s coming?’
‘Then why are we boarding her? Shouldn’t we wait?’
He looked so earnest that I couldn’t help but smile at him. ‘The Defiant won’t be here for three hours. Now I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see the look on Worf’s face if we had the Betty manoeuvring under her own power by the time he showed up.’
My young comrade gave a nervous titter at that. Worf had been riding him pretty hard of late, so the notion of getting one over on the surly Klingon was enticing.
Of course he might have felt differently if he’d realised it was me who put Worf up to it.
Robert was a good engineer, but he had a natural laziness that basic training hadn’t been able to knock out of him. I liked him, but I couldn’t cover for him much longer. Sooner or later Captain Sisko was going to stop turning a blind eye and demand accurate evaluation reports, and on that day Robert Bean would find himself reassigned to the lower decks of a deuterium tanker. That’s where lousy crewmen go to die.
I’d tried a lot of tactics, but none had worked, hence the recourse to playing Good Cop/Angry Klingon Cop with Worf. So far it was actually working.
He was still behind on his studies though, still needed a bit more hands on experience if I was going to justify keeping him on as part of my engineering team. I figured monkeying around with an old Oberth class starship would be just the thing.
Which is why, God help me, I ignored my gut instincts and let Robert dock the runabout with the Betty.
* * *
There’s a certain smell common to all abandoned ships, a scent that crosses all boundaries of race or technology. Even Klingon ships smell the same if they’ve been abandoned long enough. It isn’t a bad smell, isn’t a strong smell, but it’s there. The smell that comes from an absence of people.
Life-support keeps running, but no one is breathing in or exhaling the air. No one’s skin cells are sloughing off into the atmosphere; forgive my coarseness but no one’s belching or farting either.
Robert noticed it right away. ‘She smells new,’ he muttered as we stepped through the airlock onto the Betty.
I smiled at that. ‘Trust me, by the time Worf gets here she’ll smell her age again.’
If the exterior paint job had turned my stomach the interior almost made me heave. Pale pink walls? Amber strip lighting?
I patted the corridor wall nearest to me. ‘What have they done to you, girl?’ I muttered.
‘Nothing, crewman, just saying hello.’
Robert looked at me like I was mad, I didn’t mind. In his shoes I’d have thought I was a little crazy too. But when you’ve served aboard as many ships as I have, you start to realise they’re all alive, in a certain way.
The corridor was empty, no bodies I was pleased to see. The freighter crew hadn’t been aboard long, so I wasn’t sure how much faith I put in their tale of no corpses.
‘Life support’s running at 87 percent,’ Robert said now, staring intently at the tricorder.
I chuckled. ‘Glad you’re here to point these things out. I mightn’t have noticed.’
I checked my own tricorder. ‘The main reactor seems to be online, funny I almost expected emergency power,’ I frowned, than slapped the tricorder against my palm. ‘Bloody thing’s getting interference from somewhere. Must be an ionic leak, nothing to worry about.’
The tricorder was on the fritz, but it was able to confirm that there were no life signs aboard the Betty except for Robert and me.
Which is why I was more than a little shocked when a figure appeared out of a nearby doorway.
‘Jesus!’ I muttered staggering back against the wall, my right hand snaking towards the phaser at my hip.
Robert actually screamed.
The intruder stepped back, hands raised in surrender, a friendly smile on his lips. For a second I just looked at him, then I actually laughed, and I left my phaser where it was. There really weren’t any other people aboard the Betty. I figured this out in two ways. Firstly was the fact that, rather than enter from a doorway as I first thought, this interloper had actually walked through the bulkhead. The second was that the image of him flickered as he stood there.
‘It’s ok,’ I said to Robert, then gestured to the ceiling where two emitters covered the corridor like machineguns covering a beachhead. ‘He’s a hologram.’
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone so relieved. ‘Thank God for that,’ he said hand resting over his heart. I wondered if his was pounding as fast as mine?
Our new friend frowned. ‘I’m Luke,’ he said. ‘Chief Purser.’
‘Of course,’ I said.
He was a funny looking fellow, kinda reminded me of me. Oh yes, I know I’m not the handsomest of fellows, no matter what Keiko says, and neither was Luke. That in itself was odd. Holographic characters come in all shapes and sizes, but aboard a luxury liner I’d have expected someone more…I dunno, more Dax like I suppose. Someone beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, rather than a curmudgeonly middle aged guy with red hair. His white uniform, on the other hand, was impeccably clean, even down to the cap upon his head.
Then again maybe his ordinariness was the point?
The tricorder was still in my hands but I folded it up and slipped it to my belt without looking at it, it wasn’t much use at the moment anyway. Robert did likewise.
‘Who are you?’ said Luke the Purser.
‘I’m Chief Petty Officer Miles O’Brien,’ I said, adding ‘from Deep space Nine,’ quickly afterwards.
‘Ah,’ he said, almost as if he understood.
‘What happened, to the ship I mean?’ It felt odd questioning a hologram, but as far as we could tell he was the only witness.
He frowned again. ‘Happened? Nothing happened? We are continuing on our course to Risa.’
‘Risa?’ said Robert. ‘Risa’s thirty light years in the opposite…’
‘That’s ok, Crewman,’ I said, I didn’t want to perplex the purser too much. ‘Where are the crew, the passengers?’
At this Luke Smiled. ‘Oh they’re about, the crew are keeping the ship running, and the passengers are having a lovely time.’ He leaned towards me. ‘If you have the time I recommend Lois, she gives the most amazing massages.’
I gave half a laugh. ‘Maybe later. Tell me, is there anyone on the bridge? Or in engineering?’
He nodded. ‘Both. Would you like me to take you there?’
‘Yes please,’ I said. ‘Engineering that is.’ I could have found my own way of course, but it always pays to be polite to the locals, even when they aren’t real. ‘Robert, why don’t you take the bridge?’
Robert hefted his tool kit. ‘Sure thing, Chief.’
‘Wait,’ said Luke sharply.
Robert looked at him. ‘Yes?’
Luke beamed. ‘You’ll need a guide,’ he said, and clapped his hands. A moment later another figure stepped through the wall.
This one was more like it, a tall willowy blonde with just the right amount of curves showing beneath her uniform. I couldn’t help but grin as Robert’s eyes threatened to explode out of his head.
‘Hi,’ she said, her voice soft, seductive. ‘I’m Theo.’
‘Of course you are,’ muttered Robert.
I clapped him on the back. ‘Have fun,’ I said, then wagged a finger in his face. ‘But not too much fun. I want the navigational systems back online in an hour.’
‘Gotcha,’ he replied.
‘The navigational systems are working perfectly,’ said Luke as we headed towards the engine room.
‘I’m sure they are,’ I lied. ‘But Starfleet needs to confirm the ship is running at full efficiency.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘An inspection tour, why didn’t you say.’
I didn’t correct him. I couldn’t believe I was telling white lies to a hologram.
It didn’t take long to reach engineering; it was a small ship after all, but though the space was familiar I was instantly struck by the fact that the warp core was dead, the familiar glow associated with a functioning core absent. This made the room seem darker than usual, and I felt a shiver course along my spine as I took in the shadows that seemed to inhabit every corner of the room.
‘Who the hell’s this?’
At the sound of the shout from behind us I spun fast on my heels. ‘You people have really got to stop doing that!’ I said as a figure appeared out of the shadows.
I almost laughed. They’d really gone for realism aboard this ship. The man looked like an engineer, even down to the smears of grease across his cheeks, and the fact that his sleeves were rolled up past his elbows.
I introduced myself, and the engineer grunted.
‘This is Markway,’ said Luke. ‘Our chief engineer.’
Chief engineer? Holographic pursers I could understand, but there’s something a little unsettling about holographic engineers. Now I know how Julian feels about EMH’s…not that that stopped him trying to become the model for one.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my ship,’ said Markway running a hand through thinning grey hair. He was in his sixties I guessed, or appeared to be. Obviously the designers had gone for an experienced look.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘She’s a good ship, and she seems to be running fine. I just need to take a few readings and then I can be off.’
Markway grunted again then stalked back into the shadows.
Luke snorted. ‘He is such a snob,’ he said.
‘I won’t be long,’ I said and proceeded to move over to the nearest console.
For the next half an hour I ran diagnostic checks on the warp drive, the impulse systems, and life support. Everything checked out, even though the warp core was inactive there seemed no reason for it to be so. I smiled to myself. At this rate we’d be able to warp over and meet Worf coming.
Whilst I worked Markway kept striding past, grunting and muttering darkly under his breath. There was another hologram too, an elfin young woman called Nell, and of course Luke was never far away.
‘Tell me, chief, have you ever considered leaving Starfleet? The private sector has a lot to offer.’
I looked up from the console and shook my head. ‘No, I’m a lifer, wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t have this uniform to wear everyday.’ I nodded. ‘Almost finished,’ I said. ‘Just a few last things to check.’
‘About bloody time,’ said Markway pacing past once more.
The last thing I wanted to check were the holographic systems. All three of my ghostly companions kept flickering in and out of focus. Daft I know, but I wanted to fix them up.
I found the console easy enough, it was active, all systems running normally and…
No, that couldn’t be right. It couldn’t be…
According to my display the memory core was working perfectly, but the holographic network was fused, completely burned out.
I’ve been scared many times in my life, terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought, but nothing close to the horror I felt right then.
My mouth went dry and suddenly I was well aware of how small the engine room was, how close Luke was behind me.
I made a play of flipping my tricorder open and aiming it at the console. It just confirmed my fears.
Slowly I turned to face them. Suddenly Luke’s smile didn’t seem so warm. I looked down at the tricorder, willing it to allay my fears.
It said there was no one there, no living being, no hologram. I turned and aimed it at Markway, then Nell. The tricorder said the same thing about them. They weren’t there.
‘Are you all right?’ said Luke. Concern on his face. ‘Perhaps you should see the Doctor?
‘I’m fine,’ I stammered.
‘You don’t look fine. No we should see the Doctor,’ and he reached out for me.
Somehow, on some preternatural level, I knew that if he touched me, whatever he was, then I was doomed.
I ran hard and fast, my feet pounding noisily against the deck as I retraced my steps, and with every step I had to fight the urge to look behind me, because I knew they were running after me.
Turning the corner towards the airlock I screeched to a halt as I saw a figure there, and this time I did pull my phaser- for all the good it would likely do.
‘Robert, thank God!’ I said as I realised who it was. I ran for the airlock door. ‘Come on, we have to get out of here,’ I said turning to sweep the corridor with my weapon.
Robert just stood there, a handful of paces away. He’d frozen, seized up. Terror filled his eyes.
‘Come on, Robert!’ I yelled. And then the blood in my veins froze.
Because Robert flicked before my very eyes.
‘Oh no, no, no, no…’
He reached out for me. ‘Help me, Chief,’ he moaned plaintively.
God help me I shrunk back from him. Suddenly the corridor was filled with flickering figures. Luke, and Markway, and Nell, and Theo, and a dozen more, and I knew that if I didn’t run then, that I’d never escape.
Still I had to say something, to Robert.
‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered. The words hollow, his cries shut out as I closed the door and ran for the pilot’s seat.
* * *
I met the Defiant an hour later, but it was another hour before they got any sense out of me. We searched of course, but we never did find the Betty again.
Dax was sweet, but though she humoured me she came up with nothing but plausible explanations. Julian talked about hallucinations, and blood chemistry. Only Worf came close to believing me.
‘Visions are a powerful force,’ he said. ‘And they cannot always be explained by science.’
‘I left him there,’ I said. ‘I left him behind.’
‘You did what you had to do,’ said Worf stoically, as if that made any difference.
Maybe they were an alien lifeform that existed as energy, that’s Dax’s favoured theory. Maybe I’ll even come to believe that myself one day.
For right now though I can’t think of them as anything but wraiths. Spectres, shades, spirits. The kind of phantoms my Nan used to tell stories about in Ireland.
The Betty is a cursed ship, crewed by ghosts, and it’s out there, somewhere, drifting between the stars on a voyage that will last for an eternity.
And Robert Bean is with them…