Don’t miss this new “first contact” short story

Investation: A Short Story of First Contact

What would you do if you could buy anything?

Duncan Andrew’s life is going nowhere. He and his wife, Ursula, live in a filthy trailer where they use the floor as a shelf.

Clever, smart, engaging. Get your free copy before it’s gone.

Then his uncle dies and leaves him an inheritance. Ursula’s idea of financial management? “We can blow it on a roulette wheel and act all fancy-pants for once in or lives.”

At first, all Ursula wants is a new caravan trailer with the built-in transmitters so she can watch more channels. But Duncan likes his caravan.

A broker talks Duncan into investing in the “celestial market.” And Duncan finds himself the owner of a distant solar system. He’ll never see it in person. It’s thousands of light years away from Earth. And the tolls through all other owned space to get there are exorbitant.

But the young broker promises him an investment “guaranteed to increase your wealth.”

“In the next few years, whatever you buy isn’t going to be on the edge of space anymore. . . . That means it’s guaranteed to increase in value.”

Once the money’s invested, Duncan figures he won’t see a return for at least 20 or 30 years. That’s too bad for Ursula, who needs to pay a deposit to be the next new star on Real Caravan Wives.

But Duncan’s investment pays off much sooner than expected. Intelligent life forms from his solar system arrive . . . . on Earth. And the next thing he knows, Duncan is seated between the President and an alien delegation.

Unlimited wealth and unlimited alien tech? What could go wrong?

I recommend this clever story about a loveable loser thrown into the deep end of interstellar dealings. It’s smart and engaging. You don’t want to miss laugh-out-loud funny scenes. Duncan hires a no-money-up-front lawyer to negotiate the biggest deal in Earth’s history. And then Duncan invites the squid-like Bakchu to his caravan trailer for dinner and serves up spaghetti.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so just get your free copy now, before it’s gone.

Don’t miss this great finalist ending to “Mayday”

During the month of June, I’m sharing the finalist stories from the May Contest. Today’s featured finalist is Shanel Wilson.

Shanel is a writer who has been creating stories from her earliest memories as a child. She loves to explore the core of human nature in extraordinary circumstances, whether that is on a deep space mission or climbing to a nearby antenna array. Shanel is also one of my Champions, a winner of my monthly writing contest, and a frequent finalist of the contest. Whenever she decides to enter, she writes an excellent ending, which I love to share. You can also see more of her writing at starviewsbyshanel.wordpress.com.

In this May Contest story, Shanel found a sinister thread in the directions from Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. To the young scrapper, something does not seem right. So the scrapper with few friends turns hero, even at the risk of making an enemy.

I started the story below. See how Shanel starts after the red line and takes us to a fresh and gripping ending.

Mayday

By Shanel Wilson and Matthew Cross

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Halcyon 5 Space Control, this is United Polity Ship 999Q2-292-383-858-112, courier class. I have multiple air and fuel leaks following a collision with unknown debris—just dust probably—checking scanners now, mmmm, the immediate danger appears to have cleared, but I’ve cut engines to conserve fuel and prevent an explosion. Here are my coordinates. [Series of beeps, clicks and static sound.]

I’m listening to the Mayday from the cockpit of the Scrappy Doo, a merchant scrapper. Don’t ask about the name. It was Mom’s idea, and after she passed, it seemed disrespectful to change the name.

The shipboard comp is automatically recording this message and storing away the coordinates. I recognize the coordinate prefixes. The Polity courier is in my quadrant of the Belt, the vast ring of asteroids that forms the outer limits of the Halcyon system. But that covers a lot of space. After all, the Belt’s diameter is wider than the rest of the solar system inside of it.

I’m the only one on board, but even so my air’s gonna run out in less than 8 hours. Even if I blew all the fuel—if I wanted to risk an explosion—I’d be at least 200 hours out from Halcyon 5. I need a priority pickup under authority of the Polity Navy.

Eight hours of air. It’s every spacer’s nightmare. Without a rescue, you know the hour and the method of your death. And suffocation is a bad way to go.

I’m watching my own scanners as I listen. When you’re in the Belt, you have to be on constant watch. Courier-112’s case proves the point. A small shower of pebbles or even just a patch of dust can perforate a hull and turn it into a sieve. Doesn’t matter whether you fly into it or it flies into you.

The population of the Belt is sizable–mostly miners and scrappers like me. But we’re spread out over so much space you can go years without seeing anyone unless you intend to. So I’m certain someone else will answer the Mayday call. But that’s because I forgot about the family’s luck.

I open my eyes and check my scanners again. That’s when I see the blinking red comm light. My stomach drops.

Reluctantly, I lean forward and reach slowly for the comm switch. Click.

Scrappy Doo. This is Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. This is a priority comm.”

It’s not that I don’t want to help. But I have my own problems. I just loaded up the Doo five days ago with supplies on credit and I need to gather some scrap to pay back Fram. He’s an old friend of Mom’s and the only outfitter who will give me credit. Since Mom died almost a year ago I’ve been living hand to mouth.

And I’ve got a lead on a good haul that could square me with Fram for good. Maybe even give me a small cushion. So I don’t need distractions.

“This is Scrappy Doo,” I mumble.

“Did you receive Mayday UPS Courier-112?”

They know I did. You would have to bore into the middle of a planet not to receive a Mayday. Even the wilds of the Belt are filled with boosts to carry emergency messages.

“Affirmative.”

In my head, I’m repeating a mantra. Not me, not me, not me . . .

“You are the closest ship to Courier-112. Your ship reports you have adequate fuel to reach the Courier and reach orbit at Halcyon 8.”

My head thumps on the control panel. I bought all that fuel on credit. And now they want me to burn it all in a rescue mission for a lousy UPS courier with one passenger?

But what can I do? Space Control and my ship already made the automated electronic handshake. They know my position, my vector, my fuel levels. Control has all the data shown on my control panel and faster comps to spin it up into any simulation they want.

That’s why I’m sitting cross-legged in the pilot’s seat with my crossed fingers tucked under my thighs, hoping I won’t be close enough to help.

I’m also biting my lip, but that’s just because everybody gets nervous when you hear a Mayday. It makes your heart jump into your throat.

If I don’t render aid, then I’ll lose the Scrappy Doo the first time I make port. They’ll impound the Doo and throw me in the brig.

“This is Scrappy Doo.” I hear some chuckles in the background from Control. I grit my teeth but then smile. With Fram as my only friend, I can’t afford enemies. I smile because you can hear the difference over comms. “I’m changing course to render aid.”

“Affirmative Scrappy Doo. We’ve fed your ship the coordinates for the optimum intercept. We’re also sending a priority UPS Medical Transport to rendezvous with you near the rim of the Belt. Thank you for your service and we’ll try to get you back on your course as soon as possible.”

Even without checking my comp, I know this trip is going to use up half my fuel. If speed is not a factor, you burn the most fuel just changing course. One turn to meet the courier and one to head to the rendezvous point with the med transport . . . I just shake my head.

I paste on a fake smile.

“Control, have you confirmed the identity of Courier, umm . . .” I’ve already forgotten the courier ship’s designation. I check a monitor. “UPS Courier-112? I’m solo crew and I have minimal weapons capability.”

I can’t keep all the quaver out of my voice. It’s actually worse than it sounds. My shields are only rated for space debris and minor port collisions. And the ‘defensive lasers’ that came standard with this scrapper model are really just part of the array of cutting tools for scrapping. Sure, they’re strong, but the aiming and target-tracking programs are a joke, and the combat display features on my monitors are clearly an afterthought.

So, I’m not completely defenseless. But any well-armed pirate . . . Let’s just say the thought makes me damp under the arms.

“No worries, Scrappy Doo, we’ve confirmed the identity of the UPS courier. It’s the real deal.” There’s some chatter in the background. “That courier has some special Navy designations, too. They’re classified, but let’s just say the passenger is somebody important.”

A VIP, huh? Maybe there’s an upside here, as long as he and I both survive this.

They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“We’ll live monitor your progress until rendezvous. I’m also sending your ship a boost code. Your ship’s automated beacon will warn all other ships that you are under Mayday orders and protected by Control and Polity Navy authority.”

Oh, goody, I think. Control is millions of kloms away. They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“Thank you, Control. Changing course to respond to Mayday UPS Courier-112.”

The comp says six hours to intercept, including deceleration to match speed and direction of the courier. That’s good. The courier reported he had less than 8 hours of air, which is not a precise number. But air consumption is not a precise measurement, no matter what the engineers say, and add a tiny, undetected leak or two and it’s anyone’s guess.

If the courier is conscious when I arrive and the ship’s hatch is not damaged, then bringing him aboard will take no time at all. If he’s trapped in a can leaking fuel, that will get tricky. 

I spend the first hour checking Control’s intercept calculations. Of course, they’re right, but it’s a good math exercise to run. How often do you get a chance to run real space math and check it against a Control calculation? If you want to pilot a ship, you gotta know your math. Calculations also calm and center the mind.

That task done, I try and take a nap. It’s hopeless, of course. I’m nervous for the courier. I’m terrified for me.

So I do some more math. I plug myself back into the comp and run air, water and food calculations for two people aboard the Doo. AOK.

I run rescue simulations, practicing some extractions with each of my cutting tools. The first run throughs are pretty smooth. Control didn’t send me much for specs on the courier, so I send a message to request those. I get back a set of generic specs on Polity courier ships. I send again, asking for Courier-112’s specs from its own computer. The terse message back says those are classified.

Classified? They want me to run a rescue and not give me the specs? That sounds like the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron.

“A bunch of morons,” I say to myself.

I spend the rest of the trip checking equipment again and again. And then I check it again.

Before I’m in visual sight of Courier-112, I hail it. The ships already made their electronic handshake. Something in the codes from Control must have authorized the courier ship to do that much. But the courier ship won’t tell me anything about passengers or bio signs. It’s classified, I’m sure.

After three explosions, my hands are shaking.

The courier’s pilot is not responding to my hails, either.

I add fuel leaks to the rescue simulations. Big mistake. After three explosions, my hands are shaking. I unstrap and float to the back to the equipment storage.

Until I was close, I didn’t want him to use up any air talking. I could have just texted, of course. But to tell the truth, I put it off until now because I didn’t want any bad news.

When I reach visual range, it doesn’t look so bad. Courier-112 looks to be in a single piece. It’s riding straight, not spinning out of control, gliding smoothly on course. I let go of the breath I’d been holding in.

The Doo and I go through the docking sequence together. The Doo aligns with Courier-112 and I make the final small adjustments visually. I feel the slight vibration as the ships connect. Textbook docking!

I slump back in my seat, relieved. Ships only make this kind of docking maneuver in cases of rescue or combat. I’d only done it once before with Mom at my side.

The relief doesn’t last long. I still can’t raise a response from the courier’s pilot. I try everything, including the comms built into the Doo’s docking arms connected to the courier.

I’m going to have to go outside. Vac, vac, vac!

I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Never hurry. Think it through. Make a plan. It’s only the spacers that lose their heads and rush around that get hurt.”

Instead of unlatching, I check my monitors. First, assess the situation. I had set a countdown clock based on 8 hours of air. If the courier’s estimate was good, he should have plenty of air left. But he could still be injured. Unconscious.

I went through my options. Legally, I could report this to Control and stay in my seat. The duty to render aid on a Mayday does not extend to space walks. Legally, all I had to do was wait here until the courier’s pilot climbed aboard or death was confirmed. I could even earn a small commission just giving the ship a push in the right direction for a Halcyon recovery crew.

I run through all my options twice, but the truth is, I’m a spacer. And in space, a spacer renders aid. Because this could happen to anyone. Mom would agree.

I send Control a quick update, half hoping they’ll tell me to sit tight. I get no response. That happens in the Belt. Dead patches run throughout. With shaking hands, I unlatch and climb into my suit. I move slowly and deliberately. I think through every action.

Before I know it, I’m opening the hatch of Courier-112. So far, Control and the ship’s own comp have been so secretive, I half expect red lights and sirens when I pull the inset lever to reveal the wheel. Instead, the wheel begins to turn itself. The pilot told the ship to let me in. That doesn’t mean he’s conscious, I remind myself. He could have set the sequence before passing out.

The hatch opens, revealing the clear film of a gel seal. A courier ship is too small for a separate decompression chamber. Only the seal separates the cabin’s oxygen and open space. Through the film, I see the top of the pilot’s head. He’s wearing a suit and helmet as well. He does not move.

I push my helmet through the film and connect to his helmet.

Both our reflective faceshields open automatically at the connection, leaving clear panes for us to see through. Our suits have synched their own comms.

His eyes are closed. A shock runs through me. I’m too late, I think.

Then he opens his eyes. He has dull blue eyes, almost gray. He smiles slightly as his eyes focus in on mine. Then his pupils open wider as he examines my face.

“You’re just a kid!”

“Yeah, well, I’m the kid that’s saving your hide.”

“Negative, it’s too late for that,” he says. He looks down.

I see a detail I missed before. Small threads of red extend from the chest of his suit, wiggling in the thin air. Blood. The suit sealed itself, of course. Just two small holes, but they’re high on the chest.

And then I see the bubbles of red in the corners of his mouth.

“Are you alone?” he asks.

What a creepy question. That’s my first thought. But it’s an important one. A fair question, I guess.

“Yes, I’m the solo captain-pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”

I see confusion in his eyes.

“I’m a scrapper.”

“Negative,” he says. “Now you’re UPS Courier-112. Get this to Halcyon 5.”

He raises his hand to me, holding a black slip of plastic. A data chip, no doubt.

“Halcyon 8?” I say weakly.

“Negative,” he mumbles, “Halcyon 5. It’s . . . “ He gasps and I hear burbling sounds. “. . . urgent.”


START EDITING HERE

His eyes close and his arm goes limp, still holding the plastic slip. I slowly reach out and take it from his glove.

“UPS Courier-112, please respond.”

I barely hear the words coming from my own helmet as I examine the small bit of plastic. It is smaller than other data chips I’ve seen. Maybe that’s why it’s classified.

“UPS Courier-112, please respond. Are you in possession of the asset?”

“This is the pilot of the Scrappy Doo. Is this Control? I just made contact with UPS Courier-112. I’m too late.”

“Are you in possession of the asset?” the voice repeated.

“Uh, I have the data chip, if that’s what you’re asking. I can pass it off at the medical rendezvous . . .”

“Negative. Return to the operational vessel and report to Halcyon 8.”

“You don’t understand. The courier is dead. This is the pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”

“You are the courier now, and your vessel is now considered the UPS Courier-112.”

This is happening too fast.

Slow down, I tell myself. Okay, what are the facts so far? Control asked me to render aid to the UPS Courier-112 because of their Mayday. I arrived and made contact. The pilot died after giving me whatever this is, telling me to get it to Halcyon 5. Now a voice that may or may not be Control is ordering me to Halcyon 8 as the new UPS Courier-112. What was I missing?

I look over the controls in front of the dead pilot. The nav shows Halcyon 8 as the destination. Why did he say Halcyon 5?

“Your new coordinates have been delivered to your vessel. Your arrival imperative.”

A ping from my suit alerts me that the Scrappy Doo has a new destination target and will begin course in five minutes, whether I am undocked here or not. I quickly transfer the remaining fuel that’s left in the leaking UPS Courier-112 back to the Scrappy Doo and head through the hatch.

I stash the data chip in my pocket and get to work. I’ve only seen Mom attempt this once and she failed and that was just a training test. This was the real deal.

“Don’t fail me now, math!” I say to the console in front of me.

I get another ping that there is one minute left until the new course will take over the controls. Sweat beads on my forehead. Just a few more calculations. Just a little more.

“I did it!”

The course is disengaged. I let out a sigh of relief, but only for a moment. Whoever sent those coordinates will know soon enough that I’m not on my way to them. So much for not making any new enemies.

I retrieve the plastic slip from my pocket.

“I hope you’re worth all this,” I say to it. “Ok, looks like scrapping will have to wait for now. Let’s move.”

I cross my fingers and legs as I set a course for Halcyon 5.


If you enjoyed Shanel Wilson’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

And if you have not already read the original contest-winning story, read it here!

Be stellar! 🚀✨

Matthew Cross

3 Questions with Glenn R. Frank

Glenn won my May Contest by writing a thrilling surprise ending to “Mayday: A Sci Fi Rescue.”

How did you get into Sci Fi writing?

Glenn R. Frank, doing some “mission control” cosplay at Disneyland Resort.

I became interested in writing after watching a number of Drew Wagar’s Twitch streams. He is a Sci Fi/Fantasy author who wrote a number of books I loved reading, and he was using Twitch to do a “Sci Fi and Fantasy Writing Stream.”

After he had gone through several topics, he suggested it would be fun to do some hands-on and practical writing together, to put into practice what we had learned. We worked as a group to world-build and create a timeline of “epochs” surrounding our basic outline story. Every writer took one of these epochs and circumstances in the timeline and we each composed our own stories in that world that were stand-alone tales, but also could be connected because of the timeline and shared world. This project became the Nine Streams of Consciousness anthology, which we self-published on Amazon.

We wrote our stories independently, then critiqued, edited, and offered advice/constructive criticism on-stream and through a shared Word document online. Writers in the group were from Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. so everything was done online without ever meeting in person. 

Everyone learned a lot and grew in their confidence and abilities through this process. I had originally intended to only write one 10,000-word story for the book, but I ended up writing three more in the 3,000- to 5,000-word size. In the end, we had fifteen stories, written by nine authors. Each story has its own unique style, point of view, and emphasis. It was a great first-time writing experience for a number of us. Only four or so of the authors in it had previously been published, but everyone did an amazing job and we are all very proud of how well it came out.

Other than writing and reporting for a non-profit organization in their newsletter, I have not really had a lot of writing experience, at least not in the realm of fiction writing. I really only have written fiction here and there for fun or myself, never intending to publish it. But the anthology project lit a fire under me and made me want to write fiction in a more focused way for publication.

I have always been a Sci Fi, and a space nerd, which of course makes Sci Fi my favorite type of book to read and write. I also love fantasy, ancient history, and military ships and aircraft, but Sci Fi is my true love. I hope to produce a Sci Fi novel of my own, or maybe a series, in the next year. I hope to tie some of my other interests, such as history and science, into this work in progress as well.

Why did you decide to enter the May Contest?

I decided it would be a fun challenge to try to match the style and feel of someone else’s unfinished story. I invited a number of friends, including a few from our anthology project, to give it a try, too, to give it a little more competition. I’m not sure how many others submitted endings for the contest, but I enjoyed solving the mystery that the original story introduced.

It was fun and challenging to take the hints, clues, and mysteries in the beginning of the story and imagine solutions and connections that they might hint at for the ending. It was a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle where the ending was hinted at and in relation to the completed part of the puzzle, but I could make the last part whatever I imagined it should be. 

I have not co-written a single story before. The Nine Streams of Consciousness anthology project did allow a lot of shared world-building and editing collaboration, but we did write our stories independently of each other. Yet we also looked for places in the stories where we could connect them with one another. We shared some characters, places, and events which tied them together into a connected narrative.

How did you find the contest challenging?

The challenging part was fitting an ending which wrapped up the story into 500 words or less. I wanted to make sure the implications of the conflicts and details given in the beginning had payoff and were satisfactorily tied into the ending. Five hundred words can come up on you pretty fast when your imagination is flowing!

I read and re-read the given starting story a few times and made notes on elements that were hinted at, like the character Fram, which the point-of-view character talked about. I asked myself questions about the hints in the story like “What would be on the data chip?” and “Why would he be trying to get to planet 5 instead of 8? — Was 8 or 5 closer?” Writing out some of these details and questions helped me conceive of the ending I wrote.

I encourage others to give story writing a try and see what comes of it. This monthly challenge is a fun mental exercise–a creative puzzle to solve. 

Don’t miss another great ending from a May finalist

During the month of June, I’m sharing the finalist stories from the May Contest. Today’s featured finalist is Carla Ra.

Carla Ra is a self-described “scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night” and hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She recently released a Sci Fi anthology, Artificial Rebellion, which you can get for free by visiting her website at authorcarlara.com.

In writing her story ending, Carla picked up on a theme I had wanted to explore further: Pirates! When writing the story beginning, I wanted to make space pirates a real theme of the story. But due to space limits, I just mentioned it as a reasonable fear held by our scrapper. Carla grabbed that idea and took the scrapper down a darker path.

I started the story below. See how Carla starts after the red line and takes us to a surprise ending.

Mayday

By Carla Ra and Matthew Cross

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Halcyon 5 Space Control, this is United Polity Ship 999Q2-292-383-858-112, courier class. I have multiple air and fuel leaks following a collision with unknown debris—just dust probably—checking scanners now, mmmm, the immediate danger appears to have cleared, but I’ve cut engines to conserve fuel and prevent an explosion. Here are my coordinates. [Series of beeps, clicks and static sound.]

I’m listening to the Mayday from the cockpit of the Scrappy Doo, a merchant scrapper. Don’t ask about the name. It was Mom’s idea, and after she passed, it seemed disrespectful to change the name.

The shipboard comp is automatically recording this message and storing away the coordinates. I recognize the coordinate prefixes. The Polity courier is in my quadrant of the Belt, the vast ring of asteroids that forms the outer limits of the Halcyon system. But that covers a lot of space. After all, the Belt’s diameter is wider than the rest of the solar system inside of it.

I’m the only one on board, but even so my air’s gonna run out in less than 8 hours. Even if I blew all the fuel—if I wanted to risk an explosion—I’d be at least 200 hours out from Halcyon 5. I need a priority pickup under authority of the Polity Navy.

Eight hours of air. It’s every spacer’s nightmare. Without a rescue, you know the hour and the method of your death. And suffocation is a bad way to go.

I’m watching my own scanners as I listen. When you’re in the Belt, you have to be on constant watch. Courier-112’s case proves the point. A small shower of pebbles or even just a patch of dust can perforate a hull and turn it into a sieve. Doesn’t matter whether you fly into it or it flies into you.

The population of the Belt is sizable–mostly miners and scrappers like me. But we’re spread out over so much space you can go years without seeing anyone unless you intend to. So I’m certain someone else will answer the Mayday call. But that’s because I forgot about the family’s luck.

I open my eyes and check my scanners again. That’s when I see the blinking red comm light. My stomach drops.

Reluctantly, I lean forward and reach slowly for the comm switch. Click.

Scrappy Doo. This is Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. This is a priority comm.”

It’s not that I don’t want to help. But I have my own problems. I just loaded up the Doo five days ago with supplies on credit and I need to gather some scrap to pay back Fram. He’s an old friend of Mom’s and the only outfitter who will give me credit. Since Mom died almost a year ago I’ve been living hand to mouth.

And I’ve got a lead on a good haul that could square me with Fram for good. Maybe even give me a small cushion. So I don’t need distractions.

“This is Scrappy Doo,” I mumble.

“Did you receive Mayday UPS Courier-112?”

They know I did. You would have to bore into the middle of a planet not to receive a Mayday. Even the wilds of the Belt are filled with boosts to carry emergency messages.

“Affirmative.”

In my head, I’m repeating a mantra. Not me, not me, not me . . .

“You are the closest ship to Courier-112. Your ship reports you have adequate fuel to reach the Courier and reach orbit at Halcyon 8.”

My head thumps on the control panel. I bought all that fuel on credit. And now they want me to burn it all in a rescue mission for a lousy UPS courier with one passenger?

But what can I do? Space Control and my ship already made the automated electronic handshake. They know my position, my vector, my fuel levels. Control has all the data shown on my control panel and faster comps to spin it up into any simulation they want.

That’s why I’m sitting cross-legged in the pilot’s seat with my crossed fingers tucked under my thighs, hoping I won’t be close enough to help.

I’m also biting my lip, but that’s just because everybody gets nervous when you hear a Mayday. It makes your heart jump into your throat.

If I don’t render aid, then I’ll lose the Scrappy Doo the first time I make port. They’ll impound the Doo and throw me in the brig.

“This is Scrappy Doo.” I hear some chuckles in the background from Control. I grit my teeth but then smile. With Fram as my only friend, I can’t afford enemies. I smile because you can hear the difference over comms. “I’m changing course to render aid.”

“Affirmative Scrappy Doo. We’ve fed your ship the coordinates for the optimum intercept. We’re also sending a priority UPS Medical Transport to rendezvous with you near the rim of the Belt. Thank you for your service and we’ll try to get you back on your course as soon as possible.”

Even without checking my comp, I know this trip is going to use up half my fuel. If speed is not a factor, you burn the most fuel just changing course. One turn to meet the courier and one to head to the rendezvous point with the med transport . . . I just shake my head.

I paste on a fake smile.

“Control, have you confirmed the identity of Courier, umm . . .” I’ve already forgotten the courier ship’s designation. I check a monitor. “UPS Courier-112? I’m solo crew and I have minimal weapons capability.”

I can’t keep all the quaver out of my voice. It’s actually worse than it sounds. My shields are only rated for space debris and minor port collisions. And the ‘defensive lasers’ that came standard with this scrapper model are really just part of the array of cutting tools for scrapping. Sure, they’re strong, but the aiming and target-tracking programs are a joke, and the combat display features on my monitors are clearly an afterthought.

So, I’m not completely defenseless. But any well-armed pirate . . . Let’s just say the thought makes me damp under the arms.

“No worries, Scrappy Doo, we’ve confirmed the identity of the UPS courier. It’s the real deal.” There’s some chatter in the background. “That courier has some special Navy designations, too. They’re classified, but let’s just say the passenger is somebody important.”

A VIP, huh? Maybe there’s an upside here, as long as he and I both survive this.

They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“We’ll live monitor your progress until rendezvous. I’m also sending your ship a boost code. Your ship’s automated beacon will warn all other ships that you are under Mayday orders and protected by Control and Polity Navy authority.”

Oh, goody, I think. Control is millions of kloms away. They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“Thank you, Control. Changing course to respond to Mayday UPS Courier-112.”

The comp says six hours to intercept, including deceleration to match speed and direction of the courier. That’s good. The courier reported he had less than 8 hours of air, which is not a precise number. But air consumption is not a precise measurement, no matter what the engineers say, and add a tiny, undetected leak or two and it’s anyone’s guess.

If the courier is conscious when I arrive and the ship’s hatch is not damaged, then bringing him aboard will take no time at all. If he’s trapped in a can leaking fuel, that will get tricky. 

I spend the first hour checking Control’s intercept calculations. Of course, they’re right, but it’s a good math exercise to run. How often do you get a chance to run real space math and check it against a Control calculation? If you want to pilot a ship, you gotta know your math. Calculations also calm and center the mind.

That task done, I try and take a nap. It’s hopeless, of course. I’m nervous for the courier. I’m terrified for me.

So I do some more math. I plug myself back into the comp and run air, water and food calculations for two people aboard the Doo. AOK.

I run rescue simulations, practicing some extractions with each of my cutting tools. The first run throughs are pretty smooth. Control didn’t send me much for specs on the courier, so I send a message to request those. I get back a set of generic specs on Polity courier ships. I send again, asking for Courier-112’s specs from its own computer. The terse message back says those are classified.

Classified? They want me to run a rescue and not give me the specs? That sounds like the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron.

“A bunch of morons,” I say to myself.

I spend the rest of the trip checking equipment again and again. And then I check it again.

Before I’m in visual sight of Courier-112, I hail it. The ships already made their electronic handshake. Something in the codes from Control must have authorized the courier ship to do that much. But the courier ship won’t tell me anything about passengers or bio signs. It’s classified, I’m sure.

After three explosions, my hands are shaking.

The courier’s pilot is not responding to my hails, either.

I add fuel leaks to the rescue simulations. Big mistake. After three explosions, my hands are shaking. I unstrap and float to the back to the equipment storage.

Until I was close, I didn’t want him to use up any air talking. I could have just texted, of course. But to tell the truth, I put it off until now because I didn’t want any bad news.

When I reach visual range, it doesn’t look so bad. Courier-112 looks to be in a single piece. It’s riding straight, not spinning out of control, gliding smoothly on course. I let go of the breath I’d been holding in.

The Doo and I go through the docking sequence together. The Doo aligns with Courier-112 and I make the final small adjustments visually. I feel the slight vibration as the ships connect. Textbook docking!

I slump back in my seat, relieved. Ships only make this kind of docking maneuver in cases of rescue or combat. I’d only done it once before with Mom at my side.

The relief doesn’t last long. I still can’t raise a response from the courier’s pilot. I try everything, including the comms built into the Doo’s docking arms connected to the courier.

I’m going to have to go outside. Vac, vac, vac!

I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Never hurry. Think it through. Make a plan. It’s only the spacers that lose their heads and rush around that get hurt.”

Instead of unlatching, I check my monitors. First, assess the situation. I had set a countdown clock based on 8 hours of air. If the courier’s estimate was good, he should have plenty of air left. But he could still be injured. Unconscious.

I went through my options. Legally, I could report this to Control and stay in my seat. The duty to render aid on a Mayday does not extend to space walks. Legally, all I had to do was wait here until the courier’s pilot climbed aboard or death was confirmed. I could even earn a small commission just giving the ship a push in the right direction for a Halcyon recovery crew.

I run through all my options twice, but the truth is, I’m a spacer. And in space, a spacer renders aid. Because this could happen to anyone. Mom would agree.

I send Control a quick update, half hoping they’ll tell me to sit tight. I get no response. That happens in the Belt. Dead patches run throughout. With shaking hands, I unlatch and climb into my suit. I move slowly and deliberately. I think through every action.

Before I know it, I’m opening the hatch of Courier-112. So far, Control and the ship’s own comp have been so secretive, I half expect red lights and sirens when I pull the inset lever to reveal the wheel. Instead, the wheel begins to turn itself. The pilot told the ship to let me in. That doesn’t mean he’s conscious, I remind myself. He could have set the sequence before passing out.

The hatch opens, revealing the clear film of a gel seal. A courier ship is too small for a separate decompression chamber. Only the seal separates the cabin’s oxygen and open space. Through the film, I see the top of the pilot’s head. He’s wearing a suit and helmet as well. He does not move.

I push my helmet through the film and connect to his helmet.

Both our reflective faceshields open automatically at the connection, leaving clear panes for us to see through. Our suits have synched their own comms.

His eyes are closed. A shock runs through me. I’m too late, I think.

Then he opens his eyes. He has dull blue eyes, almost gray. He smiles slightly as his eyes focus in on mine. Then his pupils open wider as he examines my face.

“You’re just a kid!”

“Yeah, well, I’m the kid that’s saving your hide.”

“Negative, it’s too late for that,” he says. He looks down.

I see a detail I missed before. Small threads of red extend from the chest of his suit, wiggling in the thin air. Blood. The suit sealed itself, of course. Just two small holes, but they’re high on the chest.

And then I see the bubbles of red in the corners of his mouth.

“Are you alone?” he asks.

What a creepy question. That’s my first thought. But it’s an important one. A fair question, I guess.

“Yes, I’m the solo captain-pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”

I see confusion in his eyes.

“I’m a scrapper.”

“Negative,” he says. “Now you’re UPS Courier-112. Get this to Halcyon 5.”

He raises his hand to me, holding a black slip of plastic. A data chip, no doubt.

“Halcyon 8?” I say weakly.

“Negative,” he mumbles, “Halcyon 5. It’s . . . “ He gasps and I hear burbling sounds. “. . . urgent.”


He is . . . I take three steps backward before running as fast as I can, stumbling on my way back to the Doo.

My hands shake so much I have trouble clicking the comm switch.

“He’s dead,” I say, gasping.

“Can you elaborate, Scrappy Doo?”

“I went inside, and he—” I choke. The guilt for leaving him there is tightening my throat. The fear is forcing tears out of my eyes.

I hear chattering on the radio.

Scrappy Doo, you were not authorized to enter the ship.”

Not authorized? I was on a rescue mission! I had the option of staying inside the Doo, but no decent person would sit back in this situation. I rub the tears off my cheek. A hoarse, grave voice spoke in the background of Control.

“Ask him if he was alive.”

“He died in my hands,” I answer before they ask me.

The man in the background now addresses me.

“Did he give you something?” I hesitate to answer, so he continues, “Maybe a microchip?”

It brings the dead man’s request back to my mind.

“Yes,” I say. “I have to take it to Halcyon 5.”

“No. I’ll keep it. Your rescue mission will be done after I retrieve the item.”

Something doesn’t seem right. Control’s request goes against a rescue-mission protocol. And they’re not even worried about the deceased crew member.

I receive a second signal, encrypted in a frequency that screams unofficial. If it’s an attack, I’m doomed.
“Hi there.”

Yep, definitely unofficial. I ignore it, not knowing what to say.

The softly-spoken woman insists. “Do not hand the microchip to Halcyon 8 Control. The attack on UPS Courier-112 was their doing. They arranged it to look like an accident and sent you here to confirm their story. All for the data in this chip.”

I realize I had a firm grip around the microchip. I open my hand and stare at it for a second. My heart is in my mouth.

“Are you a pirate?” I ask.

“I’m your escort. Now, you have two options. Come to Halcyon 5 with us, or risk getting into an accident, just like Courier-112 did.”

I fall back in the chair and tuck my hands under my thighs, rocking back and forth. Is it true? Am I in danger?

“We pay well,” she says.

That is a compelling argument.

Assess the situation, think it through, make a plan. Why is it so tricky under pressure?

Scrappy Doo, do you copy?” Control says.

It seems they did not intercept the pirate’s signal. I take a deep breath and straighten my back.

“It’s UPS Courier-112, now.” Mom would forgive me for changing the name. “I’m going to Halcyon 5.”

“Good boy,” the pirate says.

I smile. Now I have better friends than Fram.


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The Festival of Juno

How many times had I dreamed of a night like tonight?

As girls growing up in a backwater planet of the Republic, we all had fantasies of escaping to a “civilized world” and living a life filled with wealth, fame, and romance. Starry nights scented with flowers and our own perfume. Hair bound up by a real hairdresser. Sheathed in a couture gown.

And now, here I am, heat sealed into a gown and ascending the stairs of the Temple of Juno. Climbing this hill to mix with the glittering hoi polloi of the City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic.

So what’s the problem?

First, I don’t belong here.

Don’t get me wrong. My credentials are legit. I am the Daughters of Juno representative from my planet. The Vesta Society helped me secure the spot. But I definitely don’t feel right among all these Paxers.

Second, I’m a spy.

Third, these heels are killing me.

We’re climbing the Thousand Steps from the dock below to the temple above. I don’t know how these other girls are doing it. Most of them are from Pax Romana, so they are used to the intense gravity here. My little planet looks more like a moon with gravity to match. And the exercycles and running turbines on the transport ship RPS Brutus just can’t get you in shape for this.

City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic. Photo by Carlos Ibanez.

The girl in front of me springs up the steps. With her long gown, I can’t see her legs or feet, but her butt looks amazing. Like she climbs steps in her sleep.

I hate her.

I’m only halfway up the curved steps that climb the slope from the lake and I’m breathing like a draft ox. I stop a moment–just a moment–to slip off my heels. As I bend to pick them up, the girl behind me bumps my butt with her head. We both curse. I snatch the slender straps of my heels with one hand, making sure not to let the candle I’m carrying go out.

There’s more cursing and grumbling going on behind me. I know they’re talking about me. Besides the usual, unladylike curse words drifting up from below are words like “spacing,” “oaf,” and “hick.” My ears burn.

I steal a glance backwards and see that the long, snaking line of candles is twitching and hitching up the stone stairs. I look ahead and see a seamless line of women and candles winding through the hillside olive orchard. I seem to be messing up their perfect promenade. I’m not exactly blending.

These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. Photo by Mathew Schwartz.

Yes, we are climbing hand-hewn stone stairs through an olive orchard. These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. And speaking of smells, I know they shun deodorants and claim to like natural, human musk–thus, differentiating themselves from spacers and those living in sterile “airless” colonies. But when we get into the ballroom at the top, I think we’re going to smell more like a herd of cattle than a perfumed harem of debutantes.


It’s dim in the anteroom, but all those candles provide me with enough light to see the other girls pretty well. As they pass through the door, each one bends down to remove slippers and pull on a pair of heels from her purse. Well, that explains one thing. I dunk my candle in the silver urn of water like the girl in front of me and slip my heels back on. I’m definitely going to have blisters.

I can also see everyone’s dress clearly for the first time. From the time I stepped out of the limo, I’ve been in a dark tunnel, a lightless security check, and a lightless ferry. The only girl I’ve seen clearly is Super Butt right in front of me.

No two dresses are exactly the same, not exactly. Like theirs, mine is shiny and sheer, nearly cut down to the navel from the neck and definitely cut up to the waist from the hem. When I tried on the dress for the first time on the PRS Brutus, it took my breath away. And that was even before the final fitting and heat sealing of the stiches. Helena, my minder from the Vesta Society, even smiled. A rare treat.

“Ummm . . . I love it. Really, I do. But I can see right through this thing. Shouldn’t I be wearing a slip for the fitting?”

“No, dear. Republic society women never wear anything under these dresses. It ruins the line. Tiara, necklace, dress, purse, shoes, and perfume. Nothing else.”

Aghast, I looked in the monitor showing my image. “But you can see everything. I mean . . . everything!”

Helena suggested I could get used to the attention by wearing the dress around the Brutus. I thought of the rough-handed, loud-mouthed spacers aboard the ship–my kind of people–and shut my mouth.

Of course, the Vesta Society outfitted me with synthetic skin bands on my legs and back to carry a few tools. But they do nothing to protect my modesty.

In the anteroom, I notice one more detail. Every dress ahead of me is blue. Of course. Juno’s sacred color. I look behind me. The girl behind me is managing to adjust her tiara and give me a dirty look at the same time. She is also wearing blue. And so are all the women behind her.

I am wearing red.

How had the Vesta Society missed that detail? They thought of everything!

I’m sweating from the climb up the Thousand Steps, but suddenly my sweat runs cold. If they didn’t know the Daughters of Juno all wore blue, what else did they not know? What other surprises are in store for me?

And then I see the next one. I’m almost to the far end of the anteroom. There is an older woman checking tiara, necklace, dress, purse, and shoes. I know she’ll never let me past in a red dress.

I pump the false molar just once and spit the tracing juice on the blue dress in front of me.

“Oh, honey!” I wail, faking a nasal Paxer accent. “What’s that on your dress?”

In the swarm that converges on Super Butt, I sneak past the gatekeeper. I round a dark corner and emerge into a dazzling, white light. I freeze.

A smooth baritone voice announces a name. It’s not my name, and all I can see in all directions is brilliant, white light. Then my training kicks in and I remember. I’m at the top of the winding ramp–the Gauntlet, they call it–that descends past all the vids to the ballroom floor. The name they called must be Super Butt’s. I took her place in line.

I try the elegant spider walk we practiced over and over on the Brutus, but the ship’s weak anti-grav is a poor substitute. I skitter-slide my way down the ramp to the sound of gasps and titters and explosions of light.

When I reach the bottom, my vision begins to recover. A dance floor filled with young men in black and young women in blue dresses whirls past. Out of the last bright light comes a dark form. It takes me by the hand and the waist and spins me into the maelstrom.

It takes my breath away.

I look up and my dance partner is none other than the Marquess Douro, my target. Did the Vesta Society arrange this somehow or is it just amazing, dumb luck?

There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Photo by Mateus Campos-Felipe.

Dancing weightless is not the same thing as dancing at the bottom of a planet’s gravity well. And, yet, in his arms, I feel as though I’m floating. His strong arms hold an effortless frame and I cling to them. As we spin, my body brushes his and I’m very aware of the sheer nothing I’m wearing.

He is tall with broad shoulders. The wreath of green olive leaves rests on his glistening, dark curls. And his eyes? Dark-green pools my soul could dive into and drown.

He is the target, I remind myself. But I don’t feel like I’m stalking him. Just the opposite. In this style of dancing, the women step backwards as the men “lead” them around the dance floor. My steps are light. I feel like I’m fleeing backwards as he pursues me with hungry eyes. I’m fleeing, but his arms direct my every step.

“I gotta get out of here,” I mumble.

“Great idea!” he says. “I know a shortcut.”

He lets go of my waist and I miss the warmth already. But he keeps hold of my hand and pulls me easily through the crowd surrounding the dance floor.

I find myself in the temple proper and he hurries past marble pillar after marble pillar. There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Behind the throne, he twitches aside the blue curtain backdrop. There’s a small hallway ending in an elevator.

He lets go of my hand and steps inside.

I’m not supposed to leave the temple, but then, he has the key. The key is my objective. Where he goes, I must follow.

My face must be showing a million emotions and he cocks his eyebrows. He’s saying “Wanna come?”

I do, but I also have no choice. I need that key. While his father, the Duke, is off planet, the key hangs from the neck of the heir apparent. The key is the only piece missing for the Vesta Society to gain access to Daddy’s sanctum sanctorum on the family estate. And to the military secrets in his vault.

I plaster on a wide smile. “What fun!” I say and step inside the elevator.

The doors close and he leans in for a kiss. I’m not sure whether it’s the elevator or his warm lips that make my stomach drop and flip. My hand is on his chest and I feel the warmth seeping through his crisp, white shirt and feel his heavy, strong heartbeat. He pulls away before I realize this may be my best chance to grab the key.

Behind his glossy curls I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake. Photo by Julie.

The elevator doors have opened and he pushes through a glass door to the outside. He’s holding the door, waiting. Oh, I realize with a shock, he’s holding the door for me. I walk into the soft summer air filled with the smell of flower blossoms. We’re on a concrete walkway beside the lake. Behind his glossy curls I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake.

Wait, we could have taken an elevator, instead of climbing all those stairs?

“C’mon,” he says, “let’s take a walk.”

He stretches out his arm, offering me his hand.


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