Lester was obsessed. It had been a year since the massive beam of light printed the white sphere that invited humanity to a distant star, and he still spent most of his time inspecting the sensor logs in his office. Pictures of the beam and graphs of data covered his windows, blocking the weak starlight from yet another night spent in isolation.
He had stopped returning calls from the stream of reporters and alien enthusiasts who wanted to rehash the details of those events. The bungalow near the Air Force engineering school that he had rented for years was constantly swamped with people, so now he lived out of a Eurovan that he parked next to the gym.
Standing up from his workstation to reheat the coffee that had grown cold while he worked on his information visualization filters, he caught a whiff of his body odor and wondered if that was why students had stopped coming to office hours.
Lester watched the coffee cup spin in the microwave and thought about the months he spent reviewing every detail of the data that his sensor cloud, Clytemnestra, had stored. He had used his instant fame to get full access and now he had the largest and most detailed information about the beam and the mysterious lensing effects near the Sun that caused it.
As he carefully carried the hot coffee back through the dark halls of the school, Lester stopped in front the conference posters made by the aerospace engineering students. Musing over the difference between the high-resolution images on these posters and the hand-inked graphs that he made when he was a student, Lester leaned in to inspect the results from one of the projects.
The student team had begged and borrowed time on several satellite-based telescopes and pointed them so that the Sun was barely in their peripheral view. After they combined the resulting images, the blinding light of the Sun could be filtered out and the resulting image clearly showed objects that otherwise would have been lost in the glare.
Back at his workstation, Lester sipped the reheated coffee, made a face at the taste, and threw it into the garbage. He began to tap his feet as he wrote a small program that gathered the satellite images with the beam’s lens in their peripheral view. He decided that it was enough to generate interesting data, so he moved over to his red yoga ball and started bouncing while he used his administrator access to pull down the computer code that the students wrote and then modify it to search for objects near the lens that weren't in the Air Force's library of known objects.
He started the program and asked Clytemnestra to call him if she found anything. Lester jogged through the dark campus to the gym and used his keys to let himself into the locker room to take a long, hot shower.
Lester woke to the sound of his mobile ringing. He had fallen asleep standing under the soothing stream of water. Toweling off, he opened the connection and looked at the data stream.
"One new object in the lens orbit."
"Hells yeah," said Lester.
"Ms. Stinton, Lester Marcos is here to see you."
Elizabeth looked up from her slate and welcomed Lester into the room. "Come over here and say hello to the second grade at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Seattle."
Lester sighed and walked into range of the slate's camera, waving to the students who were thrilled to see two of the three people who were in the beam. "Hi, kids. Learn to code and you'll never go hungry. Hard drugs kill brain cells."
Elizabeth forced a smile and turned the camera away while saying, "Ok! Well, thank you all for giving me a little time to talk about engineering and how you can use it in your daily life. I'll turn the lesson back over to your teacher now. Bye, kids!"
She put down the slate and punched Lester in the arm. "Come on! That was one of the few streams I did today that I actually enjoyed! Be glad that you didn't walk in on my interview with the W3C. They just wanted to talk about what kind of communication standards the beam used."
They hugged and then Elizabeth held on to Lester's arms and looked him over.
"You look like hell warmed over. Are you sleeping at all?"
"Enough to know that I don't want to spend all of my time talking with people on the net. How do you get anything done?"
Elizabeth looked pained and ran her fingers through her expensive haircut. "I haven't coded in months and I delegated all of my R&D work to my employees. The investors are happy to give me money for a bigger staff now that everyone has seen proof that my air sinter idea is possible. These days I'm just a talking head who reads reports about other people's advances."
Lester carefully sat down in one of the office chairs that looked as if a designer had discovered 3D printing but forgotten how the human body worked. Holding his arms out to avoid toppling, he said, "Speaking of public engagements, I hear that you're going to be the token beam celebrity at the launch of Elton Monk's personal space ship."
"Yes, he asked me to come and break the champagne bottle against the hull. How could I say no to a free trip to space, even if it is to celebrate a big toy for one of the wealthiest people on Earth?"
Lester jumped up and paced around Elizabeth's office, inspecting the pictures of her with other famous people.
"You seem like you have something on your mind, Lester."
"I happy to see you and I'm sorry that I need another reason to come, but yes, I found something that you need to see."
Lester reached into his satchel and pulled out his work slate. Finding one of the few places on Elizabeth's desk that wasn't covered in index cards, he set up the slate and started pulling up satellite images.
"Four hours after the beam disappeared, this image was taken by one of Clytemnestra's sats. The image next to it was taken eight hours later, and the next one six hours after that. In all of them, you can see that there's a new object in the orbit vacated by the lens."
Elizabeth leaned in to look more closely at the images, saying, "Why hasn't anyone else noticed this?"
"It's lost in the glare of the Sun and I'm using a new technique for filtering images. Nobody else has this information."
Elizabeth poked her head out of her office door and said, "Cancel my afternoon appointments, I need to step out."
Elizabeth was grateful for the gates that closed behind them as she drove her car into the parking garage below her apartment building. Those gates and the security guards walking rounds were what kept the crowds away from her door, providing one of the few places where she felt safe and calm.
The private elevator that ran directly to her forty-second floor apartment required a badge to activate, and Lester inspected the security equipment with an approving look on his face. "I'm only left alone on campus because the administration made it clear that any student or teacher who helped a reporter reach me would be immediately expelled or fired. We went through three chemistry professors before people got the message."
Elizabeth hung her bag and motioned for Lester to follow her into the kitchen, where she began pulling out ingredients for a traditional Southern California lunch: soft tacos and light beer.
"I learned to cook two recipes back when I was trying to date," said Elizabeth as she chopped sweet peppers. "It never actually helped me land a second date, but now when friends come over I have something to make for them. Of course, now I can't date because being famous brings out all of the creeps."
Lester looked surprised. "What? I was hoping that when I get around to dating it will be easier because of the beam."
"You'd think that, but after a couple of first dates who wanted to post pictures of us together and ride the fame train, I just gave up. Plus, I didn't want anyone snooping around and finding the sphere. We went through all of that trouble to keep it hidden, it just seemed easier this way."
"So, nobody is waiting up for you at night?"
"Nope," she said and added a little extra vigor to chopping the peppers.
"Well, that makes it easier for me to propose what I have in mind."
"Spill it," she said.
"We're going to steal Elton's space ship," said Lester.
Elizabeth stopped chopping.
The leftovers from lunch were in the refrigerator, ready for late night snacks and bag lunches. Lester and Elizabeth had barely touched their food while they talked about the possibility of stealing the most expensive vehicle ever built.
Elizabeth took a long pull from her beer and looked out over the city. "OK, that's an insane plan but I'll admit that there's a non-zero chance that it will work. But if we pull it off, then what happens to my company?"
Lester laughed. "You yourself said that you're just a figurehead reading reports. You can post video and read reports while on a space ship, can't you?"
"I suppose. Hitchcock is going to be harder to convince."
Lester bounced on the balls of his feet and grinned. "Don't worry, I have a plan for that, too."
Lieutenant Colonel Hitchcock sat at his desk, going over next month's deployment numbers and attempting to ignore the sound of his coworkers' phone calls. His workstation chimed as another message arrived, but he didn't check it because it was almost certainly another order to make an appearance at a military ceremony.
He looked at the clock on his Air Force mobile, hoping that it was time for him to go to the gym to work out the pent-up energy that comes from sitting at a desk.
The beige handset on his desk rang; it was the front gate calling to check whether he was expecting guests. The newly enlisted kid in the gatehouse sounded nervous to talk to the Lieutenant Colonel. "Sir, I have two civilians that you know. Their IDs read Lester Marcos and Elizabeth Stinton and they look like the people from the beam."
Hitchcock sat even more upright than his usually ram rod straight posture. "Give them day passes and direct them to building 21."
After a quick trip to the rest room to check his uniform in the mirror, he jogged to the front of the building to wait for Lester and Elizabeth.
Before Hitchcock could dodge, Lester pulled his handshake into a hug.
Elizabeth laughed at the disparity between the slender cocoa-skinned sprite that was Lester and Hitchcock, who could be a stand-in for a redwood tree. "You look like you've put on ten pounds of muscle since the last time I saw you."
"When I'm not in the field, I need to pick up and put down a lot of heavy things and run 10k every morning. Otherwise, I climb the walls."
Lester said, "Well, you look field ready, which is related to what we're here to talk about. Can you take your lunch break a little early?"
Hitchcock looked curious and motioned them to follow him to his truck. They piled into the cab and drove to an off-base taquería overlooking the ocean, Lester asking about every interesting building and landmark along the way.
Hitchcock led his friends to the back of the restaurant, leaving a trail of people whispering with excitement to see the famous trio. "The owner and I came to an understanding that I can eat in their private event room. Otherwise I can't get two bites down before someone wants to take a picture with me."
As he passed the owner, he raised three fingers and received a nod in return.
Closing the door, he said, "He'll be in with the food in a few minutes. Now, what's the big mystery?"
Lester moved aside the many hot sauces from the center of the nearest table and set up his slate. He ran Hitchcock through the evidence for the unidentified object in the lens' orbit and then paused when the owner came in carrying a large tray of food.
After the table was loaded, leaving almost no room for their plates, Elizabeth said, "You normally eat a third of this? I could eat for a week on this much food!"
Hitchcock shrugged. "Desk work means I work out. A lot." He filled a tortilla with a large spoonful of beans.
After a few minutes of quiet while they ate, Hitchcock paused long enough to ask, "So, why are we having this conversation instead of publishing this data? Do you want me to help you get a meeting with Air Force brass?"
Lester smiled and began to walk the perimeter of the room. "Did you hear that Elizabeth has been asked to launch Elton Monk's new space ship?"
"Yes, the Air Force engineers have been drooling over the specification leaks for months."
Lester stopped walking and stood in front of Hitchcock, maintaining eye contact and smiling.
Hitchcock put down his taco. "No. Not this time. Never again."
Later that afternoon, as Elizabeth and Lester pulled out of the front gate of the base, she asked, "What did Hitchcock mean, never again?"
"Yeah, well. It all worked out fine in the end because the whole world wants to talk to Hitchcock so the Air Force can't fire him, but I didn't exactly have time to get all of the necessary permission to get all of that equipment and those trailers next to the beam. He helped me out."
"What? You two didn't have orders to be there?"
Lester grimaced. "We did, mostly. After Clytemnestra found the anomaly and I worked my way up the chain of command, I got the OK to go check it out. As soon as I saw how big it was, I activated emergency protocols and the Air Force shut down the airspace and had the state patrols block the roads. But I knew that it would take the paper pushers a week to make a decision, and I didn't want to lose all of that data, so I called my good friend Hitchcock, who at the time was the liaison for a special weapons detection team."
"You convinced him to just pack up all of that equipment and head to the desert?"
"He really doesn't like to sit at a desk," Lester said with a grin.
Back at Elizabeth's apartment building, Lester lugged a heavy box into the elevator. "What is all of this gear?"
Elizabeth set a bag of electronic cabling down next to the growing pile and replied, "It's all fine and dandy to have a plan, but one of our teammates needs a little help getting up to the station and playing her part. I need all of this to turn Clytemnestra into a lean, mean, hacking machine."
After the boxes were piled in her living room, Elizabeth asked, "Could you unpack all of this and start putting together our workspace? I need to call Elton and convince him that his launch would be even more amazing if all three of us were there. Then I need to convince my employees that I need a few days to myself. I may have to beg. It won't be pretty."
Elizabeth went into her study to make the calls and Lester separated the packing material from the gear, which he piled into groups according to function. He had to ask Clytemnestra to help him identify a few of the more esoteric items, and he looked forward to Elizabeth showing him how they worked.
As he struggled to jam a rack shelf into place, Elizabeth came back into the living room and took the shelf from him.
"Never trust a software guy with a screwdriver," she said with a smile. She quickly reset the shelf into its proper position and then assembled the rest of the gear while Lester pulled Clytemnestra's source code across to his local storage.
"Nobody else has looked at Clytemnestra's source. I feel a little like I'm about to give you a tour of my underwear drawer."
Elizabeth flipped the final switch on the rack, and the matte-black slabs of computing power came to life. "Don't worry. I practice ego-less programming. I'll be gentle."
She pulled over a chair and sat down at the workspace. Over the next three days it felt like she never left that chair except to use the toilet or crash on the sofa. She lived and breathed Clytemnestra’s code and made the hardware simulators sing, barely noticing when Lester brought her Chinese take-out or Soylent-and-peanut-butter shakes.
At 3 am, just when she thought that she might need shoulder and wrist replacement surgery, everything fell into place. She woke Lester and told him to take a shower and put on clean clothes.
"Let's go. It's time to meet El Printer."
The half-lit sign on the outside of the building read, "Flat Pack Central," and all of the windows were covered with newsprint. Where Lester expected an "Open" sign, there was a plastic sheet with, "Closed Forever," laser cut in some trash typeface.
"Looks like we missed them," said Lester.
Elizabeth threw on her jacket and pulled the storage pack from the back seat. "It always looks this way. Come around back."
They walked around to the loading dock and stopped in front of a webcam. Elizabeth leaned in and pulled a face. "The password is Chief Inspector Hubbard." The door buzzed and opened to let them into a small alcove with a bare light bulb. A cable-strewn shelf at shoulder height held a tiny flat-panel display that slowly blinked the words "El Printer." Elizabeth walked up to the shelf, plugged in her storage pack and yawned. "Now we wait."
Lester looked dubious. "What is this place?"
"When I moved into town it was a normal store where you could send your laser-cutting jobs. You'd find something online that you wanted, you'd send it here and, for not much more money than the price of materials, they'd cut and assemble it.
"But after a while it started getting a little weird. Some of my jobs were free. Some of the designs came out modified with characters from anime. Sometimes they just replaced my design with something better.
"One day the front was closed up like you saw it and I received an email that El Printer was now in business and he could print anything from 3-D plastic to electronics. I've never seen anyone going in or out and I've never seen another customer. I just come to the window, input my design, and then El Printer tells me when to come pick up my print."
Lester looked even more dubious. "That's crazy. What if it doesn't come out right?"
"El Printer fixes it. Once I brought in a rough sketch for a robot arm and two months later I picked up a working prototype that was better than anything I could ever make. It always costs less than I expect, too."
The display above the shelf blinked, "Interesting. Three days."
Elizabeth disconnected her storage pack and grinned. "I knew that El Printer would like this one."
Back at Elizabeth’s apartment, Lester leaned his forehead against the wall-length windows and inspected the city below. Holding his mobile to his ear he said, "No, Hitchcock, there's really no other way to do this. If we hand over the object's orbit to the military, they're going to sit on it until it's a threat. If we give it to academics, they're going to take their sweet time building a probe. Don't you want to get off of the desk and into field?"
Elizabeth could hear that Hitchcock was yelling into the phone but she couldn't make out what he was saying. She shouted across the room, "Tell him that it's a free trip into space!"
Lester nodded. "It's a free trip into space, LC. How often do you get that chance? Elton called in favors with the Air Force to get clearance for you to go. Your commander ordered you to go. Just show up!"
Apparently, that wasn't the right thing to say because the small speaker in Lester's phone jittered and sputtered, unable to fully reproduce the rumbling strength of Hitchcock's voice.
Elizabeth finished packing the carry-on duffel that she was taking to space. Once she checked all of the checkboxes on her packing list, she walked into her study and hinged open a painting of the beam to reveal her wall safe. Turning the tumblers, she felt the same anxiety that she felt each time she opened the safe. Would the sphere be there? Had someone noticed her slipping it into her backpack?
Turning the lever and opening the safe, she was relieved to see it safe and sound, resting on the folded felt bag that she used to transport it.
Lester walked in and stopped when he saw her lift the white sphere out of the safe. "I'm still surprised that it hasn't teleported or flown away or something. The way it was changing shape before it settled into a sphere, I wouldn't be surprised if it walked off on its own."
Elizabeth picked up the sphere, feeling again its not-quite-motion sensation. She slipped it into its soft green bag and carried it to her duffel. "I just hope it doesn't set off any alarms once we're on the station. We'll have enough chaos without a shape-changing alien artifact."
Lester picked up his satchel, apparently the only travel gear he needed, and headed towards the door. "I double checked El Printer's package and it looks perfectly harmless. They won't know what hit them."
Elizabeth slipped the duffel's shoulder strap over her head and gave her apartment one final walkthrough, touching the switches and dials to double-check that they were in a safe position to leave for an indefinite time. "Goodbye, home."
The flight to the Elton Monk space station was aboard the Elton Monk reusable rocket. Lester strained against the safety straps to whisper to Elizabeth, "I'll be surprised if we're not served Elton Muscadines and Elton Mangos."
The roar of the engines drowned out Elizabeth's laughter and they rode the column of fire out of the Earth's grasp. The docking procedure that they watched on their seatback displays was simultaneously exciting and slow, though a few of the passengers spent the trip begging the staff for higher dosages of anti-nausea medicine.
"I thought that there would be more to it," Elizabeth said as she unstrapped her duffel from the bin below her seat. In the microgravity of the station's orbit, she mistakenly thought that the duffel had no momentum because it had no weight. Once it came free of the bin she didn't compensate for its mass and it pinched her thumb against the opposing wall.
Lester pulled his satchel strap over his head and then clipped the chest strap in place. "I knew that strap would eventually come in handy. I just had to leave Earth!"
The curved hallways of the station were surprisingly bright and clean, with clear signage in English, Mandarin Chinese and Swahili. The design aesthetics of Monk Industries were used consistently throughout the station, which gave it a very different look from the International Space Station. Instead of a hodgepodge collection of modules built across nations and decades, this station used the newest fabrics and composite materials to create clean, almost organic shapes.
Lester and Elizabeth followed the staff's instructions and headed into the main gallery. As they pushed into the huge space, their mouths gaped. The center of the space was filled with a mangrove tree the size of a bus, grown in microgravity so while its roots wrapped around a ball of soil, the trunk and branches were a wild sphere of verdant life.
Lester was so entranced that he drifted away from the walls and then squirmed around, trying to find something to push against. "Elizabeth, pull me back!"
Elizabeth pulled her gaze from the tree sphere and held on to a handle so that she could stretch her foot over to Lester. As she pulled him back, she nodded towards the tree. "It's lovely. A testament to life's adaptability."
A gruff voice said, "More like another feather in Elton's cap."
Elizabeth turned and then pushed off of the wall towards Hitchcock, who was wedged into a nook off of the main gallery. "I'm glad you came. Even if you don't believe in what we're doing, I'm glad you're here."
Lester glided over, the awkwardness of being stranded away from the wall lost in his excitement to see Hitchcock. "You came! I knew you'd pick an adventure over the desk."
Hitchcock kept a stony expression and was about to speak when the station address system announced that the launch ceremony would begin in thirty minutes on the spinward side of the gallery.
Elizabeth headed towards the station's guest quarters. "I need to finish up a few things for work before...well, before whatever is about to happen. Lester, you talk to Hitchcock and come get me when it looks like they're starting the ceremony."
"Will do," said Lester, saluting.
"Harrumph," grumbled Hitchcock.
Elizabeth sipped her coffee and repeated, "Yes," into her mobile. She hunched over her workstation, rubbing her tired shoulders and changing a few variables in her program before re-running the test suite.
"Look, I need time to finish hardening the control systems and to stow my gear. I can't do another press conference. Do you want us to look good on the net or to launch on time? Choose one!" She closed the connection.
Waving her hand to beckon Lester as he popped his head into her stateroom, she floated over to her carry-on duffel and ran through a mental checklist to make sure she had everything. She let her hand linger on the white sphere, feeling its not-quite-motion.
Hitchcock knocked and pushed in, neatly pressed and pulling a small bag. Looking at Lester and Elizabeth, he said, "It's that time. Let's move."
Elizabeth looked out of the window for one last view, taking in the sleek lines of the ship and the slowly spinning Earth far below. "Yes, it's that time."
They exited the guest quarters and joined the crowd of people who were gathering around the massive windows overlooking Elton's new ship. Its elegant lines and bright colors matched everything Elizabeth knew about the entrepreneur’s love of fine machines. 'Will you be mine?' she wondered silently.
As the station lights dimmed, a spotlight shone from the far wall to illuminate a podium floating near the gate to the ship. The man behind the podium appeared to be standing in gravity, his wavy hair carefully brushed out of his eyes and his half-smile charming women and men alike. Camera drones flitted around him like hummingbirds around a feeder. "You'll forgive me the theatrics. I've never launched a space ship before."
The crowd tittered and gathered closer to hear what this most famous of men would say. At that moment, Hitchcock broke from the crowd and pushed his way to the podium. "Ma’ams, sirs. I'm sorry to interrupt but there are saboteurs on this station. I was approached by Lester Marcos and Elizabeth Stinton with a plan to steal this ship so that they could investigate an object associated with the beam!"
All eyes turned to Lester and Elizabeth, who immediately started sweating and stuttering.
Elizabeth exclaimed, "What? No!"
Lester shouted, "What the hell, Hitchcock?"
The station staff had practice moving uncooperative people in microgravity. With minimal fuss Elizabeth and Lester were shuttled into the station's administrative offices and locked in an unused workroom. They could hear raised voices arguing outside the door and occasionally Hitchcock's gruff voice responding to questions. A series of increasingly serious staff members questioned Lester and Elizabeth, receiving only stares and silence. Eventually they were left alone to stare at the walls and wait.
At what would have been 2:30 am back at Elizabeth's apartment, the bracelet on her arm chimed. She nudged Lester. "It’s Clytemnestra’s turn."
Lester unclipped a pendant from a chain around his neck and twisted one of the decorative stones set into its glossy face. As he set it on the station floor next to the door, it began to unfold, forming legs and antennae. It slipped under the door and into the administrative offices, then walked the walls until it found its target: a network port hidden behind a workstation. It mantled up to the port, inserted its head and inspected the station network for vulnerabilities. After several near misses with the station's immune system, it found what it was looking for and delivered its payload.
Deep in one of the station's server racks, a software seed began to grow. While Elizabeth and Lester waited for some sign that their plan was working, the tendrils of the seed found their way throughout the station, identifying the resources it needed and disabling the alarms that would stand in its way.
Thirty minutes later, the wall screen next to the workroom door lit up and blinked. It read, "Lester, I have the station."
Lester shook Elizabeth's hand and walked over to the screen. "Hello, Clytemnestra."
After Hitchcock took his leave from the administrative offices, he pushed back into the main gallery and hitched his arm around one of the mangrove branches. The station staff and guests were buzzing with energy and excitement about the attempted sabotage, so few people paid attention to the Lieutenant Colonel when he drifted over to the gate that led to the ship. Perhaps a few wondered what he was thinking while he looked out of the tall windows, but nobody thought to ask what he was doing as he took his slightly too-thick dog tags from around his neck. He snapped them together and then pushed away as the small device unfolded sharp arms that cut a hole in the gate and slipped through.
Taking up his previous position next to the tree, Hitchcock waited. Ten minutes later, his Air Force mobile chirped and displayed a message: "Hitchcock, I have the ship."
At that moment, puncture alarms sounded from three different wings of the station. Automated atmosphere-control partitions began to unfold around the gallery and doors closed throughout the hallways of the station. The station address system rang out, "All staff are to report to their puncture repair teams. All guests are to stay in their quarters or the nearest safety module, marked with the red lights."
Hitchcock slipped deeper into the branches of the mangrove tree.
At 3:14 am, the door to the workroom clicked open. Lester poked his head into the silent administrative office and looked around. "It's clear. Let's go."
Elizabeth spoke into her wristband, "Clytemnestra, where are my duffel and Lester's satchel?"
A screen above one of the wall panels blinked and read, "In here."
Lester pushed over to it, opened the panel and pulled out their luggage. "They must have been disappointed when they didn't find any guns or explosives."
Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief when she lifted the soft green bag and felt the heft of the white sphere. "They must have thought it was a gift or a toy."
"OK, Clytemnestra, what now?"
The door into the hallway unsealed and opened, so Lester and Elizabeth pushed through and raced towards the gallery. "Everyone must be looking for phantom punctures or locked in their rooms and trying to figure out why the doors won't open."
Elizabeth smirked. "I told her that she should give them a series of confusing error messages and then claim to have alerted the staff."
The drifted into the gallery and headed towards the gate to the ship. As they passed the tree, Hitchcock shouldered his way out of the mangrove and joined their flight.
He gave them a wicked grin. "I had you wondering, didn't I?"
Elizabeth looked him in the eye. "I never doubted you."
"I never knew you were such a good actor," said Lester.
"How do you think I convinced you that I don't mind when you pace?"
The gate to the ship opened and a display inside the gangway blinked "This way." At that moment, one of the puncture repair teams pushed into the gallery. The largest staff member shouted, "Hey, what are you doing? Get away from that gate!"
Hitchcock grabbed Lester and Elizabeth by their collars and pushed hard into the gangway. "Close the door, Clyde!"
The heavy metal door slowly rolled closed as the staff members angled across the gallery towards them, reaching the gate just as the airtight seal slotted home.
The banging on the gate door faded as the trio pushed quickly along the gangway, their bags awkwardly dragging behind them.
"Clytemnestra, fire up the engines," Lester yelled, hoping that she was listening in on one of the shipboard microphones. To his relief, low-frequency vibrations soon rattled the handles as he pushed against the walls.
They approached the airlock to the ship and slowed themselves, but they needn’t have. It opened before they reached its brushed-metal exterior. Once inside, the outer door closed and a display on the inner door blinked, "Strap into the seats just inside the airlock."
As they followed directions, the sound of the ship's docking clamps release startled them into stowing their gear and taking their seats as quickly as they could manage in microgravity. The last strap was secured. The maneuvering jets pushed. The massive ship fell away from its berth.
"We did it now," said Hitchcock.
"And that was the easy part," said Elizabeth.
"I forgot my toothbrush," said Lester.
Epilogue: Two weeks later
Floating free above the canopy of the forest dome, Elizabeth scratched the bridge of her nose where her display glass rested. The twine she used to tether herself to the lush trees tickled against her thigh but provided enough slack that the slow rotation of the ship didn't disturb her work.
With practice she had become almost fluent in the small hand motions that controlled the ship’s information systems. She tutted through its many layers and streams and then turned her glasses transparent.
"We're almost in the object’s orbit," she said.
"Thank you," replied the sphere.
Thank you for reading Ship! I enjoyed writing it and I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
There are two more stories in this series, so head to trevor.smith.name to find out what happens to Elizabeth, Lester, Hitchcock, and the rest of the crew.
Trevor F. Smith
@TrevorFSmith on Twitter