Lenny could not have said he loved his work a great deal. When he was young, he dreamed of exploring the universe aboard one of the ships that took off daily from the spaceport near his town. At that time, spacecrafts used rockets with liquid fuel, and it was a pleasure to follow the steamy trail that connected the ground with the sky. As soon as he managed to escape his daily chores, he fled to the edge of the launching track and screwed into the wire fence, staring at the aerodynamic silhouettes of the ships.

But that happened a long time ago, and Lenny had forgotten his childhood dreams, overwhelmed by the challenges that life threw in his path. He had fulfilled his dream of traveling through the galaxy, albeit not at the ship command as his relatives and friends were led to believe, but as a specialist in life-support facilities. That was a fancy name for his profession; back home he would be just a plumber.

He was currently enrolled on UFS Ganymede, an old ship built for luxury cruises. Later, he was requisitioned by the army during the Federations War, and after that, the ship ended up in the Space Exploration Agency fleet. Ganymede was a conglomerate of pipes that continuously carried water and gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide) to and from the massive recyclers located near the main engine. The trickle of pipes had often resembled the human circulatory system and similar to it, with the passing of time, it began to show its age.

At the moment, Lenny and Mike Lane stared undecidedly at an error reporting screen.

“It’s your turn,” Mike said.

“I beg your pardon. I fixed the last one.”

“And I went to the gun-room. It is your turn.”

“Flip a coin?” said Lenny, hoping to escape.

“No way.”

Lenny sighed on his own and ran to the reported damage. Captain James “One Eye” Spindler was not a patient person by nature, and the failure of the waste disposal system had turned his apartment into a public toilet. As he entered the corridor leading to the captain’s apartment, his nose informed him about the magnitude of the problem long before reaching the faulty pipe.

“Specialist Leonard Byrne, at your orders. What seems to be the problem?”

The captain raised his eyes from the work he was doing and looked curiously at him.

“Listen, Chip boy,” he said. “Do you hear the birds singing? If you close your eyes, you can smell the mountain forests. Ah, the beauty, the fresh air … take a deep breath, you idiot, and you’ll know what’s wrong.”

Lenny swallowed his words. Besides the whirl of the forcibly forced fans, he could hear a suspect hiss.

“Chip boy, fix this thing soon or I swear on the beard of my pirate grandfather, I’ll make you walk the plank.”

The captain addressed the lower rank crew members with Chip or Mary. He certainly knew the names of all the men and women who served on Ganymede, but he preferred to use the diminutives. One time, he heard him using the full name and title of the person, when an unfortunate aspirant had kept the rule in its letter and the captain had to give up the personal use of a shuttle. A few days later, the aspirant was transferred “on request” to another ship.

“Consider it done, Captain. Allow me to open the windows,” Lenny grinned.

The captain did not say anything, only frowned, and made a bored sign with his hand. He turned his back and sat down at his desk, diving into work.

A quarter of an hour later, Lenny closed the windows—the large panels covering the access ways to the maintenance channels.

“Birds and flowers, Captain.” Lenny drew air in his chest noisily. “Like the mountains.”

The captain lifted his eyes from the monitor and smelled cautiously.

“It’s all right,” he said. “How long will it last?”

“At least to the next stop. But this section needs to be changed. There are cracks everywhere … old pipes from when the ship was built.”

“That doesn’t sound good. Make a revision note. Zero priority.”

“Same priority as engines?” asked Lenny surprised.

“Yes, like that,” said the captain, throwing the stylus with which he’d plotted until then.

And then it happened.

Instead of rolling on the desk, the stylus continued its parallel desk flight based on the initial impulse until it struck the wall. From there, contrary to their expectations, it began to slightly rise to the ceiling.

The two men looked puzzled at the stylus until they also felt the lack of gravity and began to float. On the outside corridor, an alarm sounded and the hazard lights lit up.

“Lenny boy,” said the captain with a harsh voice, “what did you cut out there?”

Lenny swallowed in the wake. “One Eye” had used his name.

“Nothing, Captain. I just sealed the main pipe with duct tape. You know, that nanotube thing that incorporates itself in any material. Besides that, there are no antimatter channels in this section.”

“Open the windows,” the captain said briefly. “Something happened.”

Lenny rushed to raise the panels covering the access to the maintenance areas. Before they managed to inspect it, the door of the captain’s apartment suddenly opened and four humanoid shapes appeared on its doorstep. At their sight, Lenny strategically retreated behind the captain.

The aliens had, in their protruding protrusions, devices that resembled of weapons. All of them, except for one, was dressed in a diaphanous waving around his body cloak. One alien quite suggestively placed himself in front of the open wall panel to block any escape route. The other three remained close to the door, and the one who seemed to be their leader took a step toward the captain and began to wave his tentacles. After a while, he stopped and remained in an expectant attitude, as if he was waiting for an answer.

The captain turned to Lenny. “Did you hear anything he said?”

“No, Captain, he did not make a sound, but he smells like a perfume boutique in which all the bottles have been smashed.”

The captain turned to the leader of the aliens, and to emphasize his mimic face, he raised his hands to the sign that he did not understand anything.

For a few seconds, the alien gazed at him without making any movement and then waved to them. The creature was taller than them. He bent over and blew over their heads. His breath was sweet but Lenny felt a terrible pain in his head behind his eyes. After a while, when the pain subsided, he began to see colors.

“Captain, I think we’ve been drugged,” whimpered Lenny looking at the blue azure aura enveloping the aliens.

The captain did not answer; he was still under the effect of the narcotic he had inhaled. The alien leader began to emit a pink emission, the smell of which was similar to a vanilla cake. To his surprise, he began to hear and understand.

“Alien lifeforms, the Empire welcomes you.”

The captain cleared his voice and said, “On behalf of the Human Federation, we thank you for welcoming us. We are explorers and we come in peace.”

“What is the Human Federation?” asked the alien. The color emission was now lemony yellow, the scent of curiosity.

“We are an association of free planets colonized by humans, my race,” said the captain pointing at his chest. “This expedition is the ambassador of our civilization to all civilizations in this part of the galaxy.”

The alien did not answer right away. “We do not know the concept of free,” he said.

The captain scratched his head, unaware of how to respond without starting a diplomatic incident. “Free means that every planet has the right and the obligation to decide what is best for them.”

“Curious. There is no such thing in the Empire. All planets and all races must obey. As an Imperial Protector, it is my duty and my pleasure to accept the entry of your species into the Empire. Do you have permission from the Federation to represent it in front of other species?”

“Of course I have, but …”

“It will suffice. You are a pleasant race,” the Protector said inhaling the golden aura surrounding the captain. “Your presence will be endorsed by all the species in the Empire, and you will easily advance on the social ladder.”

“Social ladder?” The captain was shocked. “What social ladder?”

“Any new species entering the Empire starts from the rank of servant. So are you. Your planet will be converted to those with a higher social rank and your kind will be spread to the rest of the planets in the Empire, to serve. But do not be afraid; in a few generations, you will be able to move up the ladder to the next rank, that of a clerk. After that, I have no doubt you will have a rapid ascension in all social hierarchies. You have an absolutely delicious presence. Hmm … you do, but not him,” the Protector said, pointing to Lenny, whose green aura seemed to be deeply unpleasant to the alien. “Servant forever for his race.”

The captain tried to decide whether the visitor was joking or not. Still mid-air floating as a result of the lack of artificial gravity, he saw and heard smells. Moreover, everything he said was transformed into colored vapes.

Lenny was pissed off. Once again, he had been put aside, disqualified from the start and condemned to an obscure existence. Was it his fault that he couldn’t bathe before the alien arrival?

“Captain,” he whispered, “I have an idea how to get rid of them. Forever. Do I have your permission to ignore the diplomatic rules and treat them as hostile entities?”

“Are you crazy, don’t you see they have guns?”

The effusions of their discussion did not go beyond common space, and the Protector showed no signs of being interested in what they were talking about.

“I was not thinking of physically attacking them,” whispered Lenny. “But if you let me dabble a bit on the life support system, I assure you they will run away like a devil from holy water.”

The captain glanced at his desk. Everything was dead; none of the screens usually displaying the state of the ship seemed functional.

“My workstation is dead,” he whispered. “Surely the rest of the stations are locked out. I do not see how you could do anything.”

Lenny grinned. “Well, not all of our operations go through the central computer. To change a pipe, you must go through ten approval forms. That is, if they approve it; if not, you have to write reports, justify expenses, give reasons and so on. We’ve built a separate control circuit,” said Lenny, knocking the keyboard on his left arm.

The captain threw him a blank stare. What Lenny was saying was a worrying thing; the existence of craft control systems would have made him mad on another occasion. But now…

“Go for it, Chip boy.”

Lenny nervously inputted a few commands in the keyboard on his forearm. As a result, all the outflows from the central reservoir, where the residues were collected, were blocked. Satisfied by the result, he courageously turned to the alien leader and stepped forward. He often dreamed of a close encounter with an alien species and now he had the opportunity to prove that he was more than just a plumber.

“While the proposal of the High Representative of the Empire honors us, we will have to decline it.”

The protector looked for a few seconds without saying anything. Lenny’s yellow-green aura greatly disgusted him, and when he spoke, the color emissions were of an intense gray, almost steel-like. Lenny was shocked both audibly and from the scent, as the protector smelled of stone and burnt metal.

“Normally, lesser races are not allowed to directly address a much higher social class. But, as my duty is to guide the newcomers into the Empire, I will ignore the rules of good behavior and I will answer: it is irrelevant what a lesser race desires. You will be assimilated and you will have a fulfilled life, matched with the smell that defines you. Though your kind will try, very few of you will manage to climb the social ladder. You simply don’t smell good enough.”

Lenny felt his blood boiling.

“You are saying you do not like my smell?”

“It’s extremely disagreeable,” the alien confirmed. “In my entire life, I have never encountered a more distasteful race.”

“Well, your experience is about to be upgraded. Smell this!” said Lenny inputting the last command on his forearm keyboard.

Throughout the conversation, the pressure in the central reservoir had raised to critical levels near the system failure point. As Lenny did not want that, he reversed the inlet and outlet circuits from the central tank. The result was exactly what he expected.

Ganymede was an old ship the Agency had refurbished quickly and cheaply. It functioned in acceptable parameters but needed constant maintenance. The staff loved and hated her equally and called it Granymede for a reason. You could rely on ship to take you from one place to another, but you shouldn’t have to hurry it; otherwise, you’d get  engine failure. This was also true for the life support system. The aging pipes, overloaded by the unusual pressure, began to crack one after another, all over the ship.

One of the aliens, who had the bad inspiration to position himself near the maintenance access panel, received the full force of the stream of bad smelling liquid. The others stumbled backward, looking at how he was twisting and screaming on the floor. Purple effusions, expressing pure terror, spasmodically sprang from the contorted body.

Lenny watched, fascinated by the smell of waste flowing in waves through the window. There were shades of green, combined with yellow and dark red strands. His new ability to hear the smells added a new dimension to the scene: the smells were raw and pungent.

For him, the colored rainbow was a real delight, but for strangers, it was pure terror. They were all emanating emissions of white desperation. One by one, they activated the individual transporters and vanished into thin air. Even the fallen and seemingly dead alien dematerialized a few seconds after the last invader had teleported out.

After a while, when the effect of the drug the aliens had blown on them diminished, the captain stood up, contemplating the disaster.

“Chip boy, I’m afraid no one’s going to raise you a statue for this,” he said, clutching his nostrils.

Marius Bucur

Marius Bucur

Absolvent al Politehnicii din București, alma mater a atâtor scriitori de SF români, Marius Bucur a părăsit construcțiile de mașini, pe care le studiase, și s-a reorientat spre IT. De scris s-a apucat târziu, supărat pe viața politică din România (la fel ca noi toți), drept pentru care a adoptat ironia și alegoria, în decor Science Fiction, pentru a-și exprima opiniile. Fie că fac parte din ciclul său marțian, care va deveni cât de curând volum, fie că nu, povestirile sale stârnesc zâmbetul, dar nu numai. Drept pentru care, la ediția 2017 a taberei Atlantykron, câștigătorii primelor două premii la concursul de schiță (lucrurile participând anonim, pe bază de motto), s-au dovedit a fi amândoi... Marius Bucur. Un succes important, dar care obligă. (Cristina Ghidoveanu)

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