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 was still unsure of what had compelled her to volunteer, what had driven her to give up four weeks of perfectly good reading time secluded in her cramped bunk to be barked at by the Commander 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. She scoffed quietly to herself. Of course, the primary reason had to be the money; while she had been able to purchase a ticket back to Earth, she always felt on the brink of financial ruin.
She stared at the back of Commander Donner’s dark head, vaguely noting the soft wave in his hair before he turned back around to her, boots and flight suit in hand. He 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 group during the briefing was too short and Barnes was clearly too kowtowed to even breathe normally in Donner’s presence. Now, everyone on the ship was 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. Adrenaline coursed through her body, making her muscles feel weak and shaky. She noticed a few surprised looks from the other passengers as she entered the launch deck wearing her new uniform and hoped that they didn’t notice how badly her hands were trembling.
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 a launch process of entering zero gravity, adjusting to 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. Lucky only caught bits and pieces but gathered that the woman was not a fan of takeoff.
“How is it you work on a ship and still don’t like the takeoff process?” Lucky asked her.
The woman looked at her in surprise. “Habla español?” She grinned. “No me gustan los guisantes, pero los como porque son buenos para mí.”
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. “We are going to get along famously.” She held out her hand. “Janet Ruiz.”
The woman nodded knowingly. “I heard about you. Joining the party for a few weeks, no?”
“As far as Newport, according to the contract.”
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 the Third? Please.” She giggled. Lucky thought she could hear a layer of nervousness beneath Janet’s seemingly never-ending mirth.
Lucky frowned. “But you get to call him by—what is that, a 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. And it’s not like the movies, either.” She shrugged. “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.
Stubb appeared at the hatchway of the launch deck. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, stepping through the doorway. “I’m here to check that your takeoff harnesses are properly closed.”
As he moved from one passenger to the next, tugging harnesses and demonstrating the quick release mechanism on the latch, Stubb seemed to be running low on the good humor that Lucky had witnessed earlier. His process was quick and efficient, and before too many minutes had passed, he was in front of Lucky and Janet.
“I need to check your straps, Miss Luckenbach,” he said.
“You can still call me Lucky,” she said as he reached for her harness.
He gave it a sharp tug. “In the event of an emergency, this red button on the side will quickly release your harness. It is best not to press the button unless explicitly ordered to by a uniformed crew member.”
“Lucky, release your straps,” Janet said from her side.
“A uniformed crewmember that isn’t Janet,” Stubb added, fixing the other woman with an unamused glare.
“Oh, come on, Stubb, you don’t trust me to take care of our most junior crew member?” Janet dramatically fluttered her eyelashes, looking young and innocent in the face of Stubb’s unhappy expression.
Stubb unceremoniously reached out and yanked on Janet’s harness. “Not really, no.”
Janet stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “It’s not like I’d get her into any trouble, you know. Speaking of trouble, how is it going with you and your toothbrush date?”
“That’s not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.”
Stubb shook his head and walked away without another word, his expression still dour. “Have a good flight, ladies and gentlemen,” he called over his shoulder as the hatch closed behind him.
Lucky felt a pit forming in her stomach. Not even a full first day on her latest job and she was already well on her way to upsetting her coworkers. Well done, Luckenbach, she thought with a mental scowl.
“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 on 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.”
Janet’s reply was drowned by the sound of the rockets firing. The intercom in the seat crackled to life, Captain Conerly’s voice only slightly muffled in Lucky’s left ear. “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. Her legs swung free under her seat, as if she were 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 forward. The Rosebud, like most current space vehicles, 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 upward, slowly at first and then more steeply. At the end, it was nearly vertical and, like a giant motocross 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 crashes occurred in a single 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, but her teeth were clenched tightly together and her face looked pale. 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 planetary orbit. We ask that you please remain seated at this time with your seatbelts 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 Newport.”
“Mark thinks he’s so funny,” Janet said through clenched teeth. Her eyes were tightly closed now, too.
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 stared 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 gave a forced grin 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!” she said, the discomfort in her voice belying the positive sentiment.