Commander Donner’s voice sounded even colder and harsher over the intercom. “…Miss Luckenbach, report to the bridge.” There was an audible click as the bridge microphone was disconnected, and then rustling and chattering as the passengers and crewers on the launch deck began releasing their harnesses and moving about.
Lucky gave Janet a panicked look. “What have I signed up for?!” she moaned, her stomach suddenly far more nervous than at any point in the previous twenty minutes since she sat down in the launch couch.
Janet shook her head and quickly slid out of her harness. “Gringa, you’re going to be perfectly fine. I promise you.” At Lucky’s look of askance, Janet planted her hands on her hips and took on a more aggressive stance. “Cassandra, you just withstood a space ship launch and catapult without going so much as an extra shade whiter than normal. If that ain’t guts then clearly you’re hollow. Now get yourself out of that harness and get up to the bridge before they page you again.” She turned to go, then spun back on her heel. “And whatever you do – do not get in Nan Levitt’s way. She might only be four feet eleven inches but I swear to you every inch is packed with gunpowder and nails.”
Lucky didn’t think that her stomach could have flipped any faster, but she had been gravely mistaken. “Who is Nan Levitt?”
“She’s the Chief of the Ship. Kind of the number three boss behind Trigg and Mark – that’s Captain Conerly. But I’ll tell you the last administrative aide that got in her way lost something very precious to him. That’s why Barnes’ voice is so damn squeaky.”
“Wait, you’re kidding. She didn’t really - ?!”
“Chief Nan Levitt is the only woman who possesses the ability to verbally castrate the male of any species in three sentences or less.” Janet winked. “Have a great first day!” With that, she disappeared through the hatch leading to the cargo area.
“Damn it all to hell,” Lucky muttered under her breath. She reached for the release on her harness. Giving it a sharp tug, she was able to do – exactly nothing. She tugged again, and still the latch refused to release. “This is some sort of cruel joke, isn’t it?” she said to herself. “Very funny, universe. Now, please…” She yanked again and still there was no pleasant click of a release.
The intercom popped. “Miss Luckenbach, if you’re lost on your way to the bridge, any experienced crewer on the ship can show you the way. Please report as soon as possible.”
“I’m trying, thanks!” she muttered. She tugged a fourth time, praying that any time past three would be the charm, to no effect. She looked at the group of people milling on the launch deck. “Excuse me? A little help here?”
To her relief, a tall, middle-aged Asian man turned around and looked her way.
“Can you please help me?” she asked. “My latch seems to be stuck and I’m supposed to be on the bridge.”
He smiled. “You got the lucky chair, it seems. There’s always one that sticks.” He walked over, grabbed the release on her harness and gave it a sharp tug. It came open easily and the straps fell loose by her arms.
Lucky shook her head. “You’ve got to be kidding me. What did you do?”
The man shrugged. “You weren’t holding your mouth right.” Lucky felt her frown turn incredulous just as the man started laughing. “That’s a joke, you know?”
Standing quickly, she bounced a bit on the balls of her feet to get the feel for the gravity plating. “Thank you for your help, Mr, umm…?” She held her hand out to him.
“Kim. You can call me Dr. Kim.” He shook her hand.
“Just Dr. Kim?”
He smiled slightly and nodded. “Most people can’t pronounce the rest of it, so we’ll just leave it at Dr. Kim. Now, I think, Miss Luckenbach, you are wanted on the bridge.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Oh, and just call me Lucky.”
“Lucky in the lucky chair. What a coincidence.” He pointed out the opposite hatch that Janet had used. “Bridge is that way. Just follow the hallway until you see a door with a sign on it. Good luck, Lucky.” He winked and gave her a quick smile, before heading towards the other end of the launch deck.
Despite her nickname, Lucky was wondering how lucky she could possibly be today. Taking a deep breath, she keyed open the hatch and stepped through.
No one seemed to notice her for a few moments. Captain Conerly was intent on a screen that held a map of a series of star systems, quietly discussing with a dark, muscular man. Stubb – Mr. Williams – was standing nearby, paying close attention and occasionally nodding. Commander Donner appeared to be lounging in a chair in the center of the room, making notes on a flex screen and checking his watch. Against the far wall, a short blonde woman was writing quickly on a tall stack of flex screens and muttering to herself. Lucky assumed that was Chief Levitt and, remembering Janet’s warning, averted her eyes from that side of the room. Still no one had noticed her, so she cleared her throat.
Donner rotated in his chair. “Ah, Miss Luckenbach! You made it! And about time too. I was hoping to get in some simulator time before our next catapult but now I’m not sure if I’ll have time.” He stood up and strode over to her. “Let’s step into my office and I’ll explain more about what I expect from you over the next three weeks.” He stood up. “By the way, for future reference, you’ll want to announce your presence more eloquently when you enter the bridge. Typically something like, ‘Permission to enter the bridge’ or ‘Permission to enter, sir’ or ‘Hey, I’m here, now what?’ will work.”
Lucky gave him her best skeptical, one eyebrow raised look. “Which of those would you prefer, Commander?”
Trigg shrugged, heading for the hatchway at the back of the bridge. “Honestly, I don’t care. This isn’t a military ship, so it’s not like you have to salute or anything.” He keyed the hatch open and gestured for her precede him off the bridge.
He led her a short distance down the corridor until they came to a hatch with “Donner” stenciled on the door. He pressed his thumb to the pad and the door hissed open. “Thumb print locks,” he explained. “Only a handful of people on the ship have access to a place such as this.” He stepped inside and Lucky followed, glancing around the room and quickly memorizing the layout as she did. The front area was set up like a small study, with a desk and a bookshelf crammed with as many volumes as could possibly have fit into the space. Further back in the area clearly was a sleeping area, with a bed and a door that she assumed was a lavatory.
“These are your quarters,” she said, and then immediately felt stupid. Of course they were his quarters; that would explain the name on the door.
“Of course these are my quarters,” Donner said, a small smile on his face. “But I couldn’t very well say ‘Step into my quarters and I’ll show you what I expect from you’, now could I?” His smile suddenly disappeared. “My most sincere apologies, Miss Luckenbach. That was incredibly inappropriate.”
Lucky turned to the bookcase and studied the volumes intently to hide the blush that suddenly spread over her face. Of course, she shouldn’t be embarrassed by an offhand joke made by a handsome, well-built ship commander… “Please, Commander,” she said, “there’s nothing to apologize for.” She took a deep breath, trying to get her flaming cheeks to fade from raging scarlet to a more pleasant, less humiliating pink.
Thankfully Donner didn’t seem to notice or care how badly she was blushing. He continued to explain details about the ship, but Lucky wasn’t hearing him. Try as hard as she might, she couldn’t pull her gaze away from the bookcase. Books were a rare and valuable thing back on Earth, and most of them resided in the archives of the most prestigious universities. On the outlying planets, books were never seek and practically never even heard of.
This wasn’t to say that people didn’t read novels or textbooks – hell, Lucky had an entire library of textbooks just to her name. But after the Environmental Revolution of the late twenty-first century, paper books were all but banned from existence, along with fuel-burning ground vehicles and plastic containers. Somehow, back then, anything that could not be recycled or injected the planet with “toxins” had been outlawed by the Congress of the United States and then, by peer pressure, the United Nations. Books had become digital, and anyone who wanted to read them either bought a digital license on their personal computer or borrowed a cheap digital reader from a library. After a while, the licenses could be purchased digitally as well and libraries, with their stacks and stacks of books, either went extinct or were absorbed into universities. The paper books – all of the paper books, from paperback romance novels to hard cover biographies to cardboard children’s readers – the paper books disappeared behind vacuum sealed, carefully climate controlled doors. Only historians and the few remaining library science majors were allowed behind those doors, and only on special occasions.
Lucky had only seen a paper book once, in her great-grandmother’s house. It had been an old, tattered, mass market paperback copy of A Tale of Two Cities. The novel was ancient even then, but the paperback copy was one of the few remaining books owned privately by a citizen. Unlike the books hidden away in universities, G.G. (as they had called their great-grandmother) had allowed all of the children to touch and smell and read the book, if they wanted. Every summer, when Lucky had returned to her great-grandmother’s house in Nashville, she’d taken that book reverently off the shelf and practically worshiped it, spending a week solid curled up on the end of the couch smelling the old ink and absorbing the words written so long ago.
The shelf in front of her was filled with books of unimaginable worth. Every one was a pristine, hard-cover copy of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, and others that she did not recognize. She knew that the copies were some of the most recent ones available, based on the color of their spines, but that meant that most of them were still older than she and Donner combined.
“Miss Luckenbach, did you hear anything I just said?” Donner’s voice broke through her awe and snapped her back to the moment.
Blushing again, she turned back around. “I’m sorry, Commander. I was too fascinated by your book collection and I got distracted.”
Donner crossed his arms with a peeved look. “You do realize that you’re taking up an exceptional amount of time out of my day, don’t you?”
She nodded, and, if possible, blushed even harder.
“And you realize that if you’d paid attention the first time, I would not have to waste time repeating myself to you again?”
She nodded again, her stomach clenching. What a wonderful first impression you’ve made, Luckenbach, she growled to herself mentally. Now he’s going to think you’re completely worthless.
“Tell me, Miss Luckenbach, what is so fascinating about the bookshelf that you thought it was worth ignoring me for.” Arms still crossed, he leaned against the far wall.
Lucky fidgeted, trying to figure out how to say what she was thinking in a way that wouldn’t come out sounding exceptionally childish or overly nerdy. “I was just…awed by the number and quality of the volumes that you have. These must have cost a fortune, and many of them are older than I am. Outside a brief tour of the Vanderbilt Archives in freshman year, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many books in one place. It’s – it’s just…” Her voice trailed off as she searched for the right word. Of course, this would be the one time she would actually need a thesaurus and not have access to one. “It’s very surprising,” she finished at last, feeling her excuse fall somewhat lame in the silence of the room.
“Surprising?” Donner raised an eyebrow in question. “Why is it so ‘surprising’?”
She bit her lip. “I just didn’t expect it from a ship commander, you know? Everyone thinks of them as jocks and only interested in the boats they’re pushing around.” She regretted it as soon as it was out of her mouth.
Donner gave a small laugh and shrugged. “Your assessment is fair enough. Some ship commanders are a lot like that, barking orders and working out and only being interested in the technology on their ship.” He moved to stand next to the bookcase and stared at the volumes there. “I was never able to just focus on one thing like that. I always needed to know as much about as many topics as I possibly could. One day, I found one of these books in a flea market on Puerto Nuevo and couldn’t resist. I later found out that it was incredibly under priced for the quality and age of the book, and the next time I was on Puerto Nuevo I found the seller and tried to pay him the difference.”
“Tried?” Lucky found herself as mesmerized by the loving gaze Donner was giving the books as she was by the story. There was a far away, wistful gaze in his slate-colored eyes that she’d last seen in her little brother’s eyes as he stared at the planes in the sky.
Donner gave a short laugh. “Yeah. He said he’d had the books for so long he was sick of them taking up space. So instead of just taking my money, he gave me the rest of the ones he had. He told me to take good care of them and make sure they received proper love and attention. The first one he gave me was an old, almost extinct novel written by a Russian satirist during the ancient Soviet era.”
“Let me guess – you read two pages and you were hooked?”
“No way. I read two pages and thought the man was either nuts or on drugs. He wrote a story about a dog who had his heart replaced with that of a human and slowly took on human characteristics. Even I know that’s not medically possible.” He pulled out the chair from the desk and sat down. Putting his hands behind his head, he propped his feet up on the desk.
“Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov,” Lucky said. She turned back to the commander, unable to hold down the smile on her face. “I can’t believe you’ve read it.”
“How did you know?”
“My great-grandmother had a copy of the book. She was a librarian back on Earth, and when she retired, the library gave her a handful of extra copies of books that they had. They were among her most prized possessions. She even left me a copy of Les Miserables when she died.”
“I still think the man was on drugs.”
Lucky shrugged. “Maybe, if only highly inebriated. The book was truly a brilliant satire on the state of the Soviet government and the nation itself. Even if it did come across a bit strangely.”
“I still think the man was on drugs. But no matter.” He dropped his feet back to the floor and started pulling out flex screens from the stack on the desk. Tapping briskly, he didn’t look up as he continued speaking. “I’m sorry to say it like this, but you’ll essentially be my glorified secretary for the next three weeks. People will give you papers, reports, phone numbers, messages, make appointments and try to sleep with me, and it will be your job to filter out the important stuff and make sure it reaches me. The unimportant stuff can be trashed.”
Lucky nodded. “I’ve done stuff like that before. I make a fantastic secretary, as a matter of fact.”
Donner cocked an eyebrow at her. “Stop right there before you open a door that will embarrass both of us.” He handed her a stack of screens. “Read these. Standard Operating Procedures, ship by-laws, do’s and don’t’s, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It’ll be boring so make sure you have plenty of coffee. Also, hunt down Barnes and pick his brain on whatever he can tell you about doing this job. Questions?”
She took the screens and balanced them on her hip. “Where do I find Barnes?”
Donner didn’t look up for the screen in his hand. “He’s assigned to cargo but you can probably catch him best a dinner.” He glanced at his watch. “Since it nearly sixteen hundred, just make sure those documents get read. Grub starts at seventeen-thirty, so you’ll want to catch Barnes then. You can start full time tailing tomorrow morning at oh-seven-thirty hours sharp. Anything else?”
She shook her head. “Nope, I think I’m good for now. Really, how hard can this be?”
Donner looked up at her at that. “You might be surprised, Miss Luckenbach. Just brace yourself.” He waved a hand. “You’re dismissed. You can find your way back to your quarters?”
She nodded. “I think so. And, if not, the ship is a finite space. I’ll find it eventually. Thanks, Commander.” He didn’t answer, as he was already back to being engrossed by the flex screen in his hand. He propped his feet back on the desk and continued to ignore her as she shot one last look at the books, then retreated out the hatch.