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Unknown Horizons

By CJ Birch

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 CJ Birch

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Unknown Horizons

The moment Lieutenant Alison Ash steps aboard the Persephone, she knows her life will never be the same. She will never again watch the sun rise over the asteroid belt, never again see Earth from a handheld telescope, and never again see her family.

In less than three weeks, the ship will dock at the Posterus and begin the most important journey humankind has ever undertaken. More important than discovering fire, creating language, or even abandoning Earth to live confined in biospheres among the asteroid belt over 100 years ago.

What Ash doesn’t expect is that by keeping her recent memory loss a secret she is jeopardizing not only the Persephone’s mission but humankind’s launch of the first ever generational ship. Nor does she anticipate her attraction to Captain Jordan Kellow, but both will change her life forever.

Unknown Horizons

© 2017 By CJ Birch. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-939-6


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: April 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Katia Noyes

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design W.E. Percival

Acknowledgments

There are so many minds that go into creating a book, and this book wouldn’t exist without a lot of amazing minds! Thanks to all the early readers, especially those on Wattpad who pointed out some very basic flaws in my science and gave me the encouragement to keep going. I’ve tried to keep the science in this book as accurate as possible, although in some cases I may have taken a turn more toward fiction than science.

Also, so many thanks to Katia Noyes, my editor, for always asking the right questions, for always knowing what was lacking and where, and for teaching me that commas are important and I should use more of them. This book wouldn’t be even half as good without you.

Thanks to my mom for never once telling me that my dreams were silly.

Thanks to Jody for reading the first chapter of my first book ever and telling me that it didn’t suck. This isn’t that book, but without that first try, this book wouldn’t exist.

And thanks to Kim for being the rock when I can’t. You make even the small victories important, and for that, I love you.

To Kim, for all the laughter you bring into my life.

Chapter One

Two minutes. A lifetime in a hundred and twenty seconds. It’s enough time to save forty-five thousand lives, enough time to end a career. Or both. As first officer of the Persephone, my decision to eject an engine core without authorization could be a quick maglev ride to a court martial, but if I succeed, it’ll be worth it.

“Did we list?” I yell at Hartley, the head engineer. He doesn’t remove his focus from his console, just shakes his head. So, this is Hartley in crisis mode. It’s welcoming to see he can play grown-up when needed.

I begin to pull myself up, using the rail surrounding the pit of the engine well, and the ship banks to the left. I lose my balance. My head smashes against the rail, and it takes a moment before my vision clears.

In space, there are any number of anomalies that can throw us for a loop: space debris, asteroids, cosmic dust, gravity wells. The hazards are endless, and the trick is to be prepared.

Hartley shakes his head in exasperation. “Why do you always have to be such a hero, Ash?”

But I’m not a hero.

A small puck-like device—one of Hartley’s inventions—careens toward the edge of the well. If it falls over, any hope of ejecting that core will be gone. Without thinking, I reach for it, and when my fingers grip the smooth surface, I realize what a colossal mistake I’ve made.

I’m the result of happenstance. When I was ten, I remember having to study the Great Migration—when humans fled Earth to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A whole series of downloads focused on the role of Angus Shreves, the first captain to land on Ceres (later known as Alpha Station). The way they spoke about him, brave, steadfast and without flaws, made it sound as if he was superhuman. He wasn’t. I’d always known him as a hard-of-hearing old man, my quiet and moody grandpa.

A few months before I was set to join the academy, my grandpa once asked me the year the Great Migration started. We were in a cafe on Alpha, just a few years before he died. I knew the answer but doubted myself and named a different year. He nodded in his quiet, gruff way and didn’t say anything. I missed my opportunity. Maybe saying the right year would’ve been a key to learning more about the way he helped change humanity’s future. But he never did correct me. Ever.

In truth, I think he kept quiet because it was second nature. For him, it wasn’t special to be self-effacing. He wasn’t the superhero everyone made him out to be.

Here we go. Sirens have begun to blare all around the engine room.

In seconds, one hundred amps barrel through my fingertips and cut through my system like razor blades. Everything goes hazy. The sirens fade into the background, and chaos erupts in a muted play of colors and sensations.

Hartley grasps at me before I go over. He seizes my arm, and a surge jolts me backward. The only other time I can remember feeling such intensity is with Captain Jordan Kellow. I remember why I’m doing this. Even if I never again get to touch her creamy skin or run my hands through that wild black hair, this last act is for her.

*

Four weeks earlier


I step over the threshold of the Persephone and feel an excitement well up so quick and so fierce, it brings tears to my eyes. I blink fast before the corporal beside me sees and thinks I’m an emotional basket case. This is it! The last time I will ever watch the sun rise over the asteroid belt. The last time I will ever see Earth from the giant telescopes on Alpha Station. The last time my dad will ever hug me good-bye. It’s a heady feeling, this combination of excitement and sadness, and I swallow it deep.

In less than four weeks we’ll dock at the Posterus, the first generational ship ever constructed, and begin the most important journey humankind has ever undertaken. More important than discovering fire and creating language. Or even more important than abandoning Earth to live confined in biostations among the asteroid belt over one hundred years ago.

“Lieutenant?” The corporal verbally nudges me. “The captain is this way.” He points down a long hallway lit by strips of yellow-tinted LEDs. They’re supposed to simulate sunlight but do a poor job on ships this old. Even in the biostations we have sunlight—it’s remote and weak, but at least it’s real. I hoist my duffel and follow the corporal down the corridor. Our footsteps echo on the metal grates.

From what I remember, the Persephone is one of the older ships still in commission, but thanks to a lucky mishap with a stray communications buoy, the engine is new and probably one of the fastest in the Union fleet, traveling at 160,000 kph. That’s ten thousand kilometers faster than any other ship in the fleet and more than a hundred times the speed of craft humans first used for space travel. The new engine is the only reason the ship was one of two from the Union fleet selected for this mission.

“I’d like to drop my duffel before we get there.” I shift the hemp bag holding everything I own farther up on my shoulder. It’s not much, a few books that survived the Great Migration, family pictures, and bits and pieces I’ve collected from scavengers on their return trips from Earth. Junk that doesn’t mean much up here in space, but helps me recreate what life must have once been like on Earth.

The corporal stops and turns. The slump in his posture tells me everything I need to know about what he thinks of my statement. “Your cabin is on the other side of the ship. The captain won’t like to be kept waiting.”

I don’t want to report for duty lugging a lumpy bag coated with ten years of asteroid dust, hard-earned from being dragged from ship to station to ship. My eyes narrow.

He huffs toward the ceiling, his bald head reflecting the yellow of the LEDs flanking us. I hate people who wear their attitude like a badge.

“Tell you what.” The duffel drops from my shoulder with a loud thump. “I’ll leave it here, and you can deliver it to my cabin after you show me to the captain.” I stroll away before he can protest.

The captain’s cabin is only three decks up, but the corporal is panting before he’s even climbed the chute ladder. I spend the rest of the climb imagining all the fun I’m going to have whipping this crew into shape. He leaves me at her door with a flippant salute. Dick. I bite my tongue and then knock before my fist roams somewhere less professional.

When I enter, I take in everything at once, like watching an instaflash of data dump on my screen. First, I see the knickknacks on every surface, then the view of splayed asteroids from the windows behind the bed. It’s unmade, all twisted sheets and tangled duvet. I inhale the scent of apricots, and it conquers my senses. My eyes settle on the woman behind the cluttered desk, and to my chagrin, I am immediately enchanted by her raven hair and milky skin. Captain Jordan Kellow. When her gaze shifts first to the unmade bed, then back to me, my cheeks flush. I force myself to keep eye contact and try to forget that I’ve just seen such an intimate part of her life. I don’t know what it is about seeing the unmade bed, but it unnerves me, and my confidence bolts, leaving me feeling like I’m reporting for my first assignment as a low-ranking aviator.

“I apologize for the mess. We’ve switched to Posterus time already. I want the transition once we get there to be as smooth as possible, but right now it’s proving to be a bit of a hiccup.” She stretches back in her chair, arms high above her head. The beginnings of a yawn reach her mouth before she clamps down and stifles it.

I sit and know I’m going to embarrass myself somehow. My heartbeat picks up and my system floods with adrenaline. As soon as I sit down, I realize I’ve already made a mistake. She didn’t ask me to be seated. I shoot out of the chair so fast that I knock it over.

For Christ’s sake, Ash, calm down. This is no way for a first officer to act. She’s going to think I’m spastic.

“Have a seat, Lieutenant,” she says, and her voice is like warm honey. She pushes aside the mess on her desk and taps the surface twice to pull up my service file. I cringe as my ID picture materializes in the air between us. I’ve always hated that picture: my face is pinched as if I’ve just swallowed a ball of wasabi and am trying to hold in the upcoming explosion. It doesn’t even look like me. My auburn hair is pulled back so tight that I look bald, and the flash has washed out my already pale skin, making the constellation of freckles stand out. Thankfully, it disappears as she swishes through several pages to bring up my last assignment.

“How did you like working on the science station?” She sweeps her dark hair back away from her face with her long fingers. She’s only half in uniform, and her tunic is unbuttoned. She’s wearing what could only be described as pajama pants. Her bare feet are tucked under her chair, lending credence to her unspoken statement earlier. I’ve disturbed her sleep.

In truth, I want to shrug because I don’t remember much of my time on the Europa Science Station. Five months, and I can’t remember more than the first month, but a shrug is not the correct response to that question, so I lie. “It was informative. Colonel Lundy is one of the most efficient officers I’ve ever had the privilege to work under.”

She frowns and I suck in my breath. What else have I forgotten? She flips further back in my service record. “It says here that you called him an ass.” Shit. Did I? A now familiar sense of panic wells inside me as I realize my memory gaps are more extensive than I initially thought.

“It’s okay. I’ve met Lundy. He is an ass.” She raps her knuckles on the desk as if to make it fact and not opinion.

I give a lopsided shrug and grin. “Well, he was an efficient ass.” I should just stop speaking.

She laughs, it’s quick, so quick, and then she’s all business again. When I pictured my new commanding officer, this is not the image I had in mind; this woman is too vibrant, too affable. All the captains I’ve met have been pompous jackholes.

“I was interested in the filter retrofitting you spearheaded. It’s one of the projects I’m going to put you in charge of. I was curious, though, how you managed to get such a large undertaking done in so short a time. You had that whole station finished in less than a month.”

“Um…I…” Great stalling tactics, Ash. I should just tell her the truth. I can’t remember the project. Not at all. But I know I can’t because if I do, I’ll be left behind. Everything I’ve worked for, every plan I’ve made, every goal, every dream will disappear just like my memories into some black hole. I can’t let that happen. When I look back at the captain, I will my face not to show my panic. Instead, I shrug. “I guess we didn’t have a lot of other things going on at the time.”

She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms, scrutinizing me. If that was a test, I don’t think I passed. “Lieutenant? Alison? Which do you prefer?”

“Please don’t call me Alison. Ali if you must, but I prefer my surname.” I squeeze my hands between my legs, aware that it is an entirely unassertive posture, but aware too that if I didn’t my hands would be shaking.

She nods. “If this is going to work,” she points to herself and to me, “if we’re going to work well together, I need your honesty. Everyone on this ship works as a team, including you and me. From what I’ve read, I don’t think I have to worry about you slacking or pulling rank.” My mind immediately shifts to the corporal and my duffel sitting three decks below. But I don’t have time for regrets as she continues. “I don’t want you to feel singled out, because I’ve made this speech to every crew member on this ship. What we’re doing here is momentous, the first of its kind. And I know you’ve signed all the relevant disclaimers or you wouldn’t be here, but even then, very few people can grasp the magnitude of a generational ship and what it means. You and I will never make it to our final destination, we’ll be long dead by then. And this here,” she motions around her cabin, encompassing our surroundings and the ship as a whole, “this is our home now, and like it or not, we’re going to be stuck together for a very long time. We need to work harder at making this work. If this mission is going to succeed, it’s not just a matter of getting the ship to its destination, it’s about making this new family work, so that those who succeed us make it there as well.”

I’m stunned into silence. It’s the very real need to distance myself from the shadow my family casts that had me sign up for this mission in the first place. The idea of a new family, one that won’t doubt or smother me, is intoxicating.

“It says in your file that you requested transfer a month after you were assigned to the station. What was it about Europa SS that you didn’t like?”

I let out the air I’ve been holding tightly in my chest and search my mind for one honest impression from the experience. I try to picture my room, standing in the lab looking out at Jupiter peaking around Europa, and it hits me, what felt wrong about the place. “I hated standing still, every day with the same view. It felt…wrong.”

One brow lifts. It looks almost conspiratorial, like we’re sharing a secret need to keep moving. Always moving forward. “Considering our current mission, I think that’s a good answer.” She regards me from across her desk as if she’s working out a puzzle. She hesitates for only a second, then says, “Would you like a tour of the ship?”

Surprised at the offer, I nod and stand. “Captain Kellow? What name do you prefer? Lundy insisted everyone call him sir, although I think if he’d had his way, everyone would’ve had to call him master.” I doubt she’s that type, and I know if I were captain I’d hate to be called ma’am.

She barks a laugh as she rounds her desk. “Captain is fine. If you call me ma’am, I’ll strap you to the matter sails.”

My eyes flick to her bed one last time as we leave. I can’t help myself. She sighs and looks pointedly at me. “What is it about the bed that disturbs you, Ash? Please tell me you’re not one of those OCD types?”

“I’m just surprised they have your office and private quarters combined as one.” It’s a half truth. I am surprised, I’ve never been inside a captain’s cabin before, but it’s not the reason I find it hard to keep my eyes away from her bed. I keep picturing her lying in it, her black hair splashed across the pillow, wrapped in sleep. It’s a consuming thought.

She shrugs as she swipes her hand over her door, locking it. “This is a small ship, and we don’t have a lot of room for frivolities.” She leads the way down the corridor. “We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.”

On the lower deck, she takes me down a long corridor. It’s darker than the others. At the end is a single door. She stops at a panel. “This is kind of cool, actually,” she says and taps in a passcode. When the door opens, we’re standing in a small antechamber, and in the middle is a ladder leading down. She grabs the top rung and descends. I follow a second later, and when I get to the bottom, my breath catches in my throat. Running the circumference of the ship is a track surrounded by windows that look out into space. Right now, we’re still docked at Alpha Station, so there’s not much to see, but I can imagine the effect once we’re in space.

It will be like running among the stars.

“Cool, huh?” she says as we walk out on the track. I bend down and run my hands along the surface. It feels just like the Tartan Track at Basic Training, rough and soft all at the same time, and when I push down it yields to my touch.

I can’t decide if I’m about to laugh or cry as I stand. All I know is that I’ll be spending a lot of time here. “I thought the Persephone didn’t do frivolities.”

She scowls in mock seriousness. “Exercise is not a frivolity, Ash, it’s a necessity.” I wish she’d tell her lower ranks that.

I stroll to the edge to stare out the window at the city buried below the hard thick dome. Lights glow, exaggerated through the shield. This is the last time I will ever see it. I’m barely paying attention, too absorbed in the excitement of leaving.

“Do you have family you’re leaving behind?” She dips her head toward the belt splashed before us. I don’t say anything, just nod. “Can I ask why you signed up for this mission?”

It’s a good question, and I want to answer her honestly because I know she won’t take the answer I gave the Union leaders. Or even the answer I gave my father. I can still see the hurt in his eyes when I told him I was applying for the mission. A twinge of guilt invades my happy mood for just a second as I realize that he’s the last one. With me gone, he has no one left.

Staying here just feels like failure. Even though I’ll never live to see it, I want my grandkids to. I need to believe that one day they will be able to turn their heads toward the sun and soak in its warmth, not through ten feet of metallic glass, but with nothing more between them than the atmosphere and a layer of ozone.

I would be lying, though, if I said this was my only reason. My real reason is much more selfish.

For once in my life, I want to have something that’s mine. Just mine. The farther we get from the Milky Way, the less my family’s name means anything. Each year we travel, each kilometer, light-year, every sector of unchartered territory gives me back my life. Never again will I have to sit across from my father, his imposing desk between us, and hear how a particular choice or decision of mine will affect his name, our family’s name, some stupid legacy that shouldn’t even matter. Even though I changed my name before entering the academy, very few people don’t know whose daughter I am. It’s like being stuck under a rock, the weight of it slowly crushing me.

Out here I’m free. Now that I can feel freedom humming through my body, it’s like a drug I never want to kick. I want the high to last the rest of my life. And the irony is, all I had to do to get it was leave everyone I love behind.

Captain Kellow watches a supply train weaving through the stockyards. Somehow I don’t think she’d understand.

Instead, I give her a small portion of the truth. “I need to know the human species will move forward. If I stay here, I’ll never know.”

“You have faith we’ll make it to Kepler 980f?”

I cringe at the assigned name of our destination, a planet so far away it might not be the paradise we’ve made it out to be.

Below us in another dock, a small frigate pulls away, preparing to launch. “I have faith our descendants will.” The frigate unfurls its front sails for matter collection. Probably on its way to Europa. Since the attack, most ships are headed there to help with repairs.

“A lot can happen in a hundred years.”

“And won’t it be exciting?” I twist my fingers together, cracking my knuckles. Tiny sparks of excitement ignite within me, and I feel like I’m five, waiting for Christmas morning to arrive. As much as I’ll miss certain aspects—my father, the familiar constellations and planets—I know I won’t miss them enough to stay behind. I’d rather spend the rest of my life on a generational ship speeding into the unknown.

Chapter Two

I stand in front of the mirror in my cabin, assessing my formal wear. There’s a welcome reception tonight for Hartley and me, and I hate receptions. I suck at small talk and always feel awkward eating off tiny plates. Still, I’ve made an effort, ditching the traditional dress uniform for a simple backless green dress, cut just above the knees. It shows a hint of cleavage, but not enough to be inappropriate. My hair hangs loose, tickling my back and shoulders. I fasten my necklace, a single black pearl—well, fake pearl—strung by a barely-there chain. It’s the only piece of jewelry I own, given to me by my father when I graduated from the academy. He was so proud I’d joined the Union fleet. Personally, I think he was more excited about the leverage he could use in the Commons with a daughter in the service. Maybe that’s unfair, but he’s always saying you have to find your edge, especially if it’s personal. I’ll never have to endure one of his for-your-own-good lectures again, and I’m not sure if that saddens me.

I’ve timed it so I arrive twenty minutes late; the less chitchat I have to endure before they call us to dinner, the better. I stand outside the officers’ mess and press the panel on my right, and the door slips open. I spot Hartley first, in the corner by the window surrounded by a bunch of engineer geeks. Since he’s the only person I’ve met besides the captain, I head his way, and he waves as soon as he sees me. The mess is crowded with officers, and with a few crew members bellowing, the excitement is palpable.

Hartley takes my hand and lifts it away from my body to get a better look at my dress. “You look fantastic in that. I was worried you might show up in dress uniform.” He pairs his somewhat inappropriate compliment with a face-stretching grin and stuffs a cheese ball in his mouth. If he were Union fleet, it would be wholly inappropriate to speak to a superior officer like that. But Hartley is part of the civilian group included in the mission to fill any knowledge gaps. Only the two Union ships and the Posterus crew are Union, the rest are civilians. But Hartley’s the only one assigned to our ship.

Ben Hartley has no filter between his brain and mouth. It’s the first thing I noticed when I met him at the air dock. He arrived earlier this afternoon with two giant containers, one of which contains the engine core for the Posterus, the other with who knows what.

“Would you like to see the engine room or your cabin first?” I asked, shaking his hand.

He grinned wide. “How ’bout your cabin?” He’s tall and lanky, pure geek, his confidence doesn’t match his looks. I could have made as if I was offended, but I’ve always hated the sort who can’t take a joke or poorly placed compliment.

“It’s not that big. I don’t think there’d be room for your ego.”

His laugh, also incongruous, boomed out of his skinny chest, quick and thunderous. “I think we’re going to get along just fine, Lieutenant.”

He hands me a champagne flute and stands on his toes, peering over my head. “The heels are a little high, though.”

It’s entertaining to see that he’s still just as cheeky at the reception as he was when I first met him.

“You might want to tone those down,” he continues and nods to the men surrounding him, none of whom are as tall or brazen. Only one looks shocked, and the rest are in awe, hanging off his every word as if he were a god.

I’ve read his file and a few of his papers, so I know that his confidence and this godlike reverence comes from his being the leading mind in nuclear fusion propulsion. He’s the reason it will only take one hundred years to get to Kepler 980f instead of five hundred. He’s not the only one working on it, but he’s the one who solved the containment issue, and all the other problems seemed to fall into place after that.

Uncouth as he is, I decide I like him.

And to prove my point, he slaps my back and points to the others. “Holy crap, where are my manners? Guys, this is Lieutenant Ali Ash, our new first officer. Ash, these are the guys on my team. Well, I guess they’re my team now that I’m here. But you know what I mean, these are the engineers on board.” He’s bouncing on the balls of his feet by this time, barreling through each word so fast I find it hard to keep up. “They’re going to help me install the fusion core when we get to the Posterus.”

I shake each man’s hand in turn, trying to remember their names, about to ask if there are any women on the team when Hartley raises his glass to make a toast. I look down at the champagne that I realize I shouldn’t have and look for a place to set it without appearing rude. Everyone drinks but me.

Hartley makes a sipping motion with his empty glass. “Aren’t you going to join us, Lieutenant?”

“She can’t,” says a voice close to my ear, and I turn to see Captain Kellow standing beside me. “She’s watch staff, which means no alcohol.”

Like me, she’s opted for civilian formal, and even though her dark blue dress leaves everything to the imagination, it’s still gorgeous. Everything about her is a series of contrasts. Sable hair against pale shoulders. Indigo eyes and red lips against her cream-colored complexion.

“I didn’t even think about it when it was handed to me, Captain,” I stammer. Jesus, I sound like a defensive third-grader.

She takes it from me and hands it to Fukui, one of the engine geeks next to Hartley. “You look like you’re behind, Fukui.”

Next to the lanky engineer, Fukui looks like one of those anime dolls I’ve seen among scavengers. All his features appear too tiny for his head, as if they’ve been squished into the center of his round face.

Kellow has that hint of a smile on her lips, and I can’t tell if she’s amused by my embarrassment or the situation in general.

Hartley slaps Fukui on the back and yells, “Drink up!”

A canapé drops from his small plate, and I bend to pick it up—I don’t know why—and when I stand, Hartley is staring at my cleavage. It takes him a few moments before his eyes rise to mine.

“It’s beautiful. Where did you get it?” the captain asks, lightly touching the sphere at my throat.

Instinctively, I reach for my pearl, rolling the silky ball between my fingers. “It was a gift from my father—it’s not real,” I add. I don’t want people to think my family is richer than we are. The only real pearls come from Earth, and the only people who can get to those have credits to burn. Pearl hunting, like everything else on Earth, takes time. If you can find anyone brave enough to descend into the atmosphere, they will spend days maybe even weeks searching the dried waterbeds of the oceans. Personally, I’d rather have my fake.

The dinner chime rings, and like one massive herd everyone pushes toward the other room where they’ve set up two long tables for dinner. The captain takes my elbow and holds me back. “Can I have a word with you, Lieutenant?” I nod.

She leans in close, and there’s something new mixed in with her already familiar scent of apricots, but I can’t place it. “Find me after dinner. I’d like to get your first impressions of Hartley,” she says.

All I can do is nod.

At dinner, talk turns to the Burrs, as it usually does with this many drinks in everyone. Burrs are our version of space pirates. They’re bio-technically enhanced, throwbacks from the resource wars before we left Earth over a hundred years ago.

Most of us living have never even seen Earth, but the majority of Burrs grew up there. They were recruited into armies for various countries—ones which no longer exist—and enhanced. Humans spent their last days on Earth fighting each other, and who better to do that for them than bio-enhanced soldiers, sold to the highest bidder. Just exactly how the soldiers were enhanced was a closely guarded secret by Ethan Burr, the man who pioneered the technology. All that mattered was that they were fast, and strong, and could fight harder and longer than the enemy. In the end, it came down to money. But doesn’t it always? The winners were the countries that could afford the best troops, the best tech.

One of the drawbacks of those enhancements, as it turned out, was an extended life span. Burrs living now are over one hundred and twenty years old, but merely look middle-aged. I suspect part of people’s resentment comes from that. But a lot of people also hate them because they aren’t pure human, not really. When more than half your body is created on an assembly line and not by nature, what does that make you?

After the wars, when they went rogue and began attacking cargo ships and settlements on the belt, the name Burrs, pulled from their creator, just sort of stuck.

“Lieutenant Ash, is it true you were posted on the Europa Science Station when it was attacked?”

I nod. “Yes, I was stationed there for five months.” The person who’s asked, a sergeant who works with hydroponics, smiles as if I’ve admitted I shit pearls. I fork another bite of quinoa into my mouth and hope he doesn’t ask anything else. But of course, he does.

“Gosh, what was it like being so close to a Burr? Were you scared?”

These are the questions that infuriate me. What do they expect my answer to be? No, I’m used to having terrorists shove guns in my face, I’m used to surviving explosions, used to waking up feeling violated and have no idea why. I mean, of course I was scared, anyone would be. But I’m trained to handle it, and since I’m still alive, I know I worked through the fear. Also, I hate people who use the word gosh, only five-year-olds with speech impediments should use it.

I finish chewing, preparing my lie. Everyone around the table has stopped talking amongst themselves and is staring at me. Better make it a good one. “I was in the science lab when the first explosion occurred two decks below. When they did storm our deck, I was already out cold. I got thrown back and was impaled by a soldering arm.” I point to my side where I still have a slight scar on my back. The last part is correct; the security cameras were still working until that point. The next part is pure fiction. “What I do remember when I woke up was a lot of smoke and these cold eyes staring at me. And these fingers reaching out to me, but there wasn’t any flesh on them, just metal.” Everyone is silent as if I’ve just finished a ghost story. The sergeant shudders. Why can’t I just say I don’t like talking about it?

“This is horrible. Why hasn’t the government done anything about it?” says a woman at the end of the table. The room explodes, everyone talking at once.

“Can’t just let them get away with this—”

“A menace.”

“Downright creepy the way they just won’t die—”

“Thankfully they’re sterile.”

The noise builds, and each new voice drowns out the last. “Why haven’t they been tracked and put down?”

“Because they’re human beings.” The group turns to Captain Kellow. Her hands are pressed into the table on either side of her plate as if she’s ready to spring out of her chair. “Not rabid dogs.”

“Yes, but there has to be checks and balances,” says Fukui, his face flushed from drink. “We can’t just let them do whatever they want. They’ve attacked vessels, too. Anyone who tries to go near Earth is a target.”

“I agree that something needs to be done.” Kellow pauses and studies the group in front of her. I can tell she’s mentally editing her next statement. “But what do we become, if not worse monsters? When our preference is extermination? We may not have been the ones to make the decisions that set them on this destructive path, but we’re here now, and how we deal with it dictates the kind of society we become.” She takes a sip of water, and her slight tremor shows she’s restrained half of what she wants to say.

To my right, I hear a sharp barking laugh and turn to see Hartley, a big grin on his face. “Why does it matter? This isn’t our problem anymore. In another couple of weeks, we’ll have a whole other set of issues to deal with, and lucky for us, that no longer includes the Burrs.”

There are nods of agreement, and from the corner of my eye, I see the captain has more to say, but instead she flaps her napkin on the table, bringing the discussion to a close.

Chapter Three

After dinner, I find the captain in her cabin. She’s discarded her dress for sweats and piled her hair haphazardly on her head. In this light, it shines almost blue. She beckons me in without a word and takes a seat behind her desk. The surface is spotless. None of the previous stacks of items mar the dark glass. It takes every ounce of my self-control, but I manage not to look over at her bed, which I can see through my peripheral vision has been made.

“What is it about ignorance that breeds fear? Or is it the other way around?” she says, rubbing her forehead.

I can’t judge her mood. She’s either very tired or, more likely, exasperated. My father used to make a similar gesture right before he was going to chew me out about some indiscretion.

I grip my chair. My entire body has gone rigid.

“When you were assigned here, I was looking forward to working with you.” My heart drops into my stomach. This will not end well. “All your former commanders had really great things to say about you.” She’s silent for so long after, I wonder if it’s an intimidation tactic. It should be. It’s working.

“But?” I prompt.

She regards me from behind her desk, arms crossed over her sweater obscuring the words “Delta Academy.” Her lips are tight. “But after your performance at the reception, I’m not sure what to think.”

I smooth the creases along my thighs and cross my legs, buying time, building courage. “Performance?” I hate how quiet my voice is.

“I’m not sure where you pulled that description of a Burr from, but I know it wasn’t your memory.”

I fidget with the hem of my dress, twisting it between my fingers. The image of a man dressed in black Kevlar jumps from my memory. It’s an old memory, much older than the attack on Europa station. But even now, I can still see him clearly. From my angle, he looked almost human. It could’ve been my uncle, or my neighbor dressed up for a lark. It’s when he gets closer that things begin to shift into unreality. His face is far too smooth and doesn’t match the matted gray hair hanging lank from his scalp. His eyes are a crisp green but sit too far back in his face, almost as if someone shoved them into a form of clay, but pressed too hard. The terror of it is how closely they resemble us, but how do you put that into words when explaining to someone what it’s like to meet a Burr?

I couldn’t use that description at dinner, and so I lied. I don’t want to build another lie, but I know as soon as anyone finds out about my memory gaps, I’ll be sent back to medical and another officer will take my place. I want to trust her, but I’m not that brave. “The truth is, I only remember bits and pieces about the attack.”

“Then why don’t you just say that?”

Because I’m a bit of a shit. No, that’s not entirely accurate. When I first got out of the hospital, I tried to tell people that I couldn’t remember anything about the attack, but this only led to more testing. If I hadn’t pretended to recover my memories, I’d still be there.

“I apologize, Captain. Next time I won’t hesitate to say those words.” I’ve only been here for a day, and I’m already messing up. I know I’m better than this.

Kellow stands and circles her desk and reaches past to grab something from the shelf behind me. She pulls out a glass bottle with amber liquid inside and two tumblers.

“You’ve been on board for less than a day and already have half the crew intimidated by you. I’ve had at least six complaints about the new exercise regimen you’ve enacted.”

A small surge of pride wells up in me.

“And you have Hartley eating up whatever you’re dishing out. I like the changes and additions you’ve made to the crew schedule. All these things tell me we’re going to work great together, and yet I get this feeling of reserve from you. What is it about me that has you so…standoffish? Is it because I’m a woman? You don’t like the idea of taking orders from me?”

“I have no problems taking orders from women.” She thinks I’m standoffish? Intimidated, yes, but standoffish?

“So it’s me specifically.” She nods and pours the amber liquid into glasses and hands me one. I take a whiff, and my sinuses clear at once. Whatever it is, it’s potent. I’m not much of a drinker even when I’m not on watch staff. I’ve discovered the flimsy filter between my brain and mouth dissolves with alcohol.

“Is this a test?” I get her exasperated look again.

“No, Ash. It’s not a test. The nature of this mission means our crew is going to have to become a family.” She shoves several tablets aside, making room for her to perch on her desk across from me. Her legs are too short to reach the ground, and they swing as she sips her drink. “I’m just trying to get you to open up, maybe relax a little.”

I throw the liquid back, and it scorches my throat, making me take a huge gulp of air. Holy fuck! “What is this stuff?” The burn spreads to my fingers and toes, leaving a warm glow in its wake.

It takes a minute for her laugh to die. “It’s called tequila, and it’s from Earth. The plant it’s made from doesn’t grow too well up here.” She holds the bottle out. “Would you like some more?”

No. “Sure.” I hold my glass out, and she pours another ounce.

“I think it’s meant to be sipped.” Her mouth curls around the glass, plumping her bottom lip.

“I want you to know you can say anything you want, Ash. I prefer bluntness. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I requested you for this assignment.”

“Requested me?”

“I had a list of candidates to choose from, and when I spoke with Colonel Shreves, he said you tended to speak your mind. I like that in a first officer.”

I nearly drop my drink, and several emotions race through me at once. The first across the finish line is doubt, followed by gratitude, and the heaviest, coming in last, is anger.

“I don’t think he was saying that to recommend me.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

I reach for my pearl, grip it in my fist. I want to rip it from my neck and throw it on the ground. “Because Colonel Shreves is my father.” The night I told him I wanted to apply for the Posterus mission we had one of those excruciating rip-your-heart-out fights, the kind that leaves you emotionally spent for the next couple of days. “He wasn’t keen on my coming along for the mission.” I take a big gulp of tequila. “And in his vocabulary, ‘speak your mind’ is synonymous with ‘rude.’” I finish the last of my drink and cradle the glass in my lap. Before finishing school, I changed my surname to my mother’s because I didn’t want my dad’s name opening any doors for me, and without even meaning to, he opened the most important one.

She must see at least some of this on my face because she touches my arm lightly. “Hey, you didn’t get this assignment because of him. You got it because you worked hard for it.”

I blow out a long breath, square my shoulders, and look up at her. I don’t need any handholding. “It doesn’t matter how I got the assignment. All that matters is that I’m good at it.” The alcohol has moved from my fingertips and lodged in my brain. The outlines of objects in the room are starker, and the colors brighter, even the smell of apricots has intensified. I want to close my eyes and drift away.

“Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on Hartley?” She finishes her drink and corks the bottle before placing it back on the shelf behind me. From Earth. It must have cost a fortune.

As I think of the best way to put what I got from meeting Hartley into words, I notice that all the knickknacks are gone, and only a couple of items remain on the shelves. “Well, I get the impression he’s spent most of his life wishing he was the big man on campus, and now that he is, it’s going to his head a little.”

“You think that’ll be a problem? We’ve got a lot of work to do before we arrive at the Posterus, and I don’t need some prima donna thinking it’s beneath him to help install new solar panels and matter collectors.” She returns to her perch on the front of her desk. I wonder where she’s hidden all her stuff. There isn’t a lot of storage space in these cabins, although she’s the captain, so maybe she has more storage than others.

“All you have to do is treat him like the stud he thinks he is, and you’ve got him in your pocket,” I say and smile because I can’t imagine the captain stroking Hartley’s ego.

“Hmm, I’ll let you deal with him, if that’s all right.”

“What did you do with all your stuff?” I’m up and out of my seat before I even realize it. I stop at a shelf running beneath her windows and pick up a small glass orb painted to look like Earth. “You used to have a whole collection of rocks and shells.”

She takes the globe from my hand and holds it up to the light. It’s painted as Earth used to look, before the oceans receded and the dust storms took over. “I packed them away.”

“Why? They were beautiful.”

“I was reminded recently that first impressions are important. With the nature of our mission, I’m going to have to use this as an office more than I was used to.” She shrugs and her sweater slips off her shoulder, and I catch a glimpse of her collarbone. Her skin is so smooth and rich, like a pail of milk. If I were to reach out and touch it, I wonder if it would cause ripples. “Besides, this way I have fewer things to dust.” She places the globe back on its holder.

“I should probably go. I have first shift tomorrow.” I turn to leave, but she touches my arm, holding me back. Her fingertips are icy. The contrast with my warm skin sends a shiver through me.

“About this Hartley thing, Ash, this goes without saying, but no fraternizing with the crew.”

I almost choke at the idea of fraternizing with Hartley. I may speak his language, but that doesn’t mean I want to. “No, I get that. Don’t shit where you eat.”

She laughs out loud. It starts deep inside, then resonates around her cabin, sparking every nerve in my body. It’s so freeing the way she uses her whole body like she’s putting everything she’s worth into it, making it count. The sound is deep and throaty, and when it bounces back from around the room, it shudders through me, making me wish I didn’t have to leave.

“I like the way you laugh,” I say, then immediately wish I could swallow my words. The burn in my cheeks creeps down my neck.

Her dark blue eyes skim every part of my face. Then she grins. It crinkles her eyes, pushing her cheekbones up. I can’t tell if it’s from pity or amusement.

“Maybe not so much tequila next time,” she says.

“Yes, Captain.” I nod. The doors whoosh shut behind me, making my ears ring from the silence in the corridor.

Chapter Four

I lose myself in routine. Part of the reason I was chosen for this assignment is my knowledge of energy conservation technologies. Our ship may be fast, but most of the Persephone’s technology for matter collection and filtering is a couple of decades out of date. It’s my job to create and supervise the teams that will make the necessary changes and updates. Not all of them have to be done in the three weeks it’ll take us to get to the Posterus, but the installation of our new docking clamp—the longest and hardest task—will need to be complete when we arrive. I’ve set up three teams, each working eight-hour shifts for every project—ensuring that there are several hopeful epitaphs, involving me, painted in phosphorescent paint around the ship. Hartley is basically my only friend. If he didn’t have worshipping geeklings to do all the work I’ve assigned him, that would change.

I don’t sleep much. It’s a combination of stress and trying to keep a twenty-four-hour workday. I catch sleep at odd times, but most nights I lie awake staring at my ceiling. By two or three, I’m usually on the track, trying to run myself into exhaustion.

I enter the mess, not surprised to see Hartley sitting by himself, and grab a tray and shovel a heap of soybeans and lentils on my plate, avoiding the miscellaneous pasta and opting for chocolate pudding instead.

“Hartley, how is it that you are the fastest talker I’ve ever met, but the slowest eater?” I ask, taking a seat across from him.

“Speed is relative,” he says and spears a gelatinous globule, meant to represent a meatball, with his fork and shoves it toward his face. It’s too large for his mouth. Slime slides off the sides and pools at the corners, which drips down his chin like a Fu Manchu mustache onto his sloppy plate.

“It must take you at least three hours to finish a meal. How do you ever get any work done?”

“But this way I get to eat with everyone.” He grins one of his full-face grins, dropping more food on his plate. It splatters on his coveralls. He wipes at it absently, smearing more sauce from his fingers down the front in four long streaks. I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that it’s almost neon red, or that there are mysterious green bits in it.

I look away. As much as I appreciate Hartley’s company, he’s not always the greatest dinner companion.

The mess is lined with long tables on one side and smaller round tables at our end. I’ve noticed that at breakfast and lunch people tend to use the longer tables, rarely bothering to sit in groups. These are usually fast meals. But at dinner, the round tables fill up quickly when crew members are usually off-duty and can linger over their food, or shall we say what passes for food on this ship.

As I turn back, my eye catches the captain as she enters the food line.

A second later Hartley notices, too. “Captain!” He waves her over. “We’ve saved you a seat.”

I concentrate on my food, willing my face to behave and stay its normal color. Over the past week, I’ve only seen her twice, and there was no actual speaking involved. I’m still mortified by my behavior the other night.

She slides in next to me, her knee briefly grazing mine.

“Captain,” I say with a nod.

“Impressive work on the docking clamp. I was surprised at your progress considering you’ve decided to get everything done before we reach the Posterus. You know that’s not necessary. You don’t need to work the crew that hard.”

She takes a sip of some orange beverage I made the mistake of trying the other day. It reminded me of feet. Several people have perked up at her comment.

“You’re right, it’s not necessary,” I reply. “But when we get to the Posterus, we’ll lose Hartley and all of his team for at least a couple of weeks. I thought it best to use the resources we have now and work people at a reasonable pace, instead of waiting until we got to the Posterus, where I’d be forced to work everyone overtime.” I shrug as if this is common sense. It is of course only half the reason. The other is that I want to show off, prove that I’m good at my job.

She smiles that smile like she’s seen through me.

With a fork full of pasta halfway to his mouth, Hartley says, “Ash, no offense, but you look…ashen.” He lowers the fork to his plate. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re not well liked. In fact, some of the crew have created a Down with Ash Club. They asked me to join, to which of course I said yes. But only to spy and report back to you.” He says it in a matter-of-fact way, but his eyes dart from me to the captain, uncertain of our reaction.

I laugh out loud. I can’t help myself. “I bet they have several. Just make sure you joined the most exclusive. Only the best for you, Hartley.” If people hate me because I’m doing my job, let them.

Hartley scratches his ginger scruff, one of his nervous habits. “Okay, just thought I should tell you.”

A few of Hartley’s geeklings arrive, pushing everyone closer together. I scoot farther down, away from Hartley and nearer to the captain. Her leg is warm against mine, and my stomach does an unexpected flip.

For a distraction, I point to the orange drink in her hand. “What is that supposed to be?”

“Orange-flavored water. Did you try it?”

“Regretfully.”

She looks down at my plate, which has barely been touched, with its scattered soybeans and lentils. “Not a fan of the cuisine?”

“Is anybody?”

She points at Hartley and his mouth full of pasta. He’s deep in conversation about some obscure physics law that has yet to be proven. “I think Hartley likes it.”

“Hartley has been eating that same plate for the past two hours, and he’s not even half done. I think if anything, that proves he doesn’t have working taste buds.”

“This is the smallest ship you’ve served on, isn’t it?”

I nod, and watch as one of the mess staff dumps a canister full of soybeans into a bin. They slide easily, followed by a stream of glop at the bottom. It turns my stomach.

“The first ship I ever worked on was so small we had to eat rations.” She points to her plate with its tofu meatloaf. “This is gourmet compared to that. God, I can’t even remember the last time I ate real meat.” I don’t know how we got on this topic, but I suddenly want to know something more personal than the last time she ate meat.

“Why did you apply for this mission, Captain? If you don’t mind me asking.” She takes a few thoughtful bites of tofu loaf, chewing each slowly. I think maybe it’s too personal a question and she won’t answer, but finally she does.

“I guess I was looking for a fresh start.”

Before I can probe more, Hartley breaks into our conversation. “What do you think, Captain?” he asks, still chewing the same mouthful as before. “Do you think the farther out from our solar system we go, the more lawless we’ll become, or will we instinctually revert to form and obey the laws of the Union?”

She places her fork down next to her half-finished meal. “I know a lot of people think the farther we get from the Union, the less the laws will apply. But the farther out we get, the more important those laws will become.”

Lunch has reached its peak by this point. The tables have slowly been filling with the crew, and even though there is a low buzz throughout the room as everyone moves through the food line, people have noticeably quieted to listen to our table.


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