Garbage

This is another short story but it has a historical significance...

Garbage is the very first story in what later became the Immortal Love Universe. I had been playing with an idea for a while and I needed to get something on paper to help my thoughts fall into place. This is the result.

This is also the only story with a character that used my name! Melodee Ullmann was originally a man named Melvin Ullmann, but he just didn't work. I went to a costume party and wore a coconut bra and grass skirt and when I bent to pick up a drink at the bar, I pinched my boob. That was too good a scene not to use, so Melvin became Melodee.


Copyright 1996-2011
All rights Reserved


Terry stood at rigid attention with sweat running down his ribs. He held his salute as Stewart Dayton, Lord Admiral of the Fleet, looked him up and down.

Casually returning the salute, the Admiral frowned. "Sit down, Whitling." Terry took the indicated seat. "So, you want a command?"

"Yes, Sir. I was top of my class at the Academy, I have a perfect service record, and all the testing shows I'm ready, Sir."

Admiral Dayton lifted a stack of papers. "I see that." He tossed the papers in the wastebasket. "That's all crap, Whitling, one hundred percent pure crap. The question is, can you actually command a ship and not get yourself, or someone else, killed?"

Terry felt the Admiral's glare burning through him, into the back of the chair. "Yes, Sir, I can."

"I notice you didn't say you think you can, Whitling."

"No, Sir, because I know I can."

The Admiral smiled. "You've got balls, son, and I like that. Your last skipper wanted rid of you."

"Yes, Sir. Captain Errett thought my skills wasted as an XO."

"No, Kareem thought you were going to take his job away from him. He wanted you off his ship."

"He did, Sir?"

"Yeah, he did. Who knows, maybe he's right, too." The Admiral rifled through some papers. "As a Lieutenant on your first command, you're not going to get any kind of combat ship and what you do get certainly won't to be a top of the line vessel."

Terry smiled. "Yes, Sir, I understand, but she'll be my ship. I'll make her the best at what she does."

The Admiral stared at Terry for a time. "Very well, Lieutenant. Your first command will be His Majesty's Star Ship Robert Burns. I'll expect you to make her the best garbage scow in the Fleet. My yeoman has your orders. Dismissed."

* * * *

The airlock officer at Burns' anchorage gave Terry a poor salute. "Mr. Whitling, we're having a little problem with the airlock, so you could just wait over by the windows. Maybe get a look at Bob."

"Bob? Who's Bob?"

"Oh! Sorry, Sir. Most of us call the Robert Burns just Bob."

Terry thought that showed a good deal of loyalty to the ship. "Very well. I'll be in the observation area."

When Terry reached the big windows overlooking Bob, his mouth fell open. The ship was rusty, dirty, corroded, pitted, and needed a paint job. A few things, he had no clue what, hung loose from the hull. Bob looked more ready for the scrap heap than for space. No one worked on the ship because this was an anchorage dock, not a repair dock.

Terry jumped when a loud banging noise came from the airlock area. He ran back to see what was wrong. The petty officer beat on the lock mechanism with five-kilo sledgehammer.

When he saw Terry, the petty officer smiled. "Just a few more licks, Skipper, and that should do it." He hit the latch two more times and the lock popped open. Setting down his hammer, he lifted the edge of the door and threw his weight against it. The door creaked open about halfway. "Sorry, Sir, but that's all the farther it opens, when it opens at all."

Terry looked from the door to the petty officer. "That thing isn't going to close on me, is it?"

"Oh, no Sir! The motors have been broken for at least ten years."

Terry asked the obvious question. "Why hasn't this been fixed?"

The petty officer smiled again. "It was fixed, Skipper. Just four years ago, at least as much as the parts were available."

Terry shook his head. "Very well. Grab my bag and have someone take it to my quarters while I go to the bridge."

"Your bag, Sir?"

"Yes! My sea bag over there in the corner!"

"Oh! That bag! Yes, Sir! I'll get it taken care of for you."

Terry squeezed through the door and headed for the bridge.

* * * *

A man sat in the command chair on the bridge wearing a Fleet Chief Petty Officer's uniform. Sort of. He was unshaven, and the tie for the uniform was missing. The top two buttons of the khaki shirt were unfastened, and he sat in the chair almost sidewise, his leg resting casually over the arm. He didn't hear Terry walk onto the bridge because a loud clanking came from the ventilator shaft.

Terry sighed. "Chief, are you currently in command?"

The Chief turned slowly. When he saw Terry's Lieutenant's bars, he almost fell trying to get out of the chair. "Begging the Lieutenant's pardon! Yes, Sir, I have the command just now." He managed a passable salute, at least passable for a first day recruit.

Terry returned the salute. "I'm Lieutenant Whitling." He extended his hand to the Chief.

After wiping his hand, front and back, on his pants, the Chief took Terry's hand. "Welcome to the Robert Burns, Lieutenant. Most of us just call her Bob, though. I'm Joe Gibson, Chief of the Boat."

"Good to meet you, Chief." Terry looked at the ventilation shaft. "What the hell is that noise?"

"Got me, Skipper. We've tried making it quit for eleven years now, but no luck so far. It doesn't get any worse, so it must not be hurting anything."

"Sort of like the airlock?"

"Oh, no Sir. The airlock is getting much worse."

Terry decided he didn't want to know what else was broken, at least not now. He looked at the Chief's uniform. "I see you folks are pretty relaxed while in port."

The Chief laughed a little. "Yes, Sir. We work pretty hard, and there are only nine of us on the ship. Well, ten now with you, Skipper. We tend to lean to the casual side of things."

"I see. So, when do you plan to get underway?"

"Last I heard was at 0800 tomorrow. We'll run out to the moon and pick up a load to haul to the sun."

Terry sighed again. "Very well, Chief. I'll be in my quarters. Carry on."

"Yes, Sir. I hope the boys got the door open for you."

* * * *

Terry took the bridge at 0730, and things were ready for them to get underway to pick up a load from the Tycho Basin Refuse Center. He glanced around the bridge. "Release docking clamps, please."

Chief Gibson frowned. "Um, Sir? We need to have the dock release them."

"Why's that, Chief?"

"Our docking control system is broken."

Terry sighed. "Very well. Make it so, Chief."

The Chief spoke to the communicator for a moment. "Docking clamps released, Skipper."

"Thank you. Helm, ahead dead slow." Bob eased out of the space dock and followed the beacons to clear space. "Helm, course to lunar orbit, one-half impulse power, please."

"Lunar orbit at one-half impulse, aye." The helmsman, a spacer by name of Melodee Ullmann, worked the controls. Bob bucked, made a loud bang, and then stopped dead in space. "Just a few minutes, Skipper."

Some hammering came from aft of the bridge, and Terry wondered if the sledgehammer made another appearance. The intercom beeped. "Try it now, Mel."

Ullmann pushed a button and Bob lurched off toward the moon. "ETA six hours and nine minutes."

* * * *

On the way to the moon, Bob frequently coughed and slowed. After more hammering from back in the engineering area, Bob resumed her gradual swing in thrust from about half of a G up to about one G and slowly back down again. Terry frowned. "Chief, may I speak to you in private, please?"

"Of course, Skipper."

They went to the small conference room off the bridge. "Chief, is this thing going to make it to the moon?"

"Oh, yes, Sir! We'll make it. You can count on that, Skipper. She's old and a little slow, but Bob's nothing if not reliable."

"Reliable? Chief, they're back there beating the hell out of the impulse drive with a hammer just to get it to work!"

The Chief frowned a bit. "Well, yeah, but she keeps on working, Skipper. Anything that breaks, we can fix. Besides, we've all been here a long time and we know Bob inside-out and backwards."

"Maybe you can tell me why this ship is still in space instead of having been turned into sardine cans."

"I've run garbage for almost a hundred years, and I learned early that scows aren't the best ships in the Fleet. Mostly we get retired vessels. Bob was an attack cruiser two hundred years ago." Gibson smiled a little. "Every once in a while, though, we get a good one, like Bob. Yeah, she could use a little work and parts are hard to come by, but she's basically sound. At least Bob hasn't killed anyone."

"Yet." Terry thought for a moment. "How long has the crew been here?"

"Not counting you, of course, Mel is the newest crewman. She's been here about thirty-five years now."

Terry wondered whom she ticked off. "That's another thing, Chief. On a ship this small, it's fine for the crew not to shave everyday and not to follow strict Fleet regulations for dress, but don't you think it might be a bit much for our helmsman to wear a grass skirt and a coconut shell brassiere while on duty?"

"I thought she looked pretty good, Skipper."

"Damn it, Chief, that's not the point!"

Gibson smiled. "You'd think differently if you'd seen Linton in that outfit."

Chuck Linton was the communications technician. "What?"

"Yeah, he had a few too many, or one too few, and he tried on Mel's outfit. He did the hula in the galley. It wasn't a very pretty sight, Skipper."

Terry ran his hand through his hair. "Chief, all I ask is for no more grass skirts and coconut shell bras on the bridge. Let me know when we get to the moon." He went to his cabin and had to use a broom handle to pry the door open.

* * * *

After several delays in reaching the moon, Terry's intercom buzzed. "We'll make lunar orbit in about fifteen minutes, Skipper." The Chief paused a moment. "Oh, and I told everyone grass skirts and such aren't to be worn on the bridge."

"Thanks, Chief. I'm on my way."

When Terry got to the bridge, Gibson stood from the command chair. "The rest of the bridge crew is coming, Skipper. Lunar orbit in ten minutes."

The door to the bridge opened and Ullmann came in, wearing her grass skirt and coconut shell bra. She stopped at the communications station beside the door and took them both off before taking the helm.

Considering she was stark naked and clearly a woman, the old Fleet tradition of calling everyone mister didn't seem to make much sense. Terry took a deep breath and pressed on. "Mr. Ullmann?"

She turned to face him. "Yes, Sir?"

"I do appreciate you not wearing your grass skirt and coconuts, but do you think you could put on some clothes?"

She frowned. "Don't you like girls, Skipper?"

"Oh, I like girls just fine. I just don't care for naked girls on my bridge."

She smiled. "I don't mean to distract you, Skipper."

Terry sighed. "As a matter of fact, it does distract me. Please go put on your uniform."

"I haven't seen my uniforms in more than a decade."

Terry wondered where this crew and ship came from. "Very well, Mr. Ullmann." He sighed. "Put your skirt and coconuts on, then."

"Aye, aye, Sir." She dressed and inserted Bob into orbit.

* * * *

Coupling Bob to the load of garbage waiting in orbit proved an interesting process, and not just because Terry had never seen it before. While the garbage container occupied a steady, stabile orbit, Bob kept lurching around, swinging to and fro between higher and lower orbits. She overshot the container on one pass and undershot it on the next. It took all day to complete a docking maneuver that should have taken less than an hour.

With the maneuver finally completed, Terry smiled. "Communications, please advise Earth we're heading for the sun to dump this load."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Linton flicked a few switches. "Mel, you want to swing us around?"

"Sure, Chuck." She played the controls.

Terry frowned. "What are you two doing?"

Linton laughed a little. "The motors on the antenna don't work, so we have to point the ship at Earth to talk to them."

Terry turned to Gibson. "Chief, is there anything on this ship working like it should?"

"Sure, Skipper. The galley almost never breaks and the intercom is in good shape, too."

* * * *

Scows followed a set procedure to dump a load. It involved thrusting toward the sun. About fifteen million kilometers inside Mercury's orbit, they released the load and thrust sideways. The garbage went into the sun and the ship would loop around and back into free space. Terry gave the orders needed to make it happen.

Chief Gibson muttered for a moment. "Um, Skipper, we don't normally do it that way."

"Oh? That's what all the procedures say to do, Chief."

"Yeah, they do, but we do it a little differently with Bob."

Terry felt almost afraid to ask, but he waited for the hammering from engineering to stop. "How do we do it with Bob?"

"We come to all stop out around Mercury and just let go of the load and get away. The sun will suck it in, Skipper."

"How long does it take for the load to fall in?"

"I have no idea."

Terry worked the computer terminal at his command chair to find the answer, but it kept giving him the result of forty-two. "Too long, I'd think. There's some dangerous stuff in that trash, and it needs to be impacted soon."

"Maybe, Skipper, but sometimes the clamps sort of stick. If we do it according to the book, we'll have about thirty minutes to get them unstuck before we smack into the sun."

"The clamps sort of stick?" Terry rubbed his hair again. If he kept it up, he'd have less hair than a billiard ball. "Should I ask why they haven't been fixed?"

"Yeah, they stick once in a while, usually not more than five or six times out of every ten times we release them. We've fixed them several times, Skipper. They used to never release."

The hammering from engineering had started again and, the ventilator made louder than normal noise. Gibson reached up and smacked the ventilator with his fist. It quieted a little. "Thanks, Chief. Very well, we'll do it your way. Mr. Ullmann, you know what to do." She looked very nice in her grass skirt and coconut shells today.

"You got it, Skipper."

* * * *

Bob returned to the moon and made orbit before Tycho launched their next load. Since Bob would have twelve hours of downtime, Terry decided to tour the ship. His first focus was engineering and the drive.

As they looked at the drive, a hodgepodge of repairs and jury-rigs, Gibson seemed a little defensive. "Skipper, we have to make due with the parts we can get."

"Chief, I understand, but there are parts from a dozen different drives here, and none of them are the same model as the drive we have."

"Well, no. We use what we can get."

Terry rolled his eyes. "Chief, let's take advantage of the time we have to get the drive and load clamps working a little better, shall we?"

"Sure, Skipper." Gibson glanced at the engineer. "We could use some parts, though."

"Who takes care of supplies?"

Gibson hesitated. "That would be Engineering Mate Davis. We just call him Cadger."

Terry nodded. "OK, get him on it and let me know if he needs my help."

"Cadger will want to know what he has to work with."

"What?"

"He'll want to know what he can trade for the parts we need."

Terry frowned. "I see. Is he doing anything against regulations?"

Gibson shrugged. "Not really."

Terry ran his hand through his hair. "Don't let him trade anything we really need."

"Yes, Sir."

* * * *

The repaired drive showed a big improvement. It only cut out one time.

Terry couldn't decide if he was mad or not. Cadger traded away his last bottle of Palean brandy to get the new modulator valve for the load clamp hydraulics. At least his ship worked better now.

As Bob approached the docking zone, Terry saw two garbage barges in orbit side by side. He frowned. "Which one is ours?"

Mel reached for her notes, her coconut shells clicking softly together. "Um, the left one, Skipper."

"All right, then. Let's pick it up."

Ullmann eased Bob into a matching orbit and slid in over the barge. The clamps engaged, at least the five that worked.

As Bob pulled out of lunar orbit with the barge hanging below her, Terry wondered why Bob moved in a direction opposite from all the other scows picking up loads.

* * * *

According to Mel's calculations, the orbital mechanics required Bob to swing around the moon before heading to the sun. The trip to the sun would take, including the loop, about twenty-three hours.

Terry went to engineering to help with the load clamp motors. They even let him use the sledgehammer a few times. Linton paged Terry for a call from Tycho.

Terry had only switched on the communicator in his command chair when Captain Reese of the Tycho center screamed at him. "You idiots! You took the wrong load! You were supposed to take the left hand barge!"

"Captain, we did take the left hand barge."

"That's because you and your piece of crap ship came in from the wrong direction!" The Captain seemed to ask someone above for help or patience, his eyes rolling toward the overhead. "Lieutenant, the barge you have clamped to your ship is full of old, unstable nuclear weapons. You don't have the ratings to carry that load. Get it back here carefully, mind you, but get it back here now!"

Terry thought he'd be a Lieutenant for the rest of his career. If he got a lucky break, he wouldn't do prison time. "Yes, Sir. We're on our way."

"See that you are!" Captain Reese hung up on him.

Terry sat staring at the black screen for a moment. "Mel, get us back to the docking zones."

"Aye, aye, Skipper." She entered the commands, and then turned to Terry. "Skipper, I'm sorry. That was my fault."

"Not really, Mel. I messed up, too." He smiled a little. "If you, or anyone else on Bob, has any lumps coming, you'll get them from me, not some officer elsewhere."

"I am sorry, though."

"Don't worry about that right now. Just get us back to get rid of this."

A loud bang came from the engineering section and Bob slowed. Mel glanced at her screen. "Drive down."

"Great." Terry hit the intercom. "Chief, what's wrong?"

"The field coil came loose, Skipper." Gibson called to someone else. "Looks like about an hour to get it working again."

Terry ran his hand through his hair. "All right. Keep me posted." He clicked off and turned to Linton. "Chuck, let Tycho know we'll be a little late."

* * * *

Bob needed to thrust out of orbit, then swing back to reach the docking zones at Tycho. Mel played the controls and Bob moved out at maximum thrust.

An hour from turnover, Linton frowned. "Skipper, we've got a priority one emergency communications coming in." He listened to his headset for a moment. "There's a meteor coming in, heading for Earth. I just sent the numbers to Mel."

"Let's see what we have, Mel." Terry moved to stand behind the helm station.

Mel's display showed a meteor, about 1500 meters across, on a collision course with Earth. The scientists called for a near vertical impact somewhere near Chicago. They said the crater would be almost twenty kilometers in diameter and casualties would be about a billion people. Fleet had nothing to stop the rock with, and ordered Bob, along with all other ships in the area, out of the path of the meteor.

Mel played with her calculator. "Skipper, we're dead in front of the thing and moving right at it now. We need to move soon."

"Yeah..." Terry stared at the screen for a moment. He pressed the intercom. "Chief, get up here."

"On my way, Skipper."

Terry explained the situation to Gibson. "Do we trust the drive?"

Gibson shrugged. "Sure, Skipper. Besides, we can fix it if it breaks."

Terry's hand swept through his hair again. "Maybe I'm nuts, but I have a plan." By the time Terry finished explaining his plan, he believed that Bob's crew all thought him crazy.

* * * *

Bob's position prevented Terry from calling Earth. It was just as well since Fleet would forbid him from doing what he planned. "Mel, maximum speed, straight at the rock."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Bob leapt ahead at maximum acceleration, heading at the closing meteor. The combined speeds of the rock and Bob meant they closed on a rendezvous in space at just over forty kilometers per second. Bob's drive ran smoothly, but Terry worried about the load clamps.

He thought for a moment. "Mel, as soon as the clamps are released and the load is free, thrust hard to starboard and get us from in front of that rock."

"Right, Skipper. I'm ready."

Terry clicked the intercom. "Chief, are those clamps going to release?"

"We're standing by with hammers, Skipper. They'll release one way or another. If not, we'll be ready anyway."

"Right, Chief." As Terry moved to the clamp control console, the ventilator banged like elves had taken it over, all making swords. He absently reached up and punched the grill. It quieted a little.

* * * *

Mel tugged at her coconuts. "Damn things."

Terry frowned. "What's wrong?"

"They're pinching me." She glanced at her calculator and screens. "I have one minute to optimal release."

"All right." Terry thought for a moment, but everything came down to Bob now. Either the systems worked right or they didn't. If they didn't work right, the crew could fix it or they couldn't. He sat thinking for a few moments.

Mel's voice rang through Bob's intercom. "Release in three, two, one, mark."

Terry pressed the release switch and nothing happened. "Chief! I have a red board!"

"We're on it, Skipper!" A cacophony of hammering in different pitches came from the aft sections. Terry believed every hammer on Bob got a workout. Sounding like a symphony, the bell-like hammering rang out as if played by maniacs.

"Skipper, we're at optimal plus twenty seconds."

"Thanks, Mel." As Terry watched, the clamps released one by one.

Gibson called through the intercom. "Skipper, lock all clamps, then release them again."

"Copy." Terry relocked the clamps. His finger paused above the release switch for a moment as he sent a prayer to whatever god had authority over load clamps. He pressed the release switch, and the lights all showed release.

Linton watched the scanners. "We're loose and clear, Mel! Ten meters!"

Without answering, Mel worked the helm. Bob thrust hard to starboard, moving from in front of the meteor already looming large on the forward viewer.

Bob coughed and bucked hard. A loud bang came from aft, and the drive cut off. Mel yelled. "Drive shut down! We have one minute to move!"

Gibson yelled back. "On it!"

The hammering resumed, accompanied by no small amount of cursing, and a new sound came in the mix; metal access plates screamed in protest as the crew ripped them away.

Terry watched casually as Mel tugged at her coconuts again. The Chief was right. She did look pretty good wearing them.

Terry's opinion now was that he indeed would stay a Lieutenant for the rest of his career. He'd be dead very soon now.

The hammering slowed, and then stopped. "Try it now, Mel!"

She pressed a switch and Bob bucked hard, the artificial gravity wavering for an instant, then Bob moved. Mel smiled. "Fifteen seconds to load impact, sixteen seconds to clear space."

Terry pushed the intercom switch. "All hands standby for collision!"

The seconds ticked by like hours, Mel counting down. "Load impact in three, two, one, mark."

A blinding flash of white light came from aft of Bob, the nukes all going off at the same time. The shockwave hit only instants later, flipping Bob end for end through space. Sparks sprayed from many of the control panels on the bridge, and Terry heard the whoosh of fire extinguishers from the aft sections. Terry and Chuck grabbed extinguishers and fought the small fires on the bridge.

Gibson yelled up the companionway. "Skipper, intercom is down. We're all alive, and the fires are under control aft."

Terry laughed. He couldn't believe he was still alive. "Same forward, Chief."

Mel still smiled. "Drive is still up, Skipper." She worked the scanners. "The meteor is just a cloud of gravel now. I see nothing bigger than twenty-five centimeters across, most much smaller."

* * * *

Terry again stood at attention in Admiral Dayton's office as the Admiral surveyed the small group before him. An Ensign at the docks lent Mel a uniform that fit, more or less, for the trip.

"Mr. Whitling, it seems you proved me wrong." He gave the group a lopsided grin. "I thought a little time on Bob would bring your arrogance down a notch or two."

Terry smiled. "No, Sir. I think you did just what you intended."

"Maybe, Lieutenant. Your damned fool stunt saved who knows how many people. That was pretty arrogant. Instead of an impact to kill a bunch of folks, we had a good fireworks show." Dayton stared at Terry for a moment. "I should bust you back to Midshipman." The Admiral glanced at some papers on his desk. "Instead, Bob will be decommissioned and scraped. You can pretty well pick your ship, Whitling. The Emperor is impressed."

A murmur passed among Bob's crew, despite their being at attention. Terry frowned. "Admiral, I'd like you to reconsider." He glanced at his crew. "Sir, we'd like to see Bob get a proper refit and stay with her."

Dayton looked up and frowned at him. "Are you declining a new ship?"

"Yes, Sir, I am." He paused a minute. "Admiral, I thought Bob and her crew both were about as bad as things could get in the Fleet." He waved his arm at his crew. "This bunch has no concept of military organization or discipline. No one on Bob has even seen a regulation book for more than a decade. Bob herself is a rusty bucket of bolts that's held together with chewing gum and string." He smiled. "This is also the best crew in the Fleet, and Bob is the best ship."

The Admiral looked at the rest of the crew. "What about the rest of you? Do you want Bob back and to stay there?"

Glances passed between the nine. Gibson chuckled. "Admiral, we do. The Skipper's right. Bob is the best damn ship in the Fleet and we want to stay there." He smiled a little. "Now we have the best Skipper, too."

"Well, then." The Admiral frowned. "I don't like the politician's mucking about in Fleet business, but the Emperor will have my head if I don't give you people what you want." He rummaged through his papers, pulling one from the stack. After a quick glance, he signed the bottom. "Very well. Lieutenant Commander Whitling, the Robert Burns will be refit and the ten of you are assigned to continue her mission."

A small cheer came from Bob's crew.

Terry smiled broadly. "Thank you, Admiral. I told you I'd make Bob the best garbage scow in the Fleet."