At the shuttle pad, there was no sign of Rutter. Apparently, he was already aboard the craft waiting for me, so Bairn and I hugged and said our farewells. I am going to miss Bairn so much. I remember at the beginning of my stay that I said we'd never be the firmest of friends. Could I have been more wrong?
Aboard the shuttle, Rutter was seated in the pilot's chair undertaking the prerequisite routine of pre-flight checks, but this was not the new Academy Rutter with a wry humour that I had become so accustomed to. The old, cold, icy Ensign Rutter had returned. He continued his pre-flight checks as I stowed my stuff away already missing my Rutter.
I chuckled to myself. He wasn't my Rutter at all, but at the Academy, we had settled into a somewhat cool friendship over the past few months. I no longer despised him and he no longer looked down his nose at me. Actually, that's not quite true. He still looks down his nose at me but no longer contemptuously. Now, it's more like he tolerates me, rather like an old dog does a young, exuberant puppy.
"So how long have you and Bairn been an item?" I ventured.
"We're not," he said coldly without even deigning to look up from his checks.
Silence fell. I could see this was going to be a long trip.
"I could always ask Bairn."
"You do that."
"I will. Regardless of what you tell me, I will."
He was being dismissive.
I sat down in the co-pilot's seat and began looking over the console. I had completed the familiarisation section of the Shuttle Pilot's Course so I did know what I was looking at. It felt smug and warm knowing that I was more qualified than I was those few months ago, even if it was only a little bit.
Rutter finished his checks, got cleared to lift off and we soon departed. San Francisco looked as beautiful as ever with the sun shimmering brightly over the ocean's waters.
"So when did you first fall for her Orion charms?" I pursued as we disappeared into the clouds.
"It looked like it to me."
"Did it indeed."
"So was it at the party?"
"Or was it earlier than that? It obviously wasn't the first time you saw her—"
"For goodness sake, Terran! Will you shut up!" he shouted angrily. It quite took me aback.
"Bairn and I are NOT an item!" he growled.
"Well it looked like it from where I was standing."
"You weren't standing. You were on your hands and knees and as usual, you got it completely wrong!"
"You were on the bed with her!"
"So, how did you get there if you weren't invited?"
Rutter sighed in annoyance.
"Are you going to be like this the whole trip?"
"Yes, so you might as well just tell me. How long have you and Bairn been an item?"
"Then let me rephrase the question. When did you make first contact?"
"About twenty-five minutes ago. Now that's enough. I don't want to talk about it!" and he began to blush.
"Rutter loves Bairn. Rutter loves Bairn," I sang. Tez was right. Winding him up was fun.
"Terran, can I remind you that I have a phaser and it has a stun setting. If you want to spend the trip in an unconscious state on the floor, I'd be more than happy to oblige."
"Then talk to me Rutter!" I pleaded. "For goodness sake, we're stuck with each other for the next four years. We're as good as friends now!"
"No, we're not."
"Yes, we are."
"No, we're not."
"Whether you like it or not, we are friends. We may not be bosom buddies, but we are friends. And stop calling me Terran. My name is Jen."
"Look Terran, I admit, we might not be sworn enemies anymore but we are NOT friends."
"Call me Jen anyway."
"I'll call you Frederick ... or Fred ... or Freddie."
"No, you won't."
"Because no one calls me by my given name."
"What do they call you then?"
"Rutter. Just Rutter."
"What? Even your friends?"
"I don't have any. Remember?"
"Hmm. What about your parents? What does your father call you?"
"And your mother?"
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Not any more."
The past tense did not bode well, and sadness flashed across Rutter's face.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
"Yes, you did. You always do."
"Okay. Yes, I did, but I'm still sorry."
An awkward silence fell.
"Katy. Her name was Katy," he finally said.
"Katy. And what did Katy call you?"
"Rutter," and he smiled at the memory.
"So are you saying that even as a tiny baby, from the moment you were born, everybody has always called you Rutter?"
He looked up into the air and grinned as he thought.
"Pretty much," and he shrugged.
We escaped Earth's atmosphere and the blackness of space enveloped us. We remained silent for some time, until we cleared the outer limits of our universe and entered warp drive.
"What happened to her? Katy, I mean."
"Drop it, Terran." His voice was threatening. He didn't want to talk about Katy.
"Okay, so what about Bairn? Can we talk about Bairn?"
"Are you always this stupid, Terran? There is nothing to talk about."
"You were in her bed!"
"How the hell do you fall into bed with someone by accident?"
Rutter heaved a heavy sigh.
"Okay. I give up. I'll tell you, but on one condition."
"You will never, ever mention it ever again!"
He was serious too, but reluctantly I agreed.
"Bairn's got her new posting. She's been assigned to the Vulcan Medical Institute's Interspecies Medical Exchange."
That was fantastic news and I veritably squealed with delight.
"I just happened to be there when she got the news."
"Yeah, right, but why?"
"Because I was looking for you, dumbass!" and he rolled his eyes.
"Bairn's a very excitable young woman and she was reading the communiqué when I arrived. She got a little overexcited and used me as a Terran substitute. She threw her arms around me and I lost my balance. We fell onto the bed and that's when you tumbled in through the door and, for some inexplicable reason, Bairn thought it best to try and hide me."
"Oh," I was truly disappointed.
"So there is nothing going on between you two then?"
"No. Nothing. So, if you've finished jumping to conclusions, I've got a career to concentrate on and so has Bairn ... So have you for that matter."
I shrugged. That was true.
"So ... do you want to fly this thing or gossip all the way to the Earhart?"
That was one way to distract me. Why didn't he use it sooner?
Our journey continued on in a very professional manner. He was much more comfortable in his mentorship role and I loved piloting the shuttle. It was a nice, simple trip; a good one to cut your teeth on, and Rutter soon settled himself beside me with a good book.
"No point keeping a dog and barking yourself," he explained. Now why did that remind me of the way Tez had treated Rutter?
The flight was only a couple of hours long and Rutter let me fly it for most of the way, only taking the helm again just before we dropped out of warp.
"Don't want you crash-landing into the Earhart," he teased.
As the warp engines died and the world stilled, she came into view and I gasped. She was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. They always say that your first ship is the one you love the most and this was, to all intents and purposes, my first ship—my first proper posting, but even if she had been my twenty-first, I still think she would have looked beautiful.
Snuggled inside the docking clamps of the dull, grey shipyard, she shone with an angelic glow. The USS Earhart, NCC-7766.
I instantly recognised her as a Pioneer-Class Explorer designed for deep-space exploration. With a mere fifteen decks and accommodation for 168 personnel, she measures 345 meters long, 144 meters wide and 57 meters high.
No, she's not a big ship, but she is beautifully sleek.
Rutter read my mind.
"Stunning, isn't she? One of the fastest ships in the fleet, well armed, with advanced shielding. They only built three you know."
"Why only three?"
"And if she were any other ship, people would be fighting to serve aboard her."
"Their loss," I said.
"Our gain," he confirmed.