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Garbage went through a number of iterations before reaching this final form, but it has never been published. It was written purely as a thought experiment to work out a few very early details of what became the Immortal Love Universe. Those familiar with the ILU may recognize a few things.

The biggest claim to fame for Garbage is that it is the only one of my stories to have a character with my name…or at least part of my name. Helmsman Melodee Ullman has some of my personality in her, but as is always the case, she grew into her own person, even in this short story.

While I won’t list them here, Garbage has a butt-load of mechanical errors. Since it was never intended to see the light of day, it is totally unedited…it served the desired purpose, and was left as-is.

For now, just sit right back and hear a tale of a fearless crew and a tiny ship.



Melodee Aaron

Terry stood at rigid attention, sweat running down his ribs and holding his salute, as Stewart Dayton, Lord Admiral of the Fleet, looked him up and down a bit. Casually returning the salute, the Admiral said, “Sit down, Whitling.” Once Terry was seated, the Admiral continued, asking, “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 and said, “Yeah, I see that.” He tossed the papers in the waste basket. “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 and said, “You’ve got balls, son, and I like that. Your last skipper wanted to be rid of you.”

“Yes, Sir. Captain Errett thought I was being 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 and said, “As a Lieutenant on your first command, you’re not going to be handed any kind of combat ship and what you do get is certainly not going to be a top of the line vessel.”

Terry smiled and said, “Yes, Sir, I understand, but she’ll be my ship and I’ll make her the best at what she does.”

The Admiral stared at Terry for a time and finally said, “Very well, Lieutenant. Your first command will be His Majesty’s Star Ship Robert Burns and 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, after a poor salute, said, “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. There were a few things, he had no clue what they were, hanging loose from the hull. Bob looked more ready for the scrap heap than for space. There was no one working on the ship because this was an anchorage dock, not a repair dock.

Terry jumped when loud banging came from the airlock area and he ran back to see what was wrong. The petty officer was beating on the lock mechanism with five kilo sledge hammer. When he saw Terry, the petty officer said, “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 and 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 and said, “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 and said, “It has been, Skipper, just four years ago, at least as much as the parts were available.”

Terry shook his head and said, “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 that taken care of for you.”

Terry squeezed through the door and headed for the bridge.

There was a man sitting 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 no where to be seen. The top two buttons of the khaki shirt were unfastened. He was sitting in the chair almost sidewise with his leg resting casually over the arm. He didn’t hear Terry walk onto the bridge because there was a loud clanking coming from the ventilator shaft.

Terry said, “Chief, are you currently in command?”

The Chief turned slowly and 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 salute that would have been passable for a first day recruit.

Terry returned the salute and said, “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 and said, “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 and asked, “What the hell is that noise?”

“Got me, Skipper. We’ve been trying to get it to 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. Looking at the Chief’s uniform, he said, “I see you folks are pretty relaxed while in port.”

The Chief laughed a little and said, “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 be on the casual side of things.”

“I see. So, Chief, when were you planning to get underway?”

“Last I heard was at 0800 tomorrow, Skipper. We’ll run out to the moon and pick up a load to haul to the sun.”

Terry sighed and said, “Very well, Chief. I’ll be in my quarters. Carry on.”

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

Terry had taken the bridge at 0730 and things were ready for them to get underway to pick up a load of garbage from the Tycho Basin Refuse Center. Terry said, “Release docking clamps, please.”

Chief Gibson replied, “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 and said, “Docking clamps released, Skipper.”

“Thank you. Ahead, dead slow, helm.” 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 stopped dead in space. She said, “Just a few minutes, Skipper.”

There was some hammering from aft of the bridge and Terry wondered if the sledge hammer was making another appearance. The intercom beeped and a voice said, “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 would frequently cough and slow. After more hammering from back in the engineering area, Bob would resume her gradual swing in thrust from about half of a G up to about one G and slowly back down again. Terry said, “Chief, may I speak to you in private, please?”

“Of course, Skipper.”

They went to the small conference room off the bridge and Terry asked, “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, Skipper, we’ve all been here a long time and we know Bob inside out and backwards.”

“Chief, maybe you can tell me why this ship is still in space instead of having been turned into sardine cans.”

“Skipper, I’ve been running garbage for almost a hundred years, and I learned early that scows aren’t the best ships in the Fleet.” 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. “Chief, how long has the crew been here?”

“Not counting you, of course, Mel is the newest crewman and she’s been here about thirty-five years now.”

Terry wondered who 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 be on duty wearing a grass skirt and a coconut shell brassiere?”

“I thought she looked pretty good, Skipper.”

“Damn it, Chief, that’s not the point!”

Gibson smiled and said, “You’d think differently if you’d seen Chuck Linton in that outfit, Skipper.”

Linton was the communications technician. “What?”

“Yeah, he had a few too many, or one too few, and he tried on Mel’s outfit and was doing 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 that there be 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, the intercom buzzed and the Chief said, “We’ll be making lunar orbit in about fifteen minutes, Skipper. Oh, and I told everyone grass skirts and such weren’t to be worn on the bridge.”

“Thanks, Chief. I’m on my way.”

When Terry got to the bridge, Gibson said, “The rest of the bridge crew is coming, Skipper. Lunar orbit in ten minutes.”

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

Considering she was stark naked and clearly a woman, the old Navy tradition of calling everyone mister didn’t seem to make much sense. “Mr. Ullmann?”

She turned to Terry and said, “Yes, Sir?”

“I do appreciate you not wearing your grass skirt and all, but do you think you could put on some clothes?”

She frowned and asked, “Don’t you like girls, Skipper?”

“Oh, I like girls just fine, Mr. Ullmann, I just don’t care for naked girls on my bridge.”

She smiled and said, “I don’t mean to distract you, Skipper.”

Terry sighed and replied, “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, Skipper.”

Terry wondered where this crew and ship had come from. “Very well, Mr. Ullmann, put your skirt and coconuts on then.”

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

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

Terry said, “Communications, please advise Earth we’re heading for the sun to dump this load.”

Linton said, “Aye, aye, Sir. Mel, you want to swing us around?”

“Sure, Chuck.” She began to play the controls.

Terry asked, “What are you two doing?”

Linton replied, “The motors on the antenna don’t work, Skipper, so we have to point the ship at Earth to talk to them.”

Terry turned to Gibson and asked, “Chief, is there anything on this ship that works like it should?”

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

The normal procedure for a garbage scow was to thrust toward the sun and then, about fifteen million kilometers inside Mercury’s orbit, release the load and thrust sideways so the garbage went into the sun and the ship looped around and back into free space. Terry gave the orders needed to make that happen.

Chief Gibson said, “Um, Skipper, we don’t normally do it that way.”

“Oh? That’s what all the procedures say to do, Chief.”

“Yeah, they do, Skipper, but we do it a little differently with Bob.”

Terry was almost afraid to, but he waited for the hammering from engineering to stop and asked, “How do we do it with Bob?”

“We sort of 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 that way?”

“I have no idea, Skipper.”

Terry was working 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, Chief. 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, Chief?” Terry rubbed his hair again. If he kept that 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 never released before.”

The hammering from engineering had started again and the ventilator was being louder than it normally was. Gibson reached up and smacked the ventilator with his fist and 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 the moon and was in orbit before Tycho launched the load they were to pick up. This meant Bob would have twelve hours of downtime, so Terry decided to tour the ship. His first focus was engineering and the drives. As they were looking at the drives, a hodgepodge of repairs and jury-rigs, Gibson said, a little defensively, “Skipper, we have to make due with the parts we can get.”

“Chief, I understand that, 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, Skipper.”

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.”

“Now we’re talking, Chief. You get me a list in the next thirty minutes, and I’ll see what I can get for you.”

“We’re on it, Skipper.”

Terry had the list of parts in his hand. It wasn’t long, but the supply officer at Tycho wasn’t inclined to give Bob the parts she needed. The supply master said, “Lieutenant, we just don’t hand out brand new containment field generators and docking clamp motors to a third-rate garbage scow.” The Commander sighed a little. “And I don’t have any used items in stock.”

Terry’s eyes looked to heaven for help or answers. He seemed to find one or the other. “Commander, I understand your position, but you need to see mine as well. I’ve got a ship with ten people on board. We haul hazardous waste to the sun. If my drives and the load clamps in particular don’t work, either the crew or the cargo is at risk.” Terry added, “Commander, I need your help.”

The Commander stared at Terry through the communications viewer. “I can’t give you what you want, Lieutenant. I’ve got some overstock parts and I think they’ll work. I can give you those. They’re new stuff, but I’m up to my eyeteeth in them.”

Terry glanced at Gibson. He nodded. “OK, Commander, we’ll take what you can give us and thank you for your help.”

“Very well, Lieutenant. I’ll have a boat haul the parts up to you right away.” The Commander looked off-screen for a moment. “You should have the stuff in forty-five minutes.” He clicked off.

Gibson said, “Well, that’s a start, Skipper.”

“I suppose, Chief. Get to work on the documentation and see how we can use what they’re sending us.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper.”

The hammering in engineering was loud, but it wasn’t the hammering of the past. This was hammering to make adapters, supports, and other needed changes for the new parts to fit and work. The new field generators had been adapted to the drives and the static tests looked promising. The engineer was installing the last clamp motor.

Ullmann came to the cargo area. With the artificial gravity shut off to make the work easier, her grass skirt floated in interesting ways. She said, “Skipper, the drive looks ready to go.”

“Well done, Mr. Ullmann.”

“Skipper, just call me Mel. All that mister stuff makes me nervous.”

Terry laughed. “Yeah, Navy tradition. All right, well done, Mel.”

“Thanks, Skipper.” She looked at the pile of scrap metal the artificers were using to fabricate new brackets. “Is this going to work?”

“I think so, Mel.” He smiled and said, “It can’t be any worse.”

“Maybe, Skipper. I’ve seen it pretty bad.”

The intercom buzzed and Linton said, “Skipper, call from Earth for you.”

Terry pressed the switch and said, “On my way.”

When Terry had reached the bridge, Admiral Dayton’s image swam into focus. “Lieutenant, we have a situation. You’ll need to set your new parts aside and proceed with all possible speed to assist the space tug Hermes to recover the tour ship Princess Belle. Full details are being uploaded now.”

Terry swallowed and said, “Admiral, Bob isn’t in any shape to go on a rescue mission.”

“That may be, Mr. Whitling, but you’re going to do it anyway. The Princess Belle has eleven thousand souls aboard and is drifting free in a decaying Mars orbit.” The Admiral glanced at another screen on his desk. “Hermes will be there in fourteen hours. Your best ETA is fifteen hours. The Belle will reenter the Martian atmosphere in sixteen hours. Move your ship, Whitling.” The Admiral effectively hung up.

Terry stared at the blank screen for a moment. He hit the intercom and said, “Chief, we need to move this tub now.”

“The clamp isn’t done, Skipper.”

“Do what you can, Chief. We leave for Mars in five minutes.”

Mel ran the drive up to full impulse. Bob coughed a little and bucked hard once, but the drive didn’t cut out and there was no hammering from the aft sections. She said, “Full impulse, Skipper. ETA to Mars orbit is fifteen hours, twelve minutes.”

“Steady as she goes, Mel.” Terry turned in his command chair. “Chuck, can we talk to Earth on this heading?”

“Negative, Skipper.” He played his controls. “We’ll have a five minute window at turn-over in six hours and forty-two minutes.”

“OK, Chuck. Chief, what were you able to do with that last clamp?”

“Not a damn thing, Skipper. We’ve got five operational clamps and one broke right now. The artificers are working as best they can under gravity.”

Terry thought for a moment. “All right, then. I want everyone as fresh and rested as possible when we get to Mars. I don’t know what we’ll need to do to assist Hermes, but we need to be ready. Chief, I want the clamp working before we get there, though.”

“Right, Skipper.”

Mel said, “Skipper, we’re all used to sleeping at our stations, so we can rest here just as well as in our cabins. Besides, I don’t trust the drive yet.”

“Just make sure you’re ready when we get there, Mel.”

Gibson said, “Skipper, I’m going back to help the boys with that clamp.”

“I guess I’m the useless one right now. I’ll come help, too.” He looked around the bridge and said, “Mel, you have the command.” He left with Chief Gibson.

On the way to the cargo hold, Gibson said, “Skipper, the last time Mel had the command, we ran into a garbage container.”

“Oh. Who was on the helm?”

“Um, I was.”

Terry laughed and said, “We should be safe then, Chief.”

At turn-over, Terry advised Earth Bob was making better time than planned because the drive was performing flawlessly. They were now just better than thirty minutes ahead of schedule. Earth also advised Terry that Hermes was running behind schedule and would arrive only fifteen minutes before Bob.

When the turn-over maneuver was completed, Mel said, “Skipper, I think I can get us there even sooner, but we’ll be running on fumes after the recovery.”

“What are the numbers, Mel?”

“Our current course gives us seven hours of fuel after arrival. I can get us there nearly an hour before Hermes and we’ll have three hours of fuel left.” She turned to face him. “Skipper, the recovery estimate is 161 minutes.”

Terry considered, but not long. There was a little voice in his head telling him this was the right thing to do. “Make it so, Mel.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper.” She played the helm controls.

Terry was standing behind Mel as she scanned the Princess Belle. The tour ship was huge, with a total displacement of close to two cubic kilometers. Space tugs, with their radically over-sized drives, could easily move a ship the size of Belle. Bob, as a scow, also had a drive larger than the ship needed, but nothing like a tug.

The problem was that Bob had to do the recovery. Belle’s orbital decay was faster than expected and the thin Martian atmosphere was pulling her down. Hermes would arrive forty minutes after Belle impacted Mars. Terry asked, “Chief, who’s the best person to man the clamps for a high speed approach?”

“That would be me, Skipper, but I’m not sure we can hold that thing with six clamps, and I’m not sure the sixth one is working.” Gibson thought for a moment. “Skipper, if the clamps jam, we’re going down with that beast.”

“Yeah, I know, Chief.” Terry looked around the bridge. “We’re fresh out of choices, though.”

Mel said, “Maybe not, Skipper.” She grabbed a piece of paper since the computer still wasn’t working right. “The drive is doing good. I can bring us in under the Belle and thrust upwards, pushing her into a higher orbit, while I accelerate. The clamps won’t have to take such a heavy load that way.”

Her sketch looked simple enough. Terry asked, “Mel, just how much thrust, both horizontal and vertical, will we need to make that work? We don’t have the computer to work all this out.”

“No, but I think I can eyeball it, Skipper.”

“Let me see if I have this right, Mel.” Terry ran his hand through his hair. “You’re going to fly us underneath a who knows how many metric mega-ton liner that’s reentering the Martian atmosphere. We’re going to clamp to said ship and you’re going to guess at how much thrust we need to keep us all from burning up in said Martian atmosphere.”

Mel’s mouth moved silently for a few moments. “Yeah, Skipper, that’s about it.”

“You’re all suicidal and have decided to take me with you, right?”

“Not really, Skipper.” Gibson leaned on the back of the command chair. He took a deep breath and said, “We all know you don’t want to be on Bob, Skipper, and we even understand why. Bob is a bucket of bolts and not very glamorous. But, Skipper, we’re the only chance that liner has. We know what Bob can and can’t do, and she’s never let us down. We can fix anything.”

Linton said from the communication station, “Except you, Skipper.”

“Chuck’s got it, Skipper.” Mel turned to face Terry. “We can do this, but we need you to help and trust us. And Bob.”

Terry looked at the three spacers. “All right. Let’s do this, then. Chief, you get to engineering and keep things running. I’ll take the clamps. Mel, you fly this crate.” He looked to Linton. “Chuck, you pray.”

Terry stood at the clamp controls. The ventilator was rattling like it was full of elves making swords. He absently reached up and punched the grill. It quieted a little. “OK, Mel, take us in. Chuck, tell the Belle we’re coming to the ball.”

Mel played the helm and Bob lurched ahead at full impulse power, slowly rotating to put the clamps up to grab the liner. Bob slipped under the bulk of the Belle, sandwiched between the huge ship and the dusty red Martian landscape rushing by below. Terry yelled above the din of the ventilator, the whine of the drive, and faint screaming of atmosphere on the hull, “Mel! Watch the hull temperature, and we’re getting some ionization, too!”

“Got it, Skipper!”

There was a loud bang from aft and Terry felt Bob slow, like she’d run into a wall of taffy. “Chief! Get that drive working!”

There was loud, rapid hammering from engineering. Bob let out with another loud bang and lurched ahead. Mel said, “We got it!” She played the controls as she watched the view screens. “Ten seconds to contact, Skipper!”

Terry readied the clamps. “Ready, Mel.”

Bob eased up under the Belle. The seconds ticked by like days, but a sudden jerking announced contact. Bob’s drive thrust hard as Mel matched speeds manually. “Now, Skipper!”

Terry hit the switch and four of the six clamps closed. “Chief! We’re down two clamps!”

Gibson yelled through the intercom, “On it, Skipper!”

Again, there was hammering from aft, accompanied by no small amount of cursing. A fifth clamp closed. The sixth wouldn’t budge. Mel said, “Skipper, we have got to go! Hull temperature reaching critical!”

Gibson screamed, “Skipper! Number six won’t go, and you’d better do this right! The number two clamp is jammed closed and won’t release!”

Terry’s hand ran over his head. “Mel, get us out of here! Lateral thrust, maximum power that won’t blow us up!”

“Aye, aye, Skipper!” She hit the controls and Bob’s drive screamed. There was a slight cough, but the drive held and the inverted Martian terrain began to slide sidewise a little, slowly accelerating.

Bob shook under the strain, like a dog drying himself. Belle was much more massive than anything Bob was designed to move. Terry heard his own voice saying, “Come on, Bob! Come on!”

There was a sharp jerk as Bob and her heavy load reached escape velocity and shot into free space, free from the severe pull of Mars’ shallow gravity gradient.

Mel was throttling down when the drive let out a final bang and went dead. Gibson said, “Skipper, we just ran the tanks dry.”

Terry smiled as two lights on his clamp control panel changed. The number two clamp had released and the number six had closed.

The Admiral surveyed the group standing at attention before him. An Ensign at the docks lent Mel a uniform that fit, more or less, for the trip. “Mr. Whitling, it seems you were able to prove 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 said, “No, Sir. I think you did just what you intended.”

“Maybe, Lieutenant.” The Admiral glanced at some papers on his desk. “Bob is going to be decommissioned and scraped. You can pretty well pick your ship, Whitling. The Emperor was impressed.”

There was a murmur passing among Bob’s crew, despite their being at attention. Terry said, “Admiral, I’d like you to reconsider, Sir.” He glanced at his crew. “Sir, we’d like to see Bob get a proper refit and stay with her.”

Dayton looked up and said, “Mr. Whitling, are you declining a new ship?”

“Yes, Sir, I am.” He paused a minute, then said, “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 sighed. “This is also the best crew in the Fleet, and Bob is the best ship. Sir.”

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

Glances passed between the nine. Gibson said, “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 and added, “Now we have the best Skipper, too.”

“Well, then.” The Admiral said, “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 and Terry said, “Thank you, Admiral.” He smiled and added, “I told you I’d make Bob the best garbage scow in the Fleet.”