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The Redshirt's Daughter

By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of interesting medical experiments at The Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His short fiction has most recently appeared in: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, and Unlikely Story, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Apex, Cast of Wonders, and Gallery of Curiosities. Please feel free to visit him at: evandicken.com.

Lieutenant Chang came back from Proxima Ceti IV a hero. My mom didn't come back at all.
"It was just her time," Dad said, his voice all echoey and weird through the rejuvenation pod that was regrowing his skin. He'd been mauled while saving Lieutenant Chang, but Mom's body had shielded him from the worst of the plasma beast. I could still see the shadows of her outstretched hands on his face, the skin clean and untouched by the burns that mapped the rest of him.
I was too young to understand, so I cried.
Doctor Ichpujani offered to sedate me, but my aunts and uncles gathered around, carrying me into the cool, murmuring depths of the ship.
There were no remains--a blessing, I was told. We sang the songs of our people late into the shift, my uncles' voices pitched low to match the deep thrum of the engines, my aunts' echoing the sweet whine of power couplings. There was food and cake and a strong, dark liquor brewed from algae in the vents of deck four. I was too young to drink, but one of my uncles snuck me a glass when no one was looking.
"I remember when I lost my parents." He was missing an eye, but his remaining one glittered warm and bright in the cabin lights. "Answering a distress call in the Kuiper belt--a mining colony gone dark. We were expecting some sort of virus, or maybe a crashed alien vessel, or some ancient evil from deep inside the rock, but it was just a Krodan trap. We'd barely hit orbit when a dozen warhawks came screaming out of the gravity well. Lost half of deck six, my mom and dad were...."
He noticed I was crying again and lifted me up. "There, there. Sorry, little one. Forgive an old fool his stories."
He smelled like paneling and hot wires, his beard rough on my cheek. I wanted to tell him about how Mom used to put me on her shoulders when she did the rounds, how she would smile as I reached up to trail my fingers on the ceilings of the corridors, feeling the hum of the ship through the cold metal. I wanted to tell my uncle all of it and more, but I didn't say anything.
I knew he already knew.
The others crowded around, humming softly. We held each other as the computer began the litany of incidents.
"Specialist Ramil Bhatnagar, killed in action J808.3, Medal of Valor, Posthumous."
"Posthumous," we repeated, voices flattening into the comfortable rhythms of catechism.
"Petty Officer Namida Osei, killed on away mission J808.4, Two Galactic Crosses, Posthumous."
"Yeoman Margaret Wu...."
"Technician Ulalu Heskreeethu...."
I couldn't pick out my mother's name, wasn't even sure I knew it to begin with.
That didn't seem right.
Dad came back a few shifts later, smiling and baby-pink. I couldn't bear to look at him, let alone listen to his platitudes about Mom being part of us all, how I should be happy for her. It made me sick how everyone just went on like nothing had happened. Finally, I screamed at him to leave me alone.
He did.
It wasn't hard to sneak into the access crawlways around the officer's mess. I crouched by a vent just above the bar through several shifts, face pressed to the grate, trying to discover what made the officers special, what made them worthy. They seemed a different species--like exotic birds in their pips and gold bars, laughing as they sipped from tall, fluted glasses.
Eventually, one of my aunts found me.
"Little one, you should be studying your spec manuals." She slid around the bulkhead, bioluminescent skin bathing the crawlway in soft blue light. "Not spying on the Commissioned."
When I didn't respond, she looped a pseudopod around my shoulders. Her touch was warm and soft, comforting like one of the gel couches we used during combat.
I sobbed into her lubricating mucus. "I didn't even know her name."
"The litany gives us ranks, numbers, names," she replied. "It tries to distinguish us, but that's not who we are."
I wanted to tell her that my mother did have a name, that she was someone. That when she shuttled down to collect soil samples from this-or-that planet she would always bring me back a picture--sun, suns setting over alien seas or behind ragged mountains, expanses of golden rock or pale silica sand, night-dark seas teeming with luminous life. We would lie in my bunk, her hair tickling my face, and she would tell me stories. There was no adventure, no narrow escapes, only quiet, beautiful things. I wanted to tell my aunt all of it and more, but I didn't say anything.
I knew she already knew.
Instead, I looked back to the officer's mess. As if by silent notice, the doors whispered open to usher in Commander Chang and a gaggle of junior officers. Another gold pip glittered on his uniform collar. It was all I could do not to kick the grate from its mooring and swoop down on him like a Krodan warhawk.
"I want to kill them all," I said.
"It's been done before, many times, but there are always more." My aunt coiled over herself to form an air pocket, then let it out in a good approximation of a sigh. "Still, if it will make you happy...." She opened an access panel, shifting to deactivate the mess's air scrubbers. "It will make you happy, won't it?"
I bit my lip, my throat hot and scratchy, then shook my head, no.
Below, Commander Chang ordered drinks for the room. Amidst the cheers and backslapping, he told of how he'd defeated the dread plasma beast of Proxima Ceti IV.
"We're not like them, are we?" I asked.
"Maybe once, a long time ago," Dad's voice came from somewhere behind us.
I glanced back and saw him squatting in the shadow of the bulkhead. There were more of us behind--fins, fur, feathers, and flesh crowding the tiny crawlway. Aunts, uncles, and cousins pressed close.
We watched as Chang finished his story, smile fading as the other officers began tales of their own exploits. The clamor grew until it was impossible to distinguish one boast from the next. The party broke into smaller and smaller knots, winding down until, at last, each officer stood alone, talking to no one.
"It's almost suppertime," my aunt said. "Shall we?"
I looked up at Dad. "I'm sorry for yelling at you."
"There's nothing to be sorry for." He smiled Mom's smile. They all did.
"I'll be down soon." I turned back to the grate. "I just want to...."
Dad laid a hand on my shoulder, squeezed once, then left me. I didn't need to say anything. I knew they understood.
The mess was almost empty. Commander Chang sat alone, his glass forgotten on a nearby table. He stared silently out the mess's large viewport, the whole, immeasurable vastness of space stretched out beyond. At first, I thought he was looking at the stars, but as I watched I saw his gaze slip from the bright points of light to dwell upon the darkness in-between.
I thought of going to him, imagined the feel of my small hand in his, the shock of recognition as I told him who I was. He would be mortified, vividly, dramatically so. Maybe he would take me under his wing, up to the bright, sterile bridge, an acting junior ensign's uniform with my own silver pip on the collar--not gold, not yet, not while I was part of his story. Perhaps, eventually, my own ship, my own crew. I would pass them in the corridors, sit with them on shuttles, call them by their ranks, their designations, but they would look me in the eye and know that I knew. Would I still know?
I can't say it didn't appeal to me. I was young, but I was coming to understand.
Someday I might go to him, to any of them--it didn't matter. For now though, I was late for dinner.
And my family was waiting.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 24th, 2017

Author Comments

In my day job I'm a data analyst and researcher (basically an academic redshirt), so I've always felt a certain kinship with the characters who get disintegrated, masticated, delaminated, and ultimately invalidated in service to the plot. Post Silver-Age, we've had plenty of stories deconstructing the lives of the rank-and-file--usually for humor, sometimes for pathos, but ultimately (at least in the stories I've read) there's the assumption that crew and officers share the same ethos, the same history, the same fundamental values.

It got me wondering what sort of culture might develop below decks. How might redshirts conceptualize, rationalize, and mythologize their place in a society that clearly viewed them as expendable?

Then, since I'm a genre writer, I naturally took it a few steps too far.

- Evan Dicken
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