Ernie Aloft: Tales of Airship Cats
Note from Captain XO: this is the second in a series of stories about the cats of the noble Airship Renegade, by our good friend @Chimaera000
End of a long day
Ernie padded wearily down the passageway. He’d stood another double watch, freeing one of the senior engineering mates to tackle whatever was giving the bridge nightmares at present. The ship seemed to careen from crisis to crisis these days. When he’d first come aboard, they had been a merry, carefree band of privateers. Now it seemed they were saving the entire universe on a regular basis. Rewarding, but exhausting.
He’d missed chow call, but the kind proprietors of the Plunder & Lightning had a soft spot for cats and had produced two salmon filets for him. He licked his lips in memory. Salmon was almost as good as tuna. They’d called him a handsome, growing boy, which was fair. The growing anyway. Ernie didn't think he was much to look at. Rennie and Harry were both lean and elegant, she with silver stripes and he with gold. Ernie was just big. Solid. And his fur was thick and short, but slate gray. Rennie occasionally voiced the opinion that he was adopted, when it was convenient to do so. She also claimed that he was not perfectly gray, but had a tiny spot of white hidden in his ruff, just behind his right ear. She called it his “secret star.” Ernie couldn’t see it in a mirror, and the one time he’d asked Harry, Harry had just grinned at him. There were benefits to getting bigger. He had more strength for the tools, and could jump higher, but even he had to avoid some of the older wire runs now. And his vest was getting snug again, with no more cloth to let out. Really snug. But the Engineer hadn’t noticed yet, and Ernie wasn’t sure how to go about getting a new vest. A bigger vest. With pockets.
The Renegade had been built by humans, for humans, but in the course of its adventures the crew was becoming diverse, species-wise. The three young cats shared two crates, bolted together, with desks and lockers below, and bunks above. Rennie was bent over her desk. He twitched a whisker in inquiry, and she launched happily into a lecture on Bowditch and the history of navigation. "Math is BEAUTIFUL!" she concluded, and Ernie gave her a loving swat on the nose.
He wriggled out of his work vest, and hung it in his locker. He didn't think he could get back into it. Tomorrow, he'd figure that out. Right now he really needed peace and quiet. A raspy snore issued from the upper crate. Rennie and Ernie exchanged a look. "He's on Dawn Patrol these days, he can't help being tired," she offered. "Bet he's on his back with his mouth wide open," rejoined her brother. Ernie padded up the ramp to the berth crate. He stretched up to the top bunk to check, put his paw over the open mouth of the lengthy ginger youth, and when the sputtering ceased, gently told him to shut up. Ernie decided to curl up on the padded quilt on the floor. Before long Rennie was cuddled against him, head tucked under his chin, and he draped an arm around her.
His back was cold, and he came muzzily awake enough to know that Harry had quit the cuddle pile and left for his early watch. Ernie yawned, hooked a claw on the quilt, and pulled a bit over them. He and Rennie were both on day watch and needed all the sleep they could catch.
Halfway through his watch, Ernie was trying to fix an unruly sensor in one of the communication arrays. Things were not going well. He couldn't figure out what was causing the problem.
He put the screwdriver down between his paws, and did his best to stretch his back in the confines of the tunnel. There was a small noise. A “tink.” Huh. Ernie investigated a bit more, then sighed, got himself turned around, and made his way out of the tunnel to the workroom. Dragging the screwdriver.
“Squared away, then?” inquired the Engineer. Ernie shook his head. Then he carefully laid the screwdriver down, exactly parallel to the bulkhead. It moved. Tink. The Engineer growled, moved the tool back to parallel, and watched it swing back to the bulkhead. “Riggers,” he growled. “Why those…" he saw the attentive face of his very young apprentice "...benighted fools have to magnetize every...benighted tool on this...benighted ship…. Put it in the Bollixed drawer, that's a good lad.” He gave Ernie a new screwdriver, and a replacement relay, and sent him back in the tunnel. Ernie carefully logged the repair. His paws were growing, which made typing a bit more complicated, but he managed. His claws were getting stronger, and were quite useful in tight quarters. Sometimes, better than a screwdriver. But no substitute for a wrench.
Ernie had some ideas about adapting tools to fit his size and shape. Paws were great, but they seldom fit neatly around devices designed for huge human hands. Some day, he'd be able to get into the machine shop and turn out some specialized tools. Some day. Not in the very near future, though. It would be a while before he lived down the incident of the lathe. His whiskers ached, just thinking about it.
He also had thoughts about his high-viz vest. When you are quite a small, dark kitten, wearing bright clothing makes you much more visible. Less likely to get stepped on, or tripped over. The vest gave him visibility, and he liked having designated work clothing. But there were no pockets.
Ernie was baffled that anyone would ever design clothing without pockets. It seemed to be such an obvious and essential adaptation. But his vest had no pockets. And no sheath for tools. He'd acquired some plastic netting from the galley, which still tasted slightly of onions, and dragged his tools and fittings around with him. It worked, sort of, but negotiating wire runs while holding a string in your teeth just wasn't efficient. Ernie appreciated efficiency.
He also enjoyed routine. After a fashion. Nothing was ever truly routine; every maintenance task turned out to have a wrinkle in it, But that rhythm, setting about a task, setting things to rights, moving to the next task, Ernie loved it. When you fixed things, you were DONE. At least for a while. Things were tidier, they ran more smoothly, more quietly, more efficiently. Ernie loved fixing things.
And while you were fixing things, you could think, because no one was yammering at you. Ernie got a lot of thinking done during maintenance. He’d solved some problems, definitely, and he thought he’d had some ideas. One idea that he hadn’t yet snagged was this recurrent void problem, but he thought he’d glimpsed something. Ernie was a very patient hunter. Eventually, it would come to him. Meanwhile, there was work to do and plenty of things to think about.
He'd started out small, barely surviving the disappearance of his mother, but rescued and brought aboard this magnificent airship by humans. He caught glimpses of his family every day, but sister Rennie was on command track and if she wasn't on the bridge, she was studying hard under the eagle eye of the Captain. Rennie worshipped her Captain. Ernie had seen the great man frequently, but Rennie was even allowed to nap in his lap on occasion. Ernie figured he'd just get grease on the elegant uniform, and was unlikely to ever get a chance.
Brother Harry was often away on one of the smaller aircraft that accompanied the Renegade. It's all well and good to have the fastest and best equipped ship, Harry would say, but it's the pilots that make privateering possible. We get you there, we shuttle you there and back, we tote your loot, we save your butt. Ernie was pretty sure that Harry was just talking Puckish pilot smack. But Harry was so happy. He loved excitement and adventure, and claimed nothing cleared your head like a fierce wind in your whiskers. He'd jump aboard any ship he could. Ernie was happy to talk engines, but Harry would get into yaw and Ernie would be lost. While Harry went on. And on.
Harry had learned to be a little more cautious in his claims. Everybody had heard him declare that pilots were essential and the other departments should just acknowledge that superiority. Everybody had watched Ernie listen, with that mild, thoughtful expression. Some people heard, the next day, that none of the pilots’ radios were working, as apparently all the batteries had vanished. More people heard that the following day, Puck’s own plane had a bone-dry tank, and the avgas barrels on the flight deck were all unaccountably empty. For some reason the hydraulic hoist was out of order that day and the simplest solution ended up being the pilots lugging full gas cans up to the flight deck. They were all pretty fragrant by the end of the day, which is when everybody on the ship heard that the showers in the pilots’ quarters were delivering nothing but ice cold water.
The Engineer said that he hadn't arranged any of this. Which was quite true, as it had all been Ernie's doing, although his colleagues had loyally professed themselves unable to fix any of the problems. The Engineer said all the valves were working correctly. Also true, and every valve had been dutifully inspected by an Engineering tech.
Puck had a little talk with Harry.
Harry stalked down to Engineering and growled a form of an apology to the shop. The Engineer looked at him, and Harry sat down, swallowed, and gave an actual apology. The Engineer considered, nodded, and a tech went to check that one relay that sometimes acted up, come to think of it. Harry turned to walk out; Ernie leapt on top of him, pinned his brother down, and proceeded to vigorously wash his face in the wrong direction. So everything was back to normal again.
They each had their own world within the Renegade. Ernie knew they were lucky to have found such a home, a place for all three kittens. The ship, and its unorthodox crew, was gaining quite a reputation for daring adventures, often of dubious legality. Ernie kept his head down, and kept the ship running.
Ernie liked having a nice solid deck under his paws. He did know that the deck was, at any given time, quite high in the sky. He was, after all, Junior Mascot Mate for Engineering, and did his bit to keep the great airship aloft. He understood that the ship moved high above the earth, held up only by engines and aeronautical design. He knew that, intellectually knew they were flying, but his world was inside the Renegade, keeping her going. The outside tasks, the wind-in-the-whiskers jobs of brother Harry and his beloved pilots, Ernie was quite happy to let them do that. He had his own work.
END OF PART ONE