This story was submitted to Writers of the Future and won an Honorable Mention. I’ve left all formatting as it was originally written when submitted to their contest.
Oriana strapped on the last of her makeshift armor over her spacesuit, checked for any breaches, grabbed her homemade (and not standard-issue) spear, and headed out the airlock. It was sure to be another too-long shift clearing multi-legged vermin from the various parts of the 4th Terran Generacion Ship. The last hisses of the atmosphere safely reclaimed behind her, Oriana stepped outside. As long as I get to see these views, I almost don’t hate being an exterminator – second class. She couldn’t stop the snarky inner monologue. She’d tried and failed too many times. Much like she’d worked for that promotion – any promotion, really – that would get her further towards her goal of earning a pilot’s seat in a scout ship and closer to the stars.
A six-legged, two-foot-long crawler interrupted her from about a meter away – she could feel the vibrations as its tapered legs tried and failed to grasp the bulkhead to rush her. This bug might be big, but it only had a single set of pincers for grabbing the ship, which meant this particular specimen wasn’t excellent at speedy attacks. At least it has the decency to warn me before trying to eat me. Oriana sighed and stabbed at it. It took two tries to skewer it in zero gravity successfully. She consoled herself, thinking that she would probably have gotten it on the first try if she’d been inside the ship and had gravity. Of course, then the bug would have been able to rush me. She’d be more efficient if she’d use her magnetic boots just to stomp the things. That’s what the others did, after all. But a squashed bug wasn’t nearly as useful as a mostly-intact one was.
Oriana tugged her now-frozen quarry from her spear and placed the biggest, still-intact chunks into her backpack. This particular crawler was a decent size. She’d probably only have room for a half-dozen more pieces or so this time. That was fine with her.
Oriana walked her designated section of the hull, stabbing bugs until her bag was full of shell-free bug pieces. Once full, she resorted to the far more brutal (but also practical) method of stomping crawlers into oblivion and hurling their remains into the black inkiness of space.
After having killed several dozen crawlers, a green light in her suit flashed in her peripheral vision. Quota’s met – or we’ve cleared the designated hull section. Time to head inside. Her feet led her back to the closest portal. Her electromagnetic boots click-thunked the whole way. Five feet from the airlock entry, she noticed a small breach in the ship’s outer aluminum layers.
Small breaches weren’t uncommon. They happened any time small debris hit the ship. However, this one had several small holes and was surrounded by what had to be thousands of eggs. Oriana leaned over to scoop up a few for her bag, stomping on those that remained. She lost count of them somewhere after 656, so she rounded up the day’s work to an even thousand. Maybe that’s enough to win me the shift bonus. Although, the way Lorence cheats, I’d better not mention this until the final tally later tonight.
Hull duty complete, Oriana stepped into the airlock and waited for the air to repressurize around her. Another green light flashed, and Oriana pulled off her helmet. She gulped in the reassuring, stale air of the starship – and a face full of sweaty, golden hair. I need to get my hair cut to regulation length again. Maybe next off-duty cycle. She’d have to practice that line if she were going to get anyone else to believe it. Meanwhile, she checked and stowed her helmet.
Next, she emptied her backpack’s contents into a chute that led to the ship’s mid-levels. Building that chute took me a week of off-duty time, but it’s been worth it ten times over how much walking it’s saved me. Then, she put her spear in the locker and stripped off her outer armor padding. It wasn’t a standard-issue, but she wore it anyway. Not like it’s too heavy to wear in space or anything. Next, she took off her suit and hung it up for decontamination. Then, she stripped off the two other layers of clothes she had to wear just to make the EVA suit wearable.
Just as quickly, Oriana changed into her now-cleaned jumpsuit hanging in the cleaning locker. She grabbed a thick overcoat and rushed out into the hallway. I’ve got to get to my next station before Lorence and San find me. San’s jokes about her being small enough for him to eat gave her the creeps – on so many levels.
Thankfully, both were out of sight as she headed into the tunnels that led towards the HibHab units. Whoever came up with some of these ship terminology names had some unholy fascination with acronyms and “cutesy” names. Oriana didn’t dare voice what she called that place in front of anyone else. I don’t want to get latrine duty for impropriety again. Now that would be even worse than exterminator duty, especially since she was at her max written warning capacity. I’m less than a week from my next promotion if I work hard – and an expunging of my record. I can do this. Any additional write-ups would change her career path from scout to support. Oriana closed her eyes and leaned forward, resting her forehead on the cold, frosted bulkhead of the HibHab’s entrance. I can and will become a scout pilot – then a scout captain. I will hold my tongue and earn that chair.
Feeling better about her resolve, Oriana pulled on her overcoat and opened the large, sliding door to the main HibHab entrance – just enough to squeeze inside the long corridor full of individual HibHab units. Why are there always so many doors? Oriana turned and slid the main door, so it sealed shut behind her. I can’t let a single – she caught herself from using the pejorative slang – long-term resident on our grand generational starship become too warm or too cold. She began reciting from the officer’s manual, which she studied religiously.
“Each HibHab resident deserves an optimal environment to ensure safe passage during transport. Residents may, at their discretion, adjust their thermo-temporal units to levant upon demand. Ship staff will support and protect all HibHab residents of any wake status.”
Oriana wasn’t sure what some of the terminologies meant, but she knew her duty as an exterminator second-class: to protect all HibHab residents from the creepy crawlies. I better get to it. All these sleeping beauties aren’t going to squish crawlers – so I’ll do it for them. At least until I’m a pilot. Oriana stomped on an escaping crawler to emphasize her thought. Then some other poor schlub will have this task.
As she hunted down and squished the smaller bugs, Oriana wondered how the crawlers had become so plentiful in the first place. That could be useful information. Then we could replicate it and feed a lot of empty bellies.
Martha and Haime, two of her favorite mid-level ship chefs, were thrilled about a new protein source. Especially when the ship’s stores were as low as they were. Maybe the crawlers found a way into the protein vats. Getting access to the protein vats would be more relaxed now, while she was a second-class exterminator. Maybe I’ll go check it out after my official shift ends. It’ll mean a long day, but it could also mean helping everyone out. And then that might shave some time off my next promotion. Smiling, Oriana stomped on another group of creepy crawlies. Unfortunately, one unusually large one squirmed away, so Oriana went down the hallway after it. It, and its dozens of legs, wiggled under a sealed, individual HibHab unit before she could reach it.
Oriana sighed and waved her hand in front of the access pad to unlock the door. It blinked red and refused to open. Well, that’s odd. Good thing I have the backup key card. This time, the door opened halfway with an ominous hiss. The warm air from the new room hurt as it thawed Oriana’s nose.
Oriana grunted as she heaved the door closed behind her. It was much heavier than it looked. This HibHab has a canteen? She shrugged off her overcoat and threw it on a chair at a table in the middle of the room. Wow. That’s probably convenient for when these – she caught herself again – fine residents – wake up. I wonder what it would be like to meet one. Not that I ever will. Well, it’s bug-squashing time.
Oriana checked the floor and furniture for signs of a bug’s passing by – or worse, a nest. There were three bowls on the table that were askew – claw marks. That was a sure sign of bugs having been there – and recently, by the still-warm feel of the leaking mush. Oriana lifted one bowl to her nose, sniffing it to try and identify its contents. This mash doesn’t smell like protein mush – or bug surprise. What is this? The paste felt as gloopy as it looked. She licked a tiny bit off of her fingers. Whatever it is, it’s not horrible-tasting. It’s better than half of what I get at the main canteen. I wonder if Maria and Haime know what this is. She pulled out a vial from her pack and scooped up a small sample, pocketing it for later.
Despite her stomach’s near-constant rumbling for more, Oriana turned back to the bug chase. Maybe I can come back for more of that mushy stuff later. Perhaps it would even make bug gumbo taste better – if it doesn’t make me sick, anyway. She had a few small med packs hidden in her pockets that could counteract almost any food sickness. She patted them to make sure they were still there. Thank the stars for small favors. San would take those if he found them.
Oriana focused back on the claw marks under the bowls. They ended at the table, so she dropped to the floor to look for more tracks. Once on the floor, she followed a faint trail of mushy food to another door. A crawler leg stuck out of the door. There’s no way it’s this easy. She reached down to touch the leg – only for it to pop away. Yup – the crawler just lost a leg. Not an easy day. Oriana waved at the next door, but it didn’t have any lights at all. Nor did it open. She reached for its handle only to find it didn’t slide at all. Really? What now? She punched the door, and it swung open. Huh. Well, that works.
Oriana snuck into the next room, still watching for bug signs. A pre-holovid screen dangled from some cords on the wall. I’d bet it wasn’t like that earlier. Several overturned chairs blocked her way. How many bugs were in here? She found a half-dozen legs, but that didn’t tell her much. If a crawler had several hundred legs, it wouldn’t miss several dozen. Oriana picked up the chairs – and then sat in one as she tried to recreate what had happened in her mind. The bug must have come in here for some reason. Maybe it was chasing a smaller bug – and they fought in here? That might explain some of the legs – but then some would be from the other insect. Oriana rubbed her temples. Could it have found one of the legendary ship rats or cats? Oriana chuckled. Or if we’re going with legends, maybe it saw an angel. She looked up, and her jaw dropped. Several ceiling tiles were askew, and she realized that the bugs went up and out via the ceiling.
Oriana stood on the closest chair. Stars. I’m too short unless I stack several chairs and then jump. Thankfully, she found a small table to be the base. That made the jump doable – although it did knock all of the furniture back over. I’ll add that to the “clean-up later” list.
Crawling through the ceiling tiles, Oriana followed the bug trail. It led to the next room. Seriously? I could’ve just used the door. This bug is going to die – and then I’m going to kill it again. More ceiling tiles hung down into the next room. Oriana dropped down as carefully as she could. Thankfully, a cot caught her fall. Unfortunately, her leg went right through the fabric. This day just keeps getting better and better.
She pulled her leg free, which ripped the fabric some more. However, it did expose a bug’s corpse underneath. That mess isn’t the bug I chased in here. There was some sort of a bug fight. She searched for more signs – and found more claw marks leading to a cabinet. Something is wrong here. Very, very wrong. Oriana stepped back from the closet to find something to use as a weapon. She wished she’d brought her spear, but a bar wrenched from under the damaged cot would do just as well. Oriana crept up to the cabinet and stood off to the side. She raised her makeshift spear and flung open the door to a flurry of hisses.
The millipede, missing a few six-inch legs, was as long as she was tall. It’s not the meanest one I’ve seen – just the biggest. Even bigger than the one on the hull! Its pincers reached for her face, only to be beaten back by the makeshift spear’s blunt end. Never mind – it’s also the meanest! Oriana screamed, trying to skewer it before it got to her first. Its tail whipped up and knocked her feet out from under her. Her chin hit the floor and lights danced in her vision. She rolled under the cot, trying to put something between her and the bug. Oh, right. I put a giant hole in this cot. It came at her through the hole, so she rolled back out from under the bed and stood. She flipped the cot onto the crawler and scrambled out from under it.
Partially trapped, the crawler began thrashing in earnest. Oriana, gasping and stabbed at the insect with her spear. Why – Isn’t – It – Dying?! Oh. She’d been using the wrong end. She twisted the spear and stabbed the other end at the ground where the crawler had just been. Where is it? Where is it? This isn’t good. Oriana’s heart was racing, and she wasn’t used to sweating in a decently heated room. Everything about this experience was making her palms clammy, which wasn’t helpful when she was trying to hold onto a metal, makeshift spear.
There. The bug had skittered behind another, still-intact cot, and was heading for the wall. If it got into the walls, she’d have to hope it headed for another large room. Chasing that thing into a small space would mean specific trouble – for her. There’s no way I’m becoming a dead-find for the cleanup crew. Not today, not ever. Oriana kicked off the safety of her mag boots in the partial gravity of the ship, something she shouldn’t do if she were strictly holding to regulations. She charged after certain death for the crawler. Her spear bounced off the wall as the crawler purposely dropped to the floor.
Now on its back, the crawler wasted several precious seconds trying to flip back over. Oriana stabbed its thorax and watched it thrash harder in an attempt to escape. Oriana stuck at it again, and its ichor smeared the floor faster, almost in time with its thrashing legs. Oriana thrust her spear through it once more in the brainbox, not wanting to see it suffer too much. It gave a final, violent spasm that pulled Oriana’s legs out from her. She hoped there weren’t any more crawlers as the floor flew towards her face, and nothingness swallowed her view of the room.
When the sounds of fighting died, a side panel opened up. Monty Garsea’s large frame had barely fit behind the last board. I figured stowaways like bugs would evolve over a few centuries, but either I miscalculated our wake-up from hypersleep or those bugs are eating too well. “Shhh. Stay hidden. Let me make sure it’s safe.”
Monty scanned the room, looking for chitinous legs. There. He walked over and kicked the bug for good measure. Dead. Good. Now to figure out what screamed and killed that nightmare – and see if ours ended or got worse. There was a makeshift spear through the bug’s carapace. And under an overturned bed lay a pair of disengaged magnetic boots. Never disconnect the mag locks! What a fool. Then again, it probably saved our lives, so I’ll consider lenience this once.
Monty pulled up the cot to inspect the damage to their timely rescuer without moving them. I wonder who saved us. Some great warrior? Nope – she’s a little girl. To be fair, this little girl was scrappy enough to have just saved his own life. Maybe he could use this. Yes, definitely. But first things first. “It’s safe to come out – the bug is dead, and our rescuer needs first aid.”
From out of another panel, Monty’s wife Nena and their son Andre emerged. Nena’s fingers still shook as they closed the board behind them. Monty set up one of the cots that weren’t ripped and put the golden-haired girl on it. Nena pushed her way past Monty and began to assess the girl’s wounds. Andre stood ready to run and hide again or play gopher for extra first aid supplies. Nena finished her medical assessment. “She’s gotten banged up and has a minor concussion, but she’ll be fine. There’s no other cranial trauma. She should wake up soon, but let her rest for a while.”
Just to be safe, Nena set up a few monitors to reassess the girl while tidying the battle scene. The three of them were able to get their temporary home on the ship rehabilitated within minutes. The hardest part had been locating the recycler and stuffing all of the broken cot and chair pieces into it. Reprinting new ones was much more manageable, though it wasn’t nearly as fast as they were used to back home. Of course, back home, there would have been someone else to do the cleaning up.
Pulling up a chair each, they settled to watch their sleeping warrior for a few minutes. They didn’t have to wait long before the girl started to stir. Within a heartbeat, she was sitting straight up and looking for a weapon. Her ferocity was intriguing to Monty. “It’s okay – you’re safe. You killed that insect and saved my family. We’re all safe now.”
Oriana wasn’t sure who the giant man with golden eyes was, but “safe” definitely wasn’t a word she’d use to describe him. Ow. My head. She was offered some white circles by the smallest one, who pantomimed eating them. I hope that circle wasn’t poisonous, or I’m in trouble. Instead, a wave of relief washed over her, and she wondered what magic these circles brought. They were far better than an anti-pain stim.
Monty laughed. “I’m glad the pain tabs are helping. Now, let’s chat about who you are, why you were chasing that bug, and how we can repay your valor. I’m Monty Garsea. Though, from the blank look on your face, it appears you don’t know who I am. Pity. And you are?”
“I’m Oriana, exterminator second-class, sir. I am only authorized to disclose my name and rank to anyone outside the chain of command.”
Monty laughed. This chat was going to be fun, after all. “Oh, but Oriana, I own the chain of command. Here’s my emblem.”
Oriana’s throat went dry. She’d seen this badge on the handbook cover, though never in person. A Signor? Nobody had seen one in centuries. She saluted. “Apologies, sir. We haven’t seen your rank insignia in enough time that I’m disbelieving my own eyes. Are you sure I’m not unconscious still? I feel awake, though…”
Monty assured Oriana that this was real life. “Oriana, I’m wondering about your career aspirations, so that I can take those under consideration while thinking about repaying you for saving my family’s life. What is it that you want to do?”
Oriana tried to stop herself from blurting out her wish to be a scout pilot, but it only half worked. “Scout pilot captain. I want to be a scout pilot and see the stars. I just need a promotion, and my written records will get cleared of some unfortunate misunderstandings. I’ll bring back supplies, of course. I want to see what’s out there – and find a way to help our people. We’re running out of space and supplies on this ship. We need something else, sir.” Oriana shrugged. Stars if I know what it is that we need, though.
Monty looked up as he thought. It was the most terrifying thoughtful pose Oriana had ever seen. “How many other exterminators are there, Oriana? And how many bugs are there?”
“I don’t know for certain on either count. There are eleven other exterminators on my shift, but I don’t know how many shifts there are. I probably kill about a thousand bugs every shift. And, sir, I don’t mean to complain too much, but there’s something wrong with the protein vats. I was going to inspect them later, but we’ve got a serious food shortage. I’ve been bringing the cooks some of the, uh, larger crawlers to augment our stores.” Oriana’s eyes looked down then around, trying to find the crawler she’d killed in this very room. It would be a massive benefit to the kitchens; only it wasn’t anywhere to be found. Stars. She sighed and looked up to see golden eyes staring through her. She set her jaw and clamped her teeth to keep herself from continuing her rant. She wanted to close her eyes and hide, but she took some deep breaths instead. One week is seven cycles. Seven cycles mean seven shifts, though I’m sure to have one or two off to recover after this. Hold it together, Oriana.
A deep, booming laugh from Monty was not what she expected. “Well, Exterminator second-class. I’m going to promote you. From now on, you’ll be reporting to the engineering bay to get to know those systems. Yes, you’ll also inspect and improve on the existing food supplies. Set up a bug farm for all I care. Just make sure it tastes like it’s fresh from the protein vats.” Oriana’s shoulders and a single, traitorous tear fell. The engineering track would knock her off of the scout track – permanently. And worse, looking at Signor Monty’s calculating face, she knew that he knew that, too.
Senior Garsea put a giant paw on her shoulder. “Girl, you’re far too valuable to be flying scouting missions. Do you know what the survival rate of those is? It’s 13.9% in the first year. Lower for subsequent years. Less than 1 in 1000 scout pilots survive five years of service. In any case, that’s the plan – a confidential contingency plan for overpopulation. Your ingenuity and spirit can’t and won’t be thrown away on a rigged scouting mission. Instead, you’re to become an engineer. Do you understand, Engineer first-class Oriana?”
Oriana sniffed and dug deep, looking for a glimmer of a starry lining. I’ve got nothing. Maybe she could find one another time.
Monty’s placed his other hand on her other shoulder. “Oriana, you can do this. You can’t pilot a scouting vessel because we need you on the bridge of the 4th Terran Generacion ship. I need you to solve the problems so that we don’t have to send out any more sacrificial pilots to the black of space. I’m putting you on the admiral’s track, via the engineering pathway. Are you up for the challenge?”
Oriana’s gut dropped worse than when the artificial gravity flickered. She looked at Signor Garsea’s predatory smile. This man didn’t just give out promotions or classified information without a reason, especially since she wouldn’t be able to verify any of it until she’d been promoted another few times. So surely there was a plan – even if she couldn’t see it yet. But to fly the whole generacion starship? To be a starship captain – and then admiral? Her mouth twitched into a slight smile. I could live with that dream. Monty laughed, and Oriana wondered if he couldn’t hear her thoughts. “Perfect. I’ve updated your file and track notes. Dismissed, Engineer. My family and I are headed back into cryogenic hibernation. But I’ll be checking in with you, so make sure you – or someone reliable – keeps this particular unit free from any more of those bugs. Dismissed.”
Oriana, starstruck at the possibilities, nodded and left. She shut the door behind her and headed towards the engineering levels, particularly the protein vats. This day would last a little longer, but she was excited to see where it went next. Lorence and San can win the shift tally contest tonight. I’ve got work to do if I’m going to be the Admiral of a starship.
I absolutely loved writing this story, so I hope you enjoy it. My son (and several beta readers) have demanded an encore, so this story continues to be revised and is taking up free real estate in my imagination. It’s a good thing imagination is as endless as space!
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