The small three-pilot craft streaked through the atmosphere of the nondescript planet as if on a deliberate mission of the utmost importance. In all truth, however, none of this was accurate. The craft contained only one pilot, and Crash Facepalm wasn’t on a mission, important or otherwise, as much as he was fleeing from one.
“How was I to know that when they said they wanted me to escort their high princess to her meeting they wanted it done right away? I mean really, what’s a small detour for some romantic sightseeing?” Crash muttered to his companion, a small cat named Orbit.
“I don’t know,” replied the computer, presuming the question was directed its way. “Is it possible that they were upset that you were days late and the princess no longer wanted to participate in the meeting?”
“Hey, you can’t blame me. She was taken with the sights,” said Crash, knowing that the computer wouldn’t care about his response. It sounded sentient, but it was just a very well-crafted expert system.
Orbit rolled its eyes, a gesture missed by Crash, who was intent on his console.
“Fuel level critical,” came the warning. Before Crash could do anything, the thrusters cut out abruptly and the craft started to tumble out of control.
“Flight profile unstable,” intoned the computer.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Crash, annoyed.
“Okay,” replied the computer, “The eye color of deer change season to season to adapt to different light conditions.”
“Smartass,” mumbled Crash as he prepared the cabin for impact. He pulled on his seat straps and fastened his helmet. The chair holding Orbit did the same, automatically. Cats in space suits, even automated ones, were all the rage.
“Computer, initiate impact protocol.”
The air in the cabin was evacuated as the suits went to pressure and then switched to internal power and supply. Once complete, the cabin filled with impact foam and the electronics shut down, going into safe mode.
“Nothing to do now but wait,” said Crash, this time for Orbit’s benefit. “Computer, play me something old and thoughtful.”
The soothing sounds of Pink Floyd began to fill his helmet as he waited on the inevitable.
As the craft began to tumble faster and faster, Crash Facepalm began to regret his choice of breakfast that morning.
“Shiiiiiiiine on, you craaaaaaazy diamond,” he sang through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the building nausea. Orbit made a sound somewhere between a meow and a whine, oddly in-tune. Crash was turned upside-down as the ship’s wild motions started to calm.
He prepared himself for the impact, but the ship hit ground before he was quite ready. Even with the impact foam that filled the cabin, the air was pushed from his lungs and he felt as if his eyes popped out of his head.
“Now comes the part where this tin can tumbles for five minutes to the delight of the special effects team,” he muttered.
Crash quickly realized he was wrong as the ship rolled twice and hit the side of a large cliff, stopping abruptly with a reverberating bang, and then tumbling back down a slope until it finally came to a stop. A series of comical groans and pops sounded as the foam dissolved and atmosphere was put back into the cabin. Seat straps unlatched and retracted as the electronics came back online and the computer gave an unsolicited status report.
“Welcome to ME44-P3. All electronic systems operational. Batteries full. Fuel exhausted. Flight dynamic controls destroyed. Atmosphere outside is breathable but not advisable. Oh, and the paint job is seriously scratched.”
“What’s wrong with the atmosphere?” asked Crash.
“Nothing harmful,” said the computer, “but I don’t think you’re going to like the smell. I’d call it the smell of old fish, but that would be kind to old fish.”
Orbit’s ears perked up. Fish.
Crash knew he had bigger issues ahead of him, so he quickly made his way to the storage locker where he took out an oxygen generator for his suit, clipped on a carry bag with rations and a medical kit, and attached his personal bug-out bag. He hit the hatch release and walked out of his now-useless ship to take a look around, Orbit close behind him.
The landscape was desolate, to the point of suggesting a good cry might be in order. The rocks were a monochrome brown, flaking and chipping and having that sharp, knife-like look of retro science fiction posters. A red sun sat low in the sky, projecting shadows that had a tendency to be hard to follow, making the landscape a dead optical illusion. A light breeze made the dust that was blown up hit Crash’s suit just hard enough for him to hear it. Even that sound was depressing. In the distance, Crash could see what might be called a shoreline. The liquid rolled slowly, filled with some kind of goo.
“There’s your smell,” said the computer, once it realized what Crash was looking at. Tell a man a stove is hot and he has to touch it to be sure. Crash and Orbit took off their helmets together and drew in cautious breaths. Sure enough, Crash felt the smell was as unpleasant as it was expected. Orbit let out a contented meow and collapsed the helmet into its suit container. Apparently the smell was appreciated by cats.
He stood there, amazed at the scene before him, and marveled at how stereotypical it was of his situation. The last notes of the Pink Floyd song finished from his held helmet as Crash realized he’d never turned it off.
“I never really liked that song,” said the woman’s voice behind him, startling him out of his stupor.
Crash spun around, looking to see where the voice had come from. Standing on the steps of the craft was Princess Anne, daughter of the King of Prodovia IV. She held her helmet at her hip, a small smile on her face that belied her statement. For once, Crash was at a loss for words.
“Happy to see me?” she asked.
Crash gave the question some thought, prompting a frown from Anne. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ll be glad for more company pretty soon, but for right now? WTF, Anne? Where did you hide yourself?”
“In the storage locker like any good stowaway. Thankfully your impact system foams everything, including the stores or I’d be some kind of goo on the wall.”
Crash tried to put that mental picture out of his mind. “Fine. Grab what you need and let’s get going.”
Orbit let out a questioning meow.
Anne looked puzzled. “Yeah, I’m with the cat. Go where? The ship’s intact. Why not stay here? Surely someone watched us go down.”
“Three reasons,” said Crash, avoiding the obvious retort, “first, the range on the transmitter isn’t enough to reach anyone, so unless they were pinging our plasma interference, they’d only be guessing. Second, I scanned before I lost control and saw that there’s an automated outpost on this continent and tried to get as close as possible. It’s walking distance, for a liberal definition of walking distance. Third, there is no number three. I just wanted to get your hopes up.”
Anne had heard that joke before, so the smile on her face was out of courtesy. “Sounds fair. I’m good. Let’s go.” She gestured at Orbit and added, “intelligent creatures first…”
The three started walking away from the ship towards a break in the hills ahead. The planet didn’t boast impressive topology, so Crash hoped they wouldn’t have much climbing to do. Ever since the incident escaping from the horde of angry Lorax Trees, his knees hadn’t been what they used to be.
“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered under his breath.
“You seemed in perfectly good health when you decided on that little detour,” said Anne. Crash made a note to remind himself that Anne’s species had impressive hearing.
“So it appears we’ve got time on our hands,” she said. “Time for a story.”
“You or me,” asked Crash.
“You,” said Anne. “You promised to tell me how you got your name. Seems as good a time as any for an origin story.”
Crash considered for a moment and decided it would be a good way to pass the time, so he began, “Well, for one, my given name isn’t Crash.”
“Nor is Facepalm,” guessed Anne.
“No, actually, that’s my dad’s name. But ‘Crash’ came later. Believe it or not, this isn’t my first forced landing…” he began, settling in to tell the tale.
Crash adjusted the environmental controls on his suit, took a long sip from his hydration straw and began.
“So there I was - captured, by the Algonquin Indians…”
Orbit paused. “Wait a minute - ” interrupted Anne.
“Sorry,” said Crash, “I just like starting stories like that.
“Anyway, I was in my second year of University. I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do, so I was taking whatever classes interested me. One semester, the catalog had a course on xenoculinary skills that promised to teach at least a dozen cuisines that humans could consume and would like. I thought it might be fun, but I also saw that the labs included trips to some pretty nice locations, and I figured that there would surely be some… interesting company in conducive locations, so…”
“I see what you were thinking,” said Anne, knowingly.
“Hey, what can I say? So sure enough, the class started and there was this one girl who I got along with, and we decided to pair up to study.”
“Study,” said Anne, deadpan, trying to make air quotes in her gloved hands. “In a cooking class.”
“Sure,” said Crash, “we had to practice, right? We actually got pretty good at some of the dishes. We made Flippian moss soup, flilet of Gnargl, and I was just getting decent at properly serving Hathian Stingerfish when it was time to take one of the trips.”
“Wait a minute,” said Anne, “Stingerfish? Those can kill humans if you don’t know what you’re doing. What the hell, Crash?”
“I live dangerously. Besides, I didn’t make ‘em fresh. Worst case, we would have lost a few pounds on the Stingerfish diet.
“So we packed up, got on the ship, and headed out to Nexus Three where we were promised a course by some sector-renowned chef of some name. To this day I don’t know who it was supposed to be, since we never got there. Halfway there, our ship picked up a tail. Turns out our brilliant instructor was not only a great chef, but also cultivated some, shall we say, unique ingredients for his own enjoyment and profitable resale. Dumbass decided to take off on this trip with his whole stash of bioengineered mushrooms instead of delivering them to a buyer. The buyer wasn’t pleased.”
Crash stopped and adjusted his boots. Anne and Orbit waited patiently as he took off a boot, emptied out some sand, and put it back on again.
“So the instructor decided that this wouldn’t work well for him and he took off in the escape craft. To this day I don’t know what became of him. We were in the travel lane, but not near a thing. But I was the one on board that everyone decided to volunteer to pilot us the rest of the way to Nexus. That’s when things got… interesting.”
“Let me get this straight - it was you, your class, and what crew?” asked Anne.
“No crew,” said Crash. “This was just a short trip. Kinda like when the teacher drives the school bus. Except in this case the teacher was selling bioengineered mushrooms to shady characters and chose to bail instead of face the music. You know, typical tale.”
“I weep for the future,” said Anne.
“Don’t get snooty. Anyway, I got myself into the pilot’s chair and took a look at the navigation screens. Everything was on track, so it looked like we had another half hour to get to the station. I was a little straighter in those days, so I put in the call and asked the station for a vector and docking instructions. After about ten minutes I got a call from the station authorities who, for whatever reason, totally didn’t get it and thought that I was our instructor. Apparently they’d heard of him, too.”
“Mistaken identity,” said Anne, “will get you every time.”
“It was worse than that. They said they would be sending intercepts to meet us before we could dock. That would have meant being disabled and towed to a detention center directly. None of us were particularly interested in this, least of all me. So I did what anyone in my position would do.”
Crash paused, letting the story linger like a sip of a fine wine. Anne obliged and asked, “Okay, I’ll bite, what did you do?”
“I replied and told them no problem, but I had to restart the engines, so we were about five hours out.”
Anne considered what Crash had said and replied, “So you lied, and arrived long before they expected and before they could meet you halfway.”
“Exactly,” said Crash, “and wouldn’t you know, they believe me; it worked. Surprised the hell out of me. We got there, I picked an empty platform, and set the ship down.”
“Hang on,” Anne objected, “I was expecting some story about you crashing the ship and that’s how you got your name.”
“That’s too easy. I got my name a little later. You want to hear how this ends or not?”
“Meoooouuuu,” said Orbit.
“Yeah, me, too. You weren’t there?” Anne asked of Orbit.
Orbit’s head bobbed to the side as Anne stared at Crash in silence, a condescending grin on her face.
“So we exited the ship in a hurry and found ourselves in the egress room of the platform, with the door locked and a note on the status screen telling us to wait there for further instructions. This wasn’t going to be my first choice, so I pulled out my personal comm unit and hacked into the station’s systems to see if I could get the door open.”
“And how did that work out for you?” asked Anne.
“Not terribly well. I wasn’t that great a hacker and, as it turns out, my comm was already infected with some pretty bad stuff which just hopped over to the station. A few minutes later and the whole station’s main computer crashed. Lights out, all airlocks auto-closed and locked, all services shut down. We ended up stuck in the room for a full day as the station authorities found that we were both locked in and they now had two issues to deal with. We weren’t the bigger issue now, and we weren’t going anywhere.”
“Crash.” said Anne, “I get it. You’re much more entertaining than you are talented.”
“I’ll take that. And look, perfect timing - I can see the outpost from here. We’re almost there.