The crew of the USS Woolworth is not exactly the pride of the fleet.
In fact, it’s more like a ragtag band of misfits that seems to have an inexplicable knack for picking up strays from the vastness of space like you would pick up an underfed cat from the street, but somehow, by some law that scientists haven’t discovered yet, they work together.
On some days, Captain Seraphina Picquery looks around the bridge, the heart of her domain, and wonders how it is, exactly, that she ended up here, on this little ship, with these people, but then she remembers that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oh, she is a qualified woman, no doubt about that, and she cuts a striking figure both in uniform and in the more extravagant style she favors when she’s off duty, if she does say so herself—in fact, she’s pretty sure some of the lower-ranking officers are straight up afraid of her, and she doesn’t mind one bit. Whatever keeps them in line. Well, to be fair, Abernathy could be a touch more competent if he weren’t so damn nervous all the time, but you can’t have everything in life.
Seraphina has everything the upper echelons could wish for in a captain—top of her class ever since she was a fresh-faced cadet, a cool head in the face of danger, a commanding presence, and plenty of grace and poise to go around. She could be well on her way to captaining the flagship by now, if only she’d buttered up the right admirals, but she prefers it this way.
The Woolworth may not amount to much, but she is her pride and joy, and she wouldn’t trade it for one of those sleek new ships for all the riches in the galaxy. And besides, it’s more fun out here.
Sure, there are mornings (artificial mornings dictated by the ship’s lighting, but mornings all the same) when she wakes up and asks herself why, but the answer is always the same—because out here is where she’s meant to be.
There’s an inevitable downside to being a good officer: eventually, you get promoted, and at some point in your stellar career, without so much as a by-your-leave, you find yourself behind a desk in a dreary office on the hundredth floor, making decisions that will be carried out by a new generation of daring young explorers, the thrill of the unknown a distant memory.
She’s managed to avoid that so far, and sometimes, when she gives the order for her ship to streak off into the stars at speeds that outstrip light itself, she distinctly feels like she’s running from it.
It’s not all fun and games, but it’s her life, and she wouldn’t change one iota of it.
Well, except for the Woolworth’s uncanny ability to run into trouble.
Everyone knew about the dangers of outer space when they signed up for this, but Seraphina is fairly certain that her ship’s record defies the fleet’s statistics. Of course, there will be blessed lulls in activity every now and then, but it’s a simple fact of life by now that as soon as someone starts complaining about being bored, trouble will start again, as if they’d summoned it.
And not just any trouble—the weird kind of trouble.
There was that time when a spatial anomaly whisked them back in time all the way to Earth’s Roaring Twenties, where memories of a war they’d only studied in history books were fresh and fashion was an endless whirl of feathers, pearls and sequins that made the girls go gaga for about five minutes, before they realized that finding a way back home would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Or that time her trusted first officer, Percival Graves, was replaced by an impostor who had used some sort of alien technology to make himself look exactly like him, but they do not talk about that. Her report is classified, and the less she discusses it with Percival, the better it is for both of them. It still hurts them both that even she was fooled, and she is deeply unsettled at the thought that the intruder must have observed the Woolworth for a long time before striking, because the similarity was not just superficial—that thing acted like Percival, or rather, like Percival used to be. Whatever was done to him when his double spirited him away from the ship gave them back a changed man, one who is still on a long and rocky road to recovery.
He even suggested he should step down from his position, that perhaps she would be better served with a first officer who didn’t wake up in the middle of the night in a tangle of sheets, fighting the remains of nightmares that threatened to drag him back down to his own personal hell, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Trust, she reminded him in her best captain’s voice, is an essential component of a good command team, and there is no one on the Woolworth she trusts more than Percival.
What she has with him is special, but they will both vehemently deny its romantic nature when confronted about it. It would interfere with their duties, and they’re both too in love with their jobs to even look at each other that way, not to mention that she has long suspected that her right-hand man’s interest may not be in the fairer sex.
They are a well-oiled team, and everyone knows that to come between them would be like trying to stop a supernova from exploding with your bare hands, but without their crew, they would be nothing.
Out here, with nothing between them and the stars, a crew is a family—and there is no other word she would use to describe this colorful, crazy bunch.
There’s Tina Goldstein, her chief of security, who has grand ideas of right and wrong and is fueled by a will to make the galaxy a better place single-handedly (and Seraphina has to hand it to her, she’s certainly stubborn enough to do so). She looks too young for her role and is dwarfed by most of the men she commands, but she has a wicked aim and enough combat training to take down an alien twice her size and with a few extra limbs sticking out of strange places, so if anyone makes the unfortunate mistake of not showing her due respect, she earns it. The hard way.
And since one doesn’t go far without the other, there’s also her sister. She’s adopted, to be exact, but the way they act around each other, they might as well have come from the same woman’s womb. She is as different from Tina as she can possibly be – fair where the other is dark, all smiles where Tina always has some security concern or other clouding her face –, but nobody can deny that they are sisters by every definition of the term except their blood. No one can pronounce her name without butchering it, so they just call her Queenie, because she carries herself like a queen, waltzing down the corridors like a vision and turning every male head (and quite a few female ones) in the vicinity as she passes. She looks human, and what a fine specimen of human, at a cursory glance, but you can tell she isn’t the minute you realize she knows what you’re thinking. They don’t know quite how she does it despite repeated scans of the conundrum that is her brain, but she’s earned her rightful place on the bridge because of it. As far as her training goes, she would not be fit for any but the humblest of duties, but her ESP abilities have defused many a potential conflict. Queenie can often save the day just by standing there, smiling brightly (or not, in case the locals consider the baring of teeth a threatening gesture) and gently nudging the captain in the right direction. They let Percival do the talking when she senses they wouldn’t trust a woman in charge, they replicate last-minute gifts when she tells them they are expected, and Seraphina is convinced they would have been blown out of the sky several times over without her invaluable counsel.
Then there’s the new science officer, the one with too many middle names for his own good (seriously, who names their kid Newton Artemis Fido Scamander in this day and age?). They’ve told him time and time again that Newton is a fine name for a scientist, that it instantly puts them in mind of Isaac Newton, but he keeps insisting, never quite looking them straight in the eye, that it’s Newt, just Newt. Beneath his awkward, freckled exterior lies a wickedly brilliant mind that, Seraphina is sure of it, hasn’t yet shown its full potential, which is really saying something. Life on a distant colony has left him with a strange, rich accent that makes his voice immediately distinctive over the communication system, and an unquenchable thirst to see what lies beyond the confines of his little faraway world: she suspects he’s seen more of the galaxy than the rest of them combined before ending up on the Woolworth by a strange twist of fate. His brother is still back there, lauded far and wide for helping avert an attack on the colony by a hostile neighboring species; how such a family managed to breed a pacifist is beyond Seraphina’s comprehension, but he has a code of conduct all of his own.
Newt is primarily a biologist, with a healthy respect and an endless fascination for anything that breathes (or whatever it is that some of the things he’s studying do to survive, anyway). Although decently skilled with a weapon, he only ever uses non-lethal settings and shoots as an absolute last resort, flinching as if in pain whenever anyone dares to take aim at a living creature, even if it’s showing more rows of sharp fangs than it has any business having. Seraphina believes he would kill if given a direct order from a superior, but she hasn’t had the occasion or, indeed, the heart to test that theory—she thinks it would break him, and she doesn’t want that on her conscience.
However, he clearly also knows something about physics that the books aren’t saying, because there is no way in hell his lab can hold that many curious specimens in just three dimensions. Ever since he came aboard, the room has turned into a veritable menagerie. He never keeps the creatures very long for fear of messing with the ecosystems they’re from, just long enough to nurse them back to health if necessary, learn as much as possible about them, and more often than not, give them a cutesy little name that has absolutely nothing to do with what they look like. (She told him it looked unprofessional in his reports, but she gave it up as a bad job when he came up with Frank. Really?) Every time they revisit a planet, he requests some time to release one of his subjects back to the wild with a tearful goodbye, but their places never stay empty.
Some of the residents seem to have captured the crew’s heart more than others: among them, a tiny critter that is sentient despite looking more like a plant than an animal and much prefers riding somewhere on Newt’s person than staying cooped up in the lab, and a furry little thing that doesn’t seem to respond to any name, but that they’re secretly calling Houdini, because it is his mission in life to escape from wherever he’s kept and send one of Tina’s security details on a wild goose chase all over the ship on a regular basis. Newt says it’s because he likes hoarding anything shiny that isn’t pinned down (which, on a starship that is made primarily of metal surfaces polished to gleaming perfection, is a lot), but it’s frankly ridiculous. They put him behind bars, and they found him wreaking havoc in a cargo bay the next day. They put him behind a damn force field, and they found him hiding away behind a panel on deck three, responsible for an unexplained power outage because he was so fascinated by all the pretty blinking lights. There’s just no stopping him, and they love him for it.
Seraphina could not ask for a better science officer; she just wishes he and Tina would stop dancing around each other. The old rules and regulations that said no to romantic relationships between crewmembers are a thing of the past now that deep space missions last long enough to drive anyone crazy without company and modern ships are even equipped to raise children, and it’s obvious what’s going on here. Well, obvious to everyone except those two oblivious idiots who haven’t yet worked up the guts to go on a perfect holographic date and be done with it. She looks at him, he looks at her, and yet, somehow, they can’t be caught dead looking at one another at the same time. It’s maddening. Someday, she’s sworn to herself, she’ll send them on some bogus mission together, just the two of them in the most cramped shuttle they have, and see if they can get a move on. There’s an actual betting pool going on in the lower decks on when they’ll get together, and Seraphina pretends not to notice the illicit activity. (She wants in on it, actually, but a captain does not stoop so low.)
Another staple of the ship is one Jacob Kowalski. He’s only a civilian, and some are complaining that keeping him aboard is a liability, but they’re the same people who can’t go two days without his scrumptious meals and his jovial smiles. Sure, there are replicators if you need food and you need it quick, but Jacob doesn’t trust them, because he says the taste isn’t quite the same, and what if they break? His main occupations are being in charge of the mess hall, bringing some much-needed joy to the crew when cabin fever starts to get to them, and making goo-goo eyes at Queenie, who, incredibly, seems to enjoy the attention, even if everyone thought she was way out of his league and would never give him the time of day. He found himself aboard on the spur of the moment, when the Woolworth was back on Earth for maintenance, wanting nothing more than to run away from the bitter disappointment of a bad breakup and the failure of his lifelong dream to open his own bakery and yearning for a fresh start, and now the ship wouldn’t be the same without his jolly presence serving breakfast.
And then there’s the latest stray they’ve picked up. He’s a fragile slip of a boy who looks younger than his years and seems to have been through hell and back. They found him adrift in a miserable, battered little shuttle with barely enough power left to give him life support, in need of immediate medical attention, and they haven’t been able to track down any living family, so for the time being, he’s staying. They haven’t pieced together his full story yet, but it’s bad enough that when he and Queenie found themselves in the same room together for the first time, she ran away in tears. He introduced himself as Credence Barebone, but there’s no way that’s his real name, because it sounds human, if a few centuries out of date, and no human causes virtually every piece of technology two decks above and below him to go on the fritz when he’s upset.
The first time it happened, he dissolved into a tearful litany of apologies and seemed to expect to be stranded on the first planet with a barely breathable atmosphere they passed for his infraction, but Jacob was positively thrilled at the loss of the replicators, dived into the nearest cargo bay like a kid in a candy store, muttering all the while about unreliable pieces of junk and how a hunk of metal would never beat his Grandma’s touch, and whipped them all up some criminally delicious pastries in the shape of Newt’s most interesting specimens, and that didn’t exactly make things all right, but it got the first weak smile out of him they’d ever seen, and that was progress.
Newt seems oddly torn between wanting to bond with Credence over their shared inability to be in the thick of the ship’s social life and trying to study him as if he were some alien creature he picked up for his lab. He’s making an honest effort to treat him like a person rather than a test subject, but his scientific curiosity is showing through. He swears up and down he’s already seen something like him in some remote corner of the galaxy, before joining the crew of the Woolworth, and he’s determined to crack the mystery of what he is and where he came from.
Credence doesn’t dislike Newt, exactly – Seraphina doesn’t think it’s physically possible to dislike his childlike enthusiasm towards all living things and his bashful, stammering reaction whenever someone praises his scientific achievements –, but he’s definitely uncomfortable at the attention. All he wants is to carve his own little place in the crew, and what he lacks in training, he makes up in willingness to work impossibly long hours, silently, relentlessly, learning along the way and without a single peep of complaint. He’s a bit of a factotum now, with no formal rank to speak of, but he doesn’t mind taking orders even from the lowest of the low.
And Percival… Percival stares, but he hasn’t made his move yet. For someone who knows him as well as Seraphina does and can see through the perfect first officer mask he puts on every morning, it’s clear as day that he looks at Credence as though he’d never seen anything more beautiful on any far-flung planet they’ve encountered, but he hesitates to do anything about it—which is wildly out of character, because Percival Graves does not hesitate, that is one of the constants of the universe right along with the speed of light in a vacuum.
They’re a little broken, both of them, but Seraphina rather thinks they might pick up the pieces faster together.
It’s not perfect, life on the USS Woolworth, out here at the edge of known space—it’s not the fastest, or the most luxurious, and they’re all carrying burdens from their past that feel a lot heavier than their cargo.
But it’s home.