Chapter One

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 himself.

“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.

“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.

“Computer, initiate impact protocol.”

The air in the cabin was evacuated as his suit 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. “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. 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.”

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.

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. He took off his helmet and drew in a cautious breath. Sure enough, the smell was as unpleasant as it was expected.

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 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 the 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.”

Anne looked puzzled. “Go where? The ship’s intact. Why not stay here?”

“Three reasons,” said Crash, “first, the range on the transmitter isn’t enough to reach anyone. 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. 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.”

Crash and Anne 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…”

“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, “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 trip.”

“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 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. 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, and that we were about five hours out.”

Anne considered what Crash had said and replied, “So you arrived long before they expected and before they could meet you halfway.”

“Exactly,” said Crash, “and wouldn’t you know, 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?”

Anne stared at Crash in silence, a condescending grin on her face.

“So we exited the ship 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 and station authorities had two issues when they finally showed up.”

“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.

“Okay, that’s strange,” said Crash.

“What?” asked Anne.

“The outpost - it’s powered-up. I’m reading a heat signature and I see lights. This planet’s supposed to be pretty empty. No people. Looks like there’s people,” said Crash.

“And?” said Anne.

“I don’t like people when there isn’t supposed to be people,” said Crash.

Crash and Anne crossed the last few hundred meters to the outpost and approached one of the outer doors. The locking mechanism was powered-on and the door showed as unlocked. Crash pressed the button and the door silently slid open, revealing a long corridor, well lit and clean. As they walked inside, the door closed behind them and a green line appeared on the floor showing them the way inside.

Following the line, they found themselves facing the door to the outpost’s control room which opened as they approached.

A voice called out from inside. “Greetings, Princess. Please do come inside.”

Crash glanced at Anne, raised an eyebrow and gestured for her to go first. Anne clenched her fists and walked through the door.

“Anne!” said Captain Nemec Phoenix, taking a bite from the slice of coconut cream pie in front of her. “So glad you finally made it!”

“What?” said Anne, visibly surprised, “How did you -“

“Know you’d be here?” interrupted Phoenix. “Easy. I’m the one who sabotaged Facepalm’s ship. I’m the one who degraded his systems so you could hack in and stow away. And I’m the one who knew he’d put down near an outpost. He chose this one. Thus, so did I.”

Crash stood next to Anne and didn’t flinch. He’d presumed his recent mishap had been planned, happening so close to a planet with a breathable atmosphere. The part about making sure Anne would be onboard came as a surprise, but he chose to not let that show.

“Crash, meet Captain Phoenix, head of security for my father’s administration. So, Phoenix, what’s the plan?” asked Anne.

“Simple,” replied Phoenix, “we wait here for your government to realize you’re gone. They’ll track your ship to this planet, come looking for you, and I will be here to tell them of your untimely demise and how I arrived too late to help. Unfortunately, your bodies were never recovered.”

“So you mean to kill us?” asked Crash.

“No, of course not,” laughed Phoenix. “You’ll both be coming with me after the drama has played out. You’re much more valuable to me alive.”

“Why?” asked Anne. “Why?” asked Crash, simultaneously.

“Oh, now that would be telling,” said Phoenix with a grin. “Besides, once the bad guy reveals the plan, it never happens. I mean never. I’m not making that mistake again.”

Crash turned to Anne and said, “Apparently Captain Phoenix is an educated woman. Now I know I hate her.”