Of all the things she thought would happen to her when she entered graduate school, serving on a freight vessel on a trip across the stars was not one of them. She still was unsure of what had made her volunteer, what had made her give up three weeks of perfectly good reading time secluded in her cramped bunk to be barked at by Mr. Cold Gray Eyes himself. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was curiosity about the man she’d be working with. Maybe it was simply madness.
Commander Donner was quite possibly the most difficult man she had ever tried to get a read on. She tried to figure out his command style and his habits from watching his interactions with the crew, but their time with the quartermaster was too brief and Barnes was clearly too kowtowed to even breathe normally in Donner’s presence. Everyone else on the ship that they had encountered had been caught up in the pre-launch duties that accompanied getting a hunk of metal so large off a planetary surface.
Her new flight suit and boots in tow, she quickly retreated to her bunk and changed, then headed back to the launch deck. The launch deck was simply a more formal name for a common area in the middle of the ship, but it did come equipped with specialized launch seats that made the taking off process vaguely easier. Each chair was securely welded to the ship’s internal support structure and featured a five-point crash harness to keep the passengers in their seats. Oxygen masks were also supplied, as well as small vents to blow cool, fresh air on those feeling particularly susceptible to motion sickness. Lucky had been through all this launch, zero-gravity, new gravity, and then the fun of the catapult enough times to know that she could handle it without showering her new shipmates with her most recent meals. She looked at the other passengers around her, currently strapping themselves down. A few looked nervous; one elderly lady was even holding a strand of rosary beads in her hands and murmuring quietly to herself. The two retired crewers Donner had tried to recruit seemed perfectly at ease, holding their wives’ hands and settling into the seats as much as anyone could.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman in a flight suit identical to Lucky’s sat down in the seat next to her and started strapping in. She was murmuring under her breath in rapid Spanish that Lucky only caught bits and pieces of, but gathered that the woman was not a fan of take-off.
“How is it you work on a ship, and still don’t like the take-off process?” Lucky asked her.
The woman looked at her in surprise. “Habla espanol?” She grinned. “No me gustan los chicaros, tampoco, pero yo me lo comen ellos porque son bueno para mi salud.”
Lucky gave her a skeptical look. “I quit eating peas as soon as I started cooking for myself. I don’t care if they’re good for me or not.”
The woman smiled again, wider this time and laughed out loud. “Oh, we are going to get along famously.” She held out her hand. “Janet Ruiz.”
The woman smiled. “I heard about you. Joining the party for a few weeks, no?”
“As far as Puerto Nuevo.”
Janet shook her head. “Is it true Trigg assigned you to be his personal aide?”
Lucky frowned. “Trigg…?”
“The commander. You think we actually call him Edmund Donner? Please.”
“But you get to call him by his nickname? I mean, isn’t he in charge of the whole ship…?”
Janet laughed again. “Girl, you’ve got a lot to learn about the merchant ships. It’s not like we’re in the military or anything. ‘Captain’ and ‘Commander’ are just formalities that we make the passengers use to keep everyone in line. Kind of like you don’t call your doctor ‘Joe’, right? You call him Doctor So-and-so and that keeps the professionalism between you two. But as for us, we all just call each other whatever. Except for Barnes. Everyone makes his life hell and makes him call them all the proper titles.”
“I take it he’s the sweaty one?”
Lucky settled back into her seat and tried to get comfortable. The seats were built for functionality and easy storage, not napping. Honestly, she was reminded of the roller coasters her brothers used to drag her to ride in Orlando on summer vacations. The human race had developed space flight, settled colonies on distant planets and set up sophisticated trade routes through the stars, and still roller coasters had the most uncomfortable seats on any of the planets.
“So, tell me, Lucky,” Janet’s voice broke into her thoughts. “How’d you end up in San Pedro anyway? I mean if there was ever a rock that no one ever wanted to be on, this one is it.”
“Field assignment for a Master’s degree. I was only supposed to be here for nine months for an internship, but then I lost my research grant and my tuition assistance and didn’t have the funds to get myself home until now. I’ve been working jobs around the colony for the past two years.”
“Hard luck,” Janet said, tightening her straps one more time. “At least the San Pedro-Earth route isn’t super expensive.”
“And thank God for that,” Lucky said. “I might never have made it back if I’d been one of the far colonies. One of my classmates was at New Los Angeles. Granted, he made it home in time for the new semester since his parents practically own one of the Earth-side airlines.”
“Did he lose his scholarship too?”
“He didn’t have one.” She made a face. “Silver spoon, et cetera. No, I’m not bitter at all. Why do you ask?”
Janet’s reply was drowned by the sound of the rockets firing. The intercom in the seat crackled to life. “Sit tight, guys. We’re cleared for takeoff and we’ll be airborne in just a few moments. Starting ignition in five, four, three…”
Lucky leaned back on the headrest and gritted her teeth. Launch didn’t so much cause butterflies in her stomach as make her feel as if said butterflies were going to start chewing and come bursting through her chest.
“Here comes the fun!” Janet yelled over the sound of the engines, quickly crossing herself and swinging her legs like an excited kid.
Lucky smiled around her gritted teeth just as the engines kicked into full thrust. She felt the subtle jerk as the pilot released the brake and allowed the freighter to start rolling forwards. The freighter was a unique hybrid of large cargo space plane and old-school rocket. The runways for the ships were longer than any other used in the history of flight, but had been the best alternative to a completely vertical takeoff. As the ship gained speed, the runway began tilting upwards, slowly at first and then more steeply. At the end, it was nearly vertical and, like a motor cross ramp, launched the ship straight up into the air. For many years, that had been the most dangerous part of the launch process, as pilots had failed to compensate for the innate desire of the ship to continue rotating and dive into the ground. Better training and better ship engineering had maintained a low number of crashes per year – as few as one or two a year for commercial transports; fewer even still for the military ships. Based on the weight Lucky seemed to have gained in the past few seconds, the pilot was exceptionally skilled in keeping the ship nearly perfectly vertical on takeoff.
She felt lightheaded and knew that the pilot was rotating the ship to enter high planetary orbit. Janet had stretched her hands out over her head as if she were enjoying a roller coaster. The incredible noise made by the engines faded somewhat, and only a low-pitched vibration remained, making a nearly inaudible thruuuumm echo throughout the ship.
The intercom woke up with a feedback squeal. “Oops, sorry about that folks. Umm, this is the captain. We’re entering high-planet orbit. We ask that you please remain seated at this time with your seat belts fastened and your tray tables in the upright and locked position. We will be engaging the catapult in about fifteen minutes or so, and then we will be on our way to Puerto Nuevo.”
Lucky released her death grip on the arms of the chair and let her hands float in the zero gravity. The lady with the rosary beads across the way started at the floating crucifix as if it had become possessed, and Janet’s long raven locks waved around her face as if she were underwater. Lucky couldn’t suppress a giggle as she felt her own shoulder-length brown hair floating around her face. She poked Janet’s arm. “Is it a bit humid today?” she asked sarcastically. “Feels a bit humid to me.”
Janet laughed and tried to catch all of her hair and twist it behind her head. The twist quickly came undone, so she grabbed it and stuffed it in her collar. “Welcome to space!”