The warning klaxon blared loudly, vibrating the walls of the small craft I sat in. As the shuttle store doors opened up to the coldness of space, a red light cast a foreboding glow into the small space, tinting my skin and everything around me with the caution of possible impending doom.
“Here goes nothing, Kyla,” I muttered to myself. Taking a deep breath, I hit the final button on the console and the shuttle awoke around me. The engine rumbled through the floor from below, and lights blinked on above me cancelling out the redness from the shuttle store warning lights. “Goodbye, Jeremiah.”
The little craft shot forwards, out of the store doors and into the blackness of space.
I was gone. And I wasn’t coming back any time soon.
Now, if you’re a planet-dweller then the chances are that the closest you’ll ever get to the stars is staring up at them from your garden. A telescope might make those little points of light seem a bit closer to you, but let me tell you this; all the nights of stargazing in the universe could never get near to the awesome spectacle of seeing another star, another sun, up close and personal. Stars aren’t tiny points of sparkly dust on a black canvass. They’re huge and hot, with stage presence any blockbusting actor would kill for. Stars up close, in real life… well, let’s say they’re not exactly going to be inspiring you to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ at them.
I was getting one of those up-close-and-personal views all to myself as I neared the rendezvous point. It made sense, really, to pick somewhere close to a massive ball of incandescent gas like this one; the gravitational distortions and the intense solar energy coming off the thing would make you really hard to pick up on scanners. Of course, this was also making it rather hard for me to tell if there was a ship out there waiting for me or not.
I frowned to myself, but I’d just made a massive leap of faith in leaving everything I knew behind me to come out here, so I wasn’t about to give up that easily. Deciding that something a little low-tech was the key here, I pulled up the magnification on the viewer and started to scan across the space in front of me.
Finally, just about as I was beginning to think that there was no-one there after all, I spotted something. Just peeking around the edge of the sun, every reading nicely blocked by the EM radiation that was swamping just about every sensor I had.
Taking a chance on it anyway, I eased the shuttle forwards, arcing out away from the sun as I did so to get me a better look.
It was the ship. It had to be. A ship of some sort, anyway.
I hesitated. This was the moment I’d been planning for… everything in the last three years built up to this life-changing moment. Was I really ready for this? Maybe I could still turn back now. Maybe my parents wouldn’t totally kill me.
I hit the button to open a comm channel and forced my fears as far down into me as I could manage.
I’m not backing out now.
“This is shuttle Jeremiah four to unidentified vessel,” I said, voice stronger than I’d expected, given how I felt. “Please identify yourself.”
I tried not to think about how lame that probably sounded as the silent seconds ticked by.
“Jeremiah four, we copy you. This is the Shadow League vessel Interceptor. What is your business in this space?”
I could barely contain the butterflies in my stomach as the voice crackled through the speakers. Honestly, it felt like an entire colony had just moved in there or something.
“My name is Kyla Katan. I’m here on your summons… you sent me this rendezvous point.”
There was a deafening silence, but I forced myself not to fill it with inane babbling. That would give the sort of impression that I was definitely not going for.
“You’re cleared for docking, Jeremiah four.”
I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding and just about managed not to scream ‘yes!’ as loud as I could manage. Hands shaking slightly, I manoeuvred my little craft towards the Shadow ship.
As I got closer, more details of the vessel I was flying towards became apparent. It was sleek and stylish, with soft curvaceous lines like nothing I’d ever seen on a trade ship. No bulky engine sections or awkward corners. Just smooth surfaces that seemed to blend one into the next. This wasn’t a ship thrown together with odd parts and patched up when it failed. This ship was loved, tended to, cared for. My eyes widened at the sight; I didn’t think I’d ever seen a ship so beautiful.
The shuttle store doors opened and I zipped inside, slowing to a stop as I dropped the craft gently down onto the surface of the store floor. A few more taps and the engines powered down, leaving silence around me.
I took a deep breath and picked up my small bag with my meagre belongings in it.
“Here goes nothing,” I muttered to myself.
The shuttle doors opened, and cautiously I poked my head out. There, standing in the room, were two people, clad in black from head to toe. Their outfits shimmered a bit in the light, the cloth tight-fitting to their bodies. I was going to have to seriously watch my diet if I was going to be wearing something like that. I was a little too attracted to my dinner for figure-hugging apparel.
“Welcome to the Interceptor,” said one of the figures, clearly a man from Earth. The one next to him was obviously Fraal, though whether male or female I couldn’t tell. That was the problem with the Fraal; they all looked kind of the same to me. Quite flat faces, ears that look like they’ve been pinned back, long hair.
“We will escort you to the crew lounge, where you will meet the Second.” That was the other thing about Fraal; they had such flat, boring voices. You never really expected them to be saying anything interesting. I swear, they could be telling you that you’d just won some intergalactic lottery, and you’d still feel like they were reading you the cargo list.
Still, I nodded at them both, smiled with only a hint of trepidation, and followed them as they walked out of the shuttle store. Down the corridor was a ladder, which we all climbed up just one floor to another deck.
As my head peeked above the rim of the ladder hatch, I looked around. We were in a corridor alright. A long corridor with a window out into space at either end. There were four doors in the corridor, two on each side of the wide open space. My escorts opened one, and we all walked inside.
Whatever I’d been expecting, I don’t think what I saw was anything like it.
Every ship I’d ever been on had been stark, bland, boring. Plain walls, white usually, and the least exciting shade of grey carpet available anywhere in a hundred light years. Furniture I’d used had been utilitarian, built only for its purpose and never to look good. It just has to work; why waste the time on how it looks?
But the interior of this room was nothing like that. Not at all. Just like the outside of the ship had been sleek and cool, the inside of this room too showed the obvious signs of attention to detail, love and care. Windows curved down two walls of the room, with lighting such that it felt almost like the starlight itself was illuminating the space. Dotted around were tables with black shiny surfaces that reflected the light back up into the room, and soft-looking chairs that practically cried out to be sat upon. I couldn’t believe my eyes, that something like this could be on a starship.
“You like our crew lounge?” said a voice off to the side of me. I turned and saw a woman with long brown hair sat in one of those irresistible-looking chairs. She was wearing the same black uniform as the two who had met me in the shuttle store, and I noticed to my chagrin that she looked even better in it than they had. Clearly, I had a crash diet in my immediate future.
“Yes,” I replied, not needing to lie to keep from seeming rude.
“Good. Because you’ll most likely spend a lot of time here.” I couldn’t think of an answer, so I just nodded. “Welcome to the Interceptor. I’m Zara, I’m the Second here, second-in-command of the ship. You must be Kylasandra.”
“Kyla,” I corrected, automatically, and then immediately wished I hadn’t. OK, so I absolutely hated my full name. And who wouldn’t, with a name like Kylasandra? But no matter how much I hated it, that was no reason to be talking across the ship’s second most important person. Thankfully though, Zara didn’t seem upset at my impudence; she just indicated to the seat opposite her.
“Kyla,” she said, nodding. “Sit, please.”
I did as she asked. After all, it didn’t do to upset your potential employers, especially after you’d possibly just been somewhat rude to them already.
“You’re our newest initiate,” she said, as if I should know immediately what that meant. All I knew was that I’d sent off an application to the Shadow League months ago and pretty much lost hope of ever hearing anything in return until I’d got the message that morning telling me where to find the Interceptor. You didn’t apply for the Shadow League with intimate knowledge of their recruitment procedure; you applied because you knew what they did and you wanted to be a part of it. “We do have an initiate who has been with us for nearly two months already. You’ll be sharing quarters with him. Everyone here shares with someone, except for myself and the Captain.” She smiled a little. “Rank has its privileges after all.”
I really desperately wanted to say something amazingly intelligent, or at the very least something a little bit witty, but nothing came to mind. I just sort of stared at her, awkwardly.
“You didn’t note any acquaintances within the League in your application,” she said, which seemed like it was a question I should answer.
“No, ma’am,” I replied with a short shake of my head.
She nodded in reply.
“We get a lot of applicants to join the League,” she said, matter-of-factly, obviously deciding a small explanation was in order. “Each application that we think might have what it takes gets assigned to a ship as an initiate, like yourself. You have three months to prove yourself to us. After that, we keep you or… we don’t.” There was something final about that and I didn’t want to ask for clarification. Sufficient to say I didn’t think that re-application or appeals were on the table here. Just three months, to make or break the rest of my life.
“And do most people make it?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Zara just smiled.
“No,” she said, the smile on her face at odds with her words, somehow. “One in every ten, perhaps.”
I swallowed, nervously. Good odds, then.
“But where are my manners?” she asked, rhetorically, her voice and smile suddenly softer, more genuine. I wondered if the business persona was a front for something else that lay behind it, or the other way around. “Of course you’ll want to settle into your new quarters and meet your room mate. Head up onto the living deck, there’s a ladder up from the corridor. Your room is at the end on the right.”
Her words had a final sort of quality to them and I instinctively knew that this conversation was over.
“Thanks,” I said, trying not to mumble. I stood from the chair and located the door I’d come in through, casting a final glance over the room before I headed back out into the corridor. I found the ladder that went up and climbed it, emerging into another corridor, this one running along what I figured now must be the length rather than the width of the ship.
I walked slowly to the end at the back of the ship. I was already longing for a stylus and a datapad to make some notes on, before I forgot everything that Zara had told me. Nobody had mentioned a test, exactly, but you could never be too prepared. That was one lesson that I’d seen too many people learn the hard way.
I got to the end door and stopped outside of it. Another initiate, Zara had said. And a boy, for that matter. I wondered whether he’d be human, like me, or older, or younger. I knew that the Shadows took people based on ability, not age or background. Potential was more important than test scores. Of course, that made it harder to guess who might be applying, let alone who would get accepted.
“Come on, Kyla, get a move on,” I mumbled to myself.
I looked at the door. There was a lock on the outside, and another button below it. Taking a chance that it might be a chime of some kind, I took a deep breath and pressed it.
I frowned to myself. Perhaps it wasn’t a chime after all? Or perhaps it just sounded inside?
Luckily, I was saved from my indecision by the door opening. A face peered out at me, looking quizzical.
The voice was low and smooth, which seemed to match perfectly with the man it was coming out of. He was taller than me, with dark skin, and someone you wouldn’t dare call weedy. Not that you’d need to, because he certainly wasn’t. Weedy, I mean. No, he was pretty much the total opposite, and as he looked at me with his hands rested on his hips you could see the muscles in his arms below the grey uniform-like clothing he wore.
He looked me up and down, but I couldn’t decide what conclusion he came to; his expression was unreadable. He just raised an eyebrow at me.
“Can I help you?” he asked, politely yet with a guarded note.
“My name is Kyla,” I said, in a tone much squeakier than I would have liked for first introductions. “I’m the new initiate. They told me that I would be sharing a room with you.”
The transformation of his face was immediate, from suspicious glare to beaming smile.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You’re finally here! Oh I’m so pleased. They’ve been promising for weeks, but then I didn’t know when they’d sent the transmission, or if you’d even find the ship, you know? Because some people don’t. They just-“
He stopped in mid-sentence, like he realised he was rambling something awful.
“Sorry,” he said, laughing a little sheepishly. “I get carried away sometimes.” His eyes shone when he laughed, like all of him was laughing, not just making an amused noise. It was kind of infectious, and I couldn’t help but start smiling too.
“I’m Jem,” he said. “Come in.”