El was loading cargo into her ship the first time she saw it— legs broken off in the front, leaning towards him like a siren in the water. The junkyard was buzzing with scrappers, but none paid it any mind.

“What the gorn is that, dude?” El tilted her head, looking at the guy selling scraps in that sector. “The weird one. The one that’s looking at me.”

He mirrored her action, tilting his head back. “Air hockey,” He said, nothing more.

“Okay, but what the gorn is air hockey?” She grunted, “Or hockey, even?”

The guy shrugged. “Got dropped off with the rest of the Terra junk. No clue.”

“Thought Terra ran outta trash, like, a billion years ago.” El stepped closer to the air hockey and kneeled down. “Looks kinda fresh, too. Good condition.”

“Well, HoshCo didn’t want it. Junk.”

“Hosh can suck my lumps. I’m taking this with me.”

The device was light, carved from some organic Terran material. The front legs being broken off made it pathetically sag downwards as El dragged it onto his ship, but it still carried an elegance about it that she didn’t understand yet. It deserved better than the junkyard. He pulled it ever so carefully to a spot in the ship not yet occupied by garbage and promptly forgot it existed.

“What’s this?” Alia frowns, looking down at the broken device by her feet. “It looks like a really gnargy table.”

“Gorn if I know, dude. Half the stuff in this baby is trash I found on the ground.” El shrugs, stepping over some junk. “Could be, like, a bomb.”

“It is not a bomb,” Koharu calls out from her own pile of junk, her small stature hiding her from sight. “It is air hockey.”

“Oh, yeah! Yeah, the junkyard guy said that, I think. Is it some 22nd century gnarg?”

“I suppose,” Ko answers, “Although, whether it is still functional remains uncertain.” She weaves through the blockades of scrap and kneels at the sad, broken air hockey device. While the front legs are beyond repair, the rest is in remarkable condition. She presses her fingers to her chin and nods. “It could be repaired.”

“Gorn yeah!” El grins, looking down at the device. “So, uh, what does an air hockey do?”

“It is a game,” Ko mutters as she fiddles with the broken legs, “Stop saying gorn.”

“Freedom of speech,” El says, kicking a small piece of scrap.

“You sound ridiculous. It is like listening to aliens.”

“We are aliens, technically. So are you,” Alia says, hopping over a tiny junk pile to reconnect with the group, “We’re in dead space. Everyone’s an alien in dead space.”

“Yeah! Take that, nerd!” El barks, “We can gorn all we want!”

“Don’t say that,” Alia squeaks, but her pleas are left unheard beneath El’s satisfied laughter.

The Air Hockey is carefully dragged by the trio away from the other trash. Its surface is dusty, covered in a thick coating of dirt and grime hundreds of years old-- probably longer than that, due to Koharu recognizing it.

“So, how do you Air Hockey?” Alia asks as Ko finishes screwing in the new legs, “Does it fly? Did they have flight yet in the 22nd century?”

“Yes. This is a more primitive device than modern ones, however,” Koharu answers, “It uses air jets to make the puck slide smoothly across the table. A hit in your adversary’s net is a point for you, and vice versa. A simple game, really.”

“Borg ball is simple. This gnarg is 22nd-century simple,” El grunts as Koharu stands and runs her hand along the table.

“Do you wish to play a round with me?”

“Gorn yeah, dude,” El says, “Not ‘boutta pass up a chance to kick your splass.”

(It takes twelve consecutive losses for El to lose her spunk.)

“GORN OFF!” El groans, tossing the paddle and barely missing Alia’s head, “Why are you so good at this?!”

“I am a 22nd-century native… an air hockey connoisseur.” Ko nods seriously. “You still have much to learn.”

“Stop throwing gnarg at my head,” Alia huffs from her spot beside the table, “Just take the loss! You can’t be good at everything.”

“I can and I will be, blondie,” El says and grits his teeth, “Watch me!”

She swipes the paddle up again before snatching the puck from the gutters and tossing it onto the table. It quickly glides across the surface, colliding with Koharu’s paddle with a harsh clack. It rockets back again to El, bouncing wall to wall before he shoots her hand forward to hit it back.

“This is the one, kid!” He spouts like a rabid animal. The puck clashes with Koharu’s paddle once more, the sound even louder than before. It’s going too fast— El’s brain can’t catch up with it as it ricochets against the edges of the table. There’s only one surefire way to win.

El lunges her free hand at the puck and launches it directly at Ko’s head. It slams into her forehead, bouncing off and landing perfectly in her gutter with a clink.

“TAKE THAT, YOU LITTLE BRAT!” El barks, shaking the table with both hands, “I WIN!”

“EL!” Alia sputters, flapping her hands, “What is wrong with you?!”

“A win is a win, blondie. Besides, the kid is fine.”

From beneath the air hockey table, a tiny hand peeks out, held with one thumb up— a universal symbol for okay.

“See? She’s fine,” El smirks.

“You’re deranged,” Alia mutters, shaking her head.

“It’s part of my charm.”

Tiny Star