Written for Tipsy Lit. A story about age-old naval traditions living on begins after the image.
Genre: Science Fiction/Humor
“A sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind. Live passionately, even if it kills you, because something is going to kill you anyway.”
— Webb Chiles
I was prepping the ship to receive a shipment of control modules bound for the moon of Cavillar VI when I heard a knocking at the ship’s main hatch. For you landlubbers out there, “hatch” means “door.” I opened it. Outside, stood a scruffy-looking fellow holding his hat in his hand. “Pardon me, sir,” he said more respectfully than necessary. “I’m here from Captain Rubens’ ship. He’s asking if you would have 200ft of ‘Centerline’ to spare.”
I repressed a grin. This waif had been sent out on a fool’s errand, one that harkened back to the old wet navy days back on Earth. When ropes were used often on sailing ships, they didn’t say “rope.” They used the term, “line.” And then all ships had a “Centerline,” but this wasn’t a certain kind of rope, it was an imaginary line used as a spatial reference. To the right of the Centerline is starboard, to the left, port. There was no physical thing called “centerline.” The gag that old salts loved to play on landlubbers, new to a ship, was to send them around looking for 200ft of Centerline. The whole crew knew the joke and could send a sailor all over the ship, all day long, looking something that doesn’t exist. By the time, nuclear-powered ships were cruising the seas, the traditional joke had not waned in the slightest. Even now, with ships cruising the spacelanes between Earth’s many colonies, the age-old pursuit of Centerline was alive and kicking.
“Sorry shipmate,” I said. “I’ve used up mine securing the tinselphat to the main harkspur. As you know, if you don’t do that, vibrations from vergemotor might shake apart the whole intravacular assembly. And you know what that means!” I could see his eyes glaze over half way through my diatribe. He was completely lost. Granted it was a total line of bull, complete with words I made up on the spot. I was good at it, you see? I mean, after doing the Centerline gag a few hundred times, it gets old. I enjoyed adding a little spice to it.
“But I do know Cap’n Velasco aboard the Nanny Doo has lots of Centerline,” I continued. I pointed. “He’s about four ships down the line.” Modern merchants are big. They need lots of room in the parking areas. Four ships down meant about 3 miles away. I was doing Cap’n Rubens a favor. If the waif didn’t return in time before blastoff, Rubens wouldn’t have to take on the Legal Stowaway.
That’s what we called them. Passage aboard starships is too expensive for most people. So folks, down on their luck would try to catch a ride on a merchant. Trouble is, there’s lots of dangerous equipment aboard a ship. Never, in the history of naval vessels, has anything been made “sailor-proof.” A sailor can break damned near anything, so we hated taking on landlubbers who might, in the process of fiddling, break something crucial. Trouble is, Earth passed a law stating that if a person declared an emergency, any merchant ship was required to give that person passage to wherever that merchant was going. Once that happened, people were declaring emergencies all the time. So in our defense, we used a sub-clause of the law. If the Legal Stowaway wasn’t present when the merchant blasted off, the merchant was no longer legally responsible. Hence, the search for Centerline continued unabated, hoping they’d be led so far astray, they couldn’t return in time.
I closed the hatch and it took only a few beats before there came another rap. I opened it and found a man dressed in a shabby suit with patches on the elbows and a turtleneck sweater. He carried a briefcase and an umbrella. “I don’t owe you nothing!” I said to the lawyer.
“Of course not!” he said. “I am Professor Emerson Lauden. I, dear sir, am declaring an emergency!”
I rolled my eyes. “What’s your emergency?”
“To be honest, my account is devoid of funds. My grant money for studies in nanoferrite tubular formations in quantum-matrix applications has run out. I must return to Earth to secure a further vouchsafe!”
“So, you got a girl pregnant?”
“No! I’ve simply run out of money. Hence, my corporeal presence before you.”
“Starships are dangerous places. A lot of the equipment aboard can easily kill you.” This is actually true. “Are you sure?”
“Dear sir! I am the smartest person you’ve ever met. I have 4 PhDs in disparate disciplines, and I am well-versed in the vernacular and technical jargon employed aboard inter-planetary vessels. I assure you, I shall be no trouble at all.”
The smartest, eh? We’ll see about that. Did I mention I’m creative in dealing with Legal Stowaways?
I pointed to the front of the ship. “If you’re familiar with the ‘jargon,’ then what’s that?”
“The bow. Aft, we find the stern. To the right is starboard, and left is port. You see? I’m very familiar.”
Not too bad. I pulled him aboard with a hearty handshake. “Welcome aboard, shipmate! Are you hungry?”
I pointed. “The Hultenskiff over there makes a great chicken soup. Just tell it you want some.”
He stood before the fire suppression machine and said, “Chicken Soup.” A vent opened and huge amounts of fire-retardent foam shot out and engulfed the professor. The foam quickly solidified into a cocoon around him. He began to squirm and the foam began to break away.
“Don’t move, Professor!” I called. “If you break the foam, the shards will slice you to ribbons!”
Okay, that’s total bullshit, but gimme a break. I was having fun!
I dug out a hole near his mouth so he could breathe. “Why did you say ‘chicken soup?’ ”
“You told me to!”
“Never say that! Say ‘Caldo Pollo.’ I thought you knew shipboard terminology. Anything made by Garcia Technologies requires special command words.”
“Alright. The only way to get the foam off safely is with vinegar. Heaps of it.” I began pouring bottles of it over him. Soon the only thing he could breathe was the overpowering smell of the stuff. Truth be told, almost any liquid, including water, would break the foam down, but I wasn’t telling him that.
After an hour of breathing only vinegar, the foam had completely washed away. I said, “I’ll bet you’re ready to wash that off.”
I pointed. “The Gymbleploom is over there.”
“Oh! You know! Where you wash.”
Where you sterilize the dirty dishes that is.
He came out looking like a lobster. I felt sure he was about to break and run for his life. But no. “I still need to use the facility, if you don’t mind,” he said, looking a little shaky.
I pointed him to the head. That’s bathroom, you landlubbers. Of course, using a bathroom in zero-gravity requires unusual operations and fixtures. It’s quite complicated. I took him there and closed the hatch. I made sure it was sealed for what would come next.
I waited a few minutes until I heard him murmur, “What now?”
“Just pull the white gavelslip,” I called.
“Oh! You know! It looks like a handle.”
“Oh! Wrong flush direction. You didn’t pull the frenkleloop did you? It’s white too.”
He emerged after several more complex operations in the honest-to-goodness (we actually call it a shower) had cleaned him off.
If looks could kill…
“Look Professor,” I said. “This isn’t going so well. Ships are dangerous as you can see. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I can endure any tribulation this vile vessel of Faustian horror may inflict upon me,” he grated.
You gotta give him props for commitment. It was time to fall back on the tried and true.
“Okay, Prof. By law, you are now a part of the ship’s crew, and if I send you on an errand, you must do it. Okay?”
“Do what you will, foul demon!”
“No need to be nasty. I need you to check the other ships and ask them for a can of Bulkhead Remover.”
Of course, there is no such thing. The only thing in a can that can remove a bulkhead (that’s a wall to you landlubbers) is acid, and no captain worth his salt will ever let a common sailor near it. Nothing is “sailor-proof” you might recall.
The Professor never did make it back on time before blastoff. Too bad. Maybe he found passage on another ship. If he’s lucky, he didn’t find another captain like me.
Here’s a short list of wild-goose chases the US Navy sends new recruits on, even in the present day.
– Find 200ft of Centerline
– Find a can of Bulkhead Remover
– Finding a can of “Brightwork.” (Brightwork is the shiny fixtures aboard ship. It doesn’t come in a can).
– Find a can of Deck Softener (Hope to god you never find this imaginary item).
– Waiting for the Mail Buoy (Yes, stand there with a gaffing pole in the wind and rain for something that will never appear).
Each week, Tipsy Lit presents a inventive writing prompt for flash fiction up to 1500 words long. This week, the story the idea is to write a story in another accent or dialect. For me, I think naval terminology is another language. Here’s this week’s prompt: http://tipsylit.com/2014/02/24/prompted-speaking-with-another-voice/