The spaceport was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Tourists and businessmen milled around the waiting floor, lugging chrome suitcases behind them, and there was an anxious atmosphere to the place. It felt as if the entire spaceport was buzzing with excitement.
Or it could just have been me.
I had never left Earth before, and I was aching to cut through the atmosphere and see what lay beyond.
A lot of women my age had been given that possibility through the genetic lottery, but even though I had already been tested a couple of times, I had never been matched with anyone.
I didn’t know how I felt about being shipped off to some alien I’d never met before as his ‘mate,’ but I had dreamt of seeing the galaxy countless times.
How many times had I pictured myself setting up my easel and a blank canvas on a ship’s observation deck?
I could paint the sunrise in Venus, or the solar flares in Aeon IV.
Anything in the whole galaxy.
Not that I’d had much luck selling my paintings.
Embarrassingly enough, I made more as a gamer, either in tips from streaming, or the occasional prize pot on the e-games circuit.
I wasn’t the best out there, but good enough to keep the bills paid while I kept painting.
As it was, I was restricted to painting what I knew and my imagination. It wasn’t that I disliked Earth. I loved that blue planet as much as anyone else. Still, I had that hunger for adventure, and I had never managed to quell it before.
And finally, after scrimping and saving, I was going to do it. I was going to get out into space.
Well, at least as far as I could go.
“Yes?” The attendant asked me as I made my way to the front of the line, staring at me from behind her desk. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and offered a bored expression.
“I want to buy a ticket for the Moon,” I said, trying to sound as confident as I could.
“The Moon is a big place.”
“Right.” I cleared my throat, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “I’m going to visit the Shackleton Crater Lunar Base.” It was going to be wonderful. I’d already found a hotel I could afford, and made a list of cafes and food stalls the travel blogs said were the cheapest. “I’m going to stay there for three weeks, so I’m going to need a—”
“A ticket with return,” the attendant announced, pecking at her keyboard with two fingers. “Please press your index finger here for the payment.” She turned a handheld terminal toward me and I did as instructed.
But the moment I pressed my finger against the flimsy plastic sheet, the screen lit up and a message popped up announcing that the transaction had failed. “Miss, after fees and taxes have been applied, you don’t have enough funds in your account.”
“I, well…” I straightened my back and cleared my throat, mind frantically spinning.
I’d messed up on my math somewhere.
Clearly, the money I had made from my last tournament wasn’t enough, after I had prepaid for my hotel and allocated money to a separate account for food, and paid for a cheap translation patch.
I leaned forward and lowered my voice into a faint whisper.
“Are there are any lower cost options available?”
Her fingers tapped the keyboard a couple more times, and then she looked straight at me. Her lips turned into a thin line, and she arched one eyebrow.
“There’s a small freighter that’s going there,” she said. “It’s as low cost as it can be, but you shouldn’t expect to find any amenities during your flight…or even during your wait in the terminal.”
“I’ll take it,” I hurried to say, almost as if I expected for the opportunity to disappear in a couple of seconds. As the attendant turned the banking terminal toward me, I jammed my finger against the screen once more.
This time the screen turned green, and I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
“Terminal 73B.” With a dismissive wave, she pointed at the corridor behind her. I gave her a quick nod and followed along the path she had indicated. Much like she had promised, there were no amenities to be found.
While most brochures of space travel promised cozy lounges with refreshing drinks, Terminal 73B was nothing but a service hangar loaded with drilling mechs. Maintenance workers in blue overalls were busy loading the mechs into a shuttle that reminded me of a rusty kettle full of dents.
“Is this the shuttle to the Shackleton Crater?” I asked one of the maintenance workers, and he answered me with a grunt. He pointed toward the edge of the hangar, where a few people waited with their suitcases. It seemed like I hadn’t been the only one looking for a low-cost flight.
I joined the group and, after waiting for almost an hour, we were eventually led into the shuttle. We walked down cramped corridors until we joined a small army of workers, all of them strapped down to seats that had definitely seen better days. After putting my suitcase in a dusty overhead compartment, I found an empty seat—no numbered seats on this ship—and settled down for the flight.
I knew that I should be feeling nervous about flying in a ship like this, but I wasn’t. If anything, I was excited that I was finally going to leave Earth and do some travelling.
Sure, I wasn’t exactly going to leave the Solar System, but this was better than nothing.
After my family died during a Suhlik attack, I promised myself I wouldn’t die before making it to space, and I was finally going to keep that promise.
My parents had spent their whole life saving for a trip to Europe, and the Suhlik had robbed them of their lifelong dream. This trip I was embarking on was in my parent’s memory. Their dream of travel, my own longing for new skies.
“Brace for takeoff,” a loud voice announced over the speakers, and I heard a loud rumble. The entire shuttle started vibrating, the metal dividers that had been bolted to the hull rattling in place, and I was suddenly slammed against the seat. It felt as if someone had placed an anvil on top of my chest.
I looked to the side, but none of the workers seemed particularly afflicted with any of this. They had probably done this trip countless times, and their bodies were more than ready for how brutal takeoff was. The other tourists—at least they seemed like tourists—seemed to be struggling like I was.
Eventually, though, the brutal trepidation was replaced by a feeling of weightlessness. My body started floating up and, hadn’t it been for the straps keeping me in place, I would’ve drifted toward the ceiling.
Even more excited than I already was, I watched as the dividers that lined the compartment slid back to reveal large viewports that offered a look at what was outside the ship.
I held my breath as I watched Earth turn into a blue sphere, the vastness of space rising behind it like the gaping maw of a beast. As Earth shrunk in size, I turned in my seat to see the Moon start to grow.
Surprisingly enough, the yellowish tones I had grown used to had been replaced by a dull grey. Still, the brightly-lit domes, all connected to make the sprawling Shackleton Crater Lunar Base, turned Earth’s lone satellite into one hell of a sight.
“This is amazing,” I said in a low whisper, fascinated with the view. Only the tourists were gathered around the viewports, the overall clad workers obviously jaded to the site, but I couldn’t care any less.
Space travel was new to me, and I was going to bask in the glory of it without being embarrassed.
The Universe, though, seemed to have other plans for me.
Without any warning at all, the entire compartment was flooded in a bright red light, and the klaxons started braying so loudly I thought that my eardrums were going to rupture. I looked around, having no idea what was going on, and this time I wasn’t the only one—even the maintenance workers seemed scared, and that didn’t fill me with confidence.
In fact, it was just the opposite.
“Attention, brace for impact,” that loud voice came again, and I couldn’t help but notice the terror hiding behind its words. “We’ve experienced a power failure, and the thrusters are down. We’re currently adrift and in a collision course with an orbital power station. I repeat, brace for impact.”
My breath caught in my throat.
My heart rammed itself against my chest.
After all I had gone through just to get into space, was this going to be the end?
Flying a warship could be a son of a bitch.
Not the combat part, I had always enjoyed that. Fast maneuvers and finagling a way out of a tight spot were always specialties of mine.
It was when the mission was done that the job really started to suck.
“Hey, Zorath!” Thelkor leaned over the corner of my pilot station, all smiles. He was the best gunner I’d ever had the privilege to serve with, and a hell of a drinking buddy to boot – when I wasn’t on duty.
Which was a pain, because right now it felt like I was the only one that was.
“What’s up, man?” Who was I kidding? I knew what was up. This had to be the third time he’d been by since we had left the PriCon Sector.
“You sure I can’t convince you to have a toast with us?” His eyes narrowed slightly, and I had to keep my focus locked on my screen to keep from chuckling at him.
We were friends, but I always suspected he could turn in an instant.
Combat guys, you know.
“No can do.” I lifted my palms as if to indicate my job. “Somebody’s gotta fly this thing. And if Command catches me at the helm with a drink in my hand, they’ll strip me of every credit I’ve been awarded.”
“Aw, you’re no fun.” He swiped a teasing hand at me.
“Not true. I’m a lot of fun – just not when I’m on duty.”
It wasn’t always like this, but right now we all had a reason to celebrate.
After a successful raid on the Suhlik base, we had been granted three weeks leave.
Not just that, but we had all been entered in the matching lottery program. If our number came up, the prize was better than money – a DNA match.
At least, the possibility of own.
As if the guys didn’t have reason enough to drink after crushing all those Suhlik assholes, they had already started toasting each other’s wives. We hadn’t been in the program more than three days, and some of those fellas were already picking wallpaper.
Mine was going to be vranthian eggshell blue.
“Captain Timcur? I’ve got eyes on Earth’s moon.”
“Bring us in, Zorath. Well done.”
We had been given approval to spend our leave at Shackleton Crater Lunar Base on Earth’s moon, and we all planned to take this chance to get to know some human women.
Not that they’d be our matches, but at least this way we might not be totally clueless.
Sure, there were a lot of other species in the Madhfel treaty, but as the humans were one of the newest signatories, they seemed to be making a lot of matches with warriors lately.
We’d all been obsessively learning Earth languages and slang. We watched their entertainment and puzzled out their quirks.
Off shift I’d been reading every travel blog and guidebook on the SCLB, just waiting to actually go to all of those places, see all of the sights.
But the only human women I’d ever met were already mated with other Madhfel warriors, so that kind of changed how you interacted with them.
It shouldn’t have, but it always did.
Despite my joke about the wallpaper, I didn’t exactly have the confidence in landing a match that the other guys did. As far as they were concerned, as soon as your name was in the hat, getting a mate was a foregone conclusion. I was less sure.
Not only that, but what would I do with a mate, really? I mean, sure, all anybody wants to talk about was the sex, but what about all the rest of it? Having precious little knowledge of how human women lived, the idea of living with one seemed borderline crazy.
“Captain? We’re coming in for the approach. You may want to tell the party in the back that they might want to strap in.” I deployed the docking units.
Actually, I’d take some perverse joy in rattling all those jerks around a little bit. Serve them right for starting the drinking before I could join in.
“SCLB, this is The Golden Meridian, do you read me?”
“Requesting permission to dock. See notification VPR-275.”
“Notification authorized. Permission granted.”
Whether or not those guys were buckled in, we were touching down. Locking in procedures were the same on all of the domed stations, so even though this was my first tangle with “the Moon,’ I had a pretty good idea how this was going to go.
At least I thought so.
Up in the corner of my monitor, a red icon flashed up.
It was an emergency alert.
Not anything wrong with our ship.
A distress call.
I clicked it, and the info spilled out across my screen.
Transport Shuttle R-21 Power Failure. Drifting Collision Course with Orbital Power Station Foxtrot. Immediate Assistance Requested.
That got my attention fast.
I tapped a few more icons, and saw that intervention shuttles were still being prepped down at Shackleton.
In fact, from what I could tell, we were the only live vessel within distance, and would probably beat any other responders by a handy margin.
“Yeah, buddy, whatcha got?”
“I’ve got a distress call on a shuttle set to collide with an orbiter. No other ships are in line to intercept before contact. Requesting permission to initiate rescue maneuvers.”
“Zorath… you know we’re a warship, right?”
“Yes, sir – but we are the only vessel within distance. I can do this and still have us at Shackleton for cocktail hour.” There was a long beat.
“Knock yourself out.”
And it was go time.
“Shackleton, this is The Golden Meridian. Request you put a temporary hold on our docking, I’ve been authorized to launch rescue tactics on the disabled shuttle.”
“Affirmative. We’ll be back.”
Leaning into the thrusters, we pushed away from the moon with a deep dive. I tightened my grip on the controls and hunkered down in my chair.
Come on, Goldie. This is what I live for.
The rest of the crew probably didn’t even know what was happening, so it looked like the entire enterprise was going to come down to me.
Which, honestly, was just how I liked it.
Locking in on the coordinates, it was only a few minutes before I got a visual on R-21. She was on a dead line for that orbital station, alright. It was a good thing I had spotted that call – there was no way the Quick-Intervention team would have made this.
I was going to have to think fast. My docking gear was still fully deployed, so I shifted the parameters to extend our hook lines to their limit.
That gained me another three yards, but it was still going to put me in tight quarters when it came to passing over.
This was going to be close. Just the way I liked it.
Easing back on the throttle, I let Goldie drift into a coast. Banking around from R-21’s starboard, I started to ease down on her. With the first pass, I had the instinct that I was coming in too hot and cleared distance at the last second.
My heart was racing, and I pulled around until I was facing the tiny shuttle head on. Shifting my distance readers to manual, I got a screen that would let me eyeball our approach. Not strictly regulation, but I was going to get a much more accurate bead on the whole thing. I gripped the controls and swallowed hard.
Bagging out on that first pass had cost me. This next one had to count, because it was the only shot I had left. If I didn’t manage to snag her on this round, the folks on that shuttle were liable to have a lousy afternoon.
The move was to come in low and slow, then tap the reverse thrusters just before we hooked. That would let things cinch into place without jerking the damn thing around. It wouldn’t do the travelers a whole lot of good missing an orbiting satellite if they just got scrambled in the rescue.
Keeping a close eye on my distance reader, I edged up on the disabled unit. Was I sweating? Yeah, maybe a little.
At least no one else was watching to give me grief over it.
Ticking up over the shuttle, we were within fifty feet. Which is absurd given Goldie’s size. All it would have taken was a slight tip of my wrist and it would have been curtains for R-21.
Keep it steady, Zorath. Aaaaaaand. – tap.
Just the faintest brush of the reverse thrusters. We bucked slightly, but it was enough. Shit, the underside of our ship ducked just enough that we probably clinked glasses with the back end of the shuttle. But it worked.
Two of our hook lines found purchase, and dragged R-21 just out of line enough to let Foxtrot slip by.
My breath hadn’t been that tight on our entire mission. I leaned back at my station to gulp in a deep breath. I’d been holding it since the first bank.
Just as I was coming down, Thelkor wandered back onto the bridge.
“Zorath! What the shit is going on in here?”
“We’re heroes, that’s what’s going on. I’ll take that drink now.”