Hi there! Apologies for the extended wait on new material to this. I actually have thirteen chapters mostly done but they require extensive editing (these two I essentially scrapped and rewrote) to make it less jumpy. No, I didn’t die, I had exams and then a full-time job immediately afterwards. Had no time. Oops. But anyway, here’s two more chapters with another two to come soon enough, just need to clean them up a bit. Enjoy!
Chapter Four: Fairly Local
The window overlooked the city with the walls taking up the horizon, the sun trapped in a long setting that would continue for fifty days. The great walls kept the sandstorms out and the climate within semi-controlled for comfort. There was once a time when the North flourished in life, but those times have long passed. The world was dying, and Tiir was a prime example of Kushan kind’s struggle to continue on it.
Before dealing with the problems of his withering planet, however, Mark had to deal with the ache in his head. Hungover on launch day, good job. Criticizing himself wasn’t going to help. He decided to grab some food. His father was nowhere to be seen when he entered the crowded lobby on the main floor which came as no surprise to him, but it would have been nice to see him before launch as he’d have no other opportunity to. He grabbed what he could and went back up to his room, carefully avoiding daylight. He wasn’t ready for that this many hours before noon.
Walking down the hall, he saw the girl from the night before waiting in front of his door. “Hi!” she squealed, making him flinch almost dropping the bowl of oatmeal he had balanced on a yogurt cup. He hadn’t thought this through. How was he gonna get the door open with no free hands?
She rolled her eyes and reached in his pocket for the keycard. “Morning to you too,” she said grinning. He groaned a response, and she opened the door. He put breakfast on the table as she dimmed out the windows. “One of those, huh?” She massaged his head a bit before sitting down.
“You’re lucky you’re cute because otherwise I’d probably kick you out. Any reason you’re here?” he asked.
“Meanie. Not really, I’m going alone up to Scaffold and was wondering if you’d like company. Annoying someone who’s hungover is a fun bonus, though.” Wincing, he picked up his spoon and continued eating.
“I guess putting up with you would be better than going alone considering I’ve got no idea where I should be going. You’ll find I’m not as likeable a person sober as last night, though, Isabella.”
“I never said you were likeable,” she joked, “and you can call me Isel. It’s a nickname my friends gave me, it kinda stuck. It’s weird but I like it.”
He tried to finish his food as they continued to banter. Her telling him he needs to shower to stop smelling like booze and get the grease and sand out of his hair, and him saying she shouldn’t be creeping on people waiting around their doors for them. “Why the interest in me, anyway? You’re accompanying the Mothership voyage, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but Maybe I like the idea of hanging out with a semi-celebrity with no negative consequences. Some bragging rights there,” she said.
“Nah, you don’t seem the type,” he replied. “Fangirls usually take advantage of the opportunity of being alone in a room with me to do creepy weird things.”
“I’m sure you have just so many of those among the general population,” she laughed.
“A man can dream, Izzy!”
“Yeah the name, that one is a no-go for me. Alright, I was hoping you’d, well, this is embarrassing but I was hoping I could get some pointers if we’ve got free time docked with Khar-Selim.” She took a deep breath and continued. “It’ll be hard to believe but I’m probably one of the senior-most pilots headed out with the voyage.”
“No way, how old even are you? Like fifteen?”
“And a half! Don’t laugh, that’s not important,” she threw back. “I’m class six, but class means nothing if you don’t have the skill to back it up. I feel like I was given my position without really deserving it.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I don’t know, I hear all these stories from people who’ve done all these crazy stunts to deserve some kind of promotion, but here I am, haven’t done anything out of program to deserve my last two.”
“Not everyone does. Besides, the braggers are usually full of themselves among other things. There’s no more war, even the terrorists are nowhere near as aggressive as back in my dad’s day. Rank hardly means much anymore, if that makes you feel any better about it.”
“I guess. I’d still like to feel like I deserve it, though. And I don’t. It’s all handed to you for working hard to follow the program and what then if something does happen on the journey? How many of us high rankers, if rank does in fact mean very little, will stand any better a chance than newbies?”
“I know what you mean, and sure, we can go over a few things if you want but I’m sure you’re wrong about not being good enough.”
“How would you know?”
“Uh, hello? My father runs the air force. He said you were alright, more of a compliment than I got from him until I pulled my class seven granting stunt.” Hearing this seemed to cheer her up. “You don’t get this far without deserving it. Despite what people might say, I know I’m a good pilot. There’s no neotenic advantage. I’ve worked my ass off in the flight academy as I’m sure you have as well, maybe just don’t realize it looking back. Rank might not matter but that doesn’t mean you’re not up to the challenge. Rank seven is essentially an informal graduation, since rarely are there any who pass that point. You’re one step away and you’re only fifteen. Take pride in that. The hardest part, I think, will be the microgravity. Otherwise, just do what you normally do and be creative about it when the opportunity arrises.”
She looked up with a shrug and took some fruit. “I’ve made up my mind. You’re alright.” They quickly shared a smile before he stood up.
“Back to schedule, I have to shower and I don’t trust you to not walk in on me, so you’re gonna have to pack up and wait.” He rushed her out of the room before she could argue. He thought he heard giggling from outside the door.
He stayed in the running water longer than reasonable. It was decidedly necessary considering his state of mind. The end of the conversation brought back flashes of the incident two years before. There were reasons for his avoidance of the topic. He claims to forget the time on the island when asked. He remembered all too well.
However, there was much to do still and there wasn’t time to stand there reminiscing in the dripping water. Everything he had to bring fit in his backpack. She, on the other hand, had plenty more. And, as her travel guest, he was stuck with some of it. They called a cab and Mark arranged for his bike to be kept for when he got back. Isabella could not stop speaking the entire trip to the spaceport asking him questions of all sorts about his childhood, about his father, about his misadventures in flight academy; the only thing that would get her to stop speaking was when he was.
“So you knew Karan Sjet? Wow!” He decided his childhood was an easier tale to tell than much else of his life. “And these farmers, do you still talk to them?”
“No. I haven’t thought about it. I guess I created a new life for myself and decided to forget the old. I sometimes regret that, but it’s been so many years now and they’re on the other side of the planet. There’s not much to be done now.”
“Well, take it from someone who’s been raised by everyone but my parents, you should get in touch when you get back.” This made him wonder what her story was, but they were at the entrance gates to the spaceport.
“Passports, please.” Mark gave theirs, the man stamped them, and sent them on their way. He also handed them each a red and blue boarding pass. “The red one’s for the transport and the blue’s for the Mothership. You might wanna hurry, launch is in fifteen minutes.”
“Hurry!” he shouted at Isel grabbing her bags. They were taken once they got to the ship and stored for the ride. Getting onto the ship there were ticket collectors who took their red passes. They were guided to a nearly empty room going aft. They had barely time to sit down before a voice came on the speakers.
“Transport Seven, you are clear for launch.” Lights dimmed and machinery could be heard starting up.
“Talk about a close call,” she said.
“This is the captain speaking. We’ll be launching in thirty. Buckle up and enjoy your flight.” He then laughed, and Mark wasn’t sure if he should be comforted or uneasy by this last message. Isel looked calm, he decided to do the same. He hadn’t been off-world before. Many had, it wasn’t uncommon to take a luxury trip into orbit. Tourism helped fund the expenses for the rapid expansion of their space program the last two generations.
He listened intently to the countdown bracing himself for… he wasn’t quite sure. “Here comes the fun,” she said as the captain finished. What came next was a deafening roar unlike any he’d ever heard. There was a shudder and could feel himself being pushed down in his seat ever so slightly. He looked out the window. The spaceport faded into the rest of Tiir’s glimmering metalwork. The city itself was then swallowed in a never-ending sea of light brown sand. They passed through a cloud or two, and after that there was only a feint blue glow separating them and the blackness of the void. Gradually, the engine’s thunder grew quieter and quieter until it became little more than a background hum. He figured they were now in orbit. His necklace floated in front of his eyes before the artificial gravity kicked in. When it did, he threw his hands out in front of him. He barely made it to the trash bin. He could hear her laugh very clearly from a few rows back.
“We all have a first time,” the guy in the seat closest said. “You’ll get used to it by the time we reach Scaffold.”
“Hope so,” he replied wiping his mouth.
“The name’s Johan of the Nabaal. John works too.”
“Mark Soban.” He took the time to look back at the planet and didn’t regret it, the view was unforgettable. For millennia Kushan kind thought of Kharak as a hostile wasteland. A hell to endure for past sins. From where he stood he saw the true beauty it had to offer.
“That’s another thing we all get the first time around. It’s surprising, right?”
“An understatement.” Long white cloud bands covered the cream coloured deserts with the blue Majiirian to the South. Northern seas were visible as well, but not as magnificent. He captured it with his phone’s camera. He had to make it last.
There was a while before arrival, so John moved back to where they were sitting to get acquainted. He was a captain in rank, he would be commanding either a resource ship or any other support vessel assigned to him.
“Quite a few high-rankers on this transport,” he said.
“Cromell Soban a few rows ahead, head of security aboard the colony ship,” she pointed out.
“Leonard Nabaal is on an upper deck too,” John added. Strike command, their boss. “A test launch procedure was conducted a few days ago on-world. Essential bridge personnel are all on their way up now.”
“Why on-world? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do it in the actual bridge?”
“Couldn’t tell you, man. I’m sure they had their reasons.
His entire family was on the third Cryogenic tray. Mark explained that he wasn’t staying for the journey. He had a life back home he cared too much to give up.
“I understand that, the only way I would go along is if every member of my family could come too.”
“I thought candidates were chosen by lottery?” Isel said.
“Not all. I shouldn’t be saying this, but the Sleepers are specifically chosen candidates. The best and brightest of our people, all of them younger than thirty. In fact, most of Mothership crew members are under thirty too other than the senior officers of the bridge.
“I’m not sure if I should feel upset or flattered,” she replied. “Why hasn’t Mark been asked, then, if they bring your loved ones along for the ride?”
“I was. I declined.”
Chapter Five: Look Alive, Sunshine
“We made it,” John said. The station was a monstrous structure kilometres long and tall, the Manaani found it hard to take in having lived most her life in small convoys. Silhouettes of people behind glass walls could be seen from where they were. As the ship turned in for docking, she took one last glance at Kharak. Not as stunning as earlier, a sandstorm blew in from the Southeast covering most of the northern seas.
The ship came to a halt. The engines went quiet and the captain spoke. “We have docked and will be opening the airlocks. Prepare to board. Best of luck, travellers.” Born a nomad, and would be one for the next year to come and then some.
They made their way off the ship onto metal floor. People rushed to get by. They made their way through the crowd to the docking arms. As it became less chaotic it was clear where they were supposed to go. They followed along easy enough with the mass of others headed to the same place.
They gave their blue tickets to the woman behind a desk and were let through to a long windowed walkway. “Whoa,” she said. Looking out, they could barely make out the top or bottom of the ship we were about to board. “It’s so big!”
“Mark!” someone yelled from the other end. They all looked, and he nearly tackled Mark to the floor in a hug. “It’s so good to see you! It’s been what, three years now?”
“Hi Jay,” he managed to say, “something like that, what’ve you been up to lately? There’s so much catching up to do!”
“Well, we’ll have plenty of time on the journey. Me, I have a job up here. Salvager pilot.”
“That’s nice to hear,” I said. “Thing is though, I’m not going. I’m only here to test out the fighters.” He looked disappointed hearing that, but seemed to understand. “And aren’t you packed a little light?”
“Nah, I already moved most of my things, I went back for the little that I forgot. Best not to leave anything behind. I even met someone new, a Gaalsien, in fact. Didn’t think any of ‘em would be coming along. We’ve all got our stories though, am I right? Well, it’s good to see you anyway.”
“Feel free to introduce us any time,” Isel said.
“Isabella Manaan, a real pain in the ass. She never shuts up.”
“If I recall, your words were: it’s a good thing you’re cute,” she added.
“Funny. Jay here is one of my oldest friends, known him since the month I got to the North.”
“We went to flight academy together. I moved on to larger crafts while he stuck with fighters. We eventually drifted farther apart than I would have liked, but sometimes that’s life for you.” Jay was an orphan. He had no known relatives except for one on the Khar-Selim who only contacted him halfway through its ten year journey.
“And call me John. I’ll be captaining a ship when it’s assigned to me. We’re all headed the same way, so let’s walk,” he said. “A busy day ahead, best not to lose any time.”
“So, you’re testing out the fighters too?” Jay asked her breaking the silence that came as they walked.
“Yeah, I’d like to see if space fighters are easier than jets. Some say it is but I wanna be the judge.”
“I wouldn’t say easier, definitely different. It’s an adjustment for sure. No aerodynamics to worry about, instead there’s maneuvering jets along the surfaces to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Some Sjeti explained it to me once, if something is moving in a vacuum there’s nothing to stop it so it’ll keep going forever.”
Mark said, “Makes sense, we learn all that air friction stuff at the academy, but that doesn’t help much when we’re not flying inside an air mass.”
The two of them continued talking as they walked. She barely knew Mark and had only just then met Jay, but she could clearly see how opposite their personalities were. Mark, moody and irritable, whereas Jay appeared to be a cheery amiable person. How they managed to be apparently the best of friends didn’t register to her. Then again, she considered how she herself was oddly drawn to him, mostly she found it amusing to annoy him to see how much he could tolerate, the other part of it was boredom. Though, he was staying behind and would probably never meet again, meaning there were no consequences for it anyway.
The buildup of people immediately ahead appeared to be from boarding the trams that took passengers aboard. After waiting in line with the rest for a good half hour, they were on the final leg of the boarding process. The pressurized tram moved along the rails leaving Scaffold and clearing onto a mess of rail work with the huge rectangular shape of Mothership’s hangar brightly aglow from within. A short one minute ride later, they were inside the bay.
“Go figure, all that waiting for not even a minute,” she said.
They were escorted to a lobby area where they could relax for a bit. “Just in time too, launch is in ten minutes,” Jay said. Couches lined the walls and Kharak could be seen outside the one large viewport. On the opposing side, a blue wing crest was painted taking up the whole wall. The crest of Hiigara.
“I would love to stay and chat, but I need to report in before I do anything,” John said.
“Oh, right! I have to go get the Porter ready for the test run,” Jay added. “I hope to see you before you leave, Mark. I’ll be sure to find you when there’s free time.”
They waited there, until hearing a voice familiar to all. “This is Fleet Command reporting Mothership prelaunch status. Command online. Resourcing online. Construction online. Cryogenic subsections A through J online. K through S online. Scaffold control, standby for alignment.” Her voice echoed through the ship. She imagined thousands standing like her small group, anxious and awaiting the historic first step towards their interstellar mission. Mark was in awe, and had to be snapped out of it.
“Hey, we gotta head down below!” she said looking at her watch.
“Uh, right! Coming!”
The elevator brought them to an upper level. A blinding aqua light flooded the deck but their eyes soon adjusted. A row of fighters hung in docking racks ahead and a small group of people were gathered nearby; the other test pilots.
“Nice of you to finally join us,” said the older-looking man but still no more than his thirties. She began to see what John meant. “Mark Soban, I presume?”
“Yeah, I mean yes sir, reporting in for fighter testing.” She detested formalities, but saluted too.
“Knew it, you’re a younger version of your father, for sure. Captain Leonard Nabaal, to you.” His focus shifted back to the entire group. “I am Strike Command aboard this ship and thus the highest ranking officer as far as you’re all concerned. I take care of my pilots, be they Soban elite or Gaalsien strays. You’re all the same to me. Because I care so much, I’ll go over a few things before you get started. This isn’t the air force. Remember that.”
“The Mothership has cleared the Scaffold. We are away.” Karan’s voice chimed in over his but he continued immediately afterward.
“One, listen to fleet command. No questions asked. She’s a lot smarter than you are, and you’d better accept that early on because it’s her strategizing that keeps you alive. Two, only launch with a green light. If you don’t, the energy field keeping the air in will fry your equipment. Three, don’t wander off. We don’t have salvagers to spare to fetch your sorry ass if you go empty. Lastly, well, try not to get yourself killed. We have no way to know what we’ll be expecting on our journey.”
She nudged his shoulder and whispered, “I bet he rehearses that before bed.”
“And when I wake up, and again when I’m done brushing my pearly whites. Your name is?” She was immobilized, as was Mark. They were both sure he couldn’t have heard that.
“I-Isabella Manaan, sir. I must say, your hearing is flawless for someone of your—” she paused, unsure how to finish the sentence.
“What, age? I may be balding but I’m still in my prime, little girl.” The group chuckled.
“Well, I won’t be making that mistake again,” she said laughing nervously.
“Alright enough of this. Go find your ships. Flight suits are in the lockers beside the ladders. Gear up and get off my deck!” The two of them ran ahead of the group, primarily to get far from captain Leonard.
“That guy’s intense,” she said.
“I think you’d better get on his good side fast. That’s an order, maggot!” His imitation cracked her up again.
“Yessir!” She ran to the first fighter in line. He took the one beside hers.
The flight suits were easily put on, they vacuum sealed themselves fitting comfortably to any size. The helmets were simple jet fighter helmets, the kind she was used to. Climbing the ladder felt familiar enough, when unlocking the hatch and seeing the cockpit she smirked.
“I guess they decided to go old fashioned.”
“Sure did. This is ridiculous, it’ll be a blast!”
The controls were identical to the jet fighters she’d used before, the same technology that was used for centuries. The few differences were a couple small screens showing sensors information. Four coloured buttons were in place for aggressive, neutral, evasive and passive tactical presets. From what he could gather it routed power differently to weapons and engines. She started it up, and there began the differences. No engine she’d flown in front of sounded like the rough droning hum. The suit buckled into the seat automatically and the hatch closed. Like the newer fighter models, the head-up display was built into the windshield’s glass acting as a screen.
The light turned green, time to think was over. She pulled on the throttle and shot forward when the clamps released. She dove down the hangar and flew out the opening into the void. She took another quick glance at the planet. The southern hemisphere was now entirely covered in a sandstorm. “A shame,” she said to Mark, “it would look beautiful from here.
“Yeah… Anyone else here above rank six?” he asked. No one answered. “Alright then. Fall into delta formation. Isel, on my right.”
“Roger,” she said. The other five listened as well, being unsure who to take orders from.
Isel found she could rename specific ships on the HUD. She entered Mark’s name above his ship. She tinkered with the other controls for a bit while waiting for orders. They appeared on one of the two monitors in the dash. They were given orders to fire on target drones while in formation. “Well, we have our orders. Let’s test these babies out,” he said, other pilots chimed in sharing his enthusiasm. She had to admit, he took command pretty effortlessly.
The drones came into view. The HUD displayed red pentagons around them. When in firing range, the crosshairs lined up visibly easier with the tactical overlay than blind shooting at the tiny orange specs. He opened fire and within seconds it flashed out of existence, She did the same seeing three others die off too. He ordered to pull up to start the next pass. She followed suit easier than expected. “The fun thing about space is that up is wherever you want it to be,” Isel said doing a barrel roll.
“I guess they really do handle easier than jets, go figure.”
The other five took no time to take care of. After the last was finished off they were given new coordinates. She changed course for the blip on the sensors monitor. Intel gave new orders.
“Same as before but now set to aggressive tactics preset. Also, formation is optional. Have fun.” Three of them broke off in different directions. “Sixteen drones this round. I have centre left, first row. You take the one beside it.”
“Got it,” she replied. Isel stuck beside him. They both opened fire and took care of the targets. On their next pass they did the same but got two each.
He got a direct hit on another one and flew through its debris. “All done here, let’s go back to base.”
“What’s your count? I’m at four,” she said.
“Six, I think. Wasn’t keeping track.” He pulled up and twirled his ship around hers before coming up beside her.
As Mothership came into view she saw a salvager launch from the hangar. Jay said something about getting it ready for launch, she wondered if he was piloting it too. They were guided into the hangar towards one of the central decks two at a time. The two of them took the first entrance, landing as smooth as they could having never piloted a ship of that sort before. They got out and immediately after the ships were towed away to a conveyor belt on the wall.
“Oh, so that’s how they do it.” She wasn’t sure. The next two fighters landed rougher than they did. Getting out of there appeared to be a good idea, so they put their helmets and uniforms in a bin and headed for the elevator not wanting to risk being squashed.
Mark, realizing he didn’t own a room, was invited to Isel’s as she wandered to find her own. Her bags were already delivered for her as there wasn’t time for that before the testing procedure. On entering, she yawned and lied back.
“Long day so far,” he commented sitting on the chair by the desk. She checked her watch, it was now past three in the afternoon Tiir time.
“Hyperspace module fully charged. I am ready to initiate the quantum wave generator on your mark. Good luck everyone,” Command said.
“All sections have reported in. Trigger the hyperdrive at your discretion,” responded Scaffold control.
“Stop arguing over who goes first and jump us already,” she groaned. Moments later she felt an odd sensation pass through her body. It was hard to describe, but it was mildly unpleasant for sure. “That’ll take some getting used to.”
“Hey you, get up. I’m hungry.”
“I don’t need to stick around you, you know. Jay’s surely around here somewhere.”
“Fine, gimme a minute. I haven’t pissed since the hotel,” she said.
“There’s something wrong with that one,” she heard him say to himself after closing the door.
Passing by a viewport after finishing up, Kharak was no longer in view. The journey had begun.